What do you do when you’ve tried many times but you still fail every single time, even though it’s something that you really like and want to be good at?

A student sent me this question:

What do you do when you’ve tried many times but you still fail every single time, even though it’s something that you really like and want to be good at?

If it’s something you really like and want to be good at, you need to be way more patient with yourself and kinder to yourself. It’s like learning the violin. It’s incredibly painful at the start because everything you do is wrong no matter what you try. But you just have to keep doing to retrain your muscles to learn now movements. Same thing with everything else. So we must be patient and forgiving towards ourselves with each and every failure.

There’s a saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting the same results.

If something fails, it’s important to ask why did it fail and diagnose what precisely went wrong. Saying, “I am not good,” is not a diagnosis. Was there a lack of understanding on your part, or is there a flaw in the method?

These things must be evaluated so you know what not to do in the future. When you can do that, then failure isn’t just failure. Such failures become lessons on what not to do, so that you can do better. Of course, it does help to seek help online, whether it’s YouTube videos or posting on forums/Reddit. It can be difficult to identify the flaws. So we need other people to identify them for us.

I’ve never been in a relationship and I’m scared that I have no experience and may not find anyone. Help!

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m going to be 20 years old but I have never been in a relationship because of my family. They will only let me date after I’ve graduated and started working. But I’m scared because by the time I graduate, I would have no experience and I may not be able to find anyone. Help!

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. You’re not going to lose out on anything.

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 baggages into subsequent relationships. And these emotional baggages can affect your ability to trust and love well. So this is the opposite of Pokemon – you don’t gotta catch them emotional baggages!

Now, I’m not sure what kind of experience you are talking about here. I am aware that right now, many people your age are saying on social media that you need to acquire sexual experience so that you won’t disappoint your partner or future spouse (i.e. that they will leave you if you cannot perform). This is utter rubbish!

You can learn to be better with your spouse over time. And it becomes a means for developing greater intimacy and closeness with each other because, in that very moment, you both are learning how to communicate about something so sensitive, and so very intimate with each other while being so very vulnerable.

In a healthy long-term relationship, sexual union is more than just pleasure. It’s about communication at a more intimate level. If you cannot talk about your likes/dislikes in bed, or figure out how to 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, and contrary to popular belief, people who feel that they have become “experts” in bed may have trouble with honest communication with their partners because it takes a lot of humility to accept that the techniques they’ve “mastered” 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 not having any experience. You will acquire all the experience you need when you finally get into a relationship.

In the meantime, the experiences 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 such things.

What advice can you give to someone who’s never been in a relationship but is looking for someone to spend the rest of their life with?

A student asked:

What advice can you give to someone who’s never been in a relationship but is looking for someone to spend the rest of their life with?

I have two advice to give:

(1) First, don’t rush into one because it’ll force you to settle on the first person who likes you, and you’ll rationalise and make exceptions on why you should stick to that person even if the person displays many red flags, or if you feel that you’re both incompatible. So please don’t do this to yourself. There are so many people who are unhappily married because they did just that.

(2) Secondly, there’s no such thing as a soul mate or a partner who’s perfect enough that there’s no need to put in effort to understand or be understood. Relationships are hard work, and the bulk of that hard work comes in the form of communicating each others’ expectations, needs, and wants; and learning how to manage differences.

Every problem and difference can be ironed out through open and calm communication. The hard part is learning how to communicate effectively with each other and to be patient with each other about it.

And you must never be complacent that you’ve figured out the art of communication. Why? Because people change over time. We’re not static. And so our needs, wants, and desires will also change with. So too will the the communicative needs and communicative methods change over time.

You know communication has broken down when one party says to the other in frustration, “You’ve become a different person.” They’ve failed to update each other’s idea of who they are through communication.

There is no issue that cannot be talked about or shouldn’t be talked about. So please learn to talk about difficult matters openly, honestly, patiently, and in a non-accusatory, non-aggressive method. This will help ensure the health of the relationship. And overall, you’ll learn to become a better human person as you know how best to effectively communicate with other people.

What advice would you give to a girl whose boyfriend tries to pressure her into having sex even though the girl says, “No”?

A student asked:

What advice would you give to a girl whose boyfriend tries to pressure her into having sex even though the girl says, “No”?

I would advise the girl to hold firm with her decision. Stick to the, “No,” and don’t budge.

