Would you say that it’s important to read a lot?

A student sent me this question:

Would you say that it’s important to read a lot?

Yes, it’s super important to read a lot! You should read widely on a variety of issues. Especially on things that you have no idea about or have little interest in (if you’re worried about boring books, at least find a book on that topic that people have said is an interesting read).

And I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t really like to read very much. I mean, I’d rather watch TV. But I do read a lot now because I’ve come to realise how important it is. What got me to take reading very seriously was when I worked in another university years ago and had to engage in discussions with the top academics, policy-makers, and other thought leaders. From my discussions with them, I realised one important fact: they are where they are because they read a lot (some of them read 3 or even 5 books at a time per week despite their busy schedules) and that gives them a lot of food for thought to connect many different ideas together and say, “Ah ha! Why don’t we try this to solve that problem?” That’s how they got to where they are.

A book is the fastest way (for now) for a person to take in and absorb another person’s wisdom, expertise, experience, and insight. The more you read, the more of these you collect into your mind. In other words, you can gain a lot of experience and wisdom without having to go through them yourself.

And it’s important to understand that knowledge is power. Knowledge liberates you from the chains of ignorance. For example, many students say they don’t know what to do after graduation. Ignorance of the kinds of work out there is the key reason why students don’t know what’s out there. So just reading up more about industries and what organisations are doing, or what people are doing to make a difference in this world, will already give you the knowledge and insight of the possibilities that you can explore. This brings you from “I don’t know what to do” to a state where you can say, “I’m excited by these possibilities that’s out there.” When you acquire peoples’ experiences through reading, you become able to see possibilities that you never thought possible before. You learn from their mistakes and successes, their considerations and regrets – so that you can avoid the mistakes they made, and explore the paths that they have tried. It is very empowering to gather such information into your consciousness.

Just think about it… If you read just 10 books, you’ve gained the insights, wisdom, expertise, and experience from 10 different people! What more if you do what these successful people do by reading regularly? How many peoples’ experiences, wisdom, and insight have they acquired across their lifetime? So don’t delay. Read a book!

If you want something to begin with, I highly recommend “Lunch with the Financial Times: 52 Classic Interviews.” It’s a very good read of 52 interviews that will spark your mind to think about all kinds of things about the world, society, culture, and life.

Do bad habits die off as one grows older because people mature and grow wiser as they age?

A student wrote to me with this question:

I’m dating someone who loved drinking and was a clubber and didn’t want any responsibilities when we were quite younger. Do you think that such habits die off as one grows older because people mature and grow wiser as they age? I’m worried that these habits don’t die and I am scared of raising a family with someone who behaves like this.

I think the sad reality is that many adults grow old physically, but they don’t actually mature very much in their thinking, how they manage their emotions, and how they handle responsibilities.

Maturity does not come automatically with age. It develops through a conscious effort to want to be a better person.

If you’re worried about whether your partner will become a more responsible person in the future, then you have to ask yourself whether s/he is taking conscious steps to be a better person, and not just avoiding certain things only because you told him/her not to do them. If s/he is putting in a lot of conscious, deliberate effort to be a better person, like taking on responsibilities, etc., then it’s a good sign. For now, you shouldn’t worry if s/he’s failing at those attempts. It’s normal to struggle at being a better person. The first couple of times, we’ll screw up. But the more we try, the better we get.

You can talk to him/her about this about how you’d like for both of you to strive to be better persons, and see where s/he goes with this. It’s important that you do not actively change your partner by your own actions (like controlling him or scolding him/her). The more you do this, the more your partner will outwardly comply and practice those habits in the dark away from you just to appease you. As I have said before, your partner must want actively want to will it for the sake of your future together.

If s/he agrees and tries his/her best to be better, then you can be assured that this person has the sense to want to mature and grow to be a responsible person with you.

Would you restart your life again if you could?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Would you restart your life again if you could?

When I was younger (even during my undergraduate days), there were many moments where I wished I could restart my life. But now, I’m very happy with what I have despite the ups and downs, and in spite of all the screw-ups (some of them really major) I’ve made in the past.

What changed over the years? I came to two key realisations over the years.

(1) The first realisation is that progress and success is not linear. When I was much younger, I used to think very simplistically about such matters. It was as if to get anywhere in life, you had to accomplish certain things along a track, e.g. get good grades so that you can do Honours. Get Honours so that you can get a high paying job or enroll in a graduate programme, etc. And if you fail to accomplish any of these steps along the way, you’d derail your path to success. This made me feel like life was very do or die. You either succeed or you fail miserable. So binary!

In my younger days, I screwed up in some ways, and that mode of linear thinking made me wished I could restart my life so that I won’t make those screw ups, so that I could then succeed.

