Do you think it’s good to reconnect with some old friends again?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Do you think it’s good to reconnect with some old friends again? Like someone whom you haven’t talked to for like 1-2 years? Do you think there’s still a point to make an effort to reach out? I always feel apologetic that I’ve grown distant with some of my old friends. We’re all so busy that we slowly forget about each other. I don’t know whether I should still try since they seem like they have already moved on.

I feel the same way too actually. To be fair, I think everyone feels the same way about friends they haven’t been in touch with for a while. So we’re all trapped in a deadlock of not contacting each other.

From my experience, it’s actually very fun to reconnect with people. In the past 1-2 years, I’ve had a lot of friends reconnect with me even though we have not spoken to each other in the past 7-8 years after graduation!

Facebook/Instagram actually helped a lot with reconnecting with people. It’s so fun to talk to them and just catch up on life and reminisce on the past. I recently had a gathering with a few of them. These were the first friends I made in uni. And it started when I decided one day to just turn to my left and right to say “hello,” to the people sitting next to me. We started hanging out for lunch and goofing around on and off campus, and we got to know their friends and all.

So it’s really nice to reconnect with them again. We hit it off as if we were never apart for so many years. It’s surreal when you think about it, but that’s the fun of life.

As for friends that you’ve grown distant because of school/work, I think it helps to drop a “hello” every now and then. If you feel shy, find an excuse. Like, “Oh I saw this thing on YouTube and thought of you.” It helps also to not be a stalker on social media. Just a simple “hello,” or a comment on their posts is a way to keep in touch.

If they are your good friends from before, they’ll really appreciate it, and when the time is right (like when they’re not fighting fire because of the hustle and bustle of daily life), they’ll find the time to hang out with you.

It’s important to remember that if you feel something about other people, they probably feel the same. We’re all just waiting for each other to say hi.

So take the initiative. You’ll slowly discover that some of these friendships will last very far and long throughout your lifetime. :)

How do I begin as a freelance writer?

A student asked:

Hi! I have always wanted to try freelancing. I’m thinking of doing writing-related freelancing, but I’m not really sure of how to start.

I can only speak about non-fiction freelance writing, with the following advice:

What kind of writing do you want to go into?

Regardless of that answer, you should definitely start a blog to showcase your writing in that area. I highly recommend WordPress because they handle search engines better, and so people can more easily discover your writings through Google.

When I was an undergrad, my blog got the attention of one of our ministers, which led to two interesting lunch meetings. Interestingly, my first job after graduation was because of the second meeting. The people involved were so impressed they created a position for me for me to explore and do exciting things in the world of engineering (even though I’m trained as a Philosopher). My blog also paved the way for me to meet very interesting people, and acquire exciting opportunities. Fun fact: I played a key role in helping to revamp the packaging design for a local yoghurt company! Alvas Yoghurt, if you’re wondering. Go buy and support local! It’s really delicious.

A friend of mine started a blog to review theatre plays. And the National Arts Council contacted him and gave him a contract to watch and review plays. He even gets to watch theatre plays for free now because of it.

So yes, please start a blog and update it regularly with your writings. You don’t need to write long essays. Even if it’s 500-800 words, it’s pretty good.

If you want to be an established freelancer, the first few jobs you take will probably be through word of mouth. Ask around (family, friends, religious/community leaders) to see who’s looking for someone to write stuff for them. It could be as a contributor for a community newsletter (either reporting on an event, or contributing your own thoughts about a specific matter.

Whatever it is, don’t be picky about the task and the pay. Just take on projects and try. Every successful assignment you complete will lead to more recommendations. That’s what you want to develop your freelance writing career.

When you feel more confident, then you can decide to increase the pricing. When you have established a portfolio that you’re proud of, then you can be picky about your assignments, and even apply as a freelancer for companies that have to publish newsletters or magazines and stuff like that. (Or if you believe firmly that you have it in you, just be thick skinned and approach the editors, start with the smaller publications first.)

You can also develop your portfolio (and look very impressive) by contributing articles to the Straits Times, Today Newspaper, or even foreign newspapers like the Financial Times. You only need to write about 800 words. Just send it to the editor. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do, but I don’t know what to write.

I know a former student who gets an article published like once every two weeks or so. I know another guy (an ex-colleague) who was so passionate about a topic, that he has a huge portfolio of articles published in all our local newspapers and several local magazines.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Oh no… My writing is not good enough.” Let me assure you that there’s a ton of mediocre writing out there. You don’t need to aim for perfection. You just need to write slightly better than the stuff that’s out there.

If I have to be brutally honest, I could write a lot better than the two people I mentioned earlier who submitted articles to newspapers, and I know many students who could do just as well or even better than them in their writing. You’re probably one of them if you’ve been scoring As for your essays. It’s not a perfect measure, but consistent As for essays do mean that you able to write clearly and logically.

So moral of the story: you need to be a lot more thick skinned, and just submit even if you don’t feel it’s perfect enough.

The aim is quantity (with some degree of quality). Let’s say the success rate is 5%. For every 20 times you submit (could be 20 articles or the same articles submitted multiple times), one article gets published. That’s not bad.

Here’s the important point: You don’t know yet what works, so you need to have this exploration phase to churn out a lot of stuff to see what works (the ones that get accepted for publication) and what doesn’t work (the ones that get rejected). Don’t be disappointed just because the first article didn’t make it.

You can also try fiverr.com. It’s a platform for people to hire freelancers to do work. But you’ll be competing with a global audience. Not bad if you can promote yourself well. Be sure to read books about how to promote yourself. Don’t watch videos on YouTube or read articles online, they’re too short and superficial to be of real use to helping you develop.

And last but not least, every time you acquire success, be sure to update your blog and LinkedIn, so that people can see your portfolio.

What are some important lessons you’ve learnt from your friendships?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What are some important lessons you’ve learnt from your friendships?

