Sunday, August 1, 2021

Once Bitten, Twice Shy (MY Eng #21)

This is part of a running series about English idioms - less about language, more about life itself. Previously, we covered 'missing the woods for the trees', 'the elephant in the room', 'practising what you preach', blowing hot and cold', 'no smoke without fire', 'one swallow does not make a summer', 'apples and oranges', 'cut to the chase', 'leave no stone unturned', 'that's the way the cookie crumbles', 'can't have your cake and eat it too', 'old is gold', 'putting the cart before the horse', 'mountain out of a molehill', 'pot calling the kettle black', 'bite the bullet', 'go the extra mile', 'silence is golden', 'the devil is in the details' and 'sink or swim'.

First impression matters. Whether you're attending a job interview or romantic date. That's how human pscyhology works. Fair or unfair, our views of others are shaped largely on how well (or badly) our first encounter went.

That's understandable. Most of us meet new people on a regular basis, whether as part of our work or social life. True, introverts may have a smaller circle of friends and get out less. The COVID-19 pandemic has dampened social interactions. Still, there's no way we can totally avoid first contact.

Working at the back office? You still need to deal with some external contractor every once in a while. Stuck in a lockdown? You still have to smile and greet the food delivery person.

Consciously or unconsciously, we instinctively draw judgments of new faces. Whether positive, negative or neutral. We all have our favourite people to work with. Bad service prompts us to drop a bad review.

* * *

More often than not, we tend to remember the bad encounters. The human brain is hardwired to be on alert from known dangers. As the saying goes: once bittin, twice shy.

Say we're visiting a restaurant for the first time. The waiter is rude. The kitchen got your orders wrong. The manager is unreachable. A single bad meal is enough to put us off forever - and maybe even go on social media to rant and implore others to boycott as well.

Rings a bell? Makes you feel all powerful? Well, think again, because being judgmental cuts both ways. Everyone is a critic. Chances are, people are judging you as harshly as you judge other people.

Worst still, we're fond of gossiping. Spreading rumours. Sensationalism sells. Criticisms tend to gain more coverage than compliments. Before you know it, a single bad day in office turns your reputation in the market from 'Good Guy George' to 'Dodgy Georgie'. Life can be cruel.

* * *

Ultimately, humans are prickly creatures. We're controlled by our primal instincts. We're quick to retreat after a bad beat. And quick to judge others after a bad encounter.

Usually, I would end with some long advice on how we should be more open-minded, understanding, empathetic, blah blah. Sound as it is, we have to be realistic. We can't expect people to be merciful over our mistakes, in equal measure to our own kindness. It's a jungle out there.

And so, for a change, I would end on a more cautionary note. Straighten up when you meet someone new. Choose your words with utmost care. Be nice, because people can be nasty.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Sink Or Swim (MY Eng #20)

This is part of a running series about English idioms - less about language, more about life itself. Previously, we covered 'missing the woods for the trees', 'the elephant in the room', 'practising what you preach', blowing hot and cold', 'no smoke without fire', 'one swallow does not make a summer', 'apples and oranges', 'cut to the chase', 'leave no stone unturned', 'that's the way the cookie crumbles', 'can't have your cake and eat it too', 'old is gold', 'putting the cart before the horse', 'mountain out of a molehill', 'pot calling the kettle black', 'bite the bullet', 'go the extra mile', 'silence is golden' and 'the devil is in the details'.

What's the best way to test whether you're good (or bad) in something? Simple, really. Just take the plunge. Dive into the deep end of the ocean.

Too scared? Sure, it's normal to have butterflies in the stomach or suffer from stage fright (two idioms in one!) when trying something out for the very first time. Need more preparation? Sure, you need to take some time doing some homework, research or training before even attempting some bold daredevil stunt.

But often times, we dally and delay too much. We spend way too much time obsessing over the finest details, and stressing over every single scenario where things can go wrong. Fear holds us back from even taking the leap. In the end, we shy away altogether from the challenge, and left thinking over for years after on the 'what ifs' and 'how life could have turned out differently'.

* * *

But why live in fear and regret for the rest of your life? As a popular sportswear brand succinctly puts it: JUST DO IT! If not now, then when? If not you, then who? Just take the jump already. Sink or swim!

As I've said one too many times before, life is about pushing your limits. Don't be afraid of failure. So what if you fail? As a romantic saying goes: it's better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all. That advice should extend to live as a whole. It's better to have tried and failed, than to never have tried at all.

