Any advice on joining the teaching profession?

One student wrote in and asked:

Any advice on joining the teaching profession?

Here’s my thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have any thoughts on love and relationships in general?

A student wrote to me:

Sometimes it seems like others are finding love so easily, whereby the person they like is also single and/or just so happens to like them back. For me, such incidences of fate have never materialised and I wonder how some just have it so easy. No real question, just wondering. Do you have any thoughts on these sentiments/love in general.

Let me begin by defining how I think about love. I once came across this quote: “To love is to delight in the existence of the other.”

And because I delight in that person’s existence, I want that person to exist more fully, to grow and to develop to one’s fullest possible extent in every aspect. In this way, I can delight more richly and wholesomely in that person’s very existence.

It’s such a delightful thought, isn’t it? :)

Now all that said, I totally understand where you’re coming from! I was once in your shoes for a very very long time. I had been friend-zoned a couple of times, and on one occasion, I confessed to a girl, and she rejected me on the grounds that I’m of a different socio-economic class (that was so WTH!).

Looking back, I realised now that I had missed the subtle advances of some girls back in my teenage/young adult life. I was just totally oblivious to it. I think a lot of us are oblivious to noticing the subtle advances of others.

Well, to be fair, confessing and taking the friendship to the next level is a high stakes game. Both guys and girls are incredibly afraid and anxious about it: What if I get rejected, what then becomes of this friendship? And because both parties are often so afraid, none dare to make any obvious moves for fear of rejection.

So let me share with you an advice I got when I was in NS, and it is advice that helped me a lot. If you are interested in a person, but unsure whether that person likes you, treat every non-negative response as a sign that he/she is interested in you. If you ask the person to hang out with you and the person didn’t say no, that’s a good sign. If you said you wanted to initiate a phone call and the person didn’t say no, that’s a good sign. If the person messages you or initiates outings, even better – that’s a really really good sign of interest! Over time, the more you think this way, the more confident you will become around that person. And confidence is an incredibly charming and attractive quality.

Nothing screams – “MARRY ME AND GENERATE SPAWNLINGS WITH ME!!!!!” – more than confidence. You can be fugly as hell but if you have confidence as great as Mount Everest, people will still be incredibly attracted to you. This statement is true for both males and females. If you don’t believe me, when COVID is over and we don’t need to wear masks anymore, go sit at a cafe and watch the world go by, i.e. people watching. There’s a lot of unattractive people who are very much in loving relationships. You might wonder how that’s possible, or disapprove of their coupling because it looks like a live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. But hey, they’re happy because all they need is that one person to be attracted to them: their partner.

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

A student wrote to me, asking:

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

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

1. Inspirational Hires

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

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

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

2. Hires Due to Necessity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A student asked:

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

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

Here’s my reply!

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

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

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

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

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

What advice do you have to give to someone who wants to pursue a Masters in the future?

A student asked me:

What advice do you have to give to someone who wants to pursue a Masters in the future?

Here’s my reply:

You should only do a Masters if you have a clear idea of what the Masters is for. A Masters should not be pursued for its own sake. A good number of students I spoke to have expressed interest in doing a Masters because they want to continue being a student for a bit longer (and also, they are quite afraid of the working world). If that is your motivation, please don’t do that. You’re shortchanging yourself and undermining your future. Instead of using the time to learn important life skills, the Masters would just be an excuse to hide in a bubble. It’s not healthy at all.

There are two kinds of Masters: (1) a research Masters that trains you in important research skills; and (2) a coursework Masters that is meant to help you advance in your career (there are different kinds of coursework Masters for early, mid, and late career individuals).

A research Masters can help you become eligible for specific jobs, like teaching at tertiary level or prepare you for a PhD. Though if you have first class or second upper for your Honours, a direct PhD is possible.

Coursework Masters often cost more because you’ll be taking many modules, and the value is also in the network of your course mates. Some of these kinds of Masters cost a lot because you are essentially paying to join this network of people whom you will work with in the future, whose connections you will tap to get stuff done.

If you intend to do a PhD (because the goal is to be a researcher – nothing else), then you should be aiming to do a research Masters instead. I should warn that this path is not as glamorous or as fancy as you think. It’s often a lonely journey because no one else is doing research similar to yours, so you don’t have anyone you can really talk to deeply about your work, and you have to endure years of very low pay (stipends essentially). And getting a PhD doesn’t mean you are guaranteed a job. Some months back, a senior who just finished his PhD came begging me to hire him as a TA (I don’t even have a PhD!) because he can’t get a job. It was very heart-wrenching to witness this.

