How can I boost my CV/portfolio while studying without exhausting myself in the process?

A student asked me:

How can I boost my CV/portfolio while studying without exhausting myself in the process?

It’s practically not possible to do that. There’s 24 hours in a day, and if you want to do anything beyond academics, you will need to set aside time outside of your lessons to do that. It may mean less personal time, or less sleep (though I don’t recommend sleeping less). But the moral of the story is that something has to give way for you to be able to invest the time and energy for it.

One thing I did so that I didn’t exhaust myself too much would be to only take on projects I really enjoy. That way, I don’t find the work a chore, and I am very delighted to pour hours of my time on it.

In my first year of undergrad studies, I used to conduct language classes in the evenings after classes. It was fun (and earning money’s always fun), and my desire to teach better led me to read up more about different techniques for facilitation and public speaking.

From my second year onwards, I started to work as an undergraduate Research Assistant for one of my profs. And I was very passionate about the research area and that really helped me to grow and develop myself intellectually and academically in the process. I read hundreds of books, and I wasn’t complaining because I actually enjoyed it. And the research area overlapped with a lot of the modules that I took. So I didn’t actually have to read much for those modules because I already had the background knowledge and familiarity with many of those topics.

When I took over the leadership for the Philosophy Interest Group, I did a lot of work, but I wasn’t so exhausted nor did I consider it extra work because I thought it was a nice platform to make new friends and try to form a philosophical community, which was already something I personally aspired to make. So I never thought of it as extra work. I just did it because I enjoyed it and personally wanted those things.

And it’s only when I sit down to craft my CV did I realise, “Oh wow! I’ve done so much that boosted my portfolio!”

Now, what’s the point in sharing all these?

If you noticed, I didn’t specifically go out of my way to do things to boost my portfolio. I just took on things I enjoyed doing because I wanted to do them. This is a more organic way, and more importantly, the portfolio/CV that I craft at the end of it all is a true reflection of who I am and what I want to do with my career. I want to build communities, make new friends, learn and read up about the stuff I enjoy, and just teach things that I enjoy teaching. These are things I would prioritise in my life, and they overlap with the kind of work that I want to do.

So the moral of the story is: find opportunities that you actually want to do, or create the opportunities yourself to do the things you want to do. Don’t just do stuff for the sake of adding to your portfolio, especially if it leads you to do things so grudgingly or hesitantly. And I say this because I’ve encountered people who want the achievements, but they don’t want to do the work, or they don’t enjoy the work.

And if you don’t know what to do, then just try anything and everything that comes your way. At least you’ll discover for yourself what you can orcannot do, and what you like or dislike doing.

Are there any FASS majors that you think are at a disadvantage at getting employed after graduation?

A student asked:

Are there any FASS majors that you think are at a disadvantage at getting employed after graduation?

FASS produces about 1500 graduates each year. If FASS students cannot find jobs, Singapore will be struggling with major unemployment problems by now. But this isn’t happening because FASS majors are getting employed.

As a general degree, we can do most jobs. But, as a general degree, the onus is on you to figure out how to relate your training to your work. And to be clear, most people do work that’s unrelated to what they studied in university.

University is not a labour-producing factory where the aim is all about equipping you with skills. It’s about training you to be open and broad-minded leaders who can make sound decisions for the people you are responsible for. Whatever you learn, regardless of your major, you will gain many insights and transferable skills that will allow you to do well in any industry or profession of your choosing.

Some majors appear to be more employable. But we need to be clear about one issue: is it the major that makes students more employable? Or are more employable students attracted to certain majors?

From my own experience interacting with students, I will say it’s the latter. Whenever I open up opportunities for students, it’s always students from one particular major who will come forward (or it’s always students from one particular major who will consult me about their professional development). (There’s no point in me mentioning what that major is because it’ll distract from the main point of this answer.) Sure, I get a couple of students from other majors from time to time. But that one particular major is over-represented.

Can you attribute that thirst to their training in NUS? No. It’s all about character. These people are serious about wanting to push themselves and to gain a vast array of experience. These qualities are what makes them employable. And I am very certain that you could train them in the less popular majors, and they would still go far ahead in their careers because they are that self-driven to figure things out on their own, make the connections, and chase down every opportunity that comes their way.

These are the qualities that make you employable. Your major has nothing to do with it.

In fact, a few years down the road, no one’s going to care what you majored in. At best, they will ask about your degree (Arts? Science? Engineering?). But that’s about it. Your academic achievements, your CAP, your major – all these won’t matter very much a few years after graduation. It will all depend on whether you can perform well at work and what you’re able to achieve in and on behalf of the organisation. (Which is why you need to take your group projects seriously to learn these skills well)

Interestingly, the people who only know how to pursue straight As but don’t know how to do anything else will be the ones who will struggle to go far in their careers as they lack all the important life, work and social skills to survive in the work place.

As I said before: You make yourself employable, not your degree. So work hard to improve your people skills – how to work and manage difficult people, how to speak confidently, how to promote yourself, etc. These will make a difference in your employability.

How do I start taking charge of my savings?

