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As someone who’s presently looking for a job, can I still apply for a job if it asks for a specific degree that I don’t possess?

A student sent me this question:

As someone who’s presently looking for a job, can I still apply for a job if it asks for a specific degree that I don’t possess?

Yes! The requirements that you see in job ads are proxy measures of what the employer thinks the ideal employee might have. So they’re more of a “suggestion” than strict requirements.

What you need to do is to ensure your cover letter and CV explicitly states that you have those qualities that they are looking for (or at least most of them).

Sometimes, you may not have the desired level of knowledge or skills that the hiring manager might want. That’s ok. If you can demonstrate how eager and/or passionate you are, and how fast you’re able to learn independently on your own through the cover letter, and through the competencies and achievements you’ve accomplished on your CV, the hiring manager will be more likely to want to interview you.

And if you’re called up for the interview, make sure you’ve done your homework. Make sure you know everything you need to know about that company and what they do, and try to know more about the interviewers (you can ask who your interviewers are). Use the interview to gain a better sense of the job and how you’ll fit in. Now, if you’ve done enough research prior to the interview, you should be able to make a case on how you can best use your talents to contribute well to the role and to the organisation. You should aim to present in concrete terms how you can add value to specific projects related to your role. (Don’t just say fluffy abstract things like, “I can think critically for you.” It won’t be convincing.)

As an interviewer, if I hear that you know my organisation so well that you can connect the dots and demonstrate how you can add value to the organisation, I’ll be very impressed. In fact, so impressed that even if I have found someone who is most suited for the advertised job, I might just create a new job position for you. Because – believe it or not – good talent is hard to come by, and organisations will do whatever they can to keep good talent if one happens to walk right in.

So to summarise, use your cover letter, CV, and the interview to make a case that you can add value to the organisation. And of course, be friendly and polite (I hate that I have to say this, but I noticed many students these days don’t practice this anymore even for important things like interviews).

Lastly, if this is your first interview, it ok to tell them that it’s your very first interview and you are a bit nervous. People are usually very understanding. (If they are not, it’s also good, because you can avoid joining a toxic company).

How do I stop being scared of failure?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do I stop being scared of failure? A lot of the times I don’t go for activities/ competitions or even play games with my friends because I’m scared of losing. In my mind, if I don’t win, I’m not good enough. How do I get out of this mindset?

I don’t think it’s helpful to link success and failure with one’s self worth, or to infer if one is good enough based on one’s success or failure. That’s a misunderstanding of the relation between success/failure and the measure of how much one is good enough.

To quote a book I read years ago, “Failure is but a postponed success.”

Why? Because failure is more educational and informative than success, and failure is the means by which we improve and get better at things. In other words, you can’t be good enough until you have learnt how to avoid being bad at something, and you learn about the things to avoid from your failures.

I know many people think that I am very successful. But behind the scenes, these success are borne out of my many spectacular failures. The teaching of my module is a perfect example. I’m able to teach it so much better this semester because of the numerous failings and mistakes I made in the previous semester. Of course, failure is unpleasant. I don’t like it as much as you do, and I sometimes lose sleep over it. But it gives me so much insight to better understand why something didn’t work, and I know what not to do the next semester. It also allows me to can explain and tell others why they shouldn’t do something and what would happen if they were to try that.

Only those who have failed enough times will have this kind of experience and knowledge to offer. The one who succeeds can only say so much about why one should do a particular method, but that person is limited and cannot say what will happen if one were to try otherwise.

So if you were to compare me (and my numerous failures) with someone who succeeded all the way, I have more insights and experiences to share and more value to add than the one who did not encounter failure. Who would you say is better? The one who failed many times, right? There’s more to learn. So this makes me more masterful and better at what I do.

If it helps you feel less scared of failure, one thing I always tell myself is that everything I do is an experimental research, so I am prepared to lose because I want to learn from the experience and understand why it didn’t work. It also reduces the anxieties I have about getting it right the first time. You can’t fail if you wanted to fail to learn, because your failure is your success! Haha!

It’s important to expose yourself to more failures so that you feel less apprehensive about it. And truth be told, games are the best for this. Because you can lose in a fun environment where everyone can laugh and have a good time about it. You can always imagine or role play as someone else, if it helps. If you lose, it’s not you who failed but your role-play character who messed up! And that’s ok!

Any advice on how not to be jealous?

A student sent me this question:

Any advice on how not to be jealous?

Personally, I find that jealousy/envy is one of the most useless feelings to harbour within one’s self. With jealousy and envy, we focus so much of our energy and negativity towards people we perceive as better than us, whereas that same energy could have been channelled towards becoming as good as, if not better, than other people.

I personally think we should have a better culture here where we celebrate people for their successes than to be jealous, or worse, put people down for being better than us. I’ve been through awful experiences like that back in school and in some of my previous workplaces. And I can tell you that it’s precisely this sort of toxic culture that holds many people back from blossoming. It’s not because they can’t go far. But there are people who are afraid of being treated badly if they do.

How to handle issues of jealousy? I’m not an expert on this, but I’ll share what I think helps (at least for me):

(1) I think it helps to move away from a competitive mentality to a collaborative mentality, and expand our measures for success to include other people. E.g. helping other people out, and taking joy in seeing how your efforts at helping them has helped them to succeed. I do think a collaborative mindset is very important because competitiveness can be so toxic it gets in the way of team work. Like we could all be on the same side fighting towards common goal, but instead we’re using all that energy to fight each other. This happens too often in so many places. No one’s going anywhere even if they won.