And even if you get hired as assistant professor doesn’t mean you will make it. You still need to spend the next 3-10 years working to get tenure. A lot don’t get tenure and so it means that these people who spent so many years of their lives researching, cannot continue on the path they spent so many years on. So don’t say you weren’t warned about this very perilous journey.

I don’t want to sugarcoat this because too many people have embarked on this journey with a very idealistic picture of what academia means, only to get very disillusioned along the way. You must know what you are really signing up for. Some people are cut out for this kind of thing, and they have my greatest respect for being able to come this far.

If your question pertains to the path of research, then I’ll say, make sure you save up a lot of money because chances are, you’ll be very poor for a while. And having relationships will make the path very difficult. Some drop out of pursuing academia because their other-half is tied down to being in Singapore, so they can’t bear to do their PhD overseas after completing their Masters. As for what you can do now, if you can, try to be a Research Assistant and learn have a taste of what research is really like. Don’t wait until Honours Thesis. And if you want to go far, make sure you learn how to socialise and network, and do public speaking. Because these are what will help you go far as an academic. Many profs think that you should go directly to a Masters after graduation. I beg to differ. I think it helps to go out and work for at least one year. It helps to get some perspective in life, and I found it very beneficial to see what kinds of problems there are out there, and this gave my research purpose, because I saw my research as an attempt at solving a real problem.

If your question pertains to career advancement, then you shouldn’t do such a masters so soon. Go work first. And only then can you start to question which type of Masters will be strategic in advancing your career forward.

What do I say to people who ask me, “What do you want to do in the future?”

A student recently wrote to me, asking:

I have a few career goals, or at least I’m thinking of a few career options and have a sense of direction of what I want to do in the future. But I can’t pinpoint exactly which occupation. How do I tell ppl that? I’m fed up with relatives/friends asking: “What do you want do in the future?” Especially for most FASS majors, they assume you want to be a teacher. But when I reply that I’m not interested to be a teacher, they judge me like I have no clear goals, as if I’m just gonna be unemployed for the rest of my life.

How can I give them a good answer when I can’t pinpoint an exact career that I want?

This is my reply:

I FEEL YOU! I get that a lot too. Now, let me first start off by saying that you don’t need to get all your shit together now. It’s perfectly ok not to know what to do after graduation. In fact, if you feel lost and directionless, embrace that! I’d rather you be honest to yourself than to sign your life away to a scholarship or bond or contract to do work that you are clueless or directionless about.

In my time as an undergraduate, so many of my peers rushed to sign up as teachers not because they loved teaching, but because they just wanted to feel secure. “Iron rice bowl,” they all said. That is utter rubbish… They all hated their lives for the next 3 years. Some even broke bond in the end. And when the bond was over, they’re back to square one – having to ask themselves what they want to do with their lives. To date, some of these people still don’t know what they want, and they decided to just continue in teaching (even though they hate it so much). What a horrible way to live one’s life!

So, as a general comment to every student reading this: don’t sign your life away just because you want to avoid the discomforting question of what to do with your life. You are only delaying the inevitable problem with a temporary false sense of security. It will still come back to haunt you.

Ok, back to the question. When strangers, relatives, or acquaintances ask you, “What you wanna do in the future?” Most of the time, they aren’t asking that because they’re concerned about your well-being. No, they’re asking because they want to easily classify you in their heads. And if we’re honest, we also do this to other people. It’s a very lazy way of trying to understand people, as if their degree or (future) profession says enough about who they are. Well, it at least tells us whether to perceive of them respectably or not (which is not accurate at all). But that’s what we tend to do.

A lot of people have difficulties classifying those of us with general degrees (not just people from FASS, but science majors too). So when you say that you study something like Philosophy, they don’t know what you do in that major, or what you can do with it. So unfortunately, their poor lack of imagination is what leads them to conclude “teacher.”