Opportunities come and go, in a blink of an eye. A big part of striking gold comes being at the right place at the right time. So it's down to luck? Partly, yes. But most of us get lucky on a constant basis. What seperates success and failure is the courage to capitalise on our strokes of luck. To make the right move, whenever we find ourselves at the right place at the right time.

Of course, rejection is a terrible feeling, in love and in life. We start to question our ability, purpose, and even self-worth. Rejection can easily spiral into depression. The worst part of swimming is actually sinking.

* * *

But we're not alone. Lifeguards are everywhere. Even as we sink to the murky depths, a hand will reach out to save us from drowning.

Let's be honest. We're afraid of taking the plunge especially when there are friends and onlookers around because of the fear of embarrassment, more than anything else. It's not so much a matter of life and death, but pride and prejudice. We're afraid of people outwardly or inwardly laughing at our pathetic attempts to stay afloat.

You can have as many practice sessions with your inner circle of friends. You can prepare for months in private. But eventually, you'll need to summon the courage to brave the challenge, in full view of public scrutiny. That's where the true test lies - when the stakes and pressure are highest.

Some of us swim like a fish, whilst some sink like a rock. Regardless, hitting the water is the only way to find out whether we're cut out for swimming.


Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Devil Is In The Details (#MY Eng 19)

This is part of a running series about English idioms - less about language, more about life itself. Previously, we covered 'missing the woods for the trees', 'the elephant in the room', 'practising what you preach', blowing hot and cold', 'no smoke without fire', 'one swallow does not make a summer', 'apples and oranges', 'cut to the chase', 'leave no stone unturned', 'that's the way the cookie crumbles', 'can't have your cake and eat it too', 'old is gold', 'putting the cart before the horse', 'mountain out of a molehill', 'pot calling the kettle black', 'bite the bullet', 'go the extra mile' and 'silence is golden'.

Life is simple. Wake up, go to school or work, get your task done, eat, rest, chill out with family and friends, and sleep.

Simpler said than done, of course. Life is more complicated than it seems. Even the act of waking up requires some serious discipline. Sitting through a boring lecture or workshop requires mental focus and fortitude. Some of us even agonise for long periods on what to have for lunch (one of life's most difficult question, up there along with what to get the in-laws for Christmas and how many more Netflix series to binge tonight).

Plans in theory are easy to sketch out. But activities in practice? Ah, that's where trouble really starts, for even the best-laid plans don't always go according as planned...

* * *

That's because 'thinking' is the easy part. Actually 'doing' something is where the real challenge lies. Once we're in the thick of action, that's when complications start piling up. As people are wont to say, the devil is in the details.

Execution is harder than preparation. No matter how much we stare into crystal ball to scour the possible future time-lines, there's bound to be an unexpected wrinkle to our tasks.

Also, there's a tendency to underestimate the complexity of a task. Drafting outlines? Easy peasy. Setting deadlines? Like shooting fish in a barrel (another idiom!).

Every task seems like a done deal when the load is split and shared between a group of like-minded folks. Two heads better than one, eh? Team work makes the dream work, right? Nonsense. More often than not, too many cooks spoil the broth (another idiom!). The trouble with having a committee is that no one ever takes full responsibility and accountability - in fact, that's probably the whole point of forming the committee...

Everyone enjoys making plans - whether it's a work project or an anniversary party. But when it comes to figuring out the details, everyone suddenly starts to back away with lame excuses ranging from 'don't have an eye for detail' and 'more of an ideas person'. Look, anyone can think brainstorm bright 'ideas'. There's no real skill in that. Execution is everything. Details matter because that's the part which makes or breaks any plan works.

So why do some people shy away from details? Because they're lazy. Incompetent. Out of their depth. There's no two ways about it. They're not people of action, just people with 101 useless theoritical ideas that can't work in practice.

* * *

But perhaps the greatest irony is how people who can't see the devil in the details are fond of seeing and painting themselves as angels. As in, the most brilliant of minds get to stay up in the clouds, while the mindless minions get down in the trenches doing the dirty work (another idiom!). How devilish indeed. Hiding their own flaws behind a veneer of supremacy.

As another idiom goes: idle hands are the devil's playground. Yes, the devil may be in the details. But the worst devil is the one that sits back, watches you from afar, and barks away all kinds of nonsensical orders, while you do all their dirty work...