Reflections: Be Myself 2024


2024 marks the second turning point in my life as well as for Guitarworks. I have detailed the lessons learnt over the past 14 years of my journey as well as my approach from now and beyond.

At the time of writing, it is my 15th year in full time guitar teaching since I started in 2010. What an amazing journey it has been and not withstanding the ups and downs of life. As I look back at the photo galleries of the students I've taught, I can't help but give thanks to the Lord for the giving me the opportunity to teach every one of them. My mission was to imparting music with honesty, patience and sincerity. I can certainly hold my head up high and acknowledged what I have set out to do.

A Bit of History

Prior to starting Guitarworks, I was employed as an assistant project engineer at a company which deals within analyzer systems integration. Our main customer was an MNC in the oil/gas industry. I would dive deeper into the details why I left my first and only full time job from 2008 to 2009 and how my thoughts towards the corporate world drastically changed. 

Being a fresh poly grad, I was new to everything in the industry. However, I got thrown right into the mix of handling a huge project worth millions of dollars. I had only chemical engineering background from the discipline of my studies. What the project requires is literally knowledge and expertise from many other areas of engineering such as mechanical, electrical, civil & structural, piping and instrumentation, safety, lifting etc. The workload and learning curve was so steep that many times I would hide in the toilet cubicle, close the door, sit on the toilet bowl and cry. 

This was my only way of relieving the stress and I would return to work after wiping away my tears. Gradually this cycle began to repeat itself more frequently until I finally had enough courage to say, enough is enough, I decided to quit. There was no blame on anyone on anything except I happen to be in the wrong job at the wrong time with the wrong environment. I think its perfectly fair to say I can't handle what this job requires of me.

The decision to quit came as I gradually find myself hating the work I do and being easily overwhelmed with negative emotions while at work. It was until later that I discover that I began to have anxiety disorder. The symptoms were regular chest pains, shortness of breath, chest compressions, insomnia, emotional breakdowns and bad dreams relating to work. As I reflect further, I was gradually losing myself and turning into someone I don't recognize anymore. There was no more happiness, joy, positiveness, courage and I could hardly smile. 

If this is the meaning of work life, I would draw the line and say I will not be a part of this system anymore. I even had a major fallout with my parents when I told them I decided to quit. Parents tend to have a traditional mindset which places an emphasis on not quitting a job within a certain timeframe and the need to endure hardships in life. To be fair, they were not wrong, but it was a perspective relative to them only. Upbringing, culture and the environment shapes our thinking. It was only until the fallout when their perspectives were challenged and had to change. The world is rapidly changing. What the last generations sees is very different from what this generation sees.

We reconciled and my parents apologized for putting an unfair expectation on me. They knew the severity of forcing their child into something he didn't want in life.

14 Years

This is where I started Guitarworks from scratch in March 2010 officially. I knew I could play the guitar well and sing along with songs. So I decided to draw up my own lesson syllabus and songs to teach students to succeed in guitar. Things were not easy in the beginning, but I had the desire to better myself in this area. It took 2 years before I could have stable income.

In the blink of an eye, 14 years have passed. I have taught about 400 students by now. You also need to include those who do not want their photos taken for their own privacy. I asked every student for permission to have their photos taken before uploading to social media. If you look at the numbers, yes of course it looks good. For the first 8 years, I was literally on survival mode. Any student who expressed interest in guitar, I would teach without question. I gave my best without reserve for everyone and did not place any care for my own happiness.

In 2020, Covid-19 hit. It was a disaster for me. I thought it was the end of my career in guitar teaching. Being in a comfortable job for so long, it is hard to imagine myself changing career path due to a pandemic. It was quite stressful living in the pandemic fearing that you might need to switch jobs. However, I hung on to the promise God gave to me and took the hammer in terms of finances. I was thankful that our government rendered financial assistance towards people of similar occupation to mine. It helped tremendously in making up for loss income because my lessons were not allowed to continue. 

As we recover from Covid, things gradually return to normal again when my students came back. However, I notice a niggling problem that persisted through from 2018 till 2023 which I did not have an answer. It was only recently that I understood the profound simplicity of the jigsaw puzzle. In the next paragraph I shall describe my struggle.

The Problem

My goal for teaching was to be a more than just a teacher. I wanted to be able to connect at heart level. Thus, I tried very hard to build bridges so that I could connect with every student at similar wavelengths. Doing that for about 8 years has drained me emotionally. This was when I began to discover, no matter how hard I tried, there will be some students whom I cannot reach that level of connection with. Lessons went on for the sake of doing my job. Some lessons were very enjoyable, while some were not. I started to notice the difference in people mechanics. Perhaps to simplify things, I would use this word "chemistry" which determines whether the student and myself are able to click.

