How to Design Unforgettable and Satisfying Learning Activities that Help Students Learn Better

One of the interesting topics that arise when I converse with students is how many of them struggle to remember what they did in modules from previous semesters.

Such discussions got me thinking about how to design learning activities that are unforgettable. There is a quote famously attributed to Albert Einstein who said that “education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learnt in school”. And I want to ensure that my students remember what they have learned from me especially after all the hard work that they have put into my course.

I began experimenting by implementing techniques that I myself used as a student. I had a very unorthodox method that was very much inspired by the comedian and counsellor, Mark Gungor. He had said that if you take an event and attach a strong emotion to it, that event will be seared into you for good. I applied this principle to my learning by creating jokes for everything I wanted to remember. The funnier the joke, the stronger the emotion, and the better my memory of it.

Activities to Reinforce Learning

I thought it would be interesting to apply this approach to my own teaching, regardless of whether it was a quiz, a group project, or a tutorial activity. So every learning activity I created came packaged with its own scenario. The more fun the scenario was, or the more shocking the conclusion was, the better the students remembered the learning points and what they did to achieve it.

And you can tell how effective this approach has been, when students consult me for help. Instead of explaining the concept, I can just invoke the name of the relevant learning activity. For example, I could say: “Do you remember how you found the spy in the ‘Who’s the spy?’ activity?” Immediately, students light up as they suddenly recall the concept or what they did previously.

Engaging the Imagination

And this is not the only ingredient for making learning activities unforgettable. The other reason why I create fictitious scenarios and situate learning activities in them is that it provides fertile soil for the students’ imagination. This is very powerful especially when we invite them to role-play. There, students step out of their identities to be someone else – which enables them to have more fun learning.

This is especially useful for group projects and discussions, where students within the group may differ in abilities and competencies. Fast learners may not feel a need to help their slower counterparts, and slower learners may be too embarrassed to seek help. In the context of the role play, learners become united by a common mission to save the day by solving a problem for a group of people.

This common mission prompts learners to emotionally invest themselves into the topic and to collaborate with each other in order to solve the problem. And because they are given the chance to momentarily be someone else, they can put aside the stress that they tend to impose on themselves and have fun. As someone else, students are more inclined to engage in peer teaching and learning with each other. They can contribute their own insights on the matter and help one another out (whether technical or not) if they find themselves lost without additional promoting. This helps to further reinforce the culture of collaboration that we try to foster in the module.

Difficulty and Challenge

However, there is another issue. If we design activities meant for stronger students, the weaker students will feel lost and end up disengaging themselves from class. If we design for the weaker students, the stronger students will complete the task quickly on their own, get bored and disengage from the class.

To solve this conundrum, I found it effective to borrow two categories from game design: “difficulty” and “challenge”. A problem can have a low difficulty (be easy) but be challenging; or it can be difficult but not challenging at all.

A problem is difficult when it is hard to accomplish, and it depends very much on the learner’s ability to be able to succeed. A sharp learner, for example, may not struggle very much with a difficult problem, but a slow learner may feel very lost and be unable to solve the problem unless someone steps in.

On the other hand, a problem is challenging when it requires effort rather than ability to solve it. Hence, a challenging yet easy problem can be solved by both fast and slow learners, and they will both need to work hard to find the solution since the answer is not immediately obvious.

With these categories in mind, we can design learning activities that have low difficulty but are still challenging enough for stronger students. This is achieved by providing just enough scaffolding and guiding resources (such as a Q&A resource page) that weaker students can refer to for help. This mirrors the way computer games leave clues and hints lying around.

For formative activities, I will calibrate them to be easy yet challenging. In my course, this means that someone who has just learnt Microsoft Excel will be able to solve the problem even with minimal experience. But it is challenging in a sense that the most experienced Excel user will not find the answer immediately and will have to work for the answer too.

For summative assessments, I will calibrate them to be just as challenging but with a higher difficulty level. There will be fewer scaffolds and guiding resources available. I typically achieve this by picking out scenarios where there are no clear answers, and so students will have to discuss within their groups to convince themselves of the right solutions.

Ensuring Satisfaction

One thing to note is that the greater the challenge of the activity, the more we need to ensure that students find the activity satisfying, as a reward for completing the challenge. Some activities are already satisfying once the learner completes them. But sometimes the satisfaction may not be enough. To combat this, I usually test these activities with my Teaching Assistants (all undergraduates). I will observe their behaviour and note their feedback for improvement.

Role playing is useful in augmenting the level of satisfaction. Depending on their assigned scenario, accomplishing the task can leave students feeling as if they’ve just solved one of humanity’s greatest dilemmas, or that they have just made the world a better place with their solution.

Or sometimes, we can conclude the activity with a shocking revelation or a mind-blowing learning point that they least expect. For example, in one of my learning activities, students felt accomplished that they had allocated students to limited enrichment programme slots. At the end, we got them to reflect on the criteria used and how that could favour wealthier demographics.

Our learning activities may be somewhat theatrical. But they do help in generating strong emotions, which help to sear students’ learning deeply into their memories. The result: an unforgettable learning experience. I stay in touch with many of my former students from two years ago and they still fondly remember the various activities and learning points from my module. I believe this is an education that Einstein would be proud of.

This article is part of a series of articles on pedagogical methods and education.

How to Effectively Induct Students into the Flipped Classroom Paradigm

The flipped classroom format is a type of blended learning where students are required to do some preparatory work – such as watching lecture videos or completing some assignments – before coming to a face-to-face class to work on more challenging problems with the facilitation of an instructor.

However, one challenge of teaching flipped classroom modules is that a big proportion of students often came to class unprepared. They either do not watch the lecture videos or they quickly skim through them before the tutorials. Thus they lack a proper understanding of the content. The tutorial ends up becoming a lecture where we go over the lecture content instead of challenging them to go further, as many students are unable to participate in the activities.

When I asked my students why this happens, the most common reason was their unfamiliarity with this new learning paradigm. Raised in the traditional classroom paradigm, almost all students are not used to the flipped classroom. They enrol with the expectation that they can learn more effectively in the presence of a live teacher, where they can pick up hints and clues on what they should be focusing on when they review the course materials. This way, they feel assured that they are “on the right track” when they revise the course materials on their own.

Limited Effectiveness of Quizzes

One of the most common solutions is to implement graded online quizzes that are due right before face-to-face classes. I experimented with this and found the effects quite limited. Quizzes alone are insufficient in inducting students to this new learning paradigm.

Also, students can score well at online quizzes but still retain many defects in their learning. I like to think of the flipped classroom as analogous to learning to drive by watching videos. It is not possible to drive well from watching videos alone. Quizzes are insufficient in testing or reinforcing their driving abilities. More needs to be done to facilitate the student’s learning. The student cannot know what he or she does not know until the student has had the experience of being on the road, so to speak.

The Benefits of Pre-Tutorial Discussions

Over the semesters, I have found that a really effective way to induct students into the flipped classroom paradigm and ensure higher levels of pre-class preparation. This is achieved by introducing the Pre-Tutorial Discussion – an open-ended assignment of 600 to 800 words – that is due before each tutorial.

Students are given a scenario and a problem to solve. The discussion invokes their imagination by inviting them to role play. For example, an assignment topic could be: “Imagine that you are an intern and your boss has tasked you with developing an algorithm to determine a delivery route for emergency medical supplies.”

Role playing is powerful because it invokes the student’s imagination, forcing them to step out of themselves and, for that moment, pretend to be someone else. This compels them to feel a strong vested interest to solve the problem to the best of their abilities as they can sympathise with the people they are tasked to help. Furthermore, the sense of accomplishment for completing the task is a lot greater, making the activity very satisfying (almost like playing a game).

The scenario is designed such that it requires students to creatively apply what they learn in the lectures. This compels students to ensure that their understanding goes beyond a superficial level of comprehension as they try to apply their theoretical learning into something practical (analogous to attempting to drive a car instead of having the idea of driving it). It helps students discover and rectify defects in their learning. Students have provided feedback on how this has helped them think more deeply about the course materials as they revise the lectures and quizzes, or seek clarifications from my teaching team.

The scenario is designed such that there is no one clear answer. Instead, there are a myriad of possible solutions. This point is emphasised by basing assignment grading not on getting the right answer (because there are many possible ones), but on the way they explicate their thought process to demonstrate reflective, self-critical awareness. This encourages students to experiment and explore various approaches before presenting what they think to be the best solution.

I inform students that tutorials are built on what they have done for the Pre-Tutorials. This sets expectations on what needs to be prepared before coming to class. And when students see what is expected of them in the Pre-Tutorials, they put in more effort in ensuring that they are well-prepared for the greater challenge that awaits them later.

The introduction of the Pre-Tutorial has been very effective in flipped classroom courses. With a well-designed Pre-Tutorial activity, I was able to get about 80% of my students to come to class well-prepared for the challenging tutorial activities in Semester 2 of Academic Year 2020/2021. This is compared with about 40% to 50% of students in the earlier semesters when I was still experimenting. As a result, we were able to take their learning a lot further in class.

More importantly, students provided feedback that the Pre-Tutorial Discussions have helped to induct them into the flipped classroom paradigm. This has helped them learn to become more independent learners as the discussions provided them with the structure to confidently pursue self-directed learning and exploration.

