Do you have any advice for those who are interning for the first time?

A student sent me this question:

Do you have any advice for those who are interning for the first time? I’ll be interning soon this summer and I’m afraid that I’d be clueless towards some very important things.

Yes I have some advice about what to do when you embark on an internship or your first job:

(1) First, you need to go in with a mindset change. I’m aware a lot of students think that they should do jobs where they know they are already good at (or think they’re able to do well in). This is a bad mindset. If you do this, you will have no room for development and growth. You’ll stagnate, or worse, regress!

So let me share with you the words a wise professor shared with me when I confided in him my worries about work after I graduated. He said, “When you go to school, you are paying to learn. When you go to work, you are being paid to learn.”

So, it’s all about being open to learning. Be hungry to learn and gain as many new experiences as possible. Don’t just do things that you’re comfortable with. You should at least have one project that’s outside your comfort zone to constantly challenge you to grow.

I have a personal philosophy when it comes to work: “Say yes first and figure it out later.” This has been my guiding principle for a lot of the new projects that I take on. I wouldn’t have gained such a wide array of experience and skills if I didn’t give these things a try.

The working world is very forgiving about failure, esp. if you work very closely with your supervisor, as that means that you have many opportunities to refine and improve the thing you do. This way, you’ll develop many achievements that you can proudly pin on your CV that will help you move on to your next job.

(2) Secondly, I’ve noticed that many students treat the work assigned to them like school assignments. So they’ll keep quiet and struggle to complete the task without consulting anyone. This is bad!

You need to have the humility to seek help from anyone and everyone. We owe our success to the people around us. And the most successful people are those who know how to seek help from people both inside and outside the organisation. This includes your supervisor, your colleagues, and even friends from school. You should NEVER struggle in silence, or just rely on Google.

To go far in your career, you must know how to tap on your social network – not just use them in a very utilitarian way for your own personal advantage, but to always collaborate and find win-win situations from everyone, esp. the people you seek help from.

Even when I started GET1050, I didn’t come in knowing everything that I taught. I didn’t know how to do data analysis or code in VBA. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos and also seeking help from friends. I also relied heavily on the first generation of TAs to help me come up with learning activities that would be fun and effective for students.

I know it’s very scary to go about doing things that you don’t know. But this relates back to the first point. Work means we’re being paid to learn, so we should do all we can to learn as much as possible by our own, and from the people around us. No challenge, no growth. So keep challenging yourself and learn from others.

(3) And this brings me to my third point: You must develop a close working relationship with your supervisor. Update him/her regularly (even if it doesn’t sound impressive), and seek clarifications when you’re unsure. You need to put yourself in your supervisor’s shoes. Imagine you’re a supervisor. If your subordinate doesn’t talk to you, would you know whether your subordinate is doing work? No. Would you be able to trust your subordinate when s/he’s silent most of the time? Again, no!

So you do need to talk to your supervisor regularly. Be proactive about it. Don’t wait. And do not give the excuse that you’re afraid of troubling your already-busy supervisor. It’s better to trouble him/her to clarify than to submit work that’s done completely wrong too close to the deadline. You’d be troubling him/her a lot more if you do that.

I’ll illustrate with a real incident: Not too long ago, someone did work for me. She had forgotten what I taught her and she didn’t consult me to clarify. She submitted work that was done wrongly. It was very close to the deadline for releasing something (she had one month to do it). And because of that, it was incredibly stressful for me as it meant that I had to give up on sleep and redo everything in about 20 hours to get the thing out on time.

It’s things like this that will sour your relationship with your supervisor.

So make it a point to update your supervisor on a regular basis. Not complete? That’s fine. Have the humility to report everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Have the humility to ask for clarification all the time. I’d rather have someone who clarifies and does the work correctly, then someone who doesn’t clarify and gives me the wrong thing at the end, only for me to redo everything.

One further point, trust is cultivated not by doing work well. Trust is cultivated by regular and quality communication. If you want your supervisor to let you in on more important tasks, or trust you enough to do other interesting projects, you need to cultivate that trust by checking in regularly and talking to him/her regularly. If you don’t dare communicate with your supervisor, it reflects badly on you as it shows that you don’t trust your own boss enough to seek help from him/her.

(4) Fourthly, don’t be passive and wait for your supervisor to give you work! Either ask for more if you feel you’re not being challenged enough, or better yet, take ownership and initiative to improve things on your own! Sometimes, they are unable to assess whether you are able to cope with the load, so they err on the side of caution. However, if your internship is too comfortable for you, it means that you’re wasting your time, because you don’t get to accomplish many things during your internship. You won’t have much to show on your CV.

Supervisors love it when you help to add value to the organisation on your own initiative. As it is, supervisors are already busy with their own workload, so it can be very difficult for them to find work to give you. If you are able to find other projects to busy yourself with (that will help your supervisor), oh you are going places!

Of course, don’t be too over-enthusiastic in wanting to change everything on Day 1. Spend the first week or two to understand EVERYTHING in the department – the people, what each one does, the kinds of problems they encounter, the problems your supervisor encounters, the kinds of problems you encounter in the course of your work, etc. Spend moments of each day thinking how you could improve the process, or what interventions can help make things better. And then find the time to share these ideas with your supervisor. S/he will really appreciate it, and can help give you deeper insights on the matter, and maybe connect you to other people to assist you with improving things.

