Competition for grades and paper chase has always been pervasive in Singapore. As parents try hard to one-up each other by scheduling tuition after tuition for their kids.
If that doesn’t work, we see some pulling this off, “Aiyah, Chinese not important, drop it then focus on your other subjects.” Jaw drop, but #hardtruths. Or perhaps, #unfortunatetruths.
Or they downplay the importance of creative arts, liberal arts, or sports in pursuit of the ‘core subjects’. Because, “Singapore don’t have market for these one lah.”
Frankly, I was jealous of kids with parents like these in my teens. They seem to have it all figured out.
Their grades were off the chart, and they didn’t have to answer the excruciating question of “What do I want to do in life?”
They seem to have it all chart out for them in life.
Until it doesn’t.
Many of my peers came from elite schools or were the elite in their respective schools. They are by no means intellectually incompetent. But many started struggling once the semester started.
Beyond the glamour of student life on Instagram and the long list of accomplishments on Linkedin, lies a graveyard of broken hope and dreams.
Building our resume
It puzzles me how much time most spend on building up their resume but so little on understanding themselves—what drives you, what interests you, what makes you come alive?
We spend a lot of time researching on a holiday destination, planning the itinerary. We spend at least 2 days to plan for a 2 weeks trip, or approximately 14% of the length of the trip.
We would find out the best spots for eating, compare the attractions, identify the best travel routes, and find out the best shopping places. Heck, we would even dream about it!
But when it comes to finding out the work we want to do, something that would span almost 40 years, we don’t even spend 1% of the time thinking about it.
We jump straight into building our resumes, fearing that we would be left behind if we don’t keep moving. Telling ourselves that if all my peers are gunning for the same few top jobs, then it should be the right choice, isn’t it?
After all, if it is the highest paying, the most wanted, it must be the best.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”
When we say we don’t know what to do, what we’re really doing is asking something deeper. What we want to know is this: “Can you promise me I won’t fail?”
Most people waste the best years of their life living under the shadows of false security. Conforming to society’s expectations of excelling in our ‘core subjects’, pursuing the degree that pays the best, and studying only the topics that are tested.
We seek comfort by being like everyone else, like a factory mold that has been mass-produced. We fail to see that we can actually escape competition by going into niches.
Limpei know best
Your parents grew up in a world of certainty. Before the internet, their parents (your grandparents) ‘knew the answers for everything’.
Good children did what they were told. For the older generation, when you ask your parents why? The answers are often “我吃的盐比你吃的米多，不要问那么多。”
Translated it means “Aiyah, ask so much for what. You will understand when you grow up.”
It took me quite a while to realise that this is their way of saying “I don’t know”.
Your parents, who love you more than the world and want what’s _safe _for you, may not know what’s right for you. I have many friends who studied accounting, engineering, or any other pre-approved courses determined by their parents.
Many young people I meet pursue paths out of parental pressure, rather than personal alignment. This often leads to regret, angst, and frustration, especially when the going gets tough.
What your parents think is right for you is based on their own personal experiences, during their generation, in their times, not what’s actually right for you.
Choosing what to study will impact your next four years and your career path for many years to come.
Your parent’s job is to make sure you survive. It’s your job to figure out what you want.
This journey is personal—you’re the only one who knows what’s right for you.
My parents have always been laissez-faire when it comes to parenting. Which I have come to appreciate as I grow older.
Decision-making is like a muscle that must be continuously exercised. Depriving your children of the opportunity to make decisions will cause their decision-making muscles to atrophy.
Helicopter parents help their children win in the short-term but prepares them to fail in the long-term.
Good advices comes in the form of good questions. And the questions you ask yourself would determine the quality of your life.
Guide your children with questions. Get them involved in deciding their future.
Begin with an end in mind
When it comes to making tough decisions, it always helps to begin with an end in mind.
In the case of determining what to study, think of what work would make you most fulfilled?
In his best-selling book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell makes a powerful point about what helps people commit to and enjoy their work:
“Those three things –autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our work fulfills us.”
The greatest university
My business school experience has been helpful in enhancing my communication and problem-solving skills. Beyond that, I learned most of what I need to know about investing by reading Berkshire Hathaway’s letters and reading a ton of books.
In fact, if your desire is to learn, the National Library Board (NLB) is the best university there is. Even after so many years of patronizing our NLB, I’m still awed by how much resources there are available for us.
Also, there is the internet. If used correctly, it can be life-changing. I have learned so much from blogs, Youtube, and exchanging ideas with smart people online.
Free education is abundant. It is the desire to learn that is scarce.
Life’s biggest question
I have ended my long years of education and stepped out into the world. If you are like me, I routinely pause and check-in with myself: What is life about? Why am I here? How should I proceed?
I keep coming back to these questions as I move through life. The fact is your “What, Why, and How” would change as you enter into your different phases in life.
Getting a job and money would answer the “How?” but not address your “Why?”
I had only one concern when I was younger — never to be poor again. In fact, my scholarship and university entrance essay was titled, “I was born poor but I will die rich.”
It took me some time to discover that negative ambitions were not enough to build a life on.
Remember, when people give you advice, they’re giving you advice based on their particular skills, experiences, and perspectives. So know that when you get advice from ‘older people’, it’s often people telling you about their journey, and every journey is different.
Apart from my full-time job, I spend a lot of time reading, talking to people smarter than me, and then distilling my best ideas on life and investing into writing on my blog at SteadyCompounding.com and my weekly newsletter 3-Bullet Sunday.
This has helped propel my “Why?”—mentoring at scale while being a lifelong learner.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article.
If you enjoyed today’s article, I’m sure you would enjoy the following: