Would you rather have an easy job working for someone else or work for yourself but work incredibly hard? And why?
This is a false dichotomy. There are a few more possibilities:
(1) Easy job working for someone else (2) Moderately difficult job working for someone else (3) Incredibly hard job working for someone else (4) Easy job working for yourself (5) Moderately difficult job working for yourself (6) Incredibly hard job working for yourself
I used to work for myself when I did freelance work quite some time back. And if I compare that with how I’ve been working for other people since graduation, I prefer working for other people, but provided that they are good bosses. And I must stress the importance of good bosses. I’ve had my fair share of not so good bosses, and the experience will definitely make you say, “I’d rather work for myself.”
I have been incredibly fortunate that my two former bosses: (1) the former Vice President (Alumni & Advancement) of NTU and former Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Prof. Chan; and (2) the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education in NUS, Prof. Chng. Both of them had been incredibly nurturing. They provided me with many exciting challenges and opportunities to grow and develop as a person. And they set themselves as exemplary role models on how to lead and manage a team, how to lead projects, and how to handle difficult situations. I’ve learnt so much working under them. I am forever indebted to them for moulding me into the person that I am.
And I am more than aware that I would never have gained such a wealth of experience and insights if I were to work for myself. We are limited by our imagination and the people we hang out or work with. And if we don’t have access to incredible people – people who are so much better than us intellectually, emotionally, and even morally – we will not know the heights of how much better we can become. Without such people, it’s very hard to gain new ways of thinking, or new ways of managing one’s self and others.
But good bosses are hard to come by. So if you find that an opportunity presents itself for you to work for a good boss, you should seriously consider it.
As for work that’s easy, moderate, or difficult, I’d choose difficult work anytime because I love the challenge. Easy work gets boring and meaningless quite quickly. Difficult work will mean that there’s always lots of surprises and struggles and obstacles to overcome. It’s like the pleasure of playing a computer game. It’s challenging but satisfying when you complete it, except that it’s you in real life and you have only one live. No respawn.
That said, I think it’s because I have enough challenges in my work that I don’t like having to go through another challenge or struggle when gaming. It’s like working another shift, except that I don’t get paid. Does not spark joy at all.
I’m struggling to find an internship. What should I do?
The first step is: Don’t panic!
It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do an internship. Internships are very over-rated. Sure, internships may give you work experience but what matters more are your people skills. I’ll take someone without an internship but with better people skills and a good attitude any time over a person with poor people skills but an impressive CV full of internships. Why? Because the one with better people skills will give me far less of a headache as my subordinate compared to the one with poor people skills. Many bosses, supervisors and HR people will tell you they’ll choose the same too.
Now, let me systematically diagnose possible problems as to why you didn’t get an internship. If you have not been called up for an interview, it means there is something wrong with your CV. CV is Latin for Curriculum Vitae, or the course of (your) life. It’s supposed to document all the awesome things you’ve accomplished in your life, as a testament of your development through the years.
I’ve seen many CVs and one typical mistake is that people – including very awesome and capable people – merely list out super short summaries of the things they did. The problem with this strategy is that it reduces your greatness into mediocrity. Imagine if you are the hiring manager and you have to go through 1000 CVs in order to identify 3 people for an interview: who would you pick? The ones whose CVs stand out from the rest, of course.
If you merely list the tasks you did, you’re not going to stand out as impressive. It helps to add a short sentence of the outcome: how your work made an impact on someone or some group. Better if you have solid numbers to include (they must be true: don’t lie in your CV). It also helps to add an adverb to paint a richer image of what you’ve done. Here’s a comparison:
Typical Way of Writing CV (not impressive): Organised an outreach programme
Better Way of Writing CV (based on the advice I gave): Competently organised an outreach programme for the organisation. Under my supervision, the event was a success with logistics and programmes running on time. 90% of attendees gave feedback that they benefitted greatly from the careful planning and execution.
Read the two samples above. Which one inspires greater confidence in you that s/he is a very competent hire? The latter, because of the concrete evidence of the results. So do that and it will increase the appeal of your CV.
Now, if you’ve been going for interviews but haven’t been getting any offers, it means that you lack the people skills to make a strong positive impression. Usually, one of the interviewers is someone whom you’ll work under. The aim is to show that you are someone that they want to work with, and someone they can trust to do the work competently well. Ideally, you should show that you are an independent and fast learner. But if that’s not what you are, at least show that you are someone who’s lovely to work with.
