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What I wish I knew (earlier) when I first stepped into University

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Have you ever had situations where you would greatly look forward to a certain defining event or moment in your life?

One that would allow you to rationalize for all that you’ve put in (or lost) along the journey is worth the while, one that would mark the peak of your bundles of expectation and anticipation, one that would finally give you the permission to give yourself a good tight pat of faith on your own shoulder and say in utter relief, “You’ve finally pulled through”… only to find out at the realization of that event or moment that it wasn’t so much of a glorious culmination but only of a mere, flat and underwhelming ending of sorts.

It leaves you going, “Oh, so this is all to it?”

The last time I had such a moment was when I collected my Pink IC after 2 years of national service in December 2007. Contrary to what everyone claimed they would do to run towards the gate and shout at the NSF camp guards, “ORD lo!”, I went home with this emptiness that needed some processing. Liberating, yes. Exuberance, not really so.

Now with a click of a button, I have successfully filed for graduation and in that split second of doing so, torrents of memories (good, better, awesome, legendary or otherwise) I had over the 4 years in the Singapore Management University (SMU) engulfed me.

Knowing how verbose I can get, I thought I should capture at least the highlights and most poignant takeaways of my SMU life in a checklist of aphorisms if you would insist in a note titled,“What I wished I knew (earlier) when I first stepped into University”.

Here goes…

1. Grades are indeed something, but not really not everything

Yeah right, I hear you say. I stepped into SMU like a blur fish without even knowing what the acronym GPA, stands for. GPA = Geeks Play A lot? It was only until after I got a C- for one of my accounting module in my first semester that I realized that GPA rearranges itself to become a bloody huge GAP and dent in your academic performance when that happens and no, geeks pray a lot instead, to the bell curve god that is.

The upside of getting a C (and a couple more later) is that it is plain liberating – you know your GPA game is foiled for life and you instead concentrate on the game of and for learning, which I contend should be what schooling is all about. The downside, you get passed on for opportunities (like scholarships, awards, sponsored conferences/exchanges. For more, ask the scholars) like an obsolete good and get left on the cold shelves of a factory. FYI, I applied for easily over 30 scholarships/awards, mostly in the areas of student leadership and excellence, and I received a grand total of… one award. At least that’s still a 3+% hit-rate.

Can you play the GPA and learning game simultaneously? I should think so. But you have to consciously balance it and not lose yourself in the senseless doing.

Ultimately, grades serve to be objective measurements of our understanding and mastery of a certain subject matter. It serves you to look at your grades and find out what are your shortfalls (if any) and make conscious improvements but it doesn’t serve you to peg your self-worth to your grades. It’s silly and bordering on ridiculous to catapult yourself into an illusory cloud nine and ego high when you get an A+ and equally unfortunate to have you feel like a plastic bag when you receive a D+. Sure there is the huge emotional and intellectual investment in the process but one needs to recognize at the end of the day that this process is meant to enrich us and widen us with the awareness of the different contexts around us so as to empower us for the next phase of our lives and not to stunt or corrupt our pursuit for knowledge. Who you are and will be in time to come, are manifestations of this process you choose to undertake consciously and the growth and maturity that you’ll observe in yourself… and not your results on the report card.

2. Be damn bloody proud of your voice

I know this sounds like what Lavinia the diver said in the SMU recruitment video while she was having fun with the sharks.

But what I refer to is the apparent reticence of us students in the classrooms or project meetings. I was at a professional speakers conference weeks ago and one of the speakers aptly describes it,

“You know what’s the problem with us Asians? If there’s a problem, we don’t speak up because we fear being stupid. If we are good, we also don’t speak up because we fear being pompous. But I tell you all, I’m a shameless Asian here and I’m going to tell you I’m good, damn bloody good”

I thought what he said was bloody good. I think we have two big problems. One is that we are afraid of appearing stupid by asking questions (though lecturers always throw out the godly caveat that “there are no stupid problems”) in the lectures. Two, those who have the knowledge or experiences are reluctant to share for some reason or the other. Maybe they are paiseh or that they don’t want to appear arrogant or that they want to hoard their information for their As, I don’t know.

What happens eventually is that those who have questions to ask choose to play safe and ask the politically correct or inane questions that are oftentimes not most value adding for class participation marks. Worse still, some choose not to talk at all. At the other spectrum, those who are in the know keep their lips pursed in the name of modesty.

The result – uninspiring and unintelligible conversations that stretch unnecessarily and incessantly. This inevitably drives everyone to Facebook chat the friend who’s sitting next to them to complain about the resident class part whore/dude. Geez, realize how you’re complicit in this gridlock as well?

