Blog

Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

A student asked me:

Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

Yes, that happens from time to time. It’s important to recognise that there’s a lot of things that we have no control over. What we have is control over ourselves, in how we respond to these things, and that we can be better people in response to such situations.

I normally take a break and do things I enjoy doing like music, watching shows on Netflix, or go out for a walk (walks are the best!). Sometimes I’ll treat myself to a good meal. These things will help a lot.

Sometimes the annoyance is greater because all my plans and effort have come to nothing, or I totally cannot get something I really really wanted. In which case, I’ll give myself a longer time to get my mind off the matter. So I’ll go do other things in the meantime, like indulge in a hobby or work on another project. No point dwelling on the matter when you’re upset. It only makes you more upset. Better to come back when your mind is fresh and you’re calmer about the situation.

When I’m calm about the matter, I’ll resign myself to the fact that I can’t control that situation. I’ll assess what I have no control, and what I have control over. And then I’ll ask myself whether I can still find an alternative way to get what I want. And if I can’t achieve what I want, I’ll plan out how to make the best of the new situation. Sometimes, it takes courage to say, “I shall not pursue this anymore.” This is also a fine and legitimate option. And then I’ll figure out what else I’d like to do with my time.

This advice was very abstract, but I hope it helps.

How do I deal with loneliness?

A student asked:

How do I deal with loneliness? I wish I had a significant other to just chat about anything and everything.

I think for starters, it helps to recognise that negative feelings, like loneliness, are just feelings. It’s one of the many feelings that we experience, like joy and sadness. It’s because feelings like loneliness don’t feel so nice that we get alarmed by it. And when we focus our concentration on trying to get rid of it, what happens is that our minds lock on to the feeling and it becomes harder to let it go.

But there really isn’t a need to be alarmed when you experience such negative feelings like loneliness. They come and go like clouds in the sky. My advice is to treat such feelings like white noise. If you pay a lot of attention to white noise, you’ll hear it, and it becomes louder. And if you busy yourself with other things, it’ll fade away from your attention.

The reason why having a partner feels like a solution to loneliness is because you have someone you can help turn your attention away from that loneliness. But the feeling of loneliness will still creep up on you from time to time. It’s important to recognise that feelings of loneliness will exist regardless of whether you are in a relationship or single. A partner won’t solve the problem of loneliness, neither will having lots of close friends. It is, as I said just now, a feeling that comes and goes, sometimes without reason.

I sometimes find that we are our own enemies, and that our hearts and minds play tricks on us by giving us virtual problems that feel far too real. Perhaps it’s due to that existential emptiness, that void that lurks at the back of our minds and hearts. Sometimes it manifests itself as loneliness, sometimes it manifests itself as a sense of meaninglessness of life.

It is upsetting, for sure, and the feelings are very real. But as I’ve said, it’s the white noise of existence. And it comes and goes. And the more idle our minds are, the more it’ll surface to our attention. So please learn to not give it too much weight and attention when it comes. We don’t always have to run away from bad feelings. It’s just yet another feeling that we experience in the rich tapestry of life.

I want to step out of this negativity and find my own happiness. Do you have any ideas on how I can do so?

A student wrote to me with this heartfelt question:

I grew up in an abusive childhood. My father has been abusive towards every member of my family. My mothers is the sole breadwinner of the family (my father doesn’t work).

I have told my mother countless times to get a divorce, but she refuses to do so. And she constantly makes excuses for him saying that “he has improved compared to the past.”

I know it has been incredibly difficult for my mother, especially since she has to tolerate my father while working to support the family. But sometimes I can’t help but feel so angry. I blame her for not protecting my sisters and I when we were children. Sometimes I feel that I hate her and it would be accompanied by a feeling of guilt that I’m such a bad ungrateful daughter.

Now as I start to emerge into adulthood , I realised I have internal conflicts that I didn’t know I had. I have difficulties trusting others, and even myself. I’m fearful that I would let someone toxic into my life, and not find the courage within me to leave. I’m fearful that I would be just like either of my parents. After all, they made me.

I want to step out of this negativity and find my own happiness. Do you have any ideas on how I can do so?

Thank you for sharing, and I just want you to know that I feel your pain.

For starters, it will help to understand that it’s not easy for your mum to get a divorce. She probably comes from a generation where there’s a lot of stigma attached to divorce. So it’s not just an issue of leaving your father, but societal shame and all that. Also, divorces can get very ugly and expensive. One can lose a lot, including the house. Given how your father doesn’t work, the divorce could go south where you mother has to pay him a monthly alimony to financially support him even after separation. So it’s not an easy option. It might have come across her mind many times, but I’m sure she knows all the difficulties she has to face if she proceeds with one.

So do understand that her hands are tied in the matter. Getting angry with her and hating on her would make her feel more alone in facing the daily ordeals of her life. She already has it pretty bad. So do try to be more understanding of her situation. She’s really not the enemy, but someone who doesn’t know a way out of a difficult spot.

It’s good that you are aware of your internal conflicts and inability to trust others. If you start living on your own, you might also discover that you display traits in your parents that you despise. It was quite a horrifying realisation on my part when I started living on my own how I exhibited certain qualities I disliked in my own parents.

Awareness is an important step towards improvement. The fact that you are painfully aware means that you can take steps to avoid falling into it. For most people, the tragedy is that they completely unaware of the toxic qualities they’ve acquired from their parents and they repeat the errors in their own lives, never realising that the problem is them. So in many ways, you are in a better place. It doesn’t feel good to have knowledge of the awareness, but it’s valuable. Because now you have to remind yourself constantly not to be that sort of toxic person.

It will help you a lot not to rush into a relationship. So that way, you have time to regularly reflect on yourself and how you respond to people.

While I did not have a background like yours, I and a few other friends with dysfunctional parents made it a point to always be better than our parents. It takes a lot of constant reminders, and perhaps even some painful experiences with other people to learn some lessons. But always tell yourself, “I will be better than them.” And you use them as benchmarks on what never to do in your life. Always take a step back to reflect on your experiences with people, as that will help you evaluate what you’re doing right/wrong. But at the same time, be gentle and kind to yourself because we will always be our harshest critic.

I do recommend seeing a counsellor. Because they can journey with you and coach you every step of the way. The best I can do is to give you general advice that may or may not work, as I don’t know the full story, nor do I have the expertise to help you all the way to a life of happiness.

I wish you all the best, and do know that you if you need someone to talk to, I am happy to lend a listening ear. :)

I’m afraid that I won’t be able to find a partner after graduation because I have no experience in dating!

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m already going to be 20 years old and I have never been in a relationship because of my family. They said that I can only date after I have graduated and started working. But I’m afraid that because I have no experience, I may not be able to find anyone after graduation. Help!

I wouldn’t worry too much if I were you. You’re still so young. Let me assure you that I have friends who only started dating after graduation and they are happily married now. So it’s perfectly fine not to date now.

Relationships are not jobs. You don’t need a portfolio of experience. Sometimes having no experience is better than having bad experiences of hurt and pain that will make you carry emotional baggage into subsequent relationships.

Now, I’m not sure what kind of experience you are talking about here. I am aware that some people say you need to acquire sexual experience so that you won’t disappoint your future spouse. This is utter rubbish. You can learn to be better in bed with your spouse over time. And it becomes more intimate that way because you learn how to communicate about something so intimate. In a healthy long-term relationship, sexual union is more than just pleasure. It’s about communication at the more intimate level. If you cannot talk about your likes/dislikes in bed, or learn how to figure out pleasure each other better, there’s a lot of things in the relationship that you won’t be able to talk about or resolve. In fact, people who feel that they have become “experts” in bed may have trouble with such communication because it takes humility to accept that the techniques they’ve learnt may not suit their partner. And their pride can get in the way of intimate communication.

Whatever it is, the fun of a relationship is to forge shared experiences together by learning things and experiencing new things together. So don’t stress over this lack of experience.

The experience you have in dealing with family, friends, frenemies, enemies, and other difficult people in your life will prepare you well for a relationship. You don’t need a relationship to learn those things.

How do I deal with imposter syndrome?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How do I deal with imposter syndrome? I’ve been doing pretty well in many aspects of my life recently (this wasn’t the case in the past) and I just feel I’m actually not worthy of all this or soon I’ll just stop being successful. I know I’m putting in more effort now which could be why I’m doing well. But at the same time, I just feel very insecure nowadays.

I think this experience is very common, and it’s something we will encounter every time we step into a new role or responsibility. I feel that way each time I take on a new task, and my TAs can attest that they feel that way at the start when they first became TAs.

There are two issues I do wish to address:

(1) Firstly, when we’re new to something, we don’t identify ourselves as one of “them,” the pros who have been around for longer and who seem to do better than us. It’s good to model yourself after them, but they’re really not the right benchmarks to compare with. I say this because you don’t have the same level of experience as they do. So if you keep benchmarking yourself against them, you will always feel not good enough, and it becomes harder for you to see yourself as one of “them,” thereby prolonging the feeling that you are an imposter.

What’s more important is to learn to settle into your role and take credit for all your little successes, big and small, especially the small ones. Aim to be excellent in the tasks and responsibilities given to you. As you do this well, your team mates or colleagues will begin to rely on you more. This will make you feel more integrated into the team, and you’ll soon feel like you have become one of them.

(2) Of course, everything I said earlier can be undermined if you have a low self-esteem or are unnecessarily harsh on yourself. Truly, we are our worst enemies. We work so hard to get so far, and once we’ve made it, we start to tell ourselves we are not good enough. That’s really not a nice thing to do to yourself.

I want to share with you an advice a friend shared with me the other day: “You are your own friend. So, don’t say things to yourself that you would never say to your friends.” We can be really mean to ourselves and say very discouraging and even hateful things. That’s not healthy, and it’s important that we learnt to be kind and patient with ourselves the way we are to our friends. Once we do this, we can begin to appreciate the good that we’ve achieved by our own effort.

So tell yourself what I’ll say to you: Well done! I’m proud of you. Keep up what you’re doing. I’m sure you’ll continue to do well. :)

How do I cope with the passing of a loved one?

A student asked:

How do I cope with the passing of a loved one? When I think of my dad it feels like he left us because he didn’t want to burden our family emotionally, financially, mentally, physically. And then it hurts.

Hello, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. My deepest condolences. I know now is not an easy time at all.

Do give yourself the time and space to grieve. It’s understandable to feel a wide range of emotions. Some days you’ll feel numb, some days sorrow, some days guilt.

