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.

Do you believe that a person’s attitude with his/her family is reflective of the type of person they are and the type of upbringing they will give their future kids?

A student asked me this question:

Do you believe that a person’s attitude with his/her family is reflective of the type of person they are and the type of upbringing they will give their future kids?

This is not necessarily the case. It’s important to recognise that not everyone has the luxury of growing up in functional and loving families. There are many people who come from very dysfunctional/broken families (myself included). You can’t fault them for having negative attitudes or resentment for their parents. They’ve been through a lot of shit. For the ones with a good heart, they are using their bad experiences growing up as important lessons on how NOT to raise their kids. And they know about the toxic behaviours to avoid creating a dysfunctional home.

I say this with confidence because I have friends who chose to be better than their dysfunctional parents, and they are now raising their kids very wholesomely.

So don’t judge people just because of their upbringing. We don’t get to choose our families. The lucky ones get to be born into wholesome homes, while the unlucky ones get awful parents by no fault of their own. I don’t think its fair to pre-judge the unlucky ones. At the very least, judge them based on the kind of people they want to be. Do they choose to be as toxic as their parents, or have they chosen to be better than their parents and are doing their best to be good people? If they chose the latter, then give them a chance.

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.