Thank you for this very thoughtful question. Here are two very important lessons on friendship that I have learnt since I graduated:

(1) The nature of your friendships will change over time and that’s not always a bad thing. Your friends will get attached and they will spend less time with you; they will transition to working life and they will have less time to spare; their experiences at work and with love will also transform them for better or for worse, etc.

Just because you hang out less or talk less to each other doesn’t mean that you aren’t friends anymore or that the friendship has ceased to exist. The friendship is still there and they will be there for you when you need it most. I have close friends who, when I say I’m going through a difficult moment, will not hesitate to drop all their commitments and travel all the way from East to West just to be with me when I need them most. We used to hangout and talk a lot every day when we were students. These days, not so much because of our commitments. But the close bond still exists.

In fact, I have friends who, though we haven’t spoken to each in years, we’re still able to talk to intimately and intensely as if we just picked up from where we left years ago. Of course, I have lost friends because we change and our values change greatly, and so we don’t see eye to eye on critical matters. But that’s ok. It happens. Don’t blame yourself. It happens.

The point is that don’t regard the change in the nature of your friendships as a bad thing. It just happens as a fact of life. They are still friends. Those years of shared experiences you’ve had, those moments of fun, and heart-to-heart discussions. These have contributed in forging friendships that will last after graduation.

(2) Being vulnerable is very important to developing close friendships. How close you are to your friends depends heavily on how vulnerable you are willing to be with them. Most of us are stuck in some kind of deadlock with each other, unsure of whether to be risk being vulnerable to the other. But if you play the waiting game and invest little or nothing, your knowledge and bond with that friend remains superficial.

If you want a way to gauge how superficial or deep your friendships are, ask yourself: How many friends do you know well enough to know about their sad/tragic chapter of their lives? Everyone has a sad/tragic chapter of their lives that defines them (who they are) and how they behave now. If everyone around you seems to be living very happy peaceful lives, then you haven’t grown close to them to know their dark stories. These are just friends whom you hang out with, but you’ve not grown close enough to discover their vulnerable side, the sad/tragic story of their lives that they’re often too ashamed to reveal.

If you initiate by being vulnerable yourself, they will reciprocate and be vulnerable too (assuming they are good friends to begin with). That’s when you know your friendship has begun to deepen.

Now, I know it can be very hard, especially if you’ve been through a lot of hurt and pain in the past. It feels awful to be betrayed or hurt by someone we care so much for, and from someone we call a friend. But I think it’s important that we try again and again to risk that vulnerability. If you think about it, if we fell from a bicycle and hurt ourselves, we don’t usually say, “I will never ever cycle again.” We’d pick ourselves up and continue cycling. So why do we behave so differently when we are hurt by people close to us? Is it really very different? Should we treat these hurts any differently?

So let me end with a quote that someone shared with me recently: “The decision to love (friends or a partner) is the decision to risk hurting yourself.”

I struggle in my studies. Does it mean that I’m not good enough?

A student wrote to me, asking:

I read that you were originally from the science stream but later chose to major in Philosophy. I share a very similar experience and I feel like I relate to you a lot! Are there times where you feel like you cannot match up to your peers in FASS who had taking humanities even before University? Do you feel that if you had pursued the arts stream, you wouldn’t have to struggle as much, maybe write essays easier?

Because that’s how I feel when I entered FASS. I always feel like I’m not good enough compared to other people in my major who seem to have more knowledge and background as compared to me. I find that I’m struggling and I sometimes question if I chose the right course.

Have you had such thoughts back as an undergraduate student? How did you overcome these kinds of thoughts?

I have had many moments where I feel I’m not artsy enough (and it still happens today). Sometimes I’ll be talking to friends, and they will get really excited and go deep into certain discussions that just fly past my face. These are on topics that I know absolutely nothing about! Or, as a student, I used to have peers and even juniors who always did better than me no matter how hard I worked.

So I want you to know that I totally understand how that feels.

I want to address the issue that underlies your question: if I struggle, does it mean that I’m bad at it?

This is a matter close to my heart because I really wished someone had told me about this when I was an undergraduate. It would have changed my perspective on so many things, and I wouldn’t have had to go through four years feeling that I’m not good enough.

We are our worst critics. And especially in FASS where there is no one right answer, there is plenty of room for self-doubt.

Struggling is part of the process of growth. You will struggle to make sense of the things you read, struggle to gain clarity about concepts, struggle to articulate your thoughts into an essay.

When I was an undergrad, I struggled for my four years, and I kept thinking that I was not good enough precisely because I struggled with writing essays. I felt quite miserable about myself. In fact, I felt so burnt out trying so hard that after I graduated, I told myself I didn’t want to go back to academia ever again because I was not cut out for it.

It was only years later when I got to talk to top academics (in the course of my work) that I learnt and understood that how much you struggle is NOT an accurate indicator of how bad you are. Struggling doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough. Everyone who’s good struggles!!!

Struggling is just the process by which we give birth to new ideas or insights. Struggle is the process by which we constantly challenge ourselves to grow. So I want you to know that struggling is a normal process. It means that you are on the right track, and that you are growing. Struggling means that you are on your way to becoming better. (And I really wished someone told me this when I was an undergrad, so that’s why I’m telling you this now)

You’ll struggle more in university than anywhere else because university is the probably the only time where your mind, your system of thinking, your values are constantly being challenged almost non-stop. The demands on your brain is like nothing you’ve ever experienced (or will have to experience after graduation). So of course you will struggle every step of the way (I’d be worried for you if you didn’t struggle at all).

I’ve since come to terms that struggling is normal, and I’m a lot more patient and kind to myself. I’ve come to learn that struggle makes me produce things that are awesome. Two days ago, I spent 4 hours struggling to write one paragraph of text describing my new course. I don’t like that it took 4 hours, but with that newfound insight I have, I don’t see it as a bad thing. And after 4 hours, I produced a paragraph I’m very proud of. And in fact, that short piece of writing opened up new doors of opportunities for me.

