When was the last time you were truly happy?
This teacher’s day (2021) — please no red pen, no chocolates — presumptuous me will ask for this letter instead and I will start by writing mine
This will likely take about 15mins to read through this and another 60mins to complete and I encourage you to revisit this over a few days to revise it. You can use the suggested questions as headers
Submission format: either type or handwrite, then upload on your personal Notion page. If you handwrite, happy to accept hard copies otherwise soft copies will suffice.
Why bother writing this?
I’ll start with the fundamental claim that underpins this exercise: Self-knowledge matters. There were a good handful of students who told me that they will start thinking about where they want to go after they do well for standardized exams. But this is no different from saying that I am ready to pin my self-worth on external validation, “exam scores, define me please!” There will be little clarity at the end of the two-year journey if there is no genuine attempt to ask: what matters to you?
Economics assumes rationality as acting in order to fulfill our utility function. If life is truly the unique subjective experience, then one’s utility function has to be defined beyond that of testing and scores.
There is something more to discover about what brings you satisfaction. We will not magically find it, at least most of us will not. Someone will not come along the way to tell you, “congratulations, you are Disney princess/ prince now” (in our modern equivalent “it is time to consider the profound gratification you may draw from designing solutions to transport-related problems”). Instead, it involves observation, reflection, and a pause from your usual student routine.
If all goes well, maybe this will help to clarify some of the things you want to pursue in university and beyond. I believe in writing and journaling to discover about yourself. Especially you are new to this, hopefully, it offers you insight about yourself that can help guide decision-making moving forward.
In slightly over a year’s time, you may not remember very much about what I taught. DSIE, 4Es, MF all these may mean nothing. You may not even remember my name. But I hope that however this JC journey goes, if I see you on the streets in the future, I will see a happier and more confident version of yourself.
What this is not about
- While romance, friends, and family may inform your motivations and drive, this writing exercise is not about them. It is about you. Life is a series of arrivals and departures. People will come and go. At 19, I remember heading to the airport for multiple sendoffs as my classmates departed for college. Nearly a decade, on some of them stuck around, others did not. While it is difficult to appreciate it now given the rhythm afforded by structures of school — seeing the same classmates on a daily basis on a fixed schedule over a two-year period —try to imagine a life on your own. Suppose you are all you have, what do you want to do?
- This is not about fleeting moments of joy or moments where you have no autonomy or control over and hence are hard to replicate. This includes things such as being surprised, finding money on the floor, or the ecstasy from enjoying ridiculously good food like prata with curry on a cold day.
What this is about — identity capital
This is a personal evaluation of your own personal history and what do you want to be. Building on the works of sociologist Ames Côté, clinical psychologist Meg Jay explained the notion of identity capital in her book, The Defining Decade, as an individual’s collection of personal assets, or how we “build ourselves — bit by bit, over time” through experiences.
For Jay, being “Outward Bound girl” was defining experience as she entered graduate school. Personally, back as a student, “bboy/ debater” became labels that stuck; today probably “teacher who runs to class/ codes/ dances”. All the experiences that you have accumulated have constructed a personal brand. Your name evokes a particular set of associations based on how you have lived your life.
Some of this identity capital is built by active choices you made or circumstantially, e.g. your parents decide ballet or playing the piano was good for you and kept sending you for classes up until this point. But beyond this formative age, you have to make far more active choices. That is why some deliberate thought and design matters.
- What interests you?
- What are you passionate about?
- Be confident that it surely cannot be “nothing”. Even if it is seemingly the case, then ask yourself: “what experiences do you want to seek”?
Essentially, in my very humble opinion, either deep mastery of particular skill sets (like Michael Chen and his passion for data) or a wealth of unusual experiences contributes most significantly to the formation of identity capital.
He or she or they /only/ have straight As and therefore he or she or they are cool? Said no one ever. It is everything else that adds up to make you, you.
What kind of person am I?
This was something my classmates wrote for me when I was 18 (obscured their names and mine):
Being a teacher was something that felt natural and fun. I know this answer sounds horrifying simplistic to many students who asked why I joined teaching but hey, if I am not having fun, it is going to be so much less fun for you too.
