Burning at both ends

More of us are burning out; and we’ve been burning at both ends. There’s work and the strain of being at home. We can’t find breathing space. Meanwhile we are running out of fuel and the fire is still burning.

Stop. We have to stop. And we need to accept we don’t need to keep working and there is no shame or guilt about it. There is no shame that we need to take a break. So please ask for one. Please ask for less work; make it known to the higher ups that their working style is not promoting a healthy environment and culture; at least not during this season of pandemic.

There should be no fear of appearing like a lousy worker. This is not the time to be concerned about competition and work ourselves to death. Our mental health matters; and as the Chinese saying goes: “if we preserve the highlands and forests, we’d never run out of timber for fire”. Preserve our minds and bodies, the ultimate sources of our motivation.

Basis of competition

In school, there seems like there’s only one basis of competition: grades. But there are other elements surrounding that in the school environment: friendships, relationships with teachers, appreciation of music and arts, sporting capabilities, popularity, leadership ability, strategic thinking, time management, charisma, etc.

Schools are supposedly little societies and a microcosm of the world that they eventually live in. But of course, being part of a bureacracy, a system, even an instrument of the state, there is top-down direction to skew the basis of competition towards one thing rather than another. It has to do with merit as defined by the prevailing “ruling class”. And since the ruling class is typically made of those who had good grades, that factor gradually gets amplified in importance.

But in overall society, those other basis of competition are still relevant. While the impact of grades might be persistent and have cascading impact in education, they can be compensated by confidence developed in the children from doing well in the other parameters in the “competition”.

Good Schools III

Is every field a good field? Is every job a good job? I think we have to admit that the notion of goodness in schools has to do a lot with this society’s worship of grades by parents and this naturally transmit to the younger ones.

Giving up on suggesting every school is good might be a step in the right direction to acknowledge that the problem lies with a society whose values need some updating. Yes the “elite” schools have Oxbridge interview guidance but is that what every student needs?

What we need is to tear down the hierarchy where academics represents a hygiene factor on which other attributes such as sporting or music excellence can only serve as bonuses. And it is not just an issue of the system. The system changes the government implemented shows a good commitment to the desire to change our culture.

So maybe the next step is to clamp down on the private education sector like the way China did?

Electricity Costs

I buy electricity on the open market in Singapore. So when the bill came for the month of August, it looked pretty crazy. I have never seen my averaged cost of electricity actually exceeding the retail package pricing.

Of course I’ve allowed myself to be subject to the volatility but I wonder how often people really bother to understand or check their cost of electricity. For most part they might be using the overall cost as a proxy for consumption since they usually assume the electricity tariffs to be fixed. Well, that’s if you’re on a retail package. And even then it is fixed only for a certain time period.

I begin to wonder if there were any events and outages in the power system in August that resulted in some of those crazy rates. And with gas shortages in the world, things might be changing in the market quite a bit. People were even warned of the rising prices on the papers.

And this makes understanding the energy transition even more crucial for ordinary people like you and I. Getting a clearer view of the options for energy security for Singapore, greater transparency of the plans by the government, how far the market will be playing a role in determining the energy mix vis-a-vis policies to ensure a low carbon energy future.

Besides how much our electricity cost us, we should be also wondering how much it is costing our future and the earth.

Estimating Growth

I wrote about how we tend to overestimate mental strength and underestimate physical strength. The story is a bit similar with growth; we tend to overestimate our ability to grow and change in the short run. We would think that we can achieve some crazy target or try to force ourselves to get from Grade E to grade B in a few months. They are probably not impossible, but it will take a lot of effort and even if we plan well, things might not work out so well.

On the other hand, if we allow those short term lack of performance to cause us to be disappointed and discouraged from trying on and on, then it would be a pity. Because we tend to severely underestimate the potential for change and growth in the longer term. Even if things don’t seem to go as planned in short term, interestingly, once a direction is well-set, the longer term situation tends to be more optimistic even though more time tends to cause people to think more things can go wrong.

But more good things can happen because of that too. We severely undervalue and underestimate what we can accomplish over longer period of times and tend to think whatever happened in the short term will simply stay the same. If you’re unhappy enough about your situation, you’d tend to change it.


Dr Wu who wrote about the resignation tsunami anticipated for Singapore, recently introduced us to the idea of bored-out (as opposed to burn-out); apparently it is not a new idea though. What I found hard to reconcile with was the idea of sinecure which involves a position that is actually paid but ‘without work’. Maybe the harsh psychological impact is really in the sense that you’re expected to ‘work’ but then there isn’t work. And there’s that added psychological impact of being paid, expected to produce something and yet allowed none.

