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. :)

Are polytechnic graduates inferior to junior college graduates in University?

A student wrote to me:

I’m curious about your opinion of polytechnic graduates entering university. I am a student who came from poly and I have experienced (to quite a great extent) the discrimination towards undergrads who didn’t follow the cookie-cutter local education route. I even had a tutor who looked down on us in class. Are we really that inferior? Sometimes it feels like we are just tokens of inclusive education that the University tries to promote. And sometimes it feels like we need to try so much harder just to prove that we’re just as deserving or as good as the rest :(

I have the greatest respect for polytechnic graduates studying in University. In general, the students that amaze me most with their independent learning, boldness to try new things, and overall great people skills are the ones who come from poly. (That said, the impressive students from junior colleges amaze me in very different ways. The different educational routes have trained you to be good in very different things, and so the two are really incommensurable – not comparable at all.)

Let me address the real issue at heart here: Petty people exist anywhere and everywhere and they are driven by insecurity to want to make the minority look bad. They will find some arbitrary factor to class you as the “other” in their “us-versus-them” narrative, and so use that to look down on you. 

If you were surrounded by only polytechnic graduates, statistically, some of them will be petty people too, and they will use some other arbitrary factor, like secondary school, or the course of study in poly, or something lame as that, to use as a reason to put you down.

Don’t let them get to your heads. Every time you come across such petty people, remind yourself that you must strive to be better than them. Nothing pisses petty people off more than seeing their target victim unaffected by their words. So deny them that pleasure by being totally chill about it. If you can make a joke out of it and get them to laugh with you, you might win them over.

Anyway, because you didn’t go through the cookie-cutter route, you have so much to contribute and share with by virtue of your background. You have no idea how much of a difference you can make by sharing your experience and ideas. Just opening your mouth to let them hear a different perspective is itself very refreshing and eye-opening.

So don’t buy into that sad narrative that you’re just a token. No, don’t let them break you. You have so much to contribute and share with your peers. And the fact that you made it to Uni through the much tougher route makes you really incredible to have persevered and come this far. 

So stay amazing, stay awesome!

When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

A student asked:

When do you think is a good time to get into relationships?

It’s your life. So go into it whenever you feel you’re ready to handle it.

If you think you concentrate better in your studies by not being in a relationship, that’s fine. That said, I don’t like how some parents force their children to refrain from relationships until after graduation. It’s not healthy or productive to control these kinds of things.

However, you must understand the risks involved when it comes to your choices on when to start relationships.

University is a great time because you have many opportunities to meet new people, and to hang out with them. You will not be able to interact with people the same way in the working world as you would in school. BUT, it can distract you from your studies, and you may not realise your full potential in your studies.

One possible road bump you may encounter is when you both transition from school to work. The lifestyle change will affect how both of you will be able to interact. Most can handle the change. Some can’t. So it’s very important to handle the transition carefully. Remember: open and honest communication is important.

So proceed with caution and try not to forget that you still are a student with readings and assignments to handle.

If you want to start a relationship after graduation, that’s fine too. Though, you should be aware that it can be really hard (not impossible, just harder) to find a potential partner after graduation. Work is the one place where you’ll spend most of your waking moments at. As it is, most of the people at work are already attached or married. And for some people, it’s weird to date people from the same organisation/office for a variety of reasons. And because you spend most of your time at work, you have fewer opportunities to meet new people. You will need to make great effort on your part to join interest groups and other activities to meet new people and make more friends. Like I said, it’s not impossible, just harder.

Dating apps aren’t that great. I’ve heard more horror stories than good ones. Though I do know of a handful of success cases that have led to marriage. Let me share a funny story. I have on several occasions witnessed people date strangers they met on dating apps. I don’t know why, but it tends to be the case that they’ll sit at the table right next to me when I’m having dinner (yes, I’m very nosey). The interactions are so cringeworthy. It always feels like an insurance agent and a potential client meeting for the first time. It has the same awkwardness (if not more), and they ask the same kinds of questions that insurance agents typically ask: How many people in your family? What do you do? What did you study? How is work? Do you want children? Have you bought any insurance lately? (I kid!)