3. Professors are humans as well and for you to connect with

If I could collect a dollar from every junior/friend who go “wow, you go for coffee/meals with your professor??”, I’d have saved enough in my kitty for my graduation trip. I don’t have a problem or issue with authority and people in power in part because I often get into trouble with them unwittingly. But the main reason I choose to tell myself is that if success is a function of hard work and time and that occasional smarts with all else remaining equal, they are where they are because they have lived xxx years longer than I have. There shouldn’t be any reason I should be intimidated or fearful of them because my mum was slower in bringing me to this world and hence by virtue of my “late entrance”, I have yet to be where they are. This “unorthodox” philosophy has empowered and liberated me so much in my speech competitions and one-to-one interactions with the “heavyweights”, for example.

Aside from that, I think university is a place for you to say,

“Hey, this person is really interesting and if he/she is walking a path that I hope to walk one day, let’s connect”

and this should apply to professors/deans/students/staff alike. Sometimes, I realize I learn so much more from my professor’s life experiences over a cup of coffee because these are the times that he/she need not be worried about the lesson objectives, facilitating the class blah blah and just be himself/herself. I think our professors are amazing individuals who carry with themselves wonderful stories, mistakes, decisions and non-decisions that pack so much wisdom for young folks like us. It’s a pity how we are just “milking” them for only 3 hours every week. But of course, they are busy people too so draw the line appropriately.

Bottom-line – they are humans as well and every bit as fallible and as human as we are so don’t be afraid to take the initiative to reach out to them instead of waiting for the reverse to happen. The worst that can happen is a… rejection? They don’t bite, I assure you. If they do, you’re just an email away from the President.

4. Choose to be extraordinary

Frankly speaking, I think SMU is an awesome place with awesome people doing awesome work. The problem? This awesomeness is an anomaly rather a norm. (Ok, you may want to argue that if it becomes a norm, then it ceases to be awesome. But what’s stopping us from being outstanding individuals in our defining right?)

My chance conversation with a good friend of mine, Cheon Loon, went on like this

“Look at it this way. When Singapore was in the 1960s to 1980s, it was all about survival and eking out a life in our post-independence times. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was all about ordinariness and striving for stability in times of rapid industrialization and mechanization. And for us Gen Ys who are in our prime in this current period is a time and opportunity for us to be extraordinary and to create miracles”

It’s like how our parents and grandparents have paved this path all the way to our times and now that we don’t have any urgent basic or core needs to meet (generally speaking) as collective themes, we are at a loss because life presents to us this blank canvas for unadulterated creation and expression. Yes it is ambiguous and uncertain but I think this space is exactly fertile and rich and it empowers us to be amazing individuals because we are not saddled or burdened by the baggage from yesteryear. Yes, there will still always be bills to pay and families and babies to support but have we resigned ourselves to the level of survival and ordinariness once again or are we still consciously striving for something bigger than ourselves? To make or be the difference in the realms and circuits we are passionate about and live life intentionally.

Point is you can choose to be the usual 9-to-6 (I think it’s more right?) tax accountant or be a kick-ass accountant who is conversant with the tax act, the go-to guy/girl for your clients and colleagues, the godly tax alumnus for your young and earnest juniors in the tax society to drool over, the director who sits on XYZ board and be sought for your expertise etc. etc. and still be capable at basic bean counting. I may be idealistic but hey, I think there’s so much greatness and mastery we can strive for in what we do. Like taking a gap year off to host and swim with the sharks and yes, I’m truly impressed by that by the way.

5. Love yourself, more

Just today, I had lunch with one of the deans (yes, I apply (3) actively) and he was sharing how we need to take better care of ourselves because all the all-nighters will take a toll on us when we hit our 30s. Granted that I’m not the best advocate for loving thyself especially in the department of sleeping and resting adequately, this lesson is for me too.

I think as final year students, it has come to a point in my SMU life that you’ll instinctively say “no” to late/overnight/weekend meetings or insane all-night chionging sessions at the library and be dressed in formal just an hour before presentation without going home for a bath or having as much as an eye-wink. Of course, unless it’s super duper emergency.

Yet as most of us will realize… it really boils down to starting early, acting fast and being responsible in a group. Yes I’m quite old already. I choose to be extraordinary and that’s why I need to live long enough to watch this awesomeness blossom.

More than that, love yourself for who you are and what you believe in and go after what you really love. Celebrate and rejoice when you’ve done well and don’t beat yourself up so badly when you err or fail. The emotional distress that comes with failure has become so paralyzing that sometimes I’m not surprised that’s the very reason we spend all our energies to play safe and lie in “prevention modes”

I think in this pressure cooker environment where we are so hard pressed to be an all-rounder, we hardly get around to appreciating ourselves enough. We all deserve more gentleness for ourselves, as we’ve been too tough on ourselves for really too long.