You can also make a strong positive impression in other ways. You should do a lot of homework to find out more about the company and especially your interviewers. It shows in the conversation that you’re hardworking enough to have done background research. The fact that you can find common topics of interest to talk about also shows that you will be a great person to work with.
I’ve heard that some students think the interview question, “Tell me more about yourself,” is an invitation to bitch about life and bitch about one’s past work experiences. Please don’t do that. To the hiring manager, that’s a red flag. The question is an invitation to impress the interviewers, to make a case for why they should hire you.
The best way to get an internship or job is through personal connections. For example, a number of former students have since gotten internships because I put in a good word for them (I only do that for good students when the hiring manager knows me – people know that I teach a compulsory FASS module, SG is small). The testimony of a friend’s recommendation to a hiring manager makes a world of a difference, and it can even convince hiring managers to favour you even before they’ve seen your CV or hear you in an interview. So they’ll be more forgiving to mistakes and all that.
Another student asked a follow-up question:
But what if the student has no work experience and or any achievement to show off from one’s CCA? Does this mean that no one will give the student a chance at an internship at all?
I want to re-emphasise that internships are way too over-rated. You won’t lose out if you don’t do an internship. Not all internships are equal, and not all give a rich work experience. Some internships are saikang (shit job) internships that just waste your time and energy. The experience you gain doesn’t really help you at all in making an impressive case on our CV.
If you realise that as of now, you don’t have an impressive CV, as a student, you still have time to change that. Use your time in University to develop an impressive CV. Perhaps take on leadership roles or projects in your CCAs, or find some way to get involved in something. Even volunteer/charitable projects will be helpful. Anything that involves people: managing people, leading people, teaching people, guiding people, etc., will be useful. At least that will give you experience in one way or another.
If that’s not possible, use the time to upskill yourself with online courses like Coursera or EdX, or learn to develop good people skills. And learn to reach out to people in industries. It doesn’t hurt to say hello to people. Some may turn you down, but so what? They won’t remember you (unless you wrote something really nasty). In most cases, if people remember you, it’s for good things. And it can open doors of opportunities for you, whether in the form of internships or work after graduation. Learn to use this to develop good relations with others. It’s a good investment that will come in very handy for you in the future.
As a real example: Some former students got jobs/internships after staying in touch with me and building good friendships with me. Not only do I know them well, but I trust them not to let me down if I were to recommend them to other people. So I have fought hard to recommend them for positions that internship/job positions that open up.
I was very fortunate, when I was a student/fresh graduate, to have good JC teachers and profs who opened up many opportunities for me by tapping on their own networks. This is just my way of paying it forward to help other students the way my teachers helped me.
Hi! I have always wanted to try freelancing. I’m thinking of doing writing-related freelancing, but I’m not really sure of how to start.
I can only speak about non-fiction freelance writing, with the following advice:
What kind of writing do you want to go into?
Regardless of that answer, you should definitely start a blog to showcase your writing in that area. I highly recommend WordPress because they handle search engines better, and so people can more easily discover your writings through Google.
When I was an undergrad, my blog got the attention of one of our ministers, which led to two interesting lunch meetings. Interestingly, my first job after graduation was because of the second meeting. The people involved were so impressed they created a position for me for me to explore and do exciting things in the world of engineering (even though I’m trained as a Philosopher). My blog also paved the way for me to meet very interesting people, and acquire exciting opportunities. Fun fact: I played a key role in helping to revamp the packaging design for a local yoghurt company! Alvas Yoghurt, if you’re wondering. Go buy and support local! It’s really delicious.
A friend of mine started a blog to review theatre plays. And the National Arts Council contacted him and gave him a contract to watch and review plays. He even gets to watch theatre plays for free now because of it.
So yes, please start a blog and update it regularly with your writings. You don’t need to write long essays. Even if it’s 500-800 words, it’s pretty good.
If you want to be an established freelancer, the first few jobs you take will probably be through word of mouth. Ask around (family, friends, religious/community leaders) to see who’s looking for someone to write stuff for them. It could be as a contributor for a community newsletter (either reporting on an event, or contributing your own thoughts about a specific matter.
Whatever it is, don’t be picky about the task and the pay. Just take on projects and try. Every successful assignment you complete will lead to more recommendations. That’s what you want to develop your freelance writing career.