A student asked me this question:

How do I start taking charge of my savings? Financial literacy looks so daunting that I have no idea where to begin!

first of all, we need to be clear about why we’re saving money. Saving money just for the sake of having more money lacks strategy, purpose, and direction on what the money should be used for.

So here are a couple of savings objectives that you should plan for:

(1) Rainy day fund. This should be the first goal to work towards. You need to save at least 6x your monthly expenses. So if you spend $2000 a month, your goal is to have $12,000 in your bank in case of a financially difficult situation. This fund is meant to cover you in the event you get unemployed. Most people take up to 6 months to get a new job after losing their jobs, hence the multiplier of six.

The older you get, the more responsibilities and commitments you’ll have. And this may mean that your monthly expenses may increase. For example, as a student, your monthly expenses now may just be $400 a month. As a young working adult with bills to pay, maybe $800 a month. As a parent with two mouths to feed, maybe $2500 a month. So you’ll need to adjust this rainy day fund as your life situation changes.

(2) Sinking fund. A portion of your savings should be set aside each month to pay for the future replacement of essential expensive items, like laptop or smartphones. This way, you won’t feel like it’s a huge heart pain when the time comes for you to buy a replacement. When you don’t plan for these kinds of things, it will be psychologically very difficult to make some of these purchases in the future, or you’ll make compromises just to save every dollar possible to make it happen. That’s irrational behaviour due to a lack of foresight. The reality is that there are expensive things that we have to pay to replace every now and then. So it’s important to set money aside for that eventuality.

How do you decide how much to set aside for your sinking fund? Let me use the example of my Macbook Pro. I bought my Macbook with the intention of replacing it in 5 years time. A Macbook costs about $2200. So basically, I’ll set aside $2200 / (5 x 12) = $36.67 a month for the next five years to save for a new replacement.

In the future, your sinking fund should include things like expensive home appliances (refrigerators, or even home renovation in 10 years). Let’s say I buy a $1000 refrigerator with the intention of replacing it in 10 years time. So I’ll need to say aside $1000 / (10 x 12) = $8.33 a month to save up for a new replacement refrigerator.

The same concept can also be applied to periodic expenses like a holiday. If you want to play a holiday 2 years from now, then you’ll do a budget estimate and divide that by 2 x 12 = 24 months, so you know how much to set aside.

(3) Saving for Milestone Events like Wedding, Housing, and your first Home Renovation. This can be the most daunting for many, because these things aren’t cheap!

For reference, my wedding cost $45,000. Housing deposit is 10-20% of the total price of the flat depending on the loan you take. In my case, the deposit we paid was around $45,000. My home renovation cost another $45,000.

Of course, this can seem very scary and daunting. But the reality is if you work a few years, you would have accumulated enough money in your savings and CPF. In my case, we acquired enough money in our CPF to pay for the housing deposit.

With weddings, you can defray some of the total expenditure with ang bao collection. But DO NOT put blind faith in the hopes that you’ll get enough ang bao to defray 100%. People like to say things like that, but it doesn’t always happen.

Anyway, after you’ve accomplished saving up to build your rainy day fund, you can start saving towards paying for these expensive milestone events.

(4) Retirement fund. Woah… I know that many of you haven’t even started working. So the idea of planning for retirement sounds crazy. It’s so far away, it’s hard to even imagine it. But it’s important to plan for retirement as early as possible because you really need the time to accumulate all that wealth.

The basic idea behind retirement planning is to save enough money that you can support yourself until you die.

Suppose the retirement age is 67, and most people die at 90. Let’s imagine that to live a comfortable life, your expenses is $2000 a month. So you’ll need to save enough money to support your expenses for the next 23 years of your retired existence. That comes up to $2000 x (23 x 12) = $552,000.

Note that I’m keeping things simple for the sake of explanation by not factoring in rising cost of living, inflation, etc. Once you factor all those things in, it’ll be much much more than $550k.

Of course, the reality is, with the advancements of science and technology, we are expecting people to live even longer than 90 years old. Maybe 100 or even longer than that. And if you live longer than what you’ve saved, you’re in for trouble, because you will not be able to support yourself.

Now, mandatory savings like CPF will help fund your retirement, but going with the default option won’t be enough.

So the ideal situation is to accumulate enough wealth that the money does the work of generating more money for you. As a general rule of thumb, you should aim to save AT LEAST 25 years worth of your monthly expenses. Why?

For example, if you spend $2000 a month, you’ll need to save $2000 x (25 x 12) = $600,000.

There are many low to medium-low risk investment products out there that can generate a sizeable interest rate of 4%. It’s not much but you can be assured your money doesn’t disappear without a warning.

At a 4% interest rate, $600,000 will generate an interest of $24,000! And if you divide that up by 12 months, you’ll get $2000 a month to support your day-to-day living. You don’t even need to touch the principal sum of $600,000. It’ll continue to sit there and produce $24,000 for you each year.

Now, I say at least 25 years’ worth of your monthly expenses. If you can aim higher, you should. Why? Because these numbers do not factor for things like inflation and increased cost of living. So $2000 now might support your lifestyle quite comfortably, but it may not be enough to support a comfortable life when you retire.

Of course, right now, you must be thinking, how the hell am I supposed to make so much money?

