5 Work-Life Wisdom Tips: A Letter to My Graduate Self

Written by Sze Yuan
7 mins read
Published on Jul 21, 2023

Editor’s note: It is commencement month! For fresh graduates, you’ve crossed yet another milestone with blood, sweat, tears, and joy. Sze Yuan shares his advice.

TLDR: Entering his 5th year of work in the Public Service, Sze Yuan imagines the advice he would give to his younger self as he starts work.

Dear Sze Yuan of 2018,

Good job on completing 4 arduous years of university! As you look back, memories of the winter exchange in Norway, the fun orientation times at Sentosa, the long nights studying in the library, and the silly times spent with friends linger dearly in your heart.

There is longing in your heart for the youthful days gone by – and you are stepping ahead into adulthood with trepidation.

You have done well in your university studies, yet applying the theories in practice seems frightening. You have served actively in the Buddhist scene, but are uncertain if your spiritual ideals are compatible with the “real” adult world.

I want to reassure you that it is ok to feel what you are feeling!

There will be bumps, and periods of darkness too. When things get too unbearable, or when your light needs some refuelling, I hope that the words below offer some encouragement to you.

 A day before I start work, there is a rush to get things done to get my 7 hours of rest so that I can do my morning sit and get to work tomorrow. But I think it is worthwhile to spend some time recording my state-of-being now… There is a small part of fear and anxiety… On the other hand, also excited about a new phase of life, about doing new things. Excited to be able to contribute back to society, and through my salary, to support my loved ones. Excited to face the often-talked-about “real world”, and to see how my practice helps to handle these situations. 
01-07-2018 

1) Relationships Matter

I know that you don’t feel confident socialising, and enjoy your own company more. But I encourage you to step out and to open your heart to others. 

Cherish the friends you made through internship, university, orientation programmes. Above all, keep your spiritual friends (kalyanamittas) close.

You will soon find that it is very hard to move things purely through formal channels at work. The nicest emails and requests move along only with the lubricant of warm ties.

Likewise, be ready to lend a hand when others seek your help too. It is not just that this will encourage others to help you next time (which is of course nice)! But you will find that these small acts of giving leave the deepest impression on you. 

They will make you feel good about yourself.  

In a few years’ time, your work (and world) will drastically change. I won’t spoil it for you – but just know that you will be working from home often.

As much as you dislike small talk in pantries and discussions in big meetings, you will soon realise how important these physical interactions are for your mental well-being. It is a “love-hate” relationship with colleagues after all – inconvenient with; depressing without.

You will see that you are not an island, and still require the familiarity of human touch and care to warm your soul. 

Hence, learn to open your heart to others, and to allow the light outside to enter you too. Things are brighter this way.

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 The system is imperfect. There’s more work to do than any one of us can manage. It is like fitting lego blocks in a space less than they can fit. To fit, one has to be cut and squeezed, so in this system that we work in, we will always have to work out compromises between colleagues. It is not easy and takes a lot of soft skills, and sometimes you offend people… It is an imperfect system – it is the human big-heartedness, forgiveness, and patience that lubricate things. 
30-10-2019 

2) Things Connect

Things will seem quite hopeless in your first few years at work. You will wonder why you signed up for this, strain against the bonds that the scholarship placed on you, and wonder if anyone is doing any “real” work in this system at all.

I want to reassure you that this is normal. You are right – the system is far from perfect. There are many red tapes, bosses may not be understanding, and work can be utterly boring.

However, keep faith that things (sometimes) connect upwards. Some of the seemingly insignificant tasks will turn out to be the catalyst for larger opportunities at work and for spiritual growth.

You will also realise that the many small tasks you do amalgamate into a larger theme – the details fade, but the spirit in which you carry out the work lingers. 

If you learn to do each small thing well, you will feel good about yourself when the larger project is completed.

Remind yourself that how you do things matter as much, if not more, than what you do.

Of course, there are things that just don’t make sense. Sometimes, you have to call a “spade” a “spade”. During these times, keeping a sense of humour can be immensely helpful!

3) “Work-Life Balance”

You will spend much time finding this elusive “work-life balance”. I am sorry to burst your bubble – 5 years in, I am still searching too.