When you feel more confident, then you can decide to increase the pricing. When you have established a portfolio that you’re proud of, then you can be picky about your assignments, and even apply as a freelancer for companies that have to publish newsletters or magazines and stuff like that. (Or if you believe firmly that you have it in you, just be thick skinned and approach the editors, start with the smaller publications first.)
You can also develop your portfolio (and look very impressive) by contributing articles to the Straits Times, Today Newspaper, or even foreign newspapers like the Financial Times. You only need to write about 800 words. Just send it to the editor. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do, but I don’t know what to write.
I know a former student who gets an article published like once every two weeks or so. I know another guy (an ex-colleague) who was so passionate about a topic, that he has a huge portfolio of articles published in all our local newspapers and several local magazines.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Oh no… My writing is not good enough.” Let me assure you that there’s a ton of mediocre writing out there. You don’t need to aim for perfection. You just need to write slightly better than the stuff that’s out there.
If I have to be brutally honest, I could write a lot better than the two people I mentioned earlier who submitted articles to newspapers, and I know many students who could do just as well or even better than them in their writing. You’re probably one of them if you’ve been scoring As for your essays. It’s not a perfect measure, but consistent As for essays do mean that you able to write clearly and logically.
So moral of the story: you need to be a lot more thick skinned, and just submit even if you don’t feel it’s perfect enough.
The aim is quantity (with some degree of quality). Let’s say the success rate is 5%. For every 20 times you submit (could be 20 articles or the same articles submitted multiple times), one article gets published. That’s not bad.
Here’s the important point: You don’t know yet what works, so you need to have this exploration phase to churn out a lot of stuff to see what works (the ones that get accepted for publication) and what doesn’t work (the ones that get rejected). Don’t be disappointed just because the first article didn’t make it.
You can also try fiverr.com. It’s a platform for people to hire freelancers to do work. But you’ll be competing with a global audience. Not bad if you can promote yourself well. Be sure to read books about how to promote yourself. Don’t watch videos on YouTube or read articles online, they’re too short and superficial to be of real use to helping you develop.
And last but not least, every time you acquire success, be sure to update your blog and LinkedIn, so that people can see your portfolio.
(1) At the very least, your immediate superior and/or boss can really make or break the experience. You may be in your dream job, but if you have a terrible boss, then you’ll hate your life and will quit sooner than you expect.
But if you have a wonderful boss in a job that you aren’t excited about, you still can grow and learn many things. The job will be even better if you happen to have superiors who are nurturing, because that will really take you places and help you grow. In fact, some of them can be very exemplary role models, and they will really teach you what it means to be a leader. My last two bosses were like that. It’s amazing to see how they handled difficulties, people, and all that. A lot of the things I do now with my TAs and students are modelled on their exemplary actions.
Conversely, if you have bad bosses, you also learn a lot of bad things, like making petty decisions such as discontinuing the office water supply just to cut costs (happened to someone I know); or just shouting at people whenever you lose your patience, etc. What many bosses/superiors don’t realise is that they set the culture, and the people under them absorb and learn from their bad behaviours. They learn that they need to do this to survive at work, and over time that gets incorporated into their own personal behaviours. So a company culture is usually toxic because of the people in charge. It’s not good for you to stay long in such places.
(2) The organisation or boss should have plans for your own personal and professional development. Now, I don’t mean that your boss/superior should be hand-holding you and teaching you what to do. This doesn’t exist in the working world – it’s all very much independent learning. Rather, it’s about having your boss introducing you to new projects that will help you gain more experience and that will challenge you to go further. It will always be daunting (sometimes, I find myself screaming in my head because I feel so stressed out by what I have to do – but in the end things turn out ok). Know that they will never recommend you to do something they don’t think you can do. Because if you fail, it will make them look bad. So this really is a sign that you are doing well. If such doors open, it often means that they see a lot of good in you. Adopt my philosophy to life: “Say yes first, and figure out the rest later.” So… Rise up to the challenge and say, “YES!”
Conversely, if you are stagnating, if you aren’t challenged by the job, if after one year you aren’t given opportunities to exciting projects, then you might want to talk to your superiors about it or reconsider staying on. Either you aren’t being given work that helps you grow and develop as a person, OR your talents are not appreciated enough.
(3) I’m not a believer in the whole “find a job that you are passionate about.” Sometimes, because of a lack of experience, we don’t know what we are passionate about yet. We will slowly come to enjoy things we do well in. But enjoyment is not the same as passion. What’s important is to constantly reflect on your work and consider what is the significance of your contribution to the bigger picture. Are you making a difference in the organisation or to society with the work you do?
