Speech for Commencement 2016 (National University of Singapore)

I never managed to wear my mortarboard and academic gown when I graduated from University. It has also been a sore point for my mom, who constantly laments that she never got to attend my official graduation ceremony...

Thus it is a true honour and privilege that my university (the National University of Singapore) had asked me to make the commencement address this year. 

Feeling slightly nervous pre-speech. It was a true honour to don the honorary University academic gown.

Feeling slightly nervous pre-speech. It was a true honour to don the honorary University academic gown.

Geography Majors, Class of 2016 - Congratulations to all who have received their Bachelors Degrees, Master Degrees, Double Degrees, and Doctors of Philosophy Degrees!

Geography Majors, Class of 2016 - Congratulations to all who have received their Bachelors Degrees, Master Degrees, Double Degrees, and Doctors of Philosophy Degrees!

My parents finally attended my "graduation" ceremony. It is their first time seeing me deliver a speech in public, and I must say that having them in the audience yesterday made it all the more meaningful.

My parents finally attended my "graduation" ceremony. It is their first time seeing me deliver a speech in public, and I must say that having them in the audience yesterday made it all the more meaningful.

 

All in all, it was a memorable experience - and a true honour to be able to share this moment with so many newly minted graduates that afternoon. 

Here's the full transcript of my speech, right below the embedded video link below.

Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, NUS President;
Distinguished Guests;
Graduates;

Good afternoon. It is an honour to share this moment with all of you. Proud parents, impatient siblings, and the newly minted graduates who can’t wait to start recording this moment on Snapchat.

First of all, congratulations. Every single one of you has achieved what I have failed to do. You know, I have never attended my own commencement ceremony. Standing here today is the closest I have ever gotten to graduating officially from NUS. To my alma mater, thank you for this honour.

Today, I will share three epiphanies I discovered about imperfection, intuition, and empathy. I hope that they can be as relatable to you as they have been for me.

The first epiphany is around imperfection. Many of you will be graduating with degrees from FASS, with majors varying from Geography, to Political Science, and Communications and New Media. Some of you may wonder how to link your new degree scroll to your first job. I am not here to tell you that you will have all the answers. You won’t. But always try to ask the right questions. The strength of graduating with a degree in the Arts and Social Sciences does not lie in the information you know, but what you do with it.

I’ll give you an example. I graduated with a major in Geography. Currently, I run the Asia-Pacific division for a software company. It isn’t the multiple readings on economic geography that helps me in my day to day responsibilities. It is the skills I have learnt right here, in FASS, on what to do with information, that continues to carry me through.

A rite of passage here in FASS is trying to “spot” for the right topics for our semestral examinations. Especially important for non-geniuses like myself who are not blessed with a photographic memory. What do you do when your quest for data is insufficient? You ask questions. You spot patterns. You look at the spaces that live between facts. You don’t just remember information, you process knowledge. Remember that information does not exist to perpetuate information, but as tools to interpret the world.

The second epiphany is around intuition. I was a scholarship holder in my first year at NUS. Unfortunately, by the time I got to my second semester, I knew that it would be a miracle if I did serve out my bond.

How did I know I was wrong? I had taken on the scholarship in a blind admittance to the prestige, the job security, and for my mother’s bragging rights at Chinese New Year. I ignored my intuition. Truthfully, I have always been fascinated with technology - and yet, I was about to serve out the first 4 years of my postgraduate life in a career path that was not remotely related to it.

So, I decided to embrace my intuition in the face of extreme uncertainty. Many of my peers thought I was crazy to break my scholarship bond in my first year of university. I had no guarantee of a job. I was going to throw a secure and “planned” path down the toilet. I did not even have a proper resume.

But I did not want to give up. In the summer of that year, I knocked on many doors of different companies. Fortunately, I managed to take on a temporary gig at an advertising agency. Unfortunately, that was not enough for me as I wanted a full-time role. So, my new boss gave me a challenge. If my team and I could win a crucial, million-dollar social media account for the agency, I will get a full-time role with the company.

What carried me through was a thickened skin, a fearless spirit, and a copious amount of Red Bull. But we did it. We nailed the account, and I got my full-time job. That also meant that I had to make many sacrifices. I re-arranged all my tutorial schedules. I borrowed lecture notes from friends. I worked late on weekdays, and studied during the weekends. For the remainder of my university days, I was a part-time student and a full-time wannabe corporate warrior. I was ambitious, and made sure I went after every work opportunity. I did get my promotion, but it also took me 4 years to complete my bachelor’s degree, instead of the standard 3.

In breaking my scholarship bond, and working at my first job, I learnt that a strong intuition is much more powerful than a weak test. I learnt that it was important to embrace your intuition in the face of uncertainty. Intuition is not a random feeling. It is a force of nature. Your intuition is the culmination of experiences you had, just like the back of a tapestry. On the surface, it might seem random, knotted, and frayed. Nothing might make sense. But only when you turn the back of the tapestry over that you can see the art of your life - the colours, the texture, and the patterns that make a tapestry a beauty. A strong intuition will transform your life into a masterpiece.

The last epiphany I want to share is around empathy. Life will constantly throw you curveballs. I joined Samsung as the regional social business lead for APAC after my first job. It was a glorious moment for me, but I was soon retrenched from the job after a few months, thanks to a corporate restructure and leadership changes.

I remembered protesting the redundancy - I could not believe that I was getting retrenched at the tender age of 23. But everything happens for a reason. After the redundancy exercise, I took some time off. I was depressed but I did not lose faith. I adapted to the change, and got a new job at Twitter thereafter.

What did I learn here? I learnt that the higher you rise, the harder you fall. But the harder you fall, the stronger you will rise. My sense of renewed empathy made me stronger. I learnt that kindness goes a long way. Remember that everyone is fighting a battle you might not be aware of. Don't be afraid, because everyone starts from somewhere and no one is bulletproof. Don't just treat someone how you want to be treated, it is always better to understand them as people and where they are coming from. Don't be afraid to ask for help, have a mentor in life who you can always trust, and you know has your best interests at heart. Treat challenges as opportunities to get more wisdom, and never see kindness as a weakness.

To conclude, I would like to share an anecdote that inspires me daily. This anecdote is from a TED talk by James Cameron on curiosity. You might know him as the award winning director of Titanic and Avatar. To date, both films have been the highest grossing films of all time.

To paraphrase his fabulous talk, he shares that NASA’s motto is how "Failure is not an option." Truthfully, failure has to be an option in art and in exploration, because it is risky and requires a leap of faith. In the greatest achievements of the world, no important endeavour that required innovation was done without risk.

To the class of 2016, as you graduate on this momentous day, you may ask what you can do to change the world. Changing the world starts with changing yourself from within. Ask yourself what you can do for the world, and change the world by filling the needs in others. Success is not a pursuit, it is to be attracted in the journey you take in order to be the person you become.

So, be bold, be daring, and don’t be afraid to fail. In whatever you're doing, failure is an option, but fear is not.

Congratulations again for completing this remarkable milestone in your individual journey to happiness and success. Enjoy this moment, you have worked hard and truly deserve it. I’ve said enough for today. Now, go forth and conquer. Thank you.