Day 28: I Was Just Lucky

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

That’s the first two quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby.It’s a great novel that has inspired many. To be (more) honest (than usual), I have not finished reading the book, but I have watched the film. The reason for quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald above is to point to what I really believe in, which is the fact that while I think that I have a lot of privileges to have the opportunities to learned so much from so many great people, those privileges aren’t advantages with which I was born. It was during my “my younger and more vulnerable years” that I realized that I had to work for those privileges.

Many have asked me about how I got to where I am now. It seems that my education background is checkered in, luckily, an interesting way. I sometimes look back and think about how many things I have gone through to get here. There are some truths in the claim that my background is interesting: Not many people in the world have attended Harvard, MIT, and Oxford — all with full scholarships — let alone someone like me, an ordinary student from a developing country on the far side of Southeast Asia who barely spoke English and was without any knowledge of western thoughts when he entered MIT in 2004. There have been many versions of myths floating around about me being a genius, a person with the photographic memory, a special one, an outlier, which the famous (and my favorite) author Malcolm Gladwell describes as:

“Outlier” is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. I’m interested in people who are outliers—in men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us.

I may be an outlier, but I was not a genius or a special one.

I wasn’t even that good as a student when I was young — in fact, I never was a good student if you look at my GPA. In fact, I find it difficult to memorize things, so I could only wish that I had the photographic memory. And the list goes on. So, today, I’d like to sit down, reflect, and write about how and why I think I was able to obtain a few precious academic opportunities.

I was lucky — that’s for sure. In my earlier posts, I discussed my childhood and how I was always different from other kids in the way I saw everything around me. I was regarded by most of my teachers as the “troubled kid” who couldn’t come to grip with his role as a student. Surprisingly, I also thought of those teachers as not living up to their honorable title. So, you could probably guess that my relationship with them didn’t go very well throughout my career as a Thai student in the 80s and especially in the 90s when I was coming of age and becoming to formulate my own way of thinking which turned out to be even more radical and Socratic than when I was a kid. I may be lucky to have been supported by the right people later on, but surely there had to be some other things that had been helping me, which I believe was my own willingness to stick to my gun until the very end and not give up that easily in things that I believe to have done right. Let me take the opportunity to write something short to demystify those myths about me. Let me say it loud and clear: I am just a truly ordinary person.

How did I get into MIT then? In other words, how did an ordinary architecture student from a third-grade technical college in Thailand get admitted to one of the world’s most prominent institutions to learn about western theories and architecture and urban design with a full scholarship?

The short answer is that “I was prepared to go to MIT” from the first day of my student life as an ordinary student from a technical college.

A photo from my college year. Circa. 1999.

A photo from my college year. Circa. 1999.

The long story, let me share with you anyway, begins with the fact that I wasn’t quite fit in at the technical college in Thailand where I spent six years learning how to be an architect. I never liked how the teaching was done there: the system was highly hierarchical. Teachers thought of themselves as being above the students, and therefore, we students must listen to them. I didn’t like that way of teaching, which was the reason why fifteen years later when I got to teach my own students I basically did everything that I thought those teachers could have provided us students with, such as giving us the freedom to think, nurturing mutual respect, and fostering collegiality. Questioning the contents of what they taught, their authority, and/or their morality as teachers were not only prohibited but could also quickly make you widely unpopular. I ended up there because I spent my last year of high school in the US, so I didn’t have the knowledge in various academic subjects to compete with hard-working Thai students in getting into the top Thai universities through a rigorous university entrance examination. I could have stayed in the US and enrolled in a college there, but because I thought I had had it then, and that it was too expensive to study there (and that my family, though wasn’t that poor, wouldn’t be able to support me), and that I also wanted to return to Thailand to be with my family, especially my father who wasn’t in good health, I decided to return to Thailand. By doing so, I could only choose a low-ranked technical college to enroll, and there I was at this technical college where throughout my six years there I felt as though I was the odd one out every single day. There’re a few instances where I was genuinely curious, so I posed a few questions to the teachers, which I thought was a legitimate thing to do as an attentive student. But I was wrong.

The teachers felt as if I was challenging them, and therefore showing the sign that I was rebelliously not respecting them. So, not only did they shut me off with their abrasive shouting (abrasive even when they shouted in Thai, which is a pretty polite language), but they also made sure that I would never ask them any questions again by making sure that all my classmates also thought that I was the odd one out.