Knowing that your work is indeed making a difference to someone, somewhere, can fuel your passion about the work you do, and that will give you some meaning and purpose. If you struggle, it may be because you don’t know enough about what’s going on in the organisation – so go read up. Of course, some jobs are just meaningless. You can choose to stay or not, but this is not what the question is asking (WHAT makes for a good job/career).
I think the concern most of us have about the humanities is not that we don’t value it despite studying it, but the mass consensus in society – evident in the fact that most jobs look for tech skills, coding or data analytics – makes it a huge disadvantage for us. The thing is then to make ourselves more inter-disciplinary by including some form of tech background in our resume. But what if some of us can only do humanities well and enjoy doing humanities well?
There are several issues I want to address here. So let me respond to specific lines in what you wrote:
(1) “[T]he mass consensus in society, evident in the fact that most jobs look for tech skills, coding or data analytics, makes it a huge disadvantage for us.”
It is very important to recognise that this is a fad in the industry right now. It won’t last for very long. If you look at the economic history of Singapore, we started out with a huge hoo-hah over manufacturing, and then over engineering, and then later on life sciences became the big thing, and now coding/data analysis is the fad. I want to point out that the life sciences fad happened when I was in secondary school all the way till university. Everyone was saying you had to go into life sciences because that’s where the money was. Every other major was “useless.” But look where we are today. What has happened to all the life science graduates? They’re not working in life sciences.
The coding/data analytics fad is currently largely driven by the hope and promise that we can harness all the information we’ve collected about people to make predictions about them and make lots of money. If you bother to read beyond the hype, you’d realise that this initiative is failing spectacularly in many areas. And many key players in the tech world are saying that a STEM approach is not enough (Science, Tech, Engineering, Mathematics = STEM). They are now advocating for STEAM, where the A stands for the Arts, i.e. humanities and social sciences. Because, as I demonstrated in GET1050, the problems of all these tech stuff are essentially arts problems.
If you go to places like Australia, China, Japan, UK, and US, you’d find that there is a greater appreciation in the humanities. The question we need to ask ourselves is: why is this not happening in Singapore? Because a lot of the people who make hiring decisions here came from very humble beginnings. Their parents/grandparents were not as educated as the elites. So they did not have the same education and experience with the humanities and so they have absolutely no idea what that is all about. In the countries I mentioned, there is a significantly greater understanding of the value of the humanities it pervades their discourse on everyday affairs on a regular basis.
So if you want to be marketable, you really need to invest time and energy to educate your potential employer on the value that you bring. If you cannot articulate that, then you need to recognise that the problem is not your major but that you haven’t reflected on yourself and explored what you can/want to do.
(2) “The thing is then to make ourselves more inter-disciplinary by including some form of tech background in our resume.”
It helps to understand why our government/MOE is pushing for a multi-disciplinary approach. For a while now, scholars have been echoing that we are heading into a very unpredictable future. The accelerated development of technology means that we cannot easily pre-empt what’s going to happen in the next 10, 20, or even 30 years. Also, the rate of technological development means that people will be losing jobs faster than we can learn new skills. So the idea is that by equipping ourselves with an array of soft skills in the humanities, in computational thinking, in scientific thinking, design thinking, engineering thinking, etc., people will be more resilient to such unpredictable changes and can adapt quickly to whatever gets thrown at us.
The main purpose of me teaching GET1050 is not really to teach you coding, but to equip you with additional mental processes for problem-solving. Personally, I think it’s good if you have a tech background because it will give you an edge over tech-only people and over humanities-only people. If tech really isn’t your thing, then don’t pursue it. Go find some other thing that you can relate your training in the humanities with.
I find that humanities in isolation can be very fluff sometimes because we’re just discussing issues theoretically without really helping people to solve problems. My encik in the Air Force likes to call these people NATO warriors – No Action, Talk Only.
It pains me to see humanities scholars intentionally cutting themselves out of world-saving discourses because they don’t know how to participate or it’s not rigorous enough on the arts side of things (I personally saw this myself when I worked in NTU helping to organise an international conference). Sheesh… If they participated, they could have helped to up the rigour. But they didn’t.
(3) “But what if some of us can only do humanities well and enjoy doing humanities well?”
How do you even know for sure that humanities is the only thing that you can do well? You’re still so young and there’s so many experiences that you’ve not had before. It’s too quick to validly come to this conclusion.