From what you have said, I’m guessing that you must probably feel overwhelmed with guilt. With the passing of a loved one, it’s very normal for one’s mind to consider many what-if scenarios in your head — what if I had done X; or what if I didn’t do Y. I think that’s natural. But do be careful not to get sucked in on all these possibilities.

I think one way to cope better with the loss is to try to move beyond feelings of guilt towards that of gratitude, thanking your father for the life he gave you, for his love and care for you, for his wisdom and guidance, and for all the memories happy and sad that have shaped you to become who you are today.

As you look around the house and notice his absence, think of the memories and thank him for them. As you see things that remind you of him, thank him for those experiences and those memories.

Look on his passing with gratitude for all that he has been and all that he has done. This will help you cope better with the loss. You will still have the feels, and it will last for a while. It’s normal. But remember to exercise gratefulness to celebrate his life and the sharing of his life with you, and all the good that he has done for you and your family.

Do overly desperate students ever annoy you so much that your mood to teach or guide them in the right direction is ruined?

A student asked:

Do overly desperate students ever annoy you so much that your mood to teach or guide them in the right direction is ruined?

They do!

The first semester I taught as a lecturer, I got burnt really badly not just by desperate students, but by very self-entitled (and desperate) ones. Some wrote nasty e-mails or came to my office to bang table over grading matters (over 1% of the total grade!). Some banged tables all the way until senior management got their attention. And it’s very frightful to be contacted by the people upstairs only to discover how a trivial matter got blown way out of proportion.

Also, this semester (AY2020/2021 Sem 1), I received anonymous threats and hate messages from a student who disliked the fact that I’m going the extra mile to make the module engaging. It’s so bizarre.

It’s things like this that made me realise why some lecturers are unwilling to move a finger to help students. They’ve been burnt by bad experiences in the past. There are many awful cases, some of which I am not allowed to share (lecturers had to lodge police reports). In one publicly known incident, many students went online to bitterly complain about a lecturer. Those comments were so vile that he broke down during lecture and cried in front of his students. It’s not easy to teach university students, especially very self-entitled desperate ones.

I can tell you from my years of teaching that every bad experience from bad students impacts me, and it’s very tempting to put up a barrier or care less about them just to avoid more of these awful (and hurtful) experiences.

But the truth is this: Students behave awfully not because they are evil. Rather, it’s because they allow themselves to be overrun by fear and anxiety. And as an educator, I have to remind myself every single day that I have to be better than that. I cannot and I must not succumb to my own fears and anxieties. Otherwise, I’ll be no different from those educators who have lost their passion in teaching and have made learning a chore for other students, or worse, an unhealthy learning environment that just increases fear and anxiety amongst students.

Toxicity breeds more toxicity. So it’s important that we do our best not to succumb to our insecurities and irrationalities, or reciprocate pettiness with more pettiness. We must break the cycle of toxicity by having a bigger heart.

What do you think of couples who take the same major, and they enrol in the same modules and tutorials together?

A student asked me:

What do you think of couples who take the same major, and they enrol in the same modules and tutorials together? Would it become boring after awhile where projects are always done together and every minute of school is spent with that person?

Boredom isn’t the real problem that these couples should be worried about. While the idea of spending a lot of time together seems good, it’s actually not healthy for both individuals. It’s important to remember that a relationship comprises two unique individuals coming together to enrich each other as individuals. It’s not two individuals merging into a single hive mind as if The Singularity had taken place.

If you are already studying together or going out on dates, do you really need to spend even more time together?

While it is important to spend time together, it is just as important learning how to spend time away from each other so that each can continue developing their own individual selves, whether it is professionally, intellectually, or even socially as they meet new people or old friends.

Spending too much time together by taking the same classes would mean a loss of opportunities for each person in the relationship to explore new things on their own or to make new friends. It may feel really good now, but in the future you will look back and regret not making new friends or gaining new experiences on your own.

Do you believe that a person’s attitude with his/her family is reflective of the type of person they are and the type of upbringing they will give their future kids?

A student asked me this question:

Do you believe that a person’s attitude with his/her family is reflective of the type of person they are and the type of upbringing they will give their future kids?

This is not necessarily the case. It’s important to recognise that not everyone has the luxury of growing up in functional and loving families. There are many people who come from very dysfunctional/broken families (myself included). You can’t fault them for having negative attitudes or resentment for their parents. They’ve been through a lot of shit. For the ones with a good heart, they are using their bad experiences growing up as important lessons on how NOT to raise their kids. And they know about the toxic behaviours to avoid creating a dysfunctional home.

I say this with confidence because I have friends who chose to be better than their dysfunctional parents, and they are now raising their kids very wholesomely.

So don’t judge people just because of their upbringing. We don’t get to choose our families. The lucky ones get to be born into wholesome homes, while the unlucky ones get awful parents by no fault of their own. I don’t think its fair to pre-judge the unlucky ones. At the very least, judge them based on the kind of people they want to be. Do they choose to be as toxic as their parents, or have they chosen to be better than their parents and are doing their best to be good people? If they chose the latter, then give them a chance.

How do you welcome changes in life?

A student asked:

How do you welcome changes in life? Whenever I attempt to do something new/different, I get so overwhelmed by the “change” that I resort to going back to my comfort zone. Do you have any advice for this?

I think we need to resign ourselves to the fact that the only constancy is change. Even we ourselves change. Every new information, every experience changes us. The idea of who we are in our heads is nothing but an outdated static snapshot of ourselves the last time we asked that question. One reason why people get existential crises is because they discover that who they think they are doesn’t gel with the reality of who they have become. And dissonance between the idea and reality is too jarring.

