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Is it normal to feel so lost when taking a new module?

Last night, a student wrote to me, asking:

Whenever I take a new module, I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know much about what is going on, whereas the people around me seem so relax that they’re constantly using their phones in class. Is it normal to feel so lost and have all these struggles when taking a new module?

If you have watched Japanese anime about school life, you might have come across one stereotypical character that pretends to be all relaxed and chill about studies (yet scores very highly for exams), but actually works incredibly hard at home. And then there’s another stereotypical character who’s quite slack in school, and quite slack at home. Statistically speaking, you will find these kinds of students regardless of what module you take.

I do suspect that many students are more like the first stereotypical anime student. Many students only start working on their modules very late at night. I know this because I was once a student. Night time is when everyone (pretends) to be asleep, and so you finally have the time and space to focus on things requiring high concentration. Also, my students typically message me for help after 10pm every night. So I know that most students only do work from that time onwards.

A typical undergraduate schedule looks pretty much like this:

Morning: Wake up; rush readings before class; attend classes

Afternoon: Meet friends; attend classes; chill out in a cafe; look at memes or watch videos instead of doing work

Evening: Eat dinner; play games; watch Netflix/YouTube; chit chat with friends; part-time work (if any)

Night (10pm – 2am): Actually doing school work

Go ahead. Ask your friends! Many will tell you their schedule is pretty similar to the one I described above. Haha!

Anyway, the point in highlighting this is that it’s because of students’ typical work habits that we sometimes feel that we’re the only one who’s lost and struggling in the module. That said, there are also other students who feel that way, but they have a very good poker face. Or sometimes, we’re just so deep in our anxieties that we don’t realise other people are also feeling just as lost as we are.

I want to assure you that it’s pretty normal. You’re not alone, and what you feel is very VERY normal. I used to feel that way too when I was an undergraduate student. And it was only when I started to befriend people in my lecture/tutorial and when we started to complain about our school work, did we realise that we weren’t struggling alone. And it’s nice to struggle together with friends. It’s what educators refer to as a “community of learning.”

Of course, it’s never good to remain lost and struggling for the entire semester. So there are some things you can do about it! You can write to your professors and ask them for the course reading list in advance. That way, you can begin your readings early. Or you could just go to the library and read several books related to the module you intend to take.

One thing I like to do is I like to read a lot of secondary literature about the topic, instead of merely reading the primary literature about it (which tends to be the assigned readings in classes). I usually grapple with interpreting the primary literature, and so sometimes I doubt my own reading of it. You can find major interpretations of the topic in the secondary literature and debates about the topic itself, which I find very eye opening.

If you are willing, it helps to start a conversation with your professors about the subject itself and ask for recommendations on things to read (or watch or do).

Anyway, having to struggle with yourself is a normal experience in University. The struggle exists because you are being challenged to grow and develop in your thinking. If you aren’t struggling, you are doing something wrong. But if you find yourself struggling far more than you can handle (mentally/emotionally/physically), then you should talk to someone about it.

Anyway, I think I’m getting long-winded about this. The point really is that your experience is very normal. The key message is this: you’re not alone. A lot of people go through what you experienced (myself included), so reach out to them and make more friends along the way. :)

The Encounter with a Great Teacher and How It Influenced My Teaching

I find it really incredible how fast time flies. One year ago, I joined the Department of Philosophy, and I had been so incredibly busy creating lecture videos, assignments, and other educational resources, that I haven’t had much time to sit and reflect on my teaching, or even document the thought processes, insights, and challenges that arose along the way. 

I want to begin by discussing one significant event that shaped the way I teach my course. And it has to do with the book project that I worked on last year, where I helped to write “Memoirs of a Flying Tiger,” with Captain Ho Weng Toh (who at this moment of writing, is now 100 years young and still very much active and alive).

Captain Ho fought against the Japanese in WW2 as a bomber pilot, and later came to Singapore as the first of four pioneer pilots for the then Malayan Airways, the precursor of Singapore International Airlines (SIA). You could call him the father, or even the grandfather of SIA because he trained the first 300 local pilots for the airline. 

While writing the book, I was struck by the fact that Captain Ho still keeps in touch with his students, even though he had retired 40 years ago in 1980. To say, “keep in touch” is quite an understatement. Because Captain Ho made it a point to become almost like a family friend to his students. He doesn’t just know them, he knows every member of their family – their parents, their spouses, their children. And in turn, these students of his have been introducing Captain Ho to many of the newer pilots who joined SIA since his retirement. It’s almost as if they are one big aviation family. 

I had to interview a few of his former students for the book, and I was particularly struck by one recurring comment: “Captain Ho is a great teacher.”

I couldn’t help but to ask them: “What makes Captain Ho such a great teacher?”

The answers surprised me because they had little to do with his teaching. Instead, it was all about the mundane things that make up our daily social interactions. It was the simple acts of kindness that made a deep impact on them. 

He was a father figure to his students. He made it a point to know them beyond superficial details, and he tried to be acquainted with their families and friends. He made the new cadets feel welcome and comfortable, and always assures them that they are doing ok (as they were nervous about crashing the aircraft). He regularly invited them for meals and he treated them as respectable equals, as friends. And he always pushed them to go further in life. And with patience and kindness, he kept encouraging them to go against their own perceived limits (for both work and personal matters) until they finally accomplished it. 

I find it so incredible that simple gestures like this can form long-lasting bonds with one’s students, to the extent that these bonds have remained for 50, 60, 70 years even! And even though some of his former students have passed on before him, Captain Ho still makes it a point to catch up with their families, visiting them, or even having meals with them. It’s just so incredible.

