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.
Even though last semester ended in May, I’m still receiving many personal messages and letters from students thanking me for teaching them GET1050 Computational Reasoning. I thought it’ll be good to archive some of them here as a memento of the amazing time I had teaching the AY2019/2020 Sem II cohort. (They’re the best cohort I’ve taught thus far)
Relevance of GET1050 to Internship and Work
It has been really wonderful learning VBA from the module in particular. I couldn’t imagine that I’ll be learning programming in FASS. At least now with basic VBA skills in my belt, I hope for more useful things to come! Perhaps one thing of interest to you: I’m currently interning in the oil and gas sector. One of my tasks was to prioritize a list of interests for the firm, which was compiled in a spreadsheet. Evidently it’ll be exhaustive to go thru each interest one by one (there was a lot). So my bosses would like me to justify how I’d prioritize it. This is similar to the optimisation exercises we went through in the module. I’d like to believe that they allow me to have a thinking framework in place for these kinds of tasks.
Hi Jonathan! Just wanted to drop a message saying that I cannot believe I am facing people in internship that didnt even quantify their parameters and had to go through mini GET on what is best and how do we define best and what are the proxy measures we are doing. Can definitely see the application of GET again cause it felt like I was transported back into your class of discussions
Hope that you are doing well : ) Hope this isn’t too random haha but I wanted to send you an appreciation email for making GET1050 so fun and enriching! I learnt a lot from your lectures and tutorials and enjoyed them very much. They were really insightful as well! I really appreciated your encouragement during the vba consultation too. Thanks to excel I managed to get an internship this break and gained more confidence in learning other tech skills xD Thank you so much for going out of your way to help us, creating such a fun learning environment and challenging us to think. This mod was my favourite one this semester! Stay safe and take care and hope to see you around in school!!
hey prof!! how has this cb (circuit breaker/lockdown) been for you? :) hope youre doing well HAHA i got my first job this vacation and my boss gave me this huge excel data set and asked me to categorise the data and all thank God i took GET1050 be i managed to use pivot table and filter function to get the data that my boss wanted and it took me less than 5min, my boss was so impressed HAHAH thank you prof!! hope this little news will bring you some happiness this gloomy cb :)
I was your student of your mod last sem. Just want to share a story with you haha! I did horribly for your module due to the lack of time in the school semester. I got a 8/8- even when i contributed a big portion of project works that scored decently well. As a result, i decided to prioritize other mods, neglecting VBA which was the latter portion of the module. During the CB, i decided to pick up VBA, and went through some of the notes you had and youtube. This helped me to secure a banking internship in a tough period, during the interviews, the head mentioned that she wanted someone to automate excel, and I listed some of the examples i saw on youtube, impressing her. Fast forward 2 weeks into my internship, other than small projects, i just created a excel sheet to automate manual intranet web queries and print them(For compliance against terrorism etc, intranet will show whether company suspicious or not) for my team! Saving my teammates 30 mins-ish a day.
GET1050 is Empowering!
hi mr sim, hope you’re doing well! just wanted to let you know that i’ve taken up an online programming course and so many of the concepts that they’re teaching were covered in get1050! for eg i just wrote a code in c using the greedy rule to solve a question. so really thank you for the past semester in this module, it’s taught me to think about computing in a way that makes it much easier for me to write codes now!
However, I wanna let you know that the course you conducted, was really REALLY helpful for me. Acting as a bridge that guides us into the unknown, I actually FEEL REALLY EMPOWERED to take a new coding module, and refine my skills in excel. And this is really thanks to you. You gave me the room to leverage on my instinctive ability to reason and plan, to complete the complexities of the tasks of excel. For that, I am deeply grateful.
Hi Mr Sim!!! (This is quite late) I just want to let you are an amazing prof and Thank you for doing some an amazing job in GET1050. Although it’s only my first Y1, I can say this is probably my most favourite mod because of that way you deliver the teaching materials! (And partly cuz I got a high grade in it HAHAHA) It has also sparked within me an interest of coding and I have been doing the CS50 module to widen my knowledge of coding. I’m alr building my own homepage WOW As a FASS student, I didn’t expect to have such knowledge within my academic life and I really thank you for introducing it to me and the other students! ALSOOO, I’ve been reading your Tellonym and your replies have been eye-opening and refreshing. Thanks for sharing your opinions and inspiring your students (especially FASS students)
Beyond thanking you for the obviously tremendous amount of effort and humour that you put in this mod in order to make it bearable, enjoyable, and educational; I would like to thank you for giving me a good springboard into this world of data science and computing. After seeing the value of computing knowledge and thinking from this module, I recently took up a certified business analytics course and intend to do CS50 in due time as well. I also intend to strengthen my understanding of VBA (ps. do you have any recommendations of where I can do this other than Linkedln Learning? Philo mod recommendations also please thanks haha I haven’t taken intro to Philo but I would love to learn how to think better) I am very proud to tell you that I got an A for this module. I had at the very start told you that I was scared of this module and prepared to SU it (and got scolded by you haha). I am hence extremely proud of not only the grade, but the effort me and my team put into this module and the learnings we got as a result; but also that I have a good grade to show you to thank you for your dedication and kindness.