We are constantly changing. That whole idea of a comfort zone is just an illusion of constancy. The truth of the matter is that every time you resort to going back to your comfort zone, you are still changing… but you are changing for the worse.

It’s important to recognise this, so that when faced with the discomfort of stepping out of your comfort zone, it’s not that you have the choice between proceeding on or retreating back to a place of comfort. Every time you retreat, you are training yourself to be less resilient, and you are letting fear and anxiety take hold of you. And the more you do this, the more easily fear and anxiety have its hold over you.

So, in reality the options available to you are: (1) proceed onward and embrace the change (in hopes of something better); or (2) retreat with the certainty that you’ll become a worse version of yourself.

(Oh, and it helps to study Philosophy, because you’ll learn new insights about things like this. I recommend modules on Continental Philosophy or on Existentialism. They deal with things like this.)

Is it a bad thing to be so focused on schoolwork or other endeavours like hobbies/work in general that I sacrifice having a vibrant social life or a romantic relationship during University? What if I continue being this way when I grow older?

A student asked:

Is it a bad thing to be so focused on schoolwork or other endeavours like hobbies/work in general that I sacrifice having a vibrant social life or a romantic relationship during University? What if I continue being this way when I grow older?

You should be doing what you want to do. It’s true that the good and bad habits you develop now in uni will stay with you when you work. So if you like to work until 3am, you will probably continue behaving like this when you go out to work. If that’s not how you want to live your life for the rest of your life, then you must try your utmost best to change these bad habits.

In general, it’s bad for your mental and emotional well-being if you sacrifice your social life for the sake of work or personal interest. You need a good balance.

BUT, a balance doesn’t mean that you dedicate equal time to social life, work, and hobbies. That’s very mechanical. You have to decide what that balance is. And from personal experience, seeking the balance is itself a constant struggle. Because the demands from your social life (and especially relationship), work and personal interests will always be in tension with each other. So it’s all about readjusting that balance in response to changing circumstances.

As a general rule, as long as you are not sacrificing any one of these things, you’re ok. I should mention that rest and doing nothing are just as important, and should also be factored into your balancing equation. We all need a little down time away from all the hustle and bustle of life.

How do I confess my love to someone?

A student asked me:

How do I confess my love to someone?

This question is lacking context. Do you mean to confess: (1) to someone you like from afar whom you’ve not gone on with? Or (2) to someone whom you’ve been hanging out with quite a lot?

If the context is (1), please, don’t confess. It’s creepy as hell. It’s also a sure way to lose that someone. It’s not even love since you haven’t spent enough time with that person. It’s only an infatuation. You can’t love someone you don’t know well enough. You should at least ask to hang out with that person regularly and be in regular contact with that person.

If the context is (2), the question is, how long have you been with that person and have you dropped hints of interest thus far? Most people have an internal clock in their mind/heart about deciding whether that person is relationship-worthy before friend-zoning them.

So let’s say you’ve been hanging out for a year, and nothing happened, no interest, no hints whatsoever, that person might have concluded that you’re not interested in him/her and moved on. Or, if you’ve done something that’s a huge deal-breaker, e.g. very whiney, too clingy, or some other reason, then the person would have concluded that you are not relationship-worthy and moved on. You can sense when this has happened if the person displays less interest in you. Doesn’t text so regularly, or not so keen to hang out like before. Basically, the person is avoiding you but just being nice by responding to you from time to time. If you get the sense the person is avoiding you, don’t confess. It’ll make things super awkward.

But let’s say things are going great, and the person isn’t avoiding you. Then you can start dropping hints of interests. Do things together that are slightly more date-like, e.g. visiting more romantic places, etc. Whatever it is, don’t go overboard. You can also start talking about relationships in general. It’s also a good way to get a better gauge if the person is indeed interested in you.

Suppose you’ve done all that and the signs are going well, then you can declare your interest. Personally, I don’t like to say “confess my love,” because at this stage, you still don’t know the person well enough to say “I love you” with full sincerity. But I leave that to you. Some people prefer a more organic approach where they just gradually shift into holding hands, or talk about relations and in the spur of the moment decided to clarify whether they like each other and want to go steady.

Some people prefer something more romantic. Like a romantic surprise whether they confess over a meal. If you are the nervous type, it helps to write it on a card or something for the person to read. In my case, I wrote something like, “I really like you and I love hanging out with you so much, and I’m wondering if you’d like to take this friendship to the next level?” And then I clipped the note on my cat (ok, it’s not really my cat, it was a stray cat that owned me and came to my home every day). That was quite a cute thing to do.

I’ll leave you to decide what works better for you. I didn’t want to say too much because you should do what is in line with who you are. Don’t do stuff other people did in the hopes that it’s like some magic formula. There’s no model answer for these sorts of things.

Is it normal for me to feel that I never feel prepared for a relationship?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Is it normal for me to feel that I never feel prepared for a relationship? I’m not good looking, not smart, and I’m not even rich. I can’t give a promising future to the girl I like.

I think it’s normal to find imperfections in ourselves and think that we’re not good enough. But we must remember that that’s just how we feel about ourselves, and that’s not usually how other people think about us.

