‘People should always tell the truth.’ Do you think there are any situations in which this might not be the best thing to do? Explain your views. (English O-level 2017, Syllabus 1128)

It is safe to say that all of us have lied at some point or other of our lives. Some parents, when asked by young children where babies come from, have sputtered some childish explanation of a stork, or my personal favourite, redirecting the question by saying: “You came from the ‘longkang’ (storm drain)!” It is clear that many of us feel that there are situations where we simply cannot tell the truth because — by any objective standard — it would not be the best thing to do. Individuals may disagree on what particular situations demand falsehoods, but I think it is fairly clear that lies must be told when it contributes to the greater good.

I first have to say that in the vast majority of situations, telling the truth should be the first option, even if it were to cause pain or suffering somewhere down the line. Sometimes families refrain from telling a cancer patient that they have, say, six months to live, in an attempt to get the patient to be more hopeful to maximise whatever chances there are for recovery. However, this ostensibly compassionate action may cause more harm, especially if it prevents the family member with cancer from making peace with people around him and even with the reality of mortality itself. Many of our white lies often end up this way — with us trying to do good, but ending up harming ourselves and others instead. However, I believe that there are situations where the potential harm is so severe and catastrophic that it would warrant almost any action — including withholding the truth — in order to prevent such harm.

Nuclear war would be so severe and catastrophic that any action taken to prevent it would be morally acceptable. Even a limited nuclear war would be devastating to the entire world, and I would never want to be part of the chain of command responsible for such an occurrence. If I were in charge of the military aide carrying President Donald Trump’s “nuclear football” — the bag containing the equipment President Trump would use to launch any nuclear attack — I would probably arrange for a fake bag to be made so that Trump would be slowed down somewhat if he made the decision to launch the attack. There are so many things that could go wrong with this, but I find it difficult to imagine a situation where a nuclear strike would be a good thing in today’s world. Given a President like Barack Obama, it would be less clear that carrying around a fake nuclear football would be the best thing to do, but with President Donald Trump’s alleged mental instability, I find it hard to imagine how that military aide sleeps at night. The lie of the fake nuclear football would, in my mind, be an additional barrier that prevents the world from descending into nuclear apocalypse.

Most of us should disregard these cases on the limits of reality and just stick to telling the truth most of the time. The liberating quality of truth-telling means that even if we suffer temporarily when we stick to honesty, most of us will be better off. We can only wish the best for those stuck in situations where telling the truth is ethically indefensible.

(547 words)

Describe a childhood toy, or a game you played, which still means a great deal to you. Why is it so important? (English O-Level 2016, Syllabus 1128)

When I was nine, I spent a good number of months begging my parents for a chess computer. In those days of the floppy disk — when they were still truly floppy — that meant my parents had to spend a few hundred dollars on a child’s toy that was not guaranteed to last for more than a couple of years, especially when that child was somewhat destructive around fragile things. I was good at chess, though — I was already on the school team, and three years later I would go on to place fourth in my age group at a national tournament. My small but meaningful level of success really was thanks in part to the clunky chess computer my parents bought for me after enduring my begging and whining (their acquiescence was probably also due to the fact that they could no longer defeat their child at the game). It is probably obvious why the game of chess, while torturously boring to most people, remains important to me. The memories of learning, practicing, and winning certainly are dear in my mind, but the game still retains a romance that has seen me continue playing it to this day.

My first significant memories of chess centre around my mother, who taught me the basic moves, and then to love and hate the game. Our first matches were even, since we both were groping in the dark when it came to strategy. Slowly, however, I began to defeat her regularly. This was probably due to my more regular exposure to the game (while she did the housework, I could play chess against myself). I began to become accustomed to winning our matches, and thus became complacent and embarrassingly smug, when my beloved mother sprang the delightfully infuriating trap called the Scholar’s Mate on me, defeating me in a mere four moves. I was surprised, shocked, amazed, nay, utterly astounded! Apparently she had gone to her brother, an engineer who plays chess at a very high level, to ask for help in winning a final chess match with her son before she called it quits. He probably also told her that she needed to practice more to play at a higher level, something that a busy housewife who also took care of aged parents could not afford. That day’s defeat saw my mother taking me to the library for chess books which could further my chess education without making her pull her hair out in frustration, marking the beginning of a more serious approach to chess preceding the success I was to see on the national stage.