GET1050 is Awesome!
Heelllo Jonathan!! Sending this a bit late but, I just wanted to say thank youuu. I personally had an amazing GET1050 learning experience the past sem! Thanks for creating such a comfortable learning environment for asking questions and putting in so much effort to make learning so enjoyable!! (PARDON this not so look-a-like drawinggg HAHA)
Thank YOU for all your hardwork and love you have for your students:”)) your dedication to this mod is amazing!!! :”)) Rest well!!!!
I am a student from your GET1050 course. Though this email may be a little late, given that the module ended quite some time ago, the semester has finally concluded but I wish to extend my gratitude to you for having been such a passionate professor and I have genuinely learned much from your course. I really appreciate that you explain every single concept down to the last detail with so much enthusiasm. The amount of effort you and your GET1050 TAs is truly unimaginable, but I am very thankful for all of it! Thank you for building my foundation for EXCEL well and I can’t wait to learn more tricks and codes! : D Thank you Jonathan once again :-), take care and rest well this summer!
hi prof! I wanted to say thank you for interacting with your students and spending your time to engage us in our growth :-) hope u r doing well in this season!!! :-))
Dear Mr Sim, now that the mod is about to be over i just want to say a huge thank you to you- for your patience in coaching us, checking up on us whenever u can, and just being such a great prof. I am very lucky to have taken this mod under you, and i thank you so much for all the knowledge you have imparted to us. Ive started to be able to see proxy measures, interpretive gaps havjng to be filled in etc in my daily life as well. I hope you take good care of yourself, dont overtire yourself please! As your student, it is my pleasure and honour to call you my professor.
Next, I want to sincerely thank you for being such a genuine and hardworking educator. In my entire education career as a student, I have only met one or two teachers who were always going the extra mile in getting to know their students and preparing their lessons in a way that students will truly enjoy and learn useful things they will take away with them for the rest of their lives. When I first entered university, I thought that the lecturers , in general , would be less enthusiastic about getting to know students or even teaching the content they do, as the material they teach would undoubtedly be repetitive on their end, and the opportunities they have to interact with students are less, considering the lecture group sizes and the number of classes they have with students. It was surprising when you went out of your way to get us email short introductions to you before our very first class, you did not have to, but you chose to do it. I honestly think that shows how much you care about your students and am touched to have an educator like you. This is just one of the many things, coupled with the crazy amount of effort you put into creating funny names in assignments and easter eggs for us to find when doing the assignments, that left me speechless. Your passion for teaching is admirable and shines through.
Thank you so much for all you’ve done for us, Prof. Our group and all your other students are extremely grateful to you. We all enjoyed your whacky, hilarious lectures and will remember them for years to come. See you soon, Prof. Wishing you continued good health
What is the most important life advice that you would like to give your students?
I thought very long and hard about this matter. So here’s my reply:
The most important life advice that I want to give to my students is: Learn to embrace failure, and see it in a positive light: failure is good and important for your personal and professional growth and development. Most university students have never encountered failure in their lives at all. Most uni students have enjoyed at least a 12-year successive streak from primary school all the way to JC/Poly, without having experienced failure once before. And so, failure becomes ever more scary because it is a very alien experience. Since I began working with students, I have personally witnessed the extent with which failure has undermined the potential of students from going forward in life. I have seen very bright and brilliant students sabotage themselves in so many ways and it saddens me to see how fear prevents them from realising their full potential. Let me recount a few cases.
Years ago, I had to engage student RAs to help me edit scientific talks for a general audience. I specifically chose students from the humanities because they would best be able to edit it in a way that the general public can understand (science students are more inclined to retain a lot of jargon). I had a student who ended up ghosting me (i.e. became uncontactable) because after he began working on the project, he didn’t know how to even proceed even though I was very happy to lend assistance to anyone who needed it. I asked friends close to him, and they shared with me that he was so embarrassed to ask me for help because it would be an admission of failure on his part. But if he’s not going to ask me for help, how is he even going to get started on it? I know that he is more than capable of doing it. I didn’t think he failed when he was stuck. But he saw himself as a failure and dropped the entire project. He didn’t even have the courage to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”
There was another student I engaged to run a social media campaign for a research centre years ago. I chose her because she boasted experience in doing such things. She too ghosted me (and the research centre) as soon as she found herself stuck. She was so afraid of facing the possibility of failure that she couldn’t even bring herself to ask any of us for help. Fear of failure held her back so badly that she just dropped out after 1 week. Again, I don’t think being stuck is a sign of failure. All one had to do was to ask for help. But, she was so afraid of failing that she failed in the end by dropping out.
