Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

A student asked me:

Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

Yes, that happens from time to time. It’s important to recognise that there’s a lot of things that we have no control over. What we have is control over ourselves, in how we respond to these things, and that we can be better people in response to such situations.

I normally take a break and do things I enjoy doing like music, watching shows on Netflix, or go out for a walk (walks are the best!). Sometimes I’ll treat myself to a good meal. These things will help a lot.

Sometimes the annoyance is greater because all my plans and effort have come to nothing, or I totally cannot get something I really really wanted. In which case, I’ll give myself a longer time to get my mind off the matter. So I’ll go do other things in the meantime, like indulge in a hobby or work on another project. No point dwelling on the matter when you’re upset. It only makes you more upset. Better to come back when your mind is fresh and you’re calmer about the situation.

When I’m calm about the matter, I’ll resign myself to the fact that I can’t control that situation. I’ll assess what I have no control, and what I have control over. And then I’ll ask myself whether I can still find an alternative way to get what I want. And if I can’t achieve what I want, I’ll plan out how to make the best of the new situation. Sometimes, it takes courage to say, “I shall not pursue this anymore.” This is also a fine and legitimate option. And then I’ll figure out what else I’d like to do with my time.

This advice was very abstract, but I hope it helps.

How do I deal with loneliness?

A student asked:

How do I deal with loneliness? I wish I had a significant other to just chat about anything and everything.

I think for starters, it helps to recognise that negative feelings, like loneliness, are just feelings. It’s one of the many feelings that we experience, like joy and sadness. It’s because feelings like loneliness don’t feel so nice that we get alarmed by it. And when we focus our concentration on trying to get rid of it, what happens is that our minds lock on to the feeling and it becomes harder to let it go.

But there really isn’t a need to be alarmed when you experience such negative feelings like loneliness. They come and go like clouds in the sky. My advice is to treat such feelings like white noise. If you pay a lot of attention to white noise, you’ll hear it, and it becomes louder. And if you busy yourself with other things, it’ll fade away from your attention.

The reason why having a partner feels like a solution to loneliness is because you have someone you can help turn your attention away from that loneliness. But the feeling of loneliness will still creep up on you from time to time. It’s important to recognise that feelings of loneliness will exist regardless of whether you are in a relationship or single. A partner won’t solve the problem of loneliness, neither will having lots of close friends. It is, as I said just now, a feeling that comes and goes, sometimes without reason.

I sometimes find that we are our own enemies, and that our hearts and minds play tricks on us by giving us virtual problems that feel far too real. Perhaps it’s due to that existential emptiness, that void that lurks at the back of our minds and hearts. Sometimes it manifests itself as loneliness, sometimes it manifests itself as a sense of meaninglessness of life.

It is upsetting, for sure, and the feelings are very real. But as I’ve said, it’s the white noise of existence. And it comes and goes. And the more idle our minds are, the more it’ll surface to our attention. So please learn to not give it too much weight and attention when it comes. We don’t always have to run away from bad feelings. It’s just yet another feeling that we experience in the rich tapestry of life.

I want to step out of this negativity and find my own happiness. Do you have any ideas on how I can do so?

A student wrote to me with this heartfelt question:

I grew up in an abusive childhood. My father has been abusive towards every member of my family. My mothers is the sole breadwinner of the family (my father doesn’t work).

I have told my mother countless times to get a divorce, but she refuses to do so. And she constantly makes excuses for him saying that “he has improved compared to the past.”

I know it has been incredibly difficult for my mother, especially since she has to tolerate my father while working to support the family. But sometimes I can’t help but feel so angry. I blame her for not protecting my sisters and I when we were children. Sometimes I feel that I hate her and it would be accompanied by a feeling of guilt that I’m such a bad ungrateful daughter.

Now as I start to emerge into adulthood , I realised I have internal conflicts that I didn’t know I had. I have difficulties trusting others, and even myself. I’m fearful that I would let someone toxic into my life, and not find the courage within me to leave. I’m fearful that I would be just like either of my parents. After all, they made me.

I want to step out of this negativity and find my own happiness. Do you have any ideas on how I can do so?

Thank you for sharing, and I just want you to know that I feel your pain.

For starters, it will help to understand that it’s not easy for your mum to get a divorce. She probably comes from a generation where there’s a lot of stigma attached to divorce. So it’s not just an issue of leaving your father, but societal shame and all that. Also, divorces can get very ugly and expensive. One can lose a lot, including the house. Given how your father doesn’t work, the divorce could go south where you mother has to pay him a monthly alimony to financially support him even after separation. So it’s not an easy option. It might have come across her mind many times, but I’m sure she knows all the difficulties she has to face if she proceeds with one.

So do understand that her hands are tied in the matter. Getting angry with her and hating on her would make her feel more alone in facing the daily ordeals of her life. She already has it pretty bad. So do try to be more understanding of her situation. She’s really not the enemy, but someone who doesn’t know a way out of a difficult spot.

It’s good that you are aware of your internal conflicts and inability to trust others. If you start living on your own, you might also discover that you display traits in your parents that you despise. It was quite a horrifying realisation on my part when I started living on my own how I exhibited certain qualities I disliked in my own parents.

Awareness is an important step towards improvement. The fact that you are painfully aware means that you can take steps to avoid falling into it. For most people, the tragedy is that they completely unaware of the toxic qualities they’ve acquired from their parents and they repeat the errors in their own lives, never realising that the problem is them. So in many ways, you are in a better place. It doesn’t feel good to have knowledge of the awareness, but it’s valuable. Because now you have to remind yourself constantly not to be that sort of toxic person.

It will help you a lot not to rush into a relationship. So that way, you have time to regularly reflect on yourself and how you respond to people.

While I did not have a background like yours, I and a few other friends with dysfunctional parents made it a point to always be better than our parents. It takes a lot of constant reminders, and perhaps even some painful experiences with other people to learn some lessons. But always tell yourself, “I will be better than them.” And you use them as benchmarks on what never to do in your life. Always take a step back to reflect on your experiences with people, as that will help you evaluate what you’re doing right/wrong. But at the same time, be gentle and kind to yourself because we will always be our harshest critic.

