Sunday, August 05, 2012

The difference that makes the difference.

This article in an attempt to distil some of my personal experience into something useful for readers.

Since I was an undergraduate, I was never really able to excel in a core initiative. I'm going to share three experiences and then try to see if it's possible to turn them into teachable moments.

a) My stint in the Information Olympiad squad.

I spent a brief time training in Singapore's first squad that took part  in the Informatics Olympiad in 1992. In the selection phase, I was chosen not because I was good in programming but I was able to grasp the concept of a Graph algorithm and explain to the judge without knowing a god-damn thing about the augmented matrices that makes the algorithm work. Even my lecturer's in NJC was surprised I was chosen, because I always had the gift of the gab, my programming was good but not great.

Needless to say I was not chosen to actually represent Singapore, but I was able to participate in the training in NUS which was useful to my stint later as an Electrical engineering student.

b) My journey as an electrical engineering student.

I was slightly above average as an engineering student, I remember my final year as a pretty smooth year for me, I even managed to hit on some girls during that time. One class-mate commented that my most powerful advantage was my public speaking skills which I leveraged to get a string of As in all my communications modules and ultimately my final year project. Being in the Dean's list in semester 8 is traditionally hard because that's the time the hostelites stop drinking and start waking up the fact that they are close to graduation.

I was also able to get a decent ECA record which most engineers have problems doing, which paved way to being accepted in P&G when I graduated. ( P&G was into extroverted folks with a high openness to new experiences in those days. )

c) My work experiences

I spent most of my time in the working world scoring IT qualifications. It was crazy, some years I did 21 exams while holding a full-time job. What I observed is that my qualifications did not help me much, I was quite loyal to the MNCs I worked for and never could achieve good increments when I changed jobs. I explained my strategy to an fellow French student that I was buying a lot of call options on the IT industry. She felt I was being ridiculous. Now I agree with her since most of my options expired worthless.

Most of extra income came from my investments. These days about half of my take home pay is through dividends. My three years slogging for the CFA paid off in the size of my portfolio today. I did'nt even need to leave the IT industry in the end.

Moral of the Story


I think that something my generation failed to understand about success.

Very often, if you focus on one area of specialization, odds of you getting to the top 1% of your field is very hard. It's also very taxing for your sanity.

If you are able to find an alternative specialization and find a way to resolve your current life challenges, life will be a lot easier. My speaking skills in school help me out more than my ability in physics.

This is what I think is possible for most people :

a) You need to be good at your core specialization.

You still need to be competent at your core. If you are an engineer, you need to be able to do ok at your day job. It's a condition to be minimally employed.

b) Find something you like to do and be good at it in your spare time.

I realized that a secondary skill that is related to the following fields will always pay off and make you more useful to your company or business :

  • Communications and Language
  • Investing, finance or economics.
  • Psychology or culture.
c) Develop your secondary speciality and use it to reinforce your core.

This suggestion is neither a appeal for specialization or generalization of skills. You need to cultivate a secondary skill and keep leveraging that skill to reinforce your core. This creates a something unique that only you can do well.

Next steps  


As my next career is in public service, odds are I will need to be able to find a new secondary skill to reinforce my core. I'm looking at the TESOL to reinforce my language skills so that I can write better papers at my job. Of course, getting to the level as an English instructor as a lot of other benefits as it strengthens my writing skills.





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