Take time off to unwind from the craziness. Do something you love and that will recharge you. If it’s frisbee, throw it. If it’s dragonboating, row the hell out of it. If it’s reading like what I enjoy, my kindle fire and a cuppa = heaven. Work can wait, seriously.

6. Take ownership of your learning and growth

In Singapore, especially in the transition from Junior College (JC) to University means that life no longer presents to you set meals on a platter like how when you plonk your asses down in the cushion seats on long-haul flights with SIA and wait to be served by the lovely Singapore Airlines (SIA) ladies in their Kebayas. When I was a freshman myself, I don’t know if it was the case for you but it was like rushing in to a hotel buffet – there were just so many choices that it was dizzying.

Menu On-board SQ 001 – University

Overseas exchange, overseas summer programs, student consulting projects, conferences, competitions, capstone seminars, CEO talks, recruitment talks, industry talks, lunch talks, entrepreneurship mixers, business incubators, internships, alumni mentoring programs and FREE workshops to learn anything from baking to mixing cocktails to film production and journalism.

One common grouse I hear is that the university school fees are bloody expensive. Yes, they are and I agree. Sometimes I feel I/my parents are paying through their noses. But instead of merely whining about it, have you ever considered milking these “experience cows” when they come your way? I have met and initiated so many informal mentoring relationships through competitions alone and some of these mentors have gone all out to support me in both my professional and work life. This is just one kind of value I could never have foreseen or accounted for on the financial bills at the start of every semester. Of course as you’ll realize soon enough, it’s all reciprocal and you’ll have to do your work and prove your worth first.

Does it also not dawn upon us that all these are opportunities for us to discover new themes and territories and more so, ourselves? In my 4 years at SMU, I have probably taken part in over 20 competitions in Toastmasters, Business Case Challenge, Public Policy, Product Branding, Brand Management, Infrastructure Design, HR, Financial Management (Cashflow 101),  IT Security, Social Entrepreneurship and essay writing. It doesn’t really matter if I win (of course, it’s always good if you do – you take the booty and add some stuff to your CV) or lose because every competition experience presents a golden opportunity to discover what makes me tick and what shuts me down, what can keep me staying up till 4am to work my art to perfection and what can’t even sustain my interest past the first hour and what I would willingly allow my mind, body and soul to be thoroughly “used” and what I would not even want to spare as much as a thought on.

With no intention at all to brag but only to give a sense and perspective, I did all of this while acquiring an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) credential from the International Coach Federation (ICF), leading weekly coaching programs for clients and training sessions for my coaches, completing 5 internships, taking on TA and RA-ship, leading a charity bare-foot walk campaign and youth health organization, completing a consulting project with a local SME, co-authoring a book on volunteerism that will be published in China, training over 300 SMU students in public speaking, spending a term off in Ewha Womans University in Seoul (yes, 24k girls over there!!) and earning a comfortable side income from 3 years of freelance writing, copywriting, training and hosting. And yes in case you’re wondering, I got attached with a steady girlfriend in my first year too so that’s considerable output of energy and time (that I can assure you :))

In retrospect, these 4 years have been really intense and that’s why I said I need to learn lesson 5 myself. I’m not suggesting you be the ultimate opportunist and jump at everything. But be hungry, enough. The large part that drove me to do what I did was because I wanted it badly enough where ‘it’ refers to me evolving, growing and discovering more about myself.

Yet another common question I have when coaching my younger clients, “I don’t know what I like” or “I don’t know what is my passion”

Consider that knowing what you like and yourself for that matter, is a function of external action (i.e. projects and work you’ve taken on) and proper introspection and internalization (i.e. looking back on your experiences and facilitating the completion of it so you take away poignant realizations about yourself). You can sit at a cafe the whole day and wish for your “undiscovered passion” to land on your head like what Issac Newton did or you’ll have better shot at decoding that if you actually get out there and do something. Not everyone’s as lucky as Newton.

Yes, so the ball is in your court and it’s time for you to do something about it, now.

7. Don’t neglect those who matter

There are two groups of people I want to address here – the “unsung heroes” and your loved ones (friends, lovers, family).