This article is part of a series of articles on pedagogical methods and education.

Alleviating Student Anxieties in Interdisciplinary Learning and Empowering Them Through the Telegram Messaging App

Since I began teaching in 2017, I found that there are other challenges to interdisciplinary learning unique to this generation of students. The challenges to interdisciplinary learning are more psychological in nature. In my discussions with students, I found that many have high levels of anxiety when it comes to learning something outside their intended major.

They may be nervous about potentially failing a module. Having to do a module outside what they are competent/familiar with increases the likelihood of having to experience failure. Many students in University managed to go through their prior years of schooling without encountering failure. And because of this, the idea of potentially failing for the first time induces a great deal of stress and anxiety.

Here, I wish to highlight that this problem is not unique to Singaporean students. I have encountered many international students enrolled into my module voicing the exact same anxieties towards interdisciplinary learning.

Because of these anxieties, students imagine that there are many others who are better than them, and the moment they face a struggle, they are quick to imagine that they are the only one struggling with it, which further perpetuates the stress.

The issue is compounded when the module is taught in the blended-learning format, where students learn some parts of the module in isolation at home. They cannot see their classmates or how they are doing, and the stress drives them to imagine the worst. This affects their motivation to learn as they do not see any chance in scoring well for the module.

It also affects students’ willingness to ask for help. I also encountered many students who feel that they need to get everything in order (compile all their questions so that they can ask everything in a single setting, or be able to articulate their questions to show that they did preparation work) before they come for consultations. Otherwise, they feel they may waste the instructor’s time. However, I have come to realise that because the student is dealing with a subject so alien to them, they sometimes struggle to articulate their question. And in such situations, students do not ever reach a situation where they feel ready enough to approach the instructor for consultations.

Overall, these anxieties and self-imposed stress that many students face becomes an inhibition to learning effectively. In my teaching experience, I found that these issues must be addressed if we want to assure and motivate students to learn well.

And in my years of teaching, the Telegram messaging app has become a very integral support system in my teaching, and it helps to alleviate students’ anxieties and empower them in their learning.

Each semester, I create a Telegram Helpline where students can seek help directly from me or one of the Teaching Assistants (TAs) in the teaching team. It allows me to interact closely with students and to show them that I am serious in wanting to help them learn well. I answer questions without judgement, and I collect new questions to add to a library of Q&A that everyone can access for their benefit.

Telegram is a powerful platform because students can seek help, even anonymously (platforms like WhatsApp don’t allow this). It helps with student motivation because students can see their peers working when they ask their questions on the Helpline. Students see that there’s movement and it motivates them to work as they know they can benefit from the stream of Q&A that comes in.

More importantly, students can see their peers asking questions and their struggles are made visible online. Other students see this and it makes them aware that they are not struggling alone. It helps students feel more confident about their learning and about themselves. More importantly, it greatly reduces their anxieties over learning something so new and daunting, knowing that they can come to me for help, even if they struggle to articulate the problem.

What I like about the Helpline is that it allows me to shape and foster a positive learning culture for students. It allows me to demonstrate good learning qualities/values and shift their mindset away from one of competitiveness to collaboration. As I foster trust in them and create a safe environment for them to seek help, more students begin to participate actively in helping to answer queries by their peers. I know I have succeeded with cultivating the positive learning culture when students regularly respond to one another’s questions and help each other online.

Knowing that help is just a text message away, or that there is a comprehensive Q&A knowledge base they can refer to verify their understanding empowers students greatly, because they recognise that it is possible to master something new entirely on their own (with some assistance, of course), and they would not have to face the situation of discovering that they are not good enough. This helps to greatly alleviate the self-imposed stress felt by such students.

In general, using the Telegram Helpline as a teaching tool helps to reduce the stress that students are facing when learning something outside their specialisation because they know they are not struggling alone and that there is help readily available in the event that they require it. Furthermore, the collaborative culture that it fosters also mitigates stress because students do not feel like they are competing with each other for grades. As such, the Telegram Helpline helps empower students to internalise their interdisciplinary learning.

This article is part of a series of articles on pedagogical methods and education.

How to Effectively Engage Students when Teaching Interdisciplinary Modules

In recent years, the National University of Singapore has been emphasising the importance of interdisciplinary learning as it helps to equip students with various competencies that will enable them to solve problems outside their area of specialisation, thereby preparing them well for the workforce and giving them the flexibility to engage in life-long learning. It is for this reason that the University made it a graduation requirement for students to read a few common interdisciplinary modules.

However, I have noticed that students have been apprehensive towards such interdisciplinary modules that teach content outside their major. I spoke to my students about this issue and I found that many of them do not understand the purpose of such modules. They rely on the testimony of their seniors, who may emphasise the importance of specialisation in one’s major over a breadth of outlook and skills.

As a consequence, many students do not see the point of interdisciplinary learning, and they enrol into these common modules with little interest. This is a major problem I have been facing since I began teaching interdisciplinary modules from 2017.

In 2019, I became the Module Coordinator for GET1050 “Computational Reasoning,” where I teach coding and data analytics to 700 students in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences each semester. At the start of each semester, about 70% of my students do not fully engage with the course materials due to the poor perception they have of interdisciplinary modules. To tackle the problem, I have to invest a significant amount of effort to win them over to see the purpose and value of the module. By the 7th week, I estimate that I have won over and engaged most of my students, with the number of non-engaged students dropping to about 30%. This is still a problem because the content of each week builds on the previous weeks. By the time students see value in the course, they may be unable to catch up on their own.

I have since learnt that teaching interdisciplinary modules require a great deal of effort on the part of the instructors to engage students, spark an interest in them and to help them to see both the beauty and the value of what they are learning. If you can win students over and give them a positive perspective about the course, they will be happy and willing to do all kinds of things for their learning, and students will be more engaged in the assignments and tutorial activities.

Here are a couple of things that are essential to generate student interest in interdisciplinary modules:

(1) A personable instructor who can connect with students. This is essential especially for large modules on the blended-learning format, which is the norm for many common interdisciplinary modules offered here in NUS. The online learning experience can be cold and impersonal.

So, the instructor must try to connect with the students online in a very personal and warm way, through the various modes of communication. This humanises the online learning experience and makes the process a lot more pleasant to consume.

I have learnt is that it is important for the instructor to project a strong image of care (and of course, to act on it). Students are more receptive when they see that they have a lecturer who cares for their well-being and their learning. Simple things like making an attempt to remember students will go a long way.

I will also make visible all the effort I am doing to help them learn well – improving the videos or assignments, or grading their work. Firstly, this humanises me, which is very important in improving the experience of online learning. Secondly, when students see the effort their educators put, they will want to reciprocate the effort. This is evidenced by remarks that I often hear from my students such as, “I simply wanted to barely pass this module, but seeing you work so hard so that I can learn well, I feel that I must work just as hard not to let you down.”

(2) The purpose and value of interdisciplinary learning should not be communicated in a formal manner. Communicating the importance in an informal way generates the greatest impact because the message becomes very intimate and personal. One thing I do is to record a fortnightly chit-chat session which I insert as the first lecture video in the fortnightly series.

In these videos, I dress less formally to signal that it’s something different from our regular programme. I begin the video announcing the date and time just to let them know that it is not a video recycled from a previous semester. I will use the video as my way of checking in on them; talk about things in my life; and use it to address the more pertinent questions and concerns that students have raised.

This provides a platform to talk about the real-world applications of interdisciplinary learning or the applications of what I teach in my course. I share with them stories about my peers who have long graduated: how one of them could not fulfil his dream of being a journalist because he didn’t know Microsoft Excel when asked at an interview; or how half of my peers (7-8 years after graduation) are now required to learn coding at their work (even though they are working in non-technical roles). This makes a huge impact on the students, and it motivates them to take their learning more seriously.

I also use the fortnightly chit-chat video to praise and assure them that they are doing fine. It is more personal for them to see my face and hear my voice saying it, than to write it as an announcement. It makes them feel more confident in what they’re doing.

(3) Negative comments from seniors can severely affect the receptivity and openness to learning in the next semesters’ cohort of students. And similarly, if seniors have positive things to say about an interdisciplinary module, their juniors will be more open and receptive to learning. It is therefore important to ensure students get a good experience from the module since these students will very quickly become seniors themselves, and they will influence their juniors.

The efforts I invested in for the first two semesters (such as the strategies mentioned in (1) and (2) above, and the effort to ensure students enjoy the experience) started paying off in the third run of my course. My module had developed such a strong positive reputation within the student culture that juniors are so happy to learn in my module because they are surrounded by seniors who are just as happy to support them in their learning.

To aid in my attempts at shaping students’ receptivity towards my module, I have found it very useful to have a website showcasing the value of the module and students’ feedback about it. I also curated testimonies/feedback about how students secured their internships, or how they found their learning so applicable to their internship/work. This is important because students will search online about the course once they know they have been pre-allocated the module. If we are able to make a strong positive first impression on them, they will be more open and receptive to learning when the semester begins.

The efforts I discuss above proved very successful, and I was able to achieve significantly higher initial take-up rates, with about 60% of the cohort fully receptive and engaged in all the learning activities at the start of the semester. Overall, that cohort was a lot more receptive, and almost every student came to class well-prepared. And by the 7th week, about 80% were fully receptive in their learning.

