Note to public readers: This post is pretty personal (and long). Feel free to skip it if it doesn’t matter to you. If it helps you in any way, then I’m glad for you.

Ever so often we reach a milestone in our life. For some, these can be measured in goals; for others, it can be measured in time.

I just reached one of those measured by time. I still have more years ahead than behind of me (the statistical point of view is hopeful) and I suppose it’s a good enough reason to look back on the decades that have passed so that I know which course I should take as I look to the future.

Financial

Financially, I am better off than most people. If I take my wife and myself as a household unit, we fall into the 81st-90th decile in terms of average household income per household member from work. This means that we earn more than 8 in 10 resident households* in Singapore. I haven’t looked at this number globally but I’m willing to bet that this means we are better off than 95 out of a 100 people in this world.

According to a Credit Suisse report (link here), a Singaporean’s median wealth is US$90,466 (or roughly, S$112,765.87 at current exchange rates). The report doesn’t report wealth by age so it’s hard to make a good comparison but given my age and the fact that I’m above the median, I would say I’m doing well so far. All this without a chance that rising interest rates will explode the serviceability  of any debt that I have because I have negligible amounts.

What’s the point of saying all this? Well, just 6 or 7 years ago, it would have been a completely different story. I was in university without a clue about what I would be doing in the future, my bank account was tiny (constantly in the low four figures) and I was having to get by on, I believe, four hundred dollars a month or risk dipping into my reserves. As a student, somehow, you’d find ways to make it work. Of course, it helped that I grew up in a middle/ upper-middle class family which meant that I wasn’t forced to become an income generating asset as soon as possible but my parents never spoilt me to the point that public transportation and hawker food were beyond me (Actually, I love hawker food and sometimes, I wish I didn’t have to spend so many hours driving on the road).

How I did it is another story for another time but if you’ve been a regular reader, there should be enough that’s also be written to enlighten you.

Career

Career-wise, I’m in a job that I enjoy about 70% of the time and hate 30% of the time. A pretty good ratio I think. Did I ever think I’d end up in teaching? Hell no but maybe subconsciously, I really wanted to be Onizuka Eikichi- saving students from the drudgery of school.

How has my nearly two years of teaching turned out? Well, I certainly haven’t done anything remotely close to what anyone would see in GTO but teaching’s taught me a lot.

For one, when you are standing in front of a lecture theatre filled with two to three hundred students, it can be a nerve-racking experience. Furthermore, not all of them are there to listen to you- some will drift off to sleep (that is the best case) while others end up having a conversation in their own little world somewhere in the back of the lecture theatre. That to me is the worst case scenario not because they don’t listen but they end up preventing others from listening. How do I deal with a situation like this? Well, I usually just stop. Just stop. It’s so zen but it truly works. For some reason, if you try to fight volume with volume, it just gets louder but if you let all that energy and noise dissipate, it eventually does. One of the best example where doing nothing is the best thing.

Second, I often dread the day when school starts- eight new classes with 150 or so fresh faces whose names I potentially will forget once the semester is over. However, once the semester gets going (after the two weeks or so), I often find myself tired but happy. Most Singaporean kids are nowhere near the horror stories that you might read online or in the news (actually, this is probably a case of the spotlight fallacy- obviously, they’re bad in some way to make the news in the first place). Most of them (95% or maybe even more) are really, really nice. You just have to get past the fact that (a) they speak a different lingo, (b) most of them prefer shopping, eating and games to your lesson and (c) they are after all, also human. The last point is particularly important because school, after all, functions like a machine. It is designed or built to receive certain inputs, put them through a process and churn out output. The problem in life is that students are not homogenous inputs and that’s where the teacher comes in- a worker will use the same input in every way because his or her skills/training/insight is limited but a craftsman knows there is no one best way. It depends on the material he is dealing with and since a school is unfortunately by design, not meant to handle such differences, the teacher has to be the one intelligent enough to accommodate these differences. Of course, sometimes you get material that is so brilliant to work with that you would be ashamed to take any of the credit for them turning out as gems- I’ve met my fair share of them in my (short) time and for these students to come into my life, the honour is mine.

Third, with any organisation comes bureaucracy and unfortunately, the school is not spared from this. I hate this part the most and if there’s a day I have to go through an exit interview, I probably would cite bureaucracy as a top reason. ‘Nuff said.

Personal matters

Looking back, I don’t remember much details about the times I spent with my friends (it was either hanging out at the game arcades in Orchard Road, movies or basketball) but I do know those were good times. The times have moved on and of course, so have we. We meet up much less nowadays and I’m not sure who’s to blame- facebook or the fact that most of us are married and some have kids? Anyway, that’s a natural progression of life and somehow, I know that these guys will be one of the first few people there when I need them. Ditto if they need me.

I think it’s rare for someone to be born in a situation as fortunate as I am- born (relatively healthy) to parents in a middle-income household in one of the few countries that have managed to exit middle-income status. Since 1960, few countries have actually managed this feat**. I never had to worry about clothing or food. There were always books and the more than occasional toy (credit goes to my dad) and holiday. Furthermore, they are still supportive of this son despite his shortcomings and not yet moved out of the family home (the good news is that this will come sooner rather than later. Plans are in motion)

It’s much rarer to then meet someone whom you can connect with emotionally and temperamentally. Someone that shares or accommodates your views on religion (or lack thereof), finances and other matters that may be important to you. It’s even rarer that you get along with his/her family and by get along, I don’t mean the forced, unnaturally polite behaviour that restricts your true feelings. So, I am truly lucky to be in love with someone not because it feels like “happy ever after” but because we both recognise that “happy ever after” is a constant jog on the route that leads us to our final end. What matters is whether the person you’re jogging with is able to see that his/her utility is higher jogging with you rather than aiming to be the first to complete the run.

At the end

I’m not the smartest guy in the room (not in my classroom or most rooms that you’ll place me in) and I’ve made mistakes along the way. Thankfully, I’ve learnt some lessons and if there are some universal principles that have helped me, they are (in no particular order):

1) Money matters (until you have enough of it so that it doesn’t)

2) Good people matter more (just like companies, the lousy ones aren’t even worth a fraction of your time unless it serves as an example of negative demonstration. But you would never let them into your life.)

3) Sometimes, inaction is better than action.

4) Get a job that you love (most of it anyway until you have enough money so that the job becomes a hobby)

5) Be rational (I’m pretty irrational and unstructured by nature. Learning economics helped me correct that to some extent)

Could I do some things better? Of course I can but I think that’s something for another time.

*Resident Households refer to households made up of Singaporeans and PRs.
** See Lin, Justin Yifu, New Structural Economics (2012, page 2)

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