It was a Wednesday evening at 7pm. I got on the MRT train at City Hall station headed towards Orchard station. As expected, the train was crowded. Actually, “crowded” is an understatement. I was uncomfortably close to the five people standing around me, and I found my face in someone else’s armpit. Sound familiar?
Same crowded train, different experience
There’s nothing extraordinary about this scene, since it’s a daily occurrence in Singapore. My usual reaction to the situation: Become annoyed ("annoyed" is also an understatement), vow never to take the train during peak hour again (which I don’t think is possible, though), and complain about the public transportation system (which I hope improves soon!). But this Wednesday was different.
A crowd of people isn’t just a crowd of people
I started to observe the passengers in the train. I studied their facial expressions. I looked for signs of frustration, anger, sadness, relief and joy. I noticed the clothes they wore, and who their traveling companions were. All of a sudden, the crowd of passengers around me didn’t just seem like a crowd any more. Instead, I saw them as a gathering of individuals, each with their own stories, their own problems, their own battles to fight. No longer were they just masses of people who were making my Wednesday evening unpleasant.
Three lessons I learned
It dawned on me in a refreshing yet shocking way: There are millions of people in Singapore—and billions of people in the world. I’m just one of them. Why do I allow myself to behave in a self-absorbed manner, when in many ways my one life isn’t that significant? Thinking about what I could learn from this experience, I came up with three lessons:
1. Life doesn’t revolve around you or me
We often ask ourselves questions like these:
2. More people = more opportunities to serve
As I observed the throngs of people in the train, I realized that they represented countless opportunities. Opportunities don’t just exist somewhere “out there”. Opportunities present themselves in the form of people. Most of the time, opportunities are directly connected to a specific person. This applies to opportunities related to business, career advancement, leadership and service. So whether you’re an entrepreneur, CEO, employee, volunteer or social activist, it’s important to remember that masses of people symbolize massive opportunity.
3. More people = more perspectives to embrace
When’s the last time you struck up a conversation with someone who’s completely different from you? Although I don’t do this nearly enough, I’ve never regretted it every single time I’ve done so. It’s stimulating to talk to people whose background and upbringing are worlds apart from your own. Stepping into someone else’s shoes — even if it’s just for a brief 10-minute conversation— enables you to experience life more fully and to appreciate diversity more deeply. As Singapore becomes more cosmopolitan and densely populated (of course, we still need to think about what makes for sustainable immigration policy), we’ll have even more opportunities to understand a multitude of perspectives and ways of life.
Given a choice, no one would want to be stuck in a crowded train during peak hour. Nor would anyone want to work long hours, endure stress and uncertainty, or worry about job security. But these are facts of life. Life isn’t about what happens to us; it’s about what we do with what happens to us. We can choose to see things in a different light. We can choose our attitude. We can choose to take full responsibility for our choices and our lives. And, yes, we can all choose to be happy, even if we're stuck in a crowded MRT train during peak hour (I'm writing this as a reminder to myself too!).
Daniel Wong is a learning and personal development expert, as well as a certified youth counselor.