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!

What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? And what’s the riskiest?

A student asked:

What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? And what’s the riskiest?

Interestingly, the best and riskiest decision I made were one and the same: the decision not to pursue Computer Engineering (something which I already knew back then I could do well in), but instead I chose to take the plunge into Philosophy in Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). It was quite risky and scary because I was always a science stream student, and writing essays were not my forte. In fact, I did very badly for every humanities-related subject I ever did back in school.

I switched from Computer Engineering to Philosophy because of my time in National Service, and because of the freelance work I did. I found that I really hated sitting in front of a computer writing code for hours to solve other people’s (or other business’s) problems. It felt very meaningless and boring to me.

I thought to myself that if university was going to be my last chance to study something, I should do something meaningful, and have my last shot at doing something I really like doing. Was I afraid of switching to FASS and doing badly? Yes, I was very afraid. And though I had people assuring me it would be ok, I was not given any guide of any sort. Nor did I have a plan or clue on how to survive or do well. But I took the plunge because I knew I didn’t want to do Computing anymore. So it was by far the riskiest decision I ever made.

Why was it the best? Because I enjoyed doing everything I did for the four years of my undergraduate days. It was tiring and I struggled a lot (even went hospital thrice in one year), but it was so worth it. I grew so much and my thinking matured so greatly in those four years.

A good example of all these can be seen in my writings, especially in the Q&A that I have written in response to your queries about a variety of matters. My ability to think clearly, and process issues in their complex nuances without oversimplification, and to present and reason my thoughts with you here in a systematic manner – these are the fruits of my education in Philosophy.

I am painfully aware of how I used to write before I studied Philosophy, and it would look very much like those obnoxious entries/comments you’d find on online platforms like NUSWhispers, where I’d pontificate based on my own feelings rather than clarifying it with reason and empirical support. I used to be that kind of person.

Philosophy changed me, and made me a much better person who could actually reason systematically about complex issues. So I’m very glad for that.