Buddhism and Career Concerns: An Interview with Ven. Chuan Guan

The following appears in the 2012 edition of Prajna (MICA (P) 148/03/2012), a publication of NTU Buddhist Society and Alumni.

Interview with Venerable Chuan Guan
Venerable Chuan Guan has been a consultant all his life. Before he got ordained, he was a consultant on computing, and now, in his own words, he does consulting on “the mind”. But that’s not all. Known for dispensing job advice freely during his classes, Venerable now slips into his role as a career consultant. In this no-holds-barred interview, he gives us the lowdown on terrified bosses, prata men, and why it helps to hate Julia Roberts.

Q: Can you describe the career path you embarked on before you got ordained?

A: Before my ordination, I was working as a software computer engineer, and later as a software development consultant. It was basically my interest, passion and hobby. That was my choice.

Q: In your opinion, what do we need to know about interviews and resume writing?

A: Interviews are “inter”-“view”. It’s a two-way thing. It’s not just the company assessing you, but also you assessing the company, deciding if you want to work for them or not.

The key thing about resume writing is that you highlight what you are good at with respect to the job. We study so many subjects, so who cares if you have studied all those modules? Except the ones that are relevant to your work. In some cases, I would actually customise my resume, highlighting or putting in only the parts that are relevant to the position. For instance, my Final Year Project was on computer image processing.  But most of the companies I signed up for had nothing to do with that. I got an “A” for computer networking, but if I didn’t sign up as a computer network engineer, they couldn’t care less about that. So, try to look at something that is relevant, and highlight that. But make sure you don’t lie.

In your CV, you fill in information about your name, contact, address, work experience, results, and so on. But please don’t put down as your interest “I like swimming”. You’re not going for a date (laughs).

And then, people usually mention their positive points. “I’m outgoing” or “I’m a people person”. You can put that in, but the important thing is how you actually talk to people during the interview. Are you frantic? Or are you friendly?

But do you know what my trump card is? I actually put down what I dislike. And I only wrote one thing. Promise you will not put the same thing (laughs). My dislike: Julia Roberts.

Everybody in unison: Why?

See? I have gotten an interview (laughs).

If you’re going job-hunting with a few thousand students, why should they ask you for an interview? They have so many applicants with fabulous grades. But suddenly, the HR manager notices “dislikes Julia Roberts”. Without any explanation. Even if it is to find out why, they simply have to talk to you!

When that happens, you can take the conversation out of their scope, and just chat freely. So I told them. “There was this movie called Pretty Woman and Julia Roberts did great in it. But after that, a lot of my friends would just watch Julia Roberts movies. And that’s why I dislike her.”

But I don’t really hate her (laughs). I just dislike the fact that people watch a film because it has Julia Roberts in it. So that tells the company a bit about yourself.

Once again, I must say, don’t lie. Don’t lie in your written CV, cover letter, or anything. Don’t lie during the interview. When I was searching for my second job, one interview question was: whether I knew a certain database. I told them I knew another database, and they said no, this database they were asking for was quite different.

So I said, “Well, I guess I don’t know, but if you give me a chance, I will be more than happy to learn it.” And I meant it. So they gave me that chance.

Q: What constitutes a good career?

A:  A lot depends a lot on what we want from our job. For many people, a career is more of a means of livelihood. So getting a job that pays well is an ideal job for them. But the financial rewards can only help so much. I have had friends, students, and devotees telling me they were quitting their good-paying job. They had a terrible time working there, which suppressed their willingness to work. They really dreaded going to work.

There should be a balance. Find a job that you really like, and then find people in the company whom you can connect with. Meeting and working with people that are nice to you is one of the most ideal conditions. Of course if they pay you well it’s nice too.

Recently, I told somebody: If the job pays well, the work is easy, the environment is wonderful, and the people are amazing, then why is the boss hiring you to do it?  Why is the boss not doing it himself? If you find such a job, let me know (laughs).

The Human Speedy Gonzales

Venerable: I never had a backlog in my whole working career, not even during my Industrial Attachment (IA). It was 6 months long, but I finished it in a month. I had nothing to do after that, and my professor did not need to come for the rest of 5 months because I had finished. So my IA boss  would pass me other parts of the company’s projects. That’s why when I had finished my IA, he was ready to hire me because I had already proven myself.

