Let your children chase their own dreams!

I mooted the idea of writing a commentary about Malaysian parents, especially Chinese Malaysians wanting to dictate the fields of studies for their offspring way back in January 2014. This was because I regularly get requests from acquaintances, friends, and families to provide “free advising” to their college-going children.

As a freelancer (on and off since 2011), the idea of providing a fee-based advisory service on higher education opportunities and options was a very attractive one. I even managed to get myself appointed as a recruitment adviser by a few overseas institutions. But to base my bread and butter on this kind of work is not exactly child play. It is a pay-on-success-only kind of arrangement. You will get nothing for the time, effort, parking charges, restaurant tabs etc. that you have spent on a student unless the parents concerned sign up their offspring. I had wasted many hours and lots of expenses giving this sort of free advising.

Then I decided to levy a small charge of RM100.00 (about US$28.60 in Dec 2014) for providing unbiased advising. After all, people have no issue paying for professional advisory from their lawyers, accountants, etc. why not education advisers?

Did I earn any income for the advising I have been providing to my “clients”? You may incline to ask. The answer is absolutely NIL!

Either all the people who have engaged my time, knowledge and services are cheapskates or they just did not know that as a freelancer I need to generate some income for my time. So I hope this article will help in a way to sow the seeds for my friends, relatives, and acquaintances to pay my bills! People should be aware that unbiased advice comes with a price tag and mine is a modest RM100.00 only! Doesn’t your kid’s future worth this small sum?

So have I stopped all these pro bono work? Not exactly.  I just become more incline now to refer requests for free education advising to the many education establishments directly and have become very “economical” with my advising unless the request comes from a close friend or relative.

Whatever the message this article below conveys, I would like all parents to do what I have done. Guide your children in their choice of studies which may or may not lead to a career in the same field, but let them chase their own dreams. Whatever their choices, your job as parents is to support them both in spirit and in Ringgit (or US$). Let the kids realize their own dreams. They need not take up the profession of their choice of studies. If they find out that they have to change direction, don’t get mad. It is part and parcel of learning to find a suitable path.

Just look at me. An agriculture graduate who was trained to be a farm manager or farm adviser. The fact is, after graduating with an Honours degree in General Agriculture from the Queen’s University of Belfast in 1985, I have never worked in the field of agriculture. In fact, for 18 years now, I have not worked in the field of expertise I gained from my postgraduate studies, plant tissue culture! Instead, I become an education management specialist.

Luckily for me, the field of plant tissue culture progresses at a snail pace and an armchair “old dog” lab scientist like me can still find my expertise being valued and fortunately, I can still keep pace with developments. But “old dogs” still need to learn new tricks, that is where Massive Open Online Courses come in handy, but that is another story! The broad-based agriculture degree prepared me well to lead the life of an academic when in the heyday of private college growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s this broad knowledge helped me to be a much better educator. The farm management, especially farm marketing and accounting courses that I studied helped to horn in my entrepreneurial skills. The list of applications for knowledge I had picked up during my university days is very long indeed. There again, I spent almost 3 times longer than the average British-educated person in university!

It may be great to know that (and I am very proud to be associated with this man) one of my buddies, Dr. Michael Leong who was trained as a surgeon became a serial entrepreneurs (who retired a very wealthy man before he was 48 years old) is one of those people who did not follow the typical career path of a medical doctor! I don’t get to meet with Micheal who is based in Singapore often enough, but every time we meet he would insist on buying the drinks and food and I usually could not argue well with a self-made multimillionaire on that!


By Dr Chow Yong Neng
12/27/2014 5:00:00 PM
Young students must be given the freedom to realise their own dreams

Being an 18-year veteran of the education and training industry has its perks. Every year, especially after the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination (a public examination for all Malaysian high school graduates), I get invitations to lunch or dinner from friends and relatives to provide advice to their offspring on the next step after high school.

I would be expected to give my unbiased and learned views. My round of questions would usually not solicit much of a reply from the young student involved. Dad or mum knows best is the theme. Mostly, the kid realistically has no say in his choice of studies.

Many parents, even those who have had the benefit of university education, do not understand the real reason for their children having a university education. The notion, especially among Malaysian parents, is that students must choose and seek their career in their respective fields of undergraduate studies. That is why parents are so concerned and usually take over the decision-making in the fields of studies that their children should undertake.

