Thoughts from the recent semester

It’s been a while since my last post. I’ve just completed another semester in school, rounding up my second year of university. This semester was not at all what I’d thought it would be.

I took five modules, as usual, but this time I was a little more invested in more of them. By this time, I had gotten most of the boring foundational modules out of the way, and so I had some freedom to pick and choose. I took a leap of faith and went for a philosophy module, Introduction to Continental Philosophy. I also picked a UI/UX design module, Interaction Design. The other three were the remaining core modules that I had left, Software Engineering, Design & Analysis of Algorithms and a communications module. I figured it would be a somewhat enjoyable semester, as I appreciate philosophy, I’m not too shabby at design, and I had assembled a good team for the Software Engineering module. And so my semester began.

I promise this is not a rant post, so let me just give a brief overview of my suffering. The client project I was working on during the winter break extended into my semester, so I was working part-time while schooling. Continental philosophers were a huge step up from Plato, Aristotle and the Greeks. They loved making up new words and writing about their abstract concepts in the most complex way possible, while providing little to no examples. The design and software engineering modules had pretty high workloads. And finally, the algorithms module was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever had to study in my life, and pretty much beyond me.

It ended up being the toughest semester yet. It almost felt like a sprint from start to finish, barely having any time to catch a break. I could chalk it down to poor time management skills, or blame myself for being lazy and unproductive some days, but I think I’m not going to do that. I found that throughout this hectic semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of life and career I would like to have post-graduation. I didn’t come up with a solid plan or anything. But here’s what I’ve got.

For the next three years post-graduation, I would be serving my bond for my scholarship, working at a local tech company. Ideally, I’d like to work at a place whose product I care about and believe in, a place that respects my time (no 996 life for me), and a place that I can grow in. After completing my bond, I would take a year off software engineering and try things that I’ve always wanted to try, like working as a barista. Yes, it’s unconventional and it sounds a little silly, but it’ll be fun, I think. Furthermore, if design and software engineering is about building solutions that solve problems, what better way to identify problems than by doing and trying different things yourself?

I guess my “big takeaway” this semester is to not take life too seriously, and it’s okay to do what makes you happy sometimes. Yes, I’m aware this comes from a place of privilege, and I’m thankful that I have the freedom to ponder about things like these.

The Financial Advisor Advisor

For many of us in our twenties, we might suddenly find ourselves surrounded by insurance agents, or Financial Advisors, as they are more commonly known as today. That’s really no surprise, considering how well it pays, and the flexibility of the job, which makes it a good side hustle for students.

Insurance is important, and we should protect ourselves, but that does not always mean getting the most expensive plan. Unfortunately, not all of us are financially savvy enough to know what’s best for us. Hence, the need for a Financial Advisor (FA). This then begs the question, how do we pick a good FA who has our best interests at heart?

Well, lucky you! After discussing with a few friends who have dabbled in the world of FAs before. I’ve consolidated a few tips to help you pick the right FA. Does that make me the world’s first Financial Advisor Advisor?

Whenever a new FA approaches you, you first want to find out why they are in this line of work. If they are doing it as a side hustle while studying, ask if they intend to go full-time after graduation. If they aren’t, you’re gonna have to find another FA once they graduate. Personally, I wouldn’t want to go through the trouble of finding someone new in 2-3 years, as most policies have a much longer time frame of 15, 20 years or more. Even if you want to support a friend who is an FA, do take this into consideration.

If you’re unable to find an FA who is full-time or plans on going full-time, don’t worry, there are other ways of ensuring you’re getting the right plan. With the sheer number of Financial Advisors (FAs) today, the realm of insurance has become a buyer’s market. And that’s good for us, customers. I’m sure most of us know at least a few FAs, so if you’re unsure about the plan that advisor A has recommended, go ahead and consult other FAs that you know. If advisor B claims to have a better, more appropriate plan for you, and you agree, then go ahead with advisor B and purchase the plan from him/her instead.

One red flag to look out for is if your FA is selling you a plan on your very first meeting. The first meeting should be for them to know you better and understand your financial situation. After which, they will do their research and come back to you with policy recommendations in subsequent meetings.

Finally, even if you have the most trustworthy FA, it is important for us as customers to understand what we’re spending hard-earned money on. Take that 15 to 20 minutes to read through the contract and clarify any doubts you have.

With that, I hope these tips will help you find a reliable Financial Advisor that you can trust to navigate you through the intricacies of the world of insurance.

