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!!!)

    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?”

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. :)

Are there things undergraduates should know or appreciate more?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Are there things undergraduates should know or appreciate more?

Oh, there are so many things I wish to say in response to this question, but I’ll just focus on one major point.

Many undergraduates don’t understand the point of a university education. The degree is not meant to train you to work for in a specific job or a class of jobs. And when you think about it, isn’t it absurd that people expect you to know what you want to do with your life as such a young age? You haven’t even acquired enough information or experience to make a well-informed decision about the matter!

The truth is that most of us will graduate and work in jobs that have almost zero relevance to what we studied. And you won’t be disappointing your professors – we know this to be a fact of life.

Why? Because, as I said earlier, the whole point of a university education is not to train you to work in a specific job (or class of jobs). Rather, the point of a university education is to develop you holistically as a matured and responsible adult, one with ideals and vision so that you can lead and manage other people to make the world a better place.

It’s sad that many students don’t understand this lofty vision of university education and instead see it as training to become just a mundane worker in someone’s organisation, another cog in the corporate machine, so to speak. That’s sad!

So you must be wondering, what are universities doing to develop you into that amazing person?

(1) Your programme is designed to teach you a set of problem-solving skills. Different disciplines will analyse problems different, and conceptualise solutions very differently too. This is something that is often taught and reinforced by subtly in the 3 or 4 years of undergraduate studies. We often don’t realise this until we talk to people from different disciplines and discover that the way we think about problems is very different. That’s the result of the education you received.

(2) Your programme is designed to broaden your perspective so that you appreciate not only the endless possibilities that exists, but to try and connect ideas that seem so separate and unrelated to create new ideas and innovations. You cannot create something out of nothing. Those 3 or 4 years of undergraduate life is meant to fill you with all kinds of interesting and amazing ideas – maybe even ideas that excite you – and you are often encouraged to critique and even synthesise these ideas. The reason is that the training is meant to prepare you for the future where you can then synthesise these ideas to create exciting new possibilities for yourself and other people. Beyond academic studies, this also includes other programmes like exchange programmes, internships, living/working on campus, and other initiatives. Just being exposed to a variety of situations is already perspective-broadening in itself.

(3) You are also being trained to challenge the status quo and to defend your own position in a rational and systematic manner. This is not just in the form of written assignments, but also in the form of presentations and seminar discussions. Take the discourses you find online. A lot of them may attempt to challenge the status quo, but the discourse is often unproductive (and maybe even toxic). We cannot advance or make a real change in society if we employ such unenlightened methods at work, or on a societal level. A university education trains you to do this well according to how your discipline does it best, and again, in a very subtle way that most students don’t realise is happening.

(4) To get anywhere and to make real change in this world, we must know how to interact and work with other people. This is where the University creates a multitude of opportunities for you to explore and acquire the critical people skills to do this. Whether it is in the form of group projects, clubs and societies, residential college/hall life, or other student-led initiatives. Unlike secondary school or JC, you are given lots of free time to hang around on campus with other students. Because the informal kinds of interactions, like chatting with friends about studies or work or life, or just getting together to play – these are all essential to your development and growth as a team leader and team player. You learn to manage people from diverse backgrounds in the process.

There’s more to say, but I wish to highlight these four areas. I find that because many students don’t understand the point of their university education, they take these aspects of their student life for granted. If you want to grow up to be a highly respected and influential leader, then you must know how to take advantage of the opportunities that a university education presents you to help you develop these aspects of your being. Otherwise, these will be missed opportunities for your own personal and professional development.

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 differentiates A+/A students from the rest, especially in your module?

A student wrote to me:

What differentiates A+/A students from the rest, especially in your module?

Here’s my answer!

It’s a bit hard to tell the difference between A+, A, and A-. So I’ll just make a distinction between A+/A and the rest. From my observations in teaching GET1050 for one year, I can say that IN GENERAL (remember: this is just a generalisation based on my observations) A+/A students in FASS exhibit very distinct personal qualities and work attitude/habits that are a class apart from the the others.

Here’s a list of some common traits that stand out to me (this list is not exhaustive – also, if you want to improve in your grades and as a person, it’s good to adopt some of these traits):

(1) They pay attention to detail. They carefully read every word that written by their profs/tutors and they are not afraid to ask and clarify when in doubt.