I was very struck by all these and I counted myself lucky that I got to learn about his way of teaching while I was setting up a brand new course. I told myself that I want to emulate the greatness of this man: I want to be as great a teacher as he is, and I want to have the same kinds of friendships with my students (and their families perhaps) that endure for decades.

I am glad to have had the chance to meet such a great teacher, and he taught me to put a personal touch in my interactions with my students, even though much of the learning takes place online for my course. This is why I am so happy to invest a lot of effort in interacting with my students both online and offline.

In fact, it was learning about the importance of simple gestures and extending little acts of kindness whenever possible, and how all that made a big difference in students’ learning, that I found the courage to make myself available on instant messaging (Telegram) to 800 students each semester. I was originally quite afraid that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the volume. 

It is tiring work, but I do find it incredibly rewarding knowing that I could be touching lives and making a big difference to my students’ lives through simple gestures like a text message. 

Are there things undergraduates should know or appreciate more?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Are there things undergraduates should know or appreciate more?

Oh, there are so many things I wish to say in response to this question, but I’ll just focus on one major point.

Many undergraduates don’t understand the point of a university education. The degree is not meant to train you to work for in a specific job or a class of jobs. And when you think about it, isn’t it absurd that people expect you to know what you want to do with your life as such a young age? You haven’t even acquired enough information or experience to make a well-informed decision about the matter!

The truth is that most of us will graduate and work in jobs that have almost zero relevance to what we studied. And you won’t be disappointing your professors – we know this to be a fact of life.

Why? Because, as I said earlier, the whole point of a university education is not to train you to work in a specific job (or class of jobs). Rather, the point of a university education is to develop you holistically as a matured and responsible adult, one with ideals and vision so that you can lead and manage other people to make the world a better place.

It’s sad that many students don’t understand this lofty vision of university education and instead see it as training to become just a mundane worker in someone’s organisation, another cog in the corporate machine, so to speak. That’s sad!

So you must be wondering, what are universities doing to develop you into that amazing person?

(1) Your programme is designed to teach you a set of problem-solving skills. Different disciplines will analyse problems different, and conceptualise solutions very differently too. This is something that is often taught and reinforced by subtly in the 3 or 4 years of undergraduate studies. We often don’t realise this until we talk to people from different disciplines and discover that the way we think about problems is very different. That’s the result of the education you received.

(2) Your programme is designed to broaden your perspective so that you appreciate not only the endless possibilities that exists, but to try and connect ideas that seem so separate and unrelated to create new ideas and innovations. You cannot create something out of nothing. Those 3 or 4 years of undergraduate life is meant to fill you with all kinds of interesting and amazing ideas – maybe even ideas that excite you – and you are often encouraged to critique and even synthesise these ideas. The reason is that the training is meant to prepare you for the future where you can then synthesise these ideas to create exciting new possibilities for yourself and other people. Beyond academic studies, this also includes other programmes like exchange programmes, internships, living/working on campus, and other initiatives. Just being exposed to a variety of situations is already perspective-broadening in itself.

(3) You are also being trained to challenge the status quo and to defend your own position in a rational and systematic manner. This is not just in the form of written assignments, but also in the form of presentations and seminar discussions. Take the discourses you find online. A lot of them may attempt to challenge the status quo, but the discourse is often unproductive (and maybe even toxic). We cannot advance or make a real change in society if we employ such unenlightened methods at work, or on a societal level. A university education trains you to do this well according to how your discipline does it best, and again, in a very subtle way that most students don’t realise is happening.

(4) To get anywhere and to make real change in this world, we must know how to interact and work with other people. This is where the University creates a multitude of opportunities for you to explore and acquire the critical people skills to do this. Whether it is in the form of group projects, clubs and societies, residential college/hall life, or other student-led initiatives. Unlike secondary school or JC, you are given lots of free time to hang around on campus with other students. Because the informal kinds of interactions, like chatting with friends about studies or work or life, or just getting together to play – these are all essential to your development and growth as a team leader and team player. You learn to manage people from diverse backgrounds in the process.

There’s more to say, but I wish to highlight these four areas. I find that because many students don’t understand the point of their university education, they take these aspects of their student life for granted. If you want to grow up to be a highly respected and influential leader, then you must know how to take advantage of the opportunities that a university education presents you to help you develop these aspects of your being. Otherwise, these will be missed opportunities for your own personal and professional development.

Why do we have to write so much in the Arts and Social Sciences?

Here’s a question that students have asked me from time to time:

I struggle so much with writing that I dislike it. Why do we have to write so much in the Arts and Social Sciences?

I feel you. I don’t like academic writing either (I still struggle with it even today). I used to struggle so much as an undergraduate that I thought I was not cut out for academia. But after graduation, I met some prolific writers and academics in the course of my work. I asked them whether they struggled with writing. Their reply was quite surprising to me. They still find writing painful and difficult (even if it is their rice bowl, or something they’ve done for decades), and yes, they still struggle with it even after so many years!

It was very eye-opening (and liberating) to discover that struggling to write doesn’t mean that you’re bad at it.

So then the question we must ask ourselves is: why is writing painful?

I think it’s important to recognise that this is kind of growing pain. It is a good “pain” that stems from constantly reviewing and thinking about what we want to say. When we write, we are committing our thoughts into words on paper or on screen. This forces us to constantly review whether or not that is the thing we wish to say. We don’t encounter such problems when it comes to speaking because we are not immediately confronted with the words that leave our lips. But this is the case with writing.

The “pain” comes from that constant review and re-evaluation of what we want to commit to. There is a lot of growth and maturity when we confront the difficulties and take the writing exercise seriously. Academic writing is THE exercise that leads to a mature mind. It is THE activity that cultivates critical thinking. Because we are constantly being made to review our thoughts.