Every good piece of work is produced from struggle. I can name you all kinds of things that were produced because of struggles and the good that came out of it: my Masters dissertation, the two books I published, my lecture videos, etc. They were all the fruits of struggle, but look how far I’ve come with them.

I still struggle with these tasks, and even today, I continue to have moments in my struggle where I feel like I’m not good enough. So I do have to remind myself that it’s normal and that even the brightest academics go through it, and so it doesn’t mean that I’m bad. It’s just the process. And in the end, the work comes out great and people recognise me for that.

The point I want to make is this: struggle brings out the best in us. It doesn’t feel good, and you will always feel you’re not good enough.

So it’s very important to remind yourself that it’s normal, and as long as you endure and be kind and patient with yourself, you will rise victorious. Every work born out of struggle will be the best that you’ve created thus far. You may feel that you’re not good enough. But once you’re done struggling with your work, you have attained a new level of perfection in yourself. :)

What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? And what’s the riskiest?

A student asked:

What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? And what’s the riskiest?

Interestingly, the best and riskiest decision I made were one and the same: the decision not to pursue Computer Engineering (something which I already knew back then I could do well in), but instead I chose to take the plunge into Philosophy in Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). It was quite risky and scary because I was always a science stream student, and writing essays were not my forte. In fact, I did very badly for every humanities-related subject I ever did back in school.

I switched from Computer Engineering to Philosophy because of my time in National Service, and because of the freelance work I did. I found that I really hated sitting in front of a computer writing code for hours to solve other people’s (or other business’s) problems. It felt very meaningless and boring to me.

I thought to myself that if university was going to be my last chance to study something, I should do something meaningful, and have my last shot at doing something I really like doing. Was I afraid of switching to FASS and doing badly? Yes, I was very afraid. And though I had people assuring me it would be ok, I was not given any guide of any sort. Nor did I have a plan or clue on how to survive or do well. But I took the plunge because I knew I didn’t want to do Computing anymore. So it was by far the riskiest decision I ever made.

Why was it the best? Because I enjoyed doing everything I did for the four years of my undergraduate days. It was tiring and I struggled a lot (even went hospital thrice in one year), but it was so worth it. I grew so much and my thinking matured so greatly in those four years.

A good example of all these can be seen in my writings, especially in the Q&A that I have written in response to your queries about a variety of matters. My ability to think clearly, and process issues in their complex nuances without oversimplification, and to present and reason my thoughts with you here in a systematic manner – these are the fruits of my education in Philosophy.

I am painfully aware of how I used to write before I studied Philosophy, and it would look very much like those obnoxious entries/comments you’d find on online platforms like NUSWhispers, where I’d pontificate based on my own feelings rather than clarifying it with reason and empirical support. I used to be that kind of person.

Philosophy changed me, and made me a much better person who could actually reason systematically about complex issues. So I’m very glad for that.

Are polytechnic graduates inferior to junior college graduates in University?

A student wrote to me:

I’m curious about your opinion of polytechnic graduates entering university. I am a student who came from poly and I have experienced (to quite a great extent) the discrimination towards undergrads who didn’t follow the cookie-cutter local education route. I even had a tutor who looked down on us in class. Are we really that inferior? Sometimes it feels like we are just tokens of inclusive education that the University tries to promote. And sometimes it feels like we need to try so much harder just to prove that we’re just as deserving or as good as the rest :(

I have the greatest respect for polytechnic graduates studying in University. In general, the students that amaze me most with their independent learning, boldness to try new things, and overall great people skills are the ones who come from poly. (That said, the impressive students from junior colleges amaze me in very different ways. The different educational routes have trained you to be good in very different things, and so the two are really incommensurable – not comparable at all.)

Let me address the real issue at heart here: Petty people exist anywhere and everywhere and they are driven by insecurity to want to make the minority look bad. They will find some arbitrary factor to class you as the “other” in their “us-versus-them” narrative, and so use that to look down on you. 

If you were surrounded by only polytechnic graduates, statistically, some of them will be petty people too, and they will use some other arbitrary factor, like secondary school, or the course of study in poly, or something lame as that, to use as a reason to put you down.

Don’t let them get to your heads. Every time you come across such petty people, remind yourself that you must strive to be better than them. Nothing pisses petty people off more than seeing their target victim unaffected by their words. So deny them that pleasure by being totally chill about it. If you can make a joke out of it and get them to laugh with you, you might win them over.

Anyway, because you didn’t go through the cookie-cutter route, you have so much to contribute and share with by virtue of your background. You have no idea how much of a difference you can make by sharing your experience and ideas. Just opening your mouth to let them hear a different perspective is itself very refreshing and eye-opening.

So don’t buy into that sad narrative that you’re just a token. No, don’t let them break you. You have so much to contribute and share with your peers. And the fact that you made it to Uni through the much tougher route makes you really incredible to have persevered and come this far. 

So stay amazing, stay awesome!

How do I reject someone politely?

A student asked:

How do I reject someone politely?

Rejection is tough. I do admire your courage in wanting to reject politely instead of ghosting people (which seems to be the trend nowadays).

Personally, I think ghosting people is a really mean thing to do. It takes great courage to step out of one’s comfort zones and risk losing the friendship in order to confess his/her interest. Ghosting just increases the anxieties and worries in that person. I don’t think it’s fair to torture someone who went out of his/her way to tell you that he/she likes you. I think the least we should do, if we’re not interested in entering into a relationship with that person, is to give that person a reply and allow for that person to have some closure.

What I recommend doing is this: Thank the person for finding the courage to confess because it is not easy for that person to do that. Acknowledge the effort the person made. Then, tell the person that you have to turn him/her down and be honest with the reason. And make it clear that there’s no chance in winning you over in the future, because some people think that you may be undecided now, and all they have to do is to work harder at it.