I see this fear of failure holding many students back in their learning too. I’ve seen many students who are so afraid of failing that they won’t even try, because there is the fear that they will discover they would fear the first time they try (I’m not talking about assignments – I’m just talking about online lecture activities). They are so afraid to realise that they might fear that they won’t even try! But that really is the opposite of learning! We learn by making mistakes, so we know what to do and what not to do. I see this happening every semester for the past 3.5 years of teaching: every time we push students out of their comfort zones, there will be a large percentage who give up before they even begin.
Students are so paralysed by the fear of failure, that they undermine themselves from trying new things (that’s why so many want to go into grad school or become teachers – because it’s a very familiar environment, and not one that challenges them). They undermine their learning, they undermine their potential, they undermine their careers by not daring to ask for help (as if that is an admission of failure – it’s not!). And it doesn’t help that they shy away from it, and even go into denial (bitching about how crap something is without acknowledging their own shortcomings) without evaluating the failure for its important lessons. A wasted opportunity.
This fear of failure will continue on even as working adults. I have seen working adults, directors even, who are so afraid of failure they make pathetic decisions, or they push/punish their colleagues/subordinates so hard in order to generate a false sense of security. The same fear will pervade relationships, and you’ll see people making stupid decisions for their spouses and children.
I know failure is a painful experience. I encounter this all the time. And it hits me very hard especially since I am a perfectionist. I am my harshest critic and I go very hard on myself when I fail, emo-ing for days sometimes. But we must understand that failure is educational. We learn what NOT to do. That gives us a point of reference for improvement.
Did you know that failure is so important that NUS incorporates that as a requirement for promotion for staff on educator track? We must reflect on negative student feedback and demonstrate what we are doing to address these failings. I like what one of the educators shared: “The mark of a great educator is not in his/her positive teaching feedback or achievements. Rather it is in the way in which the educator reflects on his/her failings as an educator, and reflectively works to improve on those areas.”
So let me share with you one advice that I myself use: I treat everything I do as experimental. I’ve never written a book, so that book was my first experiment in writing. I never taught an entire module before, so the first cohort was my first experiment in teaching. By framing these things as experimental, we give ourselves a bit more leeway to make mistakes, and thus reduce the stress on ourselves to succeed 100%.
Heck, I even tell my TAs to treat their first class as an experimental class: “Make all the mistakes you want, it’s ok to screw up. Just make sure you learn from the mistakes so that you can teach a better class the next time round.” This makes them more relaxed, and in general, my TAs have better camaraderie with the students from their first class because they’re a lot more relaxed. (And of course, they teach more confidently for the second class – don’t worry, it doesn’t make a difference to grades because they still cover the same things anyway)
Here are three other life advice I regard as important preparations for the future:
(1) Learn to find meaning and purpose outside of studies with hobbies that aren’t Netflix/YouTube, computer games, or anything to do with collecting stuff. Or even better, learn to embrace that emptiness/meaninglessness in life as the white noise of existence that will always be present no matter where we run to. Think back to the first week of holidays. Do you feel a certain emptiness in your life? You’ve been working so hard, and then suddenly you aren’t doing those things anymore. That emptiness will hit you very VERY HARD once you graduate because you’ve been studying for at least 16 years of your life, and now that you’re liberated from studies (which is forced upon you), you will struggle like everyone else to find meaning and purpose since all this is entirely up to your choosing from then on.
Many people don’t know how to cope well with this emptiness in life. Some go down the destructive path of indulging in lots of alcohol and sex; some actively seek out love because having butterflies in your stomach is way more exciting than having to face that void at home (but they can’t maintain proper relationships because long-term relationships are “boring” and lack the same distracting excitement). Some other pick up hobbies that involve collecting hoard of shit, and so they buy inordinate quantities of shit like expensive pens, watches, golf clubs, fishing equipment, gadgets, etc. All these provide only momentary relief. And I’ll say this: Religion doesn’t actually solve the problem. I’ve seen the same shit going on especially with the most devoted or pious of people. Many of them are super into the religion only because they are trying very hard to escape the emptiness that they feel inside (speaking from experience and from observation). I even know priests who resort to some of the patterns of behaviour I mentioned above.