For the five months, initially he was very happy, because I was finishing so quickly and kept going back to him. I ended up doing his full-time engineer’s work, one of whom was my senior, who had been working there for some years. I ended up taking over her project because she could not finish on time.

Up to some point, my boss was running away from me. I would come in but he would say, “Oh no don’t look for me yet. I am not ready.”

Interviews are “inter”-“view”. It’s a two-way thing. It’s not just the company assessing you, but also you assessing the company, deciding if you want to work for them or not.

You see, what most people don’t realise about bosses is that they need to prepare before they can give you something to do. And when you finish, they have to double-check your work. They are like teachers. If you finish so fast, they cannot catch up. They will have to tell you: Stop. And when that happens, you are on a virtuous cycle. Because you have their trust and you have time to do your own research to improve yourself. While the others were struggling away or pretending to be busy, I was openly free. Once, when I tried to implement more improvements to my project, my team lead in R&D told me, “Your module is done.  Go to the pantry, go to the canteen, go read a newspaper, go to sleep, or anywhere else, I do not care. I do not want to see you for the next few days.” (laughs).

Q: How do we handle those we cannot get along with?

My attitude towards this is: If you cannot handle a guy who does his work faithfully and earnestly, that’s your problem. Don’t make it mine. I will not work less just to make you feel better. I’m not paid to do that (laughs).

In my opinion, I would say: Live with your conscience. I did my best not to outshine or sabotage anybody.

When I say your conscience is clear, you ask: do you actually intend to get people into trouble?  But actually you would not like working with me one-to-one if you were my peer. For one…

Everybody: We would be really stressed out!

Probably so, yeah (laughs). But I’m not here to make you happy. I’m here to help you learn. My priority is not always to make people feel good. It may sound strange coming from a monk, but if I’m here to help you get the job done, that would probably make you happier than if I’m here to make you feel good. And we wouldn’t have to work overtime together (laughs).

As consultants, we are not engaged by companies to be nice; we are there to provide solutions.  Sometimes it is smooth, sometimes it is painful.   But I’m probably not the best examples of what people think of as “compassionate”!

I must qualify that my work life may not have been the stereotypical image of Buddhist. People think Buddhists are kind, compassionate and so do not or should not scold people, and let people push them around. I wasn’t any of that. The last thing people would think of me, would be a pushover. I’m very demanding at work, but I don’t do things intentionally to harm people. But neither does that mean you expose yourself to harm, and let yourself be sabotaged by people.

Q: Shouldn’t we be encouraging and supportive to motivate people?

We should be encouraging and supportive, but we should not simply think “Everyone should except me as I am”.  Doing that would seem to me to be an inertia towards improvement.

Buddhists should be energetic, curious, full of drive to meet challenges and not just cruise along for the rest of their lives.

If a person has a defilement, the Buddha would say: That’s a defilement. Deal with it. The Buddha’s way gets people enlightened (laughs). If we convinced ourselves that everything is okay, why would we have to change?

A prince ever asked The Buddha if he would ever say something hurtful.  The Buddha then gave the example of his son having something in his mouth that could kill him. Would the prince still be gentle with his child, or would he forcibly take it out even if it meant letting out some blood? The prince replied that he would remove the object to save his son’s life. The Buddha told him, “Likewise,  if necessary, do what you have to do.”

While I can be very firm about certain things, I see the potential in people to grow and learn. The problem I’ve found so far is that in most cases, some people are not willing to put in effort to learn new things. They feel contented that they get paid x dollars with a y % increment per year to do z number of things. And they want to just cruise along like that, for the rest of their lives.

I don’t think I’m super stellar. It’s that most people are skiving. So I just had to do my job, and I would stand out amongst everybody. I feel sad for them, because if you go to work for 9-10 hours per day, and you only spend that time to solve one problem, then all you gain is one unit of experience. If it’s something you already know how to do, you’re not even gaining that experience. You’re only gaining depth, and the day’s salary. That’s it. And you wasted 10 hours of your precious human life for that miserable amount of money. And to me that’s sad.

Why should you go through so many years of studying, and then this crazy degree course, just so that you can have an easy life?

So for myself, my work attitude was: If in a 10 hour period in which my boss would give me 4 things, I could complete them, do two more, I would be gaining. Or if I’d finished those 4 tasks, and used company time to find new ways of doing them, I’m gaining new experience within the same amount of time.