You have every right to say “No,” to your boyfriend, even if you don’t have a reason. And if you don’t feel ready or comfortable, or if you feel that the relationship hasn’t progressed far enough for it, it is well within your right to say, “No.” It will not and should not affect the relationship in any way.

I’ve heard stories about guys who desperately want sex and will conjure all kinds of sad and even pathetic excuses to make their girlfriends give in to sex. It’s important to remember that no one has ever died from not having sex (conversely, people have died from having sex). So there is no valid reason that should change your mind.

The decision not to have sex is yours, and if the guy truly respects and loves you, he should back off from it. If he is persistent in constantly trying to pressure you into it, it is a red flag for more problems to come in the relationship. Such actions signal that he doesn’t respect your choice enough and thinks that he can eventually get his way with you. This is a very bad mindset and one that can and will eventually affect the relationship in other ways.

Sometimes, guys will use emotional blackmail techniques, like threatening to break-up, or threatening to see a prostitute or a one-night stand, or making accusations that you don’t love him enough.

If it comes to this, it’s a really huge red flag that the guy is toxic. Such threats are distressing. And the guy knows that he can put you under such mental duress to pressure you into doing things you don’t want to do. This is clearly an act of manipulation. A person who genuinely loves you will not manipulate you into doing things you don’t want to do.

If this does happen, I strongly recommend breaking-up with the guy. Because if he has no qualms applying such emotional blackmail techniques for one of the most intimate acts of love in a relationship, it means that he would have no qualms to emotionally manipulate you in other ways.

So the main point is this: don’t feel bad about saying, “No.” It’s your body and your choice, and people who truly love you will respect your decisions, even if it may disappoint them. But that’s what love is.

If you find yourself in a relationship with someone who doesn’t respect you or your choices, then you should reconsider the relationship. There are many wonderful people out there who will respect and love you, perhaps more so than the person you’re currently with. So don’t feel trapped thinking that you cannot find a better partner and that you have to settle with what you have. You deserve better.

Is it common to have feelings of inadequacy when comparing myself to my peers?

A student asked:

Is it common to have feelings of inadequacy when comparing myself to my peers? I always feel that in terms of academia, I’m not as strong as my friends. I can never keep my concentration as good as them and I always get distracted. They can study for hours on end and I barely make it thru one lecture.

Here is a fact that is true now as it was true during my time as a student: many students are just putting up a front before other people as if they are coping well or staying on top of everything, because to admit struggle seems embarrassing, especially in a competitive environment.

From the mid-course survey that I did in AY2020/2021 Semester 1, I can tell you that 70-80% of the cohort admitted that they are struggling to cope with the semester and online learning.

If it helps, I am happy to admit that I struggle a lot with online teaching and this 100% online semester. It’s exhausting to teach online tutorials, and even more exhausting and frustrating to have to sit through many online meetings. I actually need like an hour to “decompress” after each Zoom session. So I’m extra unproductive this semester.

Do I feel inadequate, or even embarrassed about this? No. I just know that’s how I am when I use Zoom. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. My weakness is that I can’t handle Zoom tutorials well. It’s not easy. No need to feel bad about it. It just is.

As for feelings of inadequacy, I used to get it a lot as an undergraduate student. I used to compare myself with people scoring A+s and wondered why I could never be like them, and then I tortured myself constantly by thinking that I’m not good enough.

But if you noticed, saying that you’re “good enough” requires a context. Good enough… for what? If you don’t know yet what you want to be good in, you will never be good enough for anything because there is no context for “good enough” to make sense. So of course, without that clearly defined context, it’s logically impossible to be “good enough” for anything. As it is, you’re probably already good at some things, but the abstract nature of “good enough” lacks a frame of reference, so we will always fall short of “good enough.”

So of course, when we’re young and clueless, we’ll just find anything and everything that we can compare. And we often torture ourselves by finding things that we’re not good at and then comparing ourselves with people who are good at those things. We don’t give ourselves enough recognition that we are good or in fact better than some/most people in other things.

How did I get over my feelings of inadequacy? By recognising my own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve made my peace when I came to the conclusion that I am not as talented to be an excellent research. I will always be a mediocre researcher , and that’s ok. I’m perfectly happy with that because I don’t enjoy research neither do I want to spend the rest of my life doing that. Other people can and will do better at me in research and I’m happy for them. I can live with this.