Now that I have done some growing up, chess no longer holds the same position it once did in my life. My preteen self could probably easily defeat me now, but I still have continued to play casually. Sitting down at a chessboard across from another human being, I feel the world slowing down, and there is a soothing intensity that accompanies a well-played game, even if I end up losing. I am unsure if those feelings are nourished by my childhood experience, or by the nature of the game itself. Playing chess above a certain level forces a player’s attention to become laser-sharp; anything less intense would mean an embarrassing defeat, somewhat along the lines of a tennis player losing because he forgot to wear the proper shoes. Of course, chess still reminds me of the sweeter moments of my childhood. Consequently, while chess takes up much less of my time now, the game itself is still dear to me. Numerous studies have also found that playing chess brings improvements in attention, concentration, and interest in learning (source).

Anyone up for a game?

(618 words)

Video games and the factory worker ethic

On Tuesday I had the good fortune of meeting an airline pilot by chance, who told me something that I had suspected but never confirmed: you can learn some of the skills involved in flying a plane with certain flight simulator games (he used Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator X” himself). These games are challenging and fun, and according to the pilot, mastery in such flight simulator video games is looked on favourably if you apply to be a trainee pilot. Play, in this case, is not just for its own sake but also for some kind of utility (i.e. learning how to fly a plane). This stands in stark, stark contrast to most video games out there on the market today, especially smartphone games (Flight Simulator X happens to run on non-mobile platforms).

Most mobile games nowadays have a learning curve that plateaus rapidly, usually within a few hours. Take any first-person shooter game for example — most games out there feature simplistic swipe-and-tap mechanisms that are miles away from the experience of firing a real gun. These games are usually “pay or grind to win”, requiring that a player either put in real-world currency (pay to win) or repeat certain actions/stages multiple times (grind to win) before they are allowed to advance. The use of “grind” exposes how this sometimes feels for players, with a game sometimes taking on a boring, tedious quality before bestowing on the player a reward that often requires more grinding to exploit fully.

The idea of grinding in games isn’t a new idea. I did it myself as a teenager when playing in multi-user dungeons (MUDs), but at least I had plenty of people to chat with in-game when grinding (the reason I type so quickly nowadays is that as a teenager I learnt how to type as quickly as possible to grind efficiently and chat online at the same time). What is new, I think, is the typical teenager’s view of these games.

Unlike 30-somethings today, most of our teenagers grew up in a world dominated by video games. When the phrase “childhood play” is mentioned, what do you think of? I think mostly of chasing people around in void decks and playgrounds, digging in the sand, and a very dangerous night of inadvertently creating a bomb with sparkler powder and a milo tin. Yes, it is mixed in with afternoons spent at the video game arcade (Alien vs Predator, woohoo!), but it is dominated by self-directed, physical play. Teenagers these days share some of my childhood experiences, but also will have experienced a whole host of computer-aided play — whether it be the old Pokémon games, Xbox games, or whatnot.

We need to interrogate what “play” means to us, especially because we have moved firmly into the smartphone age, and are moving into an age of augmented reality gaming (i.e. Pokémon Go). When thinking about mobile games that require grinding, I realise that I have almost completely stopped processing them as “play”. The gamer is forced into the mindset of a factory worker, logging the hours to “create” a product (with the sad irony that no product is created, other than an experience that the gaming company hopes will lead you into giving them money to avoid playing certain parts of the game).

