I spoke to 11 friends about lifelong learning myths and discovered life hacks

lifelong learning

TL;DR –  Spring-clean and don’t let these myths block your lifelong learning journey this new year.

Lifelong learning should be fun, enlightening and natural. Why can it be difficult for some to willingly learn for life? What myths should we spring clean from our lives for the sake of our future?

At several makan, drinking and online chatting sessions, I asked 11 friends for their insights about lifelong learning. These friends have actively invested in their skills; some have even stepped up to be trainers and avid advocates of lifelong learning.

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Their insights about the myths holding us back from meaningful lifelong learning are worth reflecting on, just in time for the Lunar New Year of the Rat.

Myth 1: SkillsFuture = Lifelong Learning

No no no! Please don’t confuse the two, OK?

Lifelong learning is the voluntary act of learning throughout life. You are already practising lifelong article by reading this article, listening purposefully to learn from others and even experimenting with new ideas to fail fast and learn faster.

SkillsFuture is a national movement run by SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), an agency under the Ministry of Education (MOE) to help Singaporeans develop their fullest potential.

It consists of $500 individual SkillsFuture credits, short industry-relevant training programmes, and work-study programmes among others. Basically SkillsFuture gives you some options to upgrade yourself, but it isn’t the be all and end all of lifelong learning.

Being a serial certificate collector also doesn’t mean you are meaningfully engaged in lifelong learning or have upgraded yourself.

In one tea session with Aldrin Tee (an ex-school teacher turned social entrepreneur) and Ethan Wang (a design-led changemaker), we pondered over the meaning of lifelong learning.

Both entrepreneurs agreed that certifications don’t mean much when we don’t apply them to the real world, and we lack the culture of using purposeful failure and experimentation to learn.


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Aldrin has also encountered instances where the quality of the training was poor and instructors and administration were not professional.

“For example, taking a course in NUS saw many confusing and unnecessary administrative processes, skill-based courses focused too much on theory and instructors glossed over insightful practical applications.”

lifelong learning

Aldrin Tee quit his job as a teacher to develop new curriculum, systems and communities for emerging issues that Asia grapples with. (Photo by Aldrin Tee)


Why can’t we simply equate certifications with lifelong learning?

Celeste Lim, Managing Director, Dale Carnegie of Singapore, says people need to be ‘switched on’ in enhancing and applying their skills to retain most of what we’ve learnt, as we lose 80% of what we learn if we don’t practise it.

In fact, she wants more sustainable programmes for lifelong learning to be developed.

“We need to move away from the mindset of a one/two day ‘fix-it’ programme towards longer term sustainable programmes where people can apply their learnings, come back and revisit, then apply again, and revisit again, leading to better returns on investment.”

“How many of us are able to apply what we learn in training? If we don’t apply what we learn in training, much of what we learn is lost,” says Celeste Lim, the trainer in this photo. She quit her banking job to take over the Dale Carnegie of Singapore business when she saw how the Dale Carnegie Course creates real transformation in the participants. (via)

Celeste also shared a quote from investment guru Warren Buffett, who shared about the greatest investments everyone should make in a Forbes article he wrote:

“But ultimately, there’s one investment that supersedes all others: Invest in yourself. Address whatever you feel your weaknesses are, and do it now.”

“I was terrified of public speaking when I was young. I couldn’t do it. It cost me $100 to take a Dale Carnegie course, and it changed my life. I got so confident about my new ability, I proposed to my wife during the middle of the course.”

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“Nobody can take away what you’ve got in yourself–and everybody has potential they haven’t used yet. If you can increase your potential 10%, 20% or 30% by enhancing your talents, they can’t tax it away. Inflation can’t take it from you. You have it the rest of your life.”

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Myth 2: Only technical and technological skills = legit lifelong learning

A recent World Economic Forum article highlights how higher education should focus on “human” skills, not just digital competencies:

“21st-century students must learn how to approach problems from many perspectives, cultivate and exploit creativity, engage in complex communication, and leverage critical thinking. With a future of work that is constantly evolving, these non-automatable “human” skills are foundational, and will only increase in value as automation becomes more mainstream.”

I’ve heard similar advice in a lunchtime talk on artificial intelligence and the future of jobs run by Dale Carnegie of Singapore, and a panel discussion at Storm-Asia’s JOBS 20XX: Work In Progress event.

At a lunchtime workshop on artificial intelligence, Celeste Lim shared a Dale Carnegie survey which revealed that 73% of respondents believed soft skills (vs 27% hard skills) are most likely to be needed in the future to avoid job loss to AI. Celeste also shared the top skills we may need to work alongside AI and the shortfall in training of these skills. (via)


future of work

Panelists of Storm-Asia’s JOBS 20XX: Work In Progress event emphasised the need to nurture our humanity (e.g. our interpersonal, social-emotional skills, and principles we live by) rather than solely focusing on technology when we look at future skills.


