Success factors in life vs exams

When you get back your exam scripts, do you focus on the questions you got right or the questions you got wrong? When I was a teacher, I often reminded my students that those scripts were more valuable for the way they show you how you had gone wrong rather than places where you got things correct. And in fact, those lessons were probably the whole point of sitting for the exam – more important than the grades themselves. Grades do not show whether you are good or bad but merely reflects your progress in the attempts to master the materials you were provided.

The issue with life after graduation is that it is so different from exams. To begin, your score in exams is capped at 100 whereas in life, your upside is really infinite. Now that means that unlike in exams where you could hone in on your mistakes and try to deal mainly with the weak points, life cannot be managed by exceptions or by focusing on weak points. You’d end up trying to perfect areas or dimensions that do not matter at all. Because unlike examinations, you are no longer trying to complete all the questions. You are now looking for questions worth answering amongst infinite questions. It looks more like an examination where there’s endless questions you can choose to answer and you’re trying to get to correct answers for the questions you do attempt.

So then the strategy now can be to just pick the easy questions, those that you have a high confidence of being right. Or to start devoting yourself to being really good at a particular cluster or set of questions around the same topics or ideas. And you want to get away from questions that you don’t stand a chance at unless you happen to be really interested and think you have a shot in developing the ability to answer them. Notice these approaches are radically different from what we learn in school. But once you are able to see life this way, you start recognising you need a different approach from what you were brought up with.

Owning the problem statement

As you might tell, I’m back to in the mode of thinking about the nuances involved in problem solving. The reason is in part because I’ve been interviewing candidates for various roles in my company across four different offices in APAC. That forces me to start considering what are the attributes I value highly and what really demonstrate those attributes. Some of these are really so nuanced and difficult to really describe or pinned down – mostly uncovered through questioning and observing responses in various circumstances.

I am reminded to be grateful for the experience I gathered while working within the Singapore government as part of what was known as International Enterprise Singapore and also Infrastructure Asia. In both instances, I had to work across cultures in Asia which forced me to be sensitive about culture differences and made me pay more attention to the manner we can communicate better. It was also a very collaborative environment that involved a lot of coordination, across departments, government agencies, teams and across various levels. I had the opportunity to with ministers, very senior public servants and observed the way leaders approached problems and manage delicate situations.

And because early on in my career I dealt with a lot of issues where I had to own a problem statement without having the full solution to it but rather, coordinating and managing teams of people, often with different interests to get to the solution, I came to be comfortable with project management. It wasn’t something I had consciously picked up but it was emergent through the themes of various work I did.

Often, what earns us the right to serve our client as consultants is really the ability to take hold of, and own the problem statement that you’ve determined alongside your client. It is not the mastery of content or topic or expertise in particular subject matter. All of that should come along but there will always be someone better than you out there. The ability to take responsibility and do what you can to harness and gather the resources towards solving a problem is the more valuable attribute.

Virtue & values

Virtues are qualities of excellence that may be moral or intellectual; and once, the pursuit of virtues was the making of a purposeful and good life. Yet increasingly, as we welcome new cohorts of adults into our midst, the pursuit of a good life had become more material – especially in the culture amongst the newly developed countries and markets. Despite all the talk about ‘woke’ cultures and all, there is this foundation of material that underlies the material ability (or even authority) to criticise. To the extent that virtue itself is even criticised as ‘bigotry’.

Yet if you really reflect upon what virtues really are, they can hardly be considered bigotry. Someone who values certain character doesn’t necessarily have to judge the lack of it. One who is constantly in pursuit of that excellence and tries to uphold a high standard knows more than anyone else how difficult it is. Bigotry is more the sense that high standards should come easy for everyone and hence look down upon those who do not exhibit those standards.

To those who quietly recognise that the good life is meant to be lived and not ‘earned’ through material possession or collecting achievements. Thank you for soldiering on and showing the way.

Market society

From the last couple of blog posts, I’m clearly revisiting the pondering of my youth in college about the role that market ideas should take. As I learn to live in a different society – this time as a working adult – from where I grew up, I begin to become more conscious of the way we structure our societies and how that reflects our values.

This talk by Michael Sandels is still relevant today if not more so. And especially for Singapore during this time with the recent saga from a certain social media post.

Remembering Tim Keller

More than 10 years ago, when I was exploring the Christian faith, my housemate got me to read ‘Counterfeit Gods’ by Timothy J Keller. It was a relatively easy but not quite comfortable to read. Tim Keller explained eloquently how we live diminished lives pursuing counterfeit gods who promise much but never delivers; and the deepest needs of our hearts are never satisfied by the things of this world. For me, it helped me desire more to explore the bible for myself and the gradually, as I delved into the riches of scriptures, I discovered more of how the gospel really changes our understanding of life and the world and is capable of shaping our response to it. I recognised the meaning of what good news it is for Jesus Christ to be my Saviour and God.

I went on to read the more difficult ‘Reason for God’ and went through a lot of Tim Keller’s sermons before I came to accept the faith. Of course, there was the help of my local church community, friends, not forgetting prayer and the scriptures. He came to be my favourite preacher and when I started dating my wife in college, the contents of ‘Meaning of Marriage’ both challenged and excited me as I come to appreciate more and more what God intends in the relationship between man and wife. As I learnt to navigate my work and career, I continued to draw upon the lessons from the scriptures with the help of Tim Keller’s preaching – which I would listen to during times when I did laundry, am alone running long distances or go on walks.