(2) They make it a point to actively engage with the content they are learning. They aren’t just blindly following examples laid out in lectures/tutorials. They are actually trying to understand and internalise what they are learning.

(3) And because they are actively trying to understand and internalise their learning, they are able to ask very high level questions that take their learning even further.

(4) They regularly doubt themselves and this provides them with a self-checking mechanism to identify when they might be wrong about their understanding or about their methods. These students can at least zoom in on their doubts. This is distinct from “kiasu” students who consult their profs/tutors because they want to “check” that their work is ok because they have a vague sense of uncertainty.

(5) They are very independent learners and will search for answers themselves. Another key distinction is that they aren’t just seeking answers to assessment questions just to get the marks. They are seeking answer to their doubts!

(6) These students are willing to work very hard and pour in additional hours of hard work just to make sure they get things right because they take pride in their work. One key difference that makes them stand out from the other students is that they are working smart as they work hard, they’re not just blindly wasting hours away in an unstrategic manner.

(7) They don’t shy away from a challenge, in fact, many of them enjoy a good challenge.

(8) Essentially, they have a very positive working attitude that has led them to develop these good work habits. They take ownership and responsibility for their learning.

A+/A students stand out from as early as Week 2 of the semester. It’s because they spend so many hours thinking about what they learnt, that they are able to ask questions that are a class apart from the kinds of questions other students ask. And you can tell that they spent many hours thinking about the issues because many of the things they consult me on cannot be easily arrived at just by watching the lecture videos alone: these question came from their reflections, experimentations, or attempts to apply their learning to other things.

What advice would you give to your students? (About Studies)

One of my former students recently asked:

What advice would you give to your students?

I have plenty of advice that I’d like to give. But to keep it short, I’ll just state two advice that relates to one’s studies:

1. Learn from your mistakes in order to improve

Many students have the wrong idea that the more effort you put in, the better your grades. That is not true. Correlation is not causation. Grades are a measure of how well you have met the learning objectives of the course. In FASS, one of the underlying objectives is the ability to think critically (whatever that means for each discipline). If you are consistently not scoring an A for your assignments, it means that you are consistently doing something wrong with your assignments.

Many students don’t realise this because they keep thinking that they are victims of the bell-curve. That’s usually not the case, and that is really a very unproductive mindset. Because as long as you keep seeing yourself as a victim, you don’t see a need to improve.

So if you want to know what you are doing wrong despite your best efforts, talk to your profs and ask them to explain how you can do better. In my undergraduate days, I started out as a B+ student. In my second year, I had the courage to finally ask one of my professors what was missing in my essays. And he patiently explained what I wasn’t showing, and what I needed to do. After that consult, I scored As consistently for all my essays. That conversation brought to light that what I thought was critical thinking was not critical enough.

2. Good Work Attitude and Good Work Habits are Important

Our attitudes influence our habits, and vice versa. Some students like to think that school is school, work is work, and life is life. But that’s not true. The work habits you develop now in University will be the same work habits you have after you graduate, and these work habits will affect your relationships with coworkers and your marriage/family.

In my 3.5 years of teaching in NUS, I’ve observed many students short-changing themselves (and their grades) by not doing simple things like carefully reading e-mails, or actively checking up information on IVLE/Luminus. I once had a student complain bitterly about missing a deadline. When I asked her why she didn’t read my e-mail reminders, she replied that she would just delete e-mails that come from me. She didn’t think anything I wrote was important anyway. (WTH right?!)

This is an extreme case, but a vast majority of students lose marks unnecessarily here and there because of things like this. They didn’t read the question properly, they didn’t follow instructions carefully, or they didn’t read the rubrics on how they are graded for tutorials or for specific assignments.

Anyway, small things like not reading things properly, or not actively checking up things on your own – they do leave a bad impression on others, and will continue to undermine your career in the future. The habits we develop now will last even when we go on to work.

Habits don’t just come from nowhere. They come from our attitudes. We all value work differently. But if we have a very negative perception about work, then that influences us to be negligent in the things we do (and that becomes a habit).

So try your best to see work more positively. Work, even school work, is an opportunity for you to leave an imprint – a mark – of yourself on the people and things around you. Work is transformative. And if you’re doing the work with a positive mindset and reflectively, it changes you for the better.

What’s the difference between choosing to do a thesis and choosing to do modules for Honours? Which one is better?

