July was graduation season for local universities, and last-day-of-school photos flooded my Instagram feed. Even though my friends look forward to what lies ahead, they are also wary. Resumes sent at the beginning of the year remained unanswered, and few received call-backs from companies. Finding the ideal job is a challenge for many graduates today.
If finding a job is difficult for graduates, it begs the question why so many Singaporeans my age still rush to get a degree. The answer is simple: we are acting on conventional wisdom – a belief generally held by parents and society – that getting a degree is a ‘tried and tested’ route to securing a good job.
This leaves students stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, a degree is now less certain to lead to a good and secure career, and on the other hand, the fear of failure keeps us from journeying down unconventional paths in pursuit of our dreams. So what can we do?
Chelsea Foo, a third year polytechnic student, sees the kiasu mindset as a major factor discouraging millennials from venturing beyond conventional wisdom. She sees overturning this mindset as crucial for encouraging students to venture beyond the conventional degree route.
“A lot of us have dreams, but are afraid to pursue them because of the risk of failure. Many end up choosing to go down the safer route.”
In addition to overcoming this fear, Chelsea also believes reflection after each failure is required.
“At the end of the day, we have to find ways to accept failure. Through this acceptance, I’ve learned to come up with better ways to succeed.”
For the rest of us who continue to hold back, please consider this: there are many millennials who struck out on their own and succeeded. Take, for example, The Sam Willows, who took a leap of faith to release their EP (extended play) before going on to become one of the most successful local bands from our generation. They are one of the many stories that are becoming more common as we slowly break away from the norm. If we continue on this trajectory, our future will hold different possibilities and our choices will reshape society into one that is more daring and accepting of failure as a learning opportunity.
Prior to pursuing higher education, exploring and discovering our interests may be the wise thing to do. As a university student, I noticed that those who do well tend to be the ones who have already discovered their interests and are genuinely interested in their studies. For these students, studying is not a chore, and grades are not always on the top of their minds. They are some of the most fulfilled people I have met, as they are confident and have found meaning in the path they are taking.
Kwek Jian Min, a second-year Sociology student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), is one such example. She decided to work after graduating from polytechnic instead of enrolling in university. It is less conventional to take a break from school midway (and a decision many parents would not be comfortable with), but it turned out to be the right decision for her. “I read two courses in poly, one in Psychology and the other in Early Childhood. Working in a childcare centre helped me realise that Early Childhood was not for me.” Now, Jian Min finds Sociology so enjoyable that she plans to look for a job in that field.
For those who do not know how to begin this exploration, perhaps a question to ask is “what do I want to do?”, or “what problems do I want to solve?”. This takes the lens away from the present and focuses on future possibilities.
In addition to venturing beyond tried-and-tested routes and exploring our interests, success also needs to be defined on our own terms.
Our parents may hope our lives will be better than theirs, but what they consider ‘better’ may not ring true to us. Our aspirations and values most likely differ from our parents’, and if we place our parents’ hopes onto ourselves, happiness may not be the given outcome. This is because what makes someone else happy may not make you happy.
Sim Poh Chun, a third-year Economics student at the National University of Singapore (NUS), practices this principle. “I value my friends and family so I want to focus on maintaining strong relationships with them, rather than focusing on becoming rich. I am satisfied if I have just enough financially speaking.” This has led him to explore jobs that give him time to spend with his friends and family.
To Jean Tan, who is already in the workforce, being financially independent is still a priority. “If it is possible, I would like to retire early and become a party planner.”
By knowing what we value, and defining success in a way that is true to ourselves, we can find fulfilling careers. Pursuing higher education, or any goal in life, will be meaningful and will leave no room for regret.
When deciding on a career or what to study, some may advise that head should overrule heart: just because we are interested in something does not mean it will pay well. However, this overlooks how passion can take us further faster. When one is passionate about work, he or she is driven to try harder and to be more creative, especially when it comes to solving problems that arise. All of these factors will eventually increase chances of success.
Admittedly, not all of us will have the privilege of turning our interests into viable careers, but the range of possibilities is growing – there are already more diverse jobs with decent incomes, breaking us away from the constraints of the usual doctor/lawyer/banker route. As the variety of careers continue to grow, I hope this will encourage young graduates to do what they feel most passionate about.
After interests are discovered and success is personally defined, it is time to form a vision. Having and holding fast to a vision is immensely powerful and can take us very far.
The late boxing legend, Muhammad Ali, always emphasised the importance of envisioning himself winning even before the actual fight. Jim Carrey also pictured himself as the greatest actor in the world, even when he was a struggling, young actor. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had a vision for a ‘garden city’ in 1967, and look at how Singapore turned out today. When we are able to clearly see what we want, we can make it happen.
I personally practise this method by writing my vision out on paper, and pasting it where I would see it often, such as on my cupboard. This reminds me of what I want to achieve, and clarifies the things needed to reach my goals.
Many Singaporeans my age are torn between our aspirations and the uncertainty that comes with the road less-travelled. The challenge is to take that first step towards our dreams, so that we can see the world of possibilities ahead. As for my friends, while some are sticking to the well-travelled route, others are daring to dream differently.
As for me, I love research and academia, and sharing my knowledge with others. When I took that first step and approached my professors with questions after class, little did I know that a year later, several teaching and research opportunities would open up for me. Right now, I am planning my own lessons and leading a class of undergraduate students. As I tread down this path, the steps to my future become clearer. This, to me, is what it means to dream – to have a vision, and to make it happen.
What is your dream?