How obsessed are you with numbers?

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What is your obsession with numbers? Do they bother you to a fairly large extent or can you get by with life without paying too much attention to it?

This is once again a random topic idea I thought about over the past week after I got a little irritated with how society and the people around me places a lot of emphasis on numbers. Well, a trigger point was when a friend who was under home quarantine exclaimed excitedly that she read 100+ pages of her book today. I couldn’t exactly comprehend that sense of ‘achievement’ as I never saw reading as something to be celebrated if you have yet to finish the book? I know that I was probably taking this comment too seriously but it made me stop and wonder if this thing called ‘number’ (as a counting mechanism) is a culprit in making us more stressed up in this already complicated life.

Over the next few weeks, I became more and more sensitive to ‘numbers’ and random things around me get me triggered. I got to learn that a friend had a goal of running 100km this year and in order to fulfil that goal, she had to run 5km once a week. Yep, so that brought about another topic of consideration – how we tend to set goals determined by numbers. These days, we hear so much emphasis on numbers in social media, within our social circles, at work and really, everywhere. There are content creators wanting to teach you how you can save up your first $100k by 30 years old or how to retire with $1 million by 65 years old. In another spectrum, the fitness enthusiasts set goals of running 2.4km under X mins, exercising X times a week and achieving their target weight of X kg by a certain date. On a more relevant note (as a travel enthusiast), I do see people targeting to cover XXX number of countries in their lifetime. Is that really so important? Numbers, numbers, numbers everywhere – isn’t life complicated enough already? Should we be letting these numbers define us, bound us and influence us? I just find it increasingly irritating that we are placing a lot of emphasis on these numbers and I’m starting to feel that it is an unhealthy habit.

In a more relevant context, another thing is somewhat affecting most people for the past 18 to 20 months or so.. would be the covid numbers in their country. I’m not sure about the rest of the world but for Singapore, everyone is pretty much kept abreast of the COVID numbers – daily cases and death rates. As promised, the ‘safety management measures’ were relaxed when we hit the 80% vaccination sometime in end Aug/early Sep. However, instead of COVID numbers slowing down and moving inversely with the vaccination goals, the numbers ended up climbing higher and higher. The consolation was that most detected cases were via surveillance and had no or mild symptoms which make it seem like the common flu/fever illness. However, numbers still climbed higher and higher, crossing the 1k mark, 2k mark and the 3k mark daily cases last week. The death cases among the elderly also increased significantly, more highly prominent for the unvaccinated folks. If you want to know the obsession we have for numbers, the data (refreshed daily) is transparent on our health ministry website. A year ago, we used to not sleep until the numbers are released so we can sense how dire the situation was. As ridiculous as it sounds, we are able to subscribe to a government whatsapp service that pushes us information on COVID numbers, including a daily numbers update. I’m pretty sure this is uncommon in other countries but somehow here in Singapore, we tend to be very transparent with the numbers and I guess.. data is king?

Numbers, number, numbers – when are we able to untie ourselves from this obsession?

I tried to look back on my growing up years and figure how numbers had somehow shaped the way we grew up.

Birthdays – an annual celebration where you add a digit/count to the previous year numbers. We tend to celebrate the more significant numbers – in Philippines/American countries, I believe the sweet 16 is a massive affair. In my country, most people hold a celebration for their 21st birthday as it is the age of maturity – where you can gamble and be allowed to make many important life decisions on your own (in eyes of the law). Likewise, I had a bigger-than-usual birthday party (somehow insisted/recommended by my mum) for my 21st birthday. I believe my personality is kind of like an extrovert-awkward mix. While I enjoy meeting people in a day to day context, putting me together with many different groups of people in the same room makes me disorientated and feeling somewhat disappointed at the inability to keep everyone entertained at the same time. Simply put, I’m not a person that functions wells in a crowded place. Normally, I find myself retreating to a corner/comfort zone and pray I remain invisible. Neither am I a fan of huge parties and I’m glad the 21st party made me confirm my discomfort. If I ever, ever have to get married, it would be a small and cosy affair because I hate entertaining crowds. I hate the awkward speeches and the ‘eyes on you’ attention. Yea, sorry for the digress but you get the point. We are exposed to the number count from the day we are born. Parents today celebrate first month, second month etc. for their newborns and even couples love to celebrate monthseries, introducing 12 times of celebrations compared to a single ‘anniversary’. Well, celebration, apart from being a social gathering, is an avenue for marketers to squeeze the buck out of consumers, for the greater good of the economy 😉