A student sent me this question:

What’s the difference between choosing to do a thesis and choosing to do modules for Honours? Which one is better?

Here’s my reply:

I will always recommend taking thesis. It’s hard work, but it is worth it on so many levels. It’s always important to remember that when it comes to thesis, YOU are the end-product, and not the thesis. The thesis you write is just a means to transform and mature your thinking and resilience. It’s hard work. You’ll burn a lot of weekends, and often times feel guilty for taking time off to relax, and even feel lonely because no one else is working on that topic, so you find it hard to talk to anyone about your work. BUT, it is very worthwhile, because you learn to deal with hardship on a whole new level. You’ll learn to think and process copious amount of readings and research. You’ll be challenged like never before. And you’ll come out a better, more critical person at the end of it all.

You won’t grow much if you just take modules for your Honours.

Also, you’ll have more options and prospects if you pursued Honours Thesis, because you will learn solid research methods that will come in handy when you work, or if you decide later on that you want to do grad school. If you only take modules (what we call coursework), then you close many doors. It’s difficult to go into a research Masters or do a PhD in the future if you didn’t do thesis. A friend of mine didn’t do Honours Thesis, and he wanted to do a research masters in HK. They rejected his application and he ended up doing a coursework masters. A bit of an early death to his academic aspirations because he realised he could not pursue a PhD with the coursework masters on the basis that he didn’t have any prior research experience.

Furthermore, what you do for your Thesis can open doors for your career. Don’t just research on a topic you like. Use the thesis as a way to demonstrate specific skills. For example, in my Honours Thesis, I wanted to show that I can read and translate Classical Chinese texts, that I could do textual analysis, and anthropological work. It was my thesis that landed me a job producing online videos on Confucianism (and do all kinds of fun exciting stuff with academics and policymakers from all over the world). Similarly, I wanted my Masters Thesis to show that I can do computer simulations, textual analysis, and juggle interdisciplinary stuff. That played a huge role in allowing me to teach GET1050 here in NUS.

So go do a thesis! You won’t regret it. :)

A hot cup of toffee nut latte on a cold rainy day

I love how Christmas is coming. Every year Starbucks will offer its special Christmas brew. I look forward to it every year.

A cup of toffee nut latte with its fragrant smell and taste brings me so much happiness. And especially on a cold rainy day, this drink is the perfect beverage to compliment the lovely chilly weather. MMMmmm…

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t particularly like the drink so much anymore now. I guess as one grows with age, one outgrows one’s liking for sweet drinks.

So why do I still drink it? Mainly, for the nostalgia, but also as an annual reminder for what it now represents.

This was the drink that has accompanied me for so many cold and rainy nights back in my undergraduate days, where at the end of the semester (well, at the end of every Semester 1) I’d spend several, almost-consecutive nights in a row, working overnight on campus to write papers after papers, until the sun rose at about 6+am (no kidding!).

It was the drink that in many ways, stayed beside me, sitting with me, keeping me up, keeping me going. The fact that it was a seasonal brew made it all the more special. It also, in a way, gave me something to look forward to at the time when assignments are aplenty, and where stress is high.

Now that I have graduated and don’t need undergo such academic toiling, this drink brings me lovely memories of the those times where I stayed up to write papers. While in some ways, I hated the experience, I still loved it for the kind of peace and quiet that I enjoyed. There’s something really wonderful about sitting in a dim room in the middle of the night, with a small desk lamp over your head, with another one or two other students working in the study room. Maybe it’s the combination of the lack of sleep, stress and the caffeine, but the experience of solitude as you think and write is magical… But I digress.

More significantly, this drink stands as a symbol of the silent companion who stands by your side, cheering you, giving you (mental) strength to keep going, to keep thinking, to keep writing. That you’re never alone even as you’re writing at 4am in the middle of the night, where everyone else is asleep.

That companion, who transforms and gives new meaning and understanding to the experience of the toil and suffering of work; transforming toil into toil-AND-pleasure, adding an element of joy – sips of joy full of flavour, stimulating your senses as if setting off a series of fireworks in your mind – with every small sip I took, as I wrote my papers with frustration.

Toil transformed into toil-and-pleasure.

It is a hopeful drink. It serves as a reminder of those moments, and how I overcame those moments year after year till graduation, with this simple seasonal drink.

To drink it once again, today, on a cold rainy day in December. A timely reminder. A comforting thought. A heartening sip.