Thursday, June 02, 2016

A different way to think about Lifelong Learning.

Just the other day, I had the privilege of meeting members of the NTUC Social Media team, we had a good, long discussion on the possible issues face by the workforce of the future. NTUC is interested in collaborating with bloggers to come up with content. As I wanted to preserve to my unique voice, I opted to blog for information instead of remuneration. I promised that if any data on the labour movement were shared with me, I would be able come up with some unique insights into work and human capital in Singapore.

This gives me the freedom to be candid with NTUC's initiatives and maintain the critical tone of my blog, which I suspect readers will enjoy more.

So this article came about because of my discussion with NTUC but it was not vetted or paid for by them.

Let's talk about lifelong learning and why we might be going about it the wrong way.

One perspective on adult education comes from a study of evolution. When biologists study species which have a tendency to survive, it is not the strongest but the most adaptive species which go on to reproduce.

If we apply this concept to lifelong learning, there are two kinds of learning - Exploratory learning and Exploitative Learning.

Exploitative learning is what most people think about when they think about adult education. An engineer studies for the CFA exams in the hopes that he can exploit his financial knowledge to get a job in the banking sector.  A security guard gets accredited so that he can command a higher salary at work. I remember regular soldiers studying for the O levels at age 30 because he wants to move into the Warrant Officer track.

Exploratory learning is equally important but currently does not play a role in our vision of what lifelong learning is all about. A accountant might want to learn creative writing because he just wants to explore his creative self. An engineer studies psychology not for more income, but to develop better strategies for dealing with assholes at work.

The dominance of exploitative learning is felt when we look at the policy behind English Literature. In Singapore,even people who love English Literature cannot take the subject because it skews their grades downwards. The apologists for the subjects do not do subject any justice, repeatedly focusing on skills needed to "navigate the complexities of life" ( What the fuck does that mean anyway ? ) .

The pragmatic emphasis on exploitative learning is why there is downward spiral in the number of students studying the humanities today. And mark my words - the legal industry will face a lot of trouble in the years ahead and as the last consistently well-paying career for Arts students stop paying its high salaries, our JCs and Polys will become merely Science and Business vocational colleges. Losing the Arts would make us less anti-fragile as a nation and culture, but that will be some other article at a later time.

The crux of the lifelong learning focused on exploitative learning is this : We do make bigger investment mistakes when we choose to learn something. Industry changes may render our learning worthless at least from a human capital perspective.

After getting my battery of qualifications in Finance, I found that it was more profitable to carry on being an IT guy and investing my money. My investments in finance did not increase my human capital although it was very profitable managing my own portfolio. Same goes for my JD investment, law students are moving into an era where they may not get a training contract and even if they do, may not get retained.  If I do get retained, I may be financially better off picking up my old career.

The nature of exploitative learning is that it is dependent on the industry and the economy. And business cycles are getting shorter by the day.

Exploratory learning takes place out of intellectual curiosity. Generally when we learn something out of curiosity and personal interest, returns are not the primary motivation to pick something up. The side effect of exploratory learning is that the skills stay with you and can be applied to different areas in your life. Photography can teach a person a thing or two about aesthetics, may come in helpful when decorating your home. Literature put fictional characters in strange situations which may prepare you for one in the future. Exploratory learning creates larger possibilities. It allows you to be more adaptive and maintains value regardless of the economic situation.

From a financial perspective, exploitative learning is buying a short-dated in-the-money option on your human capital. Exploratory learning is more like buying many long-dated out-of-the-money options which may suddenly become valuable in any stage of your life .

We can't ignore the exploratory side of learning. For individuals to be robust, up to date industry knowledge and technical skills need to be supplemented with skills developed via exploratory learning. This has to be chosen independently and based on personal interest. For a decade , my interest was public speaking and I made very close friends which I still hang out with today from the NUS Toastmasters. When I give talk on the radio and in public, my skills in public speaking makes a big difference in my life.

And now for the hard part which may confound policy makers.

For exploratory skills to remotely benefit the learner, we need to beyond the ra-ra motivational bullshit that is being taught in corporate companies. Motivation does not last very long if it is not accompanied with a certain level of mastery. HR department's idea is that you throwing your money into a seminar to keep employees happy, their will stay productive.

