I struggle in my studies. Does it mean that I’m not good enough?

A student wrote to me, asking:

I read that you were originally from the science stream but later chose to major in Philosophy. I share a very similar experience and I feel like I relate to you a lot! Are there times where you feel like you cannot match up to your peers in FASS who had taking humanities even before University? Do you feel that if you had pursued the arts stream, you wouldn’t have to struggle as much, maybe write essays easier?

Because that’s how I feel when I entered FASS. I always feel like I’m not good enough compared to other people in my major who seem to have more knowledge and background as compared to me. I find that I’m struggling and I sometimes question if I chose the right course.

Have you had such thoughts back as an undergraduate student? How did you overcome these kinds of thoughts?

I have had many moments where I feel I’m not artsy enough (and it still happens today). Sometimes I’ll be talking to friends, and they will get really excited and go deep into certain discussions that just fly past my face. These are on topics that I know absolutely nothing about! Or, as a student, I used to have peers and even juniors who always did better than me no matter how hard I worked.

So I want you to know that I totally understand how that feels.

I want to address the issue that underlies your question: if I struggle, does it mean that I’m bad at it?

This is a matter close to my heart because I really wished someone had told me about this when I was an undergraduate. It would have changed my perspective on so many things, and I wouldn’t have had to go through four years feeling that I’m not good enough.

We are our worst critics. And especially in FASS where there is no one right answer, there is plenty of room for self-doubt.

Struggling is part of the process of growth. You will struggle to make sense of the things you read, struggle to gain clarity about concepts, struggle to articulate your thoughts into an essay.

When I was an undergrad, I struggled for my four years, and I kept thinking that I was not good enough precisely because I struggled with writing essays. I felt quite miserable about myself. In fact, I felt so burnt out trying so hard that after I graduated, I told myself I didn’t want to go back to academia ever again because I was not cut out for it.

It was only years later when I got to talk to top academics (in the course of my work) that I learnt and understood that how much you struggle is NOT an accurate indicator of how bad you are. Struggling doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough. Everyone who’s good struggles!!!

Struggling is just the process by which we give birth to new ideas or insights. Struggle is the process by which we constantly challenge ourselves to grow. So I want you to know that struggling is a normal process. It means that you are on the right track, and that you are growing. Struggling means that you are on your way to becoming better. (And I really wished someone told me this when I was an undergrad, so that’s why I’m telling you this now)

You’ll struggle more in university than anywhere else because university is the probably the only time where your mind, your system of thinking, your values are constantly being challenged almost non-stop. The demands on your brain is like nothing you’ve ever experienced (or will have to experience after graduation). So of course you will struggle every step of the way (I’d be worried for you if you didn’t struggle at all).

I’ve since come to terms that struggling is normal, and I’m a lot more patient and kind to myself. I’ve come to learn that struggle makes me produce things that are awesome. Two days ago, I spent 4 hours struggling to write one paragraph of text describing my new course. I don’t like that it took 4 hours, but with that newfound insight I have, I don’t see it as a bad thing. And after 4 hours, I produced a paragraph I’m very proud of. And in fact, that short piece of writing opened up new doors of opportunities for me.

Every good piece of work is produced from struggle. I can name you all kinds of things that were produced because of struggles and the good that came out of it: my Masters dissertation, the two books I published, my lecture videos, etc. They were all the fruits of struggle, but look how far I’ve come with them.

I still struggle with these tasks, and even today, I continue to have moments in my struggle where I feel like I’m not good enough. So I do have to remind myself that it’s normal and that even the brightest academics go through it, and so it doesn’t mean that I’m bad. It’s just the process. And in the end, the work comes out great and people recognise me for that.

The point I want to make is this: struggle brings out the best in us. It doesn’t feel good, and you will always feel you’re not good enough.

So it’s very important to remind yourself that it’s normal, and as long as you endure and be kind and patient with yourself, you will rise victorious. Every work born out of struggle will be the best that you’ve created thus far. You may feel that you’re not good enough. But once you’re done struggling with your work, you have attained a new level of perfection in yourself. :)

How do you respond to annoying relatives who look down on you when you tell them you’re studying in the Arts and Social Sciences?

A student wrote to me, asking:

How do you respond to annoying relatives who look down on you when you tell them you’re studying in the Arts and Social Sciences? I’m so annoyed!

Here is some advice that will give you the satisfaction of winning, but there is a high risk that you’ll get permanently banned from their homes and lives. If you happily desire this outcome, you can try this:

(1) Ask what he/she studied back in school.

