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The real reason why many Singaporeans work so hard.

Let me share a personal story with you.

Before I came to Finland, I worked really hard all my life. I thought all you have to do to gain success in life was to work hard, and work harder than the rest. At the National University of Singapore (NUS)–ranked number #12 in the whole world– I toiled over Economics and Econometrics classes, all while teaching part-time.

Obviously NUS is not ranked Number #12 in the world by voodoo. The academic standards are super high and world-class. And mind you, we were all graded on a bell-curve at NUS. This means we don’t get a particular grade “because professors felt like it”, but grades were given relative to your classmate’s performance. We were all competing against each other–Only the top 5% would get an A, and the top 1% of cohort would get a A+, for example.

I also volunteered a lot and organised crazy and big events, turned up at many, many student exchange programmes, and gave my time generously to my NUS juniors.

What I did not do was sleep, and my health did take a huge dive. I think for one particular month I was sleeping an average of 2/3 hours every day, with power naps in between. And the phenomenon of “not sleeping” is not unique to me. Many in the NUS architecture/ medical school did not sleep much as well especially when deadlines were approaching.

Those were great times in student life! When I transited to working life, I realised that unfortunately, not all workplaces were as structured. For example, I worked once with a Multinational Corporation, and it was a little messy. I put in 6/7 days of work. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. When my manager spoke, it was all about “how to stretch the employee further”–and even he told me to “stretch my co-workers” in projects.

The result was burn-out.

I was very, very burnt out then. When someone provided criticism to my work (I cannot remember constructive or not), I got extremely emotional. I remembered crying a lot. This was simply due to the lack of sleep. I was so emotionally attached to my work and could not be objective about KPIs.

Things got really personal.

Clearly, the competitive mindset from school spilt over into the workplace, and what we were once again trying to outdo and outshine each other. So, we basically compete to work longer hours, better quality work, do more sales than our fellow colleagues–no additional pay needed. A lack of sleep was seen as something to boost about– hear, hear: “I worked so hard for my company, what were YOU doing?”

This is probably how most companies in Singapore work–no? Compete, outdo, outshine. If you don’t do overtime like your peers, you are seen as “lazy” and “unproductive”.

Then I came to Finland.

I discovered that most of my Finnish classmates don’t really work hard at all, as compared to the Singaporean standard! However, they get stuffs done because they work smart.

So I started to observe and test.

For example, I wanted to find out the answer to the meaning of “working smart”, because prior to coming to Finland I had absolutely zero concept of it. So I was obsessed with finding an answer.

Along the way, on a totally random note: I realised one thing really, really weird. That is, in Finnish, you can hear this phrase quite often, “Piti miettiä“/ “I’d need to think about it”.

And my Finnish friends really take the time to think really, really hard!

So…I was really puzzled: Exactly what are my Finnish friends thinking hard about?


And…What I found out was this: My friends think super hard about how to get the task done with as little time and effort as possible.

In other words: design.

Design means thinking hard about exactly what you are doing, and the most elegant way of getting that task done–before it is done.

And to do that, my Finnish friends find it absolutely necessary to spend time designing before physically starting to do any work.

Working smart therefore means thinking really hard and planning properly before starting work.

Dear Singaporeans, do most of us think about design before starting work? No, most of us don’t.

Can anyone blame us for it? We were never taught how to design stuffs our entire life!

Most of us just work really, really hard. Harder than the rest. We don’t think deeply about exactly why we are doing stuffs for. We don’t think about how to get there via the easiest, most efficient method possible.

And no, making a lot of money should not be the only reason to work, even though it’s commonly used as market validation/ to test people. What’s the use of so much money if you–like me–have been so stressed and burnt out?

Can you imagine how screwed up my life would be, if I’d never realised this? I would be giving up a huge part of my life to pure randomness and luck, instead of moving in the direction that I want.

I am truly grateful that I am doing things on my own terms and designing life the way I want it to be today. Because I’d learnt how to really slow down in Finland (not that I have a choice by the way, things are super slow here relative to Singapore), I had the luxury of time to sleep a lot, think a lot about what I really want in life, and drink a lot of coffee. I also learnt how to “design” things from my Finnish friends–some of my really smart Finnish friends like to “hack the system”, and so I learnt, too. 😀

As a sidenote, do you realise how shit this realization is? That things can be so damn slow in Finland, and people still get quality work done? It really made me question exactly what our busy-ness in Singapore is for.

I’m actually personally convinced that Finns accomplish innovative and high-quality things due to design. If you have a good design, there is no need to work so hard. You can inch towards milestones and still experience great success.

On the other hand, if the system/game is designed in a shit manner, or IF there is absolutely zero plan/design beforehand, you go around in circles no matter how hard you work. Then you leave outcomes up to chances and luck, which isn’t that bad too considering some things do get done.

But if only if you had known how to design well, and work really hard in accordance to the design–would you not achieve much more within the period of time?

So…After I realised the importance of design, I experienced a better state of mind, more magnanimity and courage, and more productive ways of doing things.

And now I do things with a clear, verifiable purpose.

So now, my friend, would you like to know how to stop so working hard, and start working smart instead?

Here’s your chance.

Design Finland 100 is offering a one day executive seminar at the Singapore Management University. It’s titled “Design meets business”.

Finland is ranked No. 5 in the world for innovation, and this obviously stems from great design. If you are working hard at work with limited results, or facing a quarter-life crisis, I’d encourage you to attend the seminar. Learn from the best of the best– a different type of innovation in a different way.

You don’t even need to know the names of the Finnish companies that are there– I doubt you would know too. Simply showing up to learn what you don’t know you don’t know is sufficient to spark a different inspired direction in the way you work and live your life.

(By the way, Fazer is one of the partners and they have really good chocolates.) 

So yes, RSVP at the facebook event page today! Tickets are priced at a token investment of SGD$300.

For any enquiries about tickets or the event, please email the CEO of Brand Audit Group Kirsti Lindberg-Repo at [kirsti.lindbergrepo@designfinland100.fi] or Astha Kalbag [asthakalbag07@gmail.com].

By the way, this is not a sponsored post. I just personally feel strongly that it is important for more Singaporeans to learn how to design both visible and invisible stuffs. Imagine how much further we can go with the knowledge of design, since we’re so aggressive, hardworking and competitive already.

Oh and by the way, not ALL Finnish executive events/ education in Singapore are as great as this initiative. I urge you to do a background check beforehand. All that glitters is not gold! 😛

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