05 February 2006

Inspiring? Hmm.

The newspaper today has a story which I think is supposed to be inspiring:
ST Feb 5, 2006
From IT expert to struggling medical student
At 30, she decides to be a doctor - tough switch but she has no regrets
By Jean Loo

WHAT would make someone give up a successful career as a computer engineer and, at the age of 30, study to be a doctor instead?

It is an unconventional choice, but one that 33-year-old Devi Ng had no trouble making.

For eight years, Ms Ng was the epitome of the urban IT professional, working as an analyst programmer for the Ministry of Defence and then as a systems engineer at the Land Transport Authority, where she helped develop the ez-link system.

But in 2002, after her three-year marriage fell apart, she decided to take a different path.

Now she is on the long road through medical school - a story she felt was so inspiring that she asked a journalism student friend to write it down and send it to The Sunday Times.

When we interviewed Ms Ng yesterday, she said her marriage had failed because she was determined to keep working despite objections from her former husband.

'I was in a period of depression, wondering what else could I do with my life.'

A newspaper advertisement offering a part-time distance learning degree in bio medical sciences, offered by the University of Central Queensland, changed her life.

Ms Ng immediately registered for the course, which cost her $12,000.

Channelling her spare time after work into the three-year course, Ms Ng graduated in a mere 1 1/2 years, scoring distinctions for most subjects and
making it onto the Dean's List, despite her lack of background in science.

She also had to juggle family commitments. The sudden death of her father in 1994 had left her the sole breadwinner.

'The money was good, so I stayed on in IT till my two younger brothers found jobs.'

She is now a first-year medical student at the International Medical University (IMU) in Malaysia and will serve a three-week attachment at the Changi General Hospital as part of her course.

Once she has completed her foundation studies in 2008, she hopes to move on
to the next phase of her medical training at the University of Queensland.

She plans to use her savings to pay for part of her course fees, which will cost about $200,000 for the next four years.

If all goes to plan, Ms Ng will graduate in 2010, at the age of 37.

It has been a tough switch from successful professional to struggling student but she has no regrets.

'As a doctor, I can see the patient getting better and that will be the best motivation to keep on working. In IT, projects can drag on for years and it
becomes very meaningless.

'I am fine giving up the chance to start a family, because I've found my true calling, which is to be a doctor and help other people.'

I might be missing something here. But I have some difficulty seeing why the average reader is supposed to find this story inspiring. Instead, I see:

    - a marriage that failed in double quick time;
    - a bout of depression;
    - eight years wasted on an IT career that the person found "very meaningless";
    - the loss of a chance to start a family;
    - an impending huge expenditure of more than $200,000 on her medical studies;
    - a relatively shorter career as a doctor (due to the fact that she'll be starting late);
    - immense opportunity costs;
    - a medical degree from Malaysia (IMU) which I suspect may not be recognised in Singapore; and
    - Singapore losing a seasoned, experienced IT professional for a rookie, wet-behind-the-years doctor .
I hope medicine really turns out to be Devi's "true calling". That would make up for some of her past and present sufferings.


Recruit Ong said...

She implemented the Ezlink... enuff said. :)

Chiaw Yong said...

I don't think the point of the article is specifically to inspire you, dear Mr W.
Success is a journey not a destination. Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. How full a life can one lead if all things are weighted upon mere "opportunity costs"... rather dehumanizing, isn't it? $120,000 for a dream come true... or even simply a chance for a life more fulfilled. For an experience that is not quantifiable monetarily. One's richer for answering to one's self than to adhere to the narrow norms that define society... much less having to justify one's action to Mr W.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

It's certainly true that Mr Wang isn't feeling particularly inspired. Still Devi does seem to think her story is inspiring, which is what puzzles me:

"Now she is on the long road through medical school - a story she felt was so inspiring that she asked a journalism student friend to write it down and send it to The Sunday Times."