That play should be fun is a point so obvious that it seems to need no discussion, but we have millions of people who work at mobile games that can feel like a factory shift, all the while thinking that they are indulging in play. In a strict sense they are participating in a game and are thus playing, but because so many of them are not actually having fun, I want to reframe this in-game grinding as factory work for the game companies. I have to admit the possibility that some gamers grind while entering into some kind of peaceful, focused, meditative space, and for them I would admit that this is play. (Meditative space is fun space!) Yet, I assert that this experience is rare because most people have no idea what this meditative space feels like in the first place.

Moreover, play in digital space is inferior to play in a physical space. Consider almost any kind of offline play, and you are bound to encounter something that will help people learn outside of the zone of play. If you play the guitar, if you play football, if you play with fire, if you play in the sand, if you play with your friends, you will pick up and refine your abilities in the musical, physical, visual, kinesthetic, social, and even intellectual realms. As children, many of us were introduced to the concept of fairness when deciding on the rules of the games we played together, after all. For most of us, it is innately rewarding to play these games and learn in these realms. It is just a vulgar accident in a vulgar society that learning in these realms helps us to get better grades and jobs. (Yes, I believe that society should be arranged in such a way that most of us get to act like rich people who do not need to work.)

Playing certain video games makes us more likely to want to get jobs, so that we can earn more money to pay for “luxuries” like in-game currency, so that we can unwind from the stressful jobs we work at. Playing in the offline world has the advantage of usually being cheap, requiring less money for us to have fun, while giving us the skills to earn more money in less time.

It is unfortunate that I keep on moving back to the necessity of making a living, but this is the world we live in, and we need to deal with it. I believe, however, that play can be our guide in deciding what to do with our lives. We need less of the factory worker ethic when playing, and more of a child’s wonder and excitement. Play should be fun — just like teaching can be fun. Are you having fun yet?

My Twitter is back up!

Sometimes students look at the articles I’ve saved on my own reading list app (I use pocket), and they wish that they had a nicely curated series of articles (like mine) to read. So I’ve revived my Twitter account! I’ll be posting tweets with links to articles that I think people should read.

If you’re doing the O-levels, you should understand the vocabulary in these articles, at the very least.

If you’re doing the A-levels, you need to go one step further: please be able to analyse each article, and be familiar with all the underlying issues.

Happy reading!

One way Singapore’s schools make you stupid: the fixed mindset

Which do you believe to be more true? Consider the two statements while you read the post below.

Statement 1: Intelligence is set in stone at birth. (If a person is really stupid, he can work hard to learn new things, but he will never be very good at anything.)

Statement 2: Intelligence is dynamic, changeable, and is able to be improved. (If a person puts in the proper effort, he can learn anything he wants to, within reason.)


I remember wanting to do well for some kind of IQ test when I was in Primary 3, so that I could get into the Gifted Education Programme (GEP). My parents were obviously and understandably proud of me for passing the first round of testing, which was given to all the students in my school, but they told me that passing the test was unimportant — all that mattered was that I tried my best. The second round of testing was held on a Saturday, and was purely voluntary.

The school corridors were comfortingly quiet when I took the test. I was used to the corridors being a deafening maelstrom of prepubescent boys (ACJS, noisy kids in the 90s), and the silence only helped me to focus more on the questions in front of me. There were several questions I had trouble with, but I wasn’t worried about them. I figured that the other boys would be having problems as well. My confidence came from the happy fact of a machine telling me that I was a genius — the machine being one of those fortune telling machines that doubled as a weighing machine, at 20 cents a go. After being told by that machine that I was a genius, I spent way too much time dancing around my sister singing I’m a genius, I’m a genius! And if memory serves me well, I truly believed it — my parents’ friends calling me “The Little Professor” (I wore really thick spectacles) probably didn’t help my sister’s case that I was being an obnoxious brat.

It was thus an earth-shattering blow to my views of myself and the world when the test results came back. Something like: Sorry, Kevin has not been accepted into the Gifted Education Programme. Still, he is a very bright boy. Keep up the good work!