I do recommend seeing a counsellor. Because they can journey with you and coach you every step of the way. The best I can do is to give you general advice that may or may not work, as I don’t know the full story, nor do I have the expertise to help you all the way to a life of happiness.

I wish you all the best, and do know that you if you need someone to talk to, I am happy to lend a listening ear. :)

I’m afraid that I won’t be able to find a partner after graduation because I have no experience in dating!

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m already going to be 20 years old and I have never been in a relationship because of my family. They said that I can only date after I have graduated and started working. But I’m afraid that because I have no experience, I may not be able to find anyone after graduation. Help!

I wouldn’t worry too much if I were you. You’re still so young. Let me assure you that I have friends who only started dating after graduation and they are happily married now. So it’s perfectly fine not to date now.

Relationships are not jobs. You don’t need a portfolio of experience. Sometimes having no experience is better than having bad experiences of hurt and pain that will make you carry emotional baggage into subsequent relationships.

Now, I’m not sure what kind of experience you are talking about here. I am aware that some people say you need to acquire sexual experience so that you won’t disappoint your future spouse. This is utter rubbish. You can learn to be better in bed with your spouse over time. And it becomes more intimate that way because you learn how to communicate about something so intimate. In a healthy long-term relationship, sexual union is more than just pleasure. It’s about communication at the more intimate level. If you cannot talk about your likes/dislikes in bed, or learn how to figure out pleasure each other better, there’s a lot of things in the relationship that you won’t be able to talk about or resolve. In fact, people who feel that they have become “experts” in bed may have trouble with such communication because it takes humility to accept that the techniques they’ve learnt may not suit their partner. And their pride can get in the way of intimate communication.

Whatever it is, the fun of a relationship is to forge shared experiences together by learning things and experiencing new things together. So don’t stress over this lack of experience.

The experience you have in dealing with family, friends, frenemies, enemies, and other difficult people in your life will prepare you well for a relationship. You don’t need a relationship to learn those things.

How do I cope with the passing of a loved one?

A student asked:

How do I cope with the passing of a loved one? When I think of my dad it feels like he left us because he didn’t want to burden our family emotionally, financially, mentally, physically. And then it hurts.

Hello, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. My deepest condolences. I know now is not an easy time at all.

Do give yourself the time and space to grieve. It’s understandable to feel a wide range of emotions. Some days you’ll feel numb, some days sorrow, some days guilt.

From what you have said, I’m guessing that you must probably feel overwhelmed with guilt. With the passing of a loved one, it’s very normal for one’s mind to consider many what-if scenarios in your head — what if I had done X; or what if I didn’t do Y. I think that’s natural. But do be careful not to get sucked in on all these possibilities.

I think one way to cope better with the loss is to try to move beyond feelings of guilt towards that of gratitude, thanking your father for the life he gave you, for his love and care for you, for his wisdom and guidance, and for all the memories happy and sad that have shaped you to become who you are today.

As you look around the house and notice his absence, think of the memories and thank him for them. As you see things that remind you of him, thank him for those experiences and those memories.

Look on his passing with gratitude for all that he has been and all that he has done. This will help you cope better with the loss. You will still have the feels, and it will last for a while. It’s normal. But remember to exercise gratefulness to celebrate his life and the sharing of his life with you, and all the good that he has done for you and your family.

How do you welcome changes in life?

A student asked:

How do you welcome changes in life? Whenever I attempt to do something new/different, I get so overwhelmed by the “change” that I resort to going back to my comfort zone. Do you have any advice for this?

I think we need to resign ourselves to the fact that the only constancy is change. Even we ourselves change. Every new information, every experience changes us. The idea of who we are in our heads is nothing but an outdated static snapshot of ourselves the last time we asked that question. One reason why people get existential crises is because they discover that who they think they are doesn’t gel with the reality of who they have become. And dissonance between the idea and reality is too jarring.

We are constantly changing. That whole idea of a comfort zone is just an illusion of constancy. The truth of the matter is that every time you resort to going back to your comfort zone, you are still changing… but you are changing for the worse.

It’s important to recognise this, so that when faced with the discomfort of stepping out of your comfort zone, it’s not that you have the choice between proceeding on or retreating back to a place of comfort. Every time you retreat, you are training yourself to be less resilient, and you are letting fear and anxiety take hold of you. And the more you do this, the more easily fear and anxiety have its hold over you.

So, in reality the options available to you are: (1) proceed onward and embrace the change (in hopes of something better); or (2) retreat with the certainty that you’ll become a worse version of yourself.

(Oh, and it helps to study Philosophy, because you’ll learn new insights about things like this. I recommend modules on Continental Philosophy or on Existentialism. They deal with things like this.)

Is it a bad thing to be so focused on schoolwork or other endeavours like hobbies/work in general that I sacrifice having a vibrant social life or a romantic relationship during University? What if I continue being this way when I grow older?

A student asked:

Is it a bad thing to be so focused on schoolwork or other endeavours like hobbies/work in general that I sacrifice having a vibrant social life or a romantic relationship during University? What if I continue being this way when I grow older?

You should be doing what you want to do. It’s true that the good and bad habits you develop now in uni will stay with you when you work. So if you like to work until 3am, you will probably continue behaving like this when you go out to work. If that’s not how you want to live your life for the rest of your life, then you must try your utmost best to change these bad habits.

In general, it’s bad for your mental and emotional well-being if you sacrifice your social life for the sake of work or personal interest. You need a good balance.

BUT, a balance doesn’t mean that you dedicate equal time to social life, work, and hobbies. That’s very mechanical. You have to decide what that balance is. And from personal experience, seeking the balance is itself a constant struggle. Because the demands from your social life (and especially relationship), work and personal interests will always be in tension with each other. So it’s all about readjusting that balance in response to changing circumstances.

As a general rule, as long as you are not sacrificing any one of these things, you’re ok. I should mention that rest and doing nothing are just as important, and should also be factored into your balancing equation. We all need a little down time away from all the hustle and bustle of life.

How do I confess my love to someone?

A student asked me:

How do I confess my love to someone?

This question is lacking context. Do you mean to confess: (1) to someone you like from afar whom you’ve not gone on with? Or (2) to someone whom you’ve been hanging out with quite a lot?