Personally, if I were an IT person, I'd just feel insulted by her remark about IT being a meaningless career. That aside, "answering to one's self", as you've put it, is certainly nice and all that, but I don't see why that makes Devi's story generally inspiring. Personally I certainly don't find it more inspiring than, say, the story of any teenager who has a passion for medicine, does well in his or her A-levels, and then goes to med school.

Biased Observer said...

That was my initial reaction as well - I fail to find anything 'inspiring' about the story. The armchair psychiatrist in me can't help feeling that it she is seeking external validation of her attempt in finding 'meaning' in her life.

O2 said...

On my part, I can't see what's not inspiring about it. I don't think the question here is whether her decision can be weighed in terms of opportunity costs, monetary or otherwise.

Plenty of people make career mistakes the way Devi did; I am sure there exist a certain number of people (however limited), who are unhappy as teachers, lawyers, engineers, etc. But not many have the courage to admit that they made a mistake, and far fewer would dare to pursue their dreams at such a ripe old age. And how many of us can claim to have found our calling in life? Some find it in their teens, others in their twenties (like Dewi), but many others never find it even when they are old and dying.

Perhaps those among us who have always known what we wanted to do in life will find it hard to comprehend, but many others out there fumble through their twenties and thirties pondering over life's big decisions, and few come bigger than one's occupation in life.

So if you ask me, the lesson to be learnt here, and that which is truly inspiring, is Dewi's courage to pursue what she believes to be her true calling, however late in life, and however insurmountable the obstacles (be it societal attitudes, familial objections, financial constraints).

Because when all is said and done, your dreams and mine may not be worth much, but Dewi's is enough for her to sacrifice the rest of her life for. And for the rest of the unhappy working class soldiering on in their respective careers, Dewi's story is an inspiring reminder that they can do it too, if only they want it badly enough.

trisha said...

Would it be better if Devi had stuck at her IT job? I certainly don't think so. I agree absolutely with o2.

That someone can make a career switch, in a quest to find one's true calling, in the face of huge financial and opportunity costs, is something we should applaud and learn from.

If she had other commitments, like children to take care of, but had abandoned her responsibility in a bid to find her dream job, then maybe I'll sing a different tune. But in this case, I think she owes it to herself and only herself, to fight for what she wants to spend her life doing.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I suppose that's one way to look at it. But if we choose to look at it that way, then I also think the conclusion you seem to draw is premature.

Perhaps in the year 2013, when she's a doctor and has been busily saving lives for a few years AND actually knows that this is where her passion lies, then the story of her mid-career switch in 2006 will sound more inspiring.

Right now, who knows how the story will turn out?

Right now, I find her story approximately as inspiring as any RJC or NJC student who wants to study medicine. Same aspiration, what. Not to say that it's not a meaningful aspiration, but really it's not INSPIRING to me.

A 37-year-old person who runs a marathon in good time; even THAT would be more inspiring to me, than this Devi wanna-be-a-doctor-at-37-years.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Err, my preceding post was in response to O2.

chnrxn said...

I also want to leave my software related line to be an investment banker ... because I find the stories of them getting 6-month bonuses VERY inspiring.

That aside, what's my point?

"Personally, if I were an IT person, I'd just feel insulted by her remark about IT being a meaningless career.

Different strokes for different folks. I sure she is referring to her own specific experience, and not generalizing the industry as a whole.

An IT project that improves the lot of impoverished people is meaningful. Another project that ensures profits for public transport monopolies by making sure people cannot 'cheat' on their fares isn't.

Go ahead, take a poll of IT folks and see how many of them find real meaning in their jobs.

hugewhaleshark said...

Mr Wang, I think that your failure to be inspired by Devi's story is probably because for an INTJ, it is so natural to act on your inspirations, such that it seems quite ordinary to you.

See: "Being sure of the worth of their inspirations, INTJs want to see them worked out in practice, applied and accepted by the rest of the world; they are willing to spend any time and effort to that end."

