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

A student asked me this question:

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

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

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

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

How do you welcome changes in life?

A student asked:

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

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 The idea of who we are in our heads is nothing but an outdated static snapshot of ourselves the last time we asked that question.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

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

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

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

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

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

A student asked:

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

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

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

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

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

How do I confess my love to someone?

A student asked me:

How do I confess my love to someone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student wrote to me with this question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is emotional maturity.

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

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

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

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

A student wrote to me with this question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s some conversational starting questions you can ask:

“What did you do last weekend?”

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

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

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

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

Give it a try!

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

A student asked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do I get better grades in school?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do I get better grades in school?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student asked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student wrote to me, asking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student asked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student asked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How far do you think a person can try to accommodate or tweak their habits for their partner before it becomes inorganic or that they are forced to become someone they don’t wanna be?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How far do you think a person can try to accommodate or tweak their habits for their partner before it becomes inorganic or that they are forced to become someone they don’t wanna be?

I get that sometimes we got to change our ways and allow for a significant other to come into our lives, but is there an extent to which one could radically change because of that, and lose themselves in the meantime?

I totally understand your question because I’ve had a past experience of changing too much for the other that I became much less of who I am, and it was affecting me a lot emotionally, and ultimately how I responded in the relationship.

In my view, there are three categories of change to ourselves or habits that we might have to deal with in a relationship:

(1) Change that’s inconsequential to yourself as a person. Especially when we have to spend a lot of time together, either working/studying or living together, it’s the little things that we do that can drive the other person crazy. Many of these things are inconsequential to our being as a person. For example, you might be the kind of person who likes to leave dishes in the sink and not wash them until night, but your partner is the kind that demands dishes be washed immediately. It doesn’t change you as a person to make a sacrifice like that to accommodate living with your partner. There are many things that fall under this category, and they usually have to do with hygiene and issues of cleanliness. I’d say, do what you can. Doesn’t cost much other than a little effort to make the other happy.

(2) Then there’s change that makes you a better version of yourself. I’m very careful to word it as a “better version” rather than a “better person,” because here the change is not about being someone else, but being someone better. Things like correcting bad habits, challenging yourself to be more enterprising, etc. A good partner is one who reminds you, maybe even nags you to be better, to do better. But if your partner begins to treat you like a personal pet project for a personality makeover in this category of change, that’s dangerous. It won’t end well. Such change must come from within yourself. If it’s forced from outside of you, you will only resent what you’re being put through even though your partner has the best of intentions. I used to spend a lot of money on things whenever I got very stressed with work, and my partner helped me to break that habit by nagging me about how bad such purchases are, and how I must not give in to filling the void in this way. Eventually I broke out of it, and I am a better person because now I am more conscious about saving money. So these kinds of changes are good for you, and you should embrace it.

(3) The third category is change that makes you less of who you are. And this is the kind of change that you must resist at all cost because it will make you very miserable (maybe even very regretful), and it’ll also affect your attitudes/feelings towards the relationship. I was once in a relationship where my partner was very clingy. She wanted to spend as much time as possible with me, and she’d make me feel guilty whenever I spend time with friends, or go out to do things I like (hobby interest groups, etc.). She hated doing all those things and so I couldn’t bring her to share in my interests. And because I felt so guilty, I gave up many friendships and many interests that I used to have. In fact, one thing that pained me so much was to give up my hobby and passion in writing. I used to write a thousand words every single day. But I gave all that up for her. My thought at that time was that I should give up these things because her happiness is important to the happiness of the relationship. But over time, it made me feel very miserable and quite dead inside. I had to occasionally use the excuse that I’m busy with work just to find time to pursue my own interests. That’s not healthy. A large part of me felt so empty not being able to do the things I enjoy doing, of not doing the things I want to do because of who I am as a person. That lingering unhappiness affected the relationship a lot.

I talked to someone about this problem, and she said, “If she’s not happy that you are busy doing what you need to do to be yourself, then that’s her problem. It’s her happiness, and she’s responsible for it, not you.” There’s a lot of truth to this. Changing who you are, becoming less of who you are just to make your partner happy is a no-deal. Because if you yourself are unhappy, then you won’t be responding to your partner in a happy way. And the whole relationship won’t be very happy. So you’re not doing your partner a favour by sacrificing and changing yourself in this way. You must retain your interests, your passions, and your friendships. If your partner is unhappy that you’re not spending enough time, then your partner has to learn to deal with it, or at least come to a compromise where you’re giving your partner enough time, care, and attention.