Now, the things I said above may sound like common sense, but shockingly they are not practised by everyone (it’s human nature to be lazy or find the easy way out). So if you do these things, you will actually stand out in any and every organisation.

And I want to end by saying that good talent is actually rare and hard to find. Companies will do everything in their power to retain good talent if they come across one. If you do the things I mentioned above, you will not only gain the attention of your immediate supervisor, but also the attention of senior management. And they will go out of their way to take care of you. If it’s an internship, they’ll reserve a permanent position specially for you when you graduate.

This is already happening with some of my students. So it is well within your power to achieve all these when you go out for an internship. So go out and make us proud!

All the best!

How do I go about choosing my major or what field I should specialise in?

A student asked me:

How do I go about choosing my major or what field I should specialise in?

I am of the firm belief that you should major in a discipline that you enjoy and are very passionate about. For most people, university is their last stage of their education. So it’s all the more important to end it with something you enjoy. After all, the assignments are tough and very time consuming, so if you enjoy what you’re learning, it makes it a lot better. Otherwise, you’ll be spending 3-4 years suffering in misery learning something you have no interest in.

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again. Your major does not make you more or less employable. YOU make yourself employable. The soft skills of expression, of writing, of presenting, of persuading, of working together in a team, of leading others in a team, of being able to learn new things fast and on your own – these are more important than your major. These will determine whether you will get called up and succeed in an interview, and these soft skills will determine whether you will progress fast in your career or not.

The only reason why some majors look more employable is because certain disciplines tend to attract lots of people who are already very employable. They are very career-minded and self-driven. And with these same personal qualities, they would go just as far if they had taken another major. The issue really isn’t the major. It’s whether you bother to take the initiative to learn beyond your major, and to develop yourself professionally and intellectually.

Many of the assignments and modules you’ll take in University will try to prepare you in one way or another in many of the soft skills I listed above. Things like group project, etc., are already ample training grounds to hone these skills.

Lastly, I don’t recommend taking a major just because it is “practical.” What’s my issue with “practicality”? Well, this is speaking from observation. I’ve noticed that students (and my peers) who say they chose a “practical” major use this reason to give themselves a false sense of assurance that their future is secure. But what they don’t realise is that they often blackbox the entire thing, thinking that the having the name of their major printed on a piece of paper will do miracles for them, and so many of these students don’t actually develop themselves professionally and thus they go out into the working world unprepared and quite incompetent in what they do. Or in the case of my peers who lied to themselves that they had chosen a “practical” major, they ended up worrying about jobs and job security the same way as everyone else towards the end of their uni life. So the choice of their major really made no difference. It just made them feel comfortable for the first 3 years.

I also have issues with deciding a major based on whether or not it is “employable.” Employability will depend on the economic tides. In my time as an undergraduate, life sciences was the fad while computing was the dumping ground. Many of my peers took up life sciences in the hopes of making it rich, and very few took computing. Fast forward a few years later to today, now computing is the fad and all the life science graduates are having difficulties finding a job.

The same will go the way of computing/data analytics now that they are the “in” things. What many students don’t realise is that industries are very happy to drive more people into studying computing/data analytics because they want to increase the supply of talent so as to reduce the cost of manpower. Right now, such good talent are low in numbers and they are expensive to hire. By driving up the supply of talent, they can reduce salaries for such talent in the near future. This, by the way, is true of every discipline that gets caught up in the employability hype. Once the fad dies out, these majors will question the employability of their degrees once again.

Similarly, many chemical engineers are out of a job now because the oil and gas industry isn’t doing so well (it used to be booming so fantastically well years ago). Many Grab drivers I spoke to in the past year hail from the oil and gas industry. Some even hold PhDs in chemical engineering! What you study and the level of your qualification isn’t always everything. We’re all subject to the changing tides of the global economic situation.

So choosing a major based on “employability” is rubbish advice. What is employable now may not be employable in the future. And with the rise of AI and technology, experts cannot predict the next rising or failing industry

What is it that keeps those people employed in these shifting tides?

The same soft skills and qualities that I mentioned earlier. Why are they so important? Because these are the very qualities that enable an individual to add a lot of value to the organisation. It’s an intangible value that’s hard to measure, but it plays such a crucial role in the lifeblood of the organisation, whether it is the people and culture, or the business operations itself.

So once we’ve discounted “practicality” and “employability,” what are we left with? Well, like I said, it doesn’t matter what you major in. It’s the soft skills and people skills that matter waaaaaaay more than what you study in uni. So you might as well just choose a discipline that you enjoy learning. At least that way, when passion kicks in, you’ll gain so much more and those years of learning will be the best years of your life.

What advice do you have for someone who isn’t interested in dating or marriage in general but faces lots of parental pressure to do so?

A student sent me this question:

What advice do you have for someone who isn’t interested in dating or marriage in general but faces lots of parental pressure to do so? I don’t really have any interest in dating or marriage. I had some crushes while growing up but nothing much. I’m single currently (and I’m very pessimistic about finding a partner in the future because of circumstances) and I’ve tried to talk about this to my parents many times. But I still face a lot of pressure and sometimes I feel really annoyed.

My advice is to hold your ground firmly on your position. Even if you give in to parental pressure, the annoying questions will not go away. Once you start dating, the new annoying question will then be, “When are you getting married?” And once you get married, the annoying question will be, “When are you going to produce a baby?” Once you make one, the new annoying question is, “When are you going to make another?” And when the kids grow older, your parents will have yet more annoying questions to ask you. So in the grand scheme of things, the annoying questioning and pressure won’t ever go away.

So don’t cave in to the pressure.

There are three possible reasons why parents do shit like this. (1) The biggest reason is that they are concerned about your well-being and happiness. Even if you tell them that you are happy being single, they don’t believe it (because they’re married, so they don’t understand what it means to be happy being single, and they may not understand that it could ever be possible). But more importantly, marriage is seen as the rite of passage into becoming a full grown adult. There is some truth here. And in general, you will find that people who are married are more mature in certain things than single people (let me emphasise: in general – this may not be true for some). So parents do want the best for their children, and for them, it means seeing their children grow and mature in a path that they are familiar with (i.e. marriage). If this is their motivation, you can set their minds at ease by showing/demonstrating to them in the little and big ways how you’re more responsible and how you’re more sensible in your thinking. I find that once you start becoming responsible for other people and their future, the maturity sets in a lot faster (because you don’t have the luxury of time to procrastinate on it).

(2) The second possible reason is that as you grow older and spend less time with them, there will come a point in time where your parents struggle to find common conversational topics to sustain a conversation with you. And so the only thing that they know to talk about are the default questions. So what appears to be pressuring to get married is just an attempt at striking a conversation. Remember: a lot of people are very bad at social interaction. Many parents included. If you feel socially awkward, what more your parents? So if this is one of their motivations, then you can easily resolve this by just steering the conversation to other topics. They’ll be happy to just be able to talk to you about anything about your life or whatever.

(3) The third possible motivation is annoying. Just as how students like to compare and are afraid of losing out, some parents also compare. Some don’t actually like to compare, but they are surrounded by boastful parents who brag so much that they make your parents feel inadequate (just like how some students boast on social media about their achievements making some other students feel bad about themselves – seems like people don’t really change as they grow up, yea?). In such a case, the motivation is just insecurity or feelings of inadequacy. They probably won’t tell you that this is the motivation. After all, it’s embarrassing to say something like this. Nonetheless, be aware that this shit does happen behind the scenes with your parents and their peers.

The thing is this: you should never be a pawn for someone else’s insecurity. So if they are motivated for this reason, give them something else to be proud of. Your parents may not win on your dating/marriage front, but you can give them something else to be proud of, whether it is a work achievement or academic achievement. In some ways, this will give your parents some ammunition to fend off their annoying peers, or even make these arrogant people feel bad. So in some ways you’re helping your team to score. Haha!

I have this horrible half-uncle who loves to brag and boast about his achievements and the achievements of his children. He’s the most insecure and wretched human being I’ve ever met. He does it all the time without anyone asking. And I can see how he actively makes my parents feel inadequate by his endless bragging.

Anyway, when I appeared on Channel NewsAsia, my parents finally got some ammunition to make that horrible half-uncle feel less superior about himself. After that, he tried so hard to pressure his son to study Chinese Philosophy in order to compete with me. What a loser. But at the very least, even though I’m not on good terms with my parents, I got the satisfaction for scoring one for the team.

So stand firm to what you want. And try to discern the motivation behind the pressure. It could be one of the three I mentioned above (or a combination), or there could be other reasons that I might have missed. Whatever it is, getting into a relationship and marrying won’t stop your parents from pressuring you to do things. It’s more important to get to the heart of the issue.

How do I deal with my mother who says really horrible things about other people?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Lately, I’ve been feeling rather down because I have to deal with my toxic mother on a daily basis. Sometimes she says really horrible things about other people. And when I try to tell her that it’s not nice to say such things, she gets all defensive and scolds me instead for being rude. I really don’t know how much longer I can take it before I explode. Any advice?

Yes, I can totally feel your frustration!

I think for starters, it’s not helpful to try to fix or correct your mother. It’ll just breed a lot of frustration in you, especially when you approach the situation with the assumption that the problem can be fixed.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the older we get, the more frequent we’ll exercise our bad habits. And sometimes, they get more extreme. And this is especially so if we don’t always pay careful attention to how we behave.

Of course, these bad behaviours stem from somewhere. They don’t just come about with no explanation of their own. It’s probably motivated by some kind of insecurity or need. So rather than trying to make her stop, it would help to understand where she’s coming from when she says such nasty things. Is she putting people down just to make herself feel better because she’s not happy about her own state of existence? If not, what other things might be motivating her to behave this way?

That said, asking, “What’s bothering you?”, won’t normally give you the answer. Parents, especially Asian parents, feel that they shouldn’t burden their children with their problems. So many will just bottle it up without realising that it’s manifesting in other ways. So it takes a lot of time and patience and active listening (i.e. be very engaged in your conversations to try to understand her well) to be able to identify the issue.

Say for example, that the problem you’ve identified is that she doesn’t feel loved or appreciated, and that’s causing her to say such things. Then, if you’re able to fulfil this need of hers, then you might notice her saying less toxic things on a daily basis.

There may be a situation where a person is so toxic it’s beyond saving no matter how much you try. Do know that we can only do the best we can to help others, but at the end of the day, we are not the heroes or saviours of other people, no matter how much we love them. They have to want to save themselves before any real change can happen. They may sometimes feel that they are not in control of their actions (esp. if it’s a habit, it can be hard to control it), so at the very least letting them know that they have someone who loves them even when they don’t love themselves very much is already a huge thing.

(Yes, parents and other older folks still grapple with the same issues of self-esteem and self-love the same way many of us struggle with when young. It doesn’t magically go away when you become a parent or adult.)