God had certainly reached out and enriched my understanding of His word greatly through the teaching by Tim Keller. Today, Tim Keller has gone to be with our great Saviour. And I want to remember his intellect, strength and wisdom enabled by God and used to do the good works that he has been prepared for. My heart is truly heavy at the loss of such a great teacher but I have full assurance that Tim is rejoicing with God. And I am challenged to grow and develop further my knowledge of God and my spiritual life, having seen how the richness in God works itself in the life of Tim Keller.

Action to change ourselves

What is the difference between taking an ineffective action and inaction? I think most people think they are the same and in fact they’d rather take no action to save the costs of the ineffective action.

But I beg to differ. How did you know the action you’re about to undertake is an ineffective action? What are the factors driving effectiveness? In taking the action, do you not discover something new? If nothing changed on the situation, did anything change in terms of your knowledge and capabilities?

We tend to think more in terms of how we change a situation rather than change ourselves. But perhaps the change that we need in ourselves is way more pressing than the situation.

Do we really want to work all our life?

A friend who has a workaholic boss became really offended when my friend waxed lyrical about not wanting to work all the time and preferring to have more time with family should his life end abruptly. The boss countered “do you think I really want to work all the time?” This is probably a good question for most workaholics to ask themselves, myself included.

Work has become more than just pure toil and pains of labour. It has become fun, more aligned with passion, with a veil of impact and meaning attached to it, and a lot friendlier (ie. Restful) to the human physique. Perhaps more importantly, our expectations on what we can consume through our wages from labour has risen spectacularly. So work becomes even more central in our lives. And in most cases, we come to see it as so central it is such an integral part of our identities.

So it is strange that we still get offended when it is made explicit that we have allowed work to become so much of us. Maybe because something inside us realise that is true. That in the short term, while we may be enjoying the dopamine hits of problem-solving in work and earning a great income; in the long run, that is not what we are made for. We are made to be more than our worker selves.

And perhaps for some of us, it’s time to discover ‘what else’.

Coercion of Free Markets

Inequality is a market failure. We do pick this up in A Levels but then there’s little discourse on that. Not only do we dwell little on the solutions – which ranges from progressive taxation to welfare handouts – we ultimately ignore how inequality undermines the ultimate roles of markets, which is the efficient allocation of resources. I’ve always grasp the idea rather intuitively but then fail to deliver it in a philosophical and economics framework. I’ve pointed out the lack of philosophical musings in today’s study of Economics when I introduced Michael Sandel’s lecture on Markets and Morals.

I’ve always pose the question to my Economics student, if a person earns $1000 a month and another who earns $1 a month both needs a glass of water. The rich guy is willing to pay $10 for the water while the poor one is willing to pay $1. The market thus allocates the water to the rich man. We all know that this allocation is problematic and it doesn’t seem efficient; how is it that, in terms of willingness to pay, a person who is only willing to part with 1% of his monthly income gets the good when another is willing to part with 100% of his monthly income for it? So what exactly is the problem of inequality?

Once again, Michael Sandel points this out in the second lecture presented in this video. You don’t exactly have to watch the lecture in order to grasp the point but the idea is that when inequality (in terms of unequal distribution of income) exists, effective demand cannot properly reflect the ideal sort of demand signal transmission that would allow the market to allocate resources efficiently. In extreme cases, free markets becomes not entirely free. In other words, people are not transacting out of their free will but coerced by their own economic circumstances. We see this very often in the case of poor people in developing countries who are forced to sell organs, resort to prostitution, act as surrogate mothers, become a runner for crack.

Gary Becker is not wrong about the rationality of these people. They’re making rational choices but it is often that their choices is very much limited. That unfeeling market processes coerce us into certain decisions is something close to the hearts of all of us. Often, however, we can’t quite work out what is so unjust about that because we believe that to a large extent, we determine our riches. Somehow, deep in our hearts we know that some other decisions that we made caused us to be in the state we are in such that we are coerced into making that next decision. The fact that this argument comes back to us shows how each and every decision made in the marketplace by us are not independent. This makes for a determinism argument in a market setting where free will is supposed to reign.

There are much wider implications of all these arguments and I shall explore them if I get the chance.

Just Reading

Father of Kantian Ethics

Just last week, I was recommending that you view lectures on Academic Earth if you find not academic enough; this week we’re recommending just one video for your weekend. It’s going to be pretty intriguing and I’m sure you’d be glad to be an audience. Recently, Michael Sandel, a political philosopher, lectured on ‘Justice’ in Harvard and his lectures are available online at Youtube! Sandel begins his first lecture with the hypothetical scenario involving a moral dilemma that some of you might be familiar with and got his students thinking about moral reasoning. Sandels issued his ‘warning’ for students of Moral/Political Philosophy:

Philosophy teaches us and unsettles us by confronting us with what we already know; there’s an irony, the difficulty of this course consist the fact that it teaches what you already know. It works by taking what we already know from familiar unquestioned settings and making it strange. […] Once the familiar turns strange, it is never quite the same again.

Sandel also gave a good reply to the doctrine of Skepticism, suggesting that we should not give up moral reasoning just because the ancient and modern philosophers are unable to solve them; in fact, the continual emergence of the same old problems require that we constantly revisit these questions. He cites Kant’s remarks about skepticism; Kant describes skepticism as a temporary resting place for the mind from reasoning – that skepticism can never triumph the restlessness of reasoning.

The lectures gives us too much to think about so I strongly suggests that you take a step at a time and limit yourself to just an hour of the video each day.