These teachers made sure that I was embarrassed in front of my classmates. In addition, these teachers also made sure that if I ever asked them any questions again, not just me but the entire class my would be punished. Ever since I stopped asking my teachers in that technical college any questions. I wasn’t sure whether they really did not know the answers to my question (which was fine, actually, as we could help each other out — just because someone is a teacher doesn’t mean he/she has to know everything) or they simply did not want me to challenge them by anything and in any ways. But in the context and in the setting, all I could do, in order to protect myself from being (physically) hurt by my classmates who thought I was responsible for making the teachers upset, was to retreat and accept that condition as an authoritarian state as such. These teachers reminded me, every chance they had, that I was an ordinary student, that my idea was not special, that I had questions for them because I was, plainly and simply, stupid, and not because they were not able to provide me with reasonable knowledge. After a year of being suppressed by these teachers, there were many many moments that I thought to myself that “I may be just an ordinary, stupid, and worthless student.” My academic ability may not be that great — but that was precisely because I never got any answer from the teachers why did I need them for! So, what happened then was that a student who wanted a reason to learn like me became an outcast, stigmatized, and bullied by the people up in the hierarchy, as well as the people who believed in it. This, of course, was not true — not just in my case but also in most cases in the world. The world’s foremost expert on education Sir Ken Robinson has made in very clear in his legendary TedTalk which I think everyone should watch:

Academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.

Me, making an architectural model at my dorm room in the technical college that I was a student at. Photo credit: Attakorn Engchuan.

Me, making an architectural model at my dorm room in the technical college that I was a student at. Photo credit: Attakorn Engchuan.

Similar to many developing countries’, the problem with our education back then was quite severe. My classmates didn’t know why they were there. All they knew was that they had to be in college in order to get a degree, and once they had their diplomas they could get paid and have a life. I wasn’t like that. I never was like that. If I wanted to do something, there must be either something rather deeply emotional that compels me to do it (e.g., biking), or something rather reasonable that could convince me that it has a long-term benefit or an ethical value by which I could morally live my life. In the rural setting of my technical college, it’s easy for any of us to feel both lonely and solitary, so many of my classmates got together to form social groups and do many things together such as playing soccer, smoking, drinking, playing guitar, and so on. I was never good at playing any sports, let alone a team sport that requires such a high-leveled skill such as soccer, and I never liked to drink or smoke that much because I grew in a lower masterclass family so we didn’t have the disposable income to entertain ourselves with cigarettes and alcohol. As I was already an odd one out who made teachers upset with my insatiable curiosity, the fact that I didn’t like any of the activities that my classmates had formed groups to do did make my classmates feel even worse about my presence in that place. I felt as though it’s a complete misunderstanding on their part, but the fact that I just came back from the US and therefore had some outlooks on life that may seem a little bit more mature than theirs did not help me to be liked by my classmates, most of whom did not speak a word of English and had never left Thailand. So, they thought of me as being “lofty” without even knew me.

They never asked me how I got to go abroad for high school, otherwise, I would have told them that I worked very hard to get a scholarship to go there, and once I was there I also worked very hard to sustain myself financially by doing part-time work whenever I had the chance. They, somehow, all thought that my parents were filthy rich therefore I could go abroad, which was something that I could only wish was true. Anyway, there, they thought that I didn’t want to participate in their activities because I didn’t like them — they thought that I didn’t think they were good enough for me — which was not true. I learned this from one of my close friends, who told me that this was the collective attitude of my classmates toward me, which, as soon as I heard about, I tried as hard as I could to change.

With one of my very few classmates who would like to be my friend. With me, we often went out to explore the world of Thai architecture outside of classroom.

With one of my very few classmates who would like to be my friend. With me, we often went out to explore the world of Thai architecture outside of the classroom.

I tried, and tried, and tired, to tell them that I, simply and personally, didn’t like the activities that they wanted me to do with them — not them. I liked them because I didn’t have any reasons to not like them. But because I sucked at sports, and I didn’t want to smoke or drink (because I was also bad at those) I thought that I could, simply, exercise my freedom by not taking part in them. I didn’t harm anyone by doing that, did I? I thought that was entirely my choice, but apparently I was wrong. Majority ruled, and gradually, I got downgraded from the being just odd one out to being the “person nobody wanted to talk to.” gradually, my classmates stopped talking to me. They also stopped informing me about anything important whether it be about school matters, homework, and etc. They would just cut me off completely. It may have been better if they would dismissively treat me as if I did not exist, but what they did was much worse: they belittled me, sabotaged my work and my reputation, ridiculed everything that I ever did, and spread all kinds of rumors about me to those who did not even know me so that they would not want to get to know me. So, in less than a year, I became a friendless person. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, and I always ate my lunch alone in the canteen.

