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

A student asked:

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

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

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

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

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

A very worried student wrote to me, asking:

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

The first step is: Don’t panic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another student asked a follow-up question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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! :)

Does a second major bolster my standing for employment?

A student wrote to me, asking:

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

Here’s my reply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student asked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student asked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student wrote to me, asking:

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

This is what I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

“Fire Force”

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

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

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

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

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

A student asked:

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

Here’s my thoughts on the matter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any advice on joining the teaching profession?

One student wrote in and asked:

Any advice on joining the teaching profession?

Here’s my thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What advice do you have for a fresh graduate looking for a job?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What advice do you have for a fresh graduate looking for a job?

There are two kinds of hires: (1) inspirational hires and (2) hires due to necessity.

1. Inspirational Hires

Let me start first with inspirational hires. If you can convince employers – especially people at the top – that you can add value to their organisation with what you have, they can create special positions within the organisation just for you. These are called inspirational hires because they value you and want you around to “inspire” by doing what you say you do best in the organisation. In many ways, these kinds of hires will provide you with great freedom and flexibility to explore things that you want to do.

I want you to know that this kind of hiring takes place a lot more commonly that you think! Every job that I have worked since graduation has been specially created for me. I have never gotten a job by applying on a job portal. My wife got a job in Australia for the same reason as well. I know a handful of people who also had positions specially created for them since graduation.

So the moral of the story is: if you want to be hired like this, go talk to all sorts of people. Maybe maintain a website so you can curate a portfolio. Start thinking about how you can use your training in your major to add value to certain organisations that you are passionate about. More importantly, you should develop a good work attitude, because your work attitude screams very loudly at the start, from the way you write your e-mails, handle phone calls, etc.

2. Hires Due to Necessity

Hires due to necessity are essentially jobs that have already been defined, and the employer just needs someone to do the required tasks. It could be newly created positions or new vacancies. The job ads you see are usually hires belonging to this category.

First, you must understand the sociology of how employers typically hire people. What would you do if you need manpower to carry out a set of tasks successfully? Would you go for a complete stranger or someone you whom you already trust? If you can, you’ll go for someone you already trust. It takes up a lot of energy just to meet strangers and find one whom you hope you can establish a good and trusting working relationship with.

Now, if you can’t find someone in your social circle, you’d start to ask your friends if they know anyone they can recommend. Here, you’re not just asking them to recommend any random person. You want them to recommend someone they trust. And because you trust your friends, you trust their judgement in that person.

How does this apply to employment? When a new position is created, or when there is a new vacancy employers will typically do something similar. And if they have already found someone they can trust, they would still put the job ad out there as a formality. Sometimes, you may apply for jobs where they’re just going through the formality. Occasionally they may be willing to hire you in addition to the person they already found, but that’s only if you – as a stranger – are able to impress big time.

In the event the employer cannot find someone trustable within his/her extended social network, then they will resort to hiring a complete stranger. By which time, your application will be fighting hundreds of applications against a selection algorithm and/or some HR person spending a couple of seconds per CV to see if you’re worth considering or not.

How do you win in such a battle? What you want is to know people who can not only vouch for you as a reliable person, but also recommend you to their professional network when someone they know urgently needs to hire people. That way, you enter early into the game. Once again, it’s back to work attitude.

Take me as an example: I am more inclined to recommend people who have fantastic work attitudes, because I know I can recommend them to my friends without letting them down. That these people are so good that they are sure to excel if they work for my friends.

A junior once asked me to help him find work. I wasn’t close to him, but I thought I’d help him. But he was so sloppy he couldn’t even be bothered to put together a proper CV. When I see work like this, I don’t want to recommend him to anyone. If he can’t be bothered to get something so important done properly, I know he will disappoint the people I recommend him to.

Also, it happened that two undergrads I know applied to an internship where my friend’s the boss. I was asked what I thought about them. The one that had a much better work attitude impressed me so much that I did not hesitate to sing praises about him. He got the internship.

One last point, if you are very talented and have a good work attitude, but you aren’t getting called for interviews, you probably didn’t do your CV right. It’s a very common mistake. At all costs, do NOT be humble in your CV. Show off all the amazing things you’ve accomplished thus far. Take pride in your achievements. Maybe Google how to write an impressive CV? There’s plenty of good resources online.

Is it true that I will be at a disadvantage if I lack experience from internships?

A student asked:

With the limited internships and part-time job opportunities due to COVID-19, I’m feeling rather anxious when it comes to future job opportunities.

Is it true that I will be at a disadvantage if I lack experience from internships?

Here’s my reply!

I have to say… Internships are over-rated. There is a lot of anxiety over internships these days because students are essentially circulating fake news amongst themselves. I don’t know why we do this as students, scaring each other that we’ll lose out in life if we don’t do X, Y, and Z because we heard it from a certain senior as if that was a representative sample. Even if one did hear it from a senior, this is a sampling bias, because you didn’t hear it from a large representative sample of seniors. Or for that matter, from people who actually make hiring decisions. So the seniors – who are also young and naive – are drawing incorrect causal links about what works.

So here’s my advice. You don’t need internship experience in order to find work in the future. It is helpful in giving you some experience and insight, but it doesn’t really make you more employable. It is you yourself who make yourself employable: how you present and market yourself on paper (your CV); how you carry and conduct yourself in person; how you treat and interact with other people – all these factor greatly into whether an employer wants to hire you.

While an internship provides opportunities for you to explore how you can improve in these areas, internships are not the only means. You can do that in other part-time or temp jobs. Or better yet, why not try freelancing? Find something that you can do well, and offer it as a freelance service. You will be forced to learn how to manage people, how to market yourself, how to handle finances, etc. And you’ll acquire a whole host of important life skills and experiences.

I’m suggesting freelancing as a better alternative because I used to do a lot of freelance work since I was 18. My parents stopped financing me, and I had to earn my own money to pay my bills, meals, rent, and yes, even my own university education.

I grew and learnt a lot from the experience. I learnt to be comfortable talking to people in positions of power because as a freelancer at 18, I had to deal with clients, many of whom were big bosses of their companies. I learnt how to market myself, because I needed to convince clients to sign on with me. I learnt many skills along the way because the projects I took on forced me to learn them. Most internships won’t offer you this experience.