Adrian Tan Speech for NTU, Meaningful

Written by Adrian Tan, author of The Teenage Textbook (1988), was the
guest-of-honour at a recent NTU convocation ceremony. This was his
speech to the graduating class of 2008.

if you are done reading, let me know, I will be bringing this post down soon, unless there are others who happens to stumble upon this post as well.


I must say thank you to the faculty and staff of the Wee Kim Wee
School of Communication and Information for inviting me to give your
convocation address. It’s a wonderful honor and a privilege for me to
speak here for ten minutes without fear of contradiction, defamation
or retaliation. I say this as a Singaporean and more so as a husband.

My wife is a wonderful person and perfect in every way except one. She
is the editor of a magazine. She corrects people for a living. She has
honed her expert skills over a quarter of a century, mostly by
practising at home during conversations between her and me.

On the other hand, I am a litigator. Essentially, I spend my day
telling people how wrong they are. I make my living being

Nevertheless, there is perfect harmony in our matrimonial home. That
is because when an editor and a litigator have an argument, the one
who triumphs is always the wife.

And so I want to start by giving one piece of advice to the men: when
you’ve already won her heart, you don’t need to win every argument.

Marriage is considered one milestone of life. Some of you may already
be married. Some of you may never be married. Some of you will be
married. Some of you will enjoy the experience so much, you will be
married many, many times. Good for you.

The next big milestone in your life is today: your graduation. The end
of education. You’re done learning.

You’ve probably been told the big lie that “Learning is a lifelong
process” and that therefore you will continue studying and taking
masters’ degrees and doctorates and professorships and so on. You know
the sort of people who tell you that? Teachers. Don’t you think there
is some measure of conflict of interest? They are in the business of
learning, after all. Where would they be without you? They need you to
be repeat customers.

The good news is that they’re wrong.

The bad news is that you don’t need further education because your
entire life is over. It is gone. That may come as a shock to some of
you. You’re in your teens or early twenties. People may tell you that
you will live to be 70, 80, 90 years old. That is your life

I love that term: life expectancy. We all understand the term to mean
the average life span of a group of people. But I’m here to talk about
a bigger idea, which is what you expect from your life.

You may be very happy to know that Singapore is currently ranked as
the country with the third highest life expectancy. We are behind
Andorra and Japan, and tied with San Marino. It seems quite clear why
people in those countries, and ours, live so long. We share one thing
in common: our football teams are all hopeless.
There’s very little
danger of any of our citizens having their pulses raised by watching
us play in the World Cup. Spectators are more likely to be lulled into
a gentle and restful nap.

Singaporeans have a life expectancy of 81.8 years. Singapore men live
to an average of 79.21 years, while Singapore women live more than
five years longer, probably to take into account the additional time
they need to spend in the bathroom.

So here you are, in your twenties, thinking that you’ll have another
40 years to go. Four decades in which to live long and prosper.

Bad news. Read the papers. There are people dropping dead when they’re
50, 40, 30 years old. Or quite possibly just after finishing their
convocation. They would be very disappointed that they didn’t meet
their life expectancy.

I’m here to tell you this. Forget about your life expectancy.

After all, it’s calculated based on an average. And you never, ever
want to expect being average.

Revisit those expectations. You might be looking forward to working,
falling in love, marrying, raising a family. You are told that, as
graduates, you should expect to find a job paying so much, where your
hours are so much, where your responsibilities are so much.

That is what is expected of you. And if you live up to it, it will be
an awful waste.

If you expect that, you will be limiting yourself. You will be living
your life according to boundaries set by average people. I have
nothing against average people. But no one should aspire to be them.
And you don’t need years of education by the best minds in Singapore
to prepare you to be average.

What you should prepare for is mess. Life’s a mess. You are not
entitled to expect anything from it. Life is not fair. Everything does
not balance out in the end. Life happens, and you have no control over
it. Good and bad things happen to you day by day, hour by hour, moment
by moment. Your degree is a poor armour against fate.

Don’t expect anything. Erase all life expectancies. Just live. Your
life is over as of today. At this point in time, you have grown as
tall as you will ever be, you are physically the fittest you will ever
be in your entire life and you are probably looking the best that you
will ever look. This is as good as it gets. It is all downhill from
here. Or up. No one knows.

What does this mean for you? It is good that your life is over.

Since your life is over, you are free. Let me tell you the many
wonderful things that you can do when you are free.

The most important is this: do not work.

Work is anything that you are compelled to do. By its very nature, it
is undesirable.

