How do I begin as a freelance writer?

A student asked:

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.

How do I know if I have a good job?

Here’s a question a student asked:

How do I know if I have a good job?

Here’s a few things that come to my mind:

(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 hope this helps! :)

Is adulting as unforgiving and scary as people make it out to be?

A student wrote to me, asking:

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.”

“Fire Force”

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?

A student wrote to me, asking:

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. My wife got a job in Australia for the same reason as well. 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.

Is it true that I will be at a disadvantage if I lack experience from internships?

A student asked:

With the limited internships and part-time job opportunities due to COVID-19, I’m feeling rather anxious when it comes to future job opportunities.

Is it true that I will be at a disadvantage if I lack experience from internships?

Here’s my reply!

I have to say… Internships are over-rated. There is a lot of anxiety over internships these days because students are essentially circulating fake news amongst themselves. I don’t know why we do this as students, scaring each other that we’ll lose out in life if we don’t do X, Y, and Z because we heard it from a certain senior as if that was a representative sample. Even if one did hear it from a senior, this is a sampling bias, because you didn’t hear it from a large representative sample of seniors. Or for that matter, from people who actually make hiring decisions. So the seniors – who are also young and naive – are drawing incorrect causal links about what works.

So here’s my advice. You don’t need internship experience in order to find work in the future. It is helpful in giving you some experience and insight, but it doesn’t really make you more employable. It is you yourself who make yourself employable: how you present and market yourself on paper (your CV); how you carry and conduct yourself in person; how you treat and interact with other people – all these factor greatly into whether an employer wants to hire you.

While an internship provides opportunities for you to explore how you can improve in these areas, internships are not the only means. You can do that in other part-time or temp jobs. Or better yet, why not try freelancing? Find something that you can do well, and offer it as a freelance service. You will be forced to learn how to manage people, how to market yourself, how to handle finances, etc. And you’ll acquire a whole host of important life skills and experiences.

I’m suggesting freelancing as a better alternative because I used to do a lot of freelance work since I was 18. My parents stopped financing me, and I had to earn my own money to pay my bills, meals, rent, and yes, even my own university education.

I grew and learnt a lot from the experience. I learnt to be comfortable talking to people in positions of power because as a freelancer at 18, I had to deal with clients, many of whom were big bosses of their companies. I learnt how to market myself, because I needed to convince clients to sign on with me. I learnt many skills along the way because the projects I took on forced me to learn them. Most internships won’t offer you this experience.

2014 Year-End Review (Part 1) – A Gap Year of Exploration

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.

It’s amazing!

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.

It has been a good year.