What is the most important life advice that you would like to give your students?

A student asked:

What is the most important life advice that you would like to give your students?

I thought very long and hard about this matter. So here’s my reply:

The most important life advice that I want to give to my students is: Learn to embrace failure, and see it in a positive light: failure is good and important for your personal and professional growth and development. Most university students have never encountered failure in their lives at all. Most uni students have enjoyed at least a 12-year successive streak from primary school all the way to JC/Poly, without having experienced failure once before. And so, failure becomes ever more scary because it is a very alien experience. Since I began working with students, I have personally witnessed the extent with which failure has undermined the potential of students from going forward in life. I have seen very bright and brilliant students sabotage themselves in so many ways and it saddens me to see how fear prevents them from realising their full potential. Let me recount a few cases.

Years ago, I had to engage student RAs to help me edit scientific talks for a general audience. I specifically chose students from the humanities because they would best be able to edit it in a way that the general public can understand (science students are more inclined to retain a lot of jargon). I had a student who ended up ghosting me (i.e. became uncontactable) because after he began working on the project, he didn’t know how to even proceed even though I was very happy to lend assistance to anyone who needed it. I asked friends close to him, and they shared with me that he was so embarrassed to ask me for help because it would be an admission of failure on his part. But if he’s not going to ask me for help, how is he even going to get started on it? I know that he is more than capable of doing it. I didn’t think he failed when he was stuck. But he saw himself as a failure and dropped the entire project. He didn’t even have the courage to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”

There was another student I engaged to run a social media campaign for a research centre years ago. I chose her because she boasted experience in doing such things. She too ghosted me (and the research centre) as soon as she found herself stuck. She was so afraid of facing the possibility of failure that she couldn’t even bring herself to ask any of us for help. Fear of failure held her back so badly that she just dropped out after 1 week. Again, I don’t think being stuck is a sign of failure. All one had to do was to ask for help. But, she was so afraid of failing that she failed in the end by dropping out.

I see this fear of failure holding many students back in their learning too. I’ve seen many students who are so afraid of failing that they won’t even try, because there is the fear that they will discover they would fear the first time they try (I’m not talking about assignments – I’m just talking about online lecture activities). They are so afraid to realise that they might fear that they won’t even try! But that really is the opposite of learning! We learn by making mistakes, so we know what to do and what not to do. I see this happening every semester for the past 3.5 years of teaching: every time we push students out of their comfort zones, there will be a large percentage who give up before they even begin.

Students are so paralysed by the fear of failure, that they undermine themselves from trying new things (that’s why so many want to go into grad school or become teachers – because it’s a very familiar environment, and not one that challenges them). They undermine their learning, they undermine their potential, they undermine their careers by not daring to ask for help (as if that is an admission of failure – it’s not!). And it doesn’t help that they shy away from it, and even go into denial (bitching about how crap something is without acknowledging their own shortcomings) without evaluating the failure for its important lessons. A wasted opportunity.

This fear of failure will continue on even as working adults. I have seen working adults, directors even, who are so afraid of failure they make pathetic decisions, or they push/punish their colleagues/subordinates so hard in order to generate a false sense of security. The same fear will pervade relationships, and you’ll see people making stupid decisions for their spouses and children.

I know failure is a painful experience. I encounter this all the time. And it hits me very hard especially since I am a perfectionist. I am my harshest critic and I go very hard on myself when I fail, emo-ing for days sometimes. But we must understand that failure is educational. We learn what NOT to do. That gives us a point of reference for improvement.

Did you know that failure is so important that NUS incorporates that as a requirement for promotion for staff on educator track? We must reflect on negative student feedback and demonstrate what we are doing to address these failings. I like what one of the educators shared: “The mark of a great educator is not in his/her positive teaching feedback or achievements. Rather it is in the way in which the educator reflects on his/her failings as an educator, and reflectively works to improve on those areas.”

So let me share with you one advice that I myself use: I treat everything I do as experimental. I’ve never written a book, so that book was my first experiment in writing. I never taught an entire module before, so the first cohort was my first experiment in teaching. By framing these things as experimental, we give ourselves a bit more leeway to make mistakes, and thus reduce the stress on ourselves to succeed 100%.

Heck, I even tell my TAs to treat their first class as an experimental class: “Make all the mistakes you want, it’s ok to screw up. Just make sure you learn from the mistakes so that you can teach a better class the next time round.” This makes them more relaxed, and in general, my TAs have better camaraderie with the students from their first class because they’re a lot more relaxed. (And of course, they teach more confidently for the second class – don’t worry, it doesn’t make a difference to grades because they still cover the same things anyway)

Here are three other life advice I regard as important preparations for the future:

(1) Learn to find meaning and purpose outside of studies with hobbies that aren’t Netflix/YouTube, computer games, or anything to do with collecting stuff. Or even better, learn to embrace that emptiness/meaninglessness in life as the white noise of existence that will always be present no matter where we run to. Think back to the first week of holidays. Do you feel a certain emptiness in your life? You’ve been working so hard, and then suddenly you aren’t doing those things anymore. That emptiness will hit you very VERY HARD once you graduate because you’ve been studying for at least 16 years of your life, and now that you’re liberated from studies (which is forced upon you), you will struggle like everyone else to find meaning and purpose since all this is entirely up to your choosing from then on.