Most people think: Oh, you’re still paid the same. But there lies the difference. I’m getting paid the same, but I’m gaining more experience. It becomes exciting. You’re like: Wow, give it to me. Come on! (laughs).

To me, that is an aspect of Buddhism that is seldom mentioned. That Buddhists should be energetic, curious, full of drive to meet challenges and not just cruise along for the rest of their lives.

Think about it. If you want something simple, don’t be a degree holder. Anyone can make a living. We have prata sometimes. I don’t look down on prata men, but one day I was thinking. A prata man only has to know one thing. How to flip the dough*. And he can make a decent living. Not to get rich, but enough to sustain himself.

So ask yourself: Why should you go through so many years of studying, and then this crazy degree course, just so that you can have an easy life? (laughs). It doesn’t make sense. You have so much smartness inside, intelligence, creativity, just so you can do a relaxed job that tells you to do 4-5 things each day? If you want to have a simpler time at work, find something simpler to study and do. That would be relaxing but you would be wasting your potential!
(* – I can’t flip the prata to save my life, so don’t think it’s so simple as well!)

Q: When we are looking for a job after graduation, what are some factors we should bear in mind?

In any job, there are two things to consider. The job nature versus how you do the job. The first is Right Livelihood, from the Noble Eightfold Path. Consider the job nature of, say, a butcher in the slaughterhouse. That’s very clear. You’re killing something. Whereas if you’re an accountant, or a teacher, the nature of your job is positive and wholesome. But how you teach is also important. Do you play favourites? Do you ignore the kids who are unruly, or who perform poorly in examinations? Do you spend more time on the star performers so your performance appraisal goes up? Or do you genuinely care for your students, and spend time with each of them equally?

Many people in sales tell me it’s hard to observe the Fourth Precept — abstaining from lying —  and the Fifth Precept— abstaining from intoxicants— in their field. I can understand their predicament. I have ever been in sales, part-time. But in most cases, I don’t lie. In fact,in consulting, I would even tell my customers, “Our company provides these solutions. But they are not the only ones available. And honestly, it’s an overkill for your needs.”

The funny thing is when you are honest with them to that degree, they trust you. Because you’re willing to not get a deal.

Q: Shifu, let’s take things to a more complicated level. Say you’re doing programming, but it’s for a jackpot machine.

A: In my job, there was a project I turned down. It was an enterprise interface for a company which manufactures alcoholic beverages. I rejected it, because in my opinion, I would be helping them become more efficient at selling alcohol. My boss thought I was joking, but I said I was serious.

Q: Should we focus on a single career goal from the outset, or should we explore multiple career options before settling down on one?

This question is a bit difficult for me, because I have always been clear about what I wanted to do. Since secondary school, I knew I was keen on programming.

If there’s one thing I would advise against, it’s job-hopping. If you leave a company within six months, that’s fine. But if you do that twice or thrice, you have a harder time explaining yourself. And it becomes a habit that you leave at the drop of a hat. Most people who job hop do it for the money, thinking they can get a pay increment faster this way. There’s little value in that, because it reflects on yourself. All you care about is money and you’re willing to jump ship anytime a better offer comes along. If you were a manager, would you want to hire such a person?

To me, there’s value in staying with a company for at least three years, to understand it and gain some mastery in what you do.

Q: How different is monastic life from your previous career? Are the skills you have learnt still relevant?

A: In many ways, I’ve found that the skills I acquired from school days to my work life, have helped me tremendously in monastic life.  In particular, listening and public speaking skills from those days helps a lot in counselling and in my sharing of Dharma with people.

Another thing that is a change but also not quite a change, is that “the need to learn” was tremendous. And now, it’s spilling over to monastic life too. There’s so much to learn.

Venerable’s Last Words

If you work just for the money, then you’ll probably only get money.  Find something to solve.  Find something to improve.  Learn something everyday!  Be energetic!

  • http://www.facebook.com/tzquek Tenzin Quek

    Singaporeans have rated their job satisfaction so poorly that it is almost tragic. If only we all get to learn from this article early.

  • Merlin Koh

    Nice interview with very good advice….

  • Anon

    I have job-hopped, but never for the money…