I had to relinquish my former status as a genius. As the months and years rolled forward, I would watch the GEP boys as they paraded around the school like the precocious geniuses everyone thought they were (and some of them did strut) with a mixture of envy and something close to disgust. It was a disgust at how proud they were of themselves, and a disgust with myself that I couldn’t be one of them. Mine was an injured pride.

It was in Primary 3 that I stopped consistently getting 99s and 100s for almost all of my tests — I started getting 95s and 96s, and in the case of Chinese, 85s (all over 100). My parents kept on reinforcing this message: just try your best, that will be enough. A 100/100 test score would have been meaningless to them if I didn’t put in my full effort, but a 60/100 score would have been wonderful if I had struggled with all my might to get there.

I persuaded myself that I was still trying my best, even though my scores were dropping. I comforted myself with the fact that, besides Chinese and Art, I was still close to the top of the class almost all the time.

These days I wonder: how much damage did that test do to me?

It gave me the unconscious belief that there were people who were simply more intelligent than me, that they had something special in their skulls that allowed them to solve more difficult problems. Then there were those GEP students who were school athletes — those superboys gave me the unconscious belief that there were people who were just downright better than me.

I was developing what is now called a fixed mindset of intelligence. I believed that people were inherently and naturally clever or stupid. I still believed in hard work, of course, but I came to view it as a half-and-half combination — hard work could only get you half the way, and you would need innate intelligence to go the rest of the way.

Psychologists now know that the fixed mindset causes drops in levels of motivation, confidence, and performance. I developed the fear of doing badly in tests, because that would only confirm that I wasn’t a genius. I was focused on scoring well, because that would help to strengthen the belief that I was still more intelligent than average, even if I wasn’t a genius.

On hindsight, the test probably had these effects on me:
– I probably gave up faster upon encountering hardship (like a difficult math problem)
– I probably was focused more on test results than on learning from corrections
– I probably felt less motivated to do well in school

What I needed was a growth mindset. I needed these beliefs: that intelligence is something that can be changed, and that performance is inextricably linked to effort. People with growth mindsets are focused on learning goals, even if they also care about their performance. Given a test result with feedback on potential areas for learning, for example, they focus on how they can improve, rather than looking only at the test score.Curiously, by trying to teach me the value of hard work (100/100 would have been meaningless if I didn’t put in

Curiously, by trying to teach me the value of hard work (100/100 would have been meaningless if I didn’t put in much effort), my parents were unconsciously working to promote a growth mindset.

The science is very clear on this: people with growth mindsets consistently outperform people with fixed mindsets. When it comes to academic skills, it is likewise clear that beliefs (fixed vs growth mindsets) can affect performance (via things like motivation, confidence, and eagerness to learn).


Which do you believe to be more true now?

Statement 1: Intelligence is set in stone at birth. (If a person is really stupid, he can work hard to learn new things, but he will never be very good at anything.)

Statement 2: Intelligence is dynamic, changeable, and is able to be improved. (If a person puts in the proper effort, he can learn anything he wants to, within reason.)

The second statement describes the growth mindset, which will see you expect more out of your students, children, co-workers, and every human being that crosses your path. We can only push the limits of our achievement if we put in the effort.

And if we’re going to stream students by their test scores, let’s be aware of streaming’s negative effects. It certainly made me stupid, at least for awhile.

As for the child who failed the GEP test? I rebelled* by pushing my curfew later and later, spending my time at a second-hand bookstore near my school. I ended up reading Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley, a book firmly in the English literary canon) when I was Primary 6, sowing the seeds for my future.

* 6pm curfew? I would arrive home at 6.10pm. What a rebel.


Further reading:
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (2007)
Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman (2013)
Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives, BrainPickings.org (2014)

General Paper tips for private candidates without GP teachers or tutors

So you’re staring at your A-level certificate, wondering how on earth two years of JC grinding got you such shitty grades. Then you realize: oh, it was all that playing around with so-and-so and such-and-such. You decide to retake the A-levels, with all the enthusiasm and determination that you can muster (THIS TIME I WILL STUDY HARD), and then it occurs to you: oh crap, I have no teachers!!