Work kills. The Japanese have a term “Karoshi”, which means death from
overwork. That’s the most dramatic form of how work can kill. But it
can also kill you in more subtle ways. If you work, then day by day,
bit by bit, your soul is chipped away, disintegrating until there’s
nothing left. A rock has been ground into sand and dust.

There’s a common misconception that work is necessary. You will meet
people working at miserable jobs. They tell you they are “making a
living”. No, they’re not. They’re dying, frittering away their
fast-extinguishing lives doing things which are, at best, meaningless
and, at worst, harmful.

People will tell you that work ennobles you, that work lends you a
certain dignity. Work makes you free. The slogan “Arbeit macht frei”
was placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps.
Utter nonsense.

Do not waste the vast majority of your life doing something you hate
so that you can spend the small remainder sliver of your life in
modest comfort. You may never reach that end anyway.

Resist the temptation to get a job. Instead, play. Find something you
enjoy doing. Do it. Over and over again. You will become good at it
for two reasons: you like it, and you do it often. Soon, that will
have value in itself.

I like arguing, and I love language. So, I became a litigator. I enjoy
it and I would do it for free. If I didn’t do that, I would’ve been in
some other type of work that still involved writing fiction – probably
a sports journalist.

So what should you do? You will find your own niche. I don’t imagine
you will need to look very hard. By this time in your life, you will
have a very good idea of what you will want to do. In fact, I’ll go
further and say the ideal situation would be that you will not be able
to stop yourself pursuing your passions. By this time you should know
what your obsessions are. If you enjoy showing off your knowledge and
feeling superior, you might become a teacher.

Find that pursuit that will energise you, consume you, become an
obsession. Each day, you must rise with a restless enthusiasm. If you
don’t, you are working.

Most of you will end up in activities which involve communication. To
those of you I have a second message: be wary of the truth. I’m not
asking you to speak it, or write it, for there are times when it is
dangerous or impossible to do those things. The truth has a great
capacity to offend and injure, and you will find that the closer you
are to someone, the more care you must take to disguise or even
conceal the truth. Often, there is great virtue in being evasive, or
equivocating. There is also great skill. Any child can blurt out the
truth, without thought to the consequences. It takes great maturity to
appreciate the value of silence.

In order to be wary of the truth, you must first know it. That
requires great frankness to yourself. Never fool the person in the

I have told you that your life is over, that you should not work, and
that you should avoid telling the truth. I now say this to you: be

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Do you know anyone who hates you? Yet
every great figure who has contributed to the human race has been
hated, not just by one person, but often by a great many. That hatred
is so strong it has caused those great figures to be shunned, abused,
murdered and in one famous instance, nailed to a cross.

One does not have to be evil to be hated. In fact, it’s often the case
that one is hated precisely because one is trying to do right by one’s
own convictions. It is far too easy to be liked, one merely has to be
accommodating and hold no strong convictions. Then one will gravitate
towards the centre and settle into the average. That cannot be your
role. There are a great many bad people in the world, and if you are
not offending them, you must be bad yourself. Popularity is a sure
sign that you are doing something wrong.

The other side of the coin is this: fall in love.

I didn’t say “be loved”. That requires too much compromise. If one
changes one’s looks, personality and values, one can be loved by

Rather, I exhort you to love another human being. It may seem odd for
me to tell you this. You may expect it to happen naturally, without
deliberation. That is false. Modern society is anti-love. We’ve taken
a microscope to everyone to bring out their flaws and shortcomings. It
far easier to find a reason not to love someone, than otherwise.
Rejection requires only one reason. Love requires complete acceptance.
It is hard work – the only kind of work that I find palatable.

Loving someone has great benefits. There is admiration, learning,
attraction and something which, for the want of a better word, we call
happiness. In loving someone, we become inspired to better ourselves
in every way. We learn the truth worthlessness of material things. We
celebrate being human. Loving is good for the soul.

Loving someone is therefore very important, and it is also important
to choose the right person. Despite popular culture, love doesn’t
happen by chance, at first sight, across a crowded dance floor. It
grows slowly, sinking roots first before branching and blossoming. It
is not a silly weed, but a mighty tree that weathers every storm.
You will find, that when you have someone to love, that the face is
less important than the brain, and the body is less important than the

You will also find that it is no great tragedy if your love is not
reciprocated. You are not doing it to be loved back. Its value is to
inspire you.

Finally, you will find that there is no half-measure when it comes to
loving someone. You either don’t, or you do with every cell in your
body, completely and utterly, without reservation or apology. It
consumes you, and you are reborn, all the better for it.

Don’t work. Avoid telling the truth. Be hated. Love someone.

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