When I left my previous job, a colleague there, who had never worked anywhere else, said that I was "inspiring" to her. My reaction then was not far away from yours to this story. One would naturally find inspiration in things which one finds difficult to do.

mugster said...

You speak like a true pragmatic Singaporean.

xx said...

"Right now, I find her story approximately as inspiring as any RJC or NJC student who wants to study medicine. Same aspiration, what."

Yes, but the context is different.

stray cat said...

It is really about perspectives -- whether a cup is half full or half empty. And Mr Wang has chosen to see it as half empty. He thinks it is silly for Ms Ng to do all this. In fact, i think he even feels sad for Ms Ng. This is because he measures life like a "pragmatic singaporean." Mugster -- u r first rate in giving him this desciptor. I mean Mr Wang cannot comprehend that a person who has bouts of depression, who has given up on the hope of having children, whp spends $200K can be inspiring for wanting to be a doctor. He thinks only a 37 year who runs a good time for a marathon can be a wee bit inspiring. How can Ms Ng be inspiring? How can life be a journey? It is about how much you earn that matters. How can someone who has the courage to give a try in something not many wld dare to go is just so incomprehensible. I am happy that Ms Ng has chosen to follow her heart. Luckily, if she is to impress Mr Wang, she may have to run a marathon in good time.

Sigh, I don't know whether to cry or laugh when I see Mr Wang expressing thoughts like this...

O2 said...

Mr Wang, you said: "Perhaps in the year 2013, when she's a doctor and has been busily saving lives for a few years AND actually knows that this is where her passion lies, then the story of her mid-career switch in 2006 will sound more inspiring."

I think that's exactly the point you are missing. It's precisely because she DOESN'T yet know whether being a doctor will be her true passion which makes her story inspiring. The greatest obstacle in this case is not whether she wounds up a doctor or whether she eventually enjoys being one, but the courage to quit the life as she knew it and start afresh.

Perhaps some among us will think it frivolous; to quit and pursue a path which may or may not bear fruit. But the article didn't promise to be inspiring to everyone. To the more practical among us, it may be the ending which decides whether a story is inspiring or not, but there will be others who believe it's the journey that is more important.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, what is inspiring is not whether she eventually becomes a doctor or not, but that she had the courage to attempt the career switch at her age.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Ok, folks, I take your point. Personally I really don't this inspiring at all, but if you do, well, good for you.

Huge Whaleshark, I think you may have something there. Personally, I *am* older than Devi. And I *am* actually considering a mid-career switch myself in mid-2007 (a rather big one, jumping from investment banking industry to academia); furthermore I have two kids to support.

I *know* for a fact that in the long run, I will earn much less as an academic than as an IB lawyer, but anyway I am still considering it - in fact, I *will* do it if the institution grants me the research scholarship for the area of research that I'm very interested in (and the indications that I have received so far are that the chances are good).

It occurs to me that if Devi's story is "inspiring" to other people, then mine ought to be too (possibly on a lesser scale, since it will take me half the time to collect a PhD in law (3 years) that it will take Devi to collect her medicine degree (7 years) -

but frankly up to now, it HADN'T occurred to me that my aspiration could be "inspiring" to anybody; and it HADN'T occurred to me that this is the kind of thing that people might consider me "courageous" for; as far as I'm concerned, I'm merely chasing what I'm interested in (if you like, you can use phrases like "true calling", mmmm, sounds vaguely religious), but then as HWS has pointed out, INTJs tend to find it quite natural to chase their aspirations, and would not think of such pursuit as being particularly "inspiring" or "courageous", which may be why I don't find Devi's story inspiring at all.


To chnrxn, you said:

"I also want to leave my software related line to be an investment banker ... because I find the stories of them getting 6-month bonuses VERY inspiring."

I just wanted to let you know that a 6-month bonus would really be disastrous for investment bankers. On average, they collect quite a lot more than that. So do their IB lawyers.

singaporean said...