Is it true that a relationship can only work if two people have opposite personalities?

A student asked:

Is it true that a relationship can only work if two people have opposite personalities, e.g. introvert and extrovert?

This is not true at all. But I want to highlight a problem with this belief. No matter how similar a couple may be, it’s always the differences (no matter how minute) that will catch the couple’s attention. Similarities don’t draw attention because they look quite ordinary to us. They don’t have the potential to cause conflict. And so we can go by for weeks, months, and even years not realising just how crazy similar we may be.

But differences catch our attention like a thorn in our side. So it’ll always look like a pairing of opposite personalities, regardless of how similar a couple may be.

What makes a relationship work is open and honest communication. Don’t keep secrets, don’t hide your feelings about things, try to make it easier for your partner to want to discuss difficult topics. You need to be able to do this if you want the relationship to work.

Why am I saying this? Because our differences will tend to be the point of contention in many aspects of the relationship. If we don’t learn to manage our differences amicably, then there will be problems with the relationship.

Avoiding these problems due to differences won’t help any of you at all. The relationship will stagnate on the appearance of it seeming to work when there are deeper problems waiting to be addressed. It’s a ticking time bomb if difficulty or conflictive issues are left undiscussed for a long time. Eventually, some event will trigger a huge argument, and often times, one side will say something that s/he can never take back. And that would fatally wound the relationship, perhaps in ways that you both won’t be able to recover.

Do looks matter in a relationship?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Do looks matter in a relationship?

The answer is no. I’ve seen unattractive and even fugly people in happy long-term relationships.

There is a lot of truth in the story, “Beauty and the Beast”: if you spend a very long amount of time with someone, even if that person is ugly as hell (like a beast), you will eventually see the beauty in that person, and grow attracted to him/her.

Unless one is a narcissist who only wants to parade his/her trophy girlfriend/boyfriend, people are more likely to want a long-term relationship with a less attractive person with a good personality, than an attractive person with a bad personality.

Realistically, as the years go by, everyone will age and look unattractive anyway. So what will keep the relationship going is the personality.

Also, in a relationship, your partner will pervade many aspects of your life. Looks don’t matter here. What matters is the partner’s personality and character. Someone with an awful personality will negatively affect you 24/7. So don’t be superficial and be attracted to only good looks. Think of the long-term.

A marriage is supposed to be a friendship taken to a whole new level. A good personality helps with that. Lastly, don’t just focus on your potential partner. You should also work to improve yourself so that you also have a good personality. Otherwise, you’ll benefit from the relationship while your partner suffers. That wouldn’t be fair.

If looks don’t matter. What does? What really matters in developing a good and healthy relationship is the quality of communication and the shared memories and experiences. If you have the soft skills to do this, you will definitely be more attractive to other people. So learn to be patient and kind, learn to be a good listener and a good communicator.

How essential is it to graduate with an Honours degree?

A student wrote to me, asking:

I am torn about doing Honours, as personally, I don’t really have a passionate thesis to work on, and I am the kind of person who values work experience more than academic learning. However, I hear that there are repercussions if one does not do Honours, that it would affect one’s employability, salary and progression issues which I personally thought were secondary to my life goals. But I would like to hear your opinion as well before making a decision. How essential is it to graduate with an Honours degree?

A Bachelors with Honours is essential if you are thinking of joining the public sector because they do care about it very much, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have Honours. I have a friend who’s very assertive, and she got a very good civil service job without Honours. She only has a B.A. (Philosophy), no Honours.

No one in the private sector actually cares about your degree or whether you had honours. If the job requires a degree, it’s only because having that piece of paper says that you can endure the hard work of university life and will be able to endure the hard work of working life. I know this because I have another friend who’s the head of HR in a huge MNC. All this comes from her, not from me. She also had no Honours, just a B.A. (Philosophy).