A former colleague, Dr. CGB, who was a practicing engineer and lecturer in structural engineering, once commented: “Most fresh graduate engineers are half-baked; we need to put them through at least three years of rigorous industrial exposure before they are ready.”

I think Dr. CGB’s view can be applied to almost all fresh graduates. University education is a means to provide students with the opportunity to learn new knowledge, skills and social networking. A person holding an undergraduate degree demonstrates to the world that he has the ability to think, analyse and assimilate factual knowledge to solve problems better than those without such an advantage.

That’s why I had adopted a liberal view in helping my own children choose what they want to do. I exposed them to what different career choices entail and explained what they need to do to be in various different professions.

My son, having learned these quickly, discarded the idea of being a medical doctor right from the age of 15 and decided by the time he was in Form 4 that he would like to study mathematics, finance or actuarial science. He settled on the finance option when he embarked on his tertiary education.

Exposing your children to different professions at an early age lets them gain the knowledge that they need to make the right decision on a course of study when the time comes.

As parents, it is our duty to guide our children on their choices of study. The key phrase here is “their choices”. We should be flexible and should refrain from deciding on the choice of study for them. Young students must be given the freedom to realise their own dreams. They should not be expected to accomplish and live the dreams of their fathers or mothers. Parents force their children to take a study choice that they do not have an aptitude for, there may be damaging consequences.

While you are explaining and exposing different professions and career choices to them, never attempt to look down on non-traditional choices of study. Not everyone is interested to be an engineer, doctor, accountant, lawyer or banker. Many people who did not choose to be in any of these professions in their university studies ended up doing just as well or better.

In 1982, I had chosen general agriculture as my choice of study. My parents, who were paying for my education, supported my choice without hesitation. I met many fellow Malaysian students at the Queen’s University of Belfast who were reading medicine, engineering or accounting. Some of them thought I chose to read agriculture because (a) I must have had poor grades for my GCE ‘A’ levels, (b) I must have some predilection for the smell of cow dung or (c) both.

They were gobsmacked when they learned that with two A’s and two B’s, I was offered to read medicine, engineering or accounting but I had chosen agriculture instead. I like biology and the most practical form of biology was agriculture.

Interestingly, you would think that an education consultant would be able to earn a living from satisfying regular requests for unbiased advice. In reality, no one seems to be willing to pay my consultancy fees of RM100 per hour. My friends and relatives either do not think that my advice is worth RM100 or they think I am too wealthy and therefore will not need this small fee.

[This article was originally published on November 1st, 2014 edition of Focusweek  & is re-published in The Heat Online on December 27, 2014]

Experts are made, geniuses are born

Anyone can be an expert. You need not be a Nobel Prize winner to be one. You just have to be very good at what your are doing and keep on learning and improving. We have experts in every field of work: electricians, air-conditioning technicians, pest-control technicians, auto mechanics, plumbers, writers, teachers, bankers, managers etc. The only difference between experts in a field and the “so-so” practitioners is that experts have conditioned themselves to continuously learn about their  field. Remember,  there is an expert in every field and anyone can be an expert.

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(Revised: Apr 20, 2018)

This article was first published on Jun 22, 2013 under Dr. Chow’s moniker of “Plantcloner” in Focus Malaysia. The title of the published article was “Gaining expertise through learning”. However, I feel that my original title, pitched to the editor is a better representation of what I  wanted to say: Experts are made, but geniuses are born!

Parents’ aspiration for their offspring – realistic?

Every parent’s dream is for his/her offsprings to be experts of some measure. This is especially true among Asians and Malaysian parents are of no exception. I know of plenty a “tiger mum” and “lion father”.  The social norm is for parents to push their children to read medicine, dentistry, engineering, pharmacy, law etc. etc. at universities. Often the interest of the young high school graduate is ignored. “Mum / dad knows best” seems to be the favourite answer, when challenged by their respective offsprings.  However, the reality is, not all young learners turn out to be experts in studying and many would disappoint their parents. There is an old Chinese saying, “Háng háng chū zhuàng yuán” (行行出状元) which literally means experts / masters / maestros are found  in every profession. It seems that most parents have not registered this.

Any difference between genius and experts?

So what is the key difference between two experts, one a genius and the other an “ordinary” person in any profession or field of work?