So, there’s nothing I could do about it, so I decided to spend time where I believed I could feel at home. That place was the library.

It happened to be the case that the school had two very good libraries with many good English books. It happened to be the case that the school had a long history of ordering awesome foreign books (whoever was behind that “head librarian” desk must have been an awesome being); most of which remained almost untouched in the libraries for generations because the students had never been interested in reading them. Well, I didn’t have any friends, so I began to go to the two libraries that I had identified to have a collection of books in which I was interested, good lighting, and good air conditioning system, right after class, and just read. I found myself at ease, and at home in the comfort of the library space: There was no one to bully me, and it was the place that I could find answers to everything with which the teachers did not want to enlighten me.

Soon, I began to spend more than half of day waking hours there. I remember going to class from 10am to noon and then rushing over to one of the two libraries that had extensive art and architecture collection where I would spend the next 6-8 hours in until it closed at 8pm. For six years, that was my routine. I believe that I may have read every single English book in art and architecture that were available in Thailand then. Although my spoken English wasn’t good, having read more than a thousand books (some of which were key texts in western theories of architecture) I was comfortable with the English language. I began to write emails (back then emails were still pretty new) to professors abroad, and to online friends around the world discussing issues and topics in which I was interested. I began to, on a regular basis, write emails to different schools of architecture abroad asking them about what their students read there, and then I would return to the libraries to see whether or not we also had those books so that I could satisfy my interest in learning something new the same way that the students in the top schools of architecture in the US such as MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley were learning. In those five to six years, I must have spent more than 3,000 hours at the libraries, simply, reading, learning, and being enlightened by the same knowledge that the cutting-edge schools around the world were also learning. I never quite understood why a technical college like that would have such a great access to some of the most amazing library resources. That said, this was precisely what happened to Bill Gates:

Gates was fortunate to attend Lakeside, a private school in Seattle with its own computer. Back then, a very few schools in the entire world had a computer. The Lakeside machine was one of a new generation of computers that shared processing power with a much larger computer downtown…Gates had thousands of hours of programming under his belt, making him perfectly prepared to take maximum advantage of the PC revolution.

After having read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers that I began to feel that, perhaps, this very special opportunity that was made available to me was the true essence of what made me “an outlier.” Why was that I was the only one in the history of my technical college to study architecture at MIT? Since I also went to MIT almost directly after having graduated from there, there was no other achievements or endorsements from anyone or anything to serve as an evidence that I was worth it. Those libraries were there. Someone must have ordered those great books hoping that some students would benefit from them. That said, I barely saw anyone at any of the libraries. Thailand, then, had very low literacy rate both in the rural areas and among students of higher educational institutions. Students barely read anything. Soon, reading became my habit — a behavioral pattern that shaped who I was and what psychologists often refer to as character and personality. In his greatest work, The Principles of Psychology, William James unpacks the very mythical notion of habit — that it is not just something that we could conveniently treat as a given, but something to persistently learn, telling us how we might be able to live a richer moral life. Strange enough, although I studied for years at Harvard in a building called “William James Hall,” I had never felt the urge to find out more about who he was and why was he so important that someone would name a building after him. It was not until my mentor Professor Arthur Kleinman recommended that I began to I rediscovered his work — bringing back the joy of spending time reading in the library that I had had a decade ago. In the chapter called “Habit,” William James writes:

Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again.

My classmate barely read anything. That is, they did not have the opportunity to develop reading into their habit. In fact, if you read too much, your classmates would also think of you as a nerd and therefore would bully you. Growing up in a conservative society such as Thailand was not easy, but I was so lucky to be able to find my own little space in the libraries. I was so lucky that at least I had those books to turn to. While many fellow outcasts of mine turned to drugs, gambling, and prostitution, and therefore became excruciatingly mislead to a wrong path, I at least had a space to be myself. And I actually really enjoyed it. I really liked reading. I eventually became friends with the librarians who would sometimes extend the opening hours of the libraries for me, or allowed me to check out more books than my quota because they knew that I was serious about studying. I mean, had I liked to play soccer, drinking, and smoking, I probably wouldn’t want to go to libraries to read anything neither. I guess I was lucky that my classmates did not encourage me to be a part of their groups, and also did not bother me as much when they saw that I was doing something else that could in no way inflict any harm on them. So, now that I am looking back, I must have read every canonical text in architecture, art, and design, which was the reason why when I wrote my application to both the Fulbright Foundation and MIT, I was able to convince them that “I was prepared” to tackle the new challenges abroad. In the sense, William James is right to point out that in thinking about adopting something as your habit, you must into account the right intention, as it is the only factor that matters in the psychological development of a moral being. Not all habit is good and moral. Some habits are simply meaningless. Some might even be harmful to the society. I’d like to also quote him again (I love William James by the way):

The first is that in the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall re-enforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.