I recommend hobbies because meaning and purpose is generated from the mutual interaction of the activity itself and our reflection about the activity. If you can (and this is something I am striving towards), try to embrace this meaninglessness as the white noise of existence. White noise cancels out a lot of things, making it hard to hear certain sounds (in the same way, the feeling of emptiness can occasionally drown out other things that are supposedly meaningful). But at the same time, white noise blends easily in the background. When we’re focused on something, we don’t hear the white noise anymore, or at least it doesn’t confront us. I find it helps to stop perceiving it as a bad thing to run away from and just accept it as a brute fact of life, that it will always be there. It’s hard, but if we can embrace that level, then I think we’re good for life.
(2) Save money and live frugally. Do not take loans for weddings, honeymoon, renovation, etc. The only acceptable loans are education loans and housing loans. Weddings are expensive. Buying and renovating a home is expensive. Having children is expensive. Getting sick is expensive. Dying is expensive. One thing that bothers me is how so many of my peers are living unsustainable lifestyles eating good food and drinks almost every day, or indulging in very regular expensive purchases (gadgets, watches, etc.) Furthermore, with the combined salaries that some couples draw, I know for a fact that they can’t possibly afford a big fancy wedding and a beautiful house at the same time, so early on in their careers. They’re either funded by their parents or they took a mega loan from a bank. If you have to take money from your parents or from a bank, then you are really spending beyond your means. Especially if the wedding and/or home renovation was loaned from a bank, you begin a new chapter of your life shouldering a very heavy burden of servicing debt every month. That’s not a nice way to start a new chapter of your life. In fact, the majority of divorces in Singapore are due to money matters. Go Google.
Go read up what kinds of insurance to buy and how much to adequately insure yourself. You never know when you might one day lose your ability to work. And then go read up how to make passive income from investments so that you have additional income streams.
(3) You don’t need to aim for perfection when it comes to the working world. The working world is flooded with an insane amount of mediocrity. Why? Because the people who are very good at what they do tend to be overly critical of themselves and so they undermine themselves by not putting forward what they have (it’s never good enough to show others), or they are just so held back by the fear of failure that they don’t go into areas where they can truly make a difference. So what you are left with are overconfident people who lack substance doing all those jobs.
I first came to this realisation after having a chat with someone. This person is great as a human being, as a colleague, and as a friend. He’s not particularly intelligent, nor does he have a good command of English. But what was pretty amazing was that he was very passionate about a specific topic, and he was quite confident with himself, that he never once hesitated. And so he actually managed to get many articles published in several newspapers and magazines (like once every week). He even won a competition and got a grant to publish a book. That’s pretty amazing. I’ve read his stuff and it was just ok – mediocre. It wasn’t great or spectacular. But there he is going so far with all these publications. And then it struck me so hard that if this quality of work can make it so far in so many areas, then all I need to do is to just do slightly better than this, which is quite doable since it doesn’t require me to write an A grade essay or do spectacular research that comes under the scrutiny of experts.
What I learnt is: I don’t need to aim for perfection. I just need to be slightly better than average – at the very least. And that’s a very comforting idea for people who are very self-critical, like myself. This realisation has been incredibly liberating for me, because it opened my eyes to realise the extent of mediocrity that pervades everything around us. So for those of us reading this who are very self-critical. All you need to do is to be a little bit more thick-skinned, and just put yourself out there. You have no idea how far you can possibly go with the work and talent that you have. Because, if you can critique what’s wrong with other peoples work and your own work, then you have what it takes to make it slightly better than mediocre, and that will immediately be way better than a lot of the things that’s already out there.
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.
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.
Recently, a philosophy professor mentioned that philosophy only advances when one engages in three things: reading, discussing, and writing.
This is so true.
Sadly, ever since I graduated, I rarely had the time to write. As you can see from this blog, I don’t write that often.
But the actual root of the problem is this: in order to have the time to write something significant and profound, one must also have the time to think, to contemplate on issues. I finally understand one aspect of what Aristotle meant when he wrote the Ethics. Aristotle said that the best life to live is the life of contemplation, where one is able to contemplate and marvel at the truth, goodness, and beauty of things. But such a life, as Aristotle acknowledged, is a luxury, and it can only be sustained if one is spared from chores and other matters of life that would rob one’s time and energy from fully engaging in contemplation. (Unfortunately, Aristotle’s solution to grant people that luxury of time and energy to contemplate, was to maintain a slave class in society do handle all those chores.) But anyway, yes, I see why he said that.
Working life is just so exhausting, with so many projects and deadlines. And it gets more hectic when one has other household matters to deal with. Gosh… Sometimes I feel like I’m just firefighting every single day. The alarm blares out loud in the morning, and then I rush to work, and a million and one things come up throughout the day. And before I know it, the day is over. Evening sets and I am fatigued, often too exhausted to do anything else but to function like a statue on the sofa, sometimes functioning like a plant, staying firmly rooted on the couch, while I “photosynthesize” before the television screen.