I think both the genius and the ordinary person have to learn a lot in their field before they could attain “expert status”. It is just  that the amount of time needed by the ordinary person to learn to be an expert may be a bit longer than the genius.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice?

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “Outlier” cited research which showed that experts usually require at least 10,000 hours of learning where continuous improvements during this period have to occur for them to attain “expert” status. The 10,000 hours figure is not absolute, but I think 10 – 20% either way is the norm.  There are lots of examples on expertise attained through learning.

When I was diagnosed with having 2 large stones in my left kidney in 2013, my trust placed upon  my urologist was not formed by the many testamurs that hang on his clinic’s wall. It was because  he told me that he had done over 1,500 times the procedure which he wanted to perform on me, with only 5% having complications. Let us calculate the hours of working (and learning, as each patient’s case was different) for this urologist. A “normal” procedure takes about 2 hours in the operating theatre. Add in 4 hours of various preoperative and postoperative diagnosis and consultation sessions, thus each case needs about 6 hours of the urologist’s time. 1,500 procedures entail at least 9,000 hours of working and learning by the urologist. I am glad I did this quick calculation and my urologist did a good job on me. Of course the fact that he holds two F.R.C.Ss (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) gave me added confidence in his ability. But the two F.R.C.Ss were not included in my calculation!

Experts and the fried noodles hawker

Let us look at another profession. Your favourite “char koay teow” or fried noodles hawker. If he picks up his trade working as a fried noodles stall’s assistant, how long will he take to be an expert fried noodles hawker?

Assuming that he has already picked up the basics in frying noodles and is ready to set up his own stall.  If he works  8 hours per day for 6 days a week, it would have taken him just about 4 years to clock in 10,000 hours to be an expert “char koay teow” hawker. That is assuming that he gets feedback from his clients and keeps on improving. Of course, if he did not learn enough in the first place and his fried noodles taste like rubber bands with seasoning there is no question of him attaining the “expert” status! His business would probably have folded within a short while.

Plantcloner’s own experience

So what about my own experience in attaining my expertise?

My master’s and doctoral studies at the Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland took me 5 years to complete.  At 40 hours a week of laboratory work and studies and 50 working weeks per year, in theory, when I completed my doctoral studies, I had clocked in about 10,000 hours. I should have been an expert in my field as a fresh PhD holder.

But I am no genius, in fact it took me another year, working in the National University of Singapore’s research laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher before I dared to hold my head up a little among experts in my field. Later, when I got a job as a commercial laboratory’s research scientist,  I had to re-learn a lot of my trade in this profit-driven establishment. My biggest culture shock was having to scale up my work from research laboratory to production scale. It was another year of learning before I “graduated” as a commercial scientist. So it took me at least 14,000 hours of learning to be an expert in my field of commercial plant tissue culture.

Geniuses are born, but experts are made

Thus geniuses are born, but experts are made. The two are not synonymous. It does not  matter if you are a genius or not, to be an expert, you need to put in a lot of hard work and perseverance. You need to have the attitude to learn and improve and do so continually.

Anyone can be an expert. You need not be a Nobel Prize winner to be one. You just have to be very good at what your are doing and keep on learning and improving. We have experts in every field of work: electricians, air-conditioning technicians, pest-control technicians, auto mechanics, plumbers, writers, teachers, bankers, managers etc. etc. and of course those in the “in” professional fields like doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers and  scientists.

The only difference between experts in a field and the “so-so” practitioners is the fact that experts have conditioned themselves to continuously learn about developments, new technologies, market demand, regulatory environment etc.. about their  field. Thus Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and lifelong learning (LL) are two inescapable commitments that professional bodies have levied on their members. All self respecting experts of any field that worth their  salt will tell you how much of CPD or LL they have committed to each year.

Give the kid a chance!

So the next time a child tells you that when she/he grows up she/he wants to be a baker, a plumber, an electrician or a “char koay teow” hawker, do not belittle him/her or the job. Instead, you should tell him/her more about the job, the industry, and the work involved in that industry. Plumbers and electricians are some of the richest trade professionals in the West!

Remember,  there is an expert in every field and anyone can be an expert.

Footnote: Plantcloner declares that he has never been a “lion dad”, though he exerted a lot of influence on his son, the young learner  has chosen his major for his college studies independently.