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

A student asked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When is a good time to start looking for insurance for myself and what types of insurance should I prioritise?

A student asked me:

When is a good time to start looking for insurance for myself and what types of insurance should I prioritise?

First of all, it’s important to understand the point of insurance. Insurance is a kind of risk management. The basic idea is that you pay a sum of money (a premium) for financial protection over an uncertainty that could result in a loss of money.

Let me explain. Let’s say you have a beautiful gold necklace that you want to buy from an overseas seller. You paid $10,000 for it and $100 for a super reliable courier service to transport the necklace to you. There is a possibility that the gold necklace could be lost in transit. Either the cargo plane may crash, the package may get stolen during transit at the airport, or the courier van may get hijacked. We don’t know. It’s unlikely but it could very well happen. And if it does, you lose $10,000.

It’s unlikely, but the fact that it could still happen can be rather unsettling. Wouldn’t be great if you can get some peace of mind knowing that if it does get lost, you still can recover your $10,000?

That’s what insurance companies are for! So an actuary (someone who calculates risks and determines how much to charge you) will do the math to decide how much you have to pay for that unlikely event that you do lose it (that will still be profitable for the company). Let’s say it costs you $90 to insure the delivery of the product. So if the gold necklace arrives to your home safe and sound, you only lose $90 and the insurance company profits. And if the gold necklace is lost, you get back your $10,000. Whatever it is, that sum of $10,000 is protected.

This is the main idea behind insurance. When you are buying insurance for yourself, you are insuring on the potential lost of income if you suddenly are unable to work normally due to accident or ill health; or lost of income for the entire family if you pass away before retirement. Or you might want to insure yourself against the potential costs involved in future medical treatments or to offset against the costs of paying for a caretaker.

For starters, you should get insurance to cover for death, accidents, and critical illnesses. The younger you sign up for this, the better, because you get to lock in that same annual price (known as the premium) for the duration of that coverage. The cost of the premium increases with age, so the older you get, the more expensive it will be to enroll.

So sign up early to keep the cost low. Of course, one of the difficulties is if you’re still a student, you’re not working, so you can’t afford. So I’ll say start looking around now and sign up the moment you get a job (I don’t believe in relying on your parents to pay for you).

Now, here’s the thing about insurance. It’s always tempting to want to insure yourself with the highest amount possible. And some unethical insurance agents will try to push you towards that (because the premiums will be higher and they’ll earn more commissions). So you need to ask yourself: what are the financial losses that you want to protect against? In the event of death, you want to at least cover the cost of funeral arrangements. If it’s the against accidents/illnesses that will cause you to lose your ability to function, what’s a reasonable amount of money required to support yourself? There are statistics on the average age where people succumb to certain illnesses that are disabling. So you can use that as a gauge to do a rough calculation.

Now, there’s another issue you need to consider. Some people sign up for the highest coverage thinking that they can pay the premiums forever. But your present spending ability is not an indicator of how much you will be able to spend in the future. If you get retrenched and have many mouths to feed at home, you may not be able to afford the premiums and will have to cancel the insurance coverage (and it’ll cost too much to sign up again). This, by the way, happened to my dad who got retrenched in 1997. He now goes through life with zero insurance coverage.

So be prudent about the coverage and premiums, with considerations about your ability to pay for them in the future.

The last thing I’ll say is: I strongly do not recommend investment-linked insurance policies. It’s a lot cheaper to buy a term insurance and do your own investments than it is to buy an investment-linked insurance policy. You save a loooooooot more money in the long term. The way they market it, it sounds like a really good deal, and it sounds good only because most people don’t know anything about investments, and so they cannot imagine how things can be better. It looks like you’re getting a good deal, but that’s because they’re playing with a psychological trick to make it seem like you’re getting a good deal. But the truth is, you’re not .If you learn how to do the investments yourself, you can make way more money even after deducting the cost of insurance from a term plan. So don’t be lazy. Go learn how to invest. Don’t leave it to an insurance policy to do it for you.

And there are many other issues with investment-linked insurance policies. Many of them will lock the money in for a very long period of time. And if you need to cash out because of some urgent life need, you will lose certain privileges that await you at the end of the policy decades later. So you don’t have the same kind of flexibility as having money parked elsewhere (either in a bank or in shares/bonds). And because the premiums for such investment-linked policies are so much higher, if you find yourself in a financially difficult situation in the future, you will be more inclined to cancel completely and lose your coverage. Term plans are a lot cheaper, and you won’t feel so financially suffocated even in financially difficult times.

Now I’m not the best person to talk to for advice on what exact insurance policies to buy. There are people who are more in the know than I am. For starters, you should find people who are financial advisors not tied to any single insurance company. They are free to show you a range of insurance products from all the insurance companies in Singapore. Use the time to learn from them. And more importantly, don’t feel bad that you have to sign up for something. They are just doing their jobs, and you are just trying to be a sensible customer. You can buy them a drink if you want.

And like I said, be wary of agents who tell you to sign up for the highest coverage possible or who try to scare you about the doom and gloom of death and diseases. You should lodge a complaint about them. And if you find yourself in an unfortunate situation where you got pressured into signing a policy you don’t want, you have up to 12 days to refund the policy behind their backs.

How do I become more sensible and mature in order to understand my parents?

A student asked me this question:

How do I become more sensible and mature in order to understand my parents?

It helps to talk to more people older than you, and if you can, people of similar age range to your parents and older to gain the various perspectives.