(2) I believe strongly that it’s vitally important to celebrate the achievements and success of the people around us. Be happy, or at least learn to be happy for them. It’s easy to get too focused on our own happiness that we get envious when other people succeed. Just coming out of our shell to feel happy for other people is a great step forward in helping us towards becoming gracious. So whether we win or lose, or whether someone else wins or lose, we are able to put ourselves aside for a bit to share in the joys and sorrows of the people around us. This is important in learning how to be fully human.

(3) And most of all, we should just focus on continually improving ourselves. As I said earlier, jealousy is a very useless feeling to harbour. We get tired and unhappy, and we don’t improve in the end. And that’s just gonna trap us in an unending cycle of toxicity, because we will never improve and will always get upset by the success of others.

Would you restart your life again if you could?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Would you restart your life again if you could?

When I was younger (even during my undergraduate days), there were many moments where I wished I could restart my life. But now, I’m very happy with what I have despite the ups and downs, and in spite of all the screw-ups (some of them really major) I’ve made in the past.

What changed over the years? I came to two key realisations over the years.

(1) The first realisation is that progress and success is not linear. When I was much younger, I used to think very simplistically about such matters. It was as if to get anywhere in life, you had to accomplish certain things along a track, e.g. get good grades so that you can do Honours. Get Honours so that you can get a high paying job or enroll in a graduate programme, etc. And if you fail to accomplish any of these steps along the way, you’d derail your path to success. This made me feel like life was very do or die. You either succeed or you fail miserable. So binary!

In my younger days, I screwed up in some ways, and that mode of linear thinking made me wished I could restart my life so that I won’t make those screw ups, so that I could then succeed.

But it’s very myopic! And I soon came to the realisation that a lot of things in life can be achieved even if you don’t succeed in accomplishing the next stage on that linear track. E.g. if I don’t do a Masters or PhD immediately after graduation, I’m not going to lose out (as what some people like to say). I still can do well in my career, which is what’s happening to me now.

(2) The second realisation is that all the experiences I’ve had – the good, the bad, and the ugly – were all essential in shaping me to become the person I am today. I still resent some of the experiences, I still am embarrassed by some of the screw-ups I’ve made in life, e.g. saying the wrong things to people, doing certain things that were imprudent in my youth, etc., I still sometimes wished certain bad things didn’t occur to me. Nonetheless, these events shaped me. It made me more driven, more independent, more creative, and more human.

I’ve contemplating long and hard over the years whether I would be the same person that I am if I were spared some of these bad choices or bad life events. After several years of contemplating this question, my conclusion is that I would be a very different person, shaped by a whole different set of events. And in all honesty, I wouldn’t like the person that I would have become in that alternate timeline.

Of course, it’s very easy to imagine other scenarios where we could have been so much better than we current are and dislike our present situation. But I’d like to offer a different perspective on the matter: the fact that you are able to imagine better versions of yourself or yourself in better situations means that you are in that realm of possibility where it is within reach for you to make it into a reality.

Sure, this sounds like some motivational speech, but let me explain why I say this. We can only imagine what we are aware of and what we know and what we can possibly do. Suppose there’s a new career skill called “actionology.” You’ve never heard of it, and so you cannot imagine yourself doing it. It’s outside your realm of possibility. It cannot yet be actualised until you know what on earth that is. On the contrary, everything else that you can imagine is built from your experiences and knowledge. The fuzzier your imagination of it, the less you know, and hence the further you are in that possibility space. But the more vivid it is in your imagination, the closer you are because you have more experience and knowledge of the matter. That being the case, you are really just a couple of steps away from actualising that imagined possibility. And it is your past and present that has led you up to this moment where that imagined possibility is within reach in that realm of possibility.

So even on days where I sometimes wished I was better in some other way, I wouldn’t want to restart my life, because I know that this recognition of wanting to be better is the product of my past experiences shaping me to this very moment in my life to want to be that better version of myself.

How do I stop wishing for someone else’s life and learn to love my own?

A student asked:

As a girl, there is another girl whose lifestyle I admire greatly and I wish I could have her life. She is very pretty and her boyfriend is a very good catch. It appears that she has it all, nice hair, nice skin. Of course, I know that this is what is shown on the surface and there may be things in her life that she does not have that I do. How do I stop wishing for someone else’s life and learn to love my own?

What’s required here is a change in mindset and perspective.

For starters, it’s useful to do a daily exercise of gratitude. Before you end the day, just review the happenings of your life and journal down the things that you are grateful for, no matter how trivial it may be. It could be a warm smile that someone gave to you. It could be a delicious meal. And then go further… What allowed you to be able to enjoy those things in the first place? Why did the person give you a warm smile? What did you do? What can you be grateful about yourself that allowed you to enjoy that smile, or the meal that that person cooked for you? The more you do this exercise, the more you will slowly come to realise that you have beautiful traits, whether appearance, character, or other qualities, that make people appreciate you and/or want to be good to you (or who want to reciprocate back the goodness that you’ve shown them).

Or maybe it’s about things that you have. Then just take the moment to appreciate how lucky/fortunate/wonderful you are to be able to have these things to enjoy/experience.

The first couple of times, it’ll be tough because it’s not something you’re used to do. So here’s an arbitrary number: 3. You’re not allowed to sleep or stop the journalling process until you’ve identified 3 things to be grateful for.

Over time, as you grow more and more grateful with the things you have, you’ll discover that you don’t have to compare with other people. You’ll develop a sense of contentment with what you currently have – whether physical attributes, personal qualities, or even possessions – and you’ll be able to derive joy from that.

