Hi Liane! Did you always do well in school?
I did not. When I was younger, I failed a lot of my exams. I was never obsessed with grades or success. I scored really lousily and people used to say that I was the stupidest girl in my class.
Initially when I was studying in a polytechnic, I regularly skipped school and as a result, nearly lost the last friend I had there. I decided to study harder in an attempt to preserve that friendship. Surprisingly, I started doing well and realised that I actually have a knack for studying! I thought that if I kept doing well, I could go quite far with my grades and land a good career. I felt that if I were a successful, powerful, and influential lawyer, I would be happy in life. I wasn’t a Christian then, and success became something I filled the gaping hole in my heart with that only Christ was supposed to fill.
I FELT THAT IF I WERE A SUCCESSFUL, POWERFUL, AND INFLUENTIAL LAWYER, I WOULD BE HAPPY IN LIFE.
What was the motivation behind your desire for academic success?
There were many motivations. One was money. I thought, if I have money, I can spend it on anything and life can be made better. I also desired power; I could command more people to listen and look up to me. I was also driven by pride. I felt shiok (very good) whenever people praised me for exceling in things I was good at.
Is money as a motivation necessarily a bad thing?
I believe that we should steward our gifts wisely. For example, if I’m a good pianist, then I should serve God with my skills. Similarly, if I have been academically blessed, then I should use my brains to serve God. Having more money can also allow one to serve the community more effectively. So I don’t think that one should be scared of being successful or earning more money. The problem is the temptation to use money and success to satisfy one’s desires instead of serving God.
When did you begin to realise your obsessive pursuit over success? Were there visible signs?
As a student, I clocked in around four hours of sleep a day. In my time as a lawyer, I used to have ‘badges of honour’ I was proud of. Clients recognised me as someone who replied an email within minutes, no matter the time of day. I was dubbed as being ‘crazy.’ I also had a sleeping bag in the office, and eventually even a sofa bed. There were days when I would just stay in the office to work endlessly. I realised how enslaved I was to work when my tiredness physically showed in the size of my eyes — they were half its usual size! I also had emotional breakdowns. It was clear that work was my master. I knew that continuing this lifestyle would be unhealthy for me.
THE THINGS THAT GAVE ME STATUS AS AN ADVANTAGE OVER PEOPLE WAS RENDERED USELESS IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD.
How did your perspective of success change after becoming a Christian?
I became a Christian in the midst of my working years. Over time, listening to sermons and reading the Bible caused me to ask myself, “Why am I doing all the things I am doing?” The things that gave me status as an advantage over people was rendered useless in the kingdom of God.
Interestingly, things started changing at my workplace; my boss had resources to hire more people so work became more balanced amongst the employees. I started to have more time to pursue my own interests, and I realised that life is more than just work.
What really set me free was my struggle with a spending problem and I prayed for God to help me overcome it. I read Crazy Love by Francis Chan and I was convicted to only spend a fixed amount and give the rest away. That season opened my eyes to realise that there is more to life than working tirelessly to earn more money. Of course, no matter how much or little you have, you should still have a heart of service to bless others. Being freed from excessive working and money as my identity was a huge breakthrough.
What do you think distinguishes striving and working hard for grades versus obsessing over them?
Ideally, nothing should fill the void in your heart except God. You should be so secure in your identity that good or bad grades will not make you feel any less loved and complete. The problem is that sometimes, you have an idol that is co-existing with God. I can have a good relationship with God, and still have an idol. Let’s say my idol is good grades. I achieve good grades and I do love God. But I need to ask myself honestly if I am working hard because I love God and want to be excellent in what I do, or if I am doing it because I am looking to good grades to define me.
WHEN IT IS CONSUMING OTHER IMPORTANT ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE, YOU OUGHT TO TAKE A CLOSER LOOK.
Another indicator is to look at the amount of time you spend on studying. God gives us many things to steward. When you are disproportionately placing a lot of energy on one thing such that you neglect the others, it is clear what takes a higher priority. Within reason, there is nothing wrong with giving time to studies, but when it is consuming other important aspects of your life, you ought to take a closer look.
What are some practical tips for students who desire to excel in school but are wary about obsessing over grades or success?
Prayer is a good ‘weapon.’ Be intentional to always pray and submit your desires to God. God is faithful and He will let His will be done in your life. Secondly, be intentional about filling up your heart with God. For example, if you are trying to kick a bad habit but instead of filling it up with God, you turn to something secular, that defeats the purpose of trying to kick the habit! Thirdly, be mindful of your motivations for needing to succeed and counter it with Bible verses. For example, if you are tempted to be drawn to man’s praises, meditate on verses that counter that very temptation, like those that focus on honouring God above man. The more you read Scripture, the more God will reveal motivations that perhaps are not the most pleasing to Him.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.