(2) Next, ask why he/she isn’t even successful in life, or haven’t been promoted, or still stagnating at work, or haven’t made it rich, or haven’t made a difference in this world.

(3) Once he/she is stunned by the question, recite any one of the following quotable quotes:

  • “As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11, if you wish to cast upon them a sacred BUUUURRRN!!!)

  • “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Albert Einstein, supposedly)

(4) Enjoy watching them catch fire. LOL :D

Otherwise, if you so desire to maintain harmonious relations with them, I recommend following the advice I wrote here:

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

Why do we have to write so much in the Arts and Social Sciences?

Here’s a question that students have asked me from time to time:

I struggle so much with writing that I dislike it. Why do we have to write so much in the Arts and Social Sciences?

I feel you. I don’t like academic writing either (I still struggle with it even today). I used to struggle so much as an undergraduate that I thought I was not cut out for academia. But after graduation, I met some prolific writers and academics in the course of my work. I asked them whether they struggled with writing. Their reply was quite surprising to me. They still find writing painful and difficult (even if it is their rice bowl, or something they’ve done for decades), and yes, they still struggle with it even after so many years!

It was very eye-opening (and liberating) to discover that struggling to write doesn’t mean that you’re bad at it.

So then the question we must ask ourselves is: why is writing painful?

I think it’s important to recognise that this is kind of growing pain. It is a good “pain” that stems from constantly reviewing and thinking about what we want to say. When we write, we are committing our thoughts into words on paper or on screen. This forces us to constantly review whether or not that is the thing we wish to say. We don’t encounter such problems when it comes to speaking because we are not immediately confronted with the words that leave our lips. But this is the case with writing.

The “pain” comes from that constant review and re-evaluation of what we want to commit to. There is a lot of growth and maturity when we confront the difficulties and take the writing exercise seriously. Academic writing is THE exercise that leads to a mature mind. It is THE activity that cultivates critical thinking. Because we are constantly being made to review our thoughts.

I have since come to terms with the struggle. And one thing I have also learnt is how writing is itself a journey of discovery. Sometimes we just don’t know what our thoughts are on a particular matter. The exercise of writing forces us to review and reflect on our own positions not only helps us to identify flaws in our thoughts, but it also helps us find connections between separate ideas that had been floating in our heads for so long. Writing is like a spring-cleaning exercise for the mind, where you made to sort the ideas into something coherent that you can present to yourself and to other people.

I have discovered a lot about myself through writing. I have grown tremendously, both intellectually and as a person because of the struggles of writing. So, embrace writing. Embrace the struggle as a challenge. By the time you graduate from university and look back, you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve grown as a person, by how much you have matured intellectually because of it.

Does a second major bolster my standing for employment?

A student wrote to me, asking:

I’m an English Literature major. I very much like my major & I enjoy interdisciplinary approaches to things. As much as I enjoy my major, I grow worrisome thinking about my employment prospects. I know that there are vast opportunities for FASS majors given how ‘general’ our majors can be, but it worries me so much so I’m taking a more ‘employable’ second major to bolster my standing. Does it matter? Any advice? I have no idea what I want to do post-graduation and it scares me so much.

Here’s my reply:

Hello! Taking a second major doesn’t really bolster your standing in any way. On paper, you’re just doing two “general” majors. Are you enjoying the second major? If not, don’t kill yourself over it.

Here are the things that will actually “bolster” your standing:
(1) Have done stuff that shows you can learn fast and independently and are ready to embrace new challenges outside your comfort zone without supervision (employers really love this quality the most because you give them confidence that you won’t be a problem hire that will pester your superior regularly or sit cluelessly at table not knowing what to do how to do something you’ve never done before).

(2) Have done stuff to show that you have initiative to start new projects on your own (employers love this a lot too, because they know they are getting value for money when someone is happy to start new projects without being asked).

(3) Have done stuff that shows that you are a team player and/or have leadership qualities (one thing employers worry about is having to bring on someone who’s a trouble-maker rather than a team-player).

Because at the end of the day, you will be fighting with other people who have single/double majors and a high CAP. There are far too many people out there with bad work attitude and poor people skills (but they have high CAP and single/double majors/degrees). So employers want someone who not only won’t give them a headache, but preferably someone who sparks joy in their organisation (you have no idea how rare these people are).

What will make you stand out are the three qualities I listed above. It’s really people skills that make you more desirable as a potential employee.

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! :)

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!