I have since come to terms with the struggle. And one thing I have also learnt is how writing is itself a journey of discovery. Sometimes we just don’t know what our thoughts are on a particular matter. The exercise of writing forces us to review and reflect on our own positions not only helps us to identify flaws in our thoughts, but it also helps us find connections between separate ideas that had been floating in our heads for so long. Writing is like a spring-cleaning exercise for the mind, where you made to sort the ideas into something coherent that you can present to yourself and to other people.

I have discovered a lot about myself through writing. I have grown tremendously, both intellectually and as a person because of the struggles of writing. So, embrace writing. Embrace the struggle as a challenge. By the time you graduate from university and look back, you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve grown as a person, by how much you have matured intellectually because of it.

Do you think it’s possible to be an academic if my best is still an A-?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Can I ask what’s your CAP when you were an undergrad if you don’t mind sharing? I want to pursue an academic life but I don’t know if I am smart enough. My CAP currently stands at the bare minimum for a first class honours. Do you think it’s possible to be an academic if my best is still an A-?

Hello, I don’t mind sharing. Here’s how my CAP evolved from start to end as an undergrad:

Year 1 Sem 1: 3.88
Year 1 Sem 2: 3.89
Year 2 Sem 1: 4.11
Year 2 Sem 2: 4.29
Year 3 Sem 1: 4.31
Year 3 Sem 2: 4.41
Year 3 Sem 3: 4.43 (Special Term)
Year 4 Sem 1: 4.45
Year 4 Sem 2: 4.52

I succeeded in getting First Class Honours in my final semester. And as you can see, every semester has been a constant process of improvement.

In general, most people enter academia with either First Class Honours or Second Upper, i.e. CAP ≥ 4.0). (FYI: Once you get your postgraduate degree, people don’t really care much about what you did in undergrad. They will look more at what you did for your postgraduate studies instead.)

CAP is not necessarily a measure of your intellect. In fact, I am very wary of people boasting First Class or Second Upper CAP. The reason being that there are many students able to secure a high CAP because they are so scared of screwing their CAP that they take “safe” modules or modules that are “easy to score.” So these people have effectively screwed up their chance at a real education. Without that challenge, they graduate no different from the person they were when they first matriculated, both in terms of intellect, and also in terms of mental and emotional maturity.

I know this sounds harsh. But the reason why I wrote this is because if you want to do well in academia (or the working world, for that matter), you must be willing to challenge yourself, you must be willing to take risks (and of course, know how to mitigate these risks as well).

The kinds of people who score high CAPs because of “safe” decisions cannot make it in academia (or the professional world for that matter). I say this because of people I personally know. They scored First Class Honours because they wrote “safe” paper topics for “safe” modules. Their mentality is one driven by fear: “I am afraid to try other things because I don’t want my CAP to suffer.”

And I’ve seen them continue that trend in postgraduate studies. In the end, they didn’t make it because their work is so “safe” that it is uninspiring (boring) and doesn’t make much of a difference to the world (because it was written not to challenge one’s self or anyone for that matter, and so it had no potential to change anything).

So if you are willing to challenge yourself to constantly improve rather than take safe options just to maintain a high CAP, then I’ll say you have the personal qualities to do well in academia, and you’ll go very far for that matter. :)

What is happiness?

A student asked me:

What is happiness?

I prefer to think of happiness more as a state of being rather than a feeling. Because in my own experience, you can be happy or even content about your current situation in life without necessarily feeling positive emotions. Besides, we don’t always have feelings stirring in us 24 hours each day (that will be quite destabilising).

I like to think that a happy person is one who is fully alive, realising every potential that is within his/her own being, whenever possible. For that to happen, one must be willing to embrace challenges beyond one’s comfort zone in all aspects: socially, professionally, academically, technically, etc.

In other words, one must be constantly aiming to grow and develop one’s self. Stagnation not only breeds complacency, but it eventually makes one feel very directionless, and you eventually lose your sense of purpose and meaning. I have not met anyone who enjoys being in this state. So I don’t think you can ever be happy (I definitely have never been happy when I feel that I have no sense or purpose).

My greatest inspiration is Captain Ho Weng Toh, the 100 year old WW2 veteran and the pioneer and “father” of pilots in SIA. I interviewed him over 9 months to help him write his memoirs. And he is very happy at the wonderful age of 100. Even now, he has been challenging himself to grow. He sets up initiatives to help others. He makes it a point to keep in touch with everyone in his life – he even tries to meet new people. He learns to use new technology. He makes sure he is still kept up to date on current affairs (and he even talks to people young and old to understand their perspective about the matter). He has never let age be the reason to not get out of his comfort zone. He even has a girlfriend!

People like him truly exemplify what it means to be happy, what it means to be fully alive. And that is how I view happiness.

Does a second major bolster my standing for employment?

A student wrote to me, asking:

I’m an English Literature major. I very much like my major & I enjoy interdisciplinary approaches to things. As much as I enjoy my major, I grow worrisome thinking about my employment prospects. I know that there are vast opportunities for FASS majors given how ‘general’ our majors can be, but it worries me so much so I’m taking a more ‘employable’ second major to bolster my standing. Does it matter? Any advice? I have no idea what I want to do post-graduation and it scares me so much.

Here’s my reply:

Hello! Taking a second major doesn’t really bolster your standing in any way. On paper, you’re just doing two “general” majors. Are you enjoying the second major? If not, don’t kill yourself over it.

Here are the things that will actually “bolster” your standing:
(1) Have done stuff that shows you can learn fast and independently and are ready to embrace new challenges outside your comfort zone without supervision (employers really love this quality the most because you give them confidence that you won’t be a problem hire that will pester your superior regularly or sit cluelessly at table not knowing what to do how to do something you’ve never done before).