To quote Chapter 33 of the Daodejing: “知足者富 The one who knows contentment is rich” (translation mine).

How can I exercise more patience with anything?

A student asked me:

How can I exercise more patience with anything?

It helps to be more focused on the processes than on the outcomes. When your mind is too fixated on getting a certain outcome, it’s very natural to get more and more impatient. Whereas, if you are fixated on the process, and on gaining more insights from the process itself, you become less concerned about the outcome. And because you are drawing value and insights from the process itself, failed attempts will be less frustrating as you begin to see the failed attempts as invaluable lessons on improving the process.

And always approach each attempt with kindness, whether kindness to others or to yourself. Do your utmost best to train yourself to refrain from the harsh self-criticism, and constantly practice being kind to yourself in your struggles and failings. It’s because we are harsh to ourselves that we hate the struggle and failure even more. And that in itself makes us more impatient to the possible undesired reality that we might screw up yet again. But that fear and disdain of the harshness that we direct to ourselves would just further compound the fear and anxiety to do things well.

So if you are kind to yourself, you would be less concerned about the self-directed punishments, and it’s be a much lower-stakes event to worry about. The lower stakes, the lower the chances of feeling impatient as well.

I’m pretty stressed out by my studies, and I feel so conflicted because I don’t want to burden people by saying that I’m not free. What should I do?

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m pretty stressed this semester and I feel that I can’t tell anyone or vent to anyone about it since everyone’s really stressed. I also feel like I’m invalidating my feelings by comparing my level of stress with others and seeing how they need to go to school everyday, etc. So I just keep telling myself I’m doing alright. But I’m really just stressed. And because I don’t like to share this kind of thing with my friends, people think I’m really free. I feel so conflicted because I am also a people pleaser and I don’t want to burden people by saying I’m not free because of my assignments. What should I do?

I want you to know that it’s ok to feel stressed and it’s ok to share with others that you are stressed. I believe everyone’s feeling very stressed at the moment, so you’re not alone. :)

I will say that in our culture today, we focus so much on the importance of helping our friends. But we forget to emphasise that it’s just as important to open up opportunities for our friends to help us if and when they want to. To deprive them of such opportunities is to deprive our friends a chance to show they care.

Imagine this scenario where you have a friend whom you care about so much. If one day you found that your friend didn’t share her problems with you, how would you feel? You’d feel rather upset, won’t you?

It can feel like that friend didn’t trust you enough or didn’t consider you close enough to confide in you. Similarly, other people — those friends who do care about us — will feel that way too if they learnt that we don’t share our lives with them in such a way.

This is not a case of airing dirty laundry. To air dirty laundry is to tell the general public about your problems. But with friends, things are different. We confide in them. And if you feel bad about burdening them, you can at least tell them that you want a listening ear, and not a solution. That’s important.

I think one of the important life skills is learning how to say “no,” to people and not feel guilty about it. I’m not sure what kind of things your friends are asking you to do, but it is very important to learn to communicate honestly with them. Because if we can’t be honest with our friends about things like this, and if we can’t trust that our friends will stay close to us even if we turn them down, then it’s a sign that we’re not maintaining the quality of the friendship well.

Unless we learn to be honest with them, and unless we learn how to maintain the friendship even after saying no to their requests from time to time, that friendship will remain at a very superficial level.

Do take care of yourself. Sleep early and drink plenty of water. These will help you cope a little better with the stress.

Do you have any advice for someone who doesn’t mind studying but hates doing assignments, especially when they are more difficult and outside my comfort zone?

A student asked:

Do you have any advice for someone who doesn’t mind studying but hates doing assignments, especially when they are more difficult and outside my comfort zone?

I think for starters, it will help to approach assignments with a less negative perspective. It’s not useful to think about whether you love or hate doing something. Telling yourself that you hate it just increases the disdain you have for the assignments. There are a lot of things that I don’t like doing (writing essays included), but I just resign myself to doing it because it’s beneficial to me (or other people). This is something I actively tell myself: that the mark of a responsible person is one who goes beyond one’s likes and dislikes to do the things that’s required of him/her.

Anyway, it’s important to recognise why assignments are painful. They’re painful because they challenge us to go beyond our existing state of being, to grow and develop intellectually, emotionally, and even socially. They’re what I call growing pains.

If there’s anything I learnt from my years of work, it’s this: the experts, the big names in academia and industry, all continue to struggle with this “pain.” It never gets easier the higher you go. Well, it’s easy when you do similar tasks as before, but it never gets easier because, if you want to go far in your career, you need to constantly improve yourself, to do more than what you are currently capable of. So it’s going to be decades of productive struggle that will mould and shape you into a better, more capable person, and one that I hope will make a big difference in this world! This is the way to greatness.

If you continue to shun away from difficulties or the struggles of work, you will deprive yourself of these opportunities for growth. So embrace the struggle and the difficulties that comes with your assignments. It’s training that will prepare you for the bigger challenge to come after graduation.

How do I deal with having to do compulsory core modules for my major that I may not have much interest in? My grades are affected because of my lack of interest in those modules.

A student asked:

I feel that I’ve already identified topics/niches in my major that I want to pursue and these are the topics that I gravitate towards when choosing modules. I tend to do better in them because of my interest as well.

However, because my major has compulsory modules which fall out of this niche, my CAP has dropped and it’s causing me a great deal of anxiety. I try to reassure myself that CAP doesn’t matter and that academic fulfilment in what matters to do should take priority but rather, I still succumb to the pressures of wanting a first class.

How do you suggest I motivate myself in modules I flagrantly have no interest in?

