Yeoh Chee Yan: Knowing The “Why” Behind Your Work Can Make It Worthwhile

National Heritage Board Chair Yeoh Chee Yan on how going within to find purpose builds a meaningful career and helps you overcome low points at work.
National Heritage Board Chair Yeoh Chee Yan


Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (November 2012–June 2018)
Second Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education (April 2008–October 2012)
Deputy Secretary (Policy), Ministry of Defence (September 2006–March 2008)

Dear Young Officer,

It is a blessing to have found one’s calling in life and be able to contribute to something bigger than oneself.

I count myself lucky that my first job at the Ministry of Defence gave me that larger sense of purpose. I have had the good fortune to work with many fine people over the years – exemplars like SR Nathan and Eddie Teo, who wore positional authority lightly, winning respect through their professionalism and deep sense of public service. They clearly saw it their duty to protect Singapore’s sovereignty. They were professionals in the business of government. I’m grateful to them because they inspired in me, and in many who worked with them, a sense of duty and public service.

SR Nathan held a dim view of public officers, particularly leaders, who were what he called “careerists”. I share his concern that Singapore would be in trouble  if public officers were mainly motivated by a desire to get ahead.

Don’t get me wrong.  It is good to be ambitious.  After all, the motivation to achieve is a marker of potential in our HR appraisal system.  It spurs leadership. It pushes us to think big. It drives excellence.  But more than the desire to succeed, you must want to be of service to the nation and to other Singaporeans. Otherwise, you probably picked the wrong job.

Nobody lies on his deathbed wondering if he could have done better at work.

Overcoming low points at work

Having a larger sense of purpose is like having a compass, particularly when the going gets tough. Even a dream job will have its low points and “desert times” – whether it is poor chemistry with the boss, a major boo-boo or a disappointment at work. Having a sense of purpose will help you stay the course.

So as poet Rainer Maria Rilke counselled: “Go within.” Reflect on your calling. Find the “why” that makes it worthwhile for you. It will make the many hours you will spend at work add up to a meaningful career.

Career angst is not uncommon among younger officers, but it is unproductive to worry too much about how you are doing at work. Over the years, I’ve found that the best recipe for success is simply to do your best. If you do so consistently, it will show in the quality of your work, and in the warp and weft of your character. Not only will others notice, it can also be a great source of satisfaction to you.  And even if it does not always give you what you want,  it’s a simple policy that has helped me sleep well at night, regardless of how things went during the day.

Find the “why” that makes it worthwhile for you.

Be good to the people around you

In seeking to do your best, don’t forget the Golden Rule. Be good to yourself and to other people. In many ways, it is about having clear priorities and healthy boundaries. Prioritise your health and well-being, and that of your family and colleagues – don’t let them suffer because you are spending too much time in the office or getting stressed out by work. Nobody lies on his deathbed wondering if he could have done better at work.

While minor irritations are par for the course, I believe you must enjoy your work and find it meaningful. It is a sign that you have found your calling. From my office in the National Heritage Board, I hear a lot of laughter. People here work hard and enjoy their work because they are passionate about Singapore’s heritage. They have found their calling and a larger shared purpose.

I hope that you find your calling, too.

    Apr 11, 2019
    Yeoh Chee Yan
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