No time for contemplation!
Thankfully, I do get to enjoy a good hour in the morning to read as I commute to work, and fortunately, I have the company of philosophical friends with whom I get to discuss issues that I read or toyed with at random. So… Reading, checked. Discussing, checked. Writing… Nope!
I have been trying very hard to write. Every day I face a blank white screen with the text cursor flashing. What shall I write? What shall I write? Nothing flows from my mind. It is quite frustrating. Call it a writer’s block if you will. But I think the trouble comes precisely from the lack of contemplation. Not enough time to properly connect the ideas in my head into something coherent, and so the thoughts do not flow smoothly nor coherently enough to form something decent.
I need to contemplate.
Having said all these, here is my firm resolution: I resolve to set aside time each day to contemplate. It’s something I stopped doing, and it is something I definitely want to keep doing once again.
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.
Well, ok, it’s October now. Gosh… I actually can’t believe I haven’t been blogging for slightly more than two months. It felt like eternity.
I’ve been so ridiculously crazy over the past two months. Somehow, when the semester began, I found myself flooded with a never-ending stream of activity. It was exhausting and stressful, but it was amazing.
The past 2 months have so far, been the greatest high points of my life and career here in NTU.
I never would have imagined so many amazing events to have happened in two months, but it did! And now that the high tide of activity has subsided, I can breathe a little easy now, recollect, and can’t help but feel like the past two months were nothing but the most amazing beautiful dream that I’ve had.
So, what did I do?
I spent the entire month of August writing a paper for an academic journal. It’s my first paper for an academic journal. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s not the previous post (if you’re wondering, the previous one had too many problems and too little textual material available to make a solid case; I had to write a different paper). In many ways, it was reminiscent of my undergraduate days. In some ways, it was nostalgic.
Anyway, the editor got back to me. The reviewers’ comments were: It was very very interesting. They loved it! But, major revisions required. Oh dear…
In addition, I participated in a small workshop that involved several directors of research centres around the world (including the UN), discussing issues about East-West boundaries, and problems in science and policy making. It was inspiring to sit in a room filled with one of the most brilliant minds in the world. I want to be like them! They spoke elegantly, conducted themselves in the most gentlemanly manner, and most of all, they were full of brilliant ideas and insights.
Those were the mast amazing 3 days of my life. I grew a lot and I came out a changed person.
Not too long after that, in September, I had to fly to China alone, on my own, for the very first time in my life. I made two trips, each trip lasting a week. If you did not know, I’m involved in the production of a massively open online course (MOOC) in Confucian Philosophy. A MOOC is an online course complete with video lessons, online readings, and online quizzes and assignments, which can earn you a lovely certificate by the administering university.
I won’t be the one conducting the lessons in front of the camera. Rather, I’m the one who does all the behind-the-scenes stuff, such as going to China to get government clearance to film lessons in historical sites in China, among many other matters.
Anyway, the birthday of Confucius was coming up, and we wanted to film the Grand Ritual to Confucius at the Confucius Temple in his hometown in Qufu. But that’s not the only thing we wanted to film. There’s a lot more, but I won’t spoil it for you – at least not now. Anyway, all these things required administrative clearance from the Chinese authorities. It was a learning experience, as China has a very different work culture.
But perhaps the greatest eye opener and learning experience was to experience Confucianism as it was lived and practiced by the people of Qufu. Perhaps, it’s because Qufu is the hometown of Confucius that Confucianism is strongly practised till this day (I can’t make the claim for all of China since I’ve only been to this small town). Imagine this: everywhere you go, you are met with the most sincere, authentic, and friendly people ever. Doesn’t matter where I go (and no, it wasn’t special treatment because I was a foreigner, they all thought I was a local – they were very surprised when I told them I was from Singapore). Human affection and close relationships are the number one priority. Everything that is done is done for the sake of deepening the friendship. Even if you are doing business or working, the close friendship is of utmost importance.
It is no wonder the first line in the Analects is so strongly featured in Qufu:
For a friend to come [visit you] from afar, is this not a great joy?
I guess you could say I returned from China a convert, a strong fervent believer of the teachings of Confucius.
It was so refreshing to meet sincere people interested more in friendships than in being able to suck something out from you. It’s a tragedy because nowadays in Singapore, there are just far too many pretentious people who lie that they’re interested in being friends, but actually want to gain something from the friendship. (Seriously, I’m ok if you just say point blank that you want something from me – I don’t like this kind of hypocritical bullshit where you can’t voice your true intentions, but have to keep going around in circles.)
That was a wonderful experience.
Anyway, the second week, my professor and the filming crew came down to China, and it was, for me, a really stressful week as I encountered administrative hiccups here and there. The Chinese authorities do not operate as efficiently as the Singapore civil service. So I had to run around China, making phone calls to various offices just to find alternative solutions or to fix the problem. It was the most stressful week. On the bright side, I was able to pamper myself with delicious foods while I was there, so I was quite happy.
I just came back from China last week, and spent the past couple of days recuperating from the two months of madness. I think I’m now properly rested, which means I should be able to work very efficiently and I can return to blogging regularly. Yay!
Wow… It’s been about 8 months since I last blogged! Unbelievable! And it’s amazing how many things have happened in my life in just 8 months!
I do apologise for not posting anything for the last 8 months.
I had to undergo the biggest lifestyle change in my life that has made it very difficult for me to blog.
What was it that kept me away from the keyboard? WORK!
At the end of the day, when you’re just so dead and tired from a long day, the last thing you want to do is think!
During my first month of work, I would come back home exhausted and do nothing but watch mindless cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants and laugh like a madman. The last thing I wanted to do was to watch a show that was intellectually stimulating. Seriously… Who in the right mind has the energy for that after a long tiring day?
I have new found respect for parents: they spend the entire day working like crazy, they come back – probably as exhausted as me, if not worse – and then, they still have children to look after. How do they do it? Where do they get the energy for that?!
I’ve gotten the hang of things, and so my evening activities are not simply about watching mindless cartoons. But I’m still usually too tired to do very much.
Well, it’s been 8 months! But I guess I have enough guilt festering within me to want to make a change and do something about my blog.
So, here’s the summary of my life over the past 8 months:
In Sep 2013, I got a job as a Marketing Communications Specialist for an electronics company! Haha yes! A philosopher decided to go into electronics. Well, if anything, it was to prove (on my CV at least) that as a philosopher, I’m capable of many things. And at least, to have a try at electronics (something I gave up in university in favour of Philosophy). It was pretty fun. I got to meet many inspiring people along the way, and I got to design a lot of things! Oh, I even got featured on CNET! It was good fun!
In Jan 2014, I proposed to The Girlfriend, and she said… YES! So The Girlfriend has now become… THE FIANCEE! We plan to get married some time in 2015. (So exciting!)
In Feb 2014, I got a job offer to work as a full-time researcher in classical Chinese philosophy at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). It’s a very rare opportunity! An offer that I couldn’t miss! In fact, working in an electronics company, though electronics was something of a hobby for me, made me realise that I had a huge thirst for philosophy and I needed something with an intellectual challenge. So that strengthened my resolution all the more to make the switch back to philosophy.
So here I am! I won’t exactly say that life has been a bed of roses, but it’s been interesting and certainly most exciting trying out all kinds of stuff.
Of course, I’ll do my best to blog about all the wonderful things in my life – hopefully on a once in two days, or at least once a week basis.
After four exhausting years of toil, of literally blood (having gone to the hospital thrice and getting needles injected all over my body), sweat, and coffee, I’ve survived university and graduated!
Well, as some of you know, I’ve been pretty busy finishing my Honours Thesis in my last and final semester.
My thesis was entitled, “Notions of Harmony in Classical Chinese Thought.” In it, I set out to investigate and reconstruct all the various notions of harmony that could be found in the Analects, Mozi, Daodejing, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and the Xunzi. The problem with much of the scholarship on harmony is that scholars have often assumed harmony to be more or less the same idea across thinkers throughout Chinese history. My project was to demonstrate that this is not so. (If you are interested in reading it, please leave me a comment, and I’ll e-mail it to you!)
The final week before the Thesis submission deadline was extremely stressful as I was up almost every night until 3-4am trying my best to edit and polish up the paper.
Friday, 26 April 2013 was the thesis submission deadline and thankfully, I managed to finish my thesis by then.
That day was, for me, a very momentous occasion – it was the big day where after one entire year of researching and writing, the time has finally come for the paper to be printed and submitted! Wow… You know, I never thought it would ever have been possible to write such a lengthy paper. My thesis was approximately 12000 words, and it consisted of 42 pages! That’s right! 42! The number, the answer to life, the universe, and everything!
Somehow, the entire day felt like a momentous victory! I met a friend at the library who was more than happy to help me photograph the momentous occasion while I printed my thesis:
It was somewhat unfortunate that I didn’t have the time to bind my paper into a hardcover book (which was the tradition for submitting theses). Oh well, I didn’t have the luxury of time to do it. But that’s ok. Hardcover isn’t a submission requirement.