What do I enjoy doing and what are my strengths? Writing and teaching. I love doing these two things and so I’m very happy that I can do them well. Are there people better than me? Yes. Do I feel inadequate? No, because I recognise I am still a work-in-progress. And I can use the time to gain more experiences and learn along the way.

And I think we forget that there’s a time factor when it comes to being good at something. Some people are great at what they do because they are willing to pour hours and hours and hours of work into it. Should you feel inadequate comparing yourselves to these people? No. They made the decision to dedicate so much time and energy to it. And if you want to be as great as them, then you have to be willing to work hard and struggle for it.

With teaching, I’m willing to do that. And I’m actually very excited that there are people better than me whom I can learn from. With research, not so much. Hence I am quite happy even though I’m not as good as others when it comes to research. It’s just not my cup of tea, it’s just not something I wish to torture myself over.

I sometimes find it annoying that people think they need to be the best in everything, or the most excellent person about a particular thing. Why the need for that? The harsh fact of life is that there will always be people better than us in every aspect of our existence. And just because they are better than us doesn’t mean that we will lose. This isn’t some sick battle royale game where we have to keep eliminating others in order to stay alive. The world isn’t like that.

Focusing on our inadequacy is really just a distraction from the more important things like learning how to be better. The fact that there are people better than us means that there are opportunities for us to learn to improve ourselves. Why are they better than us, how can we up our game to be better than them? These are the more important questions.

Do grades matter after graduation?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Do grades really matter after graduation? How do I not get too hung up on not getting As?

You need to ask yourself what are the grades for? We do not exist merely to score As, nor do grades grant us happiness or salvation. In other words, grades are not an end to itself. They serve another purpose. And we have to be clear what purpose we want it to serve.

If you say you want to pursue academia or graduate school, then for obvious reasons, the grades matter because it signals that you have what it takes to endure the rigours of grad school if you get accepted into a programme.

If you want to join the civil service here in Singapore, unfortunately the people who do the hiring are very obsessed about grades. It is used as a proxy measure for how hard you are willing to work and/or how brilliant you are. It is doubtful how accurate grades are to signal brilliant one may be, but certainly some organisations want to hire people who are willing and able to work very hard and be able to produce results. So this is something grades do indicate, and this is something the bureaucratic machinery of government requires.

That said, exceptions are made for exceptional people, but we usually only show case or exceptionality many years after graduation.

But the private sector is a different story. Most companies don’t care too much how you do in school. Why? Because academic grades are a measure of only one ability out of an infinite number of abilities out there that can add value to the organisation. Salesmanship, the ability to connect people, manage risks, and a whole host of people skills and street smart skills cannot be assessed in a university. And if you can demonstrate that you can add value to their organisation in these ways beyond grades, many private companies are willing to take you on and pay you handsomely for that added value.

If you don’t want to get too hung up on grades, focus on developing a backup plan or a few contingencies that you can tap on to help you get employed even if you don’t have fantastic grades. These are people skills, negotiation skills, marketing skills, public speaking skills, etc. These make you very marketable and you can always fall back on them to give you an edge when you try to seek employment. So if you don’t have the grades to impress, you have a set of skills that are highly sought after by many companies.

This is a common tactic employed in a field called: risk mitigation. Don’t bet your entire life on just grades. If you do, of course the pressure will be high. You’ll have a do or die mentality because it feels like you must succeed otherwise you’ll fail in life. But you can hedge your risks by developing many possible paths for success, and that also reduces the anxieties over failure. If one doesn’t work, oh that’s always that other backup plan.

I do want to emphasise the need to develop people skills and other talents. Many students have trained themselves to become excellent at studying, but they’re inept at everything else. Their high grades won’t save them or help them do well in the working world. And it saddens me that all that talent cannot be fully realised because they don’t know how. So it’s important to use the time now as a student to explore and develop a variety of skills while you still.

At the end of the day, don’t forget the big picture. A few years after you graduate, after you’ve worked your first job (maybe after your second job), no one’s going to ask how well you did in school after you’ve built a portfolio of your professional achievements which is your CV, and the array of talents, skills, and experience you’ve acquired over the years.

These are things that are way more long-lasting and worth the effort beyond just mere grades.

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.