If the context is (1), please, don’t confess. It’s creepy as hell. It’s also a sure way to lose that someone. It’s not even love since you haven’t spent enough time with that person. It’s only an infatuation. You can’t love someone you don’t know well enough. You should at least ask to hang out with that person regularly and be in regular contact with that person.

If the context is (2), the question is, how long have you been with that person and have you dropped hints of interest thus far? Most people have an internal clock in their mind/heart about deciding whether that person is relationship-worthy before friend-zoning them.

So let’s say you’ve been hanging out for a year, and nothing happened, no interest, no hints whatsoever, that person might have concluded that you’re not interested in him/her and moved on. Or, if you’ve done something that’s a huge deal-breaker, e.g. very whiney, too clingy, or some other reason, then the person would have concluded that you are not relationship-worthy and moved on. You can sense when this has happened if the person displays less interest in you. Doesn’t text so regularly, or not so keen to hang out like before. Basically, the person is avoiding you but just being nice by responding to you from time to time. If you get the sense the person is avoiding you, don’t confess. It’ll make things super awkward.

But let’s say things are going great, and the person isn’t avoiding you. Then you can start dropping hints of interests. Do things together that are slightly more date-like, e.g. visiting more romantic places, etc. Whatever it is, don’t go overboard. You can also start talking about relationships in general. It’s also a good way to get a better gauge if the person is indeed interested in you.

Suppose you’ve done all that and the signs are going well, then you can declare your interest. Personally, I don’t like to say “confess my love,” because at this stage, you still don’t know the person well enough to say “I love you” with full sincerity. But I leave that to you. Some people prefer a more organic approach where they just gradually shift into holding hands, or talk about relations and in the spur of the moment decided to clarify whether they like each other and want to go steady.

Some people prefer something more romantic. Like a romantic surprise whether they confess over a meal. If you are the nervous type, it helps to write it on a card or something for the person to read. In my case, I wrote something like, “I really like you and I love hanging out with you so much, and I’m wondering if you’d like to take this friendship to the next level?” And then I clipped the note on my cat (ok, it’s not really my cat, it was a stray cat that owned me and came to my home every day). That was quite a cute thing to do.

I’ll leave you to decide what works better for you. I didn’t want to say too much because you should do what is in line with who you are. Don’t do stuff other people did in the hopes that it’s like some magic formula. There’s no model answer for these sorts of things.

Is it normal for me to feel that I never feel prepared for a relationship?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Is it normal for me to feel that I never feel prepared for a relationship? I’m not good looking, not smart, and I’m not even rich. I can’t give a promising future to the girl I like.

I think it’s normal to find imperfections in ourselves and think that we’re not good enough. But we must remember that that’s just how we feel about ourselves, and that’s not usually how other people think about us.

Our looks and our intellect are who we are. These are things that are beyond our control. To some degree, you can improve on it, but you can’t do very much. So it’s not fair to yourself to use looks/intellect as a gauge of relationship readiness, because even ugly and stupid people can still be in happy relationships. There are many around, but we often don’t take notice of them because we tend to pay more attention to the good looking ones, or the very successful/famous ones.

There are two guys whom I know. I don’t respect them very much because they lack integrity. They are fugly as hell, and dumb as f***. And I know that if I were a woman, I sure as hell wouldn’t date them. Yet for the life of me, they are able to attract a lot of women (they’re both cheating on their girlfriends, which is why I don’t respect them). The point I’m making in sharing this is to emphasise that looks and intellect really don’t matter. It’s really an open market, and no matter how good-looking or fugly; or clever or stupid you may be, there will always be people who will be attracted to you.

As an aside… One thing most students don’t realise is when someone of the opposite sex is attracted to you. It’s easy to miss subtle signs. I know this, because when I was a student, I too was oblivious to the fact that some girls were interested in me. Now, that I’m so much older, and as a teacher, I can see how obvious it is. In class, I can see who’s interested in who, and I can see how one party can be so totally clueless about it. So many missed opportunities. Seriously… You don’t need Tinder. Just come for class. Haha!

Ok, back to the question… As for wealth, you don’t need to be rich. You just need to be financially stable because financial instability is the number one reason for divorce in Singapore. It’s hard for couples to trust and love each other when they are in survival mode, struggling to make ends meet. As a student, it is still within your power to be financially stable. It’s not about having a high paying job. It’s about being disciplined with your spending and spending within your means, and of course, saving and investing the rest of the money that you have.

Many couples sabotage their marriages by over-spending on their wedding, honeymoon, and housing. It’s nice to live in a condo or some matured estate. But if it means taking on a huge mortgage that puts stress on the both of you, that’s unwise. Every day you’ll worry about not having enough money to pay the bills.

So in short, you shouldn’t be using looks, intellect, and finances as indicators of preparedness or readiness for a relationship. Looks and intellect especially, are very bad indicators since you can’t do anything about these qualities. So what then should you use to gauge that you’re prepared or ready?

The answer is emotional maturity.

How do you handle conflicts? How do you handle the shit that life throws at you? How do you handle difficult people and difficult situations? If your answer to these questions is: rage quit, or run away by not facing up to the problem, or drown it out through alcohol or whatever poison you use to forget your problems, then you are not emotionally mature enough to handle a relationship. It’s important to learn to develop yourself by interacting and working with more people, either through CCAs or taking your group projects more seriously.

You may have noticed that some of your friends in relationships may display these traits of emotional immaturity. They may have many happy moments, but that is not the real indicator of whether the relationship is healthy. The true test of a relationship is when conflict arises. This typically happens once the honeymoon phase of the relationship has ended (about 18 months). A lot of break-ups happen after the honeymoon phase because emotionally immature people don’t know how to sustain/maintain a relationship once all the wonderfully exciting feelings aren’t that strong anymore (the strong feelings don’t last long if you aren’t aware of this, so it takes a lot of effort to maintain the feelings, and this exercise is an important aspect of a long-term healthy relationship). And so they become more easily agitated by their partners. Conflicts and disagreements arise more easily. And unfortunately, emotionally immature people do not know how to handle this well. This causes a great deal of hurt and pain to both parties. Usually, such relationships won’t last long. And they’ll just move on with their emotional baggage to cause yet more hurt and pain to someone else.