With the Honours Thesis out of the way, I felt a huge burden lifted from my shoulders.
But I could not heave a sigh of relief yet as I still had exams to study and sit for. And so, after a day of rest, it was back to the books.
Unfortunately, the exams didn’t end on a very happy note. My last exam was an engineering module (for the life of me, I still don’t understand why on earth did I decide to do an engineering module). It wasn’t an introductory module either (I really have no idea why I put myself through such pains). Anyway, it was the last exam of my undergraduate life, but the paper was so difficult, I was faced with a very real possibility of failing the paper. I counted the marks of the questions where I think I would have gotten right, and I only had just enough to pass. If bell-curve moderation was not in my favour, there was the very very real possibility that I would have failed this paper, and worse of all, I would have to repeat a semester. Gosh… It was a very horrible feeling to have while walking out of the exam hall.
But no matter. A few days after that traumatic experience of the final exam, I was out of the country for a holiday to Penang (I’ll write more about it later). Then it was off to Kuala Lumpur to run some errands and enjoy a bit of holiday by the side. The Girlfriend’s grandmother came down to Singapore some time back and discovered the wonders of the Internet, specifically YouTube, and she wanted to have this amazing Internet in her home. So I volunteered to go down to KL and help buy and set up a computer and an Internet connection. And after Kuala Lumpur, I was off to Bangkok. These three places were amazing in their own way, and I think I’ve grown and learnt a lot while I was there. (But I’ll keep all those thoughts for another blog entry here).
Let me just fast forward by about 2 months to the last seven days leading up to my graduation ceremony.
Gosh… It was quite an exciting week! I was given the opportunity to present a section of my Honours Thesis at an international philosophy conference. It was the 2013 Joint Meeting of the Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (SACP) and the Australasia Society of Asian Comparative Philosophy (ASACP).
Not only was I busy helping out with some of the logistic matters, I was also rushing to edit and present my paper for the event. It had been two months since I last wrote papers. It felt good to be writing a paper once again. I had a cup of coffee by my side, soft piano music playing in the background, and I was all ready to write my paper all the way into the midst of the night. So for three consecutive nights, there I was sitting before my computer, typing away until 3am. It was tiring, but it felt so good to be engaging in this paper writing ritual. There’s something so comforting and wonderful about the experience.
Monday, 8 July 2013. At last, it was the day of the Conference. I had to present my paper on the first day, in the afternoon before many academics, some of whom were really really BIG names in the area of Chinese Philosophy. It was intimidating, but nonetheless, a huge honour!
The paper I presented was entitled, “Reconciling Culinary and Musical Models in Classical Chinese Thought.” There’s been some sort of academic debate where there is disagreement as to whether the culinary and musical models of harmony have merged into a single unified notion or remain as two separate models in classical Chinese thought. In my paper, I attempted to present a new way of looking at the relation of the two models and how they can be reconciled together into a single theory despite remaining as two separate yet distinct models.
It turns out that my paper presentation was a huge success! Everybody present enjoyed it and they found the contents very interesting!
The biggest WOW experienced I had was during another panel’s Q&A session. One professor (Prof. Alan K. L. Chan), who is quite a big name in Chinese philosophy replied my question saying that he actually had read my Honours Thesis during his flight to Singapore, and he found it (to quote him), “an enjoyable read” and that it “was very interesting.” Immediately after that, the people sitting on my left and right turned to me asking if I could send my thesis to them.
WOW! If writing an Honours Thesis is meant to make one feel honoured, I think it’s working! I felt so honoured at that moment. Wow…
Anyway, the conference was really amazing. I had the chance to meet so many amazing people. It was also pretty amazing to finally see the faces of people whose books and papers I’ve read and cited in my papers. To be standing amongst the greats in Chinese philosophy from around the world… Woah… All I can say is that it was very inspiring and really awesome to see a bunch of people who are just so passionate about what they’re doing. It was lovely.
The conference went on for three whole days! On the fourth day, Thursday, 11 July 2013, it was finally the day of my graduation ceremony!
Four years of hard work has finally led up to this epic moment:
Let me now present you with the fruit of my labour – the fruit that took four years of coffee, blood and sweat (no tears thankfully):
You know, it’s crazy… Ever since my first year in university, I never thought that it would be possible for me – a person who came from the science stream and who initially majored in Computer Engineering – to be able to get this.
But with lots of hard work and the encouragement and support from The Girlfriend, the wonderful professors in the NUS Philosophy Department, and all my other friends both online and offline, I was able to endure and persevere all the way till the end.
So what’s next? Well, if you asked me this question two months ago, I would have only been able to shrug my shoulders and sheepishly reply, “I don’t know.”
