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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

To Excel is to Stay Curious


By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for Penang Monthly, February 2015

Have you ever thought about apparently different things, only to find out as you go along that they are totally linked trains of thought? And what starts out as a multitasking undertaking leads in the end to an epiphany of a sort.

This is not strange given how our brain, no matter how complex it may be, is one highly interconnected organ that never stops working. It seeks to integrate, to find solutions to dilemmas posed by daily life.

How often have we not woken up at 3 am in the morning with a novel solution to pressing questions that we could not solve while awake? Interlinking, integrating, interlacing… that seems to be how the brain works, or at least when we let it work. Most of the time, we do not actually allow it to do what it is meant to do. Instead we try our hardest to steer it, seeing it as the definer of our identity and therefore in need of perpetual superego control.

There is no doubting the brain’s anarchic nature. If left to itself, it may plot criminal plans every other week, entertain sexual thoughts every other minute, and commit heresy when not doing the first two. In fact, it might even think up a satirical joke every now and then.

Be that as it may, we cannot deny that the brain does not function at its best when controlled. It needs discipline perhaps, but not control.

Recently, I have been thinking about two apparently different matters, which later turn out to be flipsides of one and the same thing,

The first subject of thought is correctness.

Learning how to behave among relatives is where the socializing of a child begins. Later, teachers and schools continue the individual’s training, and I suppose the work place will then take over. Behind this whole process, peers and friends exert a strong endless influence. And if the child is part of an active religious community, knowledge about its rules and regulations, and its punishments and promises will fill his or her mind. Alongside these come other inspirations and impulses through other means. Books and movies, films and songs stimulate and entice the mind further, as do today’s ubiquitous mass and social media.

Learning what is correct learning how to act correctly take up quite a lot of the time of every person, young and old. It is not strange then that we pick and choose and limit influences very early in life. We learn early that curiosity cost—in time and energy, and in pain and discomfort.

But correctness and ritualized behavior are what collectives need most from its members. That is largely what socializing means. And so we have holy book upon holy book to lead us, and law book upon law book to steer us, and we imbibe commandment after commandment that have been proclaimed by obscure beings seated in heaven or in parliament.

And as the world gets more complicated and more democratic, the demand from guardians of correct behavior becomes stronger.

My second thought exploration has been in search of what the opposite of the act of excelling actually is. When for instance is someone not excelling? When he is not achieving extraordinary results, or when he is not trying to achieve extraordinary results? And who decides these extraordinary results?

It seems to me that there must be impassioned engagement if there is to be excellence. Excelling is also not about coming first, because coming first requires exact rules and exact conformity to them. And so someone who is most correct is simply most correct, not excelling.

And so I come to the conclusion that seeking excellence and seeking to be correct are psychological opposites. The mind that seeks correctness has to simplify the world in order to conform. This hampers his curiosity. On the other hand, the mind that seeks to excel has to embrace the world as infinite and indefinable, and therefore full of novelties to discover and create. Excelling is rejoicing in the anarchic nature of the mind and of the world.

For society as a whole, therefore, making sure the need for correctness does not stop the development of minds prone to creative excellence is a top priority.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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