Compulsory modules are compulsory for a reason. Within a major, there are two reasons why they are compulsory: (1) There is an expectation that a full fledge major must know certain things, even if it’s not within their area of specialisation. It can be a very embarrassing to be in if you were to say that you have a First Class Honours in X, and then be in a situation where you know nothing about specific works that are well known in that discipline. It also reflects very badly in the University in that it would seem that they did not give you a proper education. It may not seem to matter to you now, but it’ll matter a lot when you start working and you encounter other intellectuals.

Many of the top minds in the business world and the civil service are incredibly well read in a vast spectrum of matters in the humanities and social sciences even though that was not their major (they could have majored in engineering or the sciences). They do it because they see the value of having a broad knowledge of disciplines, and that’s how they get to where they are today. Now, you will, at some point in your life, have to deal with them. And you don’t want to be in a situation where you embarrass yourself by being more ignorant than they are about your own major.

Years ago, when I worked in another university, I have been in situations where these top minds asked me about very prominent works in my own field of Philosophy, and I had nothing much to say because I never read those works (because it was not my interest). It was a bad move to not know those things because they then question the credibility of your training, and doors of opportunities will close on you because they don’t trust you enough for not knowing what’s expected of your major. (How can you not know X?) And because of this, I took it upon myself to read more about those fields that I have absolutely no interest in.

And (2), these compulsory modules will prepare you for graduate school if you choose to pursue it. NUS FASS is in a very special position where we offer modules in areas that aren’t studied widely in other universities. If your niche is in one of these topics that’s not conventionally offered worldwide, you will be in trouble if you want to do a graduate programme overseas. For starters, as part of the graduate requirement, you will need to take modules that you probably had absolutely no interest in. And it sucks to be in a situation where you are so clueless about that topic at graduate level. So the compulsory requirement ensures you know enough so that if you had to do a related course at graduate level elsewhere, you won’t be so lost.

As for your question about motivation, I think it helps to have an open mind about the topic.

You should talk to your professors and learn from them what you’re not doing right with your essays in those compulsory modules that you didn’t do so well. While passion helps one to do well, it really isn’t a necessary condition to scoring well. It’s about the techniques of expression, justification, and self-critical evaluation. If you don’t know about these techniques and methods, or if you haven’t quite mastered them, then every essay, every assignment is like a game of dice – there’s no method and you can only hope it yields a high value. It’s really leaving things up to chance.

That’s not proper learning. You are in control of your grades, and you can improve if you take the time to analyse the methods used by scholars in their papers, and also learn from the feedback from your profs. It is in these mistakes that we make that we learn the most from them. :)

How do I know if what I am doing is enough to do well academically?

A student asked:

How do I know if what I am doing is enough to do well academically? Am I thinking critically enough, etc.

There are a couple of things that you need to ensure of to be sure that you will do well academically:

(1) That you are learning effectively. I have to say that in my 4 years of teaching in NUS, I found that many students are not learning effectively. What many students do — and this is probably something they learnt from primary/secondary school — is that they memorise model answers or model templates of how to answer, and then they adapt that to fit the given question or task at hand. There is little to no internalisation of one’s learning. The understanding is very superficial and not enough to do well for university-level exams where you are often tested on higher level thinking abilities. So you need to learn how to stop adapting from model answers, internalise what you’re learning so that you can articulate the answer confidently on your own.

(2) It’s also very important to know how to articulate and express yourself clearly. I know many students work very hard for their assignments, but they don’t realise how vague and ambiguous their answers are. Many students are unaware of the assumptions in their heads, and they don’t make it a point to flash out all the assumptions behind their thoughts. I think some students are too focused on the answers, and so they just give the answers without providing the thought process which is the most important thing that we want to see in University. It’s like going for a maths exams and writing down the answers without any working. How to give marks if you don’t show provide the working, the thought process behind it? This is very bad, and failure to express yourself clearly can make you drop many grades.

(3) And of course hard work is very important, but you need to work smart, not hard. Many students think that they can score well if they burn many hours working on a module without any particular strategy. They’ll do the readings, work on the assignments, etc. But that’s really not enough. Because you are being assessed for higher level thinking in university, you need to spend a good amount of time thinking about your readings, assignments and lesson; reflecting on it; discussing your ideas with friends; and reflecting some more about it. It’s not about memorising. It’s about understanding and connecting the dots of many things that you’ve learnt, or trying to extend that learning to something else or something further. The hours of effort needs to go in that direction.

You cannot produce profound insights by rushing your assignments. Nor will you be able to produce profound insights by passively reading or learning without an active engagement with the content through discussions with friends and deep reflection on what you’ve learnt. If I have to be brutally honest, only a very small percentage of students demonstrate this level of profound insight. The rest are just working hard but not smart, and not spending enough time contemplating on their learning. The analysis and evaluations they produce are very superficial.

Before I end, I do want to reframe the definition and concern of what it means to do well academically. I personally don’t think grades are a good indicator of whether you have allowed your university education to shape you well. The whole point of a university education is to shape you into becoming a better person, one with a matured mind enriched with broad perspectives about people and the world; one who is capable of leading others well and managing people and resources effectively.

But students can get too focused on grades that they don’t actually transform for the better by the time they graduate. I know people who graduated with First Class Honours, but their mind, heart and morals are anything but first class. Some people graduate from university and remain the same person that they were when they first matriculated. Their mind remained narrow, they did not grow in maturity or reason. They might be academically strong, but they failed the very objective of a university education.

