Yihan graduated from the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2006. He is presently an Associate Professor of Law and Associate Dean (Research) at the Singapore Management University, where he teaches and researches in contract and torts. He was previously a Teaching Assistant and Assistant Professor at NUS, as well as an Assistant Registrar and Justices’ Law Clerk at the Supreme Court of Singapore. One interesting fact about him: he has more than 15 telescopes.
This Letter is addressed to himself in his second year of law school.
Throughout your time in Law School so far, you have missed most of the lectures, been much of a loner, and stuck to a somewhat disciplined if boring study schedule. Oh, and you have also amassed a collection of carnivorous plants. In short, you are just kind of strange. And sometimes you ask yourself whether you should change your ways, if only because you wish you could ‘fit in’ just a bit more. Well, 12 years later, all I can say is, keep at what you are doing.
Keep at missing the lectures, not because you think the lectures are lousy but because you know you study in a different way. (You need to read the materials, something not usefully accomplished by sitting in a lecture.) One slight problem you will face in the future is that you will lack the moral authority to tell your students that they must attend your lectures (yes, you became a teacher). But rest assured – it is still possible to tell your students to attend tutorials and seminars because you did attend those – just not the lectures. But more seriously, you will be able to tell your students to be themselves in Law School and be the masters of their own learning. So, don’t do things like ban laptops in class. If a student wants to waste time surfing Facebook during your class, that is really his/her problem. But don’t penalise the student who can only study with his/her laptop. After all, isn’t independent learning – for better or worse – what a university education is about?
Keep at being a loner. There is nothing wrong with not being outwardly sociable. What is more important is knowing who your true friends are and growing through life together. It is absolutely fine that you feel the need to ‘recharge’ by being alone sometimes. Then perhaps you can tell your future students that they should be comfortable with who they are – be it extroverted or introverted – and not be swayed by what is perceived to be socially acceptable.
Keep at that disciplined if boring study schedule. If it works for law exams, then stick to it. Then perhaps you can encourage your future students to try their best in what they do. If this means over-preparing, then so be it. Know the simple truth that if it is the 20th time you are doing something – be it an exam in school or a presentation at work – you will be much better at it than the 1st time round. Of course, trying your best is easier for work and play than other matters, but take what life may throw at you and grow as a person.
And, keep collecting those carnivorous plants. In ten years’ time, you would have gone through different hobbies (hint: you moved from plants to animals, and from the soil to the stars above), and know that life isn’t just about the law. Indeed, to know the law, you must first know the world that the law operates in. The law is but an embodiment of the rules that are supposed to make the world a better place. Lose sight of that, and the law loses its meaning and utility. So, read widely beyond the law and see as much of the world as you can. But, see to understand and not to judge.
Equally, the law will be the life for some people at some points in their lives. Know that the law can have profound and very real consequences for real people, so do your best in whatever you do if you choose to stay in the legal profession.
Ultimately, keeping at the things you are doing now in Law School is really about knowing and accepting yourself. And if you can see yourself as being different from others, then it must also follow that everyone is unique and has a story to tell. Listen to those stories. Listen especially for the stories from the quiet ones. Do not assume that the loudest student in class or the most vocal character in the workplace has the most to contribute. Sometimes it is from the least likely source that you learn the most. In the end, seek to know who you are, and seek to understand who others are. Do not think that you know the one true road to anything in life, because that is surest highway to failure. Instead, seek always to learn, including and especially from your students.
Perhaps one day you will see a student in your class who reminds you of yourself back in Law School, wondering whether he or she should change to ‘fit in’ just that bit more. I am certain then that you can tell that student that there is no need to change; indeed, everything will be all right if you just be yourself.
With warmest regards,
PS: If this time portal keeps up, we will need to have a separate conversation about the gadgets you seem to have a habit of collecting and then not using...
[Editors' Note: It's Yihan's birthday today! Happy birthday!]