The intelligent altruists, though less altruistic than the unintelligent altruists, will be fitter than both unintelligent altruists and selfish individuals. – Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize winner in economics

If its indeed better to give than to receive, why are some givers exploited and burnout while others receive extra-ordinary success? Harvard Professor Adam Grant examines the world of career success on why some people rise to the top of their career success while others sink to the bottom?

Grant observed that most people operate as either takers, matchers or givers.

It takes out that there are two types of givers:

(i) selfless givers are people with high other interest and low self interest. they give their time and energy without regard for their own needs and they pay a price for it. Grant calls it pathological altruism. It is unhealthy because they end up being overwhelmed and risk harming themselves.

(ii) Otherish givers care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.  Grant quotes Bill Gates at the WEF, “there are two great forces of human nature: self-interest and caring for others”and people are most successful when they are driven by a hybrid engine of the two.  Being otherish is about giving more than you receive, but keeping your own self-interest in sight as a guide to whom you will give.

Some suggestions by Grant on how to give:

(i) Chunking, Sprinkling and the 100 hour rule of volunteering

Otherish givers tend of chunk their volunteering, specific times of the day, instead of sprinkling – helping whenever people needed them. This allows givers more control of their time and energy to complete their own work. Grant found that chunkers achieved gains in happiness while sprinklers did not.

(ii) Myth of giver burnout

Acts 20: 35 It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Grant quotes work by Northwestern University psychologists Seeley and Gardner who found that people who consistently override their selfish impulses in order to help others, they had strengthened their psychological muscles to the point where using willpower for painful tasks was no longer exhausting.

Grant went on to tell the story of Utah businessman Jon Huntsman who believes that being a giver actually made him rich.  Economist Arthur Brooks tested the relationship between income and charitable giving. For every $1 in extra charitable giving, income was $3.75 higher.  Neuroscience research also shows that giving also activates the reward centres in the brain, signalling pleasure.

(iii) Sincerity screening

Do you know what the other person’s intention is?  Its wise to start out as a giver, advise Grant. But once a counterpart is clearly acting like a taker, it makes sense for givers to flex their reciprocity styles and shift to a matching strategy.  Game theorists call it “tit for tat”, and Harvard mathematical biologist Martin Nowak found it can be advantageous to alternate between giving and matching.

(iv) How to negotiate?

Givers, particularly agreeable ones, often overestimate the degree to which assertiveness might be off-putting to others.

Asking on account of others. When you’re willing to advocate for others,  this sends a positive signal about how hard you would work.  When a client makes an unreasonable request, explain how it was going to stretch my team or kill them working crazy hours.


Read the book for his compelling research.

Are you a giver, a matcher or a taker?

“Your mind is the garden, 
your thoughts are the seeds,
the harvest can either be flowers or weeds.”


Japanese man seriously flying his kite


Hobbyist propagating his air plants from seeds

Hobbyist propagating his air plants from seeds


Several years ago, in between jobs after my MBA, himself had a crazy idea that I do a temp job with Starbucks as a coffee barista. I did not take up his suggestion as I was worried about running into my friends in this down-and-out state. Many years later, I would be paying good money (instead of being paid) to learn café culture and how to do latte art.  Café culture is really big time in Asia now, and something I really wished I had picked up.

How to make good use of your downtime, whether its voluntary or involuntary. No experience is ever wasted. Steve jobs took time out to learn western calligraphy while figuring out his next step, and the landscape of printed font has never been the same again. (I can’t stand courier.)

The author of Roget’s Thesaurus, Dr Peter Mark Roget, published his Thesaurus with a useful list of antonyms and synonyms in his 70s. An obsessive-compulsive, with a family history of depression, making lists helped calm him down. You can read about his story in this website on late bloomers.

Coincidentally, I’m reading a biography of Deng Xiaoping by Ezra Vogel. Vogel’s snippet of how Deng whiled away his time in the Jiangxi countryside wilderness was quite inspiring,  Some of his other compatriots fell into depression. Deng, the chief architect of China’s economic rise, on the other hand, was planning in his mind, how to reform China, while doing manual labor in a factory. He was 65 yrs old then.

85 Ideas on what to do with your downtime.

Some ideas here came from “How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free – Retirement wisdom that you won’t get from your financial advisor” by Ernie J. Zelinski. Since this came from an author residing in the US, I’ve added my own cultural specific ones. Many free lessons can be obtained from the internet (Youtube), borrowing books from the internet, local library or local community centres.