If you want to be nice about it, you should at least use this as an opportunity to educate them about how your major has contributed to the world. If you don’t know the answer, you ought to read up more about it online. For example, if you asked me, I can tell you how almost every famous person who has made a major impact on our lives had previously studied Philosophy, and I can tell you how philosophy majors are making a difference in various sectors of the industries. If you can’t answer that for your own major, then please go do your own research – this will also give you ideas on the possible things you can do in the future.

I once was invited to be a judge at a tech competition. One of the judges was very salty when he heard that I studied philosophy. He mockingly asked, “What do you people have to contribute to this world?” And I told him, “We find problems that people like you have taken for granted and bring it to your attention, so that you can fix them. In other words, we are giving you things to do so that you can keep your job.” He kept quiet after that.

If you don’t want to be nice about it (because sometimes people ask these questions just so that they can compare you with themselves or their spawnlings), I make sure I don’t give them the satisfaction of classifying me into their stupid mental categories. So I’ll say things that are incredibly dissonant just to confound them. It is very satisfying to watch them struggle to process what they hear. For example, nowadays, I just tell people (usually very nosey people): “I teach philosophy and computing.” Often their brain hangs (usually accompanied by a funny facial expression) because they don’t know how to process it. And because they don’t know how to classify me anywhere in their heads, and because they don’t want to appear stupid, they just nod their heads in respect, and keep quiet (or change topic).

Anyway, let’s question the question! Isn’t it silly how the question about “What you wanna do in the future?” often demands an answer pointing to a very specific profession? In many ways, we’ve been conditioned by that same question back in kindergarten or primary school. And the responses were stuff like: firefighter, doctor, lawyer, accountant, police, engineer, teacher. It’s hard to answer this question in this day and age, because most of the jobs are office jobs dealing with all kinds of stuff. So instead of answering with a profession, you could respond by saying which sector of the industry you’d like to make a difference in: aviation, healthcare, education, finance, the arts, new media, etc.

So basically, if you decide to play nice and educate them about your major, when you tell them the sector you want to go into, you are giving them ideas to imagine how you’ll transform that sector. You can aid their imagination by giving them your own ideas on how you think you might be able to contribute with your FASS training.

Hope this helps! :)

Do you trust someone easily?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Tell me, do you trust someone easily?

Here’s my answer:

Yes I do. I believe that it’s better to start off trusting someone (even a stranger), unless there are red flags that indicate that I shouldn’t trust the person. And only if the person violates that trust do I then reduce my trust in that person.

A lot of people confuse trust with revealing your most vulnerable self to another. The process of revealing your vulnerable self to another is a process for establishing intimate friendships (includes romantic relationships too).

Yes, trust is a necessary prerequisite for intimate relationships. If you cannot trust someone, you won’t want to open yourself up to reveal your most vulnerable true self, with all your worries, insecurities, etc. BUT, it’s very important to recognise that trust and revealing your vulnerable self to another person – these are two very distinct things.

So, you can trust people – and I do mean trust in a very deep sense – without necessarily having to make yourself vulnerable. Trust, after all, is the fabric of society, and it is the invisible connection that allows us to work with people and do all kinds of things. You don’t need to reveal your vulnerable self to others to establish good professional working relations with them.

Of course, this probably isn’t your primary concern with the question you’re asking (I’ll address it soon enough). But the reason why I made the distinction between trust and vulnerability is that people who have difficulties being vulnerable to others conflate that with the notion of trust, and they thus have difficulties trusting people even in a professional working relationship. And this becomes a huge problem for them. The inability to trust others fuels their insecurity, and this actually leads them to act in very toxic ways without being aware of it.

Let me illustrate with an example: In times past, I used to work with a team of students, and in that team were two students who had major trust issues. They were so awfully toxic, that they almost destroyed the cohesion of the team by spreading false rumours. They just couldn’t trust others. They found it hard to believe that people actually genuinely wanted to help them. So they perceived attempts at helping them as malicious personal attacks on their weaknesses. It baffled me how they couldn’t accept that people just wanted to help.

The point I wish to make here is this: Don’t conflate trust with revealing your vulnerable self. See the difference so that you can learn to trust others. Otherwise that mistrust will be destructive to yourself and to everyone around you. It isn’t pleasant working in an environment where everyone’s suspicious of everyone, and it sucks to be in a situation where you feel that you can’t trust anyone to be on your side. But they didn’t realise that they were responsible for creating that environment for themselves and everyone around.

