Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

A student asked me:

Can I ask if there’s ever a time you felt very annoyed but feel like there’s no way to resolve it? How do you calm yourself down? And what do you do after that?

Yes, that happens from time to time. It’s important to recognise that there’s a lot of things that we have no control over. What we have is control over ourselves, in how we respond to these things, and that we can be better people in response to such situations.

I normally take a break and do things I enjoy doing like music, watching shows on Netflix, or go out for a walk (walks are the best!). Sometimes I’ll treat myself to a good meal. These things will help a lot.

Sometimes the annoyance is greater because all my plans and effort have come to nothing, or I totally cannot get something I really really wanted. In which case, I’ll give myself a longer time to get my mind off the matter. So I’ll go do other things in the meantime, like indulge in a hobby or work on another project. No point dwelling on the matter when you’re upset. It only makes you more upset. Better to come back when your mind is fresh and you’re calmer about the situation.

When I’m calm about the matter, I’ll resign myself to the fact that I can’t control that situation. I’ll assess what I have no control, and what I have control over. And then I’ll ask myself whether I can still find an alternative way to get what I want. And if I can’t achieve what I want, I’ll plan out how to make the best of the new situation. Sometimes, it takes courage to say, “I shall not pursue this anymore.” This is also a fine and legitimate option. And then I’ll figure out what else I’d like to do with my time.

This advice was very abstract, but I hope it helps.

Why do people who are 17 or 18 years old get into relationships if the chances they can last is unlikely?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Why do people who are 17 or 18 years old get into relationships if the chances they can last is unlikely?

If you think about it, there are many relationships that don’t actually last regardless of age. So why zoom in to those years? The same can be said about any other age.

The real question is why do something if you know it’s likely to fail? Some people use this line of thought to justify not getting married because of the likelihood of failure. We might as well be asking: Why bother living if we know we’re going to die?

The point is that it’s about the experience. Not all experiences are good, and not all experiences are bad. But all these experiences teach us many things about life: what we really want, who we really are, etc.

Of course, being in a relationship at too young an age can lead to more hurts due to a lack of maturity and experience in knowing how to handle difficulties, conflicts, and hurts. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop people from trying, and from learning from their experiences, whether good or bad.

At the start of the relationship, my wife (then girlfriend) had many worries, and she said, “What if we break up? What’s the point in being together?”

My answer was that at least we would have had the experience – the joys, the sorrows, the happy memories, and even the sad memories – that would define us, that would mark a chapter in our lives. These are never wasted time together.

And if we have to go our separate ways, we’ll then say, “Thank you for the time together. Thank you for the happy memories, and the sad memories. Thank you for the laughter and the tears. Thank you the experience. And more importantly, thank you for sharing this chapter of your life with me.” And then we’ll move on to a new chapter, with a new adventure and a new story to tell.

How do you overcome fear of uncertainties, and the shame and guilt of past failures?

A student asked:

How do you overcome (1) fear of uncertainties, and (2) the shame and guilt of past failures?

The first step to overcome fear of uncertainties is to recognise that a lot of things in life are not linear. If you didn’t get X now, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do Y in the future. The doors of opportunity for Y may present itself later on.

The second step to overcome fear of uncertainties is to carry out this thing called Risk Mitigation. We know that uncertainties exist. We know that we don’t like some of the consequences. And we know that some things are beyond our control. So what can we do so that we don’t end up in the worst case scenario? For starters, have a backup plan. Heck, come up with multiple backup plans. E.g. What do I do if my thesis topic turns out false? Then write about why it didn’t turn out the way you intended! There we go, a backup plan! All is not lost.

Psychologically, when you have backup plans, the pressure to get X right reduces because you know you can fall back on the backup. This is helpful because we often crumble under high stakes pressure. So the backup plan also helps in making you feel less stressed about the situation, thereby allowing you to perform better.

Now, there’s a whole literature about risk mitigation strategies that go beyond backup plans. They cover things like how to accept risk, avoid risk, control risk, monitor risk, and more. It’s too lengthy to cover it here, which was why I started with a simple concept of the backup plan. Go Google and read up more about risk mitigation, and master that as a skill. Once you know how to manage and mitigate risks, your fear of uncertainties will reduce greatly.

As for overcoming the shame and guilt of past failures, we have to recognise that a lot of it is in our heads. We are prisoners of our minds. And it’s important to remember that how we feel and perceive our failures is not how other people feel and perceive them. In fact, most people don’t remember the stupid things we do, or the incredible failures we’ve committed. I’ve said many embarrassing things and done a lot of stupid things to other people. I used to live in fear that these things will come back and haunt me. But 10 years later, nobody remembers them. This also includes the people whom I hurt or upset in the past. It never ceases to amaze me how forgiving (or forgetful) people are. You must do something of evil villain proportions to be remembered for those misdeeds. Most of us aren’t even close to that. So people will be forgiving, and we just have to be a bit thick skinned about it and just pretend it didn’t happen. You’ll be amazed at the degree of magnanimity and graciousness that most people are capable of. So… Don’t be afraid!