Our looks and our intellect are who we are. These are things that are beyond our control. To some degree, you can improve on it, but you can’t do very much. So it’s not fair to yourself to use looks/intellect as a gauge of relationship readiness, because even ugly and stupid people can still be in happy relationships. There are many around, but we often don’t take notice of them because we tend to pay more attention to the good looking ones, or the very successful/famous ones.

There are two guys whom I know. I don’t respect them very much because they lack integrity. They are fugly as hell, and dumb as f***. And I know that if I were a woman, I sure as hell wouldn’t date them. Yet for the life of me, they are able to attract a lot of women (they’re both cheating on their girlfriends, which is why I don’t respect them). The point I’m making in sharing this is to emphasise that looks and intellect really don’t matter. It’s really an open market, and no matter how good-looking or fugly; or clever or stupid you may be, there will always be people who will be attracted to you.

As an aside… One thing most students don’t realise is when someone of the opposite sex is attracted to you. It’s easy to miss subtle signs. I know this, because when I was a student, I too was oblivious to the fact that some girls were interested in me. Now, that I’m so much older, and as a teacher, I can see how obvious it is. In class, I can see who’s interested in who, and I can see how one party can be so totally clueless about it. So many missed opportunities. Seriously… You don’t need Tinder. Just come for class. Haha!

Ok, back to the question… As for wealth, you don’t need to be rich. You just need to be financially stable because financial instability is the number one reason for divorce in Singapore. It’s hard for couples to trust and love each other when they are in survival mode, struggling to make ends meet. As a student, it is still within your power to be financially stable. It’s not about having a high paying job. It’s about being disciplined with your spending and spending within your means, and of course, saving and investing the rest of the money that you have.

Many couples sabotage their marriages by over-spending on their wedding, honeymoon, and housing. It’s nice to live in a condo or some matured estate. But if it means taking on a huge mortgage that puts stress on the both of you, that’s unwise. Every day you’ll worry about not having enough money to pay the bills.

So in short, you shouldn’t be using looks, intellect, and finances as indicators of preparedness or readiness for a relationship. Looks and intellect especially, are very bad indicators since you can’t do anything about these qualities. So what then should you use to gauge that you’re prepared or ready?

The answer is emotional maturity.

How do you handle conflicts? How do you handle the shit that life throws at you? How do you handle difficult people and difficult situations? If your answer to these questions is: rage quit, or run away by not facing up to the problem, or drown it out through alcohol or whatever poison you use to forget your problems, then you are not emotionally mature enough to handle a relationship. It’s important to learn to develop yourself by interacting and working with more people, either through CCAs or taking your group projects more seriously.

You may have noticed that some of your friends in relationships may display these traits of emotional immaturity. They may have many happy moments, but that is not the real indicator of whether the relationship is healthy. The true test of a relationship is when conflict arises. This typically happens once the honeymoon phase of the relationship has ended (about 18 months). A lot of break-ups happen after the honeymoon phase because emotionally immature people don’t know how to sustain/maintain a relationship once all the wonderfully exciting feelings aren’t that strong anymore (the strong feelings don’t last long if you aren’t aware of this, so it takes a lot of effort to maintain the feelings, and this exercise is an important aspect of a long-term healthy relationship). And so they become more easily agitated by their partners. Conflicts and disagreements arise more easily. And unfortunately, emotionally immature people do not know how to handle this well. This causes a great deal of hurt and pain to both parties. Usually, such relationships won’t last long. And they’ll just move on with their emotional baggage to cause yet more hurt and pain to someone else.

So focus on developing your people skills. Learn how to manage and handle difficult situations and difficult people. Learn how to develop deep and meaningful friendships with people. It will help you mature as a stable person and become a strong pillar of support to your future partner. And as you do your thing with confidence, you’ll eventually find someone you like, and that someone who will like you in return.

Any advice on how to make friends of the opposite gender?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Any advice on how to make friends of the opposite gender? Or is it okay not to have friends of the opposite gender? I always feel like I can click better with ppl of the same gender, but like I have nothing to talk about with people of the opposite gender. It’s very awkward. Why is that so? Or am I just an awkward potato?

Haha! I’m the opposite of you. I find it easier to click with people of the opposite gender, than it is to click with people of the same gender. But I think it has to do more with your own personal interests than it is about gender (unless you’re putting necessary pressure on yourself of hoping to date one of them).

I think it’s important to have a diverse group of friends. Not just different genders, but also different ages. You need this sort of diversity to open your worldview on a variety of matters.

The secret is that everyone’s awkward and lonely. So it helps to be the one to break the ice. You have no idea how many people appreciate the fact that you’ll come up to them with a smile to talk. As Mother Teresa once said, the greatest poverty in this world is loneliness. So be that spark. Don’t give up just because you feel awkward.

Here’s some conversational tricks I use to sustain conversations with random strangers:

One trick I’ve learnt is to prepare a wide array of topics to talk about. I like to think of it as carrying out an independent study on popular culture. There are some songs, movies, TV shows, books, art, and games that you must know about. It helps if you’ve watched/read/heard them. Otherwise, at least make sure you’ve read about them enough to talk about it. My typical script when conversing with people these days is to talk about Netflix, and then I’ll talk about some popular shows that I’ve watched, before I proceed to ask them about show recommendations. People are pretty passionate about Netflix, so you’ve got that covered.

