Have Some Selective (Self) Empathy: Lessons from Nas Daily

Opinion

story| Harrison Linder, Managing Editor

photo | Vaness Kow

 

It was an overcast afternoon at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The typically serene lawn near the turtle pond was packed with hundreds of people surrounding the stage of an annoyingly enthusiastic travel vlogger. I had agreed to write a profile of Nuseir Yassin — better known as Nas Daily on the Internet — for a journalism association magazine, and so there I was at the Nas Daily ‘meet-up’.

“Okay, now I want you to say something in ‘Singaporean’, something with lah or ‘nei’ in it,” he said as his crew prepared to take a video selfie of him against a backdrop of people ‘saying something in Singaporean’ (they decided on ‘okay lah’, as seen in Episode 1116). Just in case you’re reading this, Nas, it’s Singlish, not ‘Singaporean’ – and ‘nei’ is not a Singlish word.

The image of him saying that phrase on stage had been carved into the painfully cringeworthy corner of my memory, right next to the ‘Scott’s Tots’ episode of The Office. It wasn’t only the ignorance of his words that bothered me, but also the shameless confidence with which he said them – as if whatever came out of his mouth was correct as long as it met a certain volume threshold.

Fast forward to two weeks ago — while attending an Elm Rector’s Tea with Mr. Yassin, it only seemed clearer that he truly subscribes to some twisted philosophy where the louder he screams, the truer his words are. When asked tough questions about political opinions he had expressed in his videos, his responses invariably involved yelling, accusing those questioning him of bias, and, in one particularly disgusting case, belittling a student as an “oppressor.”

For someone with such obviously half-baked political beliefs, it was incredible how assiduously he defended them. If you asked me right after the event how I would describe Mr. Yassin, I would say delusional.

But after attending the intimate post-event dinner, where questions focused less on politics and more on his personal journey as a content creator, I realized that it’s not simply delusion, but rather faith, that fuels Nas Daily.

He described how after a year of working as a self-described “overpaid, underworked” software engineer at Venmo, he quit his job to travel the world on sixty thousand dollars in savings and share his experience through daily videos on his Facebook page.

His first stop on his journey was Kenya, where his friend from Harvard was living at the time.

“On my tenth day in Kenya, a local journalist who’d seen one of my videos reached out to me to offer to show me around so that I could make more videos. Wow! I made a real life connection through my videos. It was then that I knew that Nas Daily would be a success.” he said.

To me, this statement sounded like the sort of contrived epiphany I could have put in my college application essays, but Mr. Yassin was genuine.

“I knew that if I skipped a single day, then Nas Daily wouldn’t be a success. I told my parents, ‘if you die, I will still make videos. I’ll make 10 videos in your honor, but I will still make a video every day.’” he said.

Mr. Yassin didn’t provide rational explanations for why he felt that putting out videos everyday or connecting with people in real life was so important. But he had faith that if he did what he felt was right, everything would work out, and it did.

Mr. Yassin describes how he quit his job to travel the world on sixty thousand dollars in savings.

Coming to Yale-NUS College, I too had faith. I believed that the fact that I got into a college with an acceptance rate that hovers around 5% meant that I had the potential to achieve nearly anything I wanted to. Over the course of the next four years, I would explore a variety of subjects and find something that I was truly passionate about. At the end of those four years, I would go on to do a job that I find both meaningful and enjoyable.

But, very quickly, I realized that getting into Yale-NUS did not make me a genius. The notion that some ‘passion’ would magically reveal itself to me turned out to be wishful thinking, and the probability that I or anyone else will find a job that is enjoyable or meaningful, let alone both, is much closer to zero than one. What gets most people into elite colleges like Yale-NUS is not so much exceptional potential, but rather, privilege and luck.

However, I have interacted with people at Yale-NUS who at least appear to possess superior intelligence and true passion, which has only made it clearer that I have neither. Maybe those people will be able to choose their own destiny and find meaning and enjoyment in their work, but the rest of us are consigned to be human widgets until we retire.

At Yale-NUS, I have developed a thought pattern that goes something like this — I am not exceptional, therefore my opinions are likely not valuable, and the intuitions I have on what to do with my life are probably stupid.

I doubt myself to the point that I no longer think for myself. Instead, I just do the things that seem like the right thing to do since everyone else seems to be doing them. While I hope this isn’t the case, I have a feeling that this story is familiar to many students. But instead of languishing like a herd of lemmings with inferiority complexes, I think we could learn a bit from Mr. Yassin.

Like us, Mr. Yassin is intellectually unexceptional – he made that abundantly clear at his talk – but unlike us, he doesn’t let that hold him back. He values his own opinions (maybe a bit too much), and he trusts his intuition, no matter how unconventional and/or unsubstantiated it may be. And now, he’s making a living by his own rules. What makes Mr. Yassin exceptional isn’t his intelligence, video production skills, or some sixth sense for what people want to watch while they’re on the toilet. What makes Nas Daily exceptional is the faith Mr. Yassin has in his own ideas and potential, even when everyone else thinks his faith is dumb.

Reflecting on my interactions with Mr. Yassin, I’ve realized that my negative thought patterns are self fulfilling. Not voicing my opinions means that no one will hear them, and never taking a chance on my intuition means that I will never know its value. Not believing in my own potential means that I have no potential. It doesn’t always take geniuses like Bill Gates or Elon Musk to do something exceptional; sometimes it only takes someone like Mr. Yassin.

More importantly, it doesn’t necessarily take any sort of exceptional achievement to be happy, but it probably does take trusting your own instincts. You think you’d prefer to make annoying travel vlogs than your cushy software engineering job? Chances are, you’re right. 

Obviously, there is a point where having too much faith in oneself becomes a problem; having so much faith in your own ideas that you feel justified in speaking over any opposition is surely past that point. However, being so unsure of ourselves is probably making us even more miserable than if we were a bunch of Mr. Yassins screaming at each other.

While I’m not sure where to strike a balance between listening to others and being like Mr. Yassin, I’m certain that I could use a bit more faith in myself. My hunch is that you could use the same.

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