The same sentiment that we need greater emphasis on soft skills was echoed by Carol Hoon, 52, a Positive Emotions Management Consultant, speaker and author, who works at Eureka Learning Lab.

She points out how we need to shift the focus on the impact that our learning efforts have on our personal behavioural level, such as care for the community, empathy for the disadvantaged, graciousness for others, positive emotion for self-care, resilience to overcome setbacks, and responsibility for a sustainable environment.

Carol raised the need for more soft-skills and life-skills courses, which would be ideal to address the challenges of ageing gracefully.

Ethan Wang, an active networker in several industries, advises Singaporeans to develop curiosity and design appreciation, lateral thinking and connecting the dots between the multiple disciplines.

Myth 3: I only upgrade myself when my job is in danger and I know exactly what I need to learn

Mr D. Tan, in his mid-fifties, opined that the right question our nation should ask is ‘WHY are people not bothering to learn?’

He surmised there are two groups of people who do not actively bother with lifelong learning.

“One group feels their jobs are not in danger so they naturally won’t think about skills upgrading. The other group feels their jobs are in danger but have no confidence in taking up courses. They may fear exams and assignment, and have the impression that adult classes are the same as what they went through in compulsory education.”

Another common issue with SkillsFuture I hear is that we don’t know which approved courses to take. Even 3 years ago in 2017, there were already around 18,000 approved SkillsFuture courses for Singaporeans to choose from.

Arasi, a middle-aged admin associate in a large organisation, gave feedback that she was unsure of what course to take and felt specialist guidance was sorely inaccessible.

Even though her job wasn’t in danger of retrenchment and she had too many courses to choose from, Arasi figured out what she wanted to learn, and just did it without much procrastination.

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“I paid for my own floral and makeup classes, and used $100 SkillsFuture credits for a useful British Council English class to improve my written English.”

I love hearing what people are up to in their lives over meals. Besides floral, makeup and English classes, Arasi has also attended courses in Excel, Powerpoint, and social media.


What if I can’t find the course I need?

Having a dearth of suitable courses in special needs education didn’t stop Janelya, 39, a special educator, from lifelong learning after graduating with a Diploma from the College of Allied Educators. She constantly learnt on the job while teaching.

“I think, teaching is a unique job as you upgrade a lot on the job, when you learn from your students and learn from your failed lesson plans.”

People in the special needs community, like Janelya, tend to be more hands-on about lifelong learning and active advocates for inclusivity in our spheres of influence. These Crunchy Teeth cookies was the first meal we shared with other advocates.


Janelya emphasised how trainers (and the internet) can impart the content of what to teach and share their experiences. But the ‘how’ is a lot on your own.

She advocates a similar approach of experiential learning with her students at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where she lectures.

“Content, they can read. It’s not difficult. But sharing experiences, practice sessions and role playing are more meaningful and engaging.”

Myth 4: Taking courses should secure us a promotion and pay increase, or land a job. If not then what’s the point?

With time being tight for many workers in Singapore, and cost of living rising, many of us may think twice before jumping into any course.

Steven Koh, 52, founder of Facebook group Community of Learning (Singapore) and CEO of Trillion Training (S) Pte Ltd, pointed out that there are certainly many funding and grants available for Singaporeans to upgrade their skills such as the SkillsFuture Credit and SkillsFuture Training Subsidy.

“There are lots of upgrading courses available too! Personally, I have benefitted from attending many funded courses e.g. DACE, CWLS, etc. These classroom courses are great in upgrading the skills for Singaporeans.”

Steven notes that getting good jobs, however, is a learning journey.

He advises Singaporeans to participate in a social learning community, to obtain the community support and peer partnership to build their career full time or on a freelance basis.

“Singaporeans will benefit from peer learning and mentoring in the community. A blended approach of classroom training and social learning in a community will offer a good continuous support for Singaporeans to excel in their career.”

Steven Koh founded Community of Learning (COL), a social learning community, on 1st August 2015 to invite like-minded friends to learn, share and excel together, promoting lifelong learning and the kampong spirit. (via)


Although the government has given every eligible Singaporean $500 in SkillsFuture credits, CSE Choo (an ex-audit manager in her early thirties who is now a music teacher and an active volunteer) says:

“The $500 given out to all Singaporeans in the SkillsFuture Movement is insufficient to train someone to be qualified and get a pay increment.”

She has not used her $500 SkillsFuture credits because she has not personally heard from any locals who attended a life-changing course that allows them to find a better job after completing the course, explaining that referral systems still work the best at finding a job.