One of the difficulties in trying to understand parents or anyone in authority is the fact that we don’t have the full picture of what’s going on, of the problems or constraints that they themselves face, and the good/bad experiences they had in the past that shaped their decisions and actions.

And sometimes it can be difficult to gain full understanding of one’s parents (or anyone in authority) from talking. Because sometimes, they feel that certain information is best kept secret from you — not because they don’t trust you — but because they don’t want you to have additional anxieties, or drag you into a problem that you shouldn’t have to deal with (either not a battle you should be fighting at your current stage in life, or whatever).

And I’m saying this also as someone who recently transitioned into becoming a lecturer. The kinds of information and perspectives I have access to is very different from what a student has access to. And sometimes I have to make certain decisions that students cannot understand, but it’s actually good for them. The irony is, some of these decisions cannot be explained while they do the assignment, as it’ll then change how they work on the assignment (which then defeats the learning objectives).

The point I’m making is, that if someone has charge over you, there are some information that they cannot share with you, and so it can be frustrating not to be able to see the full picture from your perspective. So it does help to at least be patient about and understand that there are some things that we just cannot fully know, at least for a certain span of time.

So talking to other older people helps a lot! Because these people can freely share their own perspectives that your parents (and other people of authority of you) won’t share. And as you hear their stories, the reasons behind their actions and decisions; and as you hear more narratives from other people of similar age, you begin to form a general sense of what their generation has to go through, their concerns, fears, and also, their hopes for their children of your generation. That understanding will enrich your own perspective about life and the world, and it does help you become more sensible and mature as you reflect on their stories and compare it with your own life experiences.

And I can tell you that this definitely works because it is something that I’ve been doing ever since I was in secondary school. The kinds of stuff I did back then often required me to work and interact with people from their 30s and up. And I’ve been quite fortunate to hear their stories, their struggles, their hopes and fears, their dreams and losses. I was very much enriched by their stories.

A good starting point is to talk to your taxi/grab driver, the auntie/uncle running the food/drink stall that you frequent, or even the older folks who work as cleaners or waiters. And have a chit chat about such things with them. You’ll be amazed at the kinds of things they’ll be willing to share with you.

How do we differentiate between someone who needs to change their attitude or us needing to be more accommodating?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do we differentiate between someone who needs to change their attitude or us needing to be more accommodating?

It all depends on your principles and values. Sure, some of us might feel obliged to please the people around us, but it’s ok insofar as you accommodate within the limits of your principles and values. If accommodating someone means becoming somebody whom you are not, or doing things that you don’t want to do, then of course, you shouldn’t be accommodating that person in that manner.

Now, the problem you posed is that you’ve frame the possible course of actions to a binary either “change their attitude” or “I be more accommodating.” There are more options available, and I don’t want you to fall into the trap of the false dichotomy.

In many ways, expecting a person to change his/her attitude is too high an expectation, and you are surely bound to be sorely disappointed. Attitude isn’t something that can be changed at will in an instant. It’s part of a person’s core self, and it takes lots of time and a conscious effort for there to be an adjustment. If you are going to strongly demand it, what you will get is grudging compliance from someone who, quite ironically, has decided to accommodate your demands despite the pre-existing attitude that you don’t like.

It’ll be more productive to have a one-to-one heart-to-heart chat with that person to better understand where s/he is coming from. The problems, worries, concerns, etc. that’s motivating the person to behave in that way. And at the same time, it helps to let the person understand that you feel hurt/upset when s/he does or says a certain thing. Now, it’s very important to avoid accusatory language that links your frustration with the person. It’ll make that person get very defensive. The way around it would be to phrase it like: “When X happens to me, I feel sad,” or more concretely as an example, “When I hear you say, “XXXXX,” I feel hurt because…”

In short, try to seek mutual understanding through communication. The two options that you put forth, i.e. expecting a person to change their attitude vs. accommodating, lacks any form of communication or understanding. It’s not healthy as you’re constantly trying to second guess and mind-read what the other might think. And we are often wrong about other people in such matters.

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

A student asked me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student asked a follow-up question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any advice for someone who takes a very long time to adapt to a new idea or a new work environment?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Any advice for someone who takes a very long time to adapt to a new idea or a new environment? I am someone who loves living in my comfort zone. So when my new internship programme asked me to check out their office, I got scared! I don’t want to go. In fact, just starting the whole internship programme makes me feel very scared because I would have to meet new people.

I’ll share with you a quote a professor shared with me when I was an undergraduate student: “There is more anxiety over the pull of the trigger than in the bang itself.” What this means is that there’s a lot of fear and tension over the anticipation of the event than in the actual occurrence of the event itself. Our minds play tricks on us, and especially when it comes to new things, we tend to imagine it to be much more dreadful than it should be.

Every few months I have to do things and meet new people that push me out of my comfort zone. And to be honest, it scares me a lot!

Even now, I’m always afraid of saying the wrong thing, or slipping up and giving a bad impression (and I still have this feeling even today). And it still happens to me even though I already have the experience of interacting and working with famous and very powerful people because of my career (politicians, ambassadors, journalists, CEOs, etc.).

Sure, I have experience talking to them, but it still freaks me out!

But I’m thankful for the quote that my professor shared with me years ago, because I remind myself that it’s not as bad as our minds play it out to be. When the event finally happens, it really isn’t as bad as we imagine it to be. One thing I do to cope and not let the fear take over me is that I always focus my mind on the fun and incredible opportunities that await me.