I wasn’t discouraged by the situation, as I had the habit that I held dear. Reading was the cradle of my being. I did not have to rely on anyone’s else when I knew I could always turn to reading by just walking to the library. Sometimes I would take a bunch of books home with me if I couldn’t finish the books by which I was so engrossed by the time that the library was closing. The librarian who knew me well would help me checking out those books even though it was already past her shift. I also developed the habit of being a book lover: I tolerated no acts that could damage any books. If I wanted to mark a page, I would use a bookmark — I wouldn’t fold the top of the page. If I wanted to highlight something, I’d make a photocopy of that page first, and then highlighted the photocopied page. These were just a few habits that were developed as my love for books progressed. There, in situ, I also developed a friendly and personal relationship with all of the librarians, as well as student interns who worked there (and this is precisely the reason why I really respect librarians — and when I see bad librarians who don’t care about books, all I want to do is to make them disappear from the face of the earth). I couldn’t have human friends, true, but that did not mean I could be friends with books. Fine. Books can’t interact with you the same way humans do, but at least, you know, I worked with what I had. Here I’d like to return to Malcolm Gladwell, who said:

When outliers become outliers it is not just because of their own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances— and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds—and how many of us succeed—than we think. That’s an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea.

With my father who was always by my side in whatever I did. He was proud of me but he never spoiled me. All he wanted was for me to stand on my own feet.

With my father who was always by my side in whatever I did. He was proud of me but he never spoiled me. All he wanted was for me to stand on my own feet.

So, what’s the lesson here? I don’t think I would be where I am now if I was not being an outcast in the community of students that I happened to be placed. I may have to thank those bad teachers and immature classmates who did not give me the opportunity to develop myself into the negative habit of judging the book by its cover as they did. Also, I was lucky that my parents were not financially well-off. Had I had the financial means, I would have moved myself from that school to another school, probably in the US. Honestly, there were, of course, days that I felt so miserable that I could end my life because of the situation that I was in. I was 17, and at the age, there was no reason for anyone to want to make me an outcast. Bullying was a bad thing, regardless how we might frame it, but as it happened to me on a daily basis — simply because I wanted to ask some questions to the teachers? And that I wasn’t good at soccer? Just because I didn’t like to smoke? (and I never enjoyed smoking until later when I was in the UK — that said, I had quit now!) In fact, I remember that one of my teachers then even told me, “Non, you have to learn to smoke and drink — don’t study too much — otherwise, you’ll have no friends, and then you’ll have no future in the field of architecture.” I couldn’t believe what I heard (now, looking back, I should not be that surprised to hear that), and in fact when I told my father (who was still alive then) that I was encouraged to smoke, and to not spend too much time studying, he was ardently upset (I had not seen him that mad before in fact) and told me he would like to beat the shit out of the teacher who said that to me:

You’re my son; you do what is good. You’re a student — it’s just damn fucking wrong for anyone, let alone that asshole who call himself your teacher, to tell you not to study.

I knew that my father was right — he always was — and therefore I followed his instruction. Because I didn’t have such financial means, so I couldn’t just leave the school and found a new place. Instead, I had to eat bitterness and try to find my own way to cope with the problem from which I could not simply emancipate. It turns out that, as I always say on my blog here, “we are stronger than we think,” so how I found comfort in the libraries for 3,000 hours over the next six years did provide me with a solid ground to become who I am: a reader who loves to read and a scholar to love to research. I didn’t have any professors to write me any letters of recommendation to say that I was a good student. All I had was my own knowledge to show what I believed I knew, and why they mattered.

Conclusion: When life gives you lemons, don’t be discouraged — find the way to make fuc**** awesome lemonade 🙂

One of the best inspiration comic strips I have ever read. This is probably one of those truest things that we can all resonate with. Salute Chris Guillebeau!

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2 thoughts on “Day 28: I Was Just Lucky

  1. The title of the post is surely a red herring. Luck? Ordinary? The entirety of the post except paragraph four talks about the exact opposite things. Striking perseverance in the face of intense peer (and teacher) pressure in our age is exactly what sets apart genuine, motivated and just interesting human beings. And as for luck — thousand books and six years spent in a library sounds much more like hard work than luck to me. Although modesty is certainly a good trait when taken in moderation, I sure hope you pat yourself on the back every once in a while.

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  2. Pingback: Day 36: Worst Mistakes People Make in Their 20s | 100 days of writing

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