The “unsung heroes” – It is a well-known management mantra – “Treat those who you meet on your way up with respect for you will meet them on your way down” I’ve lost count how many occasions  I have had when I was running events in SMU and the lights/AV system/door access pulled a fast one on me and it was the technicians, cleaning aunties/uncles and security guards that come to my rescue all the time to save my ass. Sure sometimes they are grouchy but if you are ever going to step in their shoes and do their jobs with that kind of remuneration, I assure you that most of us will not even survive past Day 1. In fact, I happened to strike up a conversation with a security guard in his 50s at the School of Economics (SOE) and he lamented how despite working 12-hour shifts, his take-home pay for the month is only slightly shy of a $1,000 and that’s just barely enough for his family.

At that moment, I reflected on how I probably put in around 20 hours of copywriting work to earn the same amount for a project in the comfort of my home and my PJs. I felt slightly ashamed for that matter. Yes, I know the “realist” in you will say “life is never fair to start with” and sure I got there with my own merits (and desperation) and you know how the value I deliver is regarded more by the market (blah blah blah) but really, seriously? I don’t know about you but I can’t and won’t buy in to this commercial BS and keep a straight face because these “unsung heroes” or people at the bottom of the pyramid are not just “pawns” in this game. They are likewise flesh and blood and have families themselves and if we do happen to be more able than them by virtue of our resources and circumstances and work, we should see our endowments as gifts rather than blatant rights. And by how gifts are defined, we should be thankful and not arrogant or willful about it. I don’t have a strong economic case around this except a golden word – “karma” or like how my mentor puts it,

“Treat people with humility if not one day, your deeds may just come back and bite you hard from behind”

Just so you wonder – I’m not suggesting that you donate 80% of your take-home to a charity or the tissue seller at the MRT station. I know you and I are not Li Ka Shing or Lee Kong Chian. What I’m suggesting that in your day-to-day encounters, if you can, see the goodness in these “unsung heroes”, smile and say a simple “hello” to them and this will brighten their day. If you are more able, do something substantial through a charity, social enterprise, civil rights group or lobby for policy improvements. But if you can’t do any of that, the least I think you should do is not be an irresponsible childish prick and treat them like dirt or worse still, make their lives terrible with deeds like throwing slabs of wet toilet paper on the walls, leaving your thrash strewn all over the study room or not flushing the toilet bowls after you’re done with your glorious business.

If there’s anything that education has done for us as students in University, it should go up to our minds and make us more conscious and considerate rather than going down south where we think and act through our butt.

Ok, to the next equally, if not, more important group of people – our loved ones. It’s not just smelling the roses but smelling the roses with this core group of people. One event I’ll constantly look forward to on a weekly basis is Friday evenings where my mum spends her off-day cooking for her family. Family Fridays as a routine is always good because you not only force yourself to unplug from the madness but also take the conscious effort to appreciate and acknowledge your loved ones and be present in their presence. Rituals and routines are what you want to consider building into your schedules because if you do not prioritize these interactions, they get easily displaced by work that we deem as “important” and “urgent”. It needn’t be a weekly potluck because that will grow on you (physically and rapidly) but maybe a weekly gym session or catch-up coffee will suffice, whatever that works for you and your family.

There’s yet another saying that goes, “As we are busy growing up, don’t forget that our parents are likewise growing old”. I’m not on scholarship so I know my parents put me through University with their hard-earned savings so if I’ve been going places, that one place I know I need to revisit constantly is this place of provision where I, am sourced and made possible by my parents. I know I’m being really parental here but my point here really is try not to flare up at them when they “are grouchy”, “poke too much into your affairs” and “sound really ignorant that I should perhaps spend my precious time doing my business law assignment” and look beneath into their intention for why they do what they do. Chances are that they are more well than not and sugar-coated with this “secret sauce” called… love.

Also, don’t neglect your good friends/lovers/drinking buddies/bitching partners/(whoever else that applies). Life in University can get that bit more bearable because they are not just “outlets” for you in times of need or distress but more so, people to lend you that additional handful of faith and assurance or be your necessary sounding board or be your trusted cynic and bad cop or just that guy/girl you can hang out with and unwind in simple uninterrupted silence or (fill in your own blanks). The thing about relationships, sadly, is that is oftentimes transactional and a zero sum game because we all have our own unique needs that need to be fulfilled. Like a joint bank account – the more you dip into it without depositing into it, there only comes a point where the other party will feel “used up”, “shortchanged” and will make the exit or be left”suffering” in some way or the other. None of which I suppose, you will want happening to you.

So while mid-term examinations are looming precariously in the foreground, don’t ever forget those who are unwaveringly rooting for you in the background.

I hope these 7 pointers will serve you well in your 3 or 4 years at University, wherever you are in this world as there are some timeless principles I personally believe in and subscribe to.

Above all, have a blast at it and let nary a moment go to waste (or so at least we strive to). Probably, Eminem would have better put it, “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime”

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