So this is where we come to issues of budgeting and financial planning.

(A) The first rule of thumb is that you ought to save AT LEAST 20% of your salary. Let’s say your salary is a somewhat modest $3000 a month. 20% of $3000 is $600. If we go with the $600,000 retirement goal (remember: the $600k is not a magic number, it’s just an example I used earlier), and assuming your salary stays the same, you’ll need 60 years to accumulate this much money if you just go with a savings plan that gives you a 1% compounding interest.

Of course, the hope is that your salary will keep increasing year after year, in which case you can acquire $600,000 before retirement. But the harsh reality is that if you get retrenched in your mid/late 40s and 50s, it’s hard to find a job that will pay you as much.

So don’t leave it to wishful thinking. We need to do better than just save 20% of our salary each month. If you can, you should aim to save even more than that.

(B) The next rule is to treat all savings as an expenditure in your budget. So you are “paying” yourself for those future things, in a certain sense. This is important more for your psychology. We treat money set aside for savings very differently from money leftover in the balance. If you go with a save-the-remaining-balance mentality, it becomes a lot easier to lie to yourself that you can make up for the past month’s over-expenditure. From my own personal failings, I can tell you it rarely happens. So don’t lie to yourself. Many of us lack financial discipline to manage our spending. So, set the money aside so that you won’t touch it.

(C) If you don’t already have a monthly budget, the next rule is to create a budget so that you can have a sense of how much you need to reduce your expenditure, and how far away you are from those savings goals I talked about earlier.

So let’s use the modest salary of $3000 a month for a typical fresh graduate who just entered the workforce. 20% of your monthly salary gets automatically channelled into CPF, so you’re effectively left with $2400 to use each month.

So let’s start budgeting the remainder:

– $600 – is the minimum 20% of your salary that you should save. This goes towards building your rainy day fund; and then your milestone events like wedding, housing, renovations; and finally towards your retirement.

– $100 – sinking fund to pay for a replacement laptop (replace in 5 years) and smartphone (replace in 2 years)

– $40 – handphone bill

– $660 – food and transportation

– $300 – filial piety levy, i.e. money you give to your parents

– $500 – pay off university education loan

– $200 – insurance

Total: $2400

What do you notice? There isn’t much room to spare to do more. If you are the lucky few whose parents are paying your education fee, or if your parents don’t require you don’t give them an allowance, then you’ll have slightly more wiggle room to spend or save.

But don’t forget that your financial commitments will increase once you get married and have kids. You’ll have more expenses to add to your budget. And usually the first thing to go will be your savings.

If you feel worried that you can’t make enough money for the future, good. But no reason to panic or despair.

In my case, I’ve worked for 7 years. And I actually earned $3000 a month for the first couple of years. I was able to save enough to pay off my university education loan, pay all my bills, and pay for my wedding, housing, and home renovations, and still go for holidays overseas from time to time.

So it’s not impossible. It just means spending within your means. You’ve probably seen young working adults living lavish lifestyles on Instagram. If you do the math on how much they’re spending – regardless of whether they’re earning $4000 or $5000 – you’d realise that they’re still spending beyond their means. Based on my estimates, some of them are not even saving the minimum 20%!

The point I’m making here is: don’t envy their lives. They are going down the path of financial ruin in the future. You can live comfortably and happily even if you spend within your means. And you’ll probably be happier off in the future compared to them.

(D) Now, if you do the math, you’ll realise that there’s really no way to hit the retirement target, especially if you’re busy spending the first 10 years of your life building your rainy day fund, or saving for wedding, housing, and renovations.

Getting a higher paid job is not the magical solution. It will help you, yes. But be aware that many companies with very high starting salaries have very low salary increments over the years. So you may not be earning as much as other jobs with lower starting salaries. Also, the more highly paid you get, the more likely you are to get retrenched, especially when you hit your 40s and 50s. High rewards (pay) often come with high risks. That’s just how it is. I’m putting it out here so that you are aware of the risks.

So what then can you do? Saving money alone can’t get you anywhere near the targets. You can try to reduce your expenses. You’ll be suprised how much more you can save if you choose to spend less on food and shopping.

BUT, there’s only so much you can reduce. And if you reduce too much, then you might feel very miserable. No point making yourself very miserable for decades just so you can retire with a substantial amount of money. It doesn’t quite make sense to live like that.

So you’ll need to explore additional sources of income. For starters, a side hustle that will help you make some money on the side is one option to explore. But it can be very time consuming and exhausting. It’s worth exploring activities that don’t consume too much time that can help to generate some additional income insofar as it doesn’t conflict with your main job.

A better option would be to explore ways of generating passive income, things like investments. As you know, banks pay a very pathetic interest that does not grow your money to beat inflation. So you’re effectively losing money by putting it in the bank. So you want to find other investment products like bonds, ETFs, shares, etc., that can help grow your money. Money generates more money. More money generates even more money. So the earlier you start, the more capital you’ll acquire to help you work towards your retirement.

Ok, I hope this was eye-opening. I do hope that you’ll start planning your finances wisely.

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

A student asked me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student asked a follow-up question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student sent me this question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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. And 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.