I know some of you may be struggling to figure out what to say. So, here are some samples you can model your rejection after. Please don’t copy word for word – other students are reading this, and there’s a chance the person you reject might have seen this and knows that you plagiarised from me. So please word your rejection in your own special way. Don’t send this as a text. This should be something you say to the person either face-to-face or at the very least, over a call or something.

“Hey, thank you so much for finding the courage to confess to me. I know it’s not easy and I do admire what you have done. I want you to know that it is also not easy for me to give you my answer either. So here goes. While I do enjoy spending time with you, I am not attracted to you the way you are attracted to me. It’s not because of what you have done or haven’t do. It’s just the way things are. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and I just can’t see us in a relationship. You’re a great friend, and I prefer if we remain as friends. I do hope you will respect my decision in this regard. Ok, I know this will feel awkward, so if you like, I’ll give you some space to process this. Know that I value our friendship and so I won’t be avoiding you. I do hope we can continue our friendship the way it was.”

OR

“Hey, thank you so much for finding the courage to confess to me. I know it’s not easy and I do admire what you have done. I want you to know that it is also not easy for me to give you my answer either. I want you to know that being in a relationship is not my number one priority right now. I have no interest in being in one, and I don’t want to rush into one. I think you’re a great person, and I think the best we can be is to remain as friends. I do hope you will respect my decision in this regard. I know this may feel awkward because you have confessed your feelings to me, so I’ll give you some space to process this. Just know that I won’t be avoiding you because I do see you as a friend and would like to continue our friendship the way it was.”

Whatever it is, don’t send mixed signals like hugging the person, or texting the person more than usual just because you feel guilty for rejecting him/her.

Allow the person to have time and space to process the feelings and move on. You may occasionally have to deal with the person still wanting to try. Whatever it is, stand your ground and don’t ghost the person. It’s an important life skill you need to learn for the working world too (it comes in handy when you have to deal with superiors/colleagues/clients who pester you to do things you don’t like to do – you can’t ghost them, so you need to learn how to be tactful yet assertive).

Another student asked a follow-up question on the same topic:

I’ve recently been getting many texts from someone of the opposite gender who tries too hard at continuing the conversation. I’m really not interested in conversing with that person. However, I do feel bad for ignoring (or not replying to) that person, so I’ll always end up replying to those messages out of courtesy. Are there any ways to show signs of disinterest in order to prevent any possibilities of leading anyone on without ghosting him/her?

Since it’s pretty recent, it’ll take a while for that person to get the message. Don’t always reply immediately. You can wait a couple of hours before you reply. Keep the replies short, as long messages can be interpreted that he/she has found a topic you are interested in, and that person may try to sustain the conversation with that topic.

If you keep getting a lot of messages, you can say that you’re busy with something and can’t read/reply. I know a friend who just shuts conversations with people by saying she needs to sleep early and wishes the person good night. You don’t need to explain yourself to other people for these kinds of things. You don’t owe anyone an explanation either. The person will eventually get the idea.

I once met a lady who wears a fake engagement ring. She shared with me how she wears that as a signal to stop creepy guys from going after her (they see the ring, think she’s attached and they don’t bother).

Now, you’re probably a student, so engagement rings and stuff are out of the question. But the idea applies: If you are being chased by someone who doesn’t know you very well, you can just say that you are already interested in someone or something like that. Just drop it somewhere in your conversation. “Oh, speaking of McDonalds, my crush to posted on IG that he just bought a happy meal. So cute. I’m looking forward to having a happy meal with him soon!”

This is even easier when you do it online. Again, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. So you don’t need to say very much. This will be a very strong signal to the person that you aren’t interested and he/she will back off.

Hope that helps!

When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

A student asked:

When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

It’s your life. So go into it whenever you feel you’re ready to handle it.

If you think you concentrate better in your studies by not being in a relationship, that’s fine. That said, I don’t like how some parents force their children to refrain from relationships until after graduation. It’s not healthy or productive to control these kinds of things.

However, you must understand the risks involved when it comes to your choices on when to start relationships.

University is a great time because you have many opportunities to meet new people, and to hang out with them. You will not be able to interact with people the same way in the working world as you would in school. BUT, it can distract you from your studies, and you may not realise your full potential in your studies.

One possible road bump you may encounter is when you both transition from school to work. The lifestyle change will affect how both of you will be able to interact. Most can handle the change. Some can’t. So it’s very important to handle the transition carefully. Remember: open and honest communication is important.

So proceed with caution and try not to forget that you still are a student with readings and assignments to handle.

If you want to start a relationship after graduation, that’s fine too. Though, you should be aware that it can be really hard (not impossible, just harder) to find a potential partner after graduation. Work is the one place where you’ll spend most of your waking moments at. As it is, most of the people at work are already attached or married. And for some people, it’s weird to date people from the same organisation/office for a variety of reasons. And because you spend most of your time at work, you have fewer opportunities to meet new people. You will need to make great effort on your part to join interest groups and other activities to meet new people and make more friends. Like I said, it’s not impossible, just harder.

Dating apps aren’t that great. I’ve heard more horror stories than good ones. Though I do know of a handful of success cases that have led to marriage. Let me share a funny story. I have on several occasions witnessed people date strangers they met on dating apps. I don’t know why, but it tends to be the case that they’ll sit at the table right next to me when I’m having dinner (yes, I’m very nosey). The interactions are so cringeworthy. It always feels like an insurance agent and a potential client meeting for the first time. It has the same awkwardness (if not more), and they ask the same kinds of questions that insurance agents typically ask: How many people in your family? What do you do? What did you study? How is work? Do you want children? Have you bought any insurance lately? (I kid!)

If you’re going to meet someone on a first date (from a dating app), don’t do it over a meal. It just increases the anxiety levels, and all of that person’s attention is focused entirely on you and what you say and how you say it. So stressful! You’ll just end up talking like an insurance agent (as I have observed over many dinners I’ve had outside). Frankly, it won’t be a memorable experience.