The degree only matters for your first job, and maybe the second one if you didn’t achieve much for the first. After that, no one cares what you studied or whether you had Honours. They’ll be looking at what you’ve achieved in your previous jobs. Once again, in terms of progression, it doesn’t matter.

Salary is based on how well you are able to negotiate salary with the hiring manager. It’s more people skills than it is paper qualification. Of course, in the public sector, there are salary ceilings based on a combination of paper qualification and work experience. But if you a degree holder, these things won’t affect you very much. It’s really more about the people skills, like the skill of negotiation, rather than paper qualification that matters. Just so you know the same assertive friend who used to work in the civil service without Honours is able to negotiate a $6-8k/month salary in all her jobs in the private sector. So it’s really the people skills that determines your salary.

Now suppose you want to graduate with Honours. The question now is whether to do Honours by research (thesis) or by coursework (modules). I will say that thesis is very essential if you want to do graduate school in the future, or any job that involves research. Because doing the Honours thesis is a process where you pick up a lot of research methodologies and where you learn how to critically evaluate the things you research. The reality is that if you want to do any job really well, this is a very good skill to have regardless of where you intend to go. There are many jobs – including admin support jobs – where tasks given to you require some degree of research. Having the experience of doing research will help you greatly because you would have the experience and know-how to begin. I know some people who struggle to do their work in the working world because they lack such research experience. They don’t know how to begin Googling for relevant information, or how to sift through the information for what’s relevant. Some don’t even know how to deal with website analytics reports or survey data. If you did thesis, you would have learnt how to execute such tasks with great academic rigour, and be able to provide solid analysis that will impress your bosses.

If you didn’t do thesis or don’t want to do thesis, it’s not the end of the world. You can learn it on your own. That said, you won’t learn it as well outside of a thesis programme because you won’t be challenged as hard when learning such things on your own.

At the end of the day, the final product of a thesis is not the dissertation that you submit. No, you are the final product. You come out a more matured person from the process. I wrote a lot more about this matter, and you can read more about it here: https://i.am.jyhsim.com/2020/06/11/whats-the-difference-between-choosing-to-do-a-thesis-and-choosing-to-do-modules-for-honours-which-one-is-better/

As for a thesis topic that you’re passionate in, you have to read widely and talk to your profs to find a topic that will be of interest to you. You won’t know what to write or what to be passionate about until you do this preliminary groundwork. If you like, I wrote a response to a similar Q&A here: https://i.am.jyhsim.com/2020/06/11/im-thinking-of-doing-thesis-but-im-not-sure-how-to-get-started/

What do you think of girls who confess? Since it is more normal for guys to be the ones doing it.

A student asked:

What do you think of girls who confess? Since it is more normal for guys to be the ones doing it.

I think it’s ok for girls to confess. We are living in a modern society after all. I know some guys might be a bit more old-fashion minded, so an approach like that might freak them out a little. So you can hint your interest a bit to test water and see how it goes.

Now… Regardless of gender, I do think it’s very important to critically evaluate the person’s moral character before you decide whether or not to confess. I say this because some people are very opportunistic and manipulative. They’re not interested in a long-term relationship, and they’ll use your confession as an opportunity to enter into a relationship for the purpose of milking benefits from you like sex, free food, free expensive items, free holidays, etc. And they’ll break up once they get bored or found someone more exciting/providing. This has happened to some of my friends, both males and females.

I don’t think this happens very often. Nonetheless you should always be on your guard. Don’t rush to get into a relationship. That’s how we get hurt very badly.

Take it slow and easy, and use the time to get to know the person better to see if the person has a decent moral character and is potential boyfriend/girlfriend material first before you decide to confess.

Do you think doing Honours is necessary?

A student wrote to me with the following question:

I am currently a social work major who went through the diploma education in engineering before university. I am torn about doing Honours. Personally, I don’t really have a passionate thesis to work on and I am a person who values working experience more than academic learning. However, the common concerns I hear from people on the repercussions of not doing Honours typically relate to employability, salary and progression issues which I personally thought were secondary to my life goals. But I would like to hear your opinion as well before making a decision. Do you think doing Honours is necessary?

A Bachelors with Honours is essential if you are thinking of joining the public sector because they do care about it very much, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have Honours. I have a friend who’s very assertive, and she got a very good civil service job without Honours. She only has a B.A. (Philosophy).