There is a mutual relation between (1) doing X well, and (2) getting enjoyment from doing X. For some people they start out with (2), and that motivates them to do (1), i.e. you like something, and that passion drives you to do better at it. At the same time, we also can get to (2) from doing (1), i.e. there are many things where, after we discover we’re not bad at it, we experience joy doing it.
So all I’ll say is: don’t limit yourself so quickly based on such limited experience. You’re doing yourself a grave injustice. It helps to read up more about what’s going on in the working world (don’t just rely on your seniors). It helps to talk to people who are out there in the working world. Like just randomly drop them an e-mail and say that you’re a student and you are curious to know more about X, Y, Z. Yes, you can do that. Just be nice, and people will be happy to reply or even meet you.
Is adulting as unforgiving and scary as people make it out to be? Sometimes I feel afraid of stepping out into the workforce and I’m seriously considering extending my time as a student because of that.
This is what I wrote:
On the contrary, I think adulting is very forgiving. You have room to make more mistakes since the work has to go through many rounds of revisions and no one knows what is the right answer anyway. So I find that very liberating and nice. Like I can try a marketing campaign. Didn’t work, so I’ll try another tactic.
One professor gave me very valuable advice when I had just completed my undergraduate studies. I shared with him my reservations about not knowing stuff when going out to work. Should I spend money to learn things?
He told me not to worry. Instead, I should think of my job as I’m being paid to learn. That really makes it a lot less daunting. Every now job, every new task, I see it as I’m being paid to learn a new skill. But you must mentally prepare yourself that you will have to do the learning largely on your own. Your superiors wouldn’t have the time and energy to coach you the way teachers would. So the hard part is finding courage to ask and reading up stuff on your own.
The fear you have is just the fear of the unknown. It’s pretty normal to have fears like that. Let me quote you a line from an anime I’m currently watching:
“Just about any problem can be solved by saying, ‘Whatever, just do it.’ You first have to stand at the starting line before you even realise what is real problem that you should be thinking about. Not knowing what the problem is before trying it, is what makes a problem hard.”
So the solution is to find out more about what’s available out there in the working world. Don’t just google, go talk to people. If you got chance to do internships or part-time work or freelance, go do that. The more you get your hands dirty, the more you realise, “It’s not that bad!” And slowly that fear decreases.
Anyway, you’ll get to make money! And that’s really the best part about working.
Having money is really nice. It gives me so much freedom to do whatever I want. I can take my hobbies further like never before. I can eat good food, go nice places, etc. That’s really the best part about working. You can really enjoy life and enjoy living independently.
Once you taste this freedom, a big part of you will not want to be a student again. :)
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.
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.
Wow… Time really flies, perhaps faster than ever before. It’s hard to believe that a year has passed because I still have very vivid memories of all the events that happened in the past year (and even further back in time).
I’ll have to say that the year 2014 has been the most challenging year ever. Yet, despite all these challenges and occasional set-backs, I feel like I’ve grown a lot, and gained a lot of insights. And to top that off, I’ve met a lot of profoundly inspiring and amazing people, many of whom have restored my faith in humanity, and given me new lenses with which to see the world.
In order to make sense of 2014, I really should talk about it in the context of 2013, only because 2013 was the year that I made a few major decisions on what to do with my life, and it’s only in 2014 that many of these decisions began to unfold in interesting ways.
(I realised, having written so much, that it would be unrealistic to cram all my year-end reviews in a single post. So I’ll split it into several parts. Here’s Part 1…)
A Gap Year of Exploration
At the end of my undergraduate life, I decided to take a gap year from study, so that I could take a step back to explore my options and discover what I might want to do with my life.
I was quite burnt out in my final year of university, to the extent that I didn’t want to go through the ordeal of writing papers night after night. It seems that the experience was so bad that it has developed in me, a small yet powerful dread of writing, to the extent that I don’t enjoy writing very much. In the past, I could just sit in front of the keyboard and words would flow from my mind through my fingers onto the screen. But now, I’m always confronted with a dread and a kind of mental block. Words don’t flow so easily, and it takes me some time to settle down and calm my mind to overcome that psychological obstacle.
Much as I love academic philosophy, I always had this nagging feeling that I might not want to pursue this, or at least not in the way that I encountered it in my undergraduate life. I love the learning, I love reading, I love the process of growth, but I just do not enjoy the painful process of writing academic papers. (But as I slowly come to realise: three positives versus one negative, maybe that’s not too bad? There is no career that is 100% enjoyable, is there? Well, that’s something I still need to discover for myself)
So, instead of plunging myself into graduate school like many of my peers. I figured it would be better to try other things. But I had a lot of reluctance because I couldn’t seem to find a first job that really interested me. Moreover, I was quite afraid that I’d end up doing mindless, meaningless tasks, no more than a cog in the machine.
