Paper is Overrated

By Benjamin Cheah

Singaporeans have heard it a thousand times growing up. Study hard, get into a good school, excel in studies, get a degree, and land a secure high-paying job. If not, you’re condemned to being a sweet sweeper or garbage cleaner forever. Well, I studied hard, got into respectable schools, got my degree and a membership in the Golden Key Society. I ought to be set for life, right?

I’m still waiting for money to fall into my lap.

A crafted education

As a child I was fortunate enough to know what I want and need out of life. I was also fortunate enough to have the time, energy and resources to decade years honing my craft. Armed with this self-knowledge, I chose an education path that met my specific goals. I pursued arts subjects in secondary school because the sciences did not seem relevant to me. In Junior College, I built my coursework around Knowledge and Inquiry, picking arts subjects that would reinforce skills of analysis and argumentation, and picked mathematics to round off the arts subjects because it seemed to fit my personality best. After National Service, when Singapore’s universities rejected me, I picked a private degree that developed my communications skills.

I built my education specifically to develop skills and knowledge. One learns to write by writing, but writing alone is not enough to become a writer. Not the kind of writer I wanted to be. I wanted to write about current affairs, and that meant learning how to analyse and make arguments. I sought to understand the principles that governed human behaviour and thought, so I looked into subjects that tried to understand humans. After I realised that my fiction would not bloom overnight, I took a degree course that helped me translate my fiction writing ability into writing commercially — especially communications, journalism and broadcast media.

Along the way, I made mistakes, of course. In secondary school, science pedagogy bored me out of my mind, and I figured that I didn’t need to use it in the future. Now I find myself grappling with complex algorithms and dense scientific arguments on a daily basis, with less grounding than most people would. Mother Tongue lessons were excruciating, and my Mandarin skills lag far behind my English ones. The degree I chose translates very well into various industries I could see myself working in — but none of the companies I found were interested in hiring fresh graduates, defeating the point of getting a degree.

But no education is perfect, and very few people are lucky enough to be able to craft a smooth-sailing life.

Paper isn’t everything

If we want to work at the headquarters of big companies like Toyota immediately after we graduate, yes going to a good university does help a lot. But if we leave school at fifteen years of age and decide to become a craftsman, people will equally respect us as a professional.

Paper isn’t important. Skills are important. Experience is important. Talent is important. Skills show what you can do, both in theory and in practice. Experience shows how well you know your stuff. Talent points the way to specialisation, and thus optimal employment. Paper just confirms that you possess a specific set of knowledge, maybe even skills. For certain jobs, like being an engineer or a doctor, the path to getting paper imbues you with the skills and knowledge you need to do it right. In those situations the paper chase is important — more accurately, the knowledge and the credibility is important.

But otherwise, paper isn’t everything. I made more money out of leveraging my skills, talent and experience than with my paper qualifications. Conflating paper qualifications with income is to mistake the map for the territory. A spotty map, with a 1:10000 resolution, hand-drawn from foggy memories. People do not necessarily need or use paper, but people do need to make a living. A stack of paper may look impressive, but if you don’t apply what you’ve learned, if it doesn’t open any doors and help you become who you want to be, it’s worthless. Paper is just a means to an end, not the end in itself, nor the only means to the end.

What is that end? It’s easy to say money, a house, a stable career, and indeed it may well be the case for many people. But these are just vagaries. The devil is in the details. For instance, suppose you could earn $10000 a month, plus bonuses, perks, and other benefits. But to do this, you need to put in a minimum of 80 hours a week, work during weekends and holidays, pull overnighters regularly, and socialise with your colleagues and clients after work instead of your family. How many people will put up with this?

Conversely, suppose you find a job that lets you work as you please, is minimally demanding, and lets you pursue interests in your own time and have quality time with your family. But, there is no CPF, the work is boring and non-scaleable, no perks, no guarantees of income stability or growth, and no government protection. How many people will accept this?

Notice I didn’t say anything about paper qualifications. That’s because in the long term, paper doesn’t matter. It’s what value you can deliver, it’s the impact on the rest of your life, it’s what you’re willing to exchange for money, socialisation and other benefits.

It’s about you.

This means self-knowledge is critical. You have to know what you want out of life. You have to know your limits and your expectations, your desires and your turn-offs. You need to know your strengths and your weaknesses, your inclinations and your personality. Many people, especially teenagers, may not fully understand what they want, and that is human. But the sooner people work this out, the more time and resources they have to shape their life and determine a better strategy. Because I knew early on that I wanted to be a writer, I could pick the education path that optimised my skills, and built a foundation of life-long skills. Because I made my mistakes early, I am able to shift my life to compensate for those errors, by shoring up my knowledge in areas where I am deficient and starting my business.

External knowledge is also important. Once you know who and what you are, you can figure out what jobs to take. This means doing research, understanding what your preferred industry wants and needs. Here, paper qualifications are important — but again, they are not everything. You need to know the tips and tricks of the trade, the mindsets needed, preferred personality types, industry trends, external events that could affect the industry. Self-publishing allows anybody to be a writer, but true success goes only to those who master both the craft and the business of writing.

Sun Tzu said, if you know your enemy and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a thousand battles. Translated into the real world: if you know yourself, and know the environment you’re going into, you need not worry about loss.

Paper is a prop

The popular saying goes ‘you will win a thousand battles’, not ‘will not be imperiled’. The latter meaning is closer to the original saying, and more realistic. Success is not guaranteed out of the bat. Overnight success is akin to winning the lottery — only for a lucky few. To get what you want, you have to work for it. There may come a point where the paper you’ve got will not guarantee or ensure employment. Then what?

The conventional wisdom says, be resilient. But resilience means being able to spring back into shape after experiencing an external stressor. I prefer being antifragile: thriving and growing following external stress. If you’re in a bad situation to begin with, being resilient means going from worse to bad — which still means you’re in a bad place. Being antifragile means taking the opportunity to move yourself into a better state of being.

When the chips are down and stuff goes wrong, paper is not likely to save you. It may help you, but don’t bet on it. It’s an object of extrinsic worth, valued at the time it was used — but not necessarily valued now. At best, it’s a prop whose utility depends on a very limited set of circumstances. Skills, talent and experience are intangibles of intrinsic value. Someone, somewhere will find your particular combination valuable — and that means you become valuable. And if you need paper, experience or knowledge to get to where you need to be, this trio will help you get what you need to become what you want. If you have made mistakes earlier, this trio will get you out and to where you want to be.

Being antifragile means turning chaos into opportunity. That means doing what you have to do to get by. It might mean taking up lousy, low-paying jobs to pay the bills until your side gig takes off. It might mean taking a bank loan and going back to school so you can land your dream job. It might mean taking the plunge into the unknown and risking your savings to start up the business you always wanted. Nowhere in this is paper really involved, except as a means to an end.

The Great Singapore Paper Chase is an illusion. It simplifies the complexities of life into a single, narrow path. It’s an easy excuse for parents to nag their children instead of understanding their needs, for teachers to nag their students instead of developing them as people, for governments to nag their people instead of enacting proper policy. Banking everything on a piece of paper is not the way to go.

What really matters lies within: in a person’s skills, talents, experience, knowledge, willingness and ability to understand what they are going into, willingness and ability to adapt to changing situations. Once armed with high intrinsic worth, paper can be put in its rightful place.

This article first appeared on the blog of Benjamin Cheah on 10 September 2014. It is reproduced with permission.


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