As an IT worker, I have to say, the story is actually quite depressing to me. It may be silly to leave a high paying job now, but all IT workers have this nagging fear that they have an expiry date that doesnt match the current CPF withdrawal age, let alone keep up with potential upward adjustments after the GE (yes, look beyond the pre-GE goodies and think about the post-GE pains). In fact, the career cycle of an IT worker or engineer could very well look like this

Cab Driver
Burger flipper
Toilet cleaner (when you are too old to be employed as a burger flipper)

Doctors and lawyers may have to work hard, but they are almost certain to retire comfortably. When was the last time you heard a company shut down and 5000 doctors and lawyers become unemployed?

There are a lot of "dynamic" individuals who would paint a rosy future for certain industries when they are in vogue and mobilise the entire nation's youth in that one direction. And when the hot industry goes bust, they just champion another industry and pretend they had nothing to do with the empty promises they made.

All the crap about "retraining" is just a stalling tactic to deflect criticisms of their empty promises. You switch from engineering to IT and IT goes bust. You then switch from IT to "life sciences" and "life sciences" goes bust. Then you go into digital media, and judging by the way the polytechnics are overproducing plus the endless stream of foreign talents, this one will go bust too.

Yes, pump in the time and money while you still can, and work in a protected industry. If not, then at least go into an area you actually enjoy. Dont be pigeon holed by some nation building mobilisation exercise.

And Mr Wang, as an IT worker, I can tell you most of us will agree with Devi that our jobs are meaningless, and despite our best efforts, the fruits of our labour often cause more pain to mankind than tangible productive improvements.

Devi could very well be atoning for the bad karma she accumulated with the ezlink system.

Oh, and I've heard that in the good years, the financial industries pay 12 to 18 months bonus.

freemoulin said...

My sentiments exactly. I was surprised to read this article on the Sunday Times. You mean this is actually news-worthy? I have a friend who furthers his studies and switches courses all the time after he graduated, on grounds that he hasn't found his "true calling". I'm not inspired at all... To each his own.

The article mentions that she requested her journalist friend to send her story to Sunday Times because she considers herself "so inspiring".. In my mind, she is just someone who wants her 2 minutes of fame in the papers.

klimmer said...

If you make it, whatever you say or did is right.

The reverse is also true.

mugster said...

Well, whether or not she submitted her own story, what is inspiring is that not everyone is motivated by economic gains. In terms of money, this is not a rational thing to do. But in terms of intangible benefits, it makes sense to respond to her calling.

Besides, many Singaporeans have quit their jobs to become stay-at-home mums or to take sabbaticals. Looks like slowly but surely, Singaporeans are becoming less money-faced.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

After reading Singaporean's description of the life cycle of IT workers, I am not so sure whether it is correct to say that Devo was not motivated by economic gains.

After all, if doctors are destined to retire comfortably while IT workers are destined to become burger flippers and toilet cleaners, then surely it could be a very smart monetary move for Devi to try to make the switch.

mugster said...

If I am not wrong, according to economic theory, short term monetary gains are preferable to long term monetary gains. So she's not acting like a profit maximising individual. It's not as if she's taking a further degree in a field she's already familiar with. She's in for a good ten years of hardship.

Unless she becomes a really outstanding surgeon, it is unlikely she would earn enough to cover her expenses and opportunity costs?

mugster said...

Lol, I wasn't aware that IT workers become burger flippers. Afterall, they are the ones who invent technology so quickly that the rest of us become redundant.

singaporean said...

Believe me, I have seen a third consecutive colleague in his 40s asked to leave. All three had a degree or masters in IT.

IT is a low value add labour intensive work. Young IT workers are highly valued because they can work 50 hours a week. IT workers are often accessories to some machines that has a maximum lifespan of a decade at most. Once the machines go, the people go with them. Hiring young school leavers or foreigners is ALWAYS cheaper than retraining slow learning 40 year olds with liabilities like wife and children.

This is unlike a 70 year doctor or a lawyer who can still make a living as long as they can still sign an MC or a deed poll.