Many people don’t know how to cope well with this emptiness in life. Some go down the destructive path of indulging in lots of alcohol and sex; some actively seek out love because having butterflies in your stomach is way more exciting than having to face that void at home (but they can’t maintain proper relationships because long-term relationships are “boring” and lack the same distracting excitement). Some other pick up hobbies that involve collecting hoard of shit, and so they buy inordinate quantities of shit like expensive pens, watches, golf clubs, fishing equipment, gadgets, etc. All these provide only momentary relief. And I’ll say this: Religion doesn’t actually solve the problem. I’ve seen the same shit going on especially with the most devoted or pious of people. Many of them are super into the religion only because they are trying very hard to escape the emptiness that they feel inside (speaking from experience and from observation). I even know priests who resort to some of the patterns of behaviour I mentioned above.

I recommend hobbies because meaning and purpose is generated from the mutual interaction of the activity itself and our reflection about the activity. If you can (and this is something I am striving towards), try to embrace this meaninglessness as the white noise of existence. White noise cancels out a lot of things, making it hard to hear certain sounds (in the same way, the feeling of emptiness can occasionally drown out other things that are supposedly meaningful). But at the same time, white noise blends easily in the background. When we’re focused on something, we don’t hear the white noise anymore, or at least it doesn’t confront us. I find it helps to stop perceiving it as a bad thing to run away from and just accept it as a brute fact of life, that it will always be there. It’s hard, but if we can embrace that level, then I think we’re good for life.

(2) Save money and live frugally. Do not take loans for weddings, honeymoon, renovation, etc. The only acceptable loans are education loans and housing loans. Weddings are expensive. Buying and renovating a home is expensive. Having children is expensive. Getting sick is expensive. Dying is expensive. One thing that bothers me is how so many of my peers are living unsustainable lifestyles eating good food and drinks almost every day, or indulging in very regular expensive purchases (gadgets, watches, etc.) Furthermore, with the combined salaries that some couples draw, I know for a fact that they can’t possibly afford a big fancy wedding and a beautiful house at the same time, so early on in their careers. They’re either funded by their parents or they took a mega loan from a bank. If you have to take money from your parents or from a bank, then you are really spending beyond your means. Especially if the wedding and/or home renovation was loaned from a bank, you begin a new chapter of your life shouldering a very heavy burden of servicing debt every month. That’s not a nice way to start a new chapter of your life. In fact, the majority of divorces in Singapore are due to money matters. Go Google.

Go read up what kinds of insurance to buy and how much to adequately insure yourself. You never know when you might one day lose your ability to work. And then go read up how to make passive income from investments so that you have additional income streams.

(3) You don’t need to aim for perfection when it comes to the working world. The working world is flooded with an insane amount of mediocrity. Why? Because the people who are very good at what they do tend to be overly critical of themselves and so they undermine themselves by not putting forward what they have (it’s never good enough to show others), or they are just so held back by the fear of failure that they don’t go into areas where they can truly make a difference. So what you are left with are overconfident people who lack substance doing all those jobs.

I first came to this realisation after having a chat with someone. This person is great as a human being, as a colleague, and as a friend. He’s not particularly intelligent, nor does he have a good command of English. But what was pretty amazing was that he was very passionate about a specific topic, and he was quite confident with himself, that he never once hesitated. And so he actually managed to get many articles published in several newspapers and magazines (like once every week). He even won a competition and got a grant to publish a book. That’s pretty amazing. I’ve read his stuff and it was just ok – mediocre. It wasn’t great or spectacular. But there he is going so far with all these publications. And then it struck me so hard that if this quality of work can make it so far in so many areas, then all I need to do is to just do slightly better than this, which is quite doable since it doesn’t require me to write an A grade essay or do spectacular research that comes under the scrutiny of experts.

What I learnt is: I don’t need to aim for perfection. I just need to be slightly better than average – at the very least. And that’s a very comforting idea for people who are very self-critical, like myself. This realisation has been incredibly liberating for me, because it opened my eyes to realise the extent of mediocrity that pervades everything around us. So for those of us reading this who are very self-critical. All you need to do is to be a little bit more thick-skinned, and just put yourself out there. You have no idea how far you can possibly go with the work and talent that you have. Because, if you can critique what’s wrong with other peoples work and your own work, then you have what it takes to make it slightly better than mediocre, and that will immediately be way better than a lot of the things that’s already out there.

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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