In University, you will be surrounded by great people, whether it is your professors or your peers. And it’s very important not to use them as benchmarks to compare and conclude how lousy you are. The fact that you have made it to University already speaks volumes of how great you yourself are.

If you want to compare, use them as benchmarks as aspirations for who you can become by enriching yourself with interactions with them. The sky’s the limits when it comes to definitions of excellence. When you compare yourself with them, you’ll realise that there’ll always be someone or many people better than you in writing, in speaking, in thinking, and in so many other things. So you can aspire to be like them. That’s fine.

But the best benchmark will be yourself. Whether or not you struggle with your learning, or whether you do well (or not so well) academically, it’s important to aim to be a better better than who you currently are: whether academically, or as a matured thinker, or as a leader, or even as a moral person. Use these aspirational figures as your models. What’s important is that at the end of every semester, you should be able to look back and see how much you’ve grown and developed as a person since the start of that semester. If you can see that you’re growing and not stagnating, then I will say that you are doing well in University. Your education has transformed you. This is the stuff that truly matters.

What do you study in Philosophy? What is you favourite thing about Philosophy?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What do you study in Philosophy? What is you favourite thing about Philosophy?

Philosophy is different things to different people. I’ll say that one thing common to all areas of philosophy is that it is a critical reflection on what we believe and what we do.

Within the purview of philosophy itself, we usually cover things like value theory that covers ethics (Why is X right/wrong? Or how do we know what is the right thing to do?) and aesthetics (Why do we derive pleasure from watching shows that make us miserable (e.g. horror/tragedies). We also cover areas like metaphysics that challenges you to rethink how you think about well… everything. Issues like why am I me. If I’m constantly changing through time, am I still the same person? Or things like how we think about time and space and our relation to it. We also do things like existentialism that deals with the meaning of life, or the lack of it, or how to make meaning if there isn’t any meaning to our existence.

We also do meta-level stuff, basically, anything that’s a critical reflection of the beliefs, assumptions, and methods we employ to do a variety of things.

Take the social sciences, for example. If you put into practice what you’ve learnt in the social sciences, you’re a practitioner. But when you begin reflecting on the methods used, or consider the limitations and drawbacks or even the problematic assumptions underlying the methods employed, then you are doing the philosophy of social science.

The same can be said about anything that is the philosophy of X. We are reflecting critically about the methods and assumptions employed. So we have the Philosophy of Science, the Philosophy of Social Science, the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Literature, the Philosophy of Technology, the Philosophy of Law, Political Philosophy, the Philosophy of Economics, the Philosophy of Music, the Philosophy of Film, etc. The list goes on.

What I like about studying philosophy is the mental flexibility it gives me. It allows me to understand a belief thoroughly as if I’m a believer without necessarily having to subscribe to it. Furthermore, my training in academic philosophy has taught me how to unearth assumptions underlying the things people say and evaluate them. And when you couple that with the study of meta-level things that I have done, I am very aware of the kinds of disciplinary/cultural assumptions that are prevalent in daily discourse. All these helps me to be avoid being chained to the ignorance of my own assumptions as I try to reframe problems. As someone who has done philosophy and interacted with many people from all walks of life, I can tell you that a lot of people are enslaved by their own cultural/disciplinary assumptions without being aware of it, and their thinking is limited by their ignorance of the assumptions that hold them back.

My favourite thing about philosophy is the fact that I never stop getting mind blown. And a conversation with any philosopher will always make you walk away going wow. It has been the case since I was an undergraduate student, and it continues to be the case today. It’s a wonderful experience to have.

What would spur you to encourage a student to take the Honours track?

A student asked:

I’m currently in my Third Year of Study in the Arts and Social Sciences. Right now, it’s hard not to think about pursuing the Honours track.

I know asking if I should take the Honours track may be hard to answer because circumstances will vary, so I will phrase my question as such: As someone who has went through the system, what would spur you to encourage a student to take the honours track?

I’ll start by talking about who shouldn’t pursue Honours. If all these intellectual/academic stuff is not your cup of tea, then you shouldn’t pursue the Honours track. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that you’re not good enough for it or that you’re bad/lousy. No, not at all. We all have different strengths.

If academic pursuits is not your strength, you’re better off using the time developing something else that is your strength. We all have different interests and passions. Some enjoy reading, some hate reading. Some love spending hours researching in the library or connecting different ideas together, some others don’t enjoy it as much and try to avoid such conversations or tasks like that.

If you don’t like these kinds of intellectual pursuits, then don’t pursue the Honours track. You’re better off using your time to develop your strengths that lie in other areas. And that’s perfectly ok. We are all very different people, each with our own unique strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. We can do certain things better than other people. And many of these things don’t require Honours, nor does Honours add value to them.

What would spur me to encourage a student to do Honours? If I know the student has the potential to grow and develop further because of the challenge brought about by the Honours programme, I will insist that the student go through it. Because this would be a match of a person meant for such a programme, and the programme actually having an effect on that person. What kind of student would that be? Well, one who does have an inclination towards such academic/intellectual things. Not everyone can think critically or write profoundly. If a person can do that kind of stuff somewhat decently, I think they should not give up on the opportunity for Honours to shape and cultivate their minds further.

You know how we feel sad when a budding young athlete or musician can’t do sports/music because of an injury or disease? That sadness comes from the fact that we recognise that that potential to go so far in life can never be realised. I feel the same when I see high calibre students with a passion for intellectual/academic stuff not pursue Honours.

I know some of us might feel fatigued and want to give up because it’s the middle of semester. That’s normal. Struggling is also normal. It’s something we do when we are growing and developing as persons. It’s normal to feel like it’s time to give up or graduate early.