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What about getting trained on the job?

CSE Choo points out a survey conducted by technology market research specialist Vanson Bourne that found that most Singapore employees feel “under-skilled” and worried that their employers are not supporting them enough to meet future job requirements. This is despite the fact that respondents reported receiving learning, development and training from their organisations for new skills twice on average in 2018.

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CSE Choo shared how lack of corporate accommodations to allow employees to take courses within working hours usually makes employees feel more pressured to juggle between work and training, which will then have to be taken in their own personal time. She, like Celeste, is skeptical of the impact of short courses.

Are skills the only criteria in getting a good job?

Other Singaporeans, like Ms Stephanie Chan, owner and florist at A Flower Shop, faced retrenchment, ageism in applying for new jobs, and workplace discrimination in a multi-national firm, even though she did not lack the skills required.

“It is always a good thing to gain more knowledge and acquire new skills. However, the newly acquired skills cannot guarantee securing a new job due to the lack of experience and age.”

Stephanie Chan overcame depression from losing her job, to taking up floral courses and offering floral therapy for stressed executives in her own shop (via)


She didn’t give up and invested in other skills while she sorted out her mid-career change.

“I attended a Food Hygiene course which was funded by SkillsFuture. As the course was mandatory for my food business, the subsidy took care of the course fee.”.

However, Stephanie points out the lack of choices and quality of courses offered.

“As for my floral business, none of the vendors from SkillsFuture could meet my requirements and expectations. Besides the SkillsFuture credit of a few hundred dollars could not fund a professional course. Many of the courses offered on SkillsFuture are not at the professional level – they are merely hobby classes and very overpriced. Hence, my training cost was out of my own pocket.”

Nevertheless, there are some lucky Singaporeans who were able to cash in on their personal lifelong learning investment.

Mr D. Tan, who previously opined why people have inertia towards lifelong learning, is an avid learner himself. After he upskilled himself with a one-year Diploma course in Big Data, spending several nights a week attending night classes and burning his weekends to complete assignments, he found a tech job in the public sector late last year.

This was his latest mid-career change as he was previously from the private sector (in social media, and formerly an entrepreneur in the recreation industry).

Celebrating Mr D. Tan’s transition into his new job over a hotpot lunch.

“I feel my Diploma course in Big Data helped me land me my current tech job in the public sector. The course only cost me $700 for 1 year after 95% subsidy by the government. I also attended quite a lot of short workshops, and took online courses that I paid my own way.”

Yet he says attending courses is no guarantee of career advancement.

“I’ve met people who did not see success in their job hunt although they had upskilled themselves, so another gap is the need to job hunt more effectively.”

Besides beefing up his profile on LinkedIn, Mr Tan went one step further and actively added recruiters as his friends. He was offered a few jobs before he decided to attend the job interview for his current job.

“Add the right keywords to link you to your future career. Read job descriptions and note skills from companies and jobs which you want. Add these keywords to optimise your keyword search results.”

Myth 5: Throwing money will get more people to take up lifelong learning.

According to Budget 2019, a provision of $413.99 million has been made for SSG in FY2019 to implement plans, policies and strategies to support lifelong learning and skills development under SkillsFuture.

Yet Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged in a September 2019 speech that the “biggest challenge” facing Singapore’s education landscape today is creating a system that would be fit for purpose to enable continued learning.

He elaborated that it is not an issue of just money or running the courses, but:

  • having people with experience to operate these courses,
  • a support system for older workers when they decide to go back to school,
  • employers to make adjustments and understand so workers can focus on their jobs as well as on their studies,
  • and for Singaporeans to be hungry.

How can we make lifelong learning more interesting?

Aldrin Tee muses:

“We are a little behind in terms of national attitude and buy in for the need for lifelong learning.”

“The motivation for adult education should not be financial in nature, and should be education and civic/economic literacy-focused – getting people to understand global shifts and needs such industry 4.0.”

Aldrin suggests apprenticeship programmes would also be more appropriate for skill-based learning rather than from classroom-based run courses.

Mr T. , a millennial who has been through multiple career transitions and now works as an Executive in the Healthcare Industry, opines:

“There seems to be a lot of effort and money spent on promoting Lifelong Learning to workers via various roadshows etc, however, this did not really seem to translate into increased sign-ups for upgrading courses.”.

“Some WSQ courses are too generic to be useful across sectors, and we need to further balance
the need to ensure course quality and reducing red tape when rolling out new WSQ approved courses.”

Carol says that besides classroom education, other methods of learning which may be more effective can be supported and promoted, such as e-learning, mentorship and coaching.

She cited Plutarch’s advice, which I felt is a fitting statement to end this article.

‘The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled’.


Featured photo of a lady enjoying learning: NUS


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