But I am learning things about my(your)self through this search, which is very helpful. Here are some tips:

  • Start and end each day with meditation.
  • Focus on one task at a time as far as possible.
  • View your colleagues as buddies on a group quest – not enemies.
  • Use toilet breaks to exercise your legs and slot in some simple body stretches (pro tip: use the further toilet for more exercise!).
  • Have a system to keep track of your work tasks. Gamify your work, and take pride and find joy in tackling each task.
  • You will end many days feeling unproductive and lousy about yourself. Learn to be kind to yourself (note: 5 years in, I am still working on this too).
  • A period of exercise after work (even a short 10-minute run) can help calm the restless mind.
  • End the day by recollecting your wholesome deeds and things to be grateful for. Don’t assume you will wake up the next day.
  • There will be unavoidable times when you work till late at night or over weekends. Develop a bigger heart and view them as par for the course.
  • Devote yourself to causes outside of your work – continue serving and developing affinities within the Buddhist community.
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To be honest, I’m starting to think that a balance may never be found. Perhaps it is a moving balance? Or should it be work-life “harmony”? 

Perhaps work and life should not be distinct entities, and should merge into the present moment? Or maybe we won’t be balanced until Enlightenment?

I will let you know when I find out.

 With work, it hasn’t been easy to find motivation, so during these times when I can pop my head out from this whole dreariness, I just thought of recording it down so that this reinforces the wholesome perspective. With time, in years, maybe decades, hopefully I can gain sufficient wisdom to handle my work and mundane responsibilities in the world with grace and elegance. Far from it now, but I am making the effort. 
10-10-2020 

4) Cultivate Skillful Perspectives

Being in public service, you are cruising along in a large ship. Things are stable, and you can be quite assured that we are heading towards a decent destination.

However, you will soon realise that on this ship, not everyone gets fancy uniforms and jobs. You will get your chance – but most times, you are doing the ignoble tasks like scrubbing the deck floor, rowing the giant paddle, cleaning out the toilet, or singing/dancing for the entertainment of others (this last part, I don’t even mean it metaphorically. You will do it).

You will witness many colleagues jumping ship (pun intended), and you may even feel a tinge of envy towards them for doing what you can’t.

In these times, I want to encourage you to maintain perspective and remind yourself that the summation of these “ignoble” tasks leads to the ship’s overall success. 

You may think that this is deceiving yourself. But, remember that of all the stories you narrate at work, the most important story is the one you tell yourself.

To share a story that inspired me (you):

 A gentleman walked past a building site to see three men laying bricks. He approached the first and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ Annoyed, the first man answered, ‘What does it look like I’m doing? I’m laying bricks!’ He walked over to the second bricklayer and asked the same question. The second man responded, ‘Oh, I’m making a living.’ He asked the third bricklayer the same question, ‘What are you doing?’ The third man looked up, smiled, and said, ‘I’m building a cathedral.’
 
Source here

So Sze Yuan – choose to build a cathedral.

5) The Spiritual Path

Finally, the fortunate, and sometimes painful thing, is that you will remain deeply devoted to your spiritual path.

Fortunate – because even in the toughest times, your spiritual compass will give you a reason to keep faith and carry on. It will strengthen you to be kind when provoked, patient when frustrated, compassionate in the face of suffering, and joyful in the midst of others’ success. 

It will give you meaning, even when the conventional world/circumstances tempt you into thinking otherwise.

But the path is also painful. There will be times when you are confused by the strivings of this world, and be averse to the consumption habits that society normalises. You will think that many endeavours at work contradict your deepest values, and feel confused about the way forward. 

During your lowest, you will feel utter meaninglessness in life, and things will get really dark.

These times, keep the faith and continue walking towards the light. Learn to see the wholesomeness in things, instead of picking on the faults. 

Cultivate the habit to see the “half-full” instead of the “half-empty”. Above all, learn to embrace all things as part of your path in life, and to open the doors of your heart to all teachings at work (and in life). 

Source:https://www.azquotes.com/author/32444-Dipa_Ma

After all that has been said, you still will not be prepared for what is to come. And this is alright as well, Sze Yuan. Some things we learn through peace; others through storm.

As the saying goes – 世上无难事,只怕有心人 (There are no difficulties in life that are insurmountable to the sincere and committed).

So buckle up, and enjoy the ride!


Best wishes,

Sze Yuan from 2023


Wise Steps:

  • When in doubt, be kind
  • Do your best in everything
  • Seek balance – but do not get attached to it
  • Cultivate perspectives that feed your joy
  • Make everything your path, and follow your path with heart

Author: Sze Yuan

I keep a daily practice of meditating and doing gratitude reflections. Some days are harder than others, but I aspire to never stop trying

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