The Capitalistic Mould

Growing up in the 21st century, most of us are no stranger to capitalism. After all, it has been the dominant economic system in many parts of our world for at least the past 200 years. For those unsure what capitalism means, it is an economic system where few people own and control the production and sale of goods. Think about it, in any company, it is the boss that decides how much of a certain item to produce and the price at which it is sold, and not the workers.

Regardless of whether or not you knew what capitalism meant prior to reading this post, you’ve definitely experienced its effects in your life one way or another. And perhaps you might have even had your misgivings about it before as well! Increasingly so today, more and more people are starting to notice the flaws in our economic system, and most would agree that it needs to be improved. In fact, most of these were not new issues. Two centuries ago, a German philosopher had already noticed many issues with capitalism that still hold true today! He was none other than, Karl Marx.

Okay before you say anything, hear me out. You might not agree with his political and economical theory, but I think most of us can agree with his critique on capitalism. It’s quite a bit of content so I’m not going to cover that in this post, but what really caught my attention was his point of how the capitalist economic system has very subtly moulded our thinking.

In a society where capital is the intrinsic good, people end up placing their economic interests above all else. Knowing this, let us re-examine certain beliefs which perhaps we’ve never thought to question before.

For example, concepts like “employee of the month” might sound a good goal to strive towards. But all things considered, who does it really benefit? It increases competition and productivity between the workers, which in turn results in increased capital for the owner of the company.

We believe that not having a job or taking too many breaks is simply laziness and a waste of time. But in truth, it’s really only bad for the system because we’re not contributing to the overall production of capital.

This really got me thinking. How many more fundamental beliefs do we have that simply exist to propagate the capitalist system? How many of our decisions are made primarily with our economic interests at heart? Are there even any decisions we make without having to think about capital and productivity?

This was a really difficult post to write as it involves challenging so many of my fundamental beliefs that I’d never even stopped to question before. I’m not saying capitalism is all bad, many amazing things are only possible today because of capitalism! But we all know it has its flaws, and only by acknowledging and being aware of them, can we start working towards improving it and coming up with a better economic system.

20 lessons from 2020

Note: When I say “you” here I’m really just speaking to myself.

  1. Make a list of the highlights of every month, and you’ll be amazed at how much you actually do in a year.
  2. Habit building is hard, but having an accountability partner makes it much easier.
  3. Not all “good” habits work for everyone. Experimenting with a new habit for a month is a great way to find out what works and what doesn’t work for you.
  4. Lockdowns have made us re-evaluate the importance of almost everything.
  5. Digitalisation has made lockdowns a lot more bearable, but it has also served as a reminder of the importance of human-touch.
  6. Face-to-face lessons are a privilege.
  7. The difference between an A student and a B student is the number of hours spent on practice papers.
  8. The pursuit of learning is a noble one, while the pursuit of grades is one of vanity.
  9. Philosophy broadens one’s horizons and thinking in ways unimaginable.
  10. Stoicism has taught me that all things can be categorised as ‘within my control’ or ‘beyond my control’. And there’s no point fretting about things beyond my control.
  11. Skepticism has taught me to not be so quick to judge as we never have complete knowledge of any situation.
  12. Small talk can help build rapport with others. It’s okay if you suck, life is full of opportunities to practice small talk.
  13. The stock market is not a reflection of the economy.
  14. Advice is free. Ask humbly and people would gladly offer it.
  15. How does one live the good life? It’s okay if you don’t know. Think about it now while you’re still young.
  16. A person’s priorities is evident from how they spend their time.
  17. Writing is a pretty useful skill.
  18. Limit the endless content you’re feeding yourself every day and spend some time in your thoughts instead.
  19. Working hard is important, so is resting. Yet, why do you feel guilty about one and not the other?
  20. God is good.

Tiong Bahru Social Club

If like me, you’ve not been a big fan of local movies, Tiong Bahru Social Club might help restore some faith in that area. Given that it’s still out in cinemas, this review will be spoiler-free.

“Wes Anderson meets Black Mirror”. But I’m sure you’ve heard that already. Playful, cheeky and quirky, it’s a soft sci-fi movie set in Singapore. The cinematography is beautiful, with bright bold colours that are aesthetically pleasing.

With very few lines of dialogue, the plot is deceptively simple. I’ve read reviews saying how the plot is too thin or empty, but I beg to differ. A lot of the storytelling occurs when you read between the lines and in the characters’ expressions and beautifully constructed scenes.

Though it’s a utopian (or dystopian) version of Singapore, the movie accurately captures many aspects of Singaporean culture and pokes fun at certain uniquely Singaporean habits. The movie is primarily in English, but the way it effortlessly switches between different languages makes it feel authentically Singaporean.