Overall, students were won over by the expressions of care and concern for their learning, and the personal stories of how their seniors have to engage in work that demands an interdisciplinary mindset or approach. These help to generate interest in students to be fully engaged with the course.

This article is part of a series of articles on pedagogical methods and education.

Do you have any advice for those who are interning for the first time?

A student sent me this question:

Do you have any advice for those who are interning for the first time? I’ll be interning soon this summer and I’m afraid that I’d be clueless towards some very important things.

Yes I have some advice about what to do when you embark on an internship or your first job:

(1) First, you need to go in with a mindset change. I’m aware a lot of students think that they should do jobs where they know they are already good at (or think they’re able to do well in). This is a bad mindset. If you do this, you will have no room for development and growth. You’ll stagnate, or worse, regress!

So let me share with you the words a wise professor shared with me when I confided in him my worries about work after I graduated. He said, “When you go to school, you are paying to learn. When you go to work, you are being paid to learn.”

So, it’s all about being open to learning. Be hungry to learn and gain as many new experiences as possible. Don’t just do things that you’re comfortable with. You should at least have one project that’s outside your comfort zone to constantly challenge you to grow.

I have a personal philosophy when it comes to work: “Say yes first and figure it out later.” This has been my guiding principle for a lot of the new projects that I take on. I wouldn’t have gained such a wide array of experience and skills if I didn’t give these things a try.

The working world is very forgiving about failure, esp. if you work very closely with your supervisor, as that means that you have many opportunities to refine and improve the thing you do. This way, you’ll develop many achievements that you can proudly pin on your CV that will help you move on to your next job.

(2) Secondly, I’ve noticed that many students treat the work assigned to them like school assignments. So they’ll keep quiet and struggle to complete the task without consulting anyone. This is bad!

You need to have the humility to seek help from anyone and everyone. We owe our success to the people around us. And the most successful people are those who know how to seek help from people both inside and outside the organisation. This includes your supervisor, your colleagues, and even friends from school. You should NEVER struggle in silence, or just rely on Google.

To go far in your career, you must know how to tap on your social network – not just use them in a very utilitarian way for your own personal advantage, but to always collaborate and find win-win situations from everyone, esp. the people you seek help from.

Even when I started GET1050, I didn’t come in knowing everything that I taught. I didn’t know how to do data analysis or code in VBA. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos and also seeking help from friends. I also relied heavily on the first generation of TAs to help me come up with learning activities that would be fun and effective for students.

I know it’s very scary to go about doing things that you don’t know. But this relates back to the first point. Work means we’re being paid to learn, so we should do all we can to learn as much as possible by our own, and from the people around us. No challenge, no growth. So keep challenging yourself and learn from others.

(3) And this brings me to my third point: You must develop a close working relationship with your supervisor. Update him/her regularly (even if it doesn’t sound impressive), and seek clarifications when you’re unsure. You need to put yourself in your supervisor’s shoes. Imagine you’re a supervisor. If your subordinate doesn’t talk to you, would you know whether your subordinate is doing work? No. Would you be able to trust your subordinate when s/he’s silent most of the time? Again, no!

So you do need to talk to your supervisor regularly. Be proactive about it. Don’t wait. And do not give the excuse that you’re afraid of troubling your already-busy supervisor. It’s better to trouble him/her to clarify than to submit work that’s done completely wrong too close to the deadline. You’d be troubling him/her a lot more if you do that.

I’ll illustrate with a real incident: Not too long ago, someone did work for me. She had forgotten what I taught her and she didn’t consult me to clarify. She submitted work that was done wrongly. It was very close to the deadline for releasing something (she had one month to do it). And because of that, it was incredibly stressful for me as it meant that I had to give up on sleep and redo everything in about 20 hours to get the thing out on time.

It’s things like this that will sour your relationship with your supervisor.

So make it a point to update your supervisor on a regular basis. Not complete? That’s fine. Have the humility to report everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Have the humility to ask for clarification all the time. I’d rather have someone who clarifies and does the work correctly, then someone who doesn’t clarify and gives me the wrong thing at the end, only for me to redo everything.

One further point, trust is cultivated not by doing work well. Trust is cultivated by regular and quality communication. If you want your supervisor to let you in on more important tasks, or trust you enough to do other interesting projects, you need to cultivate that trust by checking in regularly and talking to him/her regularly. If you don’t dare communicate with your supervisor, it reflects badly on you as it shows that you don’t trust your own boss enough to seek help from him/her.

(4) Fourthly, don’t be passive and wait for your supervisor to give you work! Either ask for more if you feel you’re not being challenged enough, or better yet, take ownership and initiative to improve things on your own! Sometimes, they are unable to assess whether you are able to cope with the load, so they err on the side of caution. However, if your internship is too comfortable for you, it means that you’re wasting your time, because you don’t get to accomplish many things during your internship. You won’t have much to show on your CV.

Supervisors love it when you help to add value to the organisation on your own initiative. As it is, supervisors are already busy with their own workload, so it can be very difficult for them to find work to give you. If you are able to find other projects to busy yourself with (that will help your supervisor), oh you are going places!

Of course, don’t be too over-enthusiastic in wanting to change everything on Day 1. Spend the first week or two to understand EVERYTHING in the department – the people, what each one does, the kinds of problems they encounter, the problems your supervisor encounters, the kinds of problems you encounter in the course of your work, etc. Spend moments of each day thinking how you could improve the process, or what interventions can help make things better. And then find the time to share these ideas with your supervisor. S/he will really appreciate it, and can help give you deeper insights on the matter, and maybe connect you to other people to assist you with improving things.

Now, the things I said above may sound like common sense, but shockingly they are not practised by everyone (it’s human nature to be lazy or find the easy way out). So if you do these things, you will actually stand out in any and every organisation.

And I want to end by saying that good talent is actually rare and hard to find. Companies will do everything in their power to retain good talent if they come across one. If you do the things I mentioned above, you will not only gain the attention of your immediate supervisor, but also the attention of senior management. And they will go out of their way to take care of you. If it’s an internship, they’ll reserve a permanent position specially for you when you graduate.

This is already happening with some of my students. So it is well within your power to achieve all these when you go out for an internship. So go out and make us proud!

All the best!

How can I boost my CV/portfolio while studying without exhausting myself in the process?

A student asked me:

How can I boost my CV/portfolio while studying without exhausting myself in the process?

It’s practically not possible to do that. There’s 24 hours in a day, and if you want to do anything beyond academics, you will need to set aside time outside of your lessons to do that. It may mean less personal time, or less sleep (though I don’t recommend sleeping less). But the moral of the story is that something has to give way for you to be able to invest the time and energy for it.

One thing I did so that I didn’t exhaust myself too much would be to only take on projects I really enjoy. That way, I don’t find the work a chore, and I am very delighted to pour hours of my time on it.

In my first year of undergrad studies, I used to conduct language classes in the evenings after classes. It was fun (and earning money’s always fun), and my desire to teach better led me to read up more about different techniques for facilitation and public speaking.

From my second year onwards, I started to work as an undergraduate Research Assistant for one of my profs. And I was very passionate about the research area and that really helped me to grow and develop myself intellectually and academically in the process. I read hundreds of books, and I wasn’t complaining because I actually enjoyed it. And the research area overlapped with a lot of the modules that I took. So I didn’t actually have to read much for those modules because I already had the background knowledge and familiarity with many of those topics.

When I took over the leadership for the Philosophy Interest Group, I did a lot of work, but I wasn’t so exhausted nor did I consider it extra work because I thought it was a nice platform to make new friends and try to form a philosophical community, which was already something I personally aspired to make. So I never thought of it as extra work. I just did it because I enjoyed it and personally wanted those things.

And it’s only when I sit down to craft my CV did I realise, “Oh wow! I’ve done so much that boosted my portfolio!”

Now, what’s the point in sharing all these?

If you noticed, I didn’t specifically go out of my way to do things to boost my portfolio. I just took on things I enjoyed doing because I wanted to do them. This is a more organic way, and more importantly, the portfolio/CV that I craft at the end of it all is a true reflection of who I am and what I want to do with my career. I want to build communities, make new friends, learn and read up about the stuff I enjoy, and just teach things that I enjoy teaching. These are things I would prioritise in my life, and they overlap with the kind of work that I want to do.

So the moral of the story is: find opportunities that you actually want to do, or create the opportunities yourself to do the things you want to do. Don’t just do stuff for the sake of adding to your portfolio, especially if it leads you to do things so grudgingly or hesitantly. And I say this because I’ve encountered people who want the achievements, but they don’t want to do the work, or they don’t enjoy the work.

And if you don’t know what to do, then just try anything and everything that comes your way. At least you’ll discover for yourself what you can orcannot do, and what you like or dislike doing.

Some people tell me that university is the last time for us to be carefree young adults before entering the workforce, but shouldn’t I be studying for my future instead?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What does it mean to have a vibrant university life? Some people tell me that university is the last time for us to be carefree young adults before entering the workforce, but shouldn’t I be studying for my future instead?