I’ve learnt that this doesn’t work very well with older people. They like to talk more about stuff relating to politics and the economy. When I’m in the mood, I usually practice small talk (because I get bad at it if I don’t practice) with the taxi/Grab driver. I’ll say something like, “Oh, the economy lately has been really bad, yeah? How’s business?” And then the driver will go on a tirade about Singapore’s politics and economy, and maybe talk about how they’re coping with life. Usually, you learn interesting facts that you can use in other conversations, e.g. “The other day, my Grab driver shared that ….”

One other trick is to keep asking people to talk more about themselves. People love talking about themselves, and if you ask/probe further about their stories, they’ll be very happy to share them. You can imagine yourself like an interviewer preparing to write a magazine article about them. So you can probe parts of their stories that sound interesting to you. You often learn an interesting nugget or two along the way. As you do this, you’ll discover common topics of interest, which hopefully you’ll be able to latch on and talk excitedly about those things.

Here’s some conversational starting questions you can ask:

“What did you do last weekend?”

“I want to pursue a hobby, but I’m not sure what hobby to pick up. What do you recommend?”

“Which country do you hope to visit some day?”

“My friend says that she loves sparkly vampires. I don’t know. I prefer them less sparkly and maybe a little more dead inside. What do you prefer?”

“Which is cooler? Star Wars or Harry Potter?”

Give it a try!

How would you deal with passive aggressive people who refuse to apologise even when they are in the wrong?

A student asked:

How would you deal with passive aggressive people who refuse to apologise even when they are in the wrong?

People who display the traits you mentioned are very toxic people. It is this precise trait of refusing to apologise for their wrongs that is the hallmark of toxicity. And unfortunately, you can’t do much about it except to keep a distance from them. I say this because I have had too many past experience with such people at various points in my life and I have tried so many things. Nothing worked.

Just to share an example… Years ago, I had to share office space with an inconsiderate ass who would talk very loudly and make a mess on other people’s tables (he behaved as if he owned the entire office space). I told him off for being inconsiderate. He could never see why he was in the wrong because he kept playing the victim card. And since then he’d go on this vindictive passive aggressive campaign. It was very awful but also very cowardly of him since he’d never dare to confront me face-to-face. I did get upset by his stupid antics. I asked myself if things would have been better had I taken a gentler approach. The answer is no. Because he’d still have played the victim card and refuse to apologise for his awful behaviour (other people tried). So at the end of the day, I just pity him because it shows how messed up a human being he is – how petty and mean a creature he really is. I can tell you that people like him won’t go very far in life be it career or even relationships. And since he always plays the victim card, he’ll never be able to see why he is the problem. So he’ll stagnate in his cesspool of toxicity.

This sort of person will remain toxic and will breed further toxicity in the people around them. With such people, you can’t do much. And in fact, the more you try, the more upset and bitter you’ll get, and you too might become as toxic as them. They are trying to drag you down to their level of pettiness because they cannot understand how people can be better than them. You know you’ve allowed yourself to be dragged into their cesspool of toxicity when you begin thinking that getting away from such people is an admission of defeat.

I know this because my parents used to have a daily dispute with a toxic neighbour who terrorised everyone who lived above, below, and beside her. She had a 101 reasons to fault us and she was unapologetic as well. The solution to preserve one’s mental health would be to move out. But my parents got caught in the petty squabbles and refused to move out. They saw moving out as an admission of defeat. My parents regularly said that they refused to lose to her. And so in the 10+ years of living there, they gradually ramped up their arsenal of passive aggressive reciprocation. They bought many speakers and positioned them at the neighbour’s unit to blast loud music early in the morning, in the exact the same way the neighbour did to us (she was better equipped with a subwoofer aimed at us that would cause our walls and furniture to vibrate).

In the end, my parents became no different from the neighbour: they got poisoned by that neighbour and became just as toxic as she was.

So, just call a spade a spade, and acknowledge how pitiably petty and toxic they are. Don’t reason with yourself that these people can improve. They have damned themselves and they wish to damn other people with them. I can only recommend keeping a distance from such people. Cut them off if you can. They are the rare few people whom I’ll say are very detrimental to your mental health. And after you’ve cut them off, move on with your life. You don’t need such toxic negativity in your life.

How do I get better grades in school?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do I get better grades in school?

First of all, it’s important to recognise that it’s not about the amount of effort you put into studying that ensure you get better grades. You need to study smart and work smart. Studying hard and working hard will be very futile if you lack good learning methods.

In my four years teaching in NUS I often see students referring to learning resources and blindly trying to replicate the structure/form in order to answer an assignment. Students think that when they do this, they can’t go wrong if they model their answer off it. Of course in my module, students freak out when they discover they can’t do this.

And in fact, you should never do this. When you try to replicate the structure of an answer or lift lines from a lecture slide to answer a question, you are undermining the learning process. There is no real engagement with the question or the content. So you’re not really internalising what you are learning, and so the learning is superficial: it doesn’t go to the level where you can really link it to other issues or reach the level of creative mastery where you can take the knowledge to make something new.

A good way of gauging how well you understand something you’re taught is to always ask yourself how it is relevant to other things out in the world or how you can use that knowledge to do something (yes even seemingly “useless” knowledge that’s abstract from real life!). If you can’t see the link or can’t find the link, you haven’t understood it well enough to know how it extends beyond the classroom. I know students struggle with this and they would like their lecturers to show them how, but sometimes when we do, we’re met with scepticism. The problem resides with the learner. The learner hasn’t internalised and mastered the learning to see the relation for themselves.