That all changed one day when I met a professor for lunch one day. (Some introduction to the professor:) This was Prof. Lo Yuet Keung from the NUS Chinese Department. I never thought I would sit in for a class taught in Mandarin, but I did back when I was in my first year (2009). It was the only Chinese philo module that was offered at that time. Though I didn’t understand Chinese very well, I was blown-away by what I could understand. But most of all, Prof. Lo made a very deep and profound impression on me. He was the first person I encountered whom you could call a junzi (君子 gentleman). I looked at him and told myself: this is the type of awesome person I’d like to be. I wanted to study Chinese philosophy the way he did, to be transformed by the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, as he was.
Anyway, many years later, I was very touched to find out from a friend that Prof. Lo remembers me (even though I never interacted with him during or after class in any of his modules). So I decided to drop him an e-mail, asking if it were possible to have lunch. And we did. It was by far, the most life-changing lunch appointment ever. I shared with him my hesitations on applying for a job, and told him that maybe I should take up a course or some certification class. In reply, he said something that changed my reality for the better:
Prof. Lo said: “Why bother paying money to learn a skill, when you can be paid to learn?” He went on to elaborate that I should perceive each and every job as a course in itself. Lessons and insights to acquire every step of the way (and you get paid as well – a double bonus!).
That changed the way I looked at the world, and it helped me with my search. With great confidence, I set out to apply. I eventually landed with a job at an electronics company, handling both the marketing of electronics and training the people who used it. It was a lot of fun.
Half a year later, I got a call from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They heard that I was looking for a research-related job, and they offered me a position to co-develop a course on Chinese philosophy with the Dean of the College, who was also quite a big name in the field of Chinese philosophy. It was an opportunity too good to miss. And I figured this would be ideal, as it might help me to decide whether or not I should pursue academia as a career.
I said yes, and it was by far the best decision of my life.
It’s been 10 months since I joined NTU. There’s been many challenges and difficult moments. But every step of the way has been meaningful, and it’s been great.
The greatest highlight of my time in NTU was to be involved in a project exploring ways to overcome the East-West barrier, how Chinese philosophy might help to enrich complexity thinking in the sciences (and social sciences), and how the two might just be related to each other. As part of this project, we organised two surveying workshops and invited several prominent researchers, directors of research institutes, and top public servants from around the world. It was amazing sitting in the midst of great and brilliant people.
This very experience gave me two very deep and profound realisations: (1) Firstly, it made me realise that my training in academic philosophy was insufficient in enabling me to comment on policy issues or matters of current affairs. I could listen and critique the ideas of others, but I’ve been unable to formulate anything positive on my part. This has been important to me as I’ve always aspired to be a public intellectual, using my philosophical skills to comment or critique pressing issues of society, or provide ideas, solutions or insights into certain matters. I always felt a sense of this inability, and in some ways, I’ve struggled with trying to write about such matters. But it was during those discussions that this inability became strongly apparent. Here I was, struggling with my training, knowledge, skills, and insights, yet what could I say? I could only speak theoretically (and naively even) about ideals, and I was unable to translate or connect it back to real events or issues. It was a challenge.
(2) Secondly, I came to the realisation that when you study philosophy along with several other disciplines, you will gain very interesting insights that you would not have acquired simply from the study of philosophy alone, or even from a mere interdisciplinary study of philosophy with one other discipline. No, it’s not just about one or two disciplines coming together. It is about bringing several disciplines together like a complete package (e.g. studying these disciplines together at the same time on a particular issue: philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, history). It is through this approach, that one could see certain issues very differently.
These two insights have changed my priorities and objectives. While I would still like to pursue a PhD in Philosophy, I would nonetheless like to branch out and study something else, maybe related to philosophy, but also related to other disciplines, as a good stepping stone in enabling me to address the two realisations above. I’m applying now for a Masters programme. But I’ll say more later once I’m done writing the proposal. What I can say now is that I’m going to take a rather unconventional route, but it seems that this choice will open more doors for me, and lead me to far greater growth.
With 2014 coming to an end, I realised I exceeded the time frame I gave myself when I took the gap year. I expected myself to have started graduate studies by now, or at least to move on to begin building my career.