So focus on developing your people skills. Learn how to manage and handle difficult situations and difficult people. Learn how to develop deep and meaningful friendships with people. It will help you mature as a stable person and become a strong pillar of support to your future partner. And as you do your thing with confidence, you’ll eventually find someone you like, and that someone who will like you in return.

Any advice on how to make friends of the opposite gender?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Any advice on how to make friends of the opposite gender? Or is it okay not to have friends of the opposite gender? I always feel like I can click better with ppl of the same gender, but like I have nothing to talk about with people of the opposite gender. It’s very awkward. Why is that so? Or am I just an awkward potato?

Haha! I’m the opposite of you. I find it easier to click with people of the opposite gender, than it is to click with people of the same gender. But I think it has to do more with your own personal interests than it is about gender (unless you’re putting necessary pressure on yourself of hoping to date one of them).

I think it’s important to have a diverse group of friends. Not just different genders, but also different ages. You need this sort of diversity to open your worldview on a variety of matters.

The secret is that everyone’s awkward and lonely. So it helps to be the one to break the ice. You have no idea how many people appreciate the fact that you’ll come up to them with a smile to talk. As Mother Teresa once said, the greatest poverty in this world is loneliness. So be that spark. Don’t give up just because you feel awkward.

Here’s some conversational tricks I use to sustain conversations with random strangers:

One trick I’ve learnt is to prepare a wide array of topics to talk about. I like to think of it as carrying out an independent study on popular culture. There are some songs, movies, TV shows, books, art, and games that you must know about. It helps if you’ve watched/read/heard them. Otherwise, at least make sure you’ve read about them enough to talk about it. My typical script when conversing with people these days is to talk about Netflix, and then I’ll talk about some popular shows that I’ve watched, before I proceed to ask them about show recommendations. People are pretty passionate about Netflix, so you’ve got that covered.

I’ve learnt that this doesn’t work very well with older people. They like to talk more about stuff relating to politics and the economy. When I’m in the mood, I usually practice small talk (because I get bad at it if I don’t practice) with the taxi/Grab driver. I’ll say something like, “Oh, the economy lately has been really bad, yeah? How’s business?” And then the driver will go on a tirade about Singapore’s politics and economy, and maybe talk about how they’re coping with life. Usually, you learn interesting facts that you can use in other conversations, e.g. “The other day, my Grab driver shared that ….”

One other trick is to keep asking people to talk more about themselves. People love talking about themselves, and if you ask/probe further about their stories, they’ll be very happy to share them. You can imagine yourself like an interviewer preparing to write a magazine article about them. So you can probe parts of their stories that sound interesting to you. You often learn an interesting nugget or two along the way. As you do this, you’ll discover common topics of interest, which hopefully you’ll be able to latch on and talk excitedly about those things.

Here’s some conversational starting questions you can ask:

“What did you do last weekend?”

“I want to pursue a hobby, but I’m not sure what hobby to pick up. What do you recommend?”

“Which country do you hope to visit some day?”

“My friend says that she loves sparkly vampires. I don’t know. I prefer them less sparkly and maybe a little more dead inside. What do you prefer?”

“Which is cooler? Star Wars or Harry Potter?”

Give it a try!

How would you deal with passive aggressive people who refuse to apologise even when they are in the wrong?

A student asked:

How would you deal with passive aggressive people who refuse to apologise even when they are in the wrong?

People who display the traits you mentioned are very toxic people. It is this precise trait of refusing to apologise for their wrongs that is the hallmark of toxicity. And unfortunately, you can’t do much about it except to keep a distance from them. I say this because I have had too many past experience with such people at various points in my life and I have tried so many things. Nothing worked.

Just to share an example… Years ago, I had to share office space with an inconsiderate ass who would talk very loudly and make a mess on other people’s tables (he behaved as if he owned the entire office space). I told him off for being inconsiderate. He could never see why he was in the wrong because he kept playing the victim card. And since then he’d go on this vindictive passive aggressive campaign. It was very awful but also very cowardly of him since he’d never dare to confront me face-to-face. I did get upset by his stupid antics. I asked myself if things would have been better had I taken a gentler approach. The answer is no. Because he’d still have played the victim card and refuse to apologise for his awful behaviour (other people tried). So at the end of the day, I just pity him because it shows how messed up a human being he is – how petty and mean a creature he really is. I can tell you that people like him won’t go very far in life be it career or even relationships. And since he always plays the victim card, he’ll never be able to see why he is the problem. So he’ll stagnate in his cesspool of toxicity.

This sort of person will remain toxic and will breed further toxicity in the people around them. With such people, you can’t do much. And in fact, the more you try, the more upset and bitter you’ll get, and you too might become as toxic as them. They are trying to drag you down to their level of pettiness because they cannot understand how people can be better than them. You know you’ve allowed yourself to be dragged into their cesspool of toxicity when you begin thinking that getting away from such people is an admission of defeat.

I know this because my parents used to have a daily dispute with a toxic neighbour who terrorised everyone who lived above, below, and beside her. She had a 101 reasons to fault us and she was unapologetic as well. The solution to preserve one’s mental health would be to move out. But my parents got caught in the petty squabbles and refused to move out. They saw moving out as an admission of defeat. My parents regularly said that they refused to lose to her. And so in the 10+ years of living there, they gradually ramped up their arsenal of passive aggressive reciprocation. They bought many speakers and positioned them at the neighbour’s unit to blast loud music early in the morning, in the exact the same way the neighbour did to us (she was better equipped with a subwoofer aimed at us that would cause our walls and furniture to vibrate).

In the end, my parents became no different from the neighbour: they got poisoned by that neighbour and became just as toxic as she was.

So, just call a spade a spade, and acknowledge how pitiably petty and toxic they are. Don’t reason with yourself that these people can improve. They have damned themselves and they wish to damn other people with them. I can only recommend keeping a distance from such people. Cut them off if you can. They are the rare few people whom I’ll say are very detrimental to your mental health. And after you’ve cut them off, move on with your life. You don’t need such toxic negativity in your life.

How do I get better grades in school?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do I get better grades in school?

First of all, it’s important to recognise that it’s not about the amount of effort you put into studying that ensure you get better grades. You need to study smart and work smart. Studying hard and working hard will be very futile if you lack good learning methods.