Now that I’ve covered trust, I can talk about intimacy and revealing our vulnerable selves. I like to think of human relationships in terms of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma. This idea came from the German philosopher, Schopenhauer. In the winter, hedgehogs will come together to stay warm. The problem with hedgehogs is that they are very spiky, so the closer they get to each other, the warmer they felt. BUT, they also began hurting each other with their spikes, and so they keep apart. But the process repeats because they are cold and they need the warmth. So the hedgehogs are in a dilemma: how do I stay warm without getting hurt? The answer is: You just have to learn to get close to others so that you don’t hurt and be hurt.

Humans are like these hedgehogs. We want the warmth of love and friendships, but when we get too close (i.e. when we begin revealing our vulnerable selves to them), we hurt or be hurt. It’s part and parcel of this hedgehog-like existence. So we have to be ready to embrace the hurts along the way. It’s a risk in relationships. But at the same time, we have to learn how to avoid hurting others, and how to handle others so that we don’t get hurt. It’s going to be a very prickly affair, and one of much trial and error. And of course, we can learn a lot from the good practices of others.

Easy to say, difficult to do. For starters, I think we just need to learn to be kinder to ourselves and kinder to the people around us.

What is critical thinking? Do you have any advice on how to think critically?

A student wrote to me, asking:

What is critical thinking? Do you have any advice on how to think critically?

Here’s my reply:

Critical thinking is a very ambiguous term. It means different things to different disciplines. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few:To be able to critically assess the validity or accuracy of a source

– To be able to critically evaluate the way data is collected

– To be able to critically evaluate the way data is interpreted

– To be able to critically evaluate the soundness of a justification

– To be able to critically identify assumptions underlying arguments

– To be able to critically evaluate one’s self (or others) for biases

The list goes on. And like Pokemon, you should to catch them all!

I don’t have advice that I can fit into this answer. I think for starters, go Google or watch YouTube videos about logical fallacies and cognitive biases. These are fun to learn and a good way to start.

If you want to go further, you should do some 1k or 2k Philosophy or History modules. The humanities specialises a lot in these sorts of things. Philosophy tends to cover the conceptual kinds of critical thinking; while history tends to cover the empirical kinds of critical thinking.

Is it a norm for students to be close to their profs?

A student asked:

Is it a norm for students to be close to their profs? Over the past 2 years, I’ve realised that many things (internship, planning of mods, exchange, thesis) seem to require talking to a prof in your own department. Ideally, the student should have good rapport with the prof. However, I was thinking then what if I’m a super introverted person? Wouldn’t the student have no one to look for? Wanted to know this because it feels like I’m the only one who can’t find a prof from my dept to seek advice for when I need it and I really struggle a lot with this

So here’s what I wrote:

It’s actually not a norm here in Singapore (but it is very common everywhere else in the world). I think it’s important to see this as a challenge to develop yourself socially and professionally, even as an introvert. Because the unfortunate reality is that we live in an extrovert-dominant world, and we introverts have to learn how to adapt. It’s difficult for sure, but it’s essential to our learning and growth because like it or not, you’ll have to do stuff like this in the future when you work. Now, the good news is that a lot of profs are also very introverted, so they’ll be quite at home with you and your way of interaction. So don’t fret about it.

I highly recommend the book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain ( It’s very empowering for introverts like us. Don’t see your introversion as a weakness, but as something unique and powerful to offer to this heavily extroverted world. :)

What are some tips to do well in exams?

A student asked:

What are some tips to do well in exams?

Here’s my reply:

If your exam is essay-based, then my advice will be the same when it comes to writing term papers: if you aren’t consistently getting As for your essays, go learn from your profs what’s missing in your writing.

From my observations, the common mistakes FASS students typically make are:

(1) Didn’t make a clear argument to prove your point (a lot of students don’t even know how to argue/justify, they just throw points out as if they mean something without actually making the effort to demonstrate how it proves your point). And please, don’t write using the GP writing style that you learnt in JC. Most GP teachers teach students how to score for GP at A levels, not how to write properly.

(2) Didn’t show that you exercised critical thinking in your own writing. You might have done the work behind the scenes, but you need to show it if you want to be graded for it. The key is: you should consider how you might be wrong and demonstrate why that’s not the case. Very few students actually even consider that they could be wrong, so they don’t do that.

(3) Oversimplification of concepts or situations. The key about being an arts and social science major is all about being able to appreciate and identify the different subtle varieties of things. for example, the subtle differences in how different states conceive of democracy. A lot of students fail to see these subtleties and discuss these issues with gross oversimplifications. If you make this mistake, you would have shown the grader that you totally missed the learning objectives of the course completely.

One more comment… In general, students don’t get the grades they want because they neglect tutorial participation. In most modules, that’s like 10-20% of the total grade. That can make a huge difference from a B to an A! And students throw that away by staying silent or not participating fully in the activities, or skipping classes without a valid excuse or bothering to do a make-up class.

Hope that helps!

What advice would you give to your students? (About Studies)

One of my former students recently asked:

What advice would you give to your students?

I have plenty of advice that I’d like to give. But to keep it short, I’ll just state two advice that relates to one’s studies:

1. Learn from your mistakes in order to improve

Many students have the wrong idea that the more effort you put in, the better your grades. That is not true. Correlation is not causation. Grades are a measure of how well you have met the learning objectives of the course. In FASS, one of the underlying objectives is the ability to think critically (whatever that means for each discipline). If you are consistently not scoring an A for your assignments, it means that you are consistently doing something wrong with your assignments.

Many students don’t realise this because they keep thinking that they are victims of the bell-curve. That’s usually not the case, and that is really a very unproductive mindset. Because as long as you keep seeing yourself as a victim, you don’t see a need to improve.

So if you want to know what you are doing wrong despite your best efforts, talk to your profs and ask them to explain how you can do better. In my undergraduate days, I started out as a B+ student. In my second year, I had the courage to finally ask one of my professors what was missing in my essays. And he patiently explained what I wasn’t showing, and what I needed to do. After that consult, I scored As consistently for all my essays. That conversation brought to light that what I thought was critical thinking was not critical enough.

2. Good Work Attitude and Good Work Habits are Important

Our attitudes influence our habits, and vice versa. Some students like to think that school is school, work is work, and life is life. But that’s not true. The work habits you develop now in University will be the same work habits you have after you graduate, and these work habits will affect your relationships with coworkers and your marriage/family.

In my 3.5 years of teaching in NUS, I’ve observed many students short-changing themselves (and their grades) by not doing simple things like carefully reading e-mails, or actively checking up information on IVLE/Luminus. I once had a student complain bitterly about missing a deadline. When I asked her why she didn’t read my e-mail reminders, she replied that she would just delete e-mails that come from me. She didn’t think anything I wrote was important anyway. (WTH right?!)

This is an extreme case, but a vast majority of students lose marks unnecessarily here and there because of things like this. They didn’t read the question properly, they didn’t follow instructions carefully, or they didn’t read the rubrics on how they are graded for tutorials or for specific assignments.

Anyway, small things like not reading things properly, or not actively checking up things on your own – they do leave a bad impression on others, and will continue to undermine your career in the future. The habits we develop now will last even when we go on to work.

Habits don’t just come from nowhere. They come from our attitudes. We all value work differently. But if we have a very negative perception about work, then that influences us to be negligent in the things we do (and that becomes a habit).

So try your best to see work more positively. Work, even school work, is an opportunity for you to leave an imprint – a mark – of yourself on the people and things around you. Work is transformative. And if you’re doing the work with a positive mindset and reflectively, it changes you for the better.

I’ve been working on something for a while and it doesn’t feel like I’m making any significant headway. At what point do you decide it’s no longer worth pursuing?

A student recently wrote to me, asking:

I’ve been working on something for a while and it doesn’t feel like I’m making any significant headway. At what point do you decide it’s no longer worth pursuing?

Here’s my advice:

If a project is not making significant headway, it’s important for us to first evaluate and identify the reason(s) why:

If it’s something that requires inspiration, like writing, then I’ll be a lot kinder to myself and take breaks to do other things so that I can come back to it with a fresh mind. Just forcing yourself to make progress in such a situation isn’t going to work. You can’t force it.

If the problem is that you’re stuck because you don’t know how to proceed further, then reach out to people. Outside perspectives are important in generating new leads for you to make headway.

If it’s because you lost meaning or motivation to work on it, then drop it.

If it’s because of factors outside your control, e.g. disruptions in the supply chain, then I’ll just put a pause to it until conditions are in your favour.

