Have you given this answer when asked “Tell me about your weakness”. That you are a perfectionist.

According to Sharon Begley, author of books such as “The Mind and the Brain”, “The Plastic Mind” and “Can’t. Just. Stop. An Investigation of Compulsions“, many of the creative types have traces of OCD and anxiety in them.

Her book begins with a story of blind John Milton who wrote the epic 10,000 plus lines of “Paradise Lost” by dictating his lines crafted at night and memorised until daylight broke, to one of his three daughters. Milton had a palpable need to be unburdened of the memorised lines of verse that filled him with anxiety until he could be “milked”. Hemingway described himself the same way “When I don’t write, I feel like shit”. Vincent Van Fogh produced more than 200 paintings of sunflower in a short span of time equivalent to one painting every 34hrs.

Begley observed that these geniuses’ work sprang from a “deep creative impulse and genius” that also came from something “deeper, darker, more tortured”. Driven to keep the psychic pain away. Compulsions so desperate and tortured.

Who exactly is a perfectionist?

Begley cites Caroline Meyer of Loughborough University in a 2011 study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders discovered a link between perfectionism and compulsive exercise. The falling short of perfection provokes anxiety which only the compulsive behavior can quiet – the result is a compulsion to work out to a self destructive extreme.

Is there a difference between addiction and compulsion?

Addiction begins with a flash of pleasure overlaid by an itch if danger. It’s fun to gamble or drink and puts you at risk. You like how you feel when you win.

Compulsion in contrast is about avoiding unpleasant outcomes. They are born in anxiety and remain strangers to joy. Such behavior is repeated to relief the angst brought about by negative consequences. “If I don’t do this, something terrible will happen.”

Note: Perfectionists have the potential to self destruct. Not a good answer in a job interview.

Begley cites another creative type, Joan Rivers who was working very hard just before she died in 2014. Rivers worked as compulsively as a kid trying to break into show business.

Begley went on to observe that the compulsion to do good in the world can “emanate from as many sources as a river of snow melt water “. Positive such as seeing one’s work make an impact in the lives of others, or a sense of connectedness. Or negative forces such as a repulsive force of anxiety.

Drive to work can come from the anxiety that no one will do a job as competently as you will. Or an anxiety that comes from contemplating one’s own mortality or the existence of suffering in the world and saying “not on my watch”? What compels people to do good?

What compels people to create?
According to Marcy Seaham, who advises corporations on creativity there are 4 temperaments that drives people to create.
1. Artisan/ improviser – restlessness from feeling “Ive had enough” of this way of doing things or imperfect device
2. Catalysts/ idealists are restless as long as things dont change. Impelled by curiosity.
3. Creativity comes from enjoyment of mastery and accomplishment. “Incompetence and stupidity makes them restless.” Perception of themselves as not accomplishing.
4. Guardians/ Stabilisers feel restless when things are not going smoothly.


A very well written book, except that what’s amiss in my view is any attempt to help those of us who suspect we may have some secret compulsive behavior. Her aim is to create a “realization that there is no bright line between mental illness and mental normality”.

You’ve succeeded Ms Begley. Now every colleague looks suspiciously having OCD traits. Including myself.

Next time you describe yourself as a perfectionist in an interview, think again. You may be revealing more than you should.


I’m at a little cafe “Tiann’s” in Tiong Bahru doing my weekly marketing in the wet market.

I ordered two lattes, each costing $6.50 pricier than the delicious wanton noodles we had for breakfast. I’m going to nurse this latte.


I want to know. How do you trick your brain into exercising?


Look at this young overachiever at the recent car-free Sunday in the Central Business District.

Ready for Young’s suggestions?

1. Meditative Pace allows development of ideas

Charles Darwin’s strolls in Kent were important in development of ideas. The world’s greatest naturalist was a collector of stones. Not just a love of nature or departing from the maddening crowd. It’s “exercise in reflection – a kind of moving meditation”.

According to Young, exercise encourages innovation and problem-solving. He doesn’t refer you to these studies for you to digest and chew but presents ideas for consumption.

Walking (and jogging), rather than other forms of sports, is at a “more contemplative pace” and allows your senses to interplay with a tactile , vibrant world (as long as you’re not in a gym. But then you can read on your ipad or watch the news as I’m prone to do.)

This allows for a mood for creativity. If you’re walking on the streets of city life, try doing so without headphones, cautioned Young to prevent pedestrian deaths.

Loosen your mind and give it interesting things to contemplate in this state.

2. Vigorous sports promotes a sense of self

In recounting Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, Young presents that in addition to toning muscles and increasing the heart’s efficency, exercise and competitions offers a firmer idea of “self” associated with bodily effort. Giving us someone to beat and offering us a comparison “self against others”.