If you’re going to meet someone on a first date (from a dating app), don’t do it over a meal. It just increases the anxiety levels, and all of that person’s attention is focused entirely on you and what you say and how you say it. So stressful! You’ll just end up talking like an insurance agent (as I have observed over many dinners I’ve had outside). Frankly, it won’t be a memorable experience.

Here’s my advice… Skip the meal. Meet up, and go do some activity where both of you are shit at it, like those art jamming studios, or pottery class, or cooking class, or something like that. Just make sure both of you are bad at it, so you both won’t feel stressed that you have to make something of the same standard as the other. This way, part of your attention is focused on the activity and you’ll both feel a lot more relaxed. Plus, it’ll be a more memorable experience. (And then go have your meal – you’ll have something fun to talk about over dinner. You’re welcome!)

Regardless of when you want to enter into a relationship, just remember one important rule: don’t be desperate. Desperation can make you do stupid things that repel people. And when you get super desperate, you end up doing things that you may regret, like marrying the first person who decided to date you. I know people who did that. They got engaged in less than a year (that’s pretty fast), and they never really appear happy about their marriage when we talk about it.

Moral of the story: Don’t rush. Don’t be desperate. Good things – good partners too – come to those who wait.

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!!!)

    OR:
  • “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?”

How should I make use of my Unrestricted Electives (UE) requirement? Is it worthwhile to pursue a Minor, or should I instead use the time to explore modules from different faculties?

A student asked this question:

How should I make use of my Unrestricted Electives (UE) requirement? Is it worthwhile to pursue a Minor, or should I instead use the time to explore modules from different faculties?

My personal take is that you should only do a minor if you yourself have an interest or passion in it. Otherwise, don’t bother.

When I was an undergraduate student, I used the UE slots to take modules from other faculties, mainly from engineering, computing and the sciences. I’m very grateful I did that because that gave me enough conceptual resources that allowed me to talk and work with engineers in my first job, and later on with academics from STEM majors (and even edit books for them because I knew enough to learn more on my own).

I worked in another university before coming to NUS. And one thing that struck me was the strong culture of learning they had there. I was very amazed to see science and engineering majors so passionate about the humanities, and conversely, humanities students so passionate about learning different things in the sciences. I remembered talking to some humanities undergraduates there and they were determined to take the engineering core mathematics module and PWN (defeat) the engineering majors in their own game.

Here in NUS, we don’t seem to have this culture, or at least I haven’t met students like that. But I do wish students here were more courageous and willing to try and conquer topics beyond their comfort zones, and see it as a healthy challenge to grow and develop yourself.

When you try to do things like this, you are training yourself for the working world, because you are learning to get used to taking on any task that gets thrown at you. You become more resilient.

I spoke to my peers (FASS alumni), and they said that in the course of their working lives, they have been made to do things at work they never thought they had to do when they were students. Things like writing code, develop business plans, etc. Oftentimes, we will have to do this not because we want to, but because we have not much of a choice (it’s assigned to us). So take it in good stride and learn to explore beyond your comfort zone. It’ll be good for you in the long term.

Is it normal to feel so lost when taking a new module?

Last night, a student wrote to me, asking:

Whenever I take a new module, I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t know much about what is going on, whereas the people around me seem so relax that they’re constantly using their phones in class. Is it normal to feel so lost and have all these struggles when taking a new module?

If you have watched Japanese anime about school life, you might have come across one stereotypical character that pretends to be all relaxed and chill about studies (yet scores very highly for exams), but actually works incredibly hard at home. And then there’s another stereotypical character who’s quite slack in school, and quite slack at home. Statistically speaking, you will find these kinds of students regardless of what module you take.