So I started offering free trial lessons to meet students first before starting actual lessons proper. Every new student is a complete stranger whom I knew nothing about him/her. On the contrary, I guessed students would have more knowledge about me while reading through my website and doing their own research. Perhaps it would be a good idea to have a meetup in person, discuss their needs, get to know them on a personal level and see how the compatibility works. Whether I accept the student or not, it was entirely based on feeling. I have to be honest here. However as the years went by, I begin to wonder if feeling itself was a good indicator of whether the student and I are compatible. 

Whenever I turn down a student, the reason was because I had no peace in my heart. Doubts started to creep in and I begin asking myself if is there a problem with me. Why can't I just take every student who comes to the door and get on with the teaching? As the questions piled up, I get more relapses in anxiety. The frequency increased more per year through 2018 to 2023. The interesting thing is, there would still be some students whom I felt totally at peace the moment I saw him/her at first glance when they arrive at my doorstep. It only took about 5 seconds max, I knew I was going to take this student. Then I got more confused.

I started to compile the names of students I took and as well as those I turned down. Wrote down their names and their characteristics in the form of data to help me understand myself. As I started analyzing the data, I had the first clue of what my initial filter was to determine how I choose my students. I cannot go into the specifics for the matter of respect towards all people. Something hit me hard. I found out that I begin to judge people as much as I don't want to. Please forgive me. But if I don't, my mental health would be compromised. I started to struggle with guilt when I had to turn down students who are genuinely sincere about taking lessons but I could not develop the kind of chemistry with them.

Things got so bad towards late 2023, I fell into depression and had panic disorder on top of anxiety disorder. It does not mean I am constantly unwell, it only happens due to certain triggers. Turning people down happened to be one of them. Now I am better at managing this emotion. For those who don't know what a panic disorder/attack is, let me describe from my own experience.

- Body starts to freeze and hands turn cold
- Chills from the neck to shoulders
- Intense level of fear
- Chest compressions
- Chest pains
- Shortness of breath
- Severe heart palpitations
- Negative high adrenaline
- Suicidal tendencies
- You had to call somebody to tell him/her else you feel you might die

On 5 Jan 2024, I went back to IMH to get myself checked and properly diagnosed. I am currently seeing a clinical psychologist to improve my mental health. The exact diagnosis had to be kept confidential due to certain health protocols. However, the results were not a surprise. I knew this was coming. Immediately I notified all my students of my condition and asked if they are still willing to carry on despite me being in a bad shape. They all expressed willingness to continue unanimously, which I took great comfort in.

I borrowed an extracted quote by Professor Christopher Cheng, Senior Consultant Urologist with Singapore General Hospital and Sengkang General Hospital.

"No one can claim to truly walk in another person's shoes. Even when experiences may seem similar, every individual would have a different perspective of their lived experience. Even after you have been through it, everybody who goes through the same journey takes away different things."

The Discovery in 2024

I wanted to be pro-active in finding answers instead of waiting for them to come. So I took the MBTI personality test again. The results were I am ISFJ-A Defender. The surprising thing was the percentages in my personality traits which I did not pay much attention to until now. I begin to see some light as to how I am wired naturally and uniquely.

Disclaimer: I am not trained in psychology. The following is my own interpretation of my results based on experience since I started teaching guitar.

Introverted (I) - 86% 

Basically I think the likelihood of me getting along with a introverted student is higher. But not impossible for an extraverted person as every individual is uniquely different on a case to case basis.

Observant (S) - 78%

I observe facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.

Feeling (F) - 92%

In order words, if the initial feeling at first glance was comfortable, my answer is likely a yes. The reverse is true as well. Now I begin to understand why it only takes about 5 seconds max to know if I decide to take, or not to take a particular student. Please understand this is a relative perspective with my own set of lenses. Perhaps an example will be, I apply the same set of lenses with regards to which guitar gets my attention even before I get to play it. I understand it is unfair to compare people to things, but what I am suggesting is the principle of deciding who or what will you choose to go with.

Judging (J) - 75%

Something that I don't like so much about myself, but yes this is who I am now. Will I change in future? I don't have an answer but I will let nature take its course. There is only so much I can do within my means.

As much I want to be like Christ, I simply am not Christ. It does not mean that I do not try. The right thinking should be, if I have really tried and failed, its alright. Life can still go on. I learn self acceptance, not just my strengths but also my flaws. This is who I am, an imperfect person but still created in the image of God and loved by Him. 

I have become more aware of who I am, how my thoughts and feelings have changed over time. However, the greatest discovery was actually WHO I AM NOT. Perhaps a simple way to describe will be having an identity of my own, somewhat different from common societal norms. 