Exploratory skills requires mastery just like exploitative skills. Deliberate practice is required to be a good creative writer, photographer, historian or psychologist. In fact, the bar is even higher if you see yourself trying to monetize this in the future. So many hobbyist photographers in the market. Who will pay you a decent wage ?

In summary, my advice for the reader is as follow :

Beyond the PMP, CPA,CFA qualifications that you are currently studying for, you may want to think about what areas you would like to explore that does not directly result in a higher remuneration. It can be computational thinking, mathematics, art history or literature. Go to Coursera to see whether there are courses where you can put yourself under a rigorous program to master that subject.

For policy makers :

With the death of high legal salaries over the next few years, a strong humanities and social science education will no longer have a role to play in Kiasu Singapore. You have to preserve Arts education through free adult education. My biggest fear is that after a life spent being  kiasu and chasing the dollar, Singaporeans suddenly find very little meaning in life. We develop a HIV of the mind and begin to buy anything from anyone who gives us a sense of hope. Just look at how polarized we've become in the Cultural Wars.

In such a case, it is way better for Singaporeans to find solace and consolation in the likes of Seneca, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Lao Tze or Plato than someone like Kong Hee.

Push your universities to start putting up your best humanities lectures into Coursera and reward them for sign-up rates. For civil service recruitment, without offering to pay more, create a HR recruitment culture which is interested in candidate's enrollment in these courses. Have bosses ask about hobbies and interests.

And for goodness sake, grade the H3 contrasting subjects with a P/F grade lah.


  1. I hope the government policy objective is to have both forms of learning regardless of educational background.

    People tell me that crane drivers make more money than some lawyers in Singapore.

  2. Once upon a time, stock brokers' pay was debated in our Parliament.

  3. Chris,

    What a thumping post!

    I can't help myself from having my Walter Mitty's Westminster moment:

    Right hand slapping the armrest of my seat and cheering, "Hear, hear!"

    Now that's what I call a parliamentary speech!

    Chris for MP!

    You'll be surprised how many graduates have stopped their professional reading the moment they left school... Not that I'm complaining!

    So that's what its called - what I am doing...

    Exploratory learning :)

  4. I thought you Exploratory Trolling, SMOL !!!

  5. Hi Chris
    You seem to concentrate on very course based/ classroom/textbook type learning. Whereas, guys like me respond well to hands-on learning. I'm the type where I learn by doing /trial and error/ break or burn something /lost money.

    I believe most people take up exploratory learning because it is fun. It is fun to tinkle with engines, bitcoin mining, smashing out dark souls, brewing your own alcohol and beers, growing herbs in a hydroponics setup, learning to sian char bor etc. By the way, travelling is also learning.

    Question: Why do you think loosing arts make us less anti-fragile??
    I have no love for arty stuff (paintings/sculptures/Sec school lit). It’s not for me… I fall asleep in Macbeth, Romeo and Julie is about stupid teens doing stupid things. I’m more of a dungeons and dragons person. According to taleb, some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder… Isn’t it call the school of hard knocks?

    Also, I have another question. I am curious, you have a whole heap of qualifications. Engineering, Masters in finance, alternate investment analyst, financial risk manager, CFA and Law!! Did you study all that for the fun of it or did you want jump from engineering to finance and to law?

  6. chewyc,

    I'm not a particularly good defender of the Arts because, well you know the degrees and qualifications I have don't really make me particularly qualified to do that. But a humanities and social science education is very much like playing D&D, it's the ability to manipulate and play with ideas. Some ideas can't really be taught in the School of hard knocks.

    For me the arts and humanities is actually defence against the dark arts. Will a school of hard knocks protect a person from the ideas of Kong Hee ? I'm not too sure about that. Knowing a bit about theology and what grace means in Christianity might.

    As for my qualifications, yes it is fun for me. Some people are Ranger who are also navy divers and commandos. I aspire to be like that in the mental realm.

    Also I am just a machochist.

    My entire work experience so far has been IT, BTW. I did not go into finance after my CFA exams.

  7. You got a really useful blog I have been here reading for about an hour. I am a newbie and your success is very much an inspiration for me.Thank for distribute helpful info.
    Learning Programming From Scratch