So think about where your interests lies, and whether you actually like academic/intellectual pursuits. If you do, stay and do the Honours year so that you can realise your potential to go further in that direction. Otherwise, don’t waste your time. If you don’t like these things, the Honours programme won’t have much of an effect on you because you won’t really be investing as much time and energy as you should to grow and develop.

What do you do when you’ve tried many times but you still fail every single time, even though it’s something that you really like and want to be good at?

A student sent me this question:

What do you do when you’ve tried many times but you still fail every single time, even though it’s something that you really like and want to be good at?

If it’s something you really like and want to be good at, you need to be way more patient with yourself and kinder to yourself. It’s like learning the violin. It’s incredibly painful at the start because everything you do is wrong no matter what you try. But you just have to keep doing to retrain your muscles to learn now movements. Same thing with everything else. So we must be patient and forgiving towards ourselves with each and every failure.

There’s a saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting the same results.

If something fails, it’s important to ask why did it fail and diagnose what precisely went wrong. Saying, “I am not good,” is not a diagnosis. Was there a lack of understanding on your part, or is there a flaw in the method?

These things must be evaluated so you know what not to do in the future. When you can do that, then failure isn’t just failure. Such failures become lessons on what not to do, so that you can do better. Of course, it does help to seek help online, whether it’s YouTube videos or posting on forums/Reddit. It can be difficult to identify the flaws. So we need other people to identify them for us.

For an open book exam, is there still a need to make notes? Or is it enough to simply read the textbook/readings?

A student asked:

For an open book exam, is there still a need to make notes? Or is it enough to simply read the textbook/readings?

Usually, people associate the term, “open book exam,” to mean that the exam is going to be very difficult.

Properly speaking, an open book exam has a different set of objectives compared to a closed book exam.

Closed book exams usually test your ability to recall information, and/or your ability to comprehend what you have learnt. Open book exams, on the other hand, usually test the higher-level thinking abilities like evaluation, analysis, application, and even creation.

These are things which books, lecture notes, and other resources don’t often contain since you are required to think about the information presented to you in order to generate your own views on the matter.

Making notes will be useful. But not so much for you to refer to during the exam (I mean, you could still refer to it if you needed it). But the process of note-making helps you to better internalise what you’ve been learning. Because, you see, higher-level thinking abilities are only possible AFTER you have internalised your learning of the concepts and ideas.

Most students only copy the form of things, where they will use something in class as a template for answering. But they don’t understand why they are doing that. Internalising means really understanding why the template was made that way, and recognising the shortcomings of that template in other situations AND THEN being able to freely adopt new forms to better answer those situations.

The best way to internalise your learning is to actively engage with what you’ve learnt. Talk and debate with your friends. That’s when your learning comes alive.

This also is my teaching strategy. Which is why students have to struggle in order to learn. Because through that struggle, you are not a passive learner, but instead you become actively engaged in the learning process, thereby helping you to internalise what you’re taught. In education, this is known as “productive struggle.”

How do I get motivated when my motivation normally rides on adrenaline?

A student asked:

How do I get motivated when my motivation normally rides on adrenaline?

I think for starters, we need to move away from the idea of doing things only when we’re motivated, to the idea that we need to instil the discipline within ourselves to do things – with or without motivation. I like to say that as adults, there are many things we have to do regardless of whether we like them or not, but because we have to.

I hate eating vegetables, but my freezer is stocked to the brim with frozen vegetables that I eat daily. Do I like it? No. But I eat it because I have to.

Now, the whole idea of living a life doing things that we have no feelings or motivation for sounds pretty sad. That’s not true. I don’t like eating vegetables, but that doesn’t stop me from figuring out how to cook it in a way that it’s so delicious that I enjoy eating it.

Similarly, with all other tasks that I have to do but lack the motivation, e.g. edit or produce lecture videos (it really is such a chore to do it as it takes about 8 hours to edit each video), I make it a point to have fun while I do it (like make funny songs or embed a really good joke into the video).

At least this way, I’m looking forward to the fun that I’ll be having rather than constantly dreading the task. This would explain all the fun and crazy things I do in my course. I’m constantly finding ways to make the onerous and painful work fun for myself that I am happy and motivated to work on it.

I’ve never been in a relationship and I’m scared that I have no experience and may not find anyone. Help!

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m going to be 20 years old but I have never been in a relationship because of my family. They will only let me date after I’ve graduated and started working. But I’m scared because by the time I graduate, I would have no experience and I may not be able to find anyone. Help!

Let me assure you that I have friends who only started dating after graduation and they are happily married now. So it’s perfectly fine not to date now. You’re not going to lose out on anything.

Relationships are not jobs. You don’t need a portfolio of experience. Sometimes having no experience is better than having bad experiences of hurt and pain that will make you carry emotional baggages into subsequent relationships. And these emotional baggages can affect your ability to trust and love well. So this is the opposite of Pokemon – you don’t gotta catch them emotional baggages!

Now, I’m not sure what kind of experience you are talking about here. I am aware that right now, many people your age are saying on social media that you need to acquire sexual experience so that you won’t disappoint your partner or future spouse (i.e. that they will leave you if you cannot perform). This is utter rubbish!

You can learn to be better with your spouse over time. And it becomes a means for developing greater intimacy and closeness with each other because, in that very moment, you both are learning how to communicate about something so sensitive, and so very intimate with each other while being so very vulnerable.