Don’t worry, Mr Seah is here to save the day (he’s gonna try anyway). Here’s what you can do for GP if you’re retaking the A-levels, and if you don’t have a tutor.

1. Gather all your old work (and comfort yourself for awhile)

You have gone through at least two years of classes, and you know something about GP. No need to panic, ya? Look through your marked essays in particular, and carefully review your teachers’ comments. These comments should show you some of your weaknesses, especially if you had committed teachers who wrote detailed comments on how to improve.

2. Read “difficult” material

While you were in school, you had excuses (bad ones, really) for not reading: busy la, CCA la, H2 subjects so heavy la.. But you don’t have a school to go to now, and you have to be your own teacher. Pick up books on logic, argumentation, philosophy, political philosophy, moral philosophy, sociology, psychology — whatever you can get your hands on. Get on Coursera and take courses that get you engaged with the world around you.

You already know what kinds of questions to expect, so review the essay questions from the past years to get a sense of what you should be reading. I’ve personally found introductory textbooks in the fields of sociology and politics to be particularly interesting and useful for thinking (in a “GP way”*) about the world around me.

*Thinking about the world in chunks of 800 words at a time (i.e. the GP essay format) forces your brain into a particular kind of atrophy, so be careful with that.

You no longer have a teacher to mark your essays, so you will have to be your own editor and teacher. How to decide if an essay you’ve done is good? Compare your writing to the writing you find in books.

3. Analyze comprehension answer schemes

You no longer can spend only an hour and a half on a comprehension paper — there are no more teachers to spill red ink over your labour. Once you’re done attempting a comprehension paper, compare your answers to the answer scheme not to determine whether or not your answers are correct, but whether the answer scheme itself makes sense. Check the dictionary as much as you can, even for words you think you understand. You will find flaws in answer schemes, particularly those from assessment book companies.

4. Write “perfect” essays

Do your question analysis, research the issues to death, craft your outline, and create the most amazing slab of 800 words that you can manage. You need to prove to yourself that you can get that A. Give yourself around two to three weeks for a single essay, which should be filled with gathering research and data. Find out what other writers and thinkers have said about the issue at hand, and consider if you agree with them.

5. Accidentally change your life

Reading and thinking about the world to the level that I advise should change your life. If you read enough about environmental issues, you’re going to hesitate over buying a new phone/tablet/computer when your old one still works. If you read enough about education, you’re going to look back on your school life and be so frustrated with how imperfect adults can be, and how flawed our education system is. If you read enough about politics, you’re going to read the Straits Times and come close to apoplexy.

If you find yourself caught in old thinking patterns, you might not be activating your mind enough.

6. Don’t miss the SEAB registration deadline

Right? Because you can only facepalm so many times….

On ignorance and politics in Singapore

A fellow tutor-blogger recently wrote one of the loveliest and funniest sentences I have seen recently, a sentence that possesses such an impact because it is simple and true:

If you are a Singaporean GP student and you don’t know what GRC stands for, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late. — Mr Steven Ooi (https://gptuitionsg.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/updating-singapores-political-system/)

While younger students could be forgiven for their ignorance, what is less forgivable is the profound level of ignorance among some Singaporeans, an ignorance that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong references in the speech Mr Ooi links us to:

By design, the President has no executive, policy-making role. And this remains the prerogative of the elected Government commanding a majority in Parliament. But in the last Presidential Election, many people didn’t understand this. I suspect even now, quite a number of people still don’t understand this. — PM Lee (http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/updating-the-political-system)

Mr Ooi has quite rightly pointed out that the speech linked above is engaging, and if one actually reads the entire thing, the speech does inform us of several important aspects of Singapore’s political system. However, one thing Mr Ooi (kindly?) neglects to observe is the way in which PM Lee’s speech plays upon the very ignorance that he has observed. PM Lee’s words, outside of Singapore’s political and historical context, sound very pleasing — but one has to remember that our PM is, after all, a politician. And you know that joke about politicians and lawyers…

I am not accusing PM Lee of being a liar, of course, but of obscuring the true state of matters by selectively ignoring several troublesome aspects of the performance of his government so far.

