The missing lateral thinking

Last night, I saw a re-run of ‘Heston’s Feasts’, a program helmed by Heston Blumenthal where he produced a 3-course meal based on a theme for a selected group of guests. The theme for last night’s program was ‘The 80’s’, and Heston brilliantly showcased food popular in the 80’s in the UK. The dinner started with guests being served edible wad of money (sushi wrapped in printed rice paper) and sake bubbly in the brick-like cell phone, followed by the ultimate toasties with black truffles and Spanish rare ham and stretchy cheese (Comte and Gruyere). The main course was a power lobster presented in a microwave box, and the finale was a floating dessert made from a combination of Vienetta and tiramisu. Seriously I was drooling while watching the show.

I always enjoy watching Heston showing off his culinary skills, his experimentations, and this program is one of my favorites. He never ceases to amaze me at how innovative he is, combining science with cooking to create dishes that stimulate the various senses, truly a master! Naturally I’ve told my husband a few times that I would love to dine at The Fat Duck one day. Anyway why I brought up Heston is because my husband told me Heston’s culinary skill is self-taught. He stayed only one week at Raymond Blanc’s kitchen and also did a short stint with Marco Pierre White. Other that these, he literally spent time researching and experimenting on his own, traveling around to learn new food knowledge while he was in various odd jobs. He worked as photocopier salesman, debt collector and credit controller to make ends meet so that he can develop his culinary knowledge and skill.

My husband thinks that Heston is an example of how passion and pursuit of excellence can propel you to the highest echelon of what you’re doing despite the absence of formal training. In Chinese communities and also Japanese and Korean societies, Heston’s early years would have made him a bummer in the eyes of many. First of all he didn’t go to college and he also admitted in one program that he was frequently called into the Principal’s office in high school. That would have branded him as a troubled kid.

Chinese, Koreans and Japanese consider college education is a must in order to get a good job, and not just any college but a good one. Those who think otherwise are a small minority. So academic excellence is pursued at all cost because the thinking is that if you get a good college degree, you’ll get a good job in a good company and you’ll do well in life. And especially for Chinese, the parents dream of their kids becoming doctors or lawyers or government officials. (Even in Korea, jobs with the government is highly regarded.)

In all the above mentioned societies, kids are repeatedly drilled into their heads that they have to study hard, otherwise they’ll end up a pauper or a good-for-nothing. In Singapore, the pursuit of academic excellence is so ingrained into the society that it takes precedence above everything else, including arts and sports. It’s comical that the so-called Arts school and Sports school here require applicants to attain certain academic standard before they can be admitted. So the dream of parents is for their kids to be a government scholar (over here the scholarship system is similar to the scholar system in ancient China). The Singapore government and it’s various organizations give out most of the scholarships, and some are the most prestigious in the country. All the scholarships come with bond where the students have to work for the government or it’s organizations for 6 years. So you can say the government monopolizes the top academic talents. After being indoctrinated into the system for so many years and unable to leave because they’re bound by the high compensation paid to them, eventually these talents find that their brain has atrophied.

My husband feels there’s a problem here, the mindset that academic excellence is the end all and be all, ignoring the fact that excellence comes in many forms. He told me a couple of times that in any cohort only the top 1% will get into the best schools, so what are the other 99% to do? Are they to be disregarded? The truth is not every kid can do well academically. In nature, there’re very few Jeremy Lins who excel both academically and in sport. In fact in most situations, you have to choose one over the other. For instance if you’ve a kid who is a gifted tennis player, you can’t expect him or her to go to college before becoming professional. All the top players started playing professional in the big league when they’re in their teens, and they didn’t attend college. Talent can also come in the form of craftsmanship such as someone handy with the hands like carpentry. So it’s highly possible that a kid is not academically inclined, but is talented in other ways and the talent has to be developed, and passion stroke to reach the highest standard.

If Heston was born in Singapore, he wouldn’t have become who he is today because he would be condemned for not doing well in school. He wouldn’t have the chance to experiment with various cooking methods because he’ll have to slog to make ends meet unless his family is rich and can support his passion. The same goes for Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college (which will be considered sacrilegious in our societies). But that’s sad isn’t it? After all if we only have doctors and lawyers, the world will be such a boring place. Unfortunately it’s the sad truth that the dreams of many kids are dashed and talents buried and never to be seen again, all in the name of pursuing academic excellence to get a good job to make the good money for a good life. I’m sure Mark Zuckerburg wasn’t thinking about making money when he was creating Facebook. So my husband told me that if baby Alex has a talent for skateboarding and wants to be the best skateboarder out there, he’s completely fine with it.

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