  1. Learn art of Japanese tea making
  2. Experience Café Culture
  3. Coffee Appreciation class
  4. How to create latte art
  5. Learn western calligraphy
  6. Learn Chinese calligraphy
  7. Learn to bake Hokkaido milk bread
  8. Join a club such as the Lions or Rotary.
  9. Join public speaking club such as Toastmasters
  10. Learn to grow plants
  11. Record the history of your hometown
  12. Create a drawing of your family tree
  13. Write a book on how your ancestors have affected your life
  14. Become a connoisseur of inexpensive restaurants.  (ieatishootiblog)
  15. Chinese tea appreciation
  16. Grow a herb garden
  17. Go back to university and get a degree
  18. Watch interesting court cases at the courthouse
  19. Go sailing
  20. Gaze at the stars
  21. Write poetry
  22. Memorise a poem
  23. Learn famous quotations
  24. Start a collection of …
  25. Write a mobile app
  26. Teach children of low income families to read
  27. Teach English as a second language
  28. Practice the art of gratitude
  29. Do something for others for 29 days
  30. Declutter your room/ drawer/ cabinet
  31. Paint a self portrait
  32. Write a novel
  33. Write a “How to” book
  34. Compile lists of … (remember Roget’s Thesaurus)
  35. Play guitar or ukulele
  36. Learn to speak a foreign language (Spanish, German, Chinese)
  37. Paint watercolors
  38. Take an online writing course
  39. Write a diary/ journal
  40. Take a one hour walk everyday
  41. Visit the museums
  42. Volunteer as a museum guide and attend their training
  43. Learn pottery making
  44. Volunteer in a home for the aged
  45. Visit your parents
  46. Bestow gift of real listening without interrupting
  47. sign up for a counselling course
  48. Sponsor a child in Haiti/ Vietnam
  49. Meditate for 30 mins daily
  50. Practice a new habit for 21 days
  51. Spend an hour by the beach/ riverbank and listen to the sound of water
  52. Speak to your plants
  53. Make a list of favourite music in different genres (Jazz, Classical, Opera, Pop, R&B, Hip-Hop)
  54. Watch movies of different genres (e.g. Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Kurosawa, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai
  55. Learn different form of photography (portraiture, black-white, nature, children, night, action)
  56. Learn martial arts (e.g  Tae Kwando, Akido)
  57. Go mountain-climbing with a friend.
  58. Take up dancing (Ball room, waltz, Zumba)
  59. Have friends over for lunch
  60. Volunteer to Teach a children arts-and-crafts class
  61. Volunteer to build in “Habits for Humanity”
  62. Learn about other religions
  63. Go to church.
  64. Keep a sketch book
  65. Learn to hash-tag on Facebook
  66. Have a long conversation with a child and see where the conversation takes you
  67. Play a game with young children (depending on age, e.g. playdough, card games, guessing names)
  68. Cook
  69. Invite your friends for tea/ lunch
  70. Visit a different part of town you’ve never visited
  71. Bake a tart
  72. Make a list of all your friends
  73. Email/ send a card, written note (one person a day) on what you appreciate about them
  74. Learn art of gift wrapping
  75. Learn the art of small talk
  76. Start a web page of inspiring quotations
  77. Sweep your floors everyday
  78. Try finger painting
  79. Cook a different cuisine (e.g learn to make Vietnamese Spring rolls or Thai Pomelo salad from Youtube)
  80. Learn to swim
  81. Learn to play chess/ mah-jong/ bridge
  82. Learn about fashion/ colors that suit your skin tone
  83. How the internet works
  84. Climb to the top of the hill and watch the sunrise
  85. Walk for 4hours (that’s what Charles Dickens does to de-stress from writing!

Create your own 85 things to do in your free time. Make it 100!


Tomita Farm, Furano, Japan

Tomita Farm, Furano, Japan

Myth #5 Networking sounds opportunistic

In “Social- why our brains are wired to connect”, neuroscientist Michael Lieberman proposes that the size of our brains, in particular the size of our prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain sitting right behind our eyes is larger than other mammals, not to do abstract reasoning as originally thought but to facilitate social cognitive skills – interact and get along well with others.

What’s so beneficial about living in groups? From studying primates, we know that the advantage to larger groups is that predators can be strategically avoided or dealt with more successfully. Its dangerous to be out in the open looking for food by yourself. However, the downside of larger groups is that there is increased competition for food and mating partners within the group. If you’re on your own and you find food its yours. But in a larger group, its likely that one of the others in your group will try to poach it. Lieberman argues that primates with strong social skills can limit this downside by forming alliances and friendship with others in their group

Networking is not opportunistic. Instead, it is a survival skill, not just leading to a division of labor and collection of diverse information, but also a way for self protection. Most of the people I hang out with socially are either current/former colleagues/ classmates or Lang’s former/current colleagues or spouses.  In today’s world, our world of work represents our major source of identify and influence (if not income). We spend most of our waking time with colleagues than with relatives/ loved ones. This is not always healthy, but colleagues come from the same socio-economic background and mindset. Since we spend so much of our waking time with colleagues than our family, why not work with people whose company you enjoy. Indeed, in many of the top MBA schools, including major strategy firms, one of the questions to the interviewer is, “Would you dread being stuck at the airport for 10hrs with this person you’re interviewing?”

Lieberman proposes that perhaps Maslow is wrong on one count. That the primal need of humans is social and it underscores everything we do, including the lower order needs such as physiological. The most basic human need is to be in touch with other humans, and to find an environment which we are comfortable in, and underpins our sense of security.

Many of the Masters students I work with, are curious how career change can happen. Why are some people able to make career switch so successfully? Recently I chanced upon a quote, on the tributes to Mr LKY, by the current CEO of SPH, Mr Alan Chan, on how he switched from being a civil servant to managing a newspaper giant. In 1994,  Mr Lee had invited Mr Lim Kim San, then Executive Chairman of SPH who had then lost his wife to join him on his trip to China. As then principal private secretary to Mr Lee, Mr Chan was on the trip, and spent 17 days with Mr Lim discussing all kinds of issues. Eight years later, in 2002, when Mr Lim needed to find someone to replace the CEO, he remembered the young man with whom he had many happy conversations with.

Networking is about having meaningful conversations with people whose paths we cross. Through such conversations, we understand each other’s aspirations, values and work ethics. Those who are more attentive, get “lucky”.

Myth #6 Networking is for the extrovert. I’m too shy

Some of us have a higher sense of self consciousness and lack self-esteem. Introverts, socially awkward. You may need some practice in non-threatening situations.

Knowing that I’m an introvert doesn’t give me an excuse. It liberates me to use areas of my strengths. