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On why we do anything

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There are 3 reasons why we have to do anything:

1) We want to do it
2) We have to do it
3) We do it so others don’t have to do it

Reason (1) is more ego-centric, where we focus on the needs of ourselves. Reason (3) is more focused on the needs of a larger community of which we are a part of. 

This concept came to me when I observed my 17-month-old child transition from (1) to (2). Initially, all the things he does is just because he wants to do it. As he slowly understands our household rules, and later, the rules of the society of which he is a part of, he starts doing things because he has to. He might not like it and it might not be what he wants to do, but he will have to do it. I have not seen him doing things because of reason (3) and hopefully, that will come when he gets older.

I have an example that illustrates these 3 reasons – that of clearing trays in hawker centres. Usually, nobody wants to do the dirty work of clearing trays. In Tampines, at the site of the old Tampines stadium, there is a food court when there is an automated tray clearing thing that looks somewhat like those conveyor belt system carrying plates of sushi around. I thought that was pretty cool, so I really wanted to clear my trays just to see how it works. I guess the novelty wears off after a while. But when do we really have to clear trays? Maybe when they start charging a fine? Or giving an incentive? In another perspective, the cleaner is the one who has to clear the trays, because he/she is employed for that purpose.

The really interesting part comes when we talk about clearing our own trays so that others don’t have to do it for us. Or we clear trays left by others that are not even on our table so that a person carrying a tray of hot food does not have to clear it. I thought that idea really gels with the philosophy of leaving the place better than when we came in. I think the Japanese are really great at this. We always read reports of Japanese football fans picking up rubbish and clearing the place after the event ended.

I also realised that after having a kid, I tend to do things based on reason (3) more often. My wife and I are the primary care-takers and we have no domestic helpers. After work, I’m usually tired and what I really wanted to do is to have my own me-time to recuperate. But I have to do some baby stuff so that my wife doesn’t have to do it. I mean there’s only me and her. If not me, then who? Perhaps I can also extend this idea to the larger society, treating them like my family. If I don’t do things, then who shall do it? If I see a piece of rubbish on the streets, and I didn’t throw it there, so while I don’t want to pick it up, neither is it my responsibility to pick it up, I should pick it up so that others don’t have to do it.

That should make Singapore a much better place to live it for everyone, yes?

As such, I strive to teach that to my kid. I want him to take care of himself first, then take care of others. He cannot be doing things mainly because of reasons (1) and (2) alone. He exists in a larger community of which he is a part of, and he ought to do more things out of reason (3). For him to do so, I must also show him that I am doing so. I need to be a good role model for him to follow.

Thanks, son, for making me better than I am now.

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