When I ponder the question as to why anyone in this world would ever consider spending time writing novels, I often think about the world’s greatest works of literature…. And that thought, idle as it is, often leads me to think of the great Russian novelists Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

What did these men have in common? 

Were they both rich? Aristocratic? History tells us that the answer is no – while Tolstoy surely was an aristocrat of the highest order,  Dostoevsky was compelled to write novels because of his financial difficulties. 

Was it something special on the part of the Russian character? Maybe.

At the same time, the sheer variety of different personalities and inclinations around the world is so varied that any attempt to speak of a systematic difference between human beings purely on the basis of national origin is likely to fail.

Still, it is worthwhile to investigate – what else was common to them? They lived in one of the most torturous environments that the world had ever known, and survived. 

That they did is a miracle, as it is for the survival of all of us to different degrees amid the circumstances of life – and as almost all of us know, either through teachings or simply through life experience, whatever does not kill us shall only make us stronger.

Russia in those years was a place of cold, frost, political absurdity, and deprivation; it was a time of revolution and chaos, as multiple people attempted to usurp the prevailing powers because they could not accept the society that they had been thrust into. As they went through profound searches for spiritual and moral grounding in a world that they could not accept.

It is in that light that I think about the seminal work that they must have accomplished and consider how all those words that came out of them perhaps were responses to their environment. 

I imagine them sitting by their bedside tables writing through the winter as they pen down words as if trying to stave off the onset of the punishing cold that encroaches at every minute just from the outside. I imagine them poring over manuscripts as the toils of deprivation, war, and social theories gone wrong amidst a chaotic civilization play out in a theatre of the absurd that it is easiest not to confront but rather to escape from by departing into a world that is outside the concerns of the ordinary. 

I see them in my mind’s eye creating worlds that do not exist to compensate for one that does exist and is crushing in exterior form.

Suffering conditions the mind in this fashion by forcing it to look inwards, and to reflect upon circumstances, and to consider that at the end of the day, when a person simply is sitting there and reflecting on the inner self, they can realize certain things that they may not have been able to if they were simply consumed with the external world, and things that might otherwise be favorable in an alternate state of reality.

It is neither to say that suffering is desirable, nor to say that we should wish it upon our fellow men, but certainly it can be said that some of the world’s greatest breakthroughs are breakthroughs that were brought about in the same manner that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy brought about the Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace, respectively, through this period of inner contemplation and insight, which I think that suffering facilitates and makes a part of daily experience, but that somehow or another we are able to integrate into our daily lives by simply becoming mindful and dedicating time towards reflection. 

Perhaps though, that may be something altogether too optimistic. 

Perhaps reflections or breakthroughs of that level are only possible when or if someone truly goes through the process of formulating the daily decision to pursue through a journey or quest towards one’s intellectual truth, each and every day, regardless of the circumstances, running towards it as if a madman, deprived of water and overcome with rabies, rushes towards the direction of water that cannot quench his thirst.

Yet, it would be altogether wrong to say that suffering is part of an aetiology of success. Not all suffering leads to excellence, for if it did, then the entirety of Russia perhaps would have solely been a nation of Dostoevskys and Tolstoys, though we do not see that this is the case. Suffering exists everywhere and in every nation, from the richest to the poorest, from those beset by intense drought and heat to those overcome by the onslaught of unyielding cold and ice. 

Whether it is by fire or ice that any world should end, though, there are always some who can thrive in their particular response to their surroundings. And it is within this response and the way that it comes about that the true miracle of any emancipation must surely come about. 

It is perhaps as Mewtwo said in the Pokemon movie…

I believe this to be true in many cases, and across a range of possible environments.

The mind is an incredibly powerful though, and it is interesting to consider the means by which a person might reach the state of enlightenment that the two seminal authors that I had mentioned had arrived at as they arrived in a pantheon of eternal enshrinement within the hallowed halls of commemoration that celebrated our finest literary masters.