Our hearts sway based on the positive/negative things that we entertain in our minds. The more negative things you focus on, the more repulsed you’ll be towards an idea. The more positive things you focus on, the more your heart will desire it.

So, you can do what I do: Just remind yourself that the anticipation of the bang is scarier than the bang itself. When it happens it won’t be as bad as we imagined it to be. And focus on thinking about the positive stuff that will come your way, like the opportunities and experiences and skills that you’ll gain. That will help with the motivation.

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

A student sent me this question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any advice on how not to be jealous?

A student sent me this question:

Any advice on how not to be jealous?

Personally, I find that jealousy/envy is one of the most useless feelings to harbour within one’s self. With jealousy and envy, we focus so much of our energy and negativity towards people we perceive as better than us, whereas that same energy could have been channelled towards becoming as good as, if not better, than other people.

I personally think we should have a better culture here where we celebrate people for their successes than to be jealous, or worse, put people down for being better than us. I’ve been through awful experiences like that back in school and in some of my previous workplaces. And I can tell you that it’s precisely this sort of toxic culture that holds many people back from blossoming. It’s not because they can’t go far. But there are people who are afraid of being treated badly if they do.

How to handle issues of jealousy? I’m not an expert on this, but I’ll share what I think helps (at least for me):

(1) I think it helps to move away from a competitive mentality to a collaborative mentality, and expand our measures for success to include other people. E.g. helping other people out, and taking joy in seeing how your efforts at helping them has helped them to succeed. I do think a collaborative mindset is very important because competitiveness can be so toxic it gets in the way of team work. Like we could all be on the same side fighting towards common goal, but instead we’re using all that energy to fight each other. This happens too often in so many places. No one’s going anywhere even if they won.

(2) I believe strongly that it’s vitally important to celebrate the achievements and success of the people around us. Be happy, or at least learn to be happy for them. It’s easy to get too focused on our own happiness that we get envious when other people succeed. Just coming out of our shell to feel happy for other people is a great step forward in helping us towards becoming gracious. So whether we win or lose, or whether someone else wins or lose, we are able to put ourselves aside for a bit to share in the joys and sorrows of the people around us. This is important in learning how to be fully human.

(3) And most of all, we should just focus on continually improving ourselves. As I said earlier, jealousy is a very useless feeling to harbour. We get tired and unhappy, and we don’t improve in the end. And that’s just gonna trap us in an unending cycle of toxicity, because we will never improve and will always get upset by the success of others.

How do I stop wishing for someone else’s life and learn to love my own?

A student asked:

As a girl, there is another girl whose lifestyle I admire greatly and I wish I could have her life. She is very pretty and her boyfriend is a very good catch. It appears that she has it all, nice hair, nice skin. Of course, I know that this is what is shown on the surface and there may be things in her life that she does not have that I do. How do I stop wishing for someone else’s life and learn to love my own?

What’s required here is a change in mindset and perspective.

For starters, it’s useful to do a daily exercise of gratitude. Before you end the day, just review the happenings of your life and journal down the things that you are grateful for, no matter how trivial it may be. It could be a warm smile that someone gave to you. It could be a delicious meal. And then go further… What allowed you to be able to enjoy those things in the first place? Why did the person give you a warm smile? What did you do? What can you be grateful about yourself that allowed you to enjoy that smile, or the meal that that person cooked for you? The more you do this exercise, the more you will slowly come to realise that you have beautiful traits, whether appearance, character, or other qualities, that make people appreciate you and/or want to be good to you (or who want to reciprocate back the goodness that you’ve shown them).

Or maybe it’s about things that you have. Then just take the moment to appreciate how lucky/fortunate/wonderful you are to be able to have these things to enjoy/experience.

The first couple of times, it’ll be tough because it’s not something you’re used to do. So here’s an arbitrary number: 3. You’re not allowed to sleep or stop the journalling process until you’ve identified 3 things to be grateful for.

Over time, as you grow more and more grateful with the things you have, you’ll discover that you don’t have to compare with other people. You’ll develop a sense of contentment with what you currently have – whether physical attributes, personal qualities, or even possessions – and you’ll be able to derive joy from that.

To quote Chapter 33 of the Daodejing: “知足者富 The one who knows contentment is rich” (translation mine).

How can I exercise more patience with anything?

A student asked me:

How can I exercise more patience with anything?

It helps to be more focused on the processes than on the outcomes. When your mind is too fixated on getting a certain outcome, it’s very natural to get more and more impatient. Whereas, if you are fixated on the process, and on gaining more insights from the process itself, you become less concerned about the outcome. And because you are drawing value and insights from the process itself, failed attempts will be less frustrating as you begin to see the failed attempts as invaluable lessons on improving the process.

And always approach each attempt with kindness, whether kindness to others or to yourself. Do your utmost best to train yourself to refrain from the harsh self-criticism, and constantly practice being kind to yourself in your struggles and failings. It’s because we are harsh to ourselves that we hate the struggle and failure even more. And that in itself makes us more impatient to the possible undesired reality that we might screw up yet again. But that fear and disdain of the harshness that we direct to ourselves would just further compound the fear and anxiety to do things well.

So if you are kind to yourself, you would be less concerned about the self-directed punishments, and it’s be a much lower-stakes event to worry about. The lower stakes, the lower the chances of feeling impatient as well.

I’m pretty stressed out by my studies, and I feel so conflicted because I don’t want to burden people by saying that I’m not free. What should I do?

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m pretty stressed this semester and I feel that I can’t tell anyone or vent to anyone about it since everyone’s really stressed. I also feel like I’m invalidating my feelings by comparing my level of stress with others and seeing how they need to go to school everyday, etc. So I just keep telling myself I’m doing alright. But I’m really just stressed. And because I don’t like to share this kind of thing with my friends, people think I’m really free. I feel so conflicted because I am also a people pleaser and I don’t want to burden people by saying I’m not free because of my assignments. What should I do?

I want you to know that it’s ok to feel stressed and it’s ok to share with others that you are stressed. I believe everyone’s feeling very stressed at the moment, so you’re not alone. :)

I will say that in our culture today, we focus so much on the importance of helping our friends. But we forget to emphasise that it’s just as important to open up opportunities for our friends to help us if and when they want to. To deprive them of such opportunities is to deprive our friends a chance to show they care.

Imagine this scenario where you have a friend whom you care about so much. If one day you found that your friend didn’t share her problems with you, how would you feel? You’d feel rather upset, won’t you?

It can feel like that friend didn’t trust you enough or didn’t consider you close enough to confide in you. Similarly, other people — those friends who do care about us — will feel that way too if they learnt that we don’t share our lives with them in such a way.

This is not a case of airing dirty laundry. To air dirty laundry is to tell the general public about your problems. But with friends, things are different. We confide in them. And if you feel bad about burdening them, you can at least tell them that you want a listening ear, and not a solution. That’s important.

I think one of the important life skills is learning how to say “no,” to people and not feel guilty about it. I’m not sure what kind of things your friends are asking you to do, but it is very important to learn to communicate honestly with them. Because if we can’t be honest with our friends about things like this, and if we can’t trust that our friends will stay close to us even if we turn them down, then it’s a sign that we’re not maintaining the quality of the friendship well.

Unless we learn to be honest with them, and unless we learn how to maintain the friendship even after saying no to their requests from time to time, that friendship will remain at a very superficial level.

Do take care of yourself. Sleep early and drink plenty of water. These will help you cope a little better with the stress.

Do you have any advice for someone who doesn’t mind studying but hates doing assignments, especially when they are more difficult and outside my comfort zone?

A student asked:

Do you have any advice for someone who doesn’t mind studying but hates doing assignments, especially when they are more difficult and outside my comfort zone?

I think for starters, it will help to approach assignments with a less negative perspective. It’s not useful to think about whether you love or hate doing something. Telling yourself that you hate it just increases the disdain you have for the assignments. There are a lot of things that I don’t like doing (writing essays included), but I just resign myself to doing it because it’s beneficial to me (or other people). This is something I actively tell myself: that the mark of a responsible person is one who goes beyond one’s likes and dislikes to do the things that’s required of him/her.

Anyway, it’s important to recognise why assignments are painful. They’re painful because they challenge us to go beyond our existing state of being, to grow and develop intellectually, emotionally, and even socially. They’re what I call growing pains.

If there’s anything I learnt from my years of work, it’s this: the experts, the big names in academia and industry, all continue to struggle with this “pain.” It never gets easier the higher you go. Well, it’s easy when you do similar tasks as before, but it never gets easier because, if you want to go far in your career, you need to constantly improve yourself, to do more than what you are currently capable of. So it’s going to be decades of productive struggle that will mould and shape you into a better, more capable person, and one that I hope will make a big difference in this world! This is the way to greatness.

If you continue to shun away from difficulties or the struggles of work, you will deprive yourself of these opportunities for growth. So embrace the struggle and the difficulties that comes with your assignments. It’s training that will prepare you for the bigger challenge to come after graduation.

How do I deal with having to do compulsory core modules for my major that I may not have much interest in? My grades are affected because of my lack of interest in those modules.

A student asked:

I feel that I’ve already identified topics/niches in my major that I want to pursue and these are the topics that I gravitate towards when choosing modules. I tend to do better in them because of my interest as well.

However, because my major has compulsory modules which fall out of this niche, my CAP has dropped and it’s causing me a great deal of anxiety. I try to reassure myself that CAP doesn’t matter and that academic fulfilment in what matters to do should take priority but rather, I still succumb to the pressures of wanting a first class.

How do you suggest I motivate myself in modules I flagrantly have no interest in?

Compulsory modules are compulsory for a reason. Within a major, there are two reasons why they are compulsory: (1) There is an expectation that a full fledge major must know certain things, even if it’s not within their area of specialisation. It can be a very embarrassing to be in if you were to say that you have a First Class Honours in X, and then be in a situation where you know nothing about specific works that are well known in that discipline. It also reflects very badly in the University in that it would seem that they did not give you a proper education. It may not seem to matter to you now, but it’ll matter a lot when you start working and you encounter other intellectuals.

Many of the top minds in the business world and the civil service are incredibly well read in a vast spectrum of matters in the humanities and social sciences even though that was not their major (they could have majored in engineering or the sciences). They do it because they see the value of having a broad knowledge of disciplines, and that’s how they get to where they are today. Now, you will, at some point in your life, have to deal with them. And you don’t want to be in a situation where you embarrass yourself by being more ignorant than they are about your own major.

Years ago, when I worked in another university, I have been in situations where these top minds asked me about very prominent works in my own field of Philosophy, and I had nothing much to say because I never read those works (because it was not my interest). It was a bad move to not know those things because they then question the credibility of your training, and doors of opportunities will close on you because they don’t trust you enough for not knowing what’s expected of your major. (How can you not know X?) And because of this, I took it upon myself to read more about those fields that I have absolutely no interest in.

And (2), these compulsory modules will prepare you for graduate school if you choose to pursue it. NUS FASS is in a very special position where we offer modules in areas that aren’t studied widely in other universities. If your niche is in one of these topics that’s not conventionally offered worldwide, you will be in trouble if you want to do a graduate programme overseas. For starters, as part of the graduate requirement, you will need to take modules that you probably had absolutely no interest in. And it sucks to be in a situation where you are so clueless about that topic at graduate level. So the compulsory requirement ensures you know enough so that if you had to do a related course at graduate level elsewhere, you won’t be so lost.

As for your question about motivation, I think it helps to have an open mind about the topic.

You should talk to your professors and learn from them what you’re not doing right with your essays in those compulsory modules that you didn’t do so well. While passion helps one to do well, it really isn’t a necessary condition to scoring well. It’s about the techniques of expression, justification, and self-critical evaluation. If you don’t know about these techniques and methods, or if you haven’t quite mastered them, then every essay, every assignment is like a game of dice – there’s no method and you can only hope it yields a high value. It’s really leaving things up to chance.

That’s not proper learning. You are in control of your grades, and you can improve if you take the time to analyse the methods used by scholars in their papers, and also learn from the feedback from your profs. It is in these mistakes that we make that we learn the most from them. :)

How do I know if what I am doing is enough to do well academically?

A student asked:

How do I know if what I am doing is enough to do well academically? Am I thinking critically enough, etc.

There are a couple of things that you need to ensure of to be sure that you will do well academically:

(1) That you are learning effectively. I have to say that in my 4 years of teaching in NUS, I found that many students are not learning effectively. What many students do — and this is probably something they learnt from primary/secondary school — is that they memorise model answers or model templates of how to answer, and then they adapt that to fit the given question or task at hand. There is little to no internalisation of one’s learning. The understanding is very superficial and not enough to do well for university-level exams where you are often tested on higher level thinking abilities. So you need to learn how to stop adapting from model answers, internalise what you’re learning so that you can articulate the answer confidently on your own.

(2) It’s also very important to know how to articulate and express yourself clearly. I know many students work very hard for their assignments, but they don’t realise how vague and ambiguous their answers are. Many students are unaware of the assumptions in their heads, and they don’t make it a point to flash out all the assumptions behind their thoughts. I think some students are too focused on the answers, and so they just give the answers without providing the thought process which is the most important thing that we want to see in University. It’s like going for a maths exams and writing down the answers without any working. How to give marks if you don’t show provide the working, the thought process behind it? This is very bad, and failure to express yourself clearly can make you drop many grades.

(3) And of course hard work is very important, but you need to work smart, not hard. Many students think that they can score well if they burn many hours working on a module without any particular strategy. They’ll do the readings, work on the assignments, etc. But that’s really not enough. Because you are being assessed for higher level thinking in university, you need to spend a good amount of time thinking about your readings, assignments and lesson; reflecting on it; discussing your ideas with friends; and reflecting some more about it. It’s not about memorising. It’s about understanding and connecting the dots of many things that you’ve learnt, or trying to extend that learning to something else or something further. The hours of effort needs to go in that direction.

You cannot produce profound insights by rushing your assignments. Nor will you be able to produce profound insights by passively reading or learning without an active engagement with the content through discussions with friends and deep reflection on what you’ve learnt. If I have to be brutally honest, only a very small percentage of students demonstrate this level of profound insight. The rest are just working hard but not smart, and not spending enough time contemplating on their learning. The analysis and evaluations they produce are very superficial.

Before I end, I do want to reframe the definition and concern of what it means to do well academically. I personally don’t think grades are a good indicator of whether you have allowed your university education to shape you well. The whole point of a university education is to shape you into becoming a better person, one with a matured mind enriched with broad perspectives about people and the world; one who is capable of leading others well and managing people and resources effectively.

But students can get too focused on grades that they don’t actually transform for the better by the time they graduate. I know people who graduated with First Class Honours, but their mind, heart and morals are anything but first class. Some people graduate from university and remain the same person that they were when they first matriculated. Their mind remained narrow, they did not grow in maturity or reason. They might be academically strong, but they failed the very objective of a university education.

In University, you will be surrounded by great people, whether it is your professors or your peers. And it’s very important not to use them as benchmarks to compare and conclude how lousy you are. The fact that you have made it to University already speaks volumes of how great you yourself are.

If you want to compare, use them as benchmarks as aspirations for who you can become by enriching yourself with interactions with them. The sky’s the limits when it comes to definitions of excellence. When you compare yourself with them, you’ll realise that there’ll always be someone or many people better than you in writing, in speaking, in thinking, and in so many other things. So you can aspire to be like them. That’s fine.

But the best benchmark will be yourself. Whether or not you struggle with your learning, or whether you do well (or not so well) academically, it’s important to aim to be a better better than who you currently are: whether academically, or as a matured thinker, or as a leader, or even as a moral person. Use these aspirational figures as your models. What’s important is that at the end of every semester, you should be able to look back and see how much you’ve grown and developed as a person since the start of that semester. If you can see that you’re growing and not stagnating, then I will say that you are doing well in University. Your education has transformed you. This is the stuff that truly matters.

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.