Even if you’re an onlooker, we feel the pleasure in our success. (I guess for the team you’re rooting for. Is that the reason why so many people watch football? Not just for betting.)

Unlike Greek gods, we humans have a short life span. “The gods may feel no sorrow, but as should be accounted happy and worthy of song if boldness and power have gained him the greatest prize for the might of hand and foot.”

Pride in exercise. Not just fitness but a keen sense of our responsibility. We cannot wait for God to give us our souls – the self is something we must continually and consciously create.

(Forget for a moment that the existentialist author Albert Camus comited suicide). Recounted by Young, Camus once argued that Sisyphus rolling up the boulder to the hill for eternity, was happy because it was his rock. His duty and his task. Only we are the rock. Maybe so. I’ll leave youto nurse your latte over that one.

3. Transforming agony into art. Think “ballet”. Young cites martial arts and ballet that these art forms change the meaning of pain. As the meaning changes, so does the pain itself. For Descartes, the body is basically a machine. It’s not fused with the mind but made of a separate substance.

Pain is purely a mechanical process of stimulation and transmission. The brain’s job as a thinking substance is simply to receive it.

There are 9 other ideas captured in the book. My latte is finished. I encourage you to finish the book and tell me the rest.

I checked out Damon Young’s blog post. He is a philosopher and has written a book on gardening and philosophy. Can’t wait to check it out.

What you observe creates your reality.

Those of us who drive know the danger of blind spots and the need for side mirrors.

According to Shawn Achor of “Before Happiness“, a reality at work based on only one vantage point is limited and full of blind spots and that prevents forward movement.

Achor suggests that the perspective is in the details. He cites Dr Irwin Braverman, a professor at Yale School of Medicine and Linda Friedlaender, the curator at the Yale Centre for British Art who came up with an exercise that helped doctors improve a skill that actually could save lives.

In the midst of training, students were taken to an art museum to see the world in multiple dimensions.

The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the students who took this class exhibited a 10% improvement in their ability to detect important medical details.

“Once they are able to see this wider rave of details, they were better able to leverage their IQ and EQ and all their other cognitive abilities to knit these details together and see previously missed connections.

Those details were the vantage points that broadened their perspective and made them more successful in their work. ”

Achor notes that in medicine , as in all professions, it is easy to get stuck seeing things from only one vantage point and approach problems with a broader and deeper perspective.

He gave the example of a doctor who observes the lips of a patient and noticed something all other doctors missed and saved the patient’s life.

Seeing reality from different angles can allow us to open our eyes to a broader range of opportunities and connect more deeply with our team and family.

Please also catch Shawn Achor’s very humorous TED talk.


Broken pot becomes a work of art. At the 2016 Singapore Garden Festival.

Does venting help with anger management?


Painting by Thai artist Tang Chang at the National Gallery, Singapore. The painting was painted in remembrance of the brutal police oppression in Thailand in 1973.

Psychologist Brad Bushman designed an experiment to make people angry. He found that venting doesn’t extinguish the flame of anger, it feeds it. When we vent our anger we put 😠a lead foot on the gas pedal of the go system, attacking the target who enraged us.

Instead, focusing on the victim activates what psychologists call empathetic anger – the desire to right wrongs done unto others.

Research demonstrates that when we are angry at others, we aim for retaliation or revenge.

But when we’re angry for others, we seek out injustice and a better system. We don’t just want to punish; we want to help.

Next time when someone makes you angry, don’t think about the countless times s/he has disrepected you or disregard your feelings. That’s a sure way of exploding. Instead, think about why this person is a victim of his or her circumstances/ stress. Focus on what can be done.

Adam Grant concludes his chapter on those who championed women suffrage and minority rights that “becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit.

“Originals – how non conformists move the world” by Adam Grant

Recently I saw a young man explode because his dish was accidentally cleared by an old cleaner. It was obvious that it was the old man’s first few days at work and he made a mistake. Instead of confronting the young man to give the guy a break, I slipped money for him to buy another plate. Berating him for showing his temper over something so insignificant and cheap like a $4 plate of rice will only embarrass him and not change the world. Surprisingly he accepted the money. Perhaps he’s under dire circumstances as well.

What would you do? Something similar happened recently and someone chose to take a video for the whole world to see.

“A Whack on the side of the Head” referred by my favourite authors as a book for creatives is in its 25th anniversary of printing.

Author Roger van Oech has a number of creative exercises to open our mental lock through use of ambiguity or paradox by Chinese idiom and Japanese koan and Greek oracles / riddles from Heraclitus.

Heraclitus was a philosopher born in Ephesus. You may be familiar with his oft-quoted wisdom “you never step into the same river twice”. Roger van Oech introduces some of them for us to exercise some brain gym to look for more than one meaning to understand our issues.

Wisdom of Heraclitus*

1. The cosmos speaks in patterns

2. Expect the unexpected, or you won’t find it.

3. Everything flows

4. You can’t step into the same river twice
– you are not the same person and it will not be the same experience.

5. That which opposes produces a benefit
– enemies serve a useful purpose : they tell us when to change direction.

6. A wonderful harmony is created when we join together the seemingly unconnected

7. If all things turned to smoke, the nose would become the discerning organ

8. The sun will not exceed its limits, because the avenging Furies, ministers of Justice, would find out

9. Lovers of wisdom must open their minds to very many things

10. I searched into myself
– Know thyself? Your strengths and weaknesses? Sun Tzu’s Know yourself and know your enemies and you’ll not lose a hundred battles.

11. Knowing many things doesn’t teach insight

12. Many fail to grasp what’s right in the palm of their hand
– Appreciate what’s before you. The solution may be right in front of you

13. When there is no sun, we can see the evening stars
– Every cloud has a silver lining ?

14. The most beautiful order is a heap of sweepings piled up at random
– ???

15. Things love to conceal their true nature

16. Those who approach life like a child playing a game, moving and pushing pieces, possess the power of kings

17. Sea water is both pure and polluted: for the fish it is drinkable and life-giving, for the humans undrinkable and destructive
– one man’s meat is another man’s poison

18. On a circle, an end point can also be a beginning point

19. It is disease that makes health pleasant, hunger that makes fullness good, and weariness that makes rest sweet

20. The doctor inflicts pain to cure suffering

21. The way up and the way down are one and the same
-success can create situations that undermine our original intentions and end up creating bigger problems than the ones we started with. The author suggests that in the mid-1960s, the Japanese resort town of Atami lobbied hard to get high speed bullet train link to Tokyo, then 3 hrs away. After the railway was completed, tourism declined – in part because the romance of going away for the weekend was lost in a place that could be reached in only fifty minutes.

22. All things rest by changing

23. The barley-wine drink falls apart unless it is stirred
– People need to be inspired into action. If you see something not done. Stir others up to champion a cause

24. While we are awake, we share one universe, but in sleep we each turn away to a world of our own

25. Dogs bark at what they don’t understand
– Don’t throw pearls before swine

26. Donkeys prefer garbage to gold

27. Every walking animal is driven to its purpose with a whack
– Carrot and stick. Sometimes stick works or people won’t move to their goals.

28. There is a greater need to extinguish arrogance than a blazing fire

29. Your character is your destiny

30. The sun is new each day
– Don’t wallow in the mud. Pick yourself up and start again.

A whack on the Head, by Roger von Oech


Root carvings along the streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

Yesterday, the Straits Times ran an article on the alarming increase in dementia among the young and old. I was naturally concerned both for my parents and myself. We had a former colleague who was diagnosed with dementia several years ago in his late thirties. With health care costs on the rise, I wonder if there’s anything we can do on our part to delay the onset.

My paternal grandmother suffered from dementia. This was something my father would bring up, possibly a subconscious worry that it’s hereditary.

What’s the cause and cure of dementia? Unfortunately as its a memory loss condition, I doubt it’ll be helpful to ask the “patient” about the onset of the condition.

Mental stimulation exercise

How to treat this condition? Some websites recommend mental stimulation, exercise and drugs. One study contradicted these claims and concluded that experiments using mental stimulation exercises alone did not abate dementia.

Reading, writing your blog and watching TV is not going to cut it.


Another ST article introduced an experiment by the National University of Singapore on joining the choir. Learning something new and making new friends. I hope this experiment succeeds as this means that joining the church praise and worship should help.

In the case of my grandmother, the onset of her dementia was linked to a period of great stress. She was moved to a different neighbourhood of big fenced in houses where she didn’t know any of her new neighbours. There was a family feud and my extended family didn’t allow us to visit. While the daughters who used to stay with her, got married and moved out.

Anecdotal evidence from friends confirm such patterns of emotional stress, lack of social group and the isolation caused by a new and different environment which reinforced the feeling of isolation and lack of control.

Which may explain why mental stimulation alone doesn’t work. Retirement, leaving your work place and your friends may not be such a paradise after all. While you leave behind the stress of work, you leave behind the familiar and the routine which is necessary for the soul.

Wind back the clock -Mindfulness

In a social psychology experiment by Ellen Langer, she found that turning the clock backward seemed to help her participants behave younger and have improved dexterity.

Langer and her associates got a group of participants in a home decorated with memorabilia of their era. During the time they stayed in the home, they talked about the era as if it’s the present, and even the calendar was turned to reflect that time. Interestingly participants felt more energetic at the end of the experience.

Details of the experiment in the following websites:

Will the singing experiment by NUS work?
1. Very likely. Singing in a choir is very comforting for some people.
Songs have beats, rythum and tempo which provides the familiar and structure.
2. Having a regular social group to go to, gives you something to look forward to. Especially if you enjoy the company after a period of familiarisation.
3. Not to forget mental and physical stimulation of learning a song, and exerting your lungs – good for the emotional and creative soul.

However, it may be difficult to isolate which part of Singing then is helpful for delaying the full effects of dementia. What if you dislike singing or have physically immobile parents who need help getting to a choir practice but you are not able to regularly get them to the group?

Ellen Langer’s experiments suggest that another critical piece to the picture is the illusion of control. In an experiment where she gave a group of patients in a aging home, a plant to care for, they seemed to perform better than the control group.

Critics though point out that no other researcher has since been able to replicate the Rodin & Langer experiment.

What then should we conclude ? There’s no empirical evidence that giving someone responsibility to make decisions slow down the process of aging.

Human beings are complex creatures and we all attach different meaning and interpretation to certain events. Some of us do not like responsibility. Some of us know the stuff but lack the will to change.

As for me, I’ll continue the path of searching. We are unique and different. If an experiment doesn’t harm me or someone else and doesn’t involve consuming drugs, I’ll hold on to the hope of getting better and treating others especially those going through this condition with dignity.

Victor Frankl in his book “Man’s search for meaning” on life in the Auschwitz concentration camp says

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.

Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

What do you think?

Source: Photo taken by L in Japan

In recent years when I started working part-time, I found that my level of stress has not abated. Himself suggested that I walk, to simulate a “fight or flight” response for my body.

Some of you may find this obvious, but not to me. My family doesn’t exercise, and my mom claims that her doctor told her not to exercise. In school, my teachers would get us to exercise at 10am, and resume classes in our sticky tropical sweat. At my first workplace, my bosses scoffed at “farmers”. All brawn and no brains. Thus begins my research and excitement when I read some of the experiments cited by Reynolds.

Thus began my love-hate relationship with exercise, especially given that my favourite past-time was eating, I had to exercise to keep my Asian frame in respectable-husband-worthy form.

I’m reading “The First 20 minutes – the surprising science of how we can exercise better, train smarter and live longer” by Gretchen Reynolds

In Ch8 of her book, Reynolds opens with a story of the sea squirt, which has long sections of DNA similar to our own. Movement of the sea squirt seems to strengthen their brain and the nervous system connections.

These are the benefits of exercise cited by Reynolds:

Creation of new brain cells
Pumps up existing ones
Improves mood
Aids in multi-tasking
Blunts aging-related memory loss
Sharpens decision making
Dulls stress
Enfeebles bullies
Improves thinking

The experiments were initially tested on mice by Fred Rusty Gage, a world renowned professor in the Department of Genetics and his colleagues on a Morris water maze which was the rats equivalent of an IQ test. The difference between the smart mice and those that failed the test was exercise. Later the experiments were done on brain tissue from deceased cancer patients who had donated their bodies to research.

Again Dr Gage saw new neurons, centred almost exclusively in the hippocampus.

In another experiment conducted by Dr Nathaniel Thom, a stress physiologist at a recent American College of Sports Medicine conference presented studies that showed that exercise, even a single bout of it (in the experiment it was 30 mins on a stationary bike), can have a robust prophylactic effect against the buildup of anger. The volunteers still became upset but it helped them to hold their anger in check.

In another experiment by Dr Lehmann of the National Institute of Mental Health, exercise helps to achieve emotional resilience. The researchers gathered two groups of male mice. “Some were strong and aggressive. The others less so. The alpha mice got private cages and acted like thugs. They had to be restrained from harming the smaller mice when the partition was removed for 5 mins… Under such conditions, the smaller animals were predictably twitchy and submissive… After two weeks, the weaker mice became nervous wrecks.”

In a separate group of mice that had been allowed access to running wheels for several weeks before they were housed with the aggressive mice, they appeared stress resistant. Although these mice were wisely submissive when confronted by the bullies, they didn’t freeze or cling to dark spaces in unfamiliar situations. They explored.

Dr Lehmann expounded that one of the mysteries of mental illness is why some people respond pathologically to stress and some seem to be stress resistant. The answer, according to Dr Michael Hopkins at Dartmouth University, may at least, in part be workouts. Possibly that the “positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms.”

How much exercise is needed?

Dr Lehmann doesn’t run. He walks everywhere (has no car) and does not believe that hours of daily exercise are needed or desirable. “The mice in his lab ran only when and for as long as they wished.” [NB: To our Minister of Transport, maybe the solution is not cycling but walking!]

Some experimenters demonstrated that aerobic exercise was better. Others showed that weight training was more suitable, in experiments involving older women of 60 yrs and above. And the studies showed that people with low efficacy and low confidence showed injuries. Hence its better for them to get some kind of coaching help.

To find out more, read this book!