In a healthy long-term relationship, sexual union is more than just pleasure. It’s about communication at a more intimate level. If you cannot talk about your likes/dislikes in bed, or figure out how to pleasure each other better, there’s a lot of things in the relationship that you won’t be able to talk about or resolve.

In fact, and contrary to popular belief, people who feel that they have become “experts” in bed may have trouble with honest communication with their partners because it takes a lot of humility to accept that the techniques they’ve “mastered” may not suit their partner. And their pride can get in the way of intimate communication.

Whatever it is, the fun of a relationship is to forge shared experiences together by learning things and experiencing new things together. So don’t stress over not having any experience. You will acquire all the experience you need when you finally get into a relationship.

In the meantime, the experiences you have in dealing with family, friends, frenemies, enemies, and other difficult people in your life will prepare you well for a relationship. You don’t need a relationship to learn such things.

What advice can you give to someone who’s never been in a relationship but is looking for someone to spend the rest of their life with?

A student asked:

What advice can you give to someone who’s never been in a relationship but is looking for someone to spend the rest of their life with?

I have two advice to give:

(1) First, don’t rush into one because it’ll force you to settle on the first person who likes you, and you’ll rationalise and make exceptions on why you should stick to that person even if the person displays many red flags, or if you feel that you’re both incompatible. So please don’t do this to yourself. There are so many people who are unhappily married because they did just that.

(2) Secondly, there’s no such thing as a soul mate or a partner who’s perfect enough that there’s no need to put in effort to understand or be understood. Relationships are hard work, and the bulk of that hard work comes in the form of communicating each others’ expectations, needs, and wants; and learning how to manage differences.

Every problem and difference can be ironed out through open and calm communication. The hard part is learning how to communicate effectively with each other and to be patient with each other about it.

And you must never be complacent that you’ve figured out the art of communication. Why? Because people change over time. We’re not static. And so our needs, wants, and desires will also change with. So too will the the communicative needs and communicative methods change over time.

You know communication has broken down when one party says to the other in frustration, “You’ve become a different person.” They’ve failed to update each other’s idea of who they are through communication.

There is no issue that cannot be talked about or shouldn’t be talked about. So please learn to talk about difficult matters openly, honestly, patiently, and in a non-accusatory, non-aggressive method. This will help ensure the health of the relationship. And overall, you’ll learn to become a better human person as you know how best to effectively communicate with other people.

What advice would you give to a girl whose boyfriend tries to pressure her into having sex even though the girl says, “No”?

A student asked:

What advice would you give to a girl whose boyfriend tries to pressure her into having sex even though the girl says, “No”?

I would advise the girl to hold firm with her decision. Stick to the, “No,” and don’t budge.

You have every right to say “No,” to your boyfriend, even if you don’t have a reason. And if you don’t feel ready or comfortable, or if you feel that the relationship hasn’t progressed far enough for it, it is well within your right to say, “No.” It will not and should not affect the relationship in any way.

I’ve heard stories about guys who desperately want sex and will conjure all kinds of sad and even pathetic excuses to make their girlfriends give in to sex. It’s important to remember that no one has ever died from not having sex (conversely, people have died from having sex). So there is no valid reason that should change your mind.

The decision not to have sex is yours, and if the guy truly respects and loves you, he should back off from it. If he is persistent in constantly trying to pressure you into it, it is a red flag for more problems to come in the relationship. Such actions signal that he doesn’t respect your choice enough and thinks that he can eventually get his way with you. This is a very bad mindset and one that can and will eventually affect the relationship in other ways.

Sometimes, guys will use emotional blackmail techniques, like threatening to break-up, or threatening to see a prostitute or a one-night stand, or making accusations that you don’t love him enough.

If it comes to this, it’s a really huge red flag that the guy is toxic. Such threats are distressing. And the guy knows that he can put you under such mental duress to pressure you into doing things you don’t want to do. This is clearly an act of manipulation. A person who genuinely loves you will not manipulate you into doing things you don’t want to do.

If this does happen, I strongly recommend breaking-up with the guy. Because if he has no qualms applying such emotional blackmail techniques for one of the most intimate acts of love in a relationship, it means that he would have no qualms to emotionally manipulate you in other ways.

So the main point is this: don’t feel bad about saying, “No.” It’s your body and your choice, and people who truly love you will respect your decisions, even if it may disappoint them. But that’s what love is.

If you find yourself in a relationship with someone who doesn’t respect you or your choices, then you should reconsider the relationship. There are many wonderful people out there who will respect and love you, perhaps more so than the person you’re currently with. So don’t feel trapped thinking that you cannot find a better partner and that you have to settle with what you have. You deserve better.

Is it common to have feelings of inadequacy when comparing myself to my peers?

A student asked:

Is it common to have feelings of inadequacy when comparing myself to my peers? I always feel that in terms of academia, I’m not as strong as my friends. I can never keep my concentration as good as them and I always get distracted. They can study for hours on end and I barely make it thru one lecture.

Here is a fact that is true now as it was true during my time as a student: many students are just putting up a front before other people as if they are coping well or staying on top of everything, because to admit struggle seems embarrassing, especially in a competitive environment.

From the mid-course survey that I did in AY2020/2021 Semester 1, I can tell you that 70-80% of the cohort admitted that they are struggling to cope with the semester and online learning.

If it helps, I am happy to admit that I struggle a lot with online teaching and this 100% online semester. It’s exhausting to teach online tutorials, and even more exhausting and frustrating to have to sit through many online meetings. I actually need like an hour to “decompress” after each Zoom session. So I’m extra unproductive this semester.