Even if your deeper purpose isn’t aligned well with a job, it is important that we see what the role that we have is serving. Even if it’s cleaning a space, we ought to be conscious how we are improving the health and environment of those in that space. Of course, being able to interact with the beneficiary of the work helps. But often we don’t get the chance for the direct feedback.

I think there is truly some severe psychological harm in depriving people of making that connection, creating meaning and purpose from the work. But the truth is baring the extreme case of the Frenchman cited as a case, it is difficult that a company would be so extreme in treating an employee. It is important for the company to help employees appreciate the vital nature of their jobs as well and how it falls in place in the grand scheme of things. Rather than to make them feel like they are amongst just a bunch of replaceable cogs moving a heartless system. Fear is a great short-term motivator of work, but also a great motivator for people to leave.

Chats & meetings

I realised how important the social glue of interactions before and after meetings are. There is the ability to just pull someone aside to say something that doesn’t take more than 45 seconds. Or to pay attention to actual visual cues of other people while someone else is speaking. Or to just be a little more fuzzy with time and disappear somewhere when things ends early. Now, in the world of video calls and packed schedules, we need to be deliberate about all that. We also need to be deliberate about creating breaks between meetings, the fake ‘commute’ across buildings or just between meeting rooms.

And the kind of ‘tap on the shoulder’ conversation. It now feels weird to be ‘going to someone’ just to say one or two thing – ie. give them a call on the phone or video conference software – must no longer stop us from doing so. Now it’s less efficient to call together 5-6 people together and get them to chip in for a birthday gift to a colleague compared to just shouting out in the office when that birthday guy/girl is away. Yet if this is the only way we can go about it, we just have to do it this way.

Technology has improved tremendously to allow for deeper, better social interactions and they continue to advance. Sure, they might ever beat the actual, in-person interactions. But for someone terminally ill to meet his/her son/daughter who is miles away in another country, technology makes a huge difference. A video call could bring incredible amount of closure. We simply must look to these substitutes to achieve the results we need. It’s going to be important for our mental health.

The Programme

You all know the drill, the programme, so please get on with it. Enter the classroom, find your seat, stay quiet. Raise your hands if you have questions but don’t ask questions that cannot be answered. Everyone must choose a co-curricular activity, have your textbook with you when you go for classes, finish your homework on time, etc.

You know the programme, so why aren’t you following it? That’s the bosses’ instructions. Yes I know it doesn’t make sense to put this data in this chart but he wants it. Well the ship has sailed to ask that question so you better stop questioning and just do it. You can’t just send one-word reply emails!

Mass education and industrialism goes hand in hand in case you have not realised. Compliance is a means of social organising and it has brought much civil goodness and enhanced productivity, raised living standards, improved public health. Just think about how important civil compliance is with mask-wearing and vaccinations to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Yet we must be aware what all that is serving at different points of our lives. There will be areas of life where you’d struggle to fit, where you might feel alone, where you’re deceived into the notion of normality and you just aren’t that. And there are just times you know the programme but you don’t get it. What do you do then?

Turn off notifications

Do you want to know a secret? Notifications are designed to get our attention: the drop-down banner, or the red badge, or the alert on your lock screen, the little 2 syllable sound that tells you that you need to check your phone. Or that vibration in your pocket. The problem is that it keeps coming.


“Where are you”

“Hi Kevin”

We underestimate the stress and anxiety it create in others when we have messaging etiquette that just spills out messages like in a conversation as if the person should respond to you. Yes the messages are sent instantly. But no, you’re not supposed to expect instant replies.

Want to reduce your daily stress? Turn off notification. Don’t bother checking for stray messages except in time you allocated and scheduled to check. And make sure you schedule them during periods where you have the headspace to actually deal with them. If it’s urgent, let them call you.

Minimum Wages & Negative Taxes

It is significant that Singapore has pushed through some of the more targeted policies to help with low wage labour and effectively try to set floors on wages for labour. The tricky thing about productivity is that it has always been computed as a residue and tend to ignore the relative bargaining power differences between wage and labour.

Research by Thomas Piketty has long shown that return on capital can be persistently greater than economic growth which is to say that what manifests itself as poor labour productivity can just be an overall phenomena of capital gaining upper hand in bargaining power in the market economy. History have shown that the best ways to deal with the resulting inequality is greater public investments, especially in the area of public infrastructure and education.

The state will be an important player in this and the overall systems of redistribution can take place at different levels in many different ways. But ultimately, these policies will have to be anchored on the question of what we are growing for, and whom we want our growth to serve. I think Singapore continues to be open as a city state to draw the right kind of capital and labour but we are now fine-tuning the balance across the relative bargaining power of capital and labour a bit more. Especially the domestic labour force.