In my four years teaching in NUS I often see students referring to learning resources and blindly trying to replicate the structure/form in order to answer an assignment. Students think that when they do this, they can’t go wrong if they model their answer off it. Of course in my module, students freak out when they discover they can’t do this.

And in fact, you should never do this. When you try to replicate the structure of an answer or lift lines from a lecture slide to answer a question, you are undermining the learning process. There is no real engagement with the question or the content. So you’re not really internalising what you are learning, and so the learning is superficial: it doesn’t go to the level where you can really link it to other issues or reach the level of creative mastery where you can take the knowledge to make something new.

A good way of gauging how well you understand something you’re taught is to always ask yourself how it is relevant to other things out in the world or how you can use that knowledge to do something (yes even seemingly “useless” knowledge that’s abstract from real life!). If you can’t see the link or can’t find the link, you haven’t understood it well enough to know how it extends beyond the classroom. I know students struggle with this and they would like their lecturers to show them how, but sometimes when we do, we’re met with scepticism. The problem resides with the learner. The learner hasn’t internalised and mastered the learning to see the relation for themselves.

An A grade is supposed to mean that you have mastered your learning well. So use this as a way of gauging how well you’ve mastered the content/skills. Because if you have reached this level of mastery, you can be confident that you are heading in the right direction towards an A.

Now, one other thing I noticed is that many students these are very impatient when it comes to assignments. They want to get over and done with it, and some of them are so immature that they resent their lecturers for making them work longer than they want to. Especially at University level, a lot of high quality work can only be produced after long hours of reading, thinking, and writing. Some people like to boast being able to write 3000 words in a short span of time. It reveals a grave lack of thought on the subject. To be clear, I’m not saying that if you spend a week on an assignment, you’ll get an A. What I’m saying is if you spend more time on it, your thoughts will mature and deepen beyond the mere superficialities. I mean… If something is so obvious and easy to answer at University, do you think we would be spending hours of our lives working on it? When we invite you to share in our experience through the various learning activities, we want you to develop a better grasp of the subtle complexities underlying the issues.

So if you do want to score well, you need to discuss more, read more, and think more. Rushed work usually results in poor work and a poor grade.

How do you deal with an uptight group project mate who’s difficult to work with?

A student asked:

How would you deal with this scenario? A group mate is super uptight about a submission and keeps breathing down everybody’s necks. S/he keeps requesting for meet ups when it is obvious to the group that it is unnecessary to keep doing so.

Group mates will tell her they’ll get the work done in a while cos they have other matters, but s/he’ll vent his/her frustration at us (but they still get it done). After which, it is likely that s/he gave a bad peer review to the group mates just because they’re not as uptight as her about the project.

If I were in your shoes, I would find the time to talk to that person and explain that we have different work values, and try to come to a compromise between our differences.

It doesn’t help to say that you find the meetings unnecessary, as it would come across to that group mate that you’re not interested in contributing to the project.

It’s never reassuring to say you’ll work on it without giving anything concrete. So the person will have difficulties forging that trust with you. What the person needs is assurance that you’ll work on it and not free-ride on his/her hard work. The easiest way to give the person some assurance would be to discuss and identify specific deliverables that will be completed by specific people by a specific deadline. Or if that is not possible, assure the group mate that you will work on the matter together on a particular date that everyone can agree with.

Trust is very essential for any team to work effectively. This is why in my module, I strongly emphasise on the need to break the ice at the start to get to know each other well, maybe over ice cream or coffee or something. Social gatherings may seem like a useless waste of time, but you have no idea how essential it is to the success of the project group. It’s a way in which you get to know the other, have shared experiences, and so be able to trust your group mates well. You have less unknown variables to worry about once you know them better, and it’ll make it easier for you to trust them and for them to trust you all especially when you encounter differences in work values.

In my module, I don’t rely solely on peer evaluation to decide who to penalise. And usually, for groups that have differences in work values, the unhappy group member will not hesitate to reach out to me or the TA. And we’ll conduct investigations on our part to find out what’s going on with the group.

I can’t say the same for other modules though. So check with your prof about how they do use the peer evaluations to decide.

How far do you think a person can try to accommodate or tweak their habits for their partner before it becomes inorganic or that they are forced to become someone they don’t wanna be?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How far do you think a person can try to accommodate or tweak their habits for their partner before it becomes inorganic or that they are forced to become someone they don’t wanna be?

I get that sometimes we got to change our ways and allow for a significant other to come into our lives, but is there an extent to which one could radically change because of that, and lose themselves in the meantime?

I totally understand your question because I’ve had a past experience of changing too much for the other that I became much less of who I am, and it was affecting me a lot emotionally, and ultimately how I responded in the relationship.

In my view, there are three categories of change to ourselves or habits that we might have to deal with in a relationship:

(1) Change that’s inconsequential to yourself as a person. Especially when we have to spend a lot of time together, either working/studying or living together, it’s the little things that we do that can drive the other person crazy. Many of these things are inconsequential to our being as a person. For example, you might be the kind of person who likes to leave dishes in the sink and not wash them until night, but your partner is the kind that demands dishes be washed immediately. It doesn’t change you as a person to make a sacrifice like that to accommodate living with your partner. There are many things that fall under this category, and they usually have to do with hygiene and issues of cleanliness. I’d say, do what you can. Doesn’t cost much other than a little effort to make the other happy.

(2) Then there’s change that makes you a better version of yourself. I’m very careful to word it as a “better version” rather than a “better person,” because here the change is not about being someone else, but being someone better. Things like correcting bad habits, challenging yourself to be more enterprising, etc. A good partner is one who reminds you, maybe even nags you to be better, to do better. But if your partner begins to treat you like a personal pet project for a personality makeover in this category of change, that’s dangerous. It won’t end well. Such change must come from within yourself. If it’s forced from outside of you, you will only resent what you’re being put through even though your partner has the best of intentions. I used to spend a lot of money on things whenever I got very stressed with work, and my partner helped me to break that habit by nagging me about how bad such purchases are, and how I must not give in to filling the void in this way. Eventually I broke out of it, and I am a better person because now I am more conscious about saving money. So these kinds of changes are good for you, and you should embrace it.

(3) The third category is change that makes you less of who you are. And this is the kind of change that you must resist at all cost because it will make you very miserable (maybe even very regretful), and it’ll also affect your attitudes/feelings towards the relationship. I was once in a relationship where my partner was very clingy. She wanted to spend as much time as possible with me, and she’d make me feel guilty whenever I spend time with friends, or go out to do things I like (hobby interest groups, etc.). She hated doing all those things and so I couldn’t bring her to share in my interests. And because I felt so guilty, I gave up many friendships and many interests that I used to have. In fact, one thing that pained me so much was to give up my hobby and passion in writing. I used to write a thousand words every single day. But I gave all that up for her. My thought at that time was that I should give up these things because her happiness is important to the happiness of the relationship. But over time, it made me feel very miserable and quite dead inside. I had to occasionally use the excuse that I’m busy with work just to find time to pursue my own interests. That’s not healthy. A large part of me felt so empty not being able to do the things I enjoy doing, of not doing the things I want to do because of who I am as a person. That lingering unhappiness affected the relationship a lot.

I talked to someone about this problem, and she said, “If she’s not happy that you are busy doing what you need to do to be yourself, then that’s her problem. It’s her happiness, and she’s responsible for it, not you.” There’s a lot of truth to this. Changing who you are, becoming less of who you are just to make your partner happy is a no-deal. Because if you yourself are unhappy, then you won’t be responding to your partner in a happy way. And the whole relationship won’t be very happy. So you’re not doing your partner a favour by sacrificing and changing yourself in this way. You must retain your interests, your passions, and your friendships. If your partner is unhappy that you’re not spending enough time, then your partner has to learn to deal with it, or at least come to a compromise where you’re giving your partner enough time, care, and attention.

Is it true that a relationship can only work if two people have opposite personalities?

A student asked:

Is it true that a relationship can only work if two people have opposite personalities, e.g. introvert and extrovert?

This is not true at all. But I want to highlight a problem with this belief. No matter how similar a couple may be, it’s always the differences (no matter how minute) that will catch the couple’s attention. Similarities don’t draw attention because they look quite ordinary to us. They don’t have the potential to cause conflict. And so we can go by for weeks, months, and even years not realising just how crazy similar we may be.

But differences catch our attention like a thorn in our side. So it’ll always look like a pairing of opposite personalities, regardless of how similar a couple may be.

What makes a relationship work is open and honest communication. Don’t keep secrets, don’t hide your feelings about things, try to make it easier for your partner to want to discuss difficult topics. You need to be able to do this if you want the relationship to work.

Why am I saying this? Because our differences will tend to be the point of contention in many aspects of the relationship. If we don’t learn to manage our differences amicably, then there will be problems with the relationship.

Avoiding these problems due to differences won’t help any of you at all. The relationship will stagnate on the appearance of it seeming to work when there are deeper problems waiting to be addressed. It’s a ticking time bomb if difficulty or conflictive issues are left undiscussed for a long time. Eventually, some event will trigger a huge argument, and often times, one side will say something that s/he can never take back. And that would fatally wound the relationship, perhaps in ways that you both won’t be able to recover.

What do you think of girls who confess? Since it is more normal for guys to be the ones doing it.

A student asked:

What do you think of girls who confess? Since it is more normal for guys to be the ones doing it.

I think it’s ok for girls to confess. We are living in a modern society after all. I know some guys might be a bit more old-fashion minded, so an approach like that might freak them out a little. So you can hint your interest a bit to test water and see how it goes.

Now… Regardless of gender, I do think it’s very important to critically evaluate the person’s moral character before you decide whether or not to confess. I say this because some people are very opportunistic and manipulative. They’re not interested in a long-term relationship, and they’ll use your confession as an opportunity to enter into a relationship for the purpose of milking benefits from you like sex, free food, free expensive items, free holidays, etc. And they’ll break up once they get bored or found someone more exciting/providing. This has happened to some of my friends, both males and females.

I don’t think this happens very often. Nonetheless you should always be on your guard. Don’t rush to get into a relationship. That’s how we get hurt very badly.

Take it slow and easy, and use the time to get to know the person better to see if the person has a decent moral character and is potential boyfriend/girlfriend material first before you decide to confess.

Do you have any advice for people with low self-esteem and who always think that they are not good enough?

One student asked me this question:

Do you have any advice for people with low self-esteem and who always think that they are not good enough?

Let me share with you a fun Zen story riddle (would have been more fun if I could do this in person). Let’s imagine that we have a large glass bottle. The opening of the bottle is big enough to fit a baby duckling inside the glass bottle. Imagine that we raise the duckling in the bottle for many years until it has grown very large. By now, it’s too big to get out of the glass bottle. So here’s the question:

How do you get the duck out without breaking the glass bottle? (Answer below, don’t peek!)

The answer is: AAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! (Would have been more thrilling and fun if I could shout and bang the table right before your eyes)

You probably went, “WHAT THE HELL!?” But in that moment where you went WTH, you stopped thinking of the duck as trapped in the glass bottle. The duck is free.

A lot of life problems are like that. We are prisoners of our minds. And our minds are very powerful in generating self-made problems and suffering for ourselves. I need to be clear here: I’m not saying your problems are imaginary. How you feel about yourself is very real and very valid. And I acknowledge that, and in many ways, I feel you, because I used to suffer from low self-esteem too.

Over the years, I’ve come to realise that how we think and feel about ourselves are often inaccurate reflections of who we are. Why? Because we are the worst judge of ourselves. Everything we do is always pathetic in our eyes. And no matter how great and wonderful we may be, we will always find something to fault ourselves over.

Of course, it’s very easy to say, “ Don’t think about it.” That doesn’t work at all. Our minds are strange things. We are our minds, yet sometimes our minds have a life of its own, generating thoughts that we sometimes cannot control. That’s why it’s difficult to stop thinking about it.

If you noticed, from the start I’ve been saying that this is a problem of how we perceive ourselves in our minds. Because once we recognise the problem as such, we will then recognise that nothing outside of us can make us improve our self-esteem: relationships won’t solve the problem; good grades won’t solve the problem; money or even power won’t solve the problem. You can possess all these things but still suffer from a low self-esteem. So we must stop kidding ourselves that using these external things as measures or indicators of how good we are. Once you attain one of those things, e.g. high CAP or even a loving partner, you’ll soon discover some other thing to make you feel shit about yourself.