Do I feel inadequate, or even embarrassed about this? No. I just know that’s how I am when I use Zoom. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. My weakness is that I can’t handle Zoom tutorials well. It’s not easy. No need to feel bad about it. It just is.

As for feelings of inadequacy, I used to get it a lot as an undergraduate student. I used to compare myself with people scoring A+s and wondered why I could never be like them, and then I tortured myself constantly by thinking that I’m not good enough.

But if you noticed, saying that you’re “good enough” requires a context. Good enough… for what? If you don’t know yet what you want to be good in, you will never be good enough for anything because there is no context for “good enough” to make sense. So of course, without that clearly defined context, it’s logically impossible to be “good enough” for anything. As it is, you’re probably already good at some things, but the abstract nature of “good enough” lacks a frame of reference, so we will always fall short of “good enough.”

So of course, when we’re young and clueless, we’ll just find anything and everything that we can compare. And we often torture ourselves by finding things that we’re not good at and then comparing ourselves with people who are good at those things. We don’t give ourselves enough recognition that we are good or in fact better than some/most people in other things.

How did I get over my feelings of inadequacy? By recognising my own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve made my peace when I came to the conclusion that I am not as talented to be an excellent research. I will always be a mediocre researcher , and that’s ok. I’m perfectly happy with that because I don’t enjoy research neither do I want to spend the rest of my life doing that. Other people can and will do better at me in research and I’m happy for them. I can live with this.

What do I enjoy doing and what are my strengths? Writing and teaching. I love doing these two things and so I’m very happy that I can do them well. Are there people better than me? Yes. Do I feel inadequate? No, because I recognise I am still a work-in-progress. And I can use the time to gain more experiences and learn along the way.

And I think we forget that there’s a time factor when it comes to being good at something. Some people are great at what they do because they are willing to pour hours and hours and hours of work into it. Should you feel inadequate comparing yourselves to these people? No. They made the decision to dedicate so much time and energy to it. And if you want to be as great as them, then you have to be willing to work hard and struggle for it.

With teaching, I’m willing to do that. And I’m actually very excited that there are people better than me whom I can learn from. With research, not so much. Hence I am quite happy even though I’m not as good as others when it comes to research. It’s just not my cup of tea, it’s just not something I wish to torture myself over.

I sometimes find it annoying that people think they need to be the best in everything, or the most excellent person about a particular thing. Why the need for that? The harsh fact of life is that there will always be people better than us in every aspect of our existence. And just because they are better than us doesn’t mean that we will lose. This isn’t some sick battle royale game where we have to keep eliminating others in order to stay alive. The world isn’t like that.

Focusing on our inadequacy is really just a distraction from the more important things like learning how to be better. The fact that there are people better than us means that there are opportunities for us to learn to improve ourselves. Why are they better than us, how can we up our game to be better than them? These are the more important questions.

Do grades matter after graduation?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Do grades really matter after graduation? How do I not get too hung up on not getting As?

You need to ask yourself what are the grades for? We do not exist merely to score As, nor do grades grant us happiness or salvation. In other words, grades are not an end to itself. They serve another purpose. And we have to be clear what purpose we want it to serve.

If you say you want to pursue academia or graduate school, then for obvious reasons, the grades matter because it signals that you have what it takes to endure the rigours of grad school if you get accepted into a programme.

If you want to join the civil service here in Singapore, unfortunately the people who do the hiring are very obsessed about grades. It is used as a proxy measure for how hard you are willing to work and/or how brilliant you are. It is doubtful how accurate grades are to signal brilliant one may be, but certainly some organisations want to hire people who are willing and able to work very hard and be able to produce results. So this is something grades do indicate, and this is something the bureaucratic machinery of government requires.

That said, exceptions are made for exceptional people, but we usually only show case or exceptionality many years after graduation.

But the private sector is a different story. Most companies don’t care too much how you do in school. Why? Because academic grades are a measure of only one ability out of an infinite number of abilities out there that can add value to the organisation. Salesmanship, the ability to connect people, manage risks, and a whole host of people skills and street smart skills cannot be assessed in a university. And if you can demonstrate that you can add value to their organisation in these ways beyond grades, many private companies are willing to take you on and pay you handsomely for that added value.

If you don’t want to get too hung up on grades, focus on developing a backup plan or a few contingencies that you can tap on to help you get employed even if you don’t have fantastic grades. These are people skills, negotiation skills, marketing skills, public speaking skills, etc. These make you very marketable and you can always fall back on them to give you an edge when you try to seek employment. So if you don’t have the grades to impress, you have a set of skills that are highly sought after by many companies.

This is a common tactic employed in a field called: risk mitigation. Don’t bet your entire life on just grades. If you do, of course the pressure will be high. You’ll have a do or die mentality because it feels like you must succeed otherwise you’ll fail in life. But you can hedge your risks by developing many possible paths for success, and that also reduces the anxieties over failure. If one doesn’t work, oh that’s always that other backup plan.

I do want to emphasise the need to develop people skills and other talents. Many students have trained themselves to become excellent at studying, but they’re inept at everything else. Their high grades won’t save them or help them do well in the working world. And it saddens me that all that talent cannot be fully realised because they don’t know how. So it’s important to use the time now as a student to explore and develop a variety of skills while you still.

At the end of the day, don’t forget the big picture. A few years after you graduate, after you’ve worked your first job (maybe after your second job), no one’s going to ask how well you did in school after you’ve built a portfolio of your professional achievements which is your CV, and the array of talents, skills, and experience you’ve acquired over the years.

These are things that are way more long-lasting and worth the effort beyond just mere grades.