Mar 15, 2007

On Life, Work & Study

ST March 15, 2007
Kids, it's your life, so plan for it
Kai-Alexander Schlevogt

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.

Oh, 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.

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.

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 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.

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.


Meng Chong said...

Mr Wang thanks for the thought provoking article.

Though I agree in principle with the article and your view point, the reality check is one has to be above the survival mode to make such plans/options for the future.

Yes in Singapore there are those who rise above their situation. However for the majority in survival mode, they tend to be pragmatic and just follow the government "law".

IMHO, it is about encouraging independent thought tempered by personal responsibility. And when the Singapore society (including the government) matures such that it is willing to accept differences will the barriers to (paraphasing your last point) develop truly distinctive competencies be low. In such an environment we will see more individuals pursuing their own interests.

Jun Ji said...

Congrats, Mr Wang. I heard investment bankers earn more than lawyers while working less stressful hours. Is that true?

Mr Wang Says So said...

Ah yes, the bankers do earn more, but their hours are long too ....


Saw your blog listed at Some of the posts and comments are really cool, Thank you!

Strife said...

Congrats, Mr Wang. It's quite a major move, I will say. May I ask ~ are you going in as the associate director or the senior associate of the team? Just curious.

Student from local university said...

I'm a third year student in NTUstudying some engineering. Now...let's see what homework I have.

1. Project (Design) -
Deadline 21 March
2. Project (about rust) -
Deadline 28 March
3. Project (about change) -
Deadline (forgot, but completed)
4. Project (about introduction of technology) -
Deadline 21 March
5. Homework submission (about silicon)
- friday, 10 pages

Add to that our tutorials and lesson.

I'm working around 1 day/week (but it's flexible since I saved enough for spending til graduation - no need for pocket money or anything from my father).

Attending a drawing course, lessons on saturday and sunday. Practicing 2 hours/day. If I miss one day, I'll try to make up for it.

Now tell me, do I have a life outside school? Please don't tell me about any other learning outside school life. I would like to do so, but THOSE IDIOTS gave us too much damn things to do. No time.

Now if you please, my rest is over, I need to go back to completing my project.

Did I mention that because of my studying and drawing, I've overslept three days and missed SIX BLOODY HOURS of lectures? Will have to go back and listen to the online tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

One should work to live, not live to work. But that shouldn't detract anyone from deriving satisfaction out of it. So work out an acceptable list of tradeoffs and find your fit. For misfits seldom get very far...

Mr Darren said...

Why does Mr Wang want to become an investment banker?

Is it because of the higher pay? But the flip side is less time to spend with the family and didn't Mr Wang say that he is considering nurturing a third child?

Mr Wang Says So said...

Oh, I will just to learn to work more and more efficiently.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone give some examples of distinctive competencies?

Jiayi said...

Investment banker? I have friends who are investment bankers at various firms(morgan stanley, goldman) and it's a crap job. No creativity, very long hours and little job gratification. The only thing going for that job is the pay. Have you read Monkey Business? That's the real world of investment banking... a bunch of excel and powerpoint monkeys. There are way more interesting and intellectual jobs out there.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi Mr. Wang,
Start printing the money! ha ha
best wishes


Mr Wang Says So said...

Thank you, Dr Huang.

My job will require creativity. My responsibility is to keep inventing new types of "financial weapons of mass destruction", haha.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the points Mr Wang is trying to make is that Singaporeans are always following the herd, that each one of us should really try to do something different, to stand out from the pack.

I live overseas and I can't help but anecdotally note that a large proportion of students at the commerce school of my former uni are Asians and probably a lot of Singaporeans.

Why, you may ask? Is is because we are naturally better at commerce and accounting or is it because of the lifetime earnings that such careers promise?

Ask a Singapore student why he is doing an MBA and I'm pretty certain the answer is likely to be I want to be an investment banker or a management consultant (for McKinsey no less).

I'm also guilty myself of following the beaten path, doing an MBA at a top-ranked school. But I'm happy my classmates have taken quite non-traditional MBA paths, like one becoming the Head of Friends of the Earth. As for me, I'm no investment banker or management consultant. Far from it.

My advice is don't OVERplan your life. Make at least one irrational life-changing decision in your life. You'll be surprised where it takes you.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang,

I highly recommend this video for your readers. Its' quite aptly on-topic:

Watch Online

Download Video (better, but requires QuickTime)

Other talks from TED are available here. Oh, what a wonderful resource!

Anonymous said...

hey...but sometimes is also about learning to do something which u hate. To appreciate something, sometimes requires to learn to love what u are doing...(which means u didn't like it in the first place)

I hated studying. But i'm forced to study anyway. But i love doing it now. Something in the course of my life must have change my perception.


The ironies of life... ;)


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Wang,

Investment Banking, compared to most other industries, is far more exposed to an economic / market downturn.

With the consecutive number of years of growth in equity markets, some believe that the recent market correction is an indication of the times ahead.

Just a thought.

Jack Ryan

Mr Wang Says So said...

Thanks for the thought.

I work in the derivatives sphere, so that is some comfort. Market volatility ---> more people want to hedge risks ---> good for my business.

kenneth said...

Hi mr wang. Its me again. Congrats on the job move. I wish you the best of luck in managing a good work and life balance. For me, having lots of money is to avert the problems that a lack of money will cause so that i may spend time on more meaningful things in life like family =)

Anonymous said...

Strange why the students, or their parents do not think of the supply of Business graduates 4 years later when they graduate. And the demand for business grads 4 years later.

Gives me a feeling we will have another one of those "structural unemployment" like the life science sector in 4 years time. Sigh, whatever happened to MoM's manpower planning?

Anonymous said...


what's your views on the issue that foreign law graduates who cannot qualify to practise law in singapore?

some of us really want to practise, at least before we decide to switch profession, if we do. and many of us end up staying overseas so to fulfill our wish.

for those who wants to go back to singapore badly, they are forced to not practise or be sandwiched as "foreign lawyers" or more crudely, paralegals. what's the point of then, to do a law degree when we can do a diploma?