I thought it was a wonderful movie, one that hits very close to home, leaving you in a slightly contemplative mood about Singapore’s society.

Knot for want of

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I’ve recently been rather obsessed with Charlie Lim’s music. Very late to the party, I know. There’s a line in my favourite song, Knots, that really stood out to me and it goes like this:

Don't you think it's for the best
That we don't always get what we want

At first glance, this line might sound a little strange. How can not getting what you want be any good? To answer this question, I’ll borrow an excellent example from the Skepticism episode of Philosophize This!, which is a great podcast by the way. Let’s consider things from the opposite end, and assume that we’ll get whatever we want whenever we want it. Sounds perfect! Right?

Things might be amazing initially, but not for long. The satisfaction that you get from buying a new iPhone or a new car does not come solely from ownership. Much of the satisfaction and joy comes instead, from the months or years of hard work put into saving up for the purchase. This principle applies to most things, not just monetary purchases. The sense of achievement gained from seeing your hard work come into fruition is an amazing feeling. And this would be lost forever if we simply got whatever we wanted instantly. Not so perfect now, is it?

Now, you’re probably thinking that this isn’t exactly the opposite of Charlie’s lyrics, he didn’t say “that we don’t always get what we want instantly. And you’re right. Things don’t always go as planned, and sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off, at least not in the way that we wanted it to. Success doesn’t come by easily, and that’s precisely why in the off-chance that it does, the satisfaction that comes from is much sweeter than if we succeeded all the time.

Taking a step back, and applying the Stoic principle of identifying things within or beyond our control, we see that we can’t control whether or not we’ll get what we want, but we can control our wants and desires. Seneca puts it succinctly what this means for us:

No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Skepticism in the face of Rejection

Hello dear reader, look around you, wherever you are. You might be sitting on your couch and reading this blog post now, but can you truly be certain of that? How do you know you’re not actually dreaming of sitting on your couch and reading this blog post? Or how do you know that you’re not simply a brain in a vat, and someone is feeding you false sensory signals, causing you to perceive that you’re sitting on a couch and reading a blog post?

These scenarios might sound insane or improbable, but can you prove that you’re not in a dream or you’re not a brain in a vat? You can’t. And that’s philosophical skepticism in a nutshell! The skeptics believed that we can’t trust our senses and we can never really be completely certain of anything. Having to doubt everything all the time is a real hassle, but as of late I’ve been able to find some solace in the wisdom of the skeptics.

In ancient Greece, the Pyrrhonian skeptics strongly believed that as long as we do not have complete knowledge of a certain event, we should suspend our judgement of it. And when you suspend judgement, especially the negative ones, it makes a huge difference in your response to events.

I’m in my second year of university and so far, it has been completely different from how I had envisioned the experience to be, and not just because of corona. I had a few plans prior to starting school – I wanted to stay in a residential college (like a dorm), I wanted to join NUS Hackers and I wanted to go on an exchange programme to another country. Well, how did my plans turn out? My residential college application was rejected, I failed the NUS Hackers interview and more recently, my exchange programme application was rejected.

Dealing with rejection after rejection can be rough, and it definitely made me question my competencies. But from the skeptic’s perspective, you can never have complete knowledge of your rejection. It might seem bad, but perhaps there is a much better opportunity down the line that you would miss out on had you been accepted instead. By adopting the wisdom of the Pyrrhonian skeptics and suspending my judgement of each rejection, I was able to remain open-minded instead of wallowing in self-pity (although I did for a while).

The practice of suspending our judgement is not a mere coping mechanism, it is actually a very rational way of thinking. We don’t know everything so we shouldn’t be so quick to conclude that things are bad. As you can probably tell by now, I’m clearly terrible at conclusions so I’ll just end off with a famous but apt saying.

When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.

Alexander Graham Bell

Sabrina (1995)

No, this isn’t a movie review, but yes, there will probably be some mini spoilers, so read on at your own risk. For those who know me, you know that I love a good romance film. And Sabrina was my most recent discovery. Starring Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond, it was a really sweet and classy romance movie. It’s apparently a remake of the original 1954 movie. It’s not a very highly rated movie but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

What really stood out to me was the dialogue. Some of the lines were so well written, it was almost poetic, leaving the audience to read between the lines a little. Here’s are some snippets of dialogue from different parts of the movie.

Sabrina: You probably don’t believe in marriage
Linus: Yes, I do. That’s why I never got married.

Sabrina: I thought it was all a lie.
Linus: It was. It was a lie… but then it was a dream.

