I want to share my problems with my mother, but she ends up making it all about her. It’s affecting my relationship with her. What can I do?

A student wrote to me with this problem:

I would say that I share a pretty good relationship with my parents. But I face this problem where when I tell my mother about things that bother me, she’d somehow make it about her. I could say, “I’m very stressed,” she’d say, “I’m also very stressed,” then make the entire conversation about her.

My parents always encourage us to share with them our problems because they know what happens when parents and children drift apart. But when she responds like that, it’s just annoying and it’s affecting my relationship with her. What can I do?

There are two possible reasons I can think of.

(1) The first is that she’s just trying to connect with you by stating something common that you both share. People of different generations will say and do things to express love and concern that seem insane to younger people. You know how some old people always like to state the obvious but in the form of a question?

For example, an old auntie might see you leaving the house and she’ll say, “Going out ah?” It always annoys me because I used to perceive it as the auntie being nosey. But then I took a module about Chinese anthropo-linguistics and learnt that it was a common way for that generation of people to express concern. So I stopped getting upset by those questions.

I do find it very sad that many old people’s expressions of concerns are misunderstood by my generation and yours. There’s been a sharp break in the transmission of culture and it’s so easy to misunderstand people older than us.

So, it could be an expression of care, her way of saying that she can understand and/or relate to your problem. That’s one possible reason.

(2) The second possible reason is that she might feel lonely not being able to share her problems. Either because she’s been the one actively listening to other people but there is no suitable person who will listen to her, or she feels that her role as a mother means she can’t share everything that bothers her to you (not wanting to burden you with it). So sometimes, her saying things like that is a form of venting.

Two very different possibilities. It does help to be more patient. And I guess if you can, you can attempt to form a closer connection by offering to listen to her problems if she has anything that does bother her. Knowing that you care enough to ask how she’s doing will touch her deeply.

How do I become more sensible and mature in order to understand my parents?

A student asked me this question:

How do I become more sensible and mature in order to understand my parents?

It helps to talk to more people older than you, and if you can, people of similar age range to your parents and older to gain the various perspectives.

One of the difficulties in trying to understand parents or anyone in authority is the fact that we don’t have the full picture of what’s going on, of the problems or constraints that they themselves face, and the good/bad experiences they had in the past that shaped their decisions and actions.

And sometimes it can be difficult to gain full understanding of one’s parents (or anyone in authority) from talking. Because sometimes, they feel that certain information is best kept secret from you — not because they don’t trust you — but because they don’t want you to have additional anxieties, or drag you into a problem that you shouldn’t have to deal with (either not a battle you should be fighting at your current stage in life, or whatever).

And I’m saying this also as someone who recently transitioned into becoming a lecturer. The kinds of information and perspectives I have access to is very different from what a student has access to. And sometimes I have to make certain decisions that students cannot understand, but it’s actually good for them. The irony is, some of these decisions cannot be explained while they do the assignment, as it’ll then change how they work on the assignment (which then defeats the learning objectives).

The point I’m making is, that if someone has charge over you, there are some information that they cannot share with you, and so it can be frustrating not to be able to see the full picture from your perspective. So it does help to at least be patient about and understand that there are some things that we just cannot fully know, at least for a certain span of time.

So talking to other older people helps a lot! Because these people can freely share their own perspectives that your parents (and other people of authority of you) won’t share. And as you hear their stories, the reasons behind their actions and decisions; and as you hear more narratives from other people of similar age, you begin to form a general sense of what their generation has to go through, their concerns, fears, and also, their hopes for their children of your generation. That understanding will enrich your own perspective about life and the world, and it does help you become more sensible and mature as you reflect on their stories and compare it with your own life experiences.

And I can tell you that this definitely works because it is something that I’ve been doing ever since I was in secondary school. The kinds of stuff I did back then often required me to work and interact with people from their 30s and up. And I’ve been quite fortunate to hear their stories, their struggles, their hopes and fears, their dreams and losses. I was very much enriched by their stories.

A good starting point is to talk to your taxi/grab driver, the auntie/uncle running the food/drink stall that you frequent, or even the older folks who work as cleaners or waiters. And have a chit chat about such things with them. You’ll be amazed at the kinds of things they’ll be willing to share with you.

How do we differentiate between someone who needs to change their attitude or us needing to be more accommodating?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do we differentiate between someone who needs to change their attitude or us needing to be more accommodating?

It all depends on your principles and values. Sure, some of us might feel obliged to please the people around us, but it’s ok insofar as you accommodate within the limits of your principles and values. If accommodating someone means becoming somebody whom you are not, or doing things that you don’t want to do, then of course, you shouldn’t be accommodating that person in that manner.

Now, the problem you posed is that you’ve frame the possible course of actions to a binary either “change their attitude” or “I be more accommodating.” There are more options available, and I don’t want you to fall into the trap of the false dichotomy.

In many ways, expecting a person to change his/her attitude is too high an expectation, and you are surely bound to be sorely disappointed. Attitude isn’t something that can be changed at will in an instant. It’s part of a person’s core self, and it takes lots of time and a conscious effort for there to be an adjustment. If you are going to strongly demand it, what you will get is grudging compliance from someone who, quite ironically, has decided to accommodate your demands despite the pre-existing attitude that you don’t like.

It’ll be more productive to have a one-to-one heart-to-heart chat with that person to better understand where s/he is coming from. The problems, worries, concerns, etc. that’s motivating the person to behave in that way. And at the same time, it helps to let the person understand that you feel hurt/upset when s/he does or says a certain thing. Now, it’s very important to avoid accusatory language that links your frustration with the person. It’ll make that person get very defensive. The way around it would be to phrase it like: “When X happens to me, I feel sad,” or more concretely as an example, “When I hear you say, “XXXXX,” I feel hurt because…”

In short, try to seek mutual understanding through communication. The two options that you put forth, i.e. expecting a person to change their attitude vs. accommodating, lacks any form of communication or understanding. It’s not healthy as you’re constantly trying to second guess and mind-read what the other might think. And we are often wrong about other people in such matters.

Is it advisable to seek internships and jobs through recruiting agencies if I am unsuccessful in my internship search?

A student asked me:

Is it advisable to seek internships and jobs through recruiting agencies if I am unsuccessful in my internship search?

First of all, you should be strategic in your choice of internships and part-time jobs. Don’t just do a job or an internship for the sake of it just because everyone seems to be doing one. It doesn’t reflect well on you if your CV has little to no coherence even if you have a long list of internships/jobs to show off.

Each internship or job that you take on should be strategically chosen so that you have the chance to gain specific experiences or be able to showcase certain achievements that will be valuable for what you want to do after graduation. If you cannot articulate how that internship/job is useful for you other than “I’m making money” or “I’m gaining experience” (in the vaguest sense without being able to articulate precisely the type of experience that you want to help you go to the next stage), then you should really take a step back and strategise.

Not all internships are equal. The really good ones are the kinds where the Universities have spoken to companies to make special training arrangements to ensure the intern really gains value (at least on paper – whether the company follows through or the supervisor you are attached to cares to do it, is a different matter). Some companies use internships to get cheap labour, or make interns do all the mundane and tedious tasks that no one really wants to do.

I personally don’t think going to agencies are worthwhile for an internship. They usually charge a commission, which often is a percentage of your first month’s pay. And you won’t always get what you want to do.

Here’s what I recommend you to do: if internship positions aren’t available, go reach out to companies, and convince them to create one for you. I’m saying this as someone who’s been talking to organisations to create internships for my students, I’ve come to realise that many companies want to hire interns, but they don’t always advertise that they need one because they don’t know if they can trust the student to be good. So they’d only take one on board if they believe they can trust you to do the work.

So in actuality, there is a huge market for interns that exists right now.

There is a government grant that local companies can apply for to pay for the internship salaries. So it costs local companies very little to take on an intern. What you can do is this: find a local company that you’d like to join, whether a startup or SME, research more about what they do, and send an e-mail to the boss or the head of HR, telling them how you are keen to do an internship with them and how you might be able to add value to them. If you make a convincing case, they will interview and they might consider giving you a chance. You can do the same for MNCs. They can’t tap on that government grant, but they can most definitely afford to bring in a few interns.

If you can’t get anything, then you should review your CV. I’ve come to realise that many students write terrible CVs that diminish their real abilities. Many can’t even write decent cover letters. You can ask your parents or people older than you for advice and tips for improvement (or Google – Google is your best teacher).

Or if you didn’t make it for interview, then you should read up about the do’s and don’ts of interviews and do a mock interview with someone who’s already in the workforce to give you feedback. Most of us aren’t very good with interviews. I screwed up my first job interview (The memory of embarrassment has stuck with me for life). Many people lack the self-reflexive awareness to know what they’ve done wrong. So if you’ve been trying and nothing’s been opening up for you, then please review your cover letters, CVs, and interview skills. These would be the things needing improvements.

If at the end of the day, you still can’t get anything, use the time to learn new skills on EdX or Coursera. It’s like playing RPG game. Many players spend a good amount of time levelling up before they take on the bosses. It’s the same idea with internship and job hunting.

A student asked a follow-up question:

I fear there’ll be a lot of students who will do what you suggested. So, even if I improve my skills, there’s a thousand others like me who will improve themselves as well. It’s like a small fry in a big ocean.

And can you elaborate how does one go about approaching companies to open up internship positions for us?

Let me be very frank. This kind of thinking – “I fear there’s a lot of students like me…” – is useless thinking.

I know people who say this and use it as an excuse not to do anything. In the most extreme case, a senior of mine went all hikikomori for 5 years after graduation with that exact thinking. Hikikomori is the Japanese term used to refer to those people who socially withdraw themselves from society and not leave the house. Yes, he was unemployed for 5 years, living off his family because he was so worried that he never gave himself a chance.

If you continue to entertain such anxious thoughts and do nothing, you won’t grow, you won’t get anyway. It then becomes a self-fulling prophecy where there won’t just be thousands like you, but thousands more who will be better than you.

So you must give yourself a chance. Give yourself hundreds, thousands of chances if you must!

Even if there are thousands like you, the very fact is that you need to be hungry to gain new experiences for your own personal growth. Just do it!

The aim is not to succeed and be better than others. The aim is to just improve yourself through that process and collect experiences along.

You’ll probably encounter many rejections along the way. BUT that’s important! In the process, you will gain a lot of valuable experiences like how to do stuff, what to avoid doing, etc. And the more you go through it, the better you become. You’ll be more confident, more savvy, and also a lot less anxious about these things. I remember fantastically screwing up my first interview. It’s so embarrassing that it’s burnt into my memory for life. But there I learnt, and I’m better at such things now.

If you want to reach out to companies to create internships for you, you need to create a value proposition – what can you offer to add value to the company? This means reading up a great deal about the company, what they do, their business model, etc. (whatever you can find – talk to people in that company if you have to), and then construct a portfolio through your CV (and past works if you have any) to show that you probably can do such things. In reality, very few people will compete with you to do this because (1) many don’t know you can do such things; and (2) not many people care enough to research companies thoroughly to be able to even make a strong value proposition to these companies.

If you don’t have a portfolio, at least show that you are very eager and willing to learn. The very fact that you have the courage to do something like this, the bosses will be very keen.

And cast your net wider ok? Don’t just aim for the big companies. There are many SMEs and start-ups urgently in need for interns and they’re not getting any because those thousands that you speak of are only interested in the big names. You’ll score a very good chance if you consider these companies. Many of them will be able to give you very interesting experiences because the lack of manpower in the company means everyone must know how to do everything. You’ll come out with a lot of experience from such an internship.

Any advice for someone who takes a very long time to adapt to a new idea or a new work environment?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Any advice for someone who takes a very long time to adapt to a new idea or a new environment? I am someone who loves living in my comfort zone. So when my new internship programme asked me to check out their office, I got scared! I don’t want to go. In fact, just starting the whole internship programme makes me feel very scared because I would have to meet new people.

I’ll share with you a quote a professor shared with me when I was an undergraduate student: “There is more anxiety over the pull of the trigger than in the bang itself.” What this means is that there’s a lot of fear and tension over the anticipation of the event than in the actual occurrence of the event itself. Our minds play tricks on us, and especially when it comes to new things, we tend to imagine it to be much more dreadful than it should be.

Every few months I have to do things and meet new people that push me out of my comfort zone. And to be honest, it scares me a lot!

Even now, I’m always afraid of saying the wrong thing, or slipping up and giving a bad impression (and I still have this feeling even today). And it still happens to me even though I already have the experience of interacting and working with famous and very powerful people because of my career (politicians, ambassadors, journalists, CEOs, etc.).

Sure, I have experience talking to them, but it still freaks me out!

But I’m thankful for the quote that my professor shared with me years ago, because I remind myself that it’s not as bad as our minds play it out to be. When the event finally happens, it really isn’t as bad as we imagine it to be. One thing I do to cope and not let the fear take over me is that I always focus my mind on the fun and incredible opportunities that await me.

Our hearts sway based on the positive/negative things that we entertain in our minds. The more negative things you focus on, the more repulsed you’ll be towards an idea. The more positive things you focus on, the more your heart will desire it.

So, you can do what I do: Just remind yourself that the anticipation of the bang is scarier than the bang itself. When it happens it won’t be as bad as we imagined it to be. And focus on thinking about the positive stuff that will come your way, like the opportunities and experiences and skills that you’ll gain. That will help with the motivation.

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.