You are right that you should be preparing yourself for the future. And that means developing yourself holistically. Grades aren’t everything. And if you make the mistake of only developing yourself academically, you run the risk of not developing every other aspects that matter when you go out to work. There are many graduates with fantastic grades who struggle to succeed in the working world. And many employers often complain that these people are very incompetent. If you only focus on grades, you only know how to read, memorise, analyse, and write.

Work is more than that. You need to convince and persuade others. You need to solve problems. You need to sell yourself and/or your company and its products/services to go far. You need to lead people, make decisions on behalf of the people under your charge. You need to work with people you can’t choose, some of whom you’ll have difficulties dealing with on a personal level because of their work styles or personalities.

University modules will provide you some opportunities to develop these from time to time. But there’s only so much your lecturers can do for you. To fully develop yourself, you’ll need to immerse yourself in the richness of student life. Go organise things, persuade people to join you to do stuff, and then advertise it so that other people will participate in it. The very act of doing these things will give you the experience you need to make it in the working world. And what’s most important of all is that these are opportunities for you to network and form real authentic friendships, many of which will last long after graduation. And you’ll discover that many years after graduation, these real and lasting friendships will prove essential when you need to create new leads or opportunities for your work.

And for that matter, the very act of socialising with a diverse group of people from different backgrounds will give you more insights into the varieties of people that you will have to deal with in the future, whether professionally or personally. And as you try to make new friends or form romantic relationships, every attempt adds to the rich tapestry of experience that will form you to be a more matured person. You will have a vast library of experiences you can tap into whether it’s dealing with people or work. And with these experiences, you are more than prepared to go out into the working world.

If you want to prepare yourself well for the future, my idea of a vibrant university life is to make as many friends as you can. And I mean genuine friends you can hangout and chit chat with, do stuff together and all. I don’t mean superficial hello-byebye friendships where you befriend people for utilitarian purposes. I’ve met people who make friends for that reason, and they come across as very sleazy because it’s very apparent that they’re not really interested in forming genuine friendships.

Some of the most incredible people I know back in my undergraduate days formed large networks of friends, it’s amazing to count the number of people they greet as they walk from the Arts Canteen to the Central Library. It’s like a 5 minute walk, and every few seconds, they bump into different people. It’s fun to enjoy one’s school life like that.

I’m more introverted, so I never really made friends to such an extent. But it’s always nice to bump into at least one person I know when I along that path. It’s nice to know that I’m going through this academic journey with friends.

Now, one thing I do strongly recommend you to do is to challenge yourself to join a society, club or interest group, and try to organise something at least once a semester. The more events you can organise, the better. It can be a CCA that you are already good at or something you are interested to learn. What’s more important is that you have the experience of organising things. It forces you out of your comfort zone to understand the administrative, logistics, operational, and marketing aspects required to get something done.

It’s a pretty accurate representation of what the working world is like. And those who are enriched by these experiences are more empowered when they go out to work as compared to those who didn’t enjoy such experiences.

How do I go about choosing my major or what field I should specialise in?

A student asked me:

How do I go about choosing my major or what field I should specialise in?

I am of the firm belief that you should major in a discipline that you enjoy and are very passionate about. For most people, university is their last stage of their education. So it’s all the more important to end it with something you enjoy. After all, the assignments are tough and very time consuming, so if you enjoy what you’re learning, it makes it a lot better. Otherwise, you’ll be spending 3-4 years suffering in misery learning something you have no interest in.

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again. Your major does not make you more or less employable. YOU make yourself employable. The soft skills of expression, of writing, of presenting, of persuading, of working together in a team, of leading others in a team, of being able to learn new things fast and on your own – these are more important than your major. These will determine whether you will get called up and succeed in an interview, and these soft skills will determine whether you will progress fast in your career or not.

The only reason why some majors look more employable is because certain disciplines tend to attract lots of people who are already very employable. They are very career-minded and self-driven. And with these same personal qualities, they would go just as far if they had taken another major. The issue really isn’t the major. It’s whether you bother to take the initiative to learn beyond your major, and to develop yourself professionally and intellectually.

Many of the assignments and modules you’ll take in University will try to prepare you in one way or another in many of the soft skills I listed above. Things like group project, etc., are already ample training grounds to hone these skills.

Lastly, I don’t recommend taking a major just because it is “practical.” What’s my issue with “practicality”? Well, this is speaking from observation. I’ve noticed that students (and my peers) who say they chose a “practical” major use this reason to give themselves a false sense of assurance that their future is secure. But what they don’t realise is that they often blackbox the entire thing, thinking that the having the name of their major printed on a piece of paper will do miracles for them, and so many of these students don’t actually develop themselves professionally and thus they go out into the working world unprepared and quite incompetent in what they do. Or in the case of my peers who lied to themselves that they had chosen a “practical” major, they ended up worrying about jobs and job security the same way as everyone else towards the end of their uni life. So the choice of their major really made no difference. It just made them feel comfortable for the first 3 years.

I also have issues with deciding a major based on whether or not it is “employable.” Employability will depend on the economic tides. In my time as an undergraduate, life sciences was the fad while computing was the dumping ground. Many of my peers took up life sciences in the hopes of making it rich, and very few took computing. Fast forward a few years later to today, now computing is the fad and all the life science graduates are having difficulties finding a job.

The same will go the way of computing/data analytics now that they are the “in” things. What many students don’t realise is that industries are very happy to drive more people into studying computing/data analytics because they want to increase the supply of talent so as to reduce the cost of manpower. Right now, such good talent are low in numbers and they are expensive to hire. By driving up the supply of talent, they can reduce salaries for such talent in the near future. This, by the way, is true of every discipline that gets caught up in the employability hype. Once the fad dies out, these majors will question the employability of their degrees once again.

Similarly, many chemical engineers are out of a job now because the oil and gas industry isn’t doing so well (it used to be booming so fantastically well years ago). Many Grab drivers I spoke to in the past year hail from the oil and gas industry. Some even hold PhDs in chemical engineering! What you study and the level of your qualification isn’t always everything. We’re all subject to the changing tides of the global economic situation.

So choosing a major based on “employability” is rubbish advice. What is employable now may not be employable in the future. And with the rise of AI and technology, experts cannot predict the next rising or failing industry

What is it that keeps those people employed in these shifting tides?

The same soft skills and qualities that I mentioned earlier. Why are they so important? Because these are the very qualities that enable an individual to add a lot of value to the organisation. It’s an intangible value that’s hard to measure, but it plays such a crucial role in the lifeblood of the organisation, whether it is the people and culture, or the business operations itself.

So once we’ve discounted “practicality” and “employability,” what are we left with? Well, like I said, it doesn’t matter what you major in. It’s the soft skills and people skills that matter waaaaaaay more than what you study in uni. So you might as well just choose a discipline that you enjoy learning. At least that way, when passion kicks in, you’ll gain so much more and those years of learning will be the best years of your life.

What advice do you have for someone who isn’t interested in dating or marriage in general but faces lots of parental pressure to do so?

A student sent me this question:

What advice do you have for someone who isn’t interested in dating or marriage in general but faces lots of parental pressure to do so? I don’t really have any interest in dating or marriage. I had some crushes while growing up but nothing much. I’m single currently (and I’m very pessimistic about finding a partner in the future because of circumstances) and I’ve tried to talk about this to my parents many times. But I still face a lot of pressure and sometimes I feel really annoyed.

My advice is to hold your ground firmly on your position. Even if you give in to parental pressure, the annoying questions will not go away. Once you start dating, the new annoying question will then be, “When are you getting married?” And once you get married, the annoying question will be, “When are you going to produce a baby?” Once you make one, the new annoying question is, “When are you going to make another?” And when the kids grow older, your parents will have yet more annoying questions to ask you. So in the grand scheme of things, the annoying questioning and pressure won’t ever go away.

So don’t cave in to the pressure.

There are three possible reasons why parents do shit like this. (1) The biggest reason is that they are concerned about your well-being and happiness. Even if you tell them that you are happy being single, they don’t believe it (because they’re married, so they don’t understand what it means to be happy being single, and they may not understand that it could ever be possible). But more importantly, marriage is seen as the rite of passage into becoming a full grown adult. There is some truth here. And in general, you will find that people who are married are more mature in certain things than single people (let me emphasise: in general – this may not be true for some). So parents do want the best for their children, and for them, it means seeing their children grow and mature in a path that they are familiar with (i.e. marriage). If this is their motivation, you can set their minds at ease by showing/demonstrating to them in the little and big ways how you’re more responsible and how you’re more sensible in your thinking. I find that once you start becoming responsible for other people and their future, the maturity sets in a lot faster (because you don’t have the luxury of time to procrastinate on it).

(2) The second possible reason is that as you grow older and spend less time with them, there will come a point in time where your parents struggle to find common conversational topics to sustain a conversation with you. And so the only thing that they know to talk about are the default questions. So what appears to be pressuring to get married is just an attempt at striking a conversation. Remember: a lot of people are very bad at social interaction. Many parents included. If you feel socially awkward, what more your parents? So if this is one of their motivations, then you can easily resolve this by just steering the conversation to other topics. They’ll be happy to just be able to talk to you about anything about your life or whatever.