Here’s my advice… Skip the meal. Meet up, and go do some activity where both of you are shit at it, like those art jamming studios, or pottery class, or cooking class, or something like that. Just make sure both of you are bad at it, so you both won’t feel stressed that you have to make something of the same standard as the other. This way, part of your attention is focused on the activity and you’ll both feel a lot more relaxed. Plus, it’ll be a more memorable experience. (And then go have your meal – you’ll have something fun to talk about over dinner. You’re welcome!)

Regardless of when you want to enter into a relationship, just remember one important rule: don’t be desperate. Desperation can make you do stupid things that repel people. And when you get super desperate, you end up doing things that you may regret, like marrying the first person who decided to date you. I know people who did that. They got engaged in less than a year (that’s pretty fast), and they never really appear happy about their marriage when we talk about it.

Moral of the story: Don’t rush. Don’t be desperate. Good things – good partners too – come to those who wait.

Have you done something you really regret? If so, how did you recover from it?

A student asked:

Have you done something you really regret? If so, how did you recover from it?

I started thinking seriously about issues pertaining to regret when in the early stages of dating with my girlfriend (now wife). She had a lot of apprehensions about commitment, and she asked: “What if this relationship doesn’t work sometime in the future. Wouldn’t you regret your decision to be with me?”

I didn’t have an answer then, but the question forced me to think deeply about the issue. There is a famous phrase that you often find in self-help books and articles: “make decisions you won’t regret.” I found those articles rather fluff and unhelpful. But I did think to myself what would it mean to make a decision that I won’t regret? What would that mean to me?

After much thought, it occurred to me that there are two distinct types of regret: (1) regret over the decision; and (2) regret over the outcome. This was a very helpful conceptual distinction because it made me realise that there are some things in life where the outcome might have been regrettable, but I would not have regretted the decision. In which case, I may feel upset about what happened, but I wouldn’t live a life of regret over the decision I made.

Here’s a trivial example to illustrate the distinction between the two: I may have made the decision to spend time with a good friend all the way till late in the night. The outcome is that I am so sleepy I cannot focus and work throughout the day. I may regret the outcome, but I do not regret the decision to spend time with that friend.

Furthermore, there are situations where the outcomes are beyond our control. The success of some decisions is dependent on external factors like people and the current situation, and sometimes even luck! We may say that we regret doing something because we could have known, or should have known better. Yet, the reality is that there are many things that we could-have or should-have known but we just could not have known because those things lie in the realm of the unknown unknowns (I don’t know that I don’t know). When I’m personally involved in a situation where the outcome turns out really bad (very regretable), I do ask myself: is this something I could have known from the beginning? If, from my own reflection and assessment, I realised I could not have done anything to mitigate it there and then, despite my best efforts, then I would class this regret as a regret about the outcome. I would not regret the decision I made then (doesn’t mean I don’t feel upset over what has happened – those are two separate things).

Then the question now is: what ARE the sorts of decisions that I would or would not regret? I am aware that I, as an individual, change and grow over time. So my perspectives, my maturity over certain issues, and sometimes even my values change (or evolve) with every experience I acquire over the years. I reflected on situations where I look back to the past in regret, and realised that I regret the decision because I am using present-day-me to evaluate past-me. But past-me would not have had the maturity or insight or even the same values to have made the same judgement as present-day-me, nor would past-me have the same knowledge and awareness as present-day-me would have about the wide array of options available to handle specific situations (these were learnt over time through experience). So, just as how we can’t fault people for ignorance over certain issues, I too can’t and shouldn’t fault my past self for that lack of awareness or knowledge.

If I do want to validly and fairly fault my past self for a bad decision, it would have to be in a situation where past-me was aware of the range of available options and possible outcomes and making a poor decision fuelled either by fear or insecurity. Because those were moments where I could have – there and then – rationally made the right decision, but I chose otherwise. Those would be decisions that I would regret.

To put it another way, for me, to make a decision that I would not regret means that if I could go back in time and undergo the same decision-making process, the same past-me with that same level of finite knowledge and bounded rationality – would still want to make the same decision again and again. I don’t even consider my present-knowledge of the outcome, because who I was at that time could not have known what the outcome would be.

Were I driven by fear, anxiety, or insecurity, I might have made a poor choice then. But if I could repeat that moment in time where I could have handled my fears and weaknesses better, I would have chosen otherwise. And this would be how I can conclude that I made a decision I regret.

To answer your question, I use this way of thinking to evaluate my regrets. I have since stopped regretting a lot of things that I used to regret and emo heavily about because either (1) they are regrettable outcomes beyond my control or knowledge; or (2) the same past-me would have chosen the same decision again and again no matter how many times I replayed the scenario. So all these fall under the rubric of decisions that I do not regret – these were decisions made to the best of my ability. And I can only learn the painful lessons that may have arose from them, or indulge in the happy memories that they create.

And for the decisions that I truly regret, they become very valuable lessons on how to manage myself better: how not to cave in to fear, how not to cave in to insecurity, etc. They are very vivid memories of pain, and they serve to remind me not to repeat them again.

What are your thoughts on people who “steal” their friend’s boyfriend/girlfriend as their own?

A student wrote to me:

What are your thoughts on people who “steal” their friend’s boyfriend/girlfriend as their own?

I think you are ascribing too much moral responsibility to the person who “stole” the boyfriend/girlfriend. You forget that the ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend has the autonomy to make decisions as well.

If you need closure, it’s best to talk to your ex about it. But just to answer your question, there are two possible reasons:

(1) Either the relationship hasn’t been going well (or maybe it did at the start, but both sides got complacent about working at maintaining the relationship). This is the most common reason for this happening. This can happen when the basic emotional needs of a relationship are not fulfilled. So if someone is able to “steal” your ex away from you, it’s because that person has been fulfilling that need which you haven’t been able to; or you’ve been working hard, fulfilling the need in a way the partner doesn’t want (poor communication on the part of the partner); or sometimes, it could just be that you stopped fulfilling that need due to other priorities or complacency in being in a relationship for so long.