No one in the private sector actually cares about your degree or whether you had honours. If the job requires a degree, it’s only because having that piece of paper says that you can endure the hard work of university life and will be able to endure the hard work of working life. I know this because I have another friend who’s the head of HR in a huge MNC. All this comes from her, not from me. She also had no Honours, just a B.A. (Philosophy).

The degree only matters for your first job, and maybe the second one if you didn’t achieve much for the first. After that, no one cares what you studied or whether you had Honours. They’ll be looking at what you’ve achieved in your previous jobs. Once again, in terms of progression, it doesn’t matter.

Salary is based on how well you are able to negotiate salary with the hiring manager. It’s more people skills than it is paper qualification. Of course, in the public sector, there are salary ceilings based on a combination of paper qualification and work experience. But if you a degree holder, these things won’t affect you very much. It’s really more about the people skills, like the skill of negotiation, rather than paper qualification that matters. Just so you know the same assertive friend who used to work in the civil service without Honours is able to negotiate a $6-8k/month salary in all her jobs in the private sector. So it’s really the people skills that determines your salary.

Now suppose you want to graduate with Honours. The question now is whether to do Honours by research (thesis) or by coursework (modules). I will say that thesis is very essential if you want to do graduate school in the future, or any job that involves research. Because doing the Honours thesis is a process where you pick up a lot of research methodologies and where you learn how to critically evaluate the things you research. The reality is that if you want to do any job really well, this is a very good skill to have regardless of where you intend to go. There are many jobs – including admin support jobs – where tasks given to you require some degree of research. Having the experience of doing research will help you greatly because you would have the experience and know-how to begin. I know some people who struggle to do their work in the working world because they lack such research experience. They don’t know how to begin Googling for relevant information, or how to sift through the information for what’s relevant. Some don’t even know how to deal with website analytics reports or survey data. If you did thesis, you would have learnt how to execute such tasks with great academic rigour, and be able to provide solid analysis that will impress your bosses.

If you didn’t do thesis or don’t want to do thesis, it’s not the end of the world. You can learn it on your own. That said, you won’t learn it as well outside of a thesis programme because you won’t be challenged as hard when learning such things on your own.

What are your thoughts on students trying to find internships with their friends?

A student asked:

What are your thoughts on students trying to find internships with their friends? In other words, they only apply for internships where they might be able to work with the friends in the same office.

I don’t recommend doing this. You should learn to enter into the unknown all alone by yourself. Working world’s going to be like that, so it’s better to get used to it. Learn to make new friends with your colleagues. It’s a very important life skill.

If you do an internship with a friend (or friends), there is a greater tendency to want to stick with your friend(s), and not learn to break into pre-existing cliques among your colleagues. This can be detrimental to your professional development as you’re not only losing out on developing relations with your colleagues, but the lack of interaction with them may mean that you don’t get properly socialised into the office culture, or you lose the opportunity to build trust with your colleagues enough for them to want to give you more important projects to take on for your own growth and development.

Also, there is a tendency among more immature interns to joke and play a fool at work, especially when they’re with their friends. This leaves a really bad impression on your supervisors. Be aware that when you apply for jobs in the future, the hiring manager may call your previous company to ask about you. And if you were playing around in the office with your friend(s), they won’t hesitate to be honest about their negative assessment about you.

I’m struggling to find an internship. What should I do?

A very worried student wrote to me, asking:

I’m struggling to find an internship. What should I do?

The first step is: Don’t panic!

It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do an internship. Internships are very over-rated. Sure, internships may give you work experience but what matters more are your people skills. I’ll take someone without an internship but with better people skills and a good attitude any time over a person with poor people skills but an impressive CV full of internships. Why? Because the one with better people skills will give me far less of a headache as my subordinate compared to the one with poor people skills. Many bosses, supervisors and HR people will tell you they’ll choose the same too.

Now, let me systematically diagnose possible problems as to why you didn’t get an internship. If you have not been called up for an interview, it means there is something wrong with your CV. CV is Latin for Curriculum Vitae, or the course of (your) life. It’s supposed to document all the awesome things you’ve accomplished in your life, as a testament of your development through the years.

