I am writing this note to you, my students who are graduating this year, as a final warning — in case some of your also subscribe to this grand notion that there’s more to life than work.

Actually, it is indeed true that there is more to life than work. However, if you should step out into the working world thinking seeking this thing called work-life balance then I fear you might be setting yourself up for a perilous future.

It is possible to achieve work-life balance. Many have done it.

But what many young people fail to understand is that it is privilege, and not an entitlement. In other words, you have to earn it. This is a mistake I hope you do not make.

And the way to earn it is to become so damn good at what you do that your boss has no choice but to tolerate your work-life balance — or for you to become your own boss.

I am not sure how to be more subtle, but none of you — yes, none of you, not even the First Class Honours — is currently so damn good that you are completely indispensible.

If you put in enough work and effort, then maybe, just maybe, in 10 years, you might find yourself in a position where you can actually have enough control over your work that you can have your “work-life balance”.

Another inconvenient truth of life is that age is rather unforgiving.

When I was young(er), I once worked 100 hours a week for almost two whole years — and frankly, it was quite okay. I complained yeah, but I could actually take it. Such are the benefits of youth.

Fast forward 10+ years, and I found myself teaching a summer course in Suzhou last week.

Unfortunately I did not manage to prepare well before I left for China and I ended up working probably 100 hours last week. Let’s just say that I don’t actually know how I survived.

You are now in the prime of your life. I have to admit that I’m rather envious. Really sucks to grow old I tell you.

While you may have graduated, keep in mind that this is only the beginning. There is probably good reason why they call it “Commencement” and not “Conclusion”.

The next 10 years of your life will be even more important than your last 4. The habits that you will be forming will dictate your future:…h-in-your-20s/. Not kidding.

If you want to lead a reasonably secure life (and earn your right to work-life balance), the next 10 years is when you must really work at becoming good at something. Anything.

We are fast entering an era where those who do not develop marketable skills and competencies before they reach their 40’s will risk losing their jobs to those who are younger and hungier.

Some will bemoan that it’s age discrimination and clamour for the Government to do more. The reality is that very little can be done.

Let me explain the harsh truth about this “middle-aged squeeze”.

We live in a very hierarchical and seniority-based economy. It is “normal” for people to be promoted as they stay longer in their jobs, not necessarily because they are more competent or necessarily good at their work.

As people get promoted through the ranks based on seniority, Peter’s Principle eventually sets in and some people will lose their jobs.

Because there are fewer jobs available at middle and senior management levels, some will be forced to apply for “lower level” jobs — and many will be unsuccessful.

There are many reactions: shock, disbelief, bewilderment, and perhaps anger. They cannot understand why with their so-called “vast” experience, they are not even considered for these jobs.

The truth, while inconvenient, is however rather sobering: the line managers who are hiring for these jobs will likely be younger than the displaced middle-aged workers. It is sadly natural that most managers do not like managing people who are older than them.

Hiring decisions are almost always delegated to the line managers (as they should be), so there’s really no solution to this problem. No legislation can address this phenomenon.

My point to you: forget dunno what work-life balance for the next 10 years. Work like there’s no tomorrow and strive to become damn good at what you do. Please take advantage of your youth to master something and to develop good work habits and good work ethic.

Life is full of choices. The choices you make today will eventually determine the person that you will become in the future. Choose wisely and lead a good life. πŸ™‚

To conclude, I will leave you with something I must have said a hundred times: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you strong”. πŸ˜›



Some well-meaningful folks have reminded me that we cannot work to the point where we sacrifice our health. True.

Others have suggested that life is a marathon and not a sprint. True again.

Obviously, I am not suggesting that you work like the Japanese until you drop dead.

There’s a spectrum for everything. Life is complicated and there are always trade offs.

As the Chinese say, “adminster medicine depending on the illness” (对症下药). I am merely addressing one end of the spectrum because it doesn’t seem likely to me that too many young graduates are at risk of dropping dead from overworking anytime soon.

On the contrary, I have spoken with quite a number of employers, and they complain about the difficulties with hiring and the young people today not being willing to work hard. In fact, I met an SME boss on the plane back from Chengdu last night, who pretty much said the same thing.

Also, I was in Suzhou last week. Even though Suzhou is supposedly a second-tier city in China, as far as I can tell, Suzhou has far surpassed Malaysia. I suspect that Suzhou’s public bus network is already better that ours. Their buses are air-conditioned and they use stored-value tickets. Their bus stops have digital signages that tell you when the next bus is going to arrive. One trip costs 1 RMB (20 Singapore cents).

It has often been said that China is going to be eating our lunch. Hasn’t really happened even though it has been nibbling at our feet.

Well, hasn’t happened doesn’t mean won’t happen.

In Singapore, we really don’t have a whole lot going for us. For many years, we lived by our wits and superior “software”. Moving forward, I think we’d really be in trouble if we lose this edge.

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