(2) Have done stuff to show that you have initiative to start new projects on your own (employers love this a lot too, because they know they are getting value for money when someone is happy to start new projects without being asked).

(3) Have done stuff that shows that you are a team player and/or have leadership qualities (one thing employers worry about is having to bring on someone who’s a trouble-maker rather than a team-player).

Because at the end of the day, you will be fighting with other people who have single/double majors and a high CAP. There are far too many people out there with bad work attitude and poor people skills (but they have high CAP and single/double majors/degrees). So employers want someone who not only won’t give them a headache, but preferably someone who sparks joy in their organisation (you have no idea how rare these people are).

What will make you stand out are the three qualities I listed above. It’s really people skills that make you more desirable as a potential employee.

What’s your take on platonic love vs. romantic love?

A student asked:

What’s your take platonic love vs. romantic love? To you, how are they different?

The modern sense of Platonic love is very different from how Plato intended it in his writings. Plato talks about Vulgar Eros, or an attraction to physical beauty. And he says that it is an important stepping stone to transcending the Vulgar Eros in order to attain Divine Eros (what we think of as Platonic love), which is an attraction to the conceptual form of beauty as beauty. This may not make sense to the modern reader. So let me put it simply as this: You know how sometimes we can be so amazed or intrigued by an idea that we feel a great attraction to it, or an excitement to learn more about it? That’s sorta like the experience of Divine Eros.

There is some fuzziness to our modern understanding of what Platonic love is. We can all agree it means that two people are very close but they don’t want to be in each other’s pants. Some people like think of Platonic love as the love between siblings. But I have a problem with this because it erases the subtle nuance between close-like-siblings and close-like-partners-who-don’t-want-to-shag, and conflate the two as if they are one and the same. Furthermore, the Greeks already have a word for such sibling-to-sibling love (even for friends who are close like siblings). It’s called “philia.”

Eros on the other hand is a very passionate kind of love. There is attraction, and there is desire for union. If I were to go with the spirit of Plato’s idea of Divine Eros, I would say that for our modern understanding of Platonic love, it probably has to be an attraction of minds. Just as how physical Vulgar Eros draws us to desire physical union with another; this transcended Divine Eros of Platonic Love is a love that draws us to want intellectual intimacy with another person. It is an attraction to a person’s beautiful mind, or the ideas that the person has to share. It is an attraction that compels you to seek a special kind of union – a union of minds through the intellectual intercourse of dialogue.

I believe this kind of union is very intimate because if you do believe that our minds and our souls are one and the same, then the intercourse of ideas is not just a union of minds, but a union of souls that gives birth to a new concept, a new idea. And ideas are eternal.

Sadly, this intimacy is rare. It’s not something we can just do with anyone. Most of the time, if you’re the brainy kind, it’s very one-sided. You’re just talking away, and the other person is just pretending to listen, going, “Uh-huh…”

So yeah… True Platonic love – in the sense I described above – is hard to find.

Thanks for the question. I had a lot of fun reading up to figure out what my thoughts on the matter are. :)

Do you think it’s too ambitious for one to want to make a difference to Singapore’s cultural scene?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Do you think it’s too ambitious for one to want to make a difference to Singapore’s cultural scene? I dream of passing on traditional culture & language to our future generation, and make people fall in love with what I love too. I’m super passionate about this culture and language and I want to make changes to the way the Singapore cultivates this culture in our children.

I always tell people this but they think I’m joking, or like they just think I’m overly ambitious. But I always thought it’s good to have a goal and aim for it. Can you be very honest with me: am I really being too far-fetched and ambitious? Is this silly?

I don’t think it’s silly at all. In fact, I think it’s very commendable especially since many people nowadays only care about making money and nothing else. You are a rare gem and one whom I’m happy to support! :D

I used to know a guy by the name of Peter Wee (https://www.peranakan.org.sg/2018/08/keeping-our-culture-alive-tribute-to-baba-peter-wee/) who did something very similar to what you hope to do. He passed away in 2018 sadly. I would have loved to introduce you to him. He was very passionate about preserving Peranakan culture that he essentially dedicated his life to it. Not only did he run an antique shop selling Peranakan antiques, but he established a reputation in Singapore as an expert on Peranakan culture. So when Mediacorp made TV shows (like “The Little Nonya”) or documentaries related to the Peranakans, they would always consult him. He’ll be there on set, or even loaning/selling Peranakan artefacts.

I got to know him because a friend wanted to interview him, and I tagged along. Thereafter, I visited him regularly just to hear him share stories about Peranakan culture. It was really cool. I even helped him to make reproductions of the Peranakan translation of the Bible before he donated the original to the Singapore Museum (I forgot which one).

Anyway, the point here is: YES YOU CAN, AND YES YOU SHOULD! For a start, you should think about what kinds of simple programmes you can develop for kids/adults. National Library Board will be more than happy to let you run your programmes too. Then you slowly build your network of connections. Reach out to other artists, interests them to make stories about it, etc., so that there will be greater interest. Once you’ve established yourself with the programmes, you can pitch it to Mediacorp/CNA or even Netflix and let them work with you to make a documentary.

It’s very possible! Don’t wait until you graduate. Start researching and reading up how to do all these now. :D

What if some of us can only do humanities well and enjoy doing humanities well?

A student asked:

I think the concern most of us have about the humanities is not that we don’t value it despite studying it, but the mass consensus in society –  evident in the fact that most jobs look for tech skills, coding or data analytics – makes it a huge disadvantage for us. The thing is then to make ourselves more inter-disciplinary by including some form of tech background in our resume. But what if some of us can only do humanities well and enjoy doing humanities well?

There are several issues I want to address here. So let me respond to specific lines in what you wrote:

(1) “[T]he mass consensus in society, evident in the fact that most jobs look for tech skills, coding or data analytics, makes it a huge disadvantage for us.”

It is very important to recognise that this is a fad in the industry right now. It won’t last for very long. If you look at the economic history of Singapore, we started out with a huge hoo-hah over manufacturing, and then over engineering, and then later on life sciences became the big thing, and now coding/data analysis is the fad. I want to point out that the life sciences fad happened when I was in secondary school all the way till university. Everyone was saying you had to go into life sciences because that’s where the money was. Every other major was “useless.” But look where we are today. What has happened to all the life science graduates? They’re not working in life sciences.

The coding/data analytics fad is currently largely driven by the hope and promise that we can harness all the information we’ve collected about people to make predictions about them and make lots of money. If you bother to read beyond the hype, you’d realise that this initiative is failing spectacularly in many areas. And many key players in the tech world are saying that a STEM approach is not enough (Science, Tech, Engineering, Mathematics = STEM). They are now advocating for STEAM, where the A stands for the Arts, i.e. humanities and social sciences. Because, as I demonstrated in GET1050, the problems of all these tech stuff are essentially arts problems.

If you go to places like Australia, China, Japan, UK, and US, you’d find that there is a greater appreciation in the humanities. The question we need to ask ourselves is: why is this not happening in Singapore? Because a lot of the people who make hiring decisions here came from very humble beginnings. Their parents/grandparents were not as educated as the elites. So they did not have the same education and experience with the humanities and so they have absolutely no idea what that is all about. In the countries I mentioned, there is a significantly greater understanding of the value of the humanities it pervades their discourse on everyday affairs on a regular basis.

So if you want to be marketable, you really need to invest time and energy to educate your potential employer on the value that you bring. If you cannot articulate that, then you need to recognise that the problem is not your major but that you haven’t reflected on yourself and explored what you can/want to do.

(2) “The thing is then to make ourselves more inter-disciplinary by including some form of tech background in our resume.”

It helps to understand why our government/MOE is pushing for a multi-disciplinary approach. For a while now, scholars have been echoing that we are heading into a very unpredictable future. The accelerated development of technology means that we cannot easily pre-empt what’s going to happen in the next 10, 20, or even 30 years. Also, the rate of technological development means that people will be losing jobs faster than we can learn new skills. So the idea is that by equipping ourselves with an array of soft skills in the humanities, in computational thinking, in scientific thinking, design thinking, engineering thinking, etc., people will be more resilient to such unpredictable changes and can adapt quickly to whatever gets thrown at us.

The main purpose of me teaching GET1050 is not really to teach you coding, but to equip you with additional mental processes for problem-solving. Personally, I think it’s good if you have a tech background because it will give you an edge over tech-only people and over humanities-only people. If tech really isn’t your thing, then don’t pursue it. Go find some other thing that you can relate your training in the humanities with.

I find that humanities in isolation can be very fluff sometimes because we’re just discussing issues theoretically without really helping people to solve problems. My encik in the Air Force likes to call these people NATO warriors – No Action, Talk Only.

It pains me to see humanities scholars intentionally cutting themselves out of world-saving discourses because they don’t know how to participate or it’s not rigorous enough on the arts side of things (I personally saw this myself when I worked in NTU helping to organise an international conference). Sheesh… If they participated, they could have helped to up the rigour. But they didn’t.

(3) “But what if some of us can only do humanities well and enjoy doing humanities well?”

How do you even know for sure that humanities is the only thing that you can do well? You’re still so young and there’s so many experiences that you’ve not had before. It’s too quick to validly come to this conclusion.

There is a mutual relation between (1) doing X well, and (2) getting enjoyment from doing X. For some people they start out with (2), and that motivates them to do (1), i.e. you like something, and that passion drives you to do better at it. At the same time, we also can get to (2) from doing (1), i.e. there are many things where, after we discover we’re not bad at it, we experience joy doing it.

So all I’ll say is: don’t limit yourself so quickly based on such limited experience. You’re doing yourself a grave injustice. It helps to read up more about what’s going on in the working world (don’t just rely on your seniors). It helps to talk to people who are out there in the working world. Like just randomly drop them an e-mail and say that you’re a student and you are curious to know more about X, Y, Z. Yes, you can do that. Just be nice, and people will be happy to reply or even meet you.

Do you think it’s possible to forgive someone completely?

A student wrote in to ask:

Do you think it’s possible to forgive someone completely? Especially when the person has hurt you a lot a lot. I tried to recall back the painful past and tell myself to let go and move forward but it’s so hard. But then a lot of resources on the Internet tell people to let go, move forward so you can have a better future and all. Do you agree? For me I feel like me having this pain and not letting go motivates me to do better and better so that I wouldn’t be looked down on again. However sometimes I feel like that just makes me a person stuck in the past, full of hatred.

This was a very heartfelt question, so I took quite a long time thinking about an answer:

Thank you for having the courage to ask this question. I know it’s not easy. And I want you to know that I too am going through a very similar situation as I’m writing this. So, I totally feel you on this matter!

Firstly, the advice to “forgive and forget” is complete bullshit. It is not forgiveness if you forgot the event. There is nothing to forgive if you cannot remember it. It is perfectly ok to remember the hurt and the pain. We are the sum of our experiences. All the good things that has happened to us, as well as all the hurts, betrayals, tragedies and dramas. The good and the bad: they shape us to be who we are.

What’s more important is to transform that pain, that hurtful memory into one of loving acceptance: this is me now, this is who I am, and I’m ok with it.