I do suspect that many students are more like the first stereotypical anime student. Many students only start working on their modules very late at night. I know this because I was once a student. Night time is when everyone (pretends) to be asleep, and so you finally have the time and space to focus on things requiring high concentration. Also, my students typically message me for help after 10pm every night. So I know that most students only do work from that time onwards.

A typical undergraduate schedule looks pretty much like this:

Morning: Wake up; rush readings before class; attend classes

Afternoon: Meet friends; attend classes; chill out in a cafe; look at memes or watch videos instead of doing work

Evening: Eat dinner; play games; watch Netflix/YouTube; chit chat with friends; part-time work (if any)

Night (10pm – 2am): Actually doing school work

Go ahead. Ask your friends! Many will tell you their schedule is pretty similar to the one I described above. Haha!

Anyway, the point in highlighting this is that it’s because of students’ typical work habits that we sometimes feel that we’re the only one who’s lost and struggling in the module. That said, there are also other students who feel that way, but they have a very good poker face. Or sometimes, we’re just so deep in our anxieties that we don’t realise other people are also feeling just as lost as we are.

I want to assure you that it’s pretty normal. You’re not alone, and what you feel is very VERY normal. I used to feel that way too when I was an undergraduate student. And it was only when I started to befriend people in my lecture/tutorial and when we started to complain about our school work, did we realise that we weren’t struggling alone. And it’s nice to struggle together with friends. It’s what educators refer to as a “community of learning.”

Of course, it’s never good to remain lost and struggling for the entire semester. So there are some things you can do about it! You can write to your professors and ask them for the course reading list in advance. That way, you can begin your readings early. Or you could just go to the library and read several books related to the module you intend to take.

One thing I like to do is I like to read a lot of secondary literature about the topic, instead of merely reading the primary literature about it (which tends to be the assigned readings in classes). I usually grapple with interpreting the primary literature, and so sometimes I doubt my own reading of it. You can find major interpretations of the topic in the secondary literature and debates about the topic itself, which I find very eye opening.

If you are willing, it helps to start a conversation with your professors about the subject itself and ask for recommendations on things to read (or watch or do).

Anyway, having to struggle with yourself is a normal experience in University. The struggle exists because you are being challenged to grow and develop in your thinking. If you aren’t struggling, you are doing something wrong. But if you find yourself struggling far more than you can handle (mentally/emotionally/physically), then you should talk to someone about it.

Anyway, I think I’m getting long-winded about this. The point really is that your experience is very normal. The key message is this: you’re not alone. A lot of people go through what you experienced (myself included), so reach out to them and make more friends along the way. :)

Is it a norm for students to be close to their profs?

A student asked:

Is it a norm for students to be close to their profs? Over the past 2 years, I’ve realised that many things (internship, planning of mods, exchange, thesis) seem to require talking to a prof in your own department. Ideally, the student should have good rapport with the prof. However, I was thinking then what if I’m a super introverted person? Wouldn’t the student have no one to look for? Wanted to know this because it feels like I’m the only one who can’t find a prof from my dept to seek advice for when I need it and I really struggle a lot with this

So here’s what I wrote:

It’s actually not a norm here in Singapore (but it is very common everywhere else in the world). I think it’s important to see this as a challenge to develop yourself socially and professionally, even as an introvert. Because the unfortunate reality is that we live in an extrovert-dominant world, and we introverts have to learn how to adapt. It’s difficult for sure, but it’s essential to our learning and growth because like it or not, you’ll have to do stuff like this in the future when you work. Now, the good news is that a lot of profs are also very introverted, so they’ll be quite at home with you and your way of interaction. So don’t fret about it.

I highly recommend the book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain (https://www.amazon.sg/Quiet-Power-Introverts-World-Talking/dp/0307352153). It’s very empowering for introverts like us. Don’t see your introversion as a weakness, but as something unique and powerful to offer to this heavily extroverted world. :)