And only 0.1% of IT workers invent technology. At least 90% of all IT work is for patching up errors made earlier because some moron thought it makes economic sense to save money hiring foreigners who dont understand their users.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Come to think of it, Singapore Serf was an IT guy, wasn't he. Rather than sit around in Singapore and wait for extinction, he took his chances and left for Australia.

SM said...

I was actually pretty ok with this story until I got to this part: "'As a doctor, I can see the patient getting better and that will be the best motivation to keep on working. In IT, projects can drag on for years and it
becomes very meaningless." Then it became scary. She's 33 years old and she doesn't think that the patients she treats will ever die/languish in not the best of health?! If they don't get better, she won't be motivated to "keep on working" then?

Soap Distant said...

Actually, there is nothing wrong with prefering money, and likewise, in prefering non-monetary aspects of things; whatever makes the individual fulfilled, right? To say one choice is preferable to the other is to impose your own idea of happiness on others, who may not think like you do. After all, a person's life is for him/her to live, and no one else. And i hope for her sake that devi is really choosing what she wants, and not as a response to her setbacks that she faced. After all, if i want to do something, i will want to do it reagardless of whether i had a divorce/ financial difficulties etc.

Devi certainly has the right to feel that her story is inspiring to most, but whether it is really that inspiring is another matter altogether. And my own view on that (and i can only really speak for myself), is that it is not inspiring at all. Because i feel that she is using this "switch" as an "external validation of her attempt in finding 'meaning' in her life", as so aptly put by 'biased observer'.

Anonymous said...

depressing story, because ms devi probably found her IT job being outsources to indians from india.

its meaningless to compete.

Anonymous said...

Someone told me to read this blog. I'm quite upset to see some of the remarks here. I can only say that my story is not meant to inspire everyone. It is meant for those people who have thought the same lines as me but have no clue of what to do next. I'm just giving these people some hope. Many of these people have actually come forward to contact me for advice. And also, I don't need validation of any sort. Please note, that I'm just stating a fact about my OWN experience with IT and nowhere did it mean to be an insult to current IT lovers.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Devi (assuming that's who you really are), I'm sorry to hear that you are upset. Just to be clear - my own view, which you will see if you read through all my comments, is simply that your story is not inspiring; ie not that there is anything wrong with what you're doing, but just that I don't see it as inspiring.

As you can see from comments above, some people (Rong, O2, Trisha)disagree with me and they DO find your story inspiring. So perhaps you should draw some comfort there.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Also, it is not that prudent to leave your handphone number out on the Internet like that. You could get some idiotic pranksters constantly calling you. If you change your mind and decide that you want to have the number removed from my blog, leave a note here and I will do the rest.

Anonymous said...

I think the papers carried this to print to promote the gahmen's line of changing skill sets in a changing economy yada yada.

I'd be better inspired if Devi became a really successful doctor and actually saved some lives, like the guy in LOST.

In the meanwhile, I don't think its wise for a skilled professional to change horses mid stream, unless it is absolutely critical. We only get better by the doing the same thing for a long time. All jobs are meaningless, tough and looks good from the outside.

Anonymous said...

Reply to Mr Wang - I was busy & sorrie for not replying earlier. Thanks, if you can remove my number it would be good.

Alternatively anyone who would like to contact me could send me a private message through this other forum at http://www.lokun.nhg.com.sg/forum/default.asp. My forum id is devi_ng_2006.

Life is not perfect so I'm open to both good & bad criticisms. Everyone has a right to his or her opinion. Regardless of what people might say I'm not going to turn back.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Devi's earlier message is deleted ... and reposted below, minus the phone number:

"Anyway I don't want to be labelled a petty person. I still have about a month here before I'm back to KL. Anyone who has experienced a major career switch & want to share your story, or discuss anything related to it, can contact me at [ ]."

She now can be contacted here:

http://www.lokun.nhg.com.sg/forum/default.asp. Her forum id is devi_ng_2006.