How do we do that? We need to give ourselves time and space to grieve, to cry, to emo, and also to process it. The reason why hurt and pain linger for so long (and maybe even fester in our hearts) is because we haven’t given ourselves the chance to let the emotions run their necessary course, by bottling it up, or simply avoid facing up to it.

So let me reiterate: It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to emo and cry. It’s ok to feel the hurt. Let it flow through you and out of you.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t know what you mean by “having this pain and not letting go motivates me to do better and better so that I wouldn’t be looked down on again.” It sounds like one of those gongfu movies. You know, the kind where some villain came and slaughtered your entire village when you were a child, but you were spared because you were hiding inside a cupboard or something. So you spend the next 2-3 decades of your life cultivating that hatred in you so that one day you can have the satisfaction of revenge.

My question for you would be: What is the emotion that’s driving you to do better? Is it anger? If it is, that’s not healthy. You can’t maintain anger throughout all your life. It will affect how you interact with other people, and it will affect your mental/physical health. You still can be just as motivated if you allow yourself the chance to grieve and process the hurt.

I’ll say one more thing. Time does heal all wounds – physical and emotional. I used to do a lot of shit in the past. And it never ceases to amaze me how, after 2-3 years later, many of these people don’t hold my past failings against them. I was incredibly relieved. The experience of being given a second chance by other people was such a moving experience. And it did inspire me to do likewise. If I like and desire to be forgiven and given a second chance, then I too should do the same to others. It is only right.

But you need to be clear what you mean by forgiveness. Minimally, forgiveness (and not forgetting) means you won’t hold their past faults against them. It is akin to saying: I know you have hurt me, and you might hurt me the same way again, but I am going to give you a second chance and I trust that you won’t let me down.

Sometimes, giving the person a second chance doesn’t mean a chance at the same thing. E.g. if it was a bad romantic relationship, then don’t go back to a romantic relationship – a second chance can just be the chance to be friends again. Or if you’re unsure, at least the second chance means a chance to reconnect and see where you go from there.

But give yourself plenty of time and space. There is no hurry to forgive. We all recover from our hurts at different rates.

What are the costs associated with pursuing graduate school?

Here’s a question a student asked:

What are the cost associated with pursuing grad school? How did you pay for your Masters?

Here’s my answer:

I paid for my Masters with blood, sweat, and tears. Lots of blood, sweat and tears.

I was quite fortunate that my department was willing to award me with a tuition fee waiver. So I only had to pay misc. fees. That said, when I did my Masters, I hated not having an income (because I earned a full-time salary for 3-4 years before that). So I ended up working 3 part-time jobs during my Masters (I taught 250 students as a TA, while simultaneously running a PR campaign for a research centre, AND edited a science book and wrote the memoirs for the WW2 veteran).

I almost died from having too much on my plate. And I failed my Masters thesis examination the first time round because of it. But I don’t regret that one bit. I quite enjoyed the valuable experiences I gained.

You can find out the cost of a Masters from Google. The prices change from time to time. It’s easier to get funded for a research Masters by the university itself. That being said, there are foundations and research institutes around the world that are willing to fund your Masters/PhD especially if your work aligns with their mission. You should Google to find out what’s available, and then write in to them about it.

The costs of pursuing grad school goes beyond dollars and cents. The one thing that will bother you a lot is seeing your peers advance far ahead from you. As a student, you won’t have much money, and so you won’t be able to do a lot of things, like marry or buy a house, etc. I know it’s easy to say “don’t compare yourself with them,” but from experience, you sometimes can’t help but feel that you’re lagging behind. Some people can’t cope with that. So you must be prepared for this.

Also, not earning enough can get in the way of relationships. Especially if you are preparing for marriage, the drop of income (or just not earning any income) can create a certain inequalities in who’s paying for what. And this can strain the relationships a lot (this happened to a friend I knew).

I don’t have any friends in my major. Is it good for me to stay this way or should I change and try to befriend people?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Is it okay to spend the rest of my school days lonely, studying, and taking classes alone? I saw your previous answer on loneliness, and yes, I see why you will be more or less “lonely” because you’re taking on various challenges and more of them are research work/publishing books.

However, for me, I’m still a student in NUS. And I still have a few more years to go. Yet, I don’t have any friends in my major. (I do have friends in FASS, just none in my major) I really don’t have anyone to go to when I need help (I go to profs instead) is it good for me to stay this way or should I change and try to befriend people?

Here’s my reply:

Hello, I think it’s not healthy to spend the rest of your school days lonely and taking classes alone. It’s not good for your mental/emotional health.

It’s very important to recognise that learning is a social activity. A lot of learning takes place when you’re talking to your friends about the stuff you’re learning outside the classroom (and that is the whole point of university – to give you all that time and space to do that).

I’m usually the quiet kid who sits at the corner all the way at the back in class. I didn’t make friends until my second year when I finally decided to just say hello to the people sitting on my left and right at lectures. Was it awkward? Yeah! It was so freaking awkward! But you know what? We had lots of fun, and we started hanging out a lot more. Many of us are still in contact with each other after graduation.

It’s important to remember that everyone around you wants to make friends but are just as shy to do it. If you read the stuff that’s on Reddit/NUSWhispers, you’d realise how many people are in your shoes, lonely and have no friends. So be the brave one and say hi. They’d appreciate this kind gesture.

The friendship you make in university will last for a long time, and many of these friendships will prove useful when you go out to work.

My recommendation is to make friends with people of all ages, and not just people in your age group. Make sure you have at least one friend in each age group. The multiple perspectives will help you easily identify the bullshit that circulates within our own age group. (E.g. if you don’t do X, you will not me employable, etc…) To quote a friend: “Humans are vessels of experience.” That’s her reason for wanting to befriend everyone.

For some strange reason, I have a number of people I regard as friends from age 70-100. It’s very fun talking to them, learning the kinds of insights that they have, and of course, having them as important role models. Somehow, our generation doesn’t give these bunch of people enough credence. There is so much to learn from their stories, from their successes, to their failures, to their (mis)adventures in life.

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

A student asked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you stay motivated chasing your dreams (while also dealing with loneliness)?

A student wrote to me:

How do you stay motivated chasing your dreams (while also dealing with loneliness)?

Here’s what I wrote:

I’ll be honest and say that I never actively chased my dreams. I just like to start on many projects at once. Some projects will succeed, and some others will fail. And I’ll do that again when I get bored.

I will say that the career-defining moments for me have always been to say “YES!” to every opportunity that comes by way – even if I have zero experience or know nothing about the subject:

– Edit a book about science? YES!
– Help a WW2 veteran to write his memoirs? YES!
– Sell electronics to people worldwide? YES!
– Conduct workshops to a bunch of engineers? YES!
– Give a talk to a bunch of CEOs and people from the media? YES!
– Teach data analysis and Excel and coding at University level? YES!
– Write a white paper to invite policymakers and academics for a discussion? YES!
– Coordinate the running of an international conference? YES!
– Talk to government officials in China and make arrangements for filming in China (even with my poor command of Chinese)? YES!

Did it scare the hell out of me? Absolutely!!!!!!!! I was afraid and quite daunted. Sometimes I asked myself why I even bother to give myself so much stress while I spent days, weeks, even months of my life rushing to learn and prepare myself so that I can do it well. (Some of the things I listed above didn’t go well at all, but it was still valuable experience that opened up more doors for me anyway)

So I’ll say this. I’m a firm believer of this philosophy of life: Say yes first, and then figure it out later.

Partly because I like the challenge and the adrenaline rush, but at the same time, I know that I won’t get such experience ever again if I say “No.” It has been incredibly rewarding. I do hope many of you will find the courage to adopt this philosophy of life for yourself.

I think a lot of us undermine ourselves from going forward in life because we are too afraid of failure to even get started trying. But failure is educational, especially when you know how to evaluate what went wrong. And as I said elsewhere, the working world is pretty forgiving. If you make a mistake, you still can make changes since the work you do goes through multiple rounds of revisions.

Have I been lonely during these periods? Yes, incredibly lonely because I am the only one doing them and often times, have no one else to turn to. But I guess because I have deadlines to rush to (do or die), the loneliness doesn’t stand in the way of my work. In fact, once you get sufficiently busy and you’re into the zone, you tend to forget that you’re lonely. And that helps, I suppose. :)

So jiayou~! You can always message me if you need a listening ear. :)

Would you rather give or get bad advice and why?

A student asked:

Would you rather give or get bad advice and why?

Here’s my thoughts on the matter:

I find this question very interesting because the reality is, it’s hard to evaluate whether the advice is good or bad until you’ve been in a situation where you can apply that advice, or actually see the advice backfire before your eyes – provided, of course, the advice is logical and has merit for belief, i.e. it’s not just based on a single event as one data point cannot tell you anything conclusive (Disclaimer: Here, I’m talking specifically about life advice. Health advice is something that you can verify by checking with experts.).

The reason why an advice sounds “bad” is usually because it doesn’t sit well with us. Sometimes we want to hear something assuring, but the advice is anything but assuring. Or sometimes the advice is to do something that we don’t want to do (or afraid to do). I do think we need a great deal of self-reflection in order to assess why we think an advice is “bad” before dismissing it.

I will say this: I have since grown very cautious of advice that’s repeated by a lot of people. It’s a telling trait that these kinds of advice had not been tested in actual situations, and are in fact just things people say as if they are the right things to say. When I was a student, I used to take to heart many of these advice, much to my own personal detriment.

So if I do give advice, it is advice that came from my own personal experience (usually the most profound ones come from my own personal failings or struggles), or one that I arrived at from observing the successes and failures of the people around me.

Do you have any advice for dealing with loneliness while chasing one’s dreams?

A student asked me:

Do you have any advice for dealing with loneliness while chasing one’s dreams?

Here’s my reply:

I’m not sure what you mean by loneliness. Loneliness in the sense that you don’t have close friends; or don’t have friends who share your dreams/interest; or loneliness that you don’t have a romantic partner?

When I was an undergrad, I knew many people but felt very lonely. That was because I had shitty friends who did great at making me feel lonely (they’d hang out together without inviting me because I didn’t stay in Katong/Siglap like the rest of them, or if they did invite me, it was to very expensive eateries, so I’d opt out). Eventually, I realised I didn’t need this sort of shitty friends. Better to have a few close friends than to have many shitty ones.

Having pursued the academic path, I can tell you that it’s a bloody lonely journey. I’m envious of my peers who work in teams. I’m just a solo player here. It can be very lonely and miserable at times. But I also recognise how that gives me so much freedom to pursue all kinds of projects at my own pace.

Now, I don’t know what kind of loneliness you are referring to, so I will refrain from advice on dealing with loneliness.

What I will say is this: Since you have dreams you want to chase, you can channel all that lonely energy into being productive towards that dream. I know loneliness usually compels people to write emo poems or sing emo songs or shit like that. But you can tap on that energy and funnel it towards more creative expressions. It can be hard because the thing you do doesn’t match the mood (that’s why it’s easier to write pages and pages of emo poems instead), but the more you try, the easier it gets.

But at all times, be kind to yourself when the loneliness gets to you so bad it’s hard to work. Don’t suppress it, as it’ll only make it worse. Instead, let the feelings run its course to completion. If you need to take a day to emo, just do that. But don’t dwell into it and at all costs, don’t wallow in self-pity.