The next brush we will probably have we numbers while we grow up is.. the time. Time is important because it is.. finite. We have to follow the rules of society, reporting to school/work on time and even transport means like bus/train/planes all follow a schedule. While I agree that keeping track of time is important in our everyday life, I also learned to appreciate the concept of rubber time and.. wasting time. The me in the past (especially my growing years) would be very sensitive to the idea of being punctual. I get super frustrated with friends who cannot keep to schedules and I hated waiting (for people), especially when they are very late. That being said, I don’t have a habit of being early. I like to plan and appear on the dot – so I don’t have to waste time waiting. There was one incident that happened perhaps 5 to 8 years back where I was in an ultra awkward situation. I think I was doing my hair treatment that evening and I arranged to meet a friend for dinner after I’m done. Just some background, that friend has a habit of always being late so I kind of expected myself to wait (even when I’m late). Anyways, what happened was that after my hair treatment ended, my friend didn’t reply and I ended up walking few rounds around the shopping mall (can’t remember if we even settled on a place to meet). So the usual behaviour that most people would be is to call someone if they didn’t respond to a text but for whatever reason that day, I decided that I should be patient and wait. My friend could be dealing with some emergency and didn’t have access to the phone. I think I waited for almost 45 mins to an hour before deciding to give up and go home. So.. can you guess the ending? My friend messaged me about two hours later and said he fell asleep in the car and asked why I didn’t call. uh. so much for being patient and overthinking the whole situation. I have no idea what point I’m trying to raise but somehow that episode and the days ahead, I became more forgiving to people and their tardiness. I mean at the end of the day, these people that I meet are friends that I have probably known more than half my life and each of us has our weird habits and quirks. Instead of fussing and being unhappy about punctuality, I could reposition the thought as training myself to be more zen and patient. At the same time, you could also learn to adapt to people, rather than forcing/expecting people to adapt to you. If your friend is habitually late, you could learn to leave the house later or perhaps if you’re early, past your time by window shopping or living in the moment and explore your surrounding. Furthermore, COVID has definitely made us.. really laid back. Now, it is encouraged to only have one social gathering a day (yes, our government issues such advisories) and when you only have one gathering that day, it doesn’t matter if you’re meeting someone at 2PM or 3PM. When we arrange meetups now, it tends to be vague like let’s meet for brunch/lunch/dinner; without a specific timing set until perhaps the day before. Somehow, I’m starting to get used to the blur lines and undefined boundaries of time. It is definitely less stressful if we don’t have to be so uptight and anxious about time..

Another ‘numbers’ game which is possibly the most agonising thing about my growing up years is.. about grades. There’s this one short situation with my niece that made me realise how much emphasise my entire family place on grades, even on a six year old kid. Well, when she was in kindergarten, she has spelling and ‘ting xie’ (Chinese version of spelling) mini tests every week. How it works is that you will be given some words to learn and during the session, you will have to spell/write the words that the teacher speaks out. There are 4 to 5 words every week, per language and seriously it doesn’t sound too much of a hassle right? Well, my niece couldn’t get the Chinese spelling right at all. I think she only had three such mini tests and she has never gotten ‘full marks’ despite practising at least three times at home, prior to the test. Sighs, why did we place so much pressure on a six year old girl but I guess she got fed up of us asking her ‘why didn’t you get full marks for your tingxie?’ and one day she asked me.. Why must I get full marks? That question struck a chord with me and I suddenly find myself having.. no answers. Why do we strive for perfection at such a young age? Why couldn’t we adults tell her that it is okay for her to take her time? Why are we feeling so competitive for her when her life has barely started.. Thinking deep and hard about this, I realised it was because of how I was brought up in the education system with many expectations set upon me. I’m not sure if it is the same for you (wherever you are in the world), but asian parents tend to have a lot of emphasis on grades. From a young age, I was often rewarded if I did well for my tests. If I score full marks for a paper, I could choose a toy when we go to the mall (with a cap on the budget of course). When I grew older, the rewards became monetary (negotiable) and it was really something that gave me a target to earn for. (Slight disclaimer: my allowance back then was lower than average and I couldn’t ask my mum for more money to buy ‘wants’. So when I bought my first CD album back when I was 12 (a1 – make it good), I had to dip into my savings for it. That album was really dear and precious to me back then >_<

Anyway, if I think about it deeper, the money had been a motivation but more than that, I think I had a slight bit of competitiveness in me as well. I didn’t aim to be top of the class, but I just wanted to be better than average. That had always been my ‘goal’. I was concerned about the marks and how I fared against my classmates; not in a ‘show-off ‘ha I did better than you manner” but more of a.. ‘okay, this is where I stand’. That being said, I’m also not one of those that go around class asking everyone for their grades; but if people ask me, I’m not one that would ‘hide’. Anyway, so grades = emphasis on numbers. Anyway, our education/results system for academia back then was built on an increasing vagueness level. In primary school, you get a T-score (maximum 300) grade for your PSLE exam (the first major examination when you’re 12). In secondary school, you get a grading score range (Best being 6 and the worse being 72). In junior college, all you get is a grade (A,B,C,D,E,S,U) for 4 subjects. Back then, I suppose the ‘vagueness’ tries to reduce the competitiveness (in range of banding/ranking) and when you go up to university (apart from your GPA which is not exactly mandatory to share with your employers), it becomes simplified to a distinction, honours, merit, pass. Numbers.. grades.. urgh, the obsession never seem to end?

Well, even as I grow older, the ‘numbers’ attack ain’t going anywhere. In our career, we somehow unknowingly let ourselves be defined by our annual salary – something that I have to calculate whenever I sign up for a new credit card, or perhaps when I buy new financial products/investments. Adulting means.. having to save up money for the big-ticket items – like a house, a new laptop, a new phone and the list goes on forever. Now that I am starting to dabble in the stock market, the numbers and colours (red/green) bother me every weekday night (cause I’m looking at the US market). I don’t know how; or perhaps is it even possible to take a step back from the annoying numbers?

And.. that’s it for my random blogpost of the money (to keep my writing alive).

On a side note, I’ve booked tickets to somewhere. I’m still not certain about whether I’ll be changing the dates for my ticket and it all depends on how the COVID situation turns out to be. It was legit a FOMO purchase that I bought on impulse.

See you next month ^^

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