(3) The third possible motivation is annoying. Just as how students like to compare and are afraid of losing out, some parents also compare. Some don’t actually like to compare, but they are surrounded by boastful parents who brag so much that they make your parents feel inadequate (just like how some students boast on social media about their achievements making some other students feel bad about themselves – seems like people don’t really change as they grow up, yea?). In such a case, the motivation is just insecurity or feelings of inadequacy. They probably won’t tell you that this is the motivation. After all, it’s embarrassing to say something like this. Nonetheless, be aware that this shit does happen behind the scenes with your parents and their peers.

The thing is this: you should never be a pawn for someone else’s insecurity. So if they are motivated for this reason, give them something else to be proud of. Your parents may not win on your dating/marriage front, but you can give them something else to be proud of, whether it is a work achievement or academic achievement. In some ways, this will give your parents some ammunition to fend off their annoying peers, or even make these arrogant people feel bad. So in some ways you’re helping your team to score. Haha!

I have this horrible half-uncle who loves to brag and boast about his achievements and the achievements of his children. He’s the most insecure and wretched human being I’ve ever met. He does it all the time without anyone asking. And I can see how he actively makes my parents feel inadequate by his endless bragging.

Anyway, when I appeared on Channel NewsAsia, my parents finally got some ammunition to make that horrible half-uncle feel less superior about himself. After that, he tried so hard to pressure his son to study Chinese Philosophy in order to compete with me. What a loser. But at the very least, even though I’m not on good terms with my parents, I got the satisfaction for scoring one for the team.

So stand firm to what you want. And try to discern the motivation behind the pressure. It could be one of the three I mentioned above (or a combination), or there could be other reasons that I might have missed. Whatever it is, getting into a relationship and marrying won’t stop your parents from pressuring you to do things. It’s more important to get to the heart of the issue.

Is it unethical to not tell my partner about previous episodes of anxiety/depression?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Is it unethical to not tell my partner about previous episodes of anxiety/depression? Should I just let my partner find out about it him/herself, or bring it up when I feel comfortable to share?

You should tell your partner about such things. If you want to be loved fully, if you want to have the security of being loved wholly for who you are – the good and bad sides of you – then you’ll need to reveal it and let your partner decide whether to love you or not.

If your partner is accepting of your past episodes of anxiety/depression, you’ll feel more secure in your relationship. If your partner doesn’t accept, then you know that this is not a relationship that will last in the long-term.

All that said, sometimes, your partner may not understand the degree or the full repercussions of what it means to undergo an episode of anxiety/depression. It’s important to use the time to educate and train him/her on how to manage the situation before the next one happens. It would also help to reduce the anxieties s/he may have about how to manage the relationship in the future if it were to happen.

It’s never a good idea to let your partner discover such things by himself/herself. Usually, if s/he were to discover it, it probably will happen when you’re having the next episode. S/he won’t understand what’s going on and will misinterpret and mishandle the entire situation, thereby further exacerbating your anxiety/depression.

How do I deal with my mother who says really horrible things about other people?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Lately, I’ve been feeling rather down because I have to deal with my toxic mother on a daily basis. Sometimes she says really horrible things about other people. And when I try to tell her that it’s not nice to say such things, she gets all defensive and scolds me instead for being rude. I really don’t know how much longer I can take it before I explode. Any advice?

Yes, I can totally feel your frustration!

I think for starters, it’s not helpful to try to fix or correct your mother. It’ll just breed a lot of frustration in you, especially when you approach the situation with the assumption that the problem can be fixed.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the older we get, the more frequent we’ll exercise our bad habits. And sometimes, they get more extreme. And this is especially so if we don’t always pay careful attention to how we behave.

Of course, these bad behaviours stem from somewhere. They don’t just come about with no explanation of their own. It’s probably motivated by some kind of insecurity or need. So rather than trying to make her stop, it would help to understand where she’s coming from when she says such nasty things. Is she putting people down just to make herself feel better because she’s not happy about her own state of existence? If not, what other things might be motivating her to behave this way?

That said, asking, “What’s bothering you?”, won’t normally give you the answer. Parents, especially Asian parents, feel that they shouldn’t burden their children with their problems. So many will just bottle it up without realising that it’s manifesting in other ways. So it takes a lot of time and patience and active listening (i.e. be very engaged in your conversations to try to understand her well) to be able to identify the issue.

Say for example, that the problem you’ve identified is that she doesn’t feel loved or appreciated, and that’s causing her to say such things. Then, if you’re able to fulfil this need of hers, then you might notice her saying less toxic things on a daily basis.

There may be a situation where a person is so toxic it’s beyond saving no matter how much you try. Do know that we can only do the best we can to help others, but at the end of the day, we are not the heroes or saviours of other people, no matter how much we love them. They have to want to save themselves before any real change can happen. They may sometimes feel that they are not in control of their actions (esp. if it’s a habit, it can be hard to control it), so at the very least letting them know that they have someone who loves them even when they don’t love themselves very much is already a huge thing.

(Yes, parents and other older folks still grapple with the same issues of self-esteem and self-love the same way many of us struggle with when young. It doesn’t magically go away when you become a parent or adult.)

I want to major in Philosophy but I’ve heard horror stories about job prospects. What are your peers who majored in philosophy doing after they’ve graduated?

A student asked me:

I want to major in Philosophy but I’ve heard horror stories about job prospects. What are your peers who majored in philosophy doing after they’ve graduated?

Most philosophy majors are working in the civil service, namely in the areas of policy and education. The philosophers I know have worked or are currently working in the Prime Minister’s Office, Customs, ICA, NEA, CPF, MOE, MOH, NAC, and the Centre for Strategic Futures.

There are also philosophers working in the private sector. Among those whom I personally know… There’s one who worked in OCBC immediately after graduation, no honours! There’s another is working in finance in Shanghai. Another works with a big German MNC as the regional head of HR. Another one became one of the senior HR persons in A*Star (that was years ago, I’m not sure what she’s doing now).

Several have gone on to work in big consultancy firms (with and without Honours). There’s one I know who’s working as a data analyst for Alibaba, another as a data analyst for the People’s Association, another one working in marketing for an Icelandic record company, and yet another one working in the gaming industry. I recently met one who’s a software developer. Some are working as managers in various university departments (NUS and beyond). Some have gone on to become entrepreneurs. Fun fact: ThaiExpress was founded by a philosopher!

Probably the 3 most famous philosophers are the ones that have gone into film-making. “Army Daze” was a film created by NUS philo alumnus, Michael Chiang. The award winning film, “Ilo Ilo” was produced by another NUS philo alumnus, Lai Weijie. And recently, another award winning film, “A Land Imagined” was written and directed by yet another philo alumnus and my batch mate, Yeo Siew Hua. This is the movie he kept dreaming of as an undergrad. So it’s pretty amazing that he finally realised his dream.

I think many of these horror stories are coming from ignorant people who lack the imagination of what a versatile major like Philosophy can do.

All the philo majors I know are doing pretty ok in life. And as you can see, some are living really exciting lives. If anything, this is testimony of the fact that a major in philosophy prepares you to do whatever it is you want to do in the future.

Are there any FASS majors that you think are at a disadvantage at getting employed after graduation?

A student asked:

Are there any FASS majors that you think are at a disadvantage at getting employed after graduation?

FASS produces about 1500 graduates each year. If FASS students cannot find jobs, Singapore will be struggling with major unemployment problems by now. But this isn’t happening because FASS majors are getting employed.

As a general degree, we can do most jobs. But, as a general degree, the onus is on you to figure out how to relate your training to your work. And to be clear, most people do work that’s unrelated to what they studied in university.

University is not a labour-producing factory where the aim is all about equipping you with skills. It’s about training you to be open and broad-minded leaders who can make sound decisions for the people you are responsible for. Whatever you learn, regardless of your major, you will gain many insights and transferable skills that will allow you to do well in any industry or profession of your choosing.

Some majors appear to be more employable. But we need to be clear about one issue: is it the major that makes students more employable? Or are more employable students attracted to certain majors?

From my own experience interacting with students, I will say it’s the latter. Whenever I open up opportunities for students, it’s always students from one particular major who will come forward (or it’s always students from one particular major who will consult me about their professional development). (There’s no point in me mentioning what that major is because it’ll distract from the main point of this answer.) Sure, I get a couple of students from other majors from time to time. But that one particular major is over-represented.

Can you attribute that thirst to their training in NUS? No. It’s all about character. These people are serious about wanting to push themselves and to gain a vast array of experience. These qualities are what makes them employable. And I am very certain that you could train them in the less popular majors, and they would still go far ahead in their careers because they are that self-driven to figure things out on their own, make the connections, and chase down every opportunity that comes their way.

These are the qualities that make you employable. Your major has nothing to do with it.

In fact, a few years down the road, no one’s going to care what you majored in. At best, they will ask about your degree (Arts? Science? Engineering?). But that’s about it. Your academic achievements, your CAP, your major – all these won’t matter very much a few years after graduation. It will all depend on whether you can perform well at work and what you’re able to achieve in and on behalf of the organisation. (Which is why you need to take your group projects seriously to learn these skills well)

Interestingly, the people who only know how to pursue straight As but don’t know how to do anything else will be the ones who will struggle to go far in their careers as they lack all the important life, work and social skills to survive in the work place.

As I said before: You make yourself employable, not your degree. So work hard to improve your people skills – how to work and manage difficult people, how to speak confidently, how to promote yourself, etc. These will make a difference in your employability.