An A grade is supposed to mean that you have mastered your learning well. So use this as a way of gauging how well you’ve mastered the content/skills. Because if you have reached this level of mastery, you can be confident that you are heading in the right direction towards an A.

Now, one other thing I noticed is that many students these are very impatient when it comes to assignments. They want to get over and done with it, and some of them are so immature that they resent their lecturers for making them work longer than they want to. Especially at University level, a lot of high quality work can only be produced after long hours of reading, thinking, and writing. Some people like to boast being able to write 3000 words in a short span of time. It reveals a grave lack of thought on the subject. To be clear, I’m not saying that if you spend a week on an assignment, you’ll get an A. What I’m saying is if you spend more time on it, your thoughts will mature and deepen beyond the mere superficialities. I mean… If something is so obvious and easy to answer at University, do you think we would be spending hours of our lives working on it? When we invite you to share in our experience through the various learning activities, we want you to develop a better grasp of the subtle complexities underlying the issues.

So if you do want to score well, you need to discuss more, read more, and think more. Rushed work usually results in poor work and a poor grade.

What do you think of girls being attracted to “bad boys”?

A student asked:

What do you think of girls being attracted to “bad boys”?

It’s not so much that they are attracted to “bad” boys. Rather, what they want in a partner is someone who isn’t as boring as a brick wall. And I think it’s fair to say that it applies to any gender. Nobody wants to be in a relationship with someone who’s as exciting as watching paint dry on a wall.

As an example, I once hung out with somebody who was incredibly one-dimensional. All she could talk about was her academic achievements and her studies. Every meet up was a discussion about her studies. There was nothing else that was of interest to her. After a while, there’s really not much you can talk about with such a person.

We do need to revisit an important question: what’s the point of a long-term relationship? Marriage counsellors will tell you that a healthy relationship is one where two whole individuals come together to ENRICH each other. It shouldn’t be two non-whole individuals seeking to be made whole by the other, because we can’t make the other whole. It is we who make ourselves whole.

There is a reason why one-dimensional and boring people aren’t attractive to most people. They make a compelling case to the other that they are incapable of enriching the other’s life. If a person is one-dimensional and boring, it’s usually the case that the person hasn’t quite understood what it means to live life to the full. I don’t mean living a life full of fun or pleasure. Rather, living life to the full means doing one’s best to realise the potential that is within his/her own being; to discover the hidden talents and strengths that one has, and know how to tap on them in order to become more of who and what one really is. I suppose you could think of it as a Pokemon evolution: and so you become a better and stronger you.

But if you can’t already do this to yourself, so as to enrich yourself, how can you expect to enrich someone else? It’s not possible.

I don’t want to subscribe to this whole “good” or “bad” boys/girls thing. It’s a bit of a false dichotomy, premised on vague senses of good and bad. It’s not very helpful.

The reason why the stereotypical “bad” boys and girls you see on TV are attractive is because of how exciting their lives seem to be, with their high risk appetites and a relaxed system of values. They’re more willing and happy to engage in extremely thrilling activities that most people wouldn’t normally try.

But we need to be very careful here. Living a life of excitement and thrill doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is living life to the full (in the wholesome sense I described earlier). Sometimes people engage in thrilling activities because they are trying to escape from themselves or runaway from the pangs of boredom and existential emptiness. Some of these adventures can be very thrilling and exciting for sure, but we must be careful to discern if they are done out of a genuine desire for self-enrichment or if it’s some form of self-destructive behaviour. It’s hard to tell the difference between the two.

For the rest of us who aren’t “bad” boys and girls, we must not fall into the error of thinking that if you’re not as exciting as the “bad” boys/girls, then we must be boring as hell. No. Boring is not the same as not-exciting. They’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, you can be both not-exciting and not-boring at the same time. And that’s where most people are anyway.

And if you think that you are one-dimensional and/or boring, then… Try not to be: go learn to expand your interests and hobbies. Try new things, and discover new interests that you can be passionate about. And when you make that step out of your comfort zone to explore, that’s when you begin to live a little more fully.

How do you survive the tension at home after you’ve had a fight with your parents?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How do you survive the tension at home after you’ve had a fight with your parents?

I’ll be honest and say that I’m not the best person to ask about this matter. My parents are incredibly toxic people, and so to preserve my own sanity, I packed up my bags and moved out of the house to live on my own during my undergraduate days.

But I’ll try to give you some advice since you asked. One thing that makes this question difficult to answer is that I don’t know how great the tension you’re dealing with or the issue that you fought over. I’m going to take a guess that it must have been a really bad fight over something very personal, e.g. relationship, or over some thing that you value very dearly. Every one’s hurt and reeling from the harsh exchange of words, probably.

Before you care about making things right with your parents, you should focus first on yourself. Allow yourself to process your emotions and feel it as it comes. It’s a kind of self-care to do this. It’s also important to reflect on what’s going on and what has been said. It’s not useful to think in terms of who’s right or wrong. The fact is words have been said, actions have been made. There’s no turning back. What’s more important is to reflect and consider in what way you felt misunderstood, what triggered you, and whether you (mis)understood your parents’ point of view, or if there could have been another way to think about the issue.

Give yourself and your parents a couple of days to recover. If you are close to your parents, they will miss talking to you. And they will appreciate you taking the brave initiative to engage in small talk. Just do simple chit chat. Don’t go straight into the stuff that you all fought about. When you all are on good talking terms, then you can bring up setting an appointment to talk about it. You want to talk about the matter when both parties are mentally prepared for it, so either side won’t feel so defensive about it.

If it is a very serious issue, and one that both sides feel grossly misunderstood. Find someone outside the home whom your parents respect greatly and regard as a neutral party to be a mediator. The problem with us humans is that we can be very sensitive to some matters, and we can easily lose our minds the moment we feel attacked. So it helps to create a safe environment for both sides to speak their minds and to hear each other knowing that someone can put a pause before words get nasty. The mediator should give everyone equal time to speak, and safeguard the speaker’s right to talk. If the mediator can do more than that, then the mediator can try to rephrase things in ways that either side can understand, or highlight how one party might be misinterpreting the words/action of the other, e.g. “When X says A, he means B. But it seems that you are interpreting X to mean C instead.” These things are helpful in bringing attention to areas where miscommunication is taking place, and it helps to clarify what each one is trying to say to the other.

I hope this helps. I wish you all the best in this matter. Take care.

Would you rather have an easy job working for someone else or work for yourself but work incredibly hard? And why?

A student asked:

Would you rather have an easy job working for someone else or work for yourself but work incredibly hard? And why?

This is a false dichotomy. There are a few more possibilities:

(1) Easy job working for someone else
(2) Moderately difficult job working for someone else
(3) Incredibly hard job working for someone else
(4) Easy job working for yourself
(5) Moderately difficult job working for yourself
(6) Incredibly hard job working for yourself

I used to work for myself when I did freelance work quite some time back. And if I compare that with how I’ve been working for other people since graduation, I prefer working for other people, but provided that they are good bosses. And I must stress the importance of good bosses. I’ve had my fair share of not so good bosses, and the experience will definitely make you say, “I’d rather work for myself.”

I have been incredibly fortunate that my two former bosses: (1) the former Vice President (Alumni & Advancement) of NTU and former Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Prof. Chan; and (2) the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education in NUS, Prof. Chng. Both of them had been incredibly nurturing. They provided me with many exciting challenges and opportunities to grow and develop as a person. And they set themselves as exemplary role models on how to lead and manage a team, how to lead projects, and how to handle difficult situations. I’ve learnt so much working under them. I am forever indebted to them for moulding me into the person that I am.

And I am more than aware that I would never have gained such a wealth of experience and insights if I were to work for myself. We are limited by our imagination and the people we hang out or work with. And if we don’t have access to incredible people – people who are so much better than us intellectually, emotionally, and even morally – we will not know the heights of how much better we can become. Without such people, it’s very hard to gain new ways of thinking, or new ways of managing one’s self and others.

But good bosses are hard to come by. So if you find that an opportunity presents itself for you to work for a good boss, you should seriously consider it.

As for work that’s easy, moderate, or difficult, I’d choose difficult work anytime because I love the challenge. Easy work gets boring and meaningless quite quickly. Difficult work will mean that there’s always lots of surprises and struggles and obstacles to overcome. It’s like the pleasure of playing a computer game. It’s challenging but satisfying when you complete it, except that it’s you in real life and you have only one live. No respawn.

That said, I think it’s because I have enough challenges in my work that I don’t like having to go through another challenge or struggle when gaming. It’s like working another shift, except that I don’t get paid. Does not spark joy at all.

How do you deal with an uptight group project mate who’s difficult to work with?

A student asked:

How would you deal with this scenario? A group mate is super uptight about a submission and keeps breathing down everybody’s necks. S/he keeps requesting for meet ups when it is obvious to the group that it is unnecessary to keep doing so.

Group mates will tell her they’ll get the work done in a while cos they have other matters, but s/he’ll vent his/her frustration at us (but they still get it done). After which, it is likely that s/he gave a bad peer review to the group mates just because they’re not as uptight as her about the project.

If I were in your shoes, I would find the time to talk to that person and explain that we have different work values, and try to come to a compromise between our differences.

It doesn’t help to say that you find the meetings unnecessary, as it would come across to that group mate that you’re not interested in contributing to the project.

It’s never reassuring to say you’ll work on it without giving anything concrete. So the person will have difficulties forging that trust with you. What the person needs is assurance that you’ll work on it and not free-ride on his/her hard work. The easiest way to give the person some assurance would be to discuss and identify specific deliverables that will be completed by specific people by a specific deadline. Or if that is not possible, assure the group mate that you will work on the matter together on a particular date that everyone can agree with.

Trust is very essential for any team to work effectively. This is why in my module, I strongly emphasise on the need to break the ice at the start to get to know each other well, maybe over ice cream or coffee or something. Social gatherings may seem like a useless waste of time, but you have no idea how essential it is to the success of the project group. It’s a way in which you get to know the other, have shared experiences, and so be able to trust your group mates well. You have less unknown variables to worry about once you know them better, and it’ll make it easier for you to trust them and for them to trust you all especially when you encounter differences in work values.

In my module, I don’t rely solely on peer evaluation to decide who to penalise. And usually, for groups that have differences in work values, the unhappy group member will not hesitate to reach out to me or the TA. And we’ll conduct investigations on our part to find out what’s going on with the group.

I can’t say the same for other modules though. So check with your prof about how they do use the peer evaluations to decide.