Learning To Take Care of Yourself

Dear Xander,

You’ve always had a strong love affair with balloons. Your mother didn’t mind it so much, but it drives me up the wall sometimes. But then something happened a while back that I think may have changed the course of your character, and i think it worth putting down into a letter what I think is a milestone achieved — with a balloon you never owned.

We were having dinner at a food court, and midway through your noodles, you saw a bunch of balloons on display at a gym entrance across the other side of the mall, some 20 metres away. You wanted one, and started to ask us to get one for you. Your mum gave me a “so how?” glance, and then I said, “Finish your food, then we talk.”

In record time, you did as you were told. Your mother and I were not even halfway through our meals. Then I had an idea.

“Okay, Xan. You see that nice lady standing behind the counter? Go ask her. Mummy and daddy won’t come with you; if you want that balloon, you got to earn it yourself.”

By this time, you were poised to hold my hand so I’d go with you, but when you heard what I said, you dropped your arm and stood perplexed.

For the next 40 minutes, your mother and I watched as you tried to pluck up enough courage to ask for something all by yourself, periodically interjected with you insisting one of us go with you, and us insisting you go there and ask for one yourself.

That evening, you ended up not getting your balloon. We finished the remainder of our meal, I picked you up, and we started walking back to the car park. When you realised we were bypassing the gym completely, you started to cry. I said to you, quite matter-of-factly, “Well, if you’d just went up and asked, you’d have a balloon now, wouldn’t you?”

And then you cried harder. From the shopping centre to the car park, back to the food court (I left some shopping bags behind at the table we sat in), then back to the car, all the way home, for a total of almost 2 hours. We’ve dealt with your tantrums before, but that evening both your mother and I sensed you were crying a different cry.

You weren’t throwing a tantrum. You were regretting.

After that night, you changed. It started when you saw another bunch of balloons, this time at Swensen’s. “Balloon!” You pointed excitedly. And I said the exact same thing I did the last time. But this time, you were ready. Within seconds, you marched over to the nice lady manning the cashier, and came back waving your prize in the air.

It didn’t stop there. At the time of this letter, you’ve taken to ordering your own food, socializing with other kids and other adults, being respectful towards others (part and parcel of asking nicely for things). And you are doing this all on your own, with a little guidance, and very little prompting (save for asking us what you should say when you wanted to speak to a stranger).

At 3 1/2 years old, your mother and I decided not to dictate when you’d be ready to face whatever challenges in life lay out there for you. You could say we took a leap of faith instead, allowing you to — and trusting you would — tell us when you were ready.

And you did tell us.

With all a father’s pride,



Dear Xander,

Uncle Mark asked me over a beer had a conversation the other day. He said to me, “Bro, don’t take this the wrong way, but have you always been this cocky?”

I said with a shrug, “Yeah.”

“Then wouldn’t you be better off running your own business? I mean, I can’t imagine you being able to work for anyone — or for that matter — anyone who would hire you when you’re so cocky.”

I replied, “Then the people you’re imagining are hiring aren’t the people I want to work for.”

Uncle Mark was just being the best friend that he is to me. He’s also a worrywart, but he did raise a good point, which is something I’m hoping you will also be able to understand when the time comes for you to find your own job.

My cockiness is developed over years of knowing what I can do well, what I can offer to anyone willing to pay me for it and most importantly, what I can’t do. Last week, though, I learned something very valuable to the career I am pursuing: if your dad has, at any time, not been cocky at work, something is very wrong.

I realized it too late, and I’ve paid for it big time. I lost my job. But I also have to clarify (in order to live up to my cockiness), my job lost me.

So I’m writing to impart to you what I wish someone had taught me 20 years ago; hopefully by the time you read this, we will have brought you up with your own cockiness for you to embark on a successful career.

First things first: know what you’re good at. It’s got to be something you not only know you can do that very few, or no one else can do, and it must be something you thoroughly enjoy doing. You then become the sole authority at what you’re being paid to do, and you have full licence to not take any shit from anyone. (Remind me to explain to you the definition of “shit” in its various contexts when you grow older.)

Second: know your place at work. Your dad made the mistake of accepting a managerial position when he was only fit to be an executive. And being a manager somewhere else does not qualify you to be a manager anywhere. That is a delusion — yours, and probably your employer’s as well — that should never, ever be entertained.

Third: you look for a job like you’re looking for the love of your life, and not like you’re captain of a fishing trawler. You don’t go out there sending out 50 resumes to an entire industry to net 10 interviews. As much as people would like to tell you this is an employer’s market, you have to love who you’re working for. If that means just sending out 1 resume, then you make that one work.

Fourth: the love of your life could very well be someone you never ever thought you’d even give the time of day to. You might even think your parents will never accept her in the family. But if we haven’t made it clear enough to you yet, let me make it very clear to you now: you are your own person, you make your own decisions, and you are free to experiment with anything at all if it means you will learn about who you are and what works for you as a result. So experiment with everything. Work in a nightclub. Be a bartender, a construction worker, a stripper even, if you think you’ll get something meaningful out of it for yourself. Your mum and I won’t judge you. You’re still our son, and we will still love you. Just don’t invite us to see you perform if you do end up becoming a stripper; some things we don’t need to see.

And finally: barring what was said in the first and second points, you know nothing. This will be the hardest point to swallow, and to be fair, usually smart people will only learn this when they hit their 30s. It also completely contradicts the whole concept of cockiness. But that’s where the magic happens.

When you know nothing but yourself, you assume nothing outside of what you know. It keeps you well out of trouble, opens your mind for learning from others, and drives you to be even better than what you’re good at. And then if you want to be cocky, go right on ahead.

No matter what you decide or how your life pans out, career-wise or otherwise, your mother and I have got your back. That’s our promise to you, till the day we die.