I always tell myself: Misery is the white noise of existence. Like white noise, once your attention is locked onto something else, you’ll pay no notice to the loneliness. But even if you do notice the misery, don’t be alarmed. It’s white noise and not actually an alarm. So we need to remind ourselves that it’s not as bad as we often perceive it to be.

Is adulting as unforgiving and scary as people make it out to be?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Is adulting as unforgiving and scary as people make it out to be? Sometimes I feel afraid of stepping out into the workforce and I’m seriously considering extending my time as a student because of that.

This is what I wrote:

On the contrary, I think adulting is very forgiving. You have room to make more mistakes since the work has to go through many rounds of revisions and no one knows what is the right answer anyway. So I find that very liberating and nice. Like I can try a marketing campaign. Didn’t work, so I’ll try another tactic.

One professor gave me very valuable advice when I had just completed my undergraduate studies. I shared with him my reservations about not knowing stuff when going out to work. Should I spend money to learn things?

He told me not to worry. Instead, I should think of my job as I’m being paid to learn. That really makes it a lot less daunting. Every now job, every new task, I see it as I’m being paid to learn a new skill. But you must mentally prepare yourself that you will have to do the learning largely on your own. Your superiors wouldn’t have the time and energy to coach you the way teachers would. So the hard part is finding courage to ask and reading up stuff on your own.

The fear you have is just the fear of the unknown. It’s pretty normal to have fears like that. Let me quote you a line from an anime I’m currently watching:

“Just about any problem can be solved by saying, ‘Whatever, just do it.’ You first have to stand at the starting line before you even realise what is real problem that you should be thinking about. Not knowing what the problem is before trying it, is what makes a problem hard.”

“Fire Force”

So the solution is to find out more about what’s available out there in the working world. Don’t just google, go talk to people. If you got chance to do internships or part-time work or freelance, go do that. The more you get your hands dirty, the more you realise, “It’s not that bad!” And slowly that fear decreases.

Anyway, you’ll get to make money! And that’s really the best part about working.

Having money is really nice. It gives me so much freedom to do whatever I want. I can take my hobbies further like never before. I can eat good food, go nice places, etc. That’s really the best part about working. You can really enjoy life and enjoy living independently.

Once you taste this freedom, a big part of you will not want to be a student again. :)

Would you advise going to graduate school first before applying to teach?

A student asked:

Would you advise going to graduate school first before applying to teach for MOE? I’m thinking of teaching in JC (since humanities seems to be taken more seriously there) but I heard a degree alone won’t get me to where I want to go.

Here’s my thoughts on the matter:

Hello, from the way you phrased your question (teaching because “humanities seems to be taken more seriously there”), my advice is that you shouldn’t commit to the idea of grad school or teaching. At least not so soon. I think you’re doing yourself a great disservice by limiting your options to teaching/grad school – not because the options are limited, but because of a limited awareness of the options available.

There are thousands of options out there that take the humanities seriously.

If you think about it, the humanities have been taught for centuries since the creation of universities. What do you think all these graduates from all over the world have been doing?

If you really value the humanities and take it seriously, I do strongly encourage you to figure out how to apply your learning in the humanities OUTSIDE of school. Universities never had to teach people how to apply the humanities, because for a very long time, people figured that out on their own.

I know it’s not easy because it’s something I’ve been doing as a philosopher for years. And what I can say is that progress in this area can only be achieved through: (1) lots of reading beyond your comfort zone; (2) talking to people older than you and people in fields that are alien to us; and (3) a lot of thought and reflection.

It is only through this process that we can discover the application of the humanities in solving real world problems. And from personal experience, it is very rewarding. If later you decide you want to do research or teach, at least you’ll be doing something that makes an impact.

Doing graduate studies won’t really give you an edge. In fact, if you are really committed as a teacher, you will eventually be sponsored to do further studies (usually a Masters, sometimes a PhD) by MOE as part of your career advancement.

Any advice on joining the teaching profession?

One student wrote in and asked:

Any advice on joining the teaching profession?

Here’s my thoughts:

Do it only if you are passionate about teaching and actually want to nurture and cultivate people.

If your motivation is (1) you want an iron rice bowl, or (2) you can’t think of anything else to do, don’t go into teaching. Find another iron rice bowl, or read up about other kinds of professions. Teaching is one where lives will be in your care. You really shouldn’t screw with peoples’ lives just for job security or a lack of imagination on what to do in life.

I find it interesting to hear this remark repeated by several TAs in the past year: “I’ve come to realise that anyone can teach. And it’s really easy. But it’s really difficult to teach well. Not everyone can do that well.” And unfortunately, we tend to be the worst evaluators of our teaching abilities. I’ve seen some educators who are so bad, but are very happy to pat themselves on the shoulder thinking they did great.

Two questions to ask yourself: (1) How far are you willing to go for one student, or for one class of students? And (2) how do you plan to treat the weaker students?

For (1), if you’re reluctant or your answer is no, then teaching is really not for you. I’m not saying you die-die must sacrifice every day of your life. But to be a good teacher, sometimes you do have to go the extra mile to fight for or fight together with a student or a class so that they can succeed in their learning journey. My JC teachers fought hard for me and my friends when it came to our learning and competitions. That was like 15ish years ago, and it left a very deep impact on me and how I treat others. That’s what good teaching does. It changes lives.

For (2), if your answer is to leave the weaker students and let them die, then you really don’t have the right values to be a good teacher. Unfortunately, I know teachers/profs/TAs (outside my module) who think this way. In fact, it is this thinking that generates a lot of fear and over-competitiveness that plagues our education system. I do believe that we need more nurturing teachers with a heart for the last, lost, and the least, if we want to educate people well.