ST March 15, 2007Oh, what a coincidence. It so happens that Mr Wang is just about to become an investment banker. This is quite a big change for Mr Wang. For the first time in his career, Mr Wang will not be working as a lawyer.
Kids, it's your life, so plan for it
OPEN houses showcase not only the host but also his guests. University fairs therefore are a crystal ball on the nation's future.
Two student archetypes dominate: the specialist and the existentialist. Members of the first category know exactly what they want. Without taking note of anything else, these youngsters dash to the business faculty's booth. They ask the delighted officer to admit them to a BBA in accountancy and extra courses in derivatives.
In contrast, the existentialist, clueless about his future, wanders around until some staff member grabs him. To appear less awkward, he mumbles a supposedly intelligent question, such as: 'What exactly is business?'
Both approaches to career planning are problematic in view of the national objective to raise innovativeness and job satisfaction. They lead either to premature closure or endless drifting. It is therefore imperative for students to take corrective measures at an early stage. They need to be supported by those who have a stake in their future, including parents, politicians and educators.
Students should start with the end and reason backwards to what needs to be done now. They need to plan their lives, not only their careers.
An effective approach is to write an imaginary newspaper article to be published on their 100th birthday, outlining their legacy. Instead of striving for specific titles ('I want to become prime minister'), they should develop a broad and noble purpose that makes them feel passionate and will outlast them. On their life journey, they need to step back often and assess their progress.
Even with broad aspirations in place, students should strike a balance between specialisation and openness. If they choose the wrong slot at an early stage, job satisfaction will plummet.
I recommend building a portfolio of options. When some roads to the destination become blocked, there will be alternative routes. So even if a student is passionate about accounting, he may consider studying other subjects first and specialise later.
Such flexibility contrasts with the early pragmatism of many Asian parents. They want their children to become bankers because of the high earning potential.
Yet the change is not as big as it may appear. You see, Mr Wang is currently an investment banking lawyer. So now he's going to cross over the legal side, into the business side. From investment banking lawyer, to investment banker. There will be many new things to learn, but it won't be completely alien territory.
Kai-Alexander, in his article, talks about building a portfolio of options. In my opinion, this is good advice. Keeping your options open is a good strategy because the future is constantly in flux. Ideally you should position yourself such that the possibility of taking alternative routes stays open to you.
My best single piece of advice for young Singaporeans is that you must never stop learning. It sounds cliched and you've heard it many times before, but it's true.
Personally, I review and update my resume every six months, even when I have no intention of changing jobs at all. I do this to check on my learning progress. If after any six-month period I have nothing new to add into my resume, then I know I am in danger of stagnating.
Bear in mind most people spend the greatest part of their life working. How terrible must it feel to drag yourself to work every day, longing for the evening when you can pursue hobbies with great enthusiasm? It is far better to use one's energies on the job. Money will not pour in by itself if you do not work for it.The key point here is "acquiring distinctive competencies". I've seen the resumes, and I know the track records, of some young outstanding Singaporeans. Indeed it's not just about grades - it's also about the distinctive competencies.
Second, students should think about how they can rise above the noise level by acquiring distinctive competencies. Take a consulting firm like McKinsey & Co, the ultimate dream for many graduates. Every year, thousands of students with similar academic qualifications apply, but only a few are chosen.
Recruiters look for what is truly special about an applicant's life story. The educational system rewards examination performance, but students need to step out of this narrow box to succeed in life.
How about founding a pioneering company while studying? Why not learn at least five world languages? These objectives seem a tall order given academic pressures. But smart multi-tasking can help to alleviate the workload.
For example, more students should study and work abroad. Instead of defaulting to the United States, they may want to consider Europe, which is winning the soft power contest and offers more diversity. By going abroad, they can pick up a foreign language as easily as an infant acquires his mother tongue.
The problem with the strategy of "acquiring distinctive competencies" is that in the context of prevailiing Singapore culture, it may degenerate into a "pick the best CCA" strategy - for example, the one that looks most pleasing on a scholarship application form.
The word "distinctive" is likely to be forgotten, in the drive to "acquire distinctive competencies". One example is how large numbers of Singaporean parents used to (or still do) foist piano lessons on their children. This is fine, if the children happen to have an interest in music. It is not fine if the children have no such interest or aptitude, and hate having to take their piano exams. It just becomes a shameful waste of time and effort.
People start to develop truly distinctive competencies when they are permitted to be individuals, and to pursue their own interests. See my earlier post, about respecting your own unique strengths.