For a while, I felt rather guilty, but recently, a very brilliant person commented that we all have cycles of activity and cycles of recuperation. Rather than to be worried about not being in the active cycle, I should instead focus (and not feel guilty) about my recuperation period, to recover and prepare myself intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally for all the great challenges and obstacles that will come my way once I begin graduate studies.
There should always be progress, but progress is to be made in the context of cycles of activity and recuperation. When such cycles are disrupted in the name of “progress”, it is not progress but haste. And it is in haste that we lose all insights and direction, and it is because of haste that we tire easily and burn ourselves much sooner than we expect.
In that case, I look forward to prepare myself slowly yet steadily for the changes to come next year.
With a new year starting, I think I now have a sense of what I’d like to pursue, at least over the next few years. In so many ways, I’m glad I didn’t simply rush into graduate school. I wouldn’t have had so many opportunities and life-changing insights. In 2013, I struggled so much trying to find some solution as to what to do next with my life, and thankfully, in 2014, I think I found the answer.
After four exhausting years of toil, of literally blood (having gone to the hospital thrice and getting needles injected all over my body), sweat, and coffee, I’ve survived university and graduated!
Well, as some of you know, I’ve been pretty busy finishing my Honours Thesis in my last and final semester.
My thesis was entitled, “Notions of Harmony in Classical Chinese Thought.” In it, I set out to investigate and reconstruct all the various notions of harmony that could be found in the Analects, Mozi, Daodejing, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and the Xunzi. The problem with much of the scholarship on harmony is that scholars have often assumed harmony to be more or less the same idea across thinkers throughout Chinese history. My project was to demonstrate that this is not so. (If you are interested in reading it, please leave me a comment, and I’ll e-mail it to you!)
The final week before the Thesis submission deadline was extremely stressful as I was up almost every night until 3-4am trying my best to edit and polish up the paper.
Friday, 26 April 2013 was the thesis submission deadline and thankfully, I managed to finish my thesis by then.
That day was, for me, a very momentous occasion – it was the big day where after one entire year of researching and writing, the time has finally come for the paper to be printed and submitted! Wow… You know, I never thought it would ever have been possible to write such a lengthy paper. My thesis was approximately 12000 words, and it consisted of 42 pages! That’s right! 42! The number, the answer to life, the universe, and everything!
Somehow, the entire day felt like a momentous victory! I met a friend at the library who was more than happy to help me photograph the momentous occasion while I printed my thesis:
It was somewhat unfortunate that I didn’t have the time to bind my paper into a hardcover book (which was the tradition for submitting theses). Oh well, I didn’t have the luxury of time to do it. But that’s ok. Hardcover isn’t a submission requirement.
With the Honours Thesis out of the way, I felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders.
But I could not heave a sigh of relief yet as I still had exams to study and sit for. And so, after a day of rest, it was back to the books.
Unfortunately, the exams didn’t end on a very happy note. My last exam was an engineering module (for the life of me, I still don’t understand why on earth did I decide to do an engineering module). It wasn’t an introductory module either (I really have no idea why I put myself through such pains). Anyway, it was the last exam of my undergraduate life, but the paper was so difficult, I was faced with a very real possibility of failing the paper. I counted the marks of the questions where I think I would have gotten right, and I only had just enough to pass. If bell-curve moderation was not in my favour, there was the very very real possibility that I would have failed this paper, and worse of all, I would have to repeat a semester. Gosh… It was a very horrible feeling to have while walking out of the exam hall.
But no matter. A few days after that traumatic experience of the final exam, I was out of the country for a holiday to Penang (I’ll write more about it later). Then it was off to Kuala Lumpur to run some errands and enjoy a bit of holiday by the side. The Girlfriend’s grandmother came down to Singapore some time back and discovered the wonders of the Internet, specifically YouTube, and she wanted to have this amazing Internet in her home. So I volunteered to go down to KL and help buy and set up a computer and an Internet connection. And after Kuala Lumpur, I was off to Bangkok. These three places were amazing in their own way, and I think I’ve grown and learnt a lot while I was there. (But I’ll keep all those thoughts for another blog entry here).
Let me just fast forward by about 2 months to the last seven days leading up to my graduation ceremony.
Gosh… It was quite an exciting week! I was given the opportunity to present a section of my Honours Thesis at an international philosophy conference. It was the 2013 Joint Meeting of the Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (SACP) and the Australasia Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (ASACP).
Not only was I busy helping out with some of the logistic matters, I was also rushing to edit and present my paper for the event. It had been two months since I last wrote papers. It felt good to be writing a paper once again. I had a cup of coffee by my side, soft piano music playing in the background, and I was all ready to write my paper all the way into the midst of the night. So for three consecutive nights, there I was sitting before my computer, typing away until 3am. It was tiring, but it felt so good to be engaging in this paper writing ritual. There’s something so comforting and wonderful about the experience.
Monday, 8 July 2013. At last, it was the day of the Conference. I had to present my paper on the first day, in the afternoon before many academics, some of whom were really really BIG names in the area of Chinese Philosophy. It was intimidating, but nonetheless, a huge honour!
The paper I presented was entitled, “Reconciling Culinary and Musical Models in Classical Chinese Thought.” There’s been some sort of academic debate where there is disagreement as to whether the culinary and musical models of harmony have merged into a single unified notion or remain as two separate models in classical Chinese thought. In my paper, I attempted to present a new way of looking at the relation of the two models and how they can be reconciled together into a single theory despite remaining as two separate yet distinct models.
It turns out that my paper presentation was a huge success! Everybody present enjoyed it and they found the contents very interesting!
The biggest WOW experienced I had was during another panel’s Q&A session. One professor (Prof. Alan K. L. Chan), who is quite a big name in Chinese philosophy replied my question saying that he actually had read my Honours Thesis during his flight to Singapore, and he found it (to quote him), “an enjoyable read” and that it “was very interesting.” Immediately after that, the people sitting on my left and right turned to me asking if I could send my thesis to them.
WOW! If writing an Honours Thesis is meant to make one feel honoured, I think it’s working! I felt so honoured at that moment. Wow…
Anyway, the conference was really amazing. I had the chance to meet so many amazing people. It was also pretty amazing to finally see the faces of people whose books and papers I’ve read and cited in my papers. To be standing amongst the greats in Chinese philosophy from around the world… Woah… All I can say is that it was very inspiring and really awesome to see a bunch of people who are just so passionate about what they’re doing. It was lovely.
The conference went on for three whole days! On the fourth day, Thursday, 11 July 2013, it was finally the day of my graduation ceremony!
Four years of hard work has finally led up to this epic moment:
Let me now present you with the fruit of my labour – the fruit that took four years of coffee, blood and sweat (no tears thankfully):
You know, it’s crazy… Ever since my first year in university, I never thought that it would be possible for me – a person who came from the science stream and who initially majored in Computer Engineering – to be able to get this.
But with lots of hard work and the encouragement and support from The Girlfriend, the wonderful professors in the NUS Philosophy Department, and all my other friends both online and offline, I was able to endure and persevere all the way till the end.
So what’s next? Well, if you asked me this question two months ago, I would have only been able to shrug my shoulders and sheepishly reply, “I don’t know.”
But since last month, I’ve slowly come to realise that my true calling is in academia, and especially in (Chinese) Philosophy. In the past months, I’ve been looking through job ads after job ads, and I was never really interested in what was on offer. The greatest tragedy perhaps, was the constant thought of never having to pursue philosophy once again. Every time I contemplated that thought, a part of me dies. It was painful.
It was only at a recent farewell party for a professor that I realised that I should do whatever I can to pursue philosophy. There and then, we were having a fantastic time discussing philosophical issues. My heart was on fire once again after quite a period of dreaded boredom. The pursuit of wisdom has left me thirsting yet for more.
The pursuit of philosophy is an arduous process. It is mentally and even physically exhausting staying up late just to research, think, and write. But it is a process that I value so greatly. These four years of my philosophical pursuits have transformed me in many wonderful ways. And I wish to continue to be transformed, and shaped by the pursuit of wisdom, just as how it has transformed and shaped the professors in the Philosophy Department here in NUS. I’ve interacted with many of them, and all I can say is that I feel like I’ve been interacting with wise exemplary sages.
I want to be as wise and awe-inspiring as they are, and continue to pass on this most splendid and awesome tradition.
But in the mean time, I’ll take a year’s break from study to work. I intend to focus on publishing at least one paper in an academic journal. That would help me get a better chance of securing full funding for a PhD scholarship. And by next year, I shall be off to some other country to pursue my studies in Chinese Philosophy.
It looks like I have a really exciting life waiting for me in the years to come. I look forward to that as I take life one step at a time.