Having said all these, I won’t tell you how to get over one’s self-esteem issues. I’ll just share some of the realisations I had growing up, and how it helped me, and I hope it gives you new insights as well.

The first insight I acquired was when I discovered that abstract ideals are dangerous to one’s esteem. When we compare ourselves to the abstract ideals of good, clever, hardworking, smart, etc., they will always be perfect in our minds and anything in this concrete real world – ourselves especially – will always fall short from the perfection. The question, “Am I happy?”, is enough to make you miserable, because when you think about happiness in the abstract, your current state of happiness will always be not-happy-enough. Likewise for any other abstract ideal. So I have since stopped using such abstract notions to evaluate how good I am.

The second insight is that every single individual is sui generis. It’s a term used in Law and Philosophy to mean, “a class of its own.” Everyone’s unique in their own special way, with their own different strengths. I used to be miserable comparing myself with my peers. Now I stopped comparing, because I’ve since resigned myself to the fact that I don’t have to be perfect or excellent in everything. I just want to be excellent in the things I want to be excellent in. That’s all that matters. People can do better than me in so many ways, but I don’t care. I’m not them, and they’re not me. I’m a class of its own, and I’ll just do my own thing. It makes me more gracious too. I’m very happy for other people when I see them doing better than me. And I love it especially when I see my students or TAs surpass me in their own ways (always a proud moment).

My third insight is realising that it doesn’t matter whether I think or feel that I’m not good enough. What good does the knowledge do other than make you miserable? It’s more productive to think about the tasks at hand and how to solve it. People tend to conflate “not knowing how to solve a problem” with “being not good enough.” That’s not true. You can’t solve it because you don’t know enough. It’s not that you are not good enough. And so what if you have the awareness that you’re not good enough? It’s not going to solve the problem. If anything, it just makes it worse for you as you lose confidence in it. So my point here really is that my realisation is to not frame any situation as being “not good enough,” since it’s not productive to go down that path. It’s so much better to just focus on how to solve the problem.

Have you ever been so engrossed with an activity, so focused, that you forget yourself? It’s called being in the flow. And I like being in that state. It’s very meditative, almost like you’re in a trance. The more you think about yourself, the more you think about how you’re not good enough for it, the less you work. So if we just throw ourselves into the work and get into the mood and flow of things, then we’ll forget about ourselves and how we perceive ourselves. There is only the task at hand. And when you stop thinking about yourself and focus more on the work, you tend to have less performance anxieties, and generally do a better job. And at the end of the day, you get better at doing things and you’ll grow more confident and sure of yourself.

If you think about the insights that I’ve shared, they’re all very similar to the Zen solution of getting the duck out of the glass bottle – distract yourself and the duck is out. Turn the attention of your mind away from comparing against perfect abstract ideals or other people. Turn the attention of your mind to your work or hobbies. And just like that you’ll be out of your own glass bottle of low self-esteem. As you stop thinking in terms of being good/not-good enough, you’ll start to do work well, or even better than before. And that will eventually win you praises and recognition, that will eventually make you appreciate your own abilities. And hopefully as time passes, you yourself will grow more confident of the perception of who you are. And over time, your self-esteem will improve.

How can I communicate better with my parents or at least let them understand my point of view when they don’t want to listen to me?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How can I communicate better with my parents or at least let them understand my point of view? They are pretty stubborn. I always try telling them about my feelings about the matter, but they won’t bother listening to me, or in some cases, they think that I’m just being “emotional and whiny.”

I respect and love them a lot, and that is why I stop pursuing the matter, and I always end up being the one to apologise even thought it was not my fault. It’s really annoying and sad that it always ends like that. Do you have any advice on what I can do about this?

Yes, parents are awfully tough to deal with especially if they’re stubborn. But there is one additional problem you must deal with now that you are a young adult in university. This is the age where you are discovering yourself, you are discovering what independence really means (e.g. living on your own in campus, working part-time jobs or internships, having relationships, coming home late or bunking in peoples’ houses, paying your own bills, etc.). And this is also the age where parents are starting to realise that their “little” child is not little anymore, and many parents are afraid to lose their grasp of that “little” child that they have cared for so long. It’s rare for them to admit it. Maybe it’s an Asian parent thing, maybe they just don’t have the concept to make sense of what is going on. Whatever it is, there is a fear of losing you, and some will try to increase their control in an irrational attempt to grasp on to the past.

At your age, I don’t think it’s healthy to keep apologising especially when you are not the one at fault. Because you do need to discover your own independence and individuality. If you ever have to live on your own in the future, you need to know – now, at this formative age – how to stand on your own two feet. I know someone who only discovered real independence in her 30s when she had to go overseas to work. But because she never knew how to be independent on her own in her formative young adult years, she’s been pretty self-destructive as she doesn’t know how to cope with such independence and freedom.

Or if you find a partner whom you wish to settle down with, you don’t want your parents to be too involved in your relationship that they begin to dictate the terms of your relationship/marriage. I know someone whose girlfriend’s mother did not like him and she dictated the terms of their relationship, e.g. how the girl can interact with him, and all that. It’s very unhealthy for both of them (the girl especially) and for the relationship.

For many people, overbearing future in-laws are a deal-breaker because they don’t want to marry into a family whose parents are control freaks. Regardless, such parents do introduce a new vector of stress into your relationship.

It’s good that you love and respect them. It’s also time to learn to be your own self and to stand on your own two feet. Most people lack patience in dealing with stubborn parents, and so it leads to a lot of arguments and fights. But here’s the thing… The problem with verbal face-to-face communication is that most people are not very calm and patient. They tend to react upon hearing something they cannot accept, and especially so if your parents feel that they are losing their precious little child who’s growing up too fast. And so what often happens is that they react and they end up disrupting the communicative process. So you don’t ever get to finish presenting your line of reasoning to them. The conversation would have ended just as you got started.

There are two ways around this that will be a lot more peaceful. It doesn’t mean there won’t be fights, but at least you can be sure that you can get your point across and hopefully elicit a calm(er) response from them:

(1) Write a letter to them stating your point of view. Be sensitive to their feelings (their fears and anxieties) are you write the letter. It can be as long as you want. Writing a letter is also good for you because you don’t get agitated by their reactions, so you can write calmly throughout. Handing your parents a letter will be a very unusual move. Who gives letters to parents these days, right? So the very act of handing them a letter will be incredibly dissonant to their heads, and best of all, they have no past experience to look to as a guide on how to react.