As I contemplate their lives, I wonder how and to what extent it is possible to implement some of the lessons from their sufferings and to translate those into the broader question and its answers of how a person may reach progressively deeper levels of enlightenment in the course of this life.

One immediate thing comes to mind though. People are remarkably resilient, although oftentimes it is unclear what it is that they are being resilient for; they often do not suffer from laziness in the way that we would expect, because if given a suitable direction to progress in, most people would in fact go forward without abandon, provided that they have the right process in place.

Leave A Comment

Recommended Posts

A Few Things I Did Recently

There are so many different and new things that happened recently that it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. I’m sorry for not updating, but that is just what it is. If you follow me on Instagram or have watched my YouTube channel or been aware of some of the things I’ve spoken up about, I guess you would know. But if you’re just reading this for the first time from lord knows where, then here are some things that happened in the past couple of months. 1. Interviewed every single member of Yale’s class of 2028, and 3 out of 4 of Harvard’s class of 2028 from Malaysia, and several Stanford, Columbia, KYUEM students. It is a bit of a skewed sample, and I hope to demonstrate excellence in a more diverse form in days ahead. If you have any suggestions for future interviewees or people whom I should consider speaking to, please feel free to reach out and drop me an email at victortanws@gmail.com! Also and videoed legendary economist and Council of Eminent Persons member Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Wan Nadiah, President of the Harvard Club of Malaysia, Emma Davidson of the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Malaysia, and Mr. Jarrod Sio of Sarawak’s State Education department. Some future interviews include interviews with the CEO of Teach For Malaysia Chan Choon Seng, as well as Mr. Khairy Jamaluddin. Interviews I wish for are those with Ms. Fadhlina Sidek, Minister of Education of Malaysia, Mr. Rafizi Ramli, Minister of Economy of Malaysia, Mr. Ahmad Zulqarnain Onn, CEO of EPF, and Tan Sri Lin See Yan, amongst others. 2. Reached out to His Royal Highness Sultan Nazrin Shah to ask about economic history and his Economic History of Malaysia project and the ex-CEO of 1MDB as well, all part of that initiative to understand history a little better. This is an […]

Pathways To Excellence

Pathways now has a podcast – please follow it! In the past couple of days, I’ve had the chance to speak to some very, very smart people, and it’s all the result of a weird series of coincidences. Or maybe they’re not really coincidences, and maybe they’re just fate. I don’t know what it is, but either way, I realized that every single member of Harvard’s class of 2028 and Yale’s class of 2028, as well as Stanford’s class of 2028, was watching Pathways to Excellence. Why do I know this? I know this because I ended up speaking to almost every single one of them, only to hear that they were aware of what I was doing, that they had watched the videos, that prepared for their Harvard interviews, or otherwise in some way, shape, or form. It’s also been interesting to watch things play out, as I’ve secured interviews that are very different along the way, with people of rather unique backgrounds, which I’ll perhaps talk more about in the days to come. It’s very inspiring to speak to smart people – I have no idea how that’s going to influence my future just yet, but the outlines are there, but I would have done this regardless of what had happened anyway. What is clear for sure though is that this is meaningful, something I’m honored to be a part of and a journey that I will continue to value in the days to come.

Malaysia’s Harvard Class of 2028

Recently, Malaysia was very fortunate to receive the news that four Malaysians had gotten into Harvard University. Congratulations to Elisa, Victor, Thamini, and Bryan! (And thanks for watching/appearing on Pathways ^^) It’s always fascinating to see the country’s very top talent and the way that they are celebrated in this way, but maybe even more fascinating to become friends with them, which I inadvertently did in different ways. It’s cool that Malaysia can produce people of this caliber of talent for sure – but there’s naturally always going to be a question for each and every one of us: Can it retain them? Honestly, the answer to that question is unclear even for myself. You need to be strong to stay in this country, after all. V.

