I thought I had plans for the future but life got disrupted by COVID-19. What should we do if we’re unsure about our future?

A student asked:

I thought I had plans for the future but life got disrupted by COVID-19. What should we do if we’re unsure about our future?

Here’s my advice:

I think it helps to plan for the worst case scenario, that perhaps lockdown conditions may continue for the next 1-2 years. The shock of such lockdowns is changing the way we learn and work. And a lot of what we are doing now during this lockdown may very well continue for a long time.

Firstly, assuming that e-learning is going to be around for a lot longer than we’d like, it’s best to develop good e-learning hygiene and discipline. Form learning communities with friends and strangers for each module. At least this way, you all can work together and panic together. Because motivation is a huge problem with e-learning – isolation means you can’t see movement, and so you lose track of time. A learning community will help you to regain that motivation.

Secondly, save money and spend less on bubble tea and other non-essentials. Because waves of retrenchments will be coming soon. Your family members may be affected. Use the time now to learn and pick up a variety of skills, both technical and soft, and try developing a portfolio so that you can take on more interesting part-time jobs that can develop you professionally in the future.

Thirdly, I strongly recommend taking modules in the humanities (I’m saying this because most of my students reading this are from the social sciences, hence I’m making this point). I know people like to shit on the humanities as “useless” majors, but this is an incredibly narrow minded perspective. Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, wrote about the “Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Basically, useful knowledge is useful because it has a known purpose and use. Useless knowledge is useless because its use is yet to be known. But useless knowledge is always useful because useful knowledge will one day become useless, and some other useless knowledge will become useful.

When I was an undergrad, life science was the fad. A lot of people said that you have to study life science if you want to make money or be guaranteed a job. So a lot of my peers went to pursue life science. (By the way, computing then was seen as the dumping ground. Everyone who barely qualified for university went there.) Fast forward to now, a life science degree is seen as not very useful. The Government’s attempt at developing flourishing life science industry failed spectacularly. And now computing is the fad. The market for computing people is too oversaturated right now. And if you talk to people in senior management (or watch YouTube videos), they are saying: we need people from the humanities. Why? Because we need them to question the way tech is designed and implemented, so that we can put the human and humane back into the equation.

The humanities is a lot resilient to the rise and fall of these hiring fads. Because through the humanities, you gain important soft skills that will allow you to easily pick up any skill, even if its technical. And historically, humanities has always been the training of the elites. Because to manage and lead others – to be a boss – you must know what it means to be human, and how we humans perceive, interpret, and evaluate the people and the world around us. It means gaining insights into the ideas that drive us (philosophy); understanding the passions and desires, the ambitions and insecurities that compel people to act (literature); and the lessons of human success and failings (history), so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

People regard the humanities as “useless” because it’s so broad and unspecific, but that’s only because these people are limited in their imagination on the universal applications of a humanities training.

I believe that these three recommendations will help you gain a certain resilience and flexibility to adapt well to any situation, especially when the going gets tough.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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