Dear students: Why you need to go down that hole

I’ve put off writing my column Dear Students because I didn’t particularly feel inspired to write for my second batch of students – mostly because they didn’t know where they were going and I, as a teacher, could not help them get to where they wanted to go (precisely because they didn’t know where they were going). But with my third batch of students though, for a class that began earlier this month, coupled with going away, and with new thoughts and ideas – I felt compelled to write again. I can’t lie that I’m inspired by the energy of the class. They’re a bunch of bright students who were willing to communicate their ideas and thoughts, and who were open to not knowing where this experience will take them. And so my thoughts for this season are for them, and any student around the world who might find this useful.


Teaching in-person has been an interesting experience so far. I’ve done it for a year now, and with each batch of students it’s a hit-or-miss. It’s one hit and one miss so far. And with that miss, I ask myself why – was it because I wasn’t good enough? Or was it the materials? Was I clear on the goal of the class, and what the outcome was? Could I do better?

The answer might be yes to all of them. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. I’m not going to debate who is right or wrong here. I’d rather improve myself and brace for challenges as they come. I don’t know what’s going to happen; I can only prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I make sure that I have fun regardless of who came along for the ride.

And it’s this attitude that I want my students to have: the fun of exploration and the joy of discovery and surprise. The guts for glory, the willingness to accept defeat; and the hard work that goes into unravelling a mystery. The experiments that might amount to something big, or fail miserably when it doesn’t. It’s a 50-50 chance of having something great; which to me is pretty amazing. Surely it beats having a 0% chance of succeeding (which is exactly what happens if you sit still and not do anything about it.)

But an observation of almost 60 students so far has led me to an interesting point: that a big percentage of students are afraid of the unknown. Before they strike out and do something, they want to be reassured that it will either: earn them high marks / gain approval from their teachers / applauded by their peers. All of which points to gaining an outside reaction, rather than satisfying an internal interest.

And that irks me a little.

Maybe it’s a lack of confidence. Maybe it’s a more realistic way of thinking about assignments (I only have X amount of time, so I don’t want to waste time on something that would be panned).

But the thing is, if you’ve put your heart and soul into something, would it be all that bad? Would it be so bad to believe that you can do it – putting together your passion and experimenting with new ways of expressing your ideas and thoughts that would not only benefit you, but others as well? Would it be so bad to reach for the stars? Or go down a rabbit hole just to see what’s on the other side?

Would it be so hard to try?


For those who may not be familiar with the Dear Students series, it’s a column that I have on my blog where I unload my advice to college students. It’s inspired by the in-person class that I’m teaching at a local college, and it’s an opportunity to write down thoughts that I didn’t manage to send out during class, or as an interesting observation about the class that I wanted to share with you. So whether you’re a student or a teacher, I’m sure some of the things I write about would elicit interesting responses, and I most welcome your thoughts!

To read past Dear Students posts, click here!

[Illustration: Looking down the rabbit hole. Millicent Sowerby. Illustration from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; Chatto & Windus, UK, 1907]

What’s your reason to not begin?

Till Hafenbrak

Till Hafenbrak
Back in 2006, there wasn’t an easy way to create blog that worked the way you wanted it to, using your own domain. I couldn’t wrap my head around WordPress, which was essentially a platform for a blog; so I went with Textpattern instead, because it was a more fleshed out content management system (CMS) that could also work as a blog. There were very, very limited templates available, and I learned CSS and HTML so that I could make my website non-ugly. (Want to see how my first blog looked like? Here it is!)
Back in 2006, I couldn’t find an e-commerce site that I could use that’s within my budget (i.e. free) so I deployed ZenCart – one of the ugliest most popular shopping carts out there, and turns out there was a reason for that – it was free. I dived into PHP and changed the template and stripped its functionality to do what I needed it to do. It took me countless late nights (that tipped into the wee hours of the morning) hunched over the computer, while I still woke up at 8am to prep for my full-time job the next day. Etsy wasn’t even born yet.
Back in 2007, Paypal wasn’t open to Malaysians at all. So I researched every single way to open an account, legally. It took a bus trip down south, along with the help of a financial institution overseas, and my gracious aunt to open an account. I finally managed to open one to receive funds and to withdraw the tiny amount I made online – I was in business! Paypal only made it officially open to everyone else here after a couple more years.
Right now, in 2013, there’s so many different options available – for anyone looking to start their own blog, shop, portfolio, and even different ways to get paid online. You don’t even need to dive into any code to make these softwares work the way you want it to. You don’t even need to learn CSS and HTML to make design changes. Everything is done with a few clicks of a button.
The only thing that’s missing is the button you have to push first: YOU.
So share with me: what’s your excuse for not starting?
[Illustration: Till Hafenbrak]

How to deal with competition

Trial Run by Zara Picken

Personally, I hate competition.

When I was young, I was on the running team. I was also skinny and light on my feet – it seemed destined that my long limbs were pegged to win medals. But it just wasn’t to be. As I saw Azda (my classmate – who also has these long, crazy limbs) overtake me on the field, that was it. I threw in the towel.

I was also took part in rhythmic gymnastics – and enjoyed it (except for the fact there were a few catty girls) and it was competition sport all right. You’d see who could jump faster, higher, twirl better, and handled their gear perfectly; all while looking nonchalantly perfect in their skin-tight leotards.

I also learned to play the piano, week after week, and successfully reaching seventh grade before I stopped for my high school exams, only to never resume it again. I was relieved though. While I love the piano, having to earn those certificates quickly dissolved any interest I had in pursuing it seriously. And not especially when you have a younger sister who could recognize a note just by hearing it by ear, and an affinity for singling out tempo like no other.

The problem with these scenarios was that I thought I was competing with other people, but as a matter of fact, it was an internal battle instead. I had gone into each sport and field, fully intent on wanting to have fun, but had turned it into a competition instead, and every other person was an opponent that I had to best. And once that thought seeped in, there was no turning back.

So yes, I don’t like competition.

Or if you drill it down, actually the fact is – I don’t like to lose.

So throughout my career, I made sure that I was the best at things, and I made a conscious decision to chose not to pursue things where I would come in second best, no matter how hard I tried. I knew that in my heart of hearts that everything was an experiment, and I wasn’t afraid to go out there and give things a go and see if it’s a fit. And if it’s not? Then I’ll try something else until I find something where there was no competition.

But I found out that this thinking wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For one, there isn’t such a field where there isn’t competition. Everything is a competition. And I had to accept that. But I made some internal changes in the way I perceived competition, because other than the fact that being overtaken by someone else is a natural part of life, it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re on the losing end.

Especially when you’re not measuring yourself to other people’s version of what makes one a winner.

Does winning mean getting that dream car? Or that dream house?

Or does it mean getting married at a certain age, or having 2.5 kids?

Or does winning mean ultimately being happy on your own terms, hands caked with paint and smudges of chalk on your face?

For me, it’s about being happy with what I do. Wealth to me isn’t just money, it’s knowledge, experience and passion combined – and I’m lucky to be able to share it with people who care about the same things I do. Now that’s something that can’t be measured against anyone else but myself. And when everyone wins, it’s not a competition. It’s a real fun party.

So here’s my take: not everything is competition sport – especially not life.
Make up your own sport.
And then make up your own rules.
Take whatever nasty (but well-meaning) stuff that bystanders say with a pinch of salt, and let your cheerleaders spur you on.

I guarantee that if you do, you and the people around you will emerge as winners every time.


How do you deal with competition? Do you feel that you’re competing all the time, or do you rock your boat to your own rhythm? What has worked for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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[Illustration by Zara Picken]
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