When is a good time to start looking for insurance for myself and what types of insurance should I prioritise?

A student asked me:

When is a good time to start looking for insurance for myself and what types of insurance should I prioritise?

First of all, it’s important to understand the point of insurance. Insurance is a kind of risk management. The basic idea is that you pay a sum of money (a premium) for financial protection over an uncertainty that could result in a loss of money.

Let me explain. Let’s say you have a beautiful gold necklace that you want to buy from an overseas seller. You paid $10,000 for it and $100 for a super reliable courier service to transport the necklace to you. There is a possibility that the gold necklace could be lost in transit. Either the cargo plane may crash, the package may get stolen during transit at the airport, or the courier van may get hijacked. We don’t know. It’s unlikely but it could very well happen. And if it does, you lose $10,000.

It’s unlikely, but the fact that it could still happen can be rather unsettling. Wouldn’t be great if you can get some peace of mind knowing that if it does get lost, you still can recover your $10,000?

That’s what insurance companies are for! So an actuary (someone who calculates risks and determines how much to charge you) will do the math to decide how much you have to pay for that unlikely event that you do lose it (that will still be profitable for the company). Let’s say it costs you $90 to insure the delivery of the product. So if the gold necklace arrives to your home safe and sound, you only lose $90 and the insurance company profits. And if the gold necklace is lost, you get back your $10,000. Whatever it is, that sum of $10,000 is protected.

This is the main idea behind insurance. When you are buying insurance for yourself, you are insuring on the potential lost of income if you suddenly are unable to work normally due to accident or ill health; or lost of income for the entire family if you pass away before retirement. Or you might want to insure yourself against the potential costs involved in future medical treatments or to offset against the costs of paying for a caretaker.

For starters, you should get insurance to cover for death, accidents, and critical illnesses. The younger you sign up for this, the better, because you get to lock in that same annual price (known as the premium) for the duration of that coverage. The cost of the premium increases with age, so the older you get, the more expensive it will be to enroll.

So sign up early to keep the cost low. Of course, one of the difficulties is if you’re still a student, you’re not working, so you can’t afford. So I’ll say start looking around now and sign up the moment you get a job (I don’t believe in relying on your parents to pay for you).

Now, here’s the thing about insurance. It’s always tempting to want to insure yourself with the highest amount possible. And some unethical insurance agents will try to push you towards that (because the premiums will be higher and they’ll earn more commissions). So you need to ask yourself: what are the financial losses that you want to protect against? In the event of death, you want to at least cover the cost of funeral arrangements. If it’s the against accidents/illnesses that will cause you to lose your ability to function, what’s a reasonable amount of money required to support yourself? There are statistics on the average age where people succumb to certain illnesses that are disabling. So you can use that as a gauge to do a rough calculation.

Now, there’s another issue you need to consider. Some people sign up for the highest coverage thinking that they can pay the premiums forever. But your present spending ability is not an indicator of how much you will be able to spend in the future. If you get retrenched and have many mouths to feed at home, you may not be able to afford the premiums and will have to cancel the insurance coverage (and it’ll cost too much to sign up again). This, by the way, happened to my dad who got retrenched in 1997. He now goes through life with zero insurance coverage.

So be prudent about the coverage and premiums, with considerations about your ability to pay for them in the future.

The last thing I’ll say is: I strongly do not recommend investment-linked insurance policies. It’s a lot cheaper to buy a term insurance and do your own investments than it is to buy an investment-linked insurance policy. You save a loooooooot more money in the long term. The way they market it, it sounds like a really good deal, and it sounds good only because most people don’t know anything about investments, and so they cannot imagine how things can be better. It looks like you’re getting a good deal, but that’s because they’re playing with a psychological trick to make it seem like you’re getting a good deal. But the truth is, you’re not .If you learn how to do the investments yourself, you can make way more money even after deducting the cost of insurance from a term plan. So don’t be lazy. Go learn how to invest. Don’t leave it to an insurance policy to do it for you.

And there are many other issues with investment-linked insurance policies. Many of them will lock the money in for a very long period of time. And if you need to cash out because of some urgent life need, you will lose certain privileges that await you at the end of the policy decades later. So you don’t have the same kind of flexibility as having money parked elsewhere (either in a bank or in shares/bonds). And because the premiums for such investment-linked policies are so much higher, if you find yourself in a financially difficult situation in the future, you will be more inclined to cancel completely and lose your coverage. Term plans are a lot cheaper, and you won’t feel so financially suffocated even in financially difficult times.

Now I’m not the best person to talk to for advice on what exact insurance policies to buy. There are people who are more in the know than I am. For starters, you should find people who are financial advisors not tied to any single insurance company. They are free to show you a range of insurance products from all the insurance companies in Singapore. Use the time to learn from them. And more importantly, don’t feel bad that you have to sign up for something. They are just doing their jobs, and you are just trying to be a sensible customer. You can buy them a drink if you want.

And like I said, be wary of agents who tell you to sign up for the highest coverage possible or who try to scare you about the doom and gloom of death and diseases. You should lodge a complaint about them. And if you find yourself in an unfortunate situation where you got pressured into signing a policy you don’t want, you have up to 12 days to refund the policy behind their backs.

Am I considered inadequate if I fair poorly in school? A lot of people around me seem to be doing very well academically except for me and it takes a hit on my self-worth.

A student sent me this question:

Am I considered inadequate if I fair poorly in school? A lot of people around me seem to be doing very well academically except for me and it takes a hit on my self-worth.

There’s a bit of a sampling bias going on. The ones who are doing well academically will, of course talk about it because it’s something to be proud of, so it isn’t something to hide. But everyone else will be silent about it because it doesn’t look good on them. So you’re only noticing the voices of the few and you’re forgetting about the silence of the many.

Imagine if I bring together all the creatures in the world – bugs, fishes, birds, reptiles, mammals – and I enroll them in the National University of Squirrels. Suppose there’s a module called NUT1101 that aims to teach and assess your ability to do basic squirrel-y things.

Who will score well? Squirrels, of course. And then many mammals will do well too.

Who will do badly? Elephants, fish, ants, etc. Sure, the fish flopped the module, but are we to say that the fish is inferior? No, not at all. The fish will excel in some fishy things if given a chance. But here, the fish is subject to squirrel-based testing, which is it not so well-inclined to do.

Should the fish be ashamed that it can’t do squirrel things? No. Should it feel any less in terms of self-worth? No, not at all. It makes no sense for a fish to feel bad about itself for not being able to perform like a squirrel. But if the fish isn’t aware of its own fish-prowess, it may go away with the thought that it’s a bad fish and think of itself less.

But you and I know that it makes no sense for the fish to feel that way. It has its own fishy excellence.

The same with school. The fact that you already made it to University is already a huge achievement to be proud of. However, academic assessments and grades pertain to only one of many standards of excellence/competence. Whether you can or cannot perform in school shouldn’t make you feel bad. It just means that academic achievements it not your thing. You are being tested for squirrel excellence in school. If you’re a squirrel, it’ll be relatively easier to score. If you’re a mouse, you’ll struggle a lot, but if you’re willing to work very very hard, you might perform as well as the squirrel. If you’re a fish or an elephant, you’re in for a bad time. But the fish has its own excellence, the elephant has its own excellence, and you have your own excellence. So don’t feel bad. It takes time and lots of real world experience to discover your excellence if you still don’t know what it is.

But whatever it is, self-worth should never be tied to your ability. You are not a machine or a tool where your worthiness to be kept is measured by your efficiency.

You are a human. You are your own person in charge of your own destiny. Your self-worth is dependent on how much you are able to accept yourself for who you are – the good, the bad, and the ugly; your excellence, your achievements, your competencies, and at the same time, your weaknesses, your faults, and your failings. Knowing how to accept yourself in spite of the negative things that you may be ashamed of and to be able to embrace and say, “I’m ok with that,” or better yet, “I love this person because this is the best person that I can possibly be at this point in my life” – that really determines your self-worth.

All these external measures are distractions from our own self-acceptance. It’s precisely because many of us have difficulties accepting and loving ourselves, and so we doubt our own self-worth. And we go about seeking other things, external measures like grades, salaries, etc., to make us feel better about ourselves. It will never be enough. There are other people who doubt their self-worth but they score good grades, and they have found other things that take a hit on their self-worth, be it their looks, their family background, their work experience, etc. There really is no end.

Self-worth comes from within. So let me end by saying this: You are awesome and unique by the very fact that you exist, and your existence already makes a positive impact in the lives of some people!

Stay awesome! :)

How would you advise someone to deal with stress if they are on a very tight schedule and can’t really go on walks and breaks?

A student asked:

Is it possible to feel sudden surges of stress? How would you advise someone to deal with it if they are on a very tight schedule and can’t really go on walks and breaks?

Yes, it’s very possible to feel sudden surges of stress. I get it too from time to time.

My advice is to stop telling yourself that you can’t go on walks and breaks. This is actually why you feel stressed. It’s not just that you have work to complete, but you also feel a certain helplessness, like you have no control over your life to decide when you can rest. But the truth is, you need the rest, and you do have control. You just have to go for breaks/rest even if you feel guilty about it.