I remember tweeting economic concepts to my juniors and batchmates. We had one or two Economics consults even though I was severely underqualified then. I enjoyed teaching my juniors how to dance when they entered Music and Dance Society in junior College. I continued to enjoy my teaching stints as a debate coach in CHIJ St Theresa’s Convent and Nanyang Girls’ High School in 2014 before leaving for college.
I was confident that I was able to handle a good deal of administrative tasks. Whether it is dealing with paperwork from students’ council, setting up my own business as a self-employed individual to teach debate or running the dance society, I have probably seen more paperwork than even some adults. This helped to allay concerns that there will be admin associated with teaching.
Some of the motivation was honestly negative — I have seen some not-so-great teachers and was confident that I will outdo them and make a positive difference, no matter how battered at the life I might ever be. Of course, there were a good deal of teachers who guided me to grow into who I am today and I will forever be grateful to them.
These experiences and reflections helped to affirm that choosing teaching as a first career should be enjoy or at the very least, not too terrible. It is easy to stand by this today, I don’t dread waking up or coming to work.
During the winters in New York as I continued debating and dancing in different states, I remember thinking to myself:
One day, when I go back and teach, I want to keep these up (dance, debate, design, etc) and say that it is possible to have a life. Clinging on to it all, however feeble it may seem, will eventually prove to be worthwhile
So here I am, the person you meet today.
Here are the questions:
- What character traits do I observe about myself?/ what others might have observed of me?
- What traits do I value? Is there an alignment to particular roles, responsibilities that I have taken in my life?
One of the more interesting takeaways from NYU in a course called Life and Death, I had to read the papers of J. David Velleman who described happiness as a narrative of improvement. The start state is consequential and lasting happiness involves progress relative to the previous state. I buy into this philosophy strongly.
I hope that relative to when we first met, in the capacity of Economics educator or not, that there is an improvement from that start state. Whatever you love to pursue, game design, cybersecurity, art, marketing, coding, drama, geology, and more, know that I will support it all.
Wishing you all the happiness in the world,
Additional bits of personal history
I realized what I valued late, in part because going about our daily lives involves a lot of noise and distractions that made it difficult to identify preferences with certainty and clarity.
I enjoyed tinkering with hardware and software but never took it seriously. Something that I distinctively recall was owning a bunch of Windows Mobile devices including the HTC Touch (back in 2007) which was misguidedly marketed as an iPhone Killer. I had a lot of fun flashing ROMs* on my devices. I continued to play with a Samsung Omnia and a bunch of other Windows Devices before Microsoft eventually pulled the plug on the Windows Phone Ecosystem.
*Read Only Memory: A file containing the executable instructions (a system image.
I also loved Photoshop in my Infocomm studies class back in high school but never really pushed the frontiers beyond hobby-ist tasks like casual editing. I continue to do very basic editing and manipulation on the side. Over dinner recently, a friend recalled how I used to help others with their Photoshop assignments.
For all the professed love for coding, I only started learning Python in 2018 in spite of heavy resistance from MOE HR. Thereafter I decided just to sign up for a proper full-stack course in 2020 and never really looked back since. I have built various things in the past few years and these experiences have come to define the better part of my late 20s.
Bboying is a hot mess when you first begin. A steep learning curve means that you are going to feel like crap for a very long time. But choosing to learn something new and difficult helped to make my JC days feel a lot more fulfilling as compared to if I stuck to the familiar spaces of National Cadet Corps (NCC) or debating. NCC is a uniformed group co-curricular activity that supposedly helps students prepare for National Service — I highly do not recommend.
Going from two left feet to finally appreciating layers of music a little more brought a profound sense of personal satisfaction. Being able to move in a way that one is comfortable with and being confident of one’s movement is actually really understated. It does not have to be breaking but I hope you learn how to dance.
The benefits of enjoying movement were so abstract that it can only be appreciated much later in retrospect. Trust me, you will only thank your past self when you truly learn to dance.
Ultimately, I find that I really enjoy building and inventing structures where structure was lacking. The uncertainty made it more fun. Navigating such immense ambiguity was uncomfortable, especially coming from someone who has a guaranteed job lined up after college and had to always wrestle with the fact that financial security is paramount.
It would have been a little clearer if I stopped to look back on the things that kept me interested. The temptation to “sell out” and just hear voices from the echo chambers will always persist.
This exercise involves struggling a little against all that and hopefully there is greater clarity thereafter. If you ever felt like school has been a gutter, all these additional little things will be the stars.