But it’s very myopic! And I soon came to the realisation that a lot of things in life can be achieved even if you don’t succeed in accomplishing the next stage on that linear track. E.g. if I don’t do a Masters or PhD immediately after graduation, I’m not going to lose out (as what some people like to say). I still can do well in my career, which is what’s happening to me now.

(2) The second realisation is that all the experiences I’ve had – the good, the bad, and the ugly – were all essential in shaping me to become the person I am today. I still resent some of the experiences, I still am embarrassed by some of the screw-ups I’ve made in life, e.g. saying the wrong things to people, doing certain things that were imprudent in my youth, etc., I still sometimes wished certain bad things didn’t occur to me. Nonetheless, these events shaped me. It made me more driven, more independent, more creative, and more human.

I’ve contemplating long and hard over the years whether I would be the same person that I am if I were spared some of these bad choices or bad life events. After several years of contemplating this question, my conclusion is that I would be a very different person, shaped by a whole different set of events. And in all honesty, I wouldn’t like the person that I would have become in that alternate timeline.

Of course, it’s very easy to imagine other scenarios where we could have been so much better than we current are and dislike our present situation. But I’d like to offer a different perspective on the matter: the fact that you are able to imagine better versions of yourself or yourself in better situations means that you are in that realm of possibility where it is within reach for you to make it into a reality.

Sure, this sounds like some motivational speech, but let me explain why I say this. We can only imagine what we are aware of and what we know and what we can possibly do. Suppose there’s a new career skill called “actionology.” You’ve never heard of it, and so you cannot imagine yourself doing it. It’s outside your realm of possibility. It cannot yet be actualised until you know what on earth that is. On the contrary, everything else that you can imagine is built from your experiences and knowledge. The fuzzier your imagination of it, the less you know, and hence the further you are in that possibility space. But the more vivid it is in your imagination, the closer you are because you have more experience and knowledge of the matter. That being the case, you are really just a couple of steps away from actualising that imagined possibility. And it is your past and present that has led you up to this moment where that imagined possibility is within reach in that realm of possibility.

So even on days where I sometimes wished I was better in some other way, I wouldn’t want to restart my life, because I know that this recognition of wanting to be better is the product of my past experiences shaping me to this very moment in my life to want to be that better version of myself.

How can I exercise more patience with anything?

A student asked me:

How can I exercise more patience with anything?

It helps to be more focused on the processes than on the outcomes. When your mind is too fixated on getting a certain outcome, it’s very natural to get more and more impatient. Whereas, if you are fixated on the process, and on gaining more insights from the process itself, you become less concerned about the outcome. And because you are drawing value and insights from the process itself, failed attempts will be less frustrating as you begin to see the failed attempts as invaluable lessons on improving the process.

And always approach each attempt with kindness, whether kindness to others or to yourself. Do your utmost best to train yourself to refrain from the harsh self-criticism, and constantly practice being kind to yourself in your struggles and failings. It’s because we are harsh to ourselves that we hate the struggle and failure even more. And that in itself makes us more impatient to the possible undesired reality that we might screw up yet again. But that fear and disdain of the harshness that we direct to ourselves would just further compound the fear and anxiety to do things well.

So if you are kind to yourself, you would be less concerned about the self-directed punishments, and it’s be a much lower-stakes event to worry about. The lower stakes, the lower the chances of feeling impatient as well.

How do you welcome changes in life?

A student asked:

How do you welcome changes in life? Whenever I attempt to do something new/different, I get so overwhelmed by the “change” that I resort to going back to my comfort zone. Do you have any advice for this?

I think we need to resign ourselves to the fact that the only constancy is change. Even we ourselves change. Every new information, every experience changes us. The idea of who we are in our heads is nothing but an outdated static snapshot of ourselves the last time we asked that question. One reason why people get existential crises is because they discover that who they think they are doesn’t gel with the reality of who they have become. And dissonance between the idea and reality is too jarring.

We are constantly changing. That whole idea of a comfort zone is just an illusion of constancy. The truth of the matter is that every time you resort to going back to your comfort zone, you are still changing… but you are changing for the worse.

It’s important to recognise this, so that when faced with the discomfort of stepping out of your comfort zone, it’s not that you have the choice between proceeding on or retreating back to a place of comfort. Every time you retreat, you are training yourself to be less resilient, and you are letting fear and anxiety take hold of you. And the more you do this, the more easily fear and anxiety have its hold over you.

So, in reality the options available to you are: (1) proceed onward and embrace the change (in hopes of something better); or (2) retreat with the certainty that you’ll become a worse version of yourself.

(Oh, and it helps to study Philosophy, because you’ll learn new insights about things like this. I recommend modules on Continental Philosophy or on Existentialism. They deal with things like this.)

Would you rather have an easy job working for someone else or work for yourself but work incredibly hard? And why?

A student asked:

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.