If it’s because you keep trying, and it’s not working, then you should do two things: (1) figure out why; and (2) talk to people for ideas even if it is to help you figure out why. If the diagnosis is the realisation that you are trying to do something much higher beyond your current abilities, then I wouldn’t throw it away so quickly. It’s worth thinking about what skillsets or knowledge you need in order to get there.

I have a feeling this is the problem you are facing? You can talk to me if you like. :)

I thought I had plans for the future but life got disrupted by COVID-19. What should we do if we’re unsure about our future?

A student asked:

I thought I had plans for the future but life got disrupted by COVID-19. What should we do if we’re unsure about our future?

Here’s my advice:

I think it helps to plan for the worst case scenario, that perhaps lockdown conditions may continue for the next 1-2 years. The shock of such lockdowns is changing the way we learn and work. And a lot of what we are doing now during this lockdown may very well continue for a long time.

Firstly, assuming that e-learning is going to be around for a lot longer than we’d like, it’s best to develop good e-learning hygiene and discipline. Form learning communities with friends and strangers for each module. At least this way, you all can work together and panic together. Because motivation is a huge problem with e-learning – isolation means you can’t see movement, and so you lose track of time. A learning community will help you to regain that motivation.

Secondly, save money and spend less on bubble tea and other non-essentials. Because waves of retrenchments will be coming soon. Your family members may be affected. Use the time now to learn and pick up a variety of skills, both technical and soft, and try developing a portfolio so that you can take on more interesting part-time jobs that can develop you professionally in the future.

Thirdly, I strongly recommend taking modules in the humanities (I’m saying this because most of my students reading this are from the social sciences, hence I’m making this point). I know people like to shit on the humanities as “useless” majors, but this is an incredibly narrow minded perspective. Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, wrote about the “Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Basically, useful knowledge is useful because it has a known purpose and use. Useless knowledge is useless because its use is yet to be known. But useless knowledge is always useful because useful knowledge will one day become useless, and some other useless knowledge will become useful.

When I was an undergrad, life science was the fad. A lot of people said that you have to study life science if you want to make money or be guaranteed a job. So a lot of my peers went to pursue life science. (By the way, computing then was seen as the dumping ground. Everyone who barely qualified for university went there.) Fast forward to now, a life science degree is seen as not very useful. The Government’s attempt at developing flourishing life science industry failed spectacularly. And now computing is the fad. The market for computing people is too oversaturated right now. And if you talk to people in senior management (or watch YouTube videos), they are saying: we need people from the humanities. Why? Because we need them to question the way tech is designed and implemented, so that we can put the human and humane back into the equation.

The humanities is a lot resilient to the rise and fall of these hiring fads. Because through the humanities, you gain important soft skills that will allow you to easily pick up any skill, even if its technical. And historically, humanities has always been the training of the elites. Because to manage and lead others – to be a boss – you must know what it means to be human, and how we humans perceive, interpret, and evaluate the people and the world around us. It means gaining insights into the ideas that drive us (philosophy); understanding the passions and desires, the ambitions and insecurities that compel people to act (literature); and the lessons of human success and failings (history), so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

People regard the humanities as “useless” because it’s so broad and unspecific, but that’s only because these people are limited in their imagination on the universal applications of a humanities training.

I believe that these three recommendations will help you gain a certain resilience and flexibility to adapt well to any situation, especially when the going gets tough.

What’s the difference between choosing to do a thesis and choosing to do modules for Honours? Which one is better?

A student sent me this question:

What’s the difference between choosing to do a thesis and choosing to do modules for Honours? Which one is better?

Here’s my reply:

I will always recommend taking thesis. It’s hard work, but it is worth it on so many levels. It’s always important to remember that when it comes to thesis, YOU are the end-product, and not the thesis. The thesis you write is just a means to transform and mature your thinking and resilience. It’s hard work. You’ll burn a lot of weekends, and often times feel guilty for taking time off to relax, and even feel lonely because no one else is working on that topic, so you find it hard to talk to anyone about your work. BUT, it is very worthwhile, because you learn to deal with hardship on a whole new level. You’ll learn to think and process copious amount of readings and research. You’ll be challenged like never before. And you’ll come out a better, more critical person at the end of it all.

You won’t grow much if you just take modules for your Honours.

Also, you’ll have more options and prospects if you pursued Honours Thesis, because you will learn solid research methods that will come in handy when you work, or if you decide later on that you want to do grad school. If you only take modules (what we call coursework), then you close many doors. It’s difficult to go into a research Masters or do a PhD in the future if you didn’t do thesis. A friend of mine didn’t do Honours Thesis, and he wanted to do a research masters in HK. They rejected his application and he ended up doing a coursework masters. A bit of an early death to his academic aspirations because he realised he could not pursue a PhD with the coursework masters on the basis that he didn’t have any prior research experience.

Furthermore, what you do for your Thesis can open doors for your career. Don’t just research on a topic you like. Use the thesis as a way to demonstrate specific skills. For example, in my Honours Thesis, I wanted to show that I can read and translate Classical Chinese texts, that I could do textual analysis, and anthropological work. It was my thesis that landed me a job producing online videos on Confucianism (and do all kinds of fun exciting stuff with academics and policymakers from all over the world). Similarly, I wanted my Masters Thesis to show that I can do computer simulations, textual analysis, and juggle interdisciplinary stuff. That played a huge role in allowing me to teach GET1050 here in NUS.

So go do a thesis! You won’t regret it. :)

How do I know if the person I’m dating is the one?

A student sent me this question:

How do I know if the person I’m dating is the one?

To be honest, I don’t!

I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is the perfect one or a soul mate. These are very dangerous ideas because, every real concrete person will always fall short when compared to the perfection of the abstract ideal. The person you have might be beautiful, but there will always be someone more beautiful. The person you have might be inspiring, but there will always be someone more inspiring. (On a side note, this is the same problem whenever you ask yourself whether you are happy. You could be happy, but when you compare your concrete experience with the abstract and perfect ideal, your experience of happiness will appear to fall short.) So if we are unaware of this, we’d be forever chasing an impossible dream of the perfect partner.

I do have some minimum requirements: (1) Must have mutual affection and attraction; (2) Can click well and talk about anything like best friends; (3) Are actually the best of friends; (4) Can still love me when I am most unlovable; (5) Inspires/Encourages me to be a better version of myself; (6) Is willing to fight with you and for you.

If someone satisfies that criteria, I would resolve and commit my existence to that person.

Now, I’m not saying you should follow this set of requirements. It’s your life and your relationship. But I want to talk a bit more about (3) and (5).

On (3): From time to time, I hear people say, “You shouldn’t form romantic relationships with friends, that you should only date strangers outside your social circle. Friends are friends, and love is love.” And I have come across some people who do that to their spouses (they’re rarely happy). They confide in their best friends more than their spouse. I find that to be one of the worst advice for long-term relationships. Your partner is supposed to be someone whom you share your most intimate self – who you really are in your state of vulnerability, in good times and in bad. And that requires a great deal of trust and friendship. You can’t even get there in a romantic relationship if you don’t even have that trust to begin with.

On (5): I want to be clear that what I mean here is that the other person makes you want to improve yourself. The other shouldn’t try to change you or boss you around to become a better person like you are some personal pet project. That robs you of your autonomy as you improve as a person. You change not because you actually want to, but because you are forced to. And that creates the conditions for great resentment that will manifest itself eventually. What you want is someone who gives you the reason to fight hard to be a better version of yourself every day BECAUSE you know that it would make your partner happy and benefit him/her in the relationship.

I will end with one remark.

Life has a funny way of being unpredictable even if we think we are so sure about it. There’s always this worry that we might have chosen to devote our lives to the wrong person, or that the relationship doesn’t last. Even if we find someone who ticks all the right boxes for a long-lasting and stable relationship, we can never be too sure.

Does this mean that we don’t try?

My ex once asked me this at the start of our relationship. I thought about it for some time, and I answered: If we’re sure about being together now, then it’s worthwhile that we join each other on our adventures. We’ll make memories and we’ll learn and grow together. And if, in the future, we find that we have to part ways, we’ll just thank each other for being such a significant part of our life’s journey and for all the wonderful memories and experiences that shaped us to be who we have become. And that’s still pretty worthwhile.

We were together for 9 years. It sucks to part ways in the end, but we’re both very grateful to each other for all the experiences and memories that we’ve had with each other. And we’ve had no regrets about being together. (Just so you know, we’re still on cordial talking terms.)