I used to feel guilty about taking breaks when I was an undergraduate. But look what it did to me? I went to the hospital thrice in my final year. Not fun at all. In the end, I realised I could still get the work done and on time even after taking breaks and sleeping at proper hours. So it’s not necessarily true that you’re more productive if you spend more hours working.

The more exhausted you are, the less productive you’ll be, and then you’ll feel more stressed because you’ll find yourself in a situation where you just can’t meet deadlines no matter how much you force yourself. It’s a vicious cycle.

Rest is essential to productivity. Stress is a sign from your body that you need to take a break – mental and physical break – so that your body can recover from work so that you can return with a fresh mind to be more productive.

We live in a time where our culture promotes a lot of unhealthy stress-coping habits, like eating junk food, or compulsive online shopping, etc. As much as possible, such things to cope with stress. It’s not healthy. I’m saying this as someone who unfortunately succumbs to this regularly because of stress (it’s something I’m trying to get out of). It’s better in the long term to have healthier habits like exercise and sleep to recover than to cope with stress through food and consumerism.

Remember: We work to survive and to enjoy our lives. So it becomes quite pointless if you end up working so hard that you undermine your own survival and quality of life in the long-term by sabotaging your health. All that money you worked so hard for will end up being spent on medical bills, or worse… There’s no sense in that.

So please force yourself to take breaks, go out with friends, enjoy a good meal and/or a good walk. Do stuff that doesn’t involve staring at a screen. The least you can do is to schedule your breaks for each day so you don’t feel so bad about it. Take care!

Would you say that it’s important to read a lot?

A student sent me this question:

Would you say that it’s important to read a lot?

Yes, it’s super important to read a lot! You should read widely on a variety of issues. Especially on things that you have no idea about or have little interest in (if you’re worried about boring books, at least find a book on that topic that people have said is an interesting read).

And I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t really like to read very much. I mean, I’d rather watch TV. But I do read a lot now because I’ve come to realise how important it is. What got me to take reading very seriously was when I worked in another university years ago and had to engage in discussions with the top academics, policy-makers, and other thought leaders. From my discussions with them, I realised one important fact: they are where they are because they read a lot (some of them read 3 or even 5 books at a time per week despite their busy schedules) and that gives them a lot of food for thought to connect many different ideas together and say, “Ah ha! Why don’t we try this to solve that problem?” That’s how they got to where they are.

A book is the fastest way (for now) for a person to take in and absorb another person’s wisdom, expertise, experience, and insight. The more you read, the more of these you collect into your mind. In other words, you can gain a lot of experience and wisdom without having to go through them yourself.

And it’s important to understand that knowledge is power. Knowledge liberates you from the chains of ignorance. For example, many students say they don’t know what to do after graduation. Ignorance of the kinds of work out there is the key reason why students don’t know what’s out there. So just reading up more about industries and what organisations are doing, or what people are doing to make a difference in this world, will already give you the knowledge and insight of the possibilities that you can explore. This brings you from “I don’t know what to do” to a state where you can say, “I’m excited by these possibilities that’s out there.” When you acquire peoples’ experiences through reading, you become able to see possibilities that you never thought possible before. You learn from their mistakes and successes, their considerations and regrets – so that you can avoid the mistakes they made, and explore the paths that they have tried. It is very empowering to gather such information into your consciousness.

Just think about it… If you read just 10 books, you’ve gained the insights, wisdom, expertise, and experience from 10 different people! What more if you do what these successful people do by reading regularly? How many peoples’ experiences, wisdom, and insight have they acquired across their lifetime? So don’t delay. Read a book!

If you want something to begin with, I highly recommend “Lunch with the Financial Times: 52 Classic Interviews.” It’s a very good read of 52 interviews that will spark your mind to think about all kinds of things about the world, society, culture, and life.

What should I do when all my friends have internships or job opportunities? I can’t help but feel very anxious and scared for my future.

A student asked:

I’m in my third year now, and many of my friends have internships or job opportunities. I can’t help but feel very anxious and scared for my future.

I don’t really have very high ambitions. I just hope to secure a job in my field when I graduate. To work on that, I’ve been taking up opportunities that help to boost my resume. But still, I always feel that I’m not good enough and quite lousy compared to other people.

Do you have any advice on what I can do right now? Should I pick up more skills so it helps to increase my chances of employment or something?

I have some advice:

(1) First, please stop looking at peoples’ profiles on LinkedIn. Don’t compare because everyone’s different, and everyone excels in different ways. No matter how good you are, there will always be someone better than you in one way or another. And we always ignore the fact that we are better than those people in other areas.

Also, my friend who works in the financial sector alerted me that recently, a lot of insecure graduates have been lying on their CVs. It’s got so bad that HR had to implement tests to see if people really know how to do the stuff they said on their CVs. So odds are, many of those very impressive LinkedIn profiles are full of rubbish, or at best half-truths. For example, someone boasts on LinkedIn for having two internships that simultaneously last for one month? Probably an exaggeration. So I wouldn’t think too much about that.

(2) While I think it’s ok to still feel lost about what to do, I really hope that you can challenge yourself to aim higher. Just securing a job is a very low bar. Everyone can get a job in a reasonable amount of time regardless of your education qualification (so that really shouldn’t be your worry right now). If you can (and you really should strive for it), I recommend spending the time to understand the kinds of jobs that’s out there. The world now is nothing like what we learnt in kindergarten/primary school, where there’s fireman, policeman, teacher, banker, chef, etc. It’s a lot more nuanced. It will help to find a sector that you find exciting, or fulfilling; or perhaps a particular category of tasks or processes that you think might be fulfilling or satisfying.

Because right now, you are limited by your understanding of what’s out there. That vast unknown is what makes life after graduation seem so scary. And it’s natural to feel that your degree is not enough, or the skills you have are not enough. And for that matter, the opportunities that you are looking at are precisely the same opportunities that everyone around you can picture and that’s why those opportunities are quite competitive and limited. And because so many people are fighting for those same opportunities, there are many other opportunities where no one’s applying for – even in this economic situation we’re in. You might have seen some job listings where you think you’re not cut out for it because you have no idea what it’s about (or they might sound intimidating to you). Then you should read up more to find out what it’s about. Knowledge is power. The more you know, the less intimidated and worried you’ll be. You’ll be surprised to learn how many of these jobs can be done by you if you are willing to learn and read up more.

(3) While it’s good to learn skills, I think what you need is to get your feet wet and try working a job or an internship. Or even if it’s to promote your own freelance business. Just do something to make money. It’ll be a good start. I know people who use “learning skills” as an excuse not to take the plunge into the working world. And I know some people who delay working for years because they don’t feel ready until they’ve taken this and that course. It looks like you’re doing something productive, but it’s actually a form of procrastination from doing the necessary – actually experiencing the working world for yourself.

Between a person with a CV full of certificates (of skills) and a person with only one skill but with some work experience, I’ll take the person with work experience. Learning a skill is one thing. Knowing how to practice it at work is a different thing altogether.

Do bad habits die off as one grows older because people mature and grow wiser as they age?

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m dating someone who loved drinking and was a clubber and didn’t want any responsibilities when we were quite younger. Do you think that such habits die off as one grows older because people mature and grow wiser as they age? I’m worried that these habits don’t die and I am scared of raising a family with someone who behaves like this.

I think the sad reality is that many adults grow old physically, but they don’t actually mature very much in their thinking, how they manage their emotions, and how they handle responsibilities.

Maturity does not come automatically with age. It develops through a conscious effort to want to be a better person.

If you’re worried about whether your partner will become a more responsible person in the future, then you have to ask yourself whether s/he is taking conscious steps to be a better person, and not just avoiding certain things only because you told him/her not to do them. If s/he is putting in a lot of conscious, deliberate effort to be a better person, like taking on responsibilities, etc., then it’s a good sign. For now, you shouldn’t worry if s/he’s failing at those attempts. It’s normal to struggle at being a better person. The first couple of times, we’ll screw up. But the more we try, the better we get.

You can talk to him/her about this about how you’d like for both of you to strive to be better persons, and see where s/he goes with this. It’s important that you do not actively change your partner by your own actions (like controlling him or scolding him/her). The more you do this, the more your partner will outwardly comply and practice those habits in the dark away from you just to appease you. As I have said before, your partner must want actively want to will it for the sake of your future together.

If s/he agrees and tries his/her best to be better, then you can be assured that this person has the sense to want to mature and grow to be a responsible person with you.

How do I start taking charge of my savings?

A student asked me this question:

How do I start taking charge of my savings? Financial literacy looks so daunting that I have no idea where to begin!

first of all, we need to be clear about why we’re saving money. Saving money just for the sake of having more money lacks strategy, purpose, and direction on what the money should be used for.

So here are a couple of savings objectives that you should plan for:

(1) Rainy day fund. This should be the first goal to work towards. You need to save at least 6x your monthly expenses. So if you spend $2000 a month, your goal is to have $12,000 in your bank in case of a financially difficult situation. This fund is meant to cover you in the event you get unemployed. Most people take up to 6 months to get a new job after losing their jobs, hence the multiplier of six.

The older you get, the more responsibilities and commitments you’ll have. And this may mean that your monthly expenses may increase. For example, as a student, your monthly expenses now may just be $400 a month. As a young working adult with bills to pay, maybe $800 a month. As a parent with two mouths to feed, maybe $2500 a month. So you’ll need to adjust this rainy day fund as your life situation changes.