For example, PM Lee points out that our government has “(invested) in education at all levels” for many years. This is true: the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been funded enough such that we have seen teachers’ pay rise over the last few years. This has supposedly allowed people to “achieve their aspirations for themselves and for their children”.

Really?

Those of us in the education industry know very well the systemic inequalities that have been worked into the system, whether intentionally or not. Our school days are short enough such that a billion dollar tuition industry chugs along, rewarding richer families disproportionately; it is not an accident that students from the top schools tend to come from these families.

All over Singapore are students who aspire to enter a local university — and many of them will fail to achieve that aspiration. I do have to note that our education system is strong enough to see students who have never received private tuition go on to get degrees, but it remains true that you can pay top dollar for a tuition teacher who can give a child a level of attention that other students will never get in a typical classroom.

It is not just attention from a teacher that matters, of course; the quality of teacher also matters. I have repeatedly heard horror stories of teachers who barely do any teaching in class (ask the students around you about teachers who screen videos in class without any accompanying discussion, or about teachers who choose to complain about their personal troubles without linking it to any teaching point, etc). Then we have “English Literature teachers” who cannot tell the difference between an author and a narrator (shudder…).

PM Lee references many more issues in his speech, and beyond education, another issue that really irritates me is the way the word “multi-racial” is used here:

Fourthly, our political system must uphold a multi-racial society. Multi-racialism is fundamental to our identity as a nation because we have three major races in Singapore. We have all the world’s major religions in Singapore, and race and religion will always be fundamental tectonic fault-lines for us. If we ever split along one of these faultlines, that’s the end of us. — PM Lee

I fully agree that our society has fault lines, but even our young students are aware that we use the categories of “Singaporean” and “foreigner” much more frequently to point out difference, as compared to the Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others (CMIO) separation that was more evident here in the 1960s. PM Lee is definitely aware of this issue, but still he chooses to emphasize the CMIO classification, which has been criticized as a hindrance for Singapore. It is as if PM Lee is gearing his speech towards an audience whose political education has been dominated by “Social Studies“.

GP students have to be engaged with the world around them, and being able to engage with the issues mentioned in PM Lee’s speech is necessary. (If you are a Singaporean GP student and your knowledge of Singapore does not extend beyond what you have learnt from your Social Studies textbook, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned, and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late.) It is also necessary for the citizenry to be well-informed, in order that we have the “good politics” that PM Lee ostensibly desires.

Unfortunately (or fortunately,  depending on your perspective), Singapore remains the gilded cage that makes it too easy to set one’s political awareness at the level of “blissfully ignorant”. I fully agree with PM Lee when he says that “No ruling party or government must ever be afraid of open argument” — but what does this ruling party have to fear when the vast majority of Singaporeans are neither willing nor able to participate in that argument?

My student’s perspective on those parasitical smartphones

This is something a 13-year-old student wrote about smartphones and how his friends use them. The fact that smartphone addiction can feed on a person’s character and social life completely eluded me when I was writing my previous post. In his own words:

My friends spend their whole recess not by playing soccer, not by exercising, but by playing games on their phones. When I play soccer, I feel refreshed. Although a little smelly (probably very), I feel healthier after a good game. However, as for my friends who play with their phones the entire day, their brains are dulled and their character changes. They become more obsessed with their phones and spend less time with their friends. As a result, they lose friends, are less healthy, and they become less intelligent. The reason they lose friends is because instead of spending time with their buddies, they choose to let their phones consume their time. While people are bonding and having the time of their lives, they are addicted to their phones, and not socializing (omg). From my perspective, their phones are their jailers as they prevent them from interacting with others.