This will force them to read the letter in its entirety (because they care for you). Even if they get upset reading it, they can still continue reading, and this allows you to get your point across. The fact that they have no past experience in dealing with something like this means that you are forcing them to think harder about how they should respond to what they have just read and experienced. Now, I don’t know about your generation of parents. But mine are not very educated, so they won’t be able to articulate clearly their own thoughts into a letter. If your parents are like this, then ask them to find a time where they are not busy to respond to the letter in person (give them time and space). Otherwise, if you have parents who are quite educated, then ask them to reply in writing. The act of writing forces people to think and rethink their own thoughts, beliefs, and even actions. And so that can be very beneficial to draw them out of their stubbornness. So this is something you can consider doing.

I highly recommend the above method, i.e. letter writing. But if for whatever reason letter writing may not work for you, you might want to consider the second method:

(2) Invite an outsider whom your parents respect and regard as a neutral party between you and them. This would be the mediation approach. The mediator will set the rules for engagement: only one person gets to speak at a time without interruption, accusatory language should be avoided at all cost, and we must acknowledge that each other’s feeling are valid and real. The mediator should give both parties equal air time, and if possible help to rephrase the points and help to highlight the main message that each party is trying to convey. With an outsider present (one whom your parents respect), you can be sure that your parents will not lose their shit when you share your thoughts and views. They will do their best to not lose their face in front of this outsider (usually), and they will play by the rules of engagement. The mediator also helps to protect both sides from attacks, so both can be vulnerable and open without fear. In this way, you have a space to open your heart out to them, and they’ll be made to respond to what you say in a calm and rational way, so that both parties can have a calm discussion.

I hope this gives you some ideas on how to engage them in a more productive and calm way. I wish you all the best in this matter. Have patience, and courage!

What are your thoughts on suicide and its implications?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What are your thoughts on suicide and its implications?

This question reminds me of a student who passed away in recent memory. It totally devastated me…

Days before her passing, I reached out to her as the trajectory of her social media posts suggested that suicide was imminent. I messaged her to check on how she was doing, and we conversed over the next couple of days. One day, she asked to see me as she wanted to hear advice from an older adult. She didn’t say what the matter was. We fixed an appointment, and I came to my office that fateful day waiting to meet her.

Half an hour passed, but she didn’t show up. I messaged and asked her if she was coming. She said that she wasn’t feeling too well. So she cancelled our meeting, and asked that we reschedule to another day. I didn’t think too much about this, so I agreed to a rescheduling.

Two days later, I learnt from some of her friends that she had passed away a few hours after she cancelled our meeting.

I was devastated, and even now, I am still haunted by this lingering thought in my mind: What did she want to talk to me about? What advice was she looking for? Would she still be alive today had I been insistent on meeting her? Given how it happened soon after we were scheduled to meet, I felt really awful. Couldn’t I have done something? Anything? Would it have been better if I wrote my messages some other way? What could I have done?

I beat myself up for days over this incident.

I eventually met up with some of her friends to find out what had happened. I learnt that even though this student felt so unloved, she meant so much to so many people. And so many of her friends were heartbroken by her passing.

The point in sharing this story with you is to let you be aware that no matter what you feel, or how you feel, you will always matter to a lot of people, even the seemingly unimportant or insignificant people in your life. At the very least, I want you to know that as my student, you will always matter to me.

Our minds can play tricks on us, make us feel unloved and unlovable, or make us feel that we have reached the point of no return. But how we feel is often an inaccurate reflection of what’s going on in our lives and to the people around us. Yes, the feelings are real because you feel them; the thoughts are real because they go through your mind. But we can always be mistaken.

Suicide basically leaves a trail of brokenness. Brokenness begets more brokenness. Pain begets more pain. What seems to be a solution for one’s self turns out to affect so many people. Suicide may feel like the answer to your problems. You cease to exist, but the people who love you will have to carry the burden of continuing their existence without you. And it is a sorrowful burden to shoulder for the rest of our lives. Some are haunted regularly by the lack of closure from your sudden departure. Some are haunted by the void that fills your absence for the rest of their lives. And many will have to live with the guilt that they could have done something, anything, to prevent it from happening because they are your friends/family. And not all are emotionally strong to get back up on their feet after your passing.

So, don’t forget the people around you. They do care for you even if you don’t feel that they do.

I just want you to know that no problem is ever too big. You will always have your friends and family, and you have me too. Come talk to me if you like. Don’t be afraid. :)

And if you want a trained professional to assist you in your time of need, please call the Samaritans of Singapore at 1800 221 4444 (24 hours).

Why do people who are 17 or 18 years old get into relationships if the chances they can last is unlikely?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Why do people who are 17 or 18 years old get into relationships if the chances they can last is unlikely?

If you think about it, there are many relationships that don’t actually last regardless of age. So why zoom in to those years? The same can be said about any other age.

The real question is why do something if you know it’s likely to fail? Some people use this line of thought to justify not getting married because of the likelihood of failure. We might as well be asking: Why bother living if we know we’re going to die?

The point is that it’s about the experience. Not all experiences are good, and not all experiences are bad. But all these experiences teach us many things about life: what we really want, who we really are, etc.

Of course, being in a relationship at too young an age can lead to more hurts due to a lack of maturity and experience in knowing how to handle difficulties, conflicts, and hurts. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop people from trying, and from learning from their experiences, whether good or bad.

At the start of the relationship, my wife (then girlfriend) had many worries, and she said, “What if we break up? What’s the point in being together?”

My answer was that at least we would have had the experience – the joys, the sorrows, the happy memories, and even the sad memories – that would define us, that would mark a chapter in our lives. These are never wasted time together.

And if we have to go our separate ways, we’ll then say, “Thank you for the time together. Thank you for the happy memories, and the sad memories. Thank you for the laughter and the tears. Thank you the experience. And more importantly, thank you for sharing this chapter of your life with me.” And then we’ll move on to a new chapter, with a new adventure and a new story to tell.