David: You’re talking about my life.
Linus: I pay for your life, David. My life makes your life possible.
David: I resent that.
Linus: So do I.

Sabrina : What was Linus like as a boy?
Fairchild : Shorter.

There are a lot more lines like this, but I can’t be quoting the entire movie can I? If you’re still unconvinced about watching this movie, picture a slightly awkward but still confident Han Solo. That’s basically Linus Larrabee, the character played by Harrison Ford, which is still, obviously, ridiculously charming. Perhaps that might pique your interest a little more.

The Stoic guide to friendship

If you’re wondering who am I to comment on the topic of friendship, I’ll have you know I have a grand total of 5 friends, so you’re in pretty good hands. But you don’t have to take my word for it, for this wisdom comes from the ancient Stoics themselves. And if you’re wondering what the Stoics have to say about friendship, the answer is well, quite a bit actually.

Contrary to the common misconception of Stoics being unfeeling and cold, the Stoics actually share the belief that humans are social beings and acknowledge the importance and power of friendship. Here’s what Seneca has to say about the joys of new and old friendships:

Great pleasure is to be found not only in keeping up an old and established friendship but also in beginning and building up a new one.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Seeing the true value of friendships, the Stoic approach was strict but very intentional. Seneca cautioned against a flimsy understanding of friendship and advises us to think hard about who we consider our friends.

But if you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship… Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship. But when you have decided to do so, welcome him heart and soul, and speak as unreservedly with him as you would with yourself.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Marcus Aurelius and Seneca also wrote about “red flags” in friendships. We should look out for these not only in our friends, but also in ourselves and how we have been treating our friends.

There’s nothing worse than a wolf befriending sheep. Avoid false friendship at all costs. If you are good, straightforward, and well meaning it should show in your eyes and not escape notice.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Anyone thinking of his own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake. Things will end as they began; he has secured a friend who is going to come to his aid if captivity threatens: at the first clank of a chain that friend will disappear. These are what are commonly called fair-weather friendships. A person adopted as a friend for the sake of his usefulness will be cultivated only for so long as he is useful.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Though I’ve shared many quotes, this is really just a sneak peek into the wealth of wisdom that the Stoics have to offer on the seemingly fundamental concept of friendship. Perhaps most of these sound like common sense to you, but as Voltaire succinctly puts it, “common sense is not so common”.

What online school lacks

I’m currently in the 10th week of my fully online semester of school. Studying and taking classes from the comfort of my bedroom has its plus points. From a purely academic standpoint, it might even be better. Everyone is muted so you don’t have to worry about chatty groups sitting near you. Everyone’s camera is off so they can’t distract you and the only possible distraction you have is your computer or your phone, which are also present in physical lectures. It’s easier to ask questions in a lecture because using the Zoom chat is way less intimidating than raising your hand in a room of 200 people. I also save a ton of money because I don’t have to travel or eat out every day. Yet I just can’t help but feel that there’s something missing, and these tradeoffs aren’t worth it.

I chanced upon a video reflection of sorts by John Fish titled “The Mundanity of Online School“, and he really helped put into words what I’ve been feeling about my semester thus far. He mentioned that the digital world is simply unable to fully capture the richness of reality, it can only provide a compressed version of it. I have some pictures of the Great Ocean Road from my trip to Melbourne last year. They’re lovely to look at, but it’s not the same as actually being there and seeing it with my own eyes! The cool sea breeze, the smell of the sea, and the sound of the waves. These things are lost when the experience gets compressed into a picture.

Similarly, many seemingly insignificant aspects of physical classes get compressed when adopting an online format. In some lectures, all you get is the professor’s voice coupled with some slides. In most tutorials, everyone’s cameras are off, including the tutor’s! Most students prefer to use the Zoom chat rather than the mic. You might argue that this is essentially all you need to learn, everything else is secondary. But to me, it just feels so cold and dull. 10 weeks into school and I do not even know what my classmates look or sound like. I’ve never seen my tutors’ faces, just their names.

Human interaction is and should be an insanely rich experience. Beyond verbal speech, we communicate through body language, facial expressions and many more subconscious subtleties. These are the things that are compressed and lost in the digital medium, at least for now. And it’s these same things that give classes and lectures that human touch, which I think makes a world of difference. In fact, the classes I enjoy most are those which require us to turn on our cameras and participate actively. Maybe I’m just lonely.

Anyway, if like me, you’ve been beating yourself up about being lazy, unmotivated, or extremely bored, don’t be too hard on yourself. Online school is tough. It might not be the season to make new friends, so instead why not appreciate the friendships you currently have.

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves