Staying Afloat: Reflections on the Perils of Project Work

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Ashley Tan (18A13A)

“I hate PW.”

I can’t recall how many times these words have played in my mind. I had previously heard of Project Work (PW) “horror stories” from seniors, but always thought to myself, “How hard can completing work for a H1 subject with the help of group mates really be?” How asinine I was to harbour such beliefs.

In hindsight, PW was a brutally laborious subject that demanded an analytical mind and the occasional, albeit somewhat contrived, innovativeness, which I sorely lacked. Aside from the rigour needed to produce a solid Written Report, we were also required to hone our oratorical skills for the Oral Presentation (OP) component. All of these necessitated hard work and effort, and there were several times when tackling this behemoth of a subject appeared to be a Sisyphean task.

Yet through these arduous times, I have learnt to understand the significant role that attitude plays. It may be difficult trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel, let alone the silver lining of the clouds above, when you’re stuck on all fours in the trenches. However, even if PW may not forebode a completely smooth-sailing experience, it is inescapable – so why not choose to focus on the lessons we’ve gained rather than rehashing what has been lost? Looking back on my experience, these are some things I wish I had taken heed of before embarking on my PW journey.

1. Responsibility is not something that we may want to take on, but is something we must accept.

Ostensibly, this statement is rather intuitive; it is one that has been impressed upon us time and again, though it isn’t always practiced in reality. Through PW, I have come to realise that success doesn’t just require responsibility – it demands it. Whether this means stepping up to take on the role of group leader because no one else wants to, or taking ownership of tasks you were assigned by swallowing your pride and asking for an extension when you’re unable to meet a deadline, learning how to take on responsibility and be responsible is imperative. Not only do you fulfil your end of the bargain as a team player, but from my experience, being accountable also earns respect from your group mates, which can prevent heated conflicts.

2. The road to hell is paved with good intentions… and poor communication.

Most of the time, we start out with good intentions. After all, we’re all seeking to improve our project as a whole to attain good grades. However, when these intentions are not communicated properly or in a way that is sensitive towards others, then the agonising descent towards hell begins. For instance, when my group mates and I were discussing answers to potential Q & A questions during one of our sessions together, I found myself disagreeing with the points that one group member had brought up. “It doesn’t answer the question, so it’s not good enough!” I had protested. “What do you mean? It answers the question perfectly!” he’d countered. This discordance resulted in the raising of voices, slamming of doors, and torrents of unnecessary frustration.

Fortunately, neither of us held any grudges and even had lunch together after the episode. However, when I had some quiet time to reflect on my actions, I realised that while my intentions were good, I could have communicated them better – aside from explaining why I had felt that the point raised failed to answer the question (I never actually answered his question “What do you mean?”), I could have also demonstrated greater patience and sensitivity instead of raising my voice when the conflict escalated. To prevent good intentions from being shrouded by misunderstanding and indignation, learning how to empathise and communicate is key to avoiding any corollary disputes. It’s not what you say, but how you say it.

3. Try being the bigger person.

To me, being the bigger person is not about accepting the blame entirely and taking the fall just to patch up any differences. Being the bigger person entails acknowledging the specific part that you played in a conflict, and apologising for it. In fact, you’d be surprised by what an apology can do. A simple but genuine apology can mean so much more than just that – it means sincerity, taking ownership, and a willingness to take steps to prevent similar behaviour from recurring. The aforementioned group mate and I ended up messaging each other to apologise and being accountable for our actions; after all, it does take two to tango.

But sometimes, being the bigger person does not entail a simple apology. It could mean biting your tongue instead of retaliating when you’re irate, or gritting your teeth and smiling to remain professional even when your emotions threaten to betray this front. Whatever it is, embody your version of grace and class, and always endeavour to take the high road.

Communication is key! (Note: I sought his permission before uploading this conversation). To better understand what not to do in the future, I also asked him what I did to trigger his reaction.

4. Sometimes, all we want is to feel appreciated.

There’s a maxim which goes, “If you don’t express appreciation to those who deserve it, they’ll learn to stop doing the things that you appreciate.” It is human nature to want to feel appreciated by others and to be acknowledged for our work, because the recognition we receive motivates us to continue putting our best foot forward. According to a writeup by Forbes, “Research has found that when managers acknowledge people for what they’re doing well during times when things are running smoothly, those same people are more likely to go the extra mile for them when things aren’t going so well – digging deeper during crisis because they know that their efforts aren’t going unnoticed or unappreciated.”

For instance, there was a time when one of my groupmates stayed up late to complete his mockups, despite never having dabbled with Piktochart before. The amount of effort that went into producing quality work did not go unrecognised – a few of us sent him messages to express our gratitude and appreciation, which validated his commitment to our group. While we generally should not do things for the sake of being credited, offering timely appreciation for the effort that has been put in is always welcome. Note to self: Never take things for granted.

5. The grass is greener where you water it.

There have been several times when one of my groupmates cavilled at our group’s circumstances by asking me, “Why were we so unlucky to be placed in this situation?” However, there are always two ways of looking at any quandary – we can choose to view the glass as half empty, or half full, as cliched as it may sound. When our group faced distress over impassioned disagreements on how to meet certain expectations that we had set out for ourselves, it would have been easier to focus on the negativity of the situation. However, the silver lining was that we had been given a taste of what it is like to work with others who may not be on the same wavelength as ourselves in a professional setting.

In fact, while our group has had its fair share of disputes, we have had our moments of joy too. In the beginning, I remember griping about our productivity, or lack thereof. During meeting sessions, we always found ourselves veering off- topic and talking about issues ranging from school life, to relationships, to our opinions on the abortion-rights movement, all of which were not remotely related to our Written Report. However, taking a step back to analyse the larger picture made me realise that our productivity was compromised not because of personal distractions, but because of the rapport that we had built with one another. Gratitude changes everything, and I will always be grateful for the friendships that I have built and strengthened through PW.

Holding on to the memories in case they don’t hold on to us.

To speak candidly, while I know of friends in “functional” groups who found PW to be an overall pleasant experience, mine was a challenging process that I would not wish to relive. Yet, this journey has shown me that being grateful for those who have offered assistance in any way – from teachers, to friends, to classmates – is important. While we may still hold some regrets even after the dust has settled, retrospection and introspection are imperative to helping us learn and grow.

As we headed home after our post-OP outing, a sense of solemnity and finality cloaked the air while we sat together on the train in silence. “I’m not sure why I feel so sad… Maybe it’s because it is the end,” a group mate remarked ruefully. A pregnant pause brimming with nostalgia filled the space between us for a brief moment, before we broke into a familiar laughter that reverberated all around. Perhaps it is the end of a chapter; but I would like to think that the memories we’ve made and the laughter we’ve shared are harbingers of new, lifelong friendships.

For that, I find myself loving PW, too.

Post-PW Group Photo: RJ260, 2017.
252480cookie-checkStaying Afloat: Reflections on the Perils of Project Work


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