I’ve seen many CVs and one typical mistake is that people – including very awesome and capable people – merely list out super short summaries of the things they did. The problem with this strategy is that it reduces your greatness into mediocrity. Imagine if you are the hiring manager and you have to go through 1000 CVs in order to identify 3 people for an interview: who would you pick? The ones whose CVs stand out from the rest, of course.

If you merely list the tasks you did, you’re not going to stand out as impressive. It helps to add a short sentence of the outcome: how your work made an impact on someone or some group. Better if you have solid numbers to include (they must be true: don’t lie in your CV). It also helps to add an adverb to paint a richer image of what you’ve done. Here’s a comparison:

Typical Way of Writing CV (not impressive): Organised an outreach programme

Better Way of Writing CV (based on the advice I gave): Competently organised an outreach programme for the organisation. Under my supervision, the event was a success with logistics and programmes running on time. 90% of attendees gave feedback that they benefitted greatly from the careful planning and execution.

Read the two samples above. Which one inspires greater confidence in you that s/he is a very competent hire? The latter, because of the concrete evidence of the results. So do that and it will increase the appeal of your CV.

Now, if you’ve been going for interviews but haven’t been getting any offers, it means that you lack the people skills to make a strong positive impression. Usually, one of the interviewers is someone whom you’ll work under. The aim is to show that you are someone that they want to work with, and someone they can trust to do the work competently well. Ideally, you should show that you are an independent and fast learner. But if that’s not what you are, at least show that you are someone who’s lovely to work with.

You can also make a strong positive impression in other ways. You should do a lot of homework to find out more about the company and especially your interviewers. It shows in the conversation that you’re hardworking enough to have done background research. The fact that you can find common topics of interest to talk about also shows that you will be a great person to work with.

I’ve heard that some students think the interview question, “Tell me more about yourself,” is an invitation to bitch about life and bitch about one’s past work experiences. Please don’t do that. To the hiring manager, that’s a red flag. The question is an invitation to impress the interviewers, to make a case for why they should hire you.

The best way to get an internship or job is through personal connections. For example, a number of former students have since gotten internships because I put in a good word for them (I only do that for good students when the hiring manager knows me – people know that I teach a compulsory FASS module, SG is small). The testimony of a friend’s recommendation to a hiring manager makes a world of a difference, and it can even convince hiring managers to favour you even before they’ve seen your CV or hear you in an interview. So they’ll be more forgiving to mistakes and all that.

Another student asked a follow-up question:

But what if the student has no work experience and or any achievement to show off from one’s CCA? Does this mean that no one will give the student a chance at an internship at all?

I want to re-emphasise that internships are way too over-rated. You won’t lose out if you don’t do an internship. Not all internships are equal, and not all give a rich work experience. Some internships are saikang (shit job) internships that just waste your time and energy. The experience you gain doesn’t really help you at all in making an impressive case on our CV.

If you realise that as of now, you don’t have an impressive CV, as a student, you still have time to change that. Use your time in University to develop an impressive CV. Perhaps take on leadership roles or projects in your CCAs, or find some way to get involved in something. Even volunteer/charitable projects will be helpful. Anything that involves people: managing people, leading people, teaching people, guiding people, etc., will be useful. At least that will give you experience in one way or another.

If that’s not possible, use the time to upskill yourself with online courses like Coursera or EdX, or learn to develop good people skills. And learn to reach out to people in industries. It doesn’t hurt to say hello to people. Some may turn you down, but so what? They won’t remember you (unless you wrote something really nasty). In most cases, if people remember you, it’s for good things. And it can open doors of opportunities for you, whether in the form of internships or work after graduation. Learn to use this to develop good relations with others. It’s a good investment that will come in very handy for you in the future.

As a real example: Some former students got jobs/internships after staying in touch with me and building good friendships with me. Not only do I know them well, but I trust them not to let me down if I were to recommend them to other people. So I have fought hard to recommend them for positions that internship/job positions that open up.

I was very fortunate, when I was a student/fresh graduate, to have good JC teachers and profs who opened up many opportunities for me by tapping on their own networks. This is just my way of paying it forward to help other students the way my teachers helped me.