I begin to understand freedom from a different dimension. Oxford's dictionary defines "freedom" as:

1) the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants

Agree if the outcome of the act, speech or thought is morally/ethically right or positive. But what if freedom leads to vice or vices? Do we have the power to be free from vice?

2) the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved

Agree if you have committed a crime and as a result being imprisoned for the crime you commit. Slavery is irrelevant now in our society so I shall not go into it. Does that mean all prisoners do not have freedom? Or are they only "not free" in the physical realm? Can prisoners still have freedom in their heart, mind and soul if they have repented from their crimes?

What then is freedom with respect to common societal norms? To have the right to act, speak or think anything you want within all means possible? To not be imprisoned or enslaved? After giving it much thought, I came to my own set of conclusion. This is what I would like to add in my own words, which is quite the opposite of its original meaning, 

"Freedom is the power or right to say no to things you do not want to act upon, speak or think as you want." 

"Freedom is not only expressed or limited by the physical realm of time, space and matter. It also encompasses the heart, mind and soul of our human construct. To be free, is not to be controlled by things you do not want to be controlled by."

For myself and Guitarworks, freedom is to continue teaching guitar, where both teacher and student are comfortable with each other. The feeling has to be mutual. To be assured that I do not need to conform to societal norms as long as there is nothing morally/ethically wrong about the decisions I make. Having a clear conscience. It is to be the original version of myself without any form of compromise or pretense. I should never become someone I am not.

The Way Forward

I need to love myself first before I can love others. Which also means turning people down politely in order to protect my mental health isn't an unloving thing to do. Consequentially, this will naturally result in a drop in terms of finances. This is because, I don't necessarily get students whom I know I can work with all the time. The practical question will be, will I be able to live with that?

My answer is a resounding yes. We always have a choice. The problem is whether are we able to live with the consequences of that choice. For me, settling for a lesser pay in order to keep my sanity is a no brainer. Who would want to have a lot of money when you live everyday in fear, anxiety, panic and depression? While this works for me, I do echo the sentiment that in Singapore, the fear of not having enough is real. 

We don't get to choose what happens in life. However, we can choose how we respond to what life throws at us. What is the tradeoff and is it worth it? If we can adjust our expectations towards life in accordance to what we earn, wouldn't that be a better proposition? Live with what you have and don't chase dreams that are unrealistic. Don't compare yourself to others and learn to be happy with what you already have. The secret to happiness is contentment.

Balancing Things

I had heart to heart talks with a few of my students who understood my situation. They were frank enough to admit that even they themselves judge whether am I a good guitar teacher based on reviews. They made their judgement and chose me even before they met me personally. To say that we do not judge is unrealistic. Let's not pretend anymore. It is only to what extent do we judge a person.

In due fairness, I am also able to exercise my own judgement based on compatibility with my students. I'm sure no student wants to be told that their teacher is putting on a mask, pretending to teach them not because they want to, but they have to. They will feel disrespected. I simply could not live with that. It contradicts my mission of imparting music with honesty, patience and sincerity. You cannot have those when there is no freedom to exercise choice. Else we would all just be robots without a will and soul of our own.

There would be no difference between my first job and guitar teaching if I had gone on to take every student humanly possible without applying any filter. In almost any job, we deal with people. People is the only variable in this context. Our happiness is also dependent on the people we meet. Those whom we choose to let into our lives as well as those whom we choose to let go. I still enjoy teaching, but the condition has to be with the right students. Can I propose it is likewise for students as well?

From my own perspective, teaching the right students gives me more energy, motivation, satisfaction and joy. The reverse is also true. There is no stress at all. In every lesson, communication is so simple and natural that I can be who I am without any form of pretense. In my case, work and private life is hugely intertwined. Guitarworks is me, and I am Guitarworks. What you see is what you get. I don't carry separate identities when it comes to private life and work. I treat my students the same way I would treat my friends. There is no teacher/student line drawn between us.

I refuse to be a hypocrite. Therefore my goal now is to simply bring happiness through playing guitar. For both teacher and student. That's it.

The Journey of Faith, Again

The number of students I have equates how much I earn. Will I have enough? Since I have made the decision to choose the right students, I step into the realm of the unknown where my faith stands to be tested. The responsibility is on God, not on me anymore. I am just a steward of His assignment entrusted to me. Since He called me into teaching guitar, I trust He will provide for me. I have every reason to believe that He is my shepherd I shall not want.

Matthew 16:26: For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

The heart issue is money. Money is important and necessary. Mental health is equally important. Keeping your sanity in this world is not as easy as we may think. However there is always a hope in Jesus that He still does miracles in our everyday life. Don't trade your happiness away for money. It is really not worth it. Do your due diligence and leave things beyond your control to Him. I choose to be myself from now on. I will learn to say no politely as long as my motives are correct.

Teacher Alan

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