But since last month, I’ve slowly come to realise that my true calling is in academia, and especially in (Chinese) Philosophy. In the past months, I’ve been looking through job ads after job ads, and I was never really interested in what was on offer. The greatest tragedy perhaps, was the constant thought of never having to pursue philosophy once again. Every time I contemplated that thought, a part of me dies. It was painful.
It was only at a recent farewell party for a professor that I realised that I should do whatever I can to pursue philosophy. There and then, we were having a fantastic time discussing philosophical issues. My heart was on fire once again after quite a period of dreaded boredom. The pursuit of wisdom has left me thirsting yet for more.
The pursuit of philosophy is an arduous process. It is mentally and even physically exhausting staying up late just to research, think, and write. But it is a process that I value so greatly. These four years of my philosophical pursuits have transformed me in many wonderful ways. And I wish to continue to be transformed, and shaped by the pursuit of wisdom, just as how it has transformed and shaped the professors in the Philosophy Department here in NUS. I’ve interacted with many of them, and all I can say is that I feel like I’ve been interacting with wise exemplary sages.
I want to be as wise and awe-inspiring as they are, and continue to pass on this most splendid and awesome tradition.
But in the mean time, I’ll take a year’s break from study to work. I intend to focus on publishing at least one paper in an academic journal. That would help me get a better chance of securing full funding for a PhD scholarship. And by next year, I shall be off to some other country to pursue my studies in Chinese Philosophy.
It looks like I have a really exciting life waiting for me in the years to come. I look forward to that as I take life one step at a time.
I’ve not been updating this blog for a while. I’ve been quite busy writing my Honours dissertation.
I’m just happy to say that it’s almost done. All it needs is several rounds of editing before I can declare it as the greatest accomplishment of my life.
Anyway, there’s four days left before the submission deadline. I hope to get over and done with this as soon as possible because I still have exams to study for.
Here are the books that are currently stacked up next to me:
This is only half of my final bibliography. The rest of the books are in the library. I don’t drive, so it’s very difficult to carry huge heaps of books in my bag pack.
The dissertation is currently 45 pages long. My current word count is 13,147 words. I need to keep everything below 12,000 words. That’s the word limit. It’s a strict limit, so I don’t have the luxury of exceeding it a little. I’ll need to find some ways to shave off those excess words without affecting the presentation of the paper.
Yup! That’s how life has been thus far. I’m crossing my fingers, hoping that I can finish this by tonight.
The second week of school has just ended, but it has already been quite an intensive week for me.
I’ll be officially starting on my honours thesis next semester. However, my supervising professor will be away for a while during that time, and it would be quite inconvenient to attempt a thesis under such conditions. So, I figured it’s better that I begin my research now while the hell of assignments hasn’t yet been unleashed onto me. I hope to finish as much research now, so that I have the luxury of time to write and do more stuff when I begin my thesis officially.
This was how my table at the library looked over the past few days:
Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. One of these books has Chinese words! I’m researching on an ancient Chinese text known as the Chung-yung (中庸, famously known as the “Doctrine of the Mean” or more accurately as “The State of Equilibrium and Harmony”). It’s written in classical Chinese.
What I’ve been doing the past week, was simply reading through the entire book in its original text, and comparing the various translations that I could get my hands on. Classical Chinese is a unique language in that it has a lot of ambiguities (it’s a unique feature of the language that allows the author to do a lot of amazing things, e.g. embed several different meanings onto the one same phrase). The problem with translations is that authors will have their own subjective biases, which affect the interpretation and thus, the translation of the text. In each translation, you’ll have different things missing while the translator focuses on one interpretive key. Hence, the importance of comparing translations along with the original text.
I’m glad I’ve made quite an effort over the holidays to work on my Chinese. I used to fail Chinese (or just barely pass it) back in secondary school and junior college. Now – I’m quite surprised at myself – I am able to read the entire text in Classical Chinese. That’s quite a marked improvement.
Well, with the week over, I’m more or less done with one little portion of research. Reading the original text and its translations is just the first step. More books and journals to read in the coming days. I expect my usual table at the library to be stacked with even more books.
Armed with a book stand, a laptop, and a cup of tea, I managed to go through more than FIFTY books on Chinese culture, language and philosophy! (It’s all part of the job)
It started off with just a few books around me (as seen in the photo above). But eventually, I ended up raisinng a “Great Wall” of Books, since I didn’t want to move around too much once comfortably seated.
It turns out that journals are really fun to read because of the many gems that are hidden in them. For about every five issues, there will be a really interesting article, sometimes packed with humour too!
Right now, I’m just exhausted. There’s about another 20-30 more books left to cover tomorrow. And by then, I should be done with the current task that I’ve been assigned to do.