(2) Sinking fund. A portion of your savings should be set aside each month to pay for the future replacement of essential expensive items, like laptop or smartphones. This way, you won’t feel like it’s a huge heart pain when the time comes for you to buy a replacement. When you don’t plan for these kinds of things, it will be psychologically very difficult to make some of these purchases in the future, or you’ll make compromises just to save every dollar possible to make it happen. That’s irrational behaviour due to a lack of foresight. The reality is that there are expensive things that we have to pay to replace every now and then. So it’s important to set money aside for that eventuality.

How do you decide how much to set aside for your sinking fund? Let me use the example of my Macbook Pro. I bought my Macbook with the intention of replacing it in 5 years time. A Macbook costs about $2200. So basically, I’ll set aside $2200 / (5 x 12) = $36.67 a month for the next five years to save for a new replacement.

In the future, your sinking fund should include things like expensive home appliances (refrigerators, or even home renovation in 10 years). Let’s say I buy a $1000 refrigerator with the intention of replacing it in 10 years time. So I’ll need to say aside $1000 / (10 x 12) = $8.33 a month to save up for a new replacement refrigerator.

The same concept can also be applied to periodic expenses like a holiday. If you want to play a holiday 2 years from now, then you’ll do a budget estimate and divide that by 2 x 12 = 24 months, so you know how much to set aside.

(3) Saving for Milestone Events like Wedding, Housing, and your first Home Renovation. This can be the most daunting for many, because these things aren’t cheap!

For reference, my wedding cost $45,000. Housing deposit is 10-20% of the total price of the flat depending on the loan you take. In my case, the deposit we paid was around $45,000. My home renovation cost another $45,000.

Of course, this can seem very scary and daunting. But the reality is if you work a few years, you would have accumulated enough money in your savings and CPF. In my case, we acquired enough money in our CPF to pay for the housing deposit.

With weddings, you can defray some of the total expenditure with ang bao collection. But DO NOT put blind faith in the hopes that you’ll get enough ang bao to defray 100%. People like to say things like that, but it doesn’t always happen.

Anyway, after you’ve accomplished saving up to build your rainy day fund, you can start saving towards paying for these expensive milestone events.

(4) Retirement fund. Woah… I know that many of you haven’t even started working. So the idea of planning for retirement sounds crazy. It’s so far away, it’s hard to even imagine it. But it’s important to plan for retirement as early as possible because you really need the time to accumulate all that wealth.

The basic idea behind retirement planning is to save enough money that you can support yourself until you die.

Suppose the retirement age is 67, and most people die at 90. Let’s imagine that to live a comfortable life, your expenses is $2000 a month. So you’ll need to save enough money to support your expenses for the next 23 years of your retired existence. That comes up to $2000 x (23 x 12) = $552,000.

Note that I’m keeping things simple for the sake of explanation by not factoring in rising cost of living, inflation, etc. Once you factor all those things in, it’ll be much much more than $550k.

Of course, the reality is, with the advancements of science and technology, we are expecting people to live even longer than 90 years old. Maybe 100 or even longer than that. And if you live longer than what you’ve saved, you’re in for trouble, because you will not be able to support yourself.

Now, mandatory savings like CPF will help fund your retirement, but going with the default option won’t be enough.

So the ideal situation is to accumulate enough wealth that the money does the work of generating more money for you. As a general rule of thumb, you should aim to save AT LEAST 25 years worth of your monthly expenses. Why?

For example, if you spend $2000 a month, you’ll need to save $2000 x (25 x 12) = $600,000.

There are many low to medium-low risk investment products out there that can generate a sizeable interest rate of 4%. It’s not much but you can be assured your money doesn’t disappear without a warning.

At a 4% interest rate, $600,000 will generate an interest of $24,000! And if you divide that up by 12 months, you’ll get $2000 a month to support your day-to-day living. You don’t even need to touch the principal sum of $600,000. It’ll continue to sit there and produce $24,000 for you each year.

Now, I say at least 25 years’ worth of your monthly expenses. If you can aim higher, you should. Why? Because these numbers do not factor for things like inflation and increased cost of living. So $2000 now might support your lifestyle quite comfortably, but it may not be enough to support a comfortable life when you retire.

Of course, right now, you must be thinking, how the hell am I supposed to make so much money?

So this is where we come to issues of budgeting and financial planning.

(A) The first rule of thumb is that you ought to save AT LEAST 20% of your salary. Let’s say your salary is a somewhat modest $3000 a month. 20% of $3000 is $600. If we go with the $600,000 retirement goal (remember: the $600k is not a magic number, it’s just an example I used earlier), and assuming your salary stays the same, you’ll need 60 years to accumulate this much money if you just go with a savings plan that gives you a 1% compounding interest.

Of course, the hope is that your salary will keep increasing year after year, in which case you can acquire $600,000 before retirement. But the harsh reality is that if you get retrenched in your mid/late 40s and 50s, it’s hard to find a job that will pay you as much.

So don’t leave it to wishful thinking. We need to do better than just save 20% of our salary each month. If you can, you should aim to save even more than that.

(B) The next rule is to treat all savings as an expenditure in your budget. So you are “paying” yourself for those future things, in a certain sense. This is important more for your psychology. We treat money set aside for savings very differently from money leftover in the balance. If you go with a save-the-remaining-balance mentality, it becomes a lot easier to lie to yourself that you can make up for the past month’s over-expenditure. From my own personal failings, I can tell you it rarely happens. So don’t lie to yourself. Many of us lack financial discipline to manage our spending. So, set the money aside so that you won’t touch it.

(C) If you don’t already have a monthly budget, the next rule is to create a budget so that you can have a sense of how much you need to reduce your expenditure, and how far away you are from those savings goals I talked about earlier.

So let’s use the modest salary of $3000 a month for a typical fresh graduate who just entered the workforce. 20% of your monthly salary gets automatically channelled into CPF, so you’re effectively left with $2400 to use each month.

So let’s start budgeting the remainder:

– $600 – is the minimum 20% of your salary that you should save. This goes towards building your rainy day fund; and then your milestone events like wedding, housing, renovations; and finally towards your retirement.

– $100 – sinking fund to pay for a replacement laptop (replace in 5 years) and smartphone (replace in 2 years)

– $40 – handphone bill

– $660 – food and transportation

– $300 – filial piety levy, i.e. money you give to your parents

– $500 – pay off university education loan

– $200 – insurance

Total: $2400

What do you notice? There isn’t much room to spare to do more. If you are the lucky few whose parents are paying your education fee, or if your parents don’t require you don’t give them an allowance, then you’ll have slightly more wiggle room to spend or save.

But don’t forget that your financial commitments will increase once you get married and have kids. You’ll have more expenses to add to your budget. And usually the first thing to go will be your savings.

If you feel worried that you can’t make enough money for the future, good. But no reason to panic or despair.

In my case, I’ve worked for 7 years. And I actually earned $3000 a month for the first couple of years. I was able to save enough to pay off my university education loan, pay all my bills, and pay for my wedding, housing, and home renovations, and still go for holidays overseas from time to time.

So it’s not impossible. It just means spending within your means. You’ve probably seen young working adults living lavish lifestyles on Instagram. If you do the math on how much they’re spending – regardless of whether they’re earning $4000 or $5000 – you’d realise that they’re still spending beyond their means. Based on my estimates, some of them are not even saving the minimum 20%!

The point I’m making here is: don’t envy their lives. They are going down the path of financial ruin in the future. You can live comfortably and happily even if you spend within your means. And you’ll probably be happier off in the future compared to them.

(D) Now, if you do the math, you’ll realise that there’s really no way to hit the retirement target, especially if you’re busy spending the first 10 years of your life building your rainy day fund, or saving for wedding, housing, and renovations.

Getting a higher paid job is not the magical solution. It will help you, yes. But be aware that many companies with very high starting salaries have very low salary increments over the years. So you may not be earning as much as other jobs with lower starting salaries. Also, the more highly paid you get, the more likely you are to get retrenched, especially when you hit your 40s and 50s. High rewards (pay) often come with high risks. That’s just how it is. I’m putting it out here so that you are aware of the risks.

So what then can you do? Saving money alone can’t get you anywhere near the targets. You can try to reduce your expenses. You’ll be suprised how much more you can save if you choose to spend less on food and shopping.

BUT, there’s only so much you can reduce. And if you reduce too much, then you might feel very miserable. No point making yourself very miserable for decades just so you can retire with a substantial amount of money. It doesn’t quite make sense to live like that.

So you’ll need to explore additional sources of income. For starters, a side hustle that will help you make some money on the side is one option to explore. But it can be very time consuming and exhausting. It’s worth exploring activities that don’t consume too much time that can help to generate some additional income insofar as it doesn’t conflict with your main job.

A better option would be to explore ways of generating passive income, things like investments. As you know, banks pay a very pathetic interest that does not grow your money to beat inflation. So you’re effectively losing money by putting it in the bank. So you want to find other investment products like bonds, ETFs, shares, etc., that can help grow your money. Money generates more money. More money generates even more money. So the earlier you start, the more capital you’ll acquire to help you work towards your retirement.

Ok, I hope this was eye-opening. I do hope that you’ll start planning your finances wisely.