I should have realized this before, but of course people who spend too much time staring at screens end up with much less time to spend with other people. How sad.

Why I am a selfish good-deed ninja, and why you should be one too

I am a good-deed ninja. Whenever I step out of the house, I keep my eyes peeled for any opportunity there is for me to swoop in and help someone. Pick up a shoe bag? Done. Provide directions? Done. Pretend to be angry at a misbehaving child so that his mother can get a moment’s peace? Done. Commit acts of random smiling and waving? Done and done.

Someone trailing me might even accuse me of being artificially and annoyingly positive.

It’s not because I’m some kind of angel that I do this (my girlfriend would say that I’m more devil than angel). I do this because it gives me a performance advantage. When I manage to help a stranger, I feel happier, sharper, more engaged with the world and my work, and in some strange way, even more capable than I probably am. I feel much more positive. And the science is out — while the numbers should give any critical reader some pause, author Shawn Achor has amassed a wealth of evidence to bolster the claim that a more positive brain gives us “23% more energy, 31% more productivity, 3x more creativity” (source).

While I’ve only just started consciously looking out for “good-deed ninja” situations, the power of a good deed for the doer, and not just the recipient, was already displayed for me in university. I often tell stories of how I used to be a nervous, anxious wreck after serving my national service (NS), when all of a sudden I was thrust into a situation where I wanted to excel, wanted to get straight A’s, wanted to be the best in the grand old National University of Singapore — in stark contrast to my army experience where I was a lowly corporal who didn’t have much to do beyond obeying orders (not much demand on the brain there). Imagine walking around school permanently on anxious high-alert, always on the edge of panic. I was that person.

Then imagine me, sitting and reading anxiously in the NUS library, with my throat constricted and my heart racing because I needed to get through my reading and I needed to get started on my essay so that I could get the A that I thought I really needed. I was sitting near one of those vending machines filled with snacks, because I spent most of the day nauseous on caffeine (got to focus!) that I couldn’t eat much beyond M&Ms and sugared peanuts.

Some poor girl then broke me out of my anxious trance, as she stood facing the machine, staring at it for an unreasonably long time. So I got up to see what the matter was and saw that she was about to have a meltdown because her snack got stuck in the machine and she had no more coins left (crisis!). I selflessly (inoticedshewasattractive) offered to buy the same snack so that hers would get unstuck, over her refusals (“eh no need no need!”).

When our snacks fell out of recalcitrant machine, her undisguised smile broke through my fog of panic. Her smile was a complex mixture of relief, gratitude, and (probably) hunger. I think the pleasant shock of the panic-fog clearing was great enough that I stood speechless, staring at her for an extremely awkward length of time, forcing her retreat from the very strange good-deed nerd.

When I tell this story, my students always ask me if I got her number (“You owe me money now, let’s swap numbers so you can settle this debt.”), but the truth is, I was just marveling at the fact that I no longer felt anxious. The attractive girl had faded from my consciousness, because I was so relieved that my heart was no longer racing, my throat was no longer restricted, and I felt sane.

A single good deed was more effective than any dose of Valium — with no side effects! This is just one example of how powerful a good deed can be, especially when we take joy from the positive effect that we can have on people through actions that cost close to nothing.

The conclusion of the larger story is a little bit more mundane, with me abandoning the quest for grades (because the anxiety was driving me crazy) for the rock band quest. If I had paid greater attention to my mental health, I probably would have ended up with a better degree than the one I have now.

This should not degenerate into empty self-help platitudes about positive thinking, but the fact is that genuinely happy people do have a neurological advantage over perpetually unhappy people — and that’s why I am a selfish good-deed ninja.


My more mature students might want to consider:

  • What makes an action selfish or altruistic?
  • Is it a contradiction if I selfishly try to be altruistic? Am I just being selfish?
  • Should I have asked for the girl’s number?