In such situations, both sides are responsible – it takes two hands to clap. What it points to really, is a breakdown in open and honest communication. It takes courage to tell your other half what your needs are, and it takes even greater courage to tell them that they are not fulfilling your needs in the way you require (people are scared they offend their partners).

Now, I don’t find it productive to blame anyone for this. We are all learning how to deal with ourselves and with other people. And relationships are very hard work – if it were so easy, we wouldn’t be having so many stories of breakups. It’s easy to grow complacent because you have to see that person every day, and so it becomes easier to tell ourselves that it’s ok to do this once or twice since we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together (except that tend to excuse ourselves way more than just once or twice). And when that happens, the other feels neglected.

If this was the reason, use it as a learning point and work on improving communication for the next relationship.

Or, (2) the ex may have been using you as a temporary placeholder until they found someone seemingly better. This is a very uncommon reason, but it does happen from time to time. Such people are under the assumption that they can be even happier if they have a much better love experience with someone else. Or in some cases, they be feeling incredibly lost with themselves, and it so happens that they found someone who inspires them with a sense of direction and purpose. And it is easy to confuse feelings of awe, hope, and wonder with love.

And again, this is a rare occurrence, but I have known this to happen to people from time to time. In most cases, people have the maturity and sensibility to stay with their current partner despite meeting someone “better.” If they do leave, it’s because of specific problems like that mentioned in point (1) above.

In the rare chance that you encounter someone who left you for someone better without any reasons in (1), then I’ll say, don’t blame yourself and well, don’t blame anyone. Sometimes people are just very lost and confused and they are trying to find their own way. Things like this happens. Humanity is filled with both happy and sad stories. These are the things that make us human and more humane when we understand them.

[By the way, since I’m talked about fulfilling each other’s needs, I want use this opportunity here to address a relevant issue. Some people pressure their partners into having sex with them using the reason that they have a “sexual need” (sometimes they threaten to leave the relationship to find someone who will satisfy that need). This is utter rubbish. People have survived their teenage years without having sex. No one has died from not having sex.

If your partner pressures you to have sex using reasons like this, this is a red flag because your partner is trying to emotionally manipulate you. This is a clear sign that he/she does not respect you as a person (to be manipulated is to be treated as an object, not a person) and you might want to reconsider the relationship if you are thinking about the long-term.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying don’t have sex (you’re adults, go do whatever you want – I don’t care what you do – just… don’t leave stains… lol). What I’m saying is: don’t give in to such pressure if you don’t want to or are not comfortable with it. Sexual intimacy due to manipulation is not love.]

Why do you use the username, @autumnfloods? What’s the story behind it?

A student asked me:

Why do you use the username, @autumnfloods? What’s the story behind it?

“Autumn Floods” is the name of Chapter 17 of the Book of Zhuangzi (莊子), which happens to be a chapter that I find incredibly profound and moving, whether I read it in the original Classical Chinese or even in the various English translations.

The chapter is a constant reminder of how we should have the intellectual humility to remember always that we never know enough and should never be certain about anything even if we may have had many “relevant” experiences, or heard something repeated over and over again as if it were the Truth.

Here is an excerpt from the “Autumn Floods” chapter:

“You can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog – he’s limited by the space he lives in. You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect – he’s bound to a single season. You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar – he’s shackled by his doctrines. Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea – so you realize your own pettiness. From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the Great Principle.

“Of all the waters of the world, none is as great as the sea. Ten thousand streams flow into it – I have never heard of a time when they stopped – and yet it is never full. The water leaks away at [the river] Wei-lu – I have never heard of a time when it didn’t – and yet the sea is never empty. Spring or autumn, it never changes. Flood or drought, it takes no notice. It is so much greater than the streams of the Yangtze or the Yellow River that it is impossible to measure the difference. But I have never for this reason prided myself on it. I take my place with heaven and earth and receive breath from the yin and yang. I sit here between heaven and earth as a little stone or a little tree sits on a huge mountain. Since I can see my own smallness, what reason would I have to pride myself?”

Zhuangzi, Chapter 17, trans. Burton Watson

And just a little later in the same chapter:

“There is no end to the weighing of things, no stop to time, no constancy to the division of lots, no fixed rule to beginning and end. Therefore great wisdom observes both far and near, and for that reason recognizes small without considering it paltry, recognizes large without considering it unwieldy, for it knows that there is no end to the weighing of things. It has a clear understanding of past and present, and for that reason it spends a long time without finding it tedious, a short time without fretting at its shortness, for it knows that time has no stop. It perceives the nature of fullness and emptiness, and for that reason it does not delight if it acquires something nor worry if it loses it, for it knows that there is no constancy to the division of lots. It comprehends the Level Road, and for that reason it does not rejoice in life nor look on death as a calamity, for it knows that no fixed rule can be assigned to beginning and end.

“Calculate what man knows and it cannot compare to what he does not know. Calculate the time he is alive and it cannot compare to the time before he was born. Yet man takes something so small and tries to exhaust the dimensions of something so large! Hence he is muddled and confused and can never get anywhere. Looking at it this way, how do we know that the tip of a hair can be singled out as the measure of the smallest thing possible? Or how do we know that heaven and earth can fully encompass the dimensions of the largest thing possible?”

Zhuangzi, Chapter 17, trans. Burton Watson

Beautiful, isn’t it? We can never know enough, nor should we ever pride ourselves for whatever knowledge or richness of experience we may have.

A wonderful lesson and a reminder. And this is of special importance for me as I journey deeper and deeper into the world of academia. I’ve seen too many people go into ridiculous extremes (in religion, politics, and even in decisions affecting everyday life like lifestyle or even parenting) simply because of this lack of intellectual humility to acknowledge that our knowledge and experiences are simply too finite and constantly prone to error.

How do you respond to annoying relatives who look down on you when you tell them you’re studying in the Arts and Social Sciences?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How do you respond to annoying relatives who look down on you when you tell them you’re studying in the Arts and Social Sciences? I’m so annoyed!