Random thought

One thing I’d definitely like to do a lot more this year is make myself capable of doing large batches of work all at a time. I don’t mean just going out there and working as hard as possible to put myself through a suffering that is inhuman, impossible to bear through, but instead the simple act of understanding how to schedule things so that you have more time in between the moments when you obtain inspiration such that you have a natural reminder to continue going out there, enter the game, and do as you will do. Willpower of course is a very important thing, but it is limited. That is why we create systems, things that automate our labor, but of course no system can operate without the willpower in the very first place even as it is true that expecting continual, consistent, and unrelenting willpower is a recipe for burnout and self-damage to degrees unreasonable even for the most hardened of men. In this upcoming new year, I look forward to being able to find many more systems that will continue to make work easier for me, to be able to more delicately navigate the balance between willpower effort and also attainment of actual results in the days ahead. I’m given the sense that somehow or another, that needs to be a continual part of everything that I’m doing going forward. How exactly that is going to work out and how it will happen, I am not totally sure just yet, but ideas and intuition abound, and what I’m confident of is that in many ways, this is a knowledge thing. By simply elevating yourself from an initial phase where no knowledge is present to one where awareness has been developed, a person can lift themselves up to heights hitherto unknown. That has been the experience that I’ve […]

Assessing English Standards in Malaysia: An Analysis with the CEFR

Often in Malaysia, people talk about how our standard of English is either sufficiently good that it is the basis of a thesis for investment, or they say that our English is abysmal and needs drastically to be improved – discussions go on and on, and people fight, oftentimes in what seems like a battle for the soul of our society. But what does it mean, actually, that our English is good or our English is bad? Some say that Malaysia aligns itself to international standards in creating its curricula, but others squabble day in and day out, constantly complaining about the quality of English amongst graduates who come into the workforce, observing that many of them lack basic skills that they would expect graduates to have. How can it be possible that Malaysia calibrates itself to international standards while at the same time its graduates languish in terms of their English language proficiency? But at the end of the day, who’s right?  As it turns out, investigating a little further tells us that the answer is both. Here’s where the subject of our blog post for today comes in: The Common European Framework for Reference, otherwise known as the CEFR.  The reason that I’m making this comparison today and telling you about CEFR is that Malaysia uses it to calibrate SPM writing standards.  The CEFR operationalizes language proficiency in accordance with six dimensions, from A1 up until C2. It is an international standard that is utilized by examining bodies across the world in order to designate proficiency levels and descriptors that students attain after courses of study, and it is used also in designing curricula so that students can reach a certain defined standard. Source: https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/Images/126130-cefr-diagram.pdf CEFR operationalizes English proficiency according to numerous level descriptors, providing explanations of what a user of the English language should be able to do […]

On Facing Judgment’s Shadow

Picture this. You’ve written a post that you want to share on social media, or you’ve made a video somehow or another. You’re sitting there on the edge of your chair, just about to click post, but you look at what you’ve written, what you’ve made, you notice that final error, you question yourself, thinking about the manifold ways in which people could be judging you silently and from afar, contemplating in your mind’s eye the dialogues that must be taking place. “Oh my gosh, this person wrote this?” “Oh my gosh. Did he really make that grammatical error?” “Wow, this is boring. Why am I even watching?”“How could he make such a video?” And so the thoughts come out, percolate like coffee through filter paper, and eventually crystallize into little gems of self-doubt, blocking the nervous signal that would have caused you to click. You turn away from your plan, and you declare:”Maybe later, but not now.” Before you know it, the entire project is abandoned. If you’re anything like me, you may have faced this, this feeling of wanting to do something, but realizing, or at least thinking that you weren’t good enough, that the manifold imperfections that existed in you would come out, and that people would judge you one way or another. Well, here’s a fact, though. People certainly will judge you. I mean, how could they not? Everyone encounters something as a first glance, thinks about it, and evaluates it on their own terms. That’s just how it is. The judgment will happen. There is absolutely nothing that you can do about it, and your feeling certainly is right. The thing is though, that even though it is right, this isn’t a valid reason to run away. Because truly, the only way to get past it is to face your fears, to accept judgements as they […]