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?

You’ve wasted your time in school, and now a major exam is coming. (Tip #7: English exam preparation, panic edition)

You’ve wasted your time in school, and now a major exam is coming. What to do for the dreaded English/GP papers?

A little preamble

One of my earliest tutoring ‘jobs’ (I wasn’t paid) came around when I was in the army. An acquaintance called me, out of the blue, clearly panicking about her upcoming General Paper examination. She was getting F9s and D7s consistently, and if this continued, she wouldn’t have been able to enter a local university. She had no money to pay for a tutor and was getting desperate. She heard that I had topped my school in GP, could I help?

I met her ONCE to see what I could do, and took a look at the essays she had done to date (it was about 2 to 3 months to the A-levels, then). Her language was horrendous — it was so difficult to understand what she was trying to say, amid all the language and expression problems. She did, at least, have mature ideas back then, but they were all obscured by the terrible language.

Kevin (Mr Seah): Are you able to understand the articles in your Newsweek magazines?
Acquaintance: Yep!
Kevin: Do you read them?
Acquaintance: Uh…. no.
Kevin: Read them.
Acquaintance: Well, sometimes I don’t really understand everything, and they’re really boring! I try to read them, but I fall asleep.
Kevin: Ah, that’s fine. Then read your Reader’s Digest magazines. Do you find those interesting?
Acquaintance: Yes, but… aren’t those more for the O-levels?
Kevin: Well, your problem isn’t that you don’t know what to say. Your ideas are fine, but you just can’t express them in ways that humans understand (heh). What you need is the ability to bring across your ideas, ideas that aren’t bad in the first place. Read your Reader’s Digest magazines, and perhaps when you’re bored of that, go on to your Newsweek magazines. In your essays, stop trying to use big words and long sentences. Stick with simple language and sentences that convey your ideas accurately. You’re trying to pass now, not trying to get that A.
Acquaintance: Should I practice writing essays, then?
Kevin: Not for awhile. You need to break your bad habits of using these long, complicated sentences. Saturate your brain with good English first, then think about practicing later.

So, she went on to do that. A few months later, I got a call from her, all happy with the fact that she passed, not just with a C6, but a B3 for her GP. She had taken all my advice, and started devouring her Reader’s Digest magazines. She got bored with them after awhile, as I predicted, and found that she could now appreciate the depth that the Newsweek articles had (back then). She stuck with the simple language that I had advised her to use, and pulled off what seemed like a miracle in the examination.

So, let’s mine this story for all it’s worth.

Tip #7: English exam preparation, panic edition

1.Immerse, immerse, immerse! Surround yourself in every way with good examples of the English language. Read at your level (this is essentially what I was telling my acquaintance to do, when I directed her to the Reader’s Digest magazines rather than Newsweek). Read the opinion pages of all the major news outlets. If that’s too difficult, find something easier. If you have to stop by the children’s section in the library, by all means, do it. If you read at your level, you should be able to spend 4, 5 hours a day reading without getting terribly bored or tired. (Be nice to your eyes, though!)

2. Break bad habits. If you’re already failing your English examinations, you’re doing something wrong. Stop with the assessment books, stop with the essay writing. If you’re producing F9 essays one after another, all you’re doing is reinforcing bad habits. Break those bad habits by jumping into a large pool of good English. When you return to your old essays, you should be able to see how flawed your writing used to be.

3. Spend as much time as you can on your English preparation. People sometimes think that they can get away with spending less time on language subjects because they don’t need to memorise content from textbooks (as they do for, say, History). Please, don’t fall into this trap. Can you imagine how many hours my acquaintance put into reading her Reader’s Digest magazines, to the point that she got sick of them, and could make the jump in reading level to the more complex writing in Newsweek?

4. Consult your teacher or tutor. Your teacher or tutor should be able to guide you to reading material perfectly suited to your level, especially if they are familiar with your work. S/he should be able to pinpoint your bad habits. If your present teacher or tutor can’t do those things, you need to seek another opinion.

5. Get a hold of yourself. My acquaintance didn’t fall into a blind panic and run around like a headless chicken till she dropped of exhaustion. She managed to do exactly what I advised her to, even though she was anxious about her A-levels. If you have a problem with anxiety, you might want to read self-help books about anxiety (just enter a search for “anxiety” into a library database). Plus point: reading about anxiety should help you with your anxiety AND your English!

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I never heard from my acquaintance again. After all these years, I can’t even remember her name! So, tip 7a: keep in touch with your teachers! XD