Here is some advice that will give you the satisfaction of winning, but there is a high risk that you’ll get permanently banned from their homes and lives. If you happily desire this outcome, you can try this:

(1) Ask what he/she studied back in school.

(2) Next, ask why he/she isn’t even successful in life, or haven’t been promoted, or still stagnating at work, or haven’t made it rich, or haven’t made a difference in this world.

(3) Once he/she is stunned by the question, recite any one of the following quotable quotes:

  • “As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11, if you wish to cast upon them a sacred BUUUURRRN!!!)

    OR:
  • “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Albert Einstein, supposedly)

(4) Enjoy watching them catch fire. LOL :D

Otherwise, if you so desire to maintain harmonious relations with them, I recommend following the advice I wrote here:

What do I say to people who ask me, “What do you want to do in the future?”

Do you think a couple that broke up once can come back together to make things work again?

A student asked:

Do you think a couple that broke up once can come back together to make things work again?

I’m not an expert in this, so I won’t say much about it.

The funny thing about relationships is that we only consider the relationship a success when the relationship ends with at least one party passing away.

If a couple is together for very long, we say we are inspired by them but we know that shit can happen any time to rock the relationship. What I can tell you is that I know one or two old couples who have gone through a break up, and later reunited for years already. Is this successful? I leave you to decide.

While it is not impossible to make the relationship work again, there are many challenges due to past hurts. But I think one problem that can arise is if either party (or both) expect it to be a return to the good ol’ days. Those belong to the past and cannot be recovered. Like a piece of wood that had a nail jammed into it and later removed, the wood will have a hole. That is the indelible mark done to the relationship. You can mend it, but it won’t be the same once again. You both have to accept this as the new normal of the relationship. Expectations of returning 100% to the good ol’ days can potentially hurt the relationship.

What’s essential is open and honest communication, and the willing effort of both sides to want to make it work. Just be careful not to sacrifice so much of yourselves for each other that you end up becoming someone that you’re not – an empty shell of who you once were. Just as much as we want to spend time with each other, we need to give ourselves time and space to be ourselves.

How does one become an undergraduate Research Assistant?

A student asked:

How does one become an undergraduate Research Assistant? It feels like many professors want students with prior research experience or at least some relevant experience. I’m not sure what I have to offer other than the same skills that every other student have.

It’s not always true that profs want students with prior research/relevant experience. What’s more important is that you are willing to work hard for it, and you are willing to learn. Minimally, you should have the following:

  • Good relations with the prof whom you wish to work with
  • Same interest in the prof’s area of research
  • Willing to learn new things beyond your existing skill sets
  • Willing to work very hard even if the tasks are boring (a lot of research tasks are boring mundane tasks)
  • And if you were the prof’s student, at least an A for that module.

Personally, I prefer working with people who are more proactive in updating me or finding additional things to do. Because I tend to be very busy with my own work, and don’t always have time to think about what work to assign. I believe many other professors also value this quality (it’s also a very good quality to have for the working world – your superiors will also be too busy with their work, so they would appreciate this kind of proactiveness).

If you believe you have these, go and talk to the prof about it. But be warned that not all profs have a budget to hire RAs. So even if you are good, and the prof wants you, he may not have the funds available to take you on board. In some cases, some students are sooooooo outstanding, the prof may be willing to recommend you to another prof to be an RA.

There are other research institutions outside NUS with profs from the arts and social sciences. Don’t be afraid to cast your net wider beyond NUS.

How should I make use of my Unrestricted Electives (UE) requirement? Is it worthwhile to pursue a Minor, or should I instead use the time to explore modules from different faculties?

A student asked this question:

How should I make use of my Unrestricted Electives (UE) requirement? Is it worthwhile to pursue a Minor, or should I instead use the time to explore modules from different faculties?

My personal take is that you should only do a minor if you yourself have an interest or passion in it. Otherwise, don’t bother.

When I was an undergraduate student, I used the UE slots to take modules from other faculties, mainly from engineering, computing and the sciences. I’m very grateful I did that because that gave me enough conceptual resources that allowed me to talk and work with engineers in my first job, and later on with academics from STEM majors (and even edit books for them because I knew enough to learn more on my own).

I worked in another university before coming to NUS. And one thing that struck me was the strong culture of learning they had there. I was very amazed to see science and engineering majors so passionate about the humanities, and conversely, humanities students so passionate about learning different things in the sciences. I remembered talking to some humanities undergraduates there and they were determined to take the engineering core mathematics module and PWN (defeat) the engineering majors in their own game.

Here in NUS, we don’t seem to have this culture, or at least I haven’t met students like that. But I do wish students here were more courageous and willing to try and conquer topics beyond their comfort zones, and see it as a healthy challenge to grow and develop yourself.

When you try to do things like this, you are training yourself for the working world, because you are learning to get used to taking on any task that gets thrown at you. You become more resilient.

I spoke to my peers (FASS alumni), and they said that in the course of their working lives, they have been made to do things at work they never thought they had to do when they were students. Things like writing code, develop business plans, etc. Oftentimes, we will have to do this not because we want to, but because we have not much of a choice (it’s assigned to us). So take it in good stride and learn to explore beyond your comfort zone. It’ll be good for you in the long term.

How do I know if I have a good job?

Here’s a question a student asked:

How do I know if I have a good job?

Here’s a few things that come to my mind:

(1) At the very least, your immediate superior and/or boss can really make or break the experience. You may be in your dream job, but if you have a terrible boss, then you’ll hate your life and will quit sooner than you expect.

But if you have a wonderful boss in a job that you aren’t excited about, you still can grow and learn many things. The job will be even better if you happen to have superiors who are nurturing, because that will really take you places and help you grow. In fact, some of them can be very exemplary role models, and they will really teach you what it means to be a leader. My last two bosses were like that. It’s amazing to see how they handled difficulties, people, and all that. A lot of the things I do now with my TAs and students are modelled on their exemplary actions.

Conversely, if you have bad bosses, you also learn a lot of bad things, like making petty decisions such as discontinuing the office water supply just to cut costs (happened to someone I know); or just shouting at people whenever you lose your patience, etc. What many bosses/superiors don’t realise is that they set the culture, and the people under them absorb and learn from their bad behaviours. They learn that they need to do this to survive at work, and over time that gets incorporated into their own personal behaviours. So a company culture is usually toxic because of the people in charge. It’s not good for you to stay long in such places.

(2) The organisation or boss should have plans for your own personal and professional development. Now, I don’t mean that your boss/superior should be hand-holding you and teaching you what to do. This doesn’t exist in the working world – it’s all very much independent learning. Rather, it’s about having your boss introducing you to new projects that will help you gain more experience and that will challenge you to go further. It will always be daunting (sometimes, I find myself screaming in my head because I feel so stressed out by what I have to do – but in the end things turn out ok). Know that they will never recommend you to do something they don’t think you can do. Because if you fail, it will make them look bad. So this really is a sign that you are doing well. If such doors open, it often means that they see a lot of good in you. Adopt my philosophy to life: “Say yes first, and figure out the rest later.” So… Rise up to the challenge and say, “YES!”

Conversely, if you are stagnating, if you aren’t challenged by the job, if after one year you aren’t given opportunities to exciting projects, then you might want to talk to your superiors about it or reconsider staying on. Either you aren’t being given work that helps you grow and develop as a person, OR your talents are not appreciated enough.

(3) I’m not a believer in the whole “find a job that you are passionate about.” Sometimes, because of a lack of experience, we don’t know what we are passionate about yet. We will slowly come to enjoy things we do well in. But enjoyment is not the same as passion. What’s important is to constantly reflect on your work and consider what is the significance of your contribution to the bigger picture. Are you making a difference in the organisation or to society with the work you do?

Knowing that your work is indeed making a difference to someone, somewhere, can fuel your passion about the work you do, and that will give you some meaning and purpose. If you struggle, it may be because you don’t know enough about what’s going on in the organisation – so go read up. Of course, some jobs are just meaningless. You can choose to stay or not, but this is not what the question is asking (WHAT makes for a good job/career).

I hope this helps! :)

Do you have any tips on what to do if I’m interested in someone?

Last night, a student wrote to me, asking:

Do you have any tips on what to do if I’m interested in someone? I’m very scared to come across as too clingy from the start.

Oh, I know how intimidating that can feel!

I think my best advice is to treat that person the same way you would treat your friends. Just because you feel something for that someone, doesn’t mean you go out of your way to do very special things. If both of you haven’t reached a point where the friendship/relationship has grown closer, doing very special couple-ish things at the start can come across as cringeworthy and awkward.

Now the reason why I say you should handle that person the same way you would treat your friends is because that is how you really are when you interact with others. If you change your manner of interaction just for that person, expectations will be set that you are that other person (which you are not). And it can and will be tiring pretending to be that someone that you’re not. So it’s better to be accepted and loved for who you are, rather than to have that someone accept and love a pretence of yourself.

At all times, get a grip on yourself and don’t cave in to desperation or impatience. That’s when we say or do stupid things that will make that person feel uncomfortable. You need to do your best to be calm and confident about it (even if deep down you don’t feel that way).

If you reach a point where both of you are interacting with each other daily with excitement, try to upgrade the friendship to that of a closer friend. Friendships deepen not because of the frequency or quantity of conversations, but from the quality of conversations. Having heart-to-heart talks are good in getting to know people on a closer level and to establish closer bonds. But be careful not to become overly whiny in your heart-to-heart talks about issues. I know some people who degrade heart-to-heart talks into whining sessions about every small problem in their lives, and it becomes a really bad habit (and bad friend) where all they can ever talk about are their problems. It’s more important to engage in active listening so that you can better understand that person (and maybe evaluate whether that person has potential to be a partner and future spouse).

At the end of the day, conversations can only go so far. What you want is to have shared experiences on a variety of matters (applies to friendships too). So don’t just be texting/calling the person only. I know it’s hard to meet up and do fun stuff during this COVID-19 pandemic, but you can always find interesting and creative things to do, so no excuses! Find common projects to work on. Stuff that both of you like to do, or even better, stuff that both of you want to do but have never done before. Do fun stuff, and have fun!

The key is you both want to feel comfortable hanging out with each other, comfortable doing things together, comfortable talking to each other.

Once you find that you are doing these things on a regular basis, it’s a really good sign that the person has strong interest in you too. You can drop your hints of interest (although if the person is perceptive, that person probably can tell from your body language anyway). I don’t want to tell you what to do, because what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. I guess the rule is: Don’t be creepy, and don’t be desperate.

(Personally, I don’t like the rubbish in magazines that tell people to play hard to get. That is just awful advice that advocates manipulation and mind games. I think the only time this may work is if you are interacting with someone who gives off a player vibe or has been going for lots of casual flings. So it might be a test of sincerity. But if that person is already giving off player vibes, it’s a red flag. And I would seriously reconsider. So… Be warned~)

If there’s no hesitation or aversion from the other party, or if that person is smiling like an idiot non-stop at you all the time, then you know all is going well, and you can start preparing to confess. Don’t rush or pressure yourself or the other person. And try not to do overly romantic stuff because it can be very overwhelming for that person (unless you know that person wants that sort of stuff).

You want to give that person the time and space to think and respond to. Some people can’t say yes immediately (not because they don’t like you, but because they are daunted by the idea of taking it to the next level). So if they feel very pressured, they may instantly say no (and regret it) because they can’t handle the pressure. So give them time and space (unless of course you are super sure, and maybe the other party has already been quite explicit in expressing interest in you).

So, all the best and have courage! Let me know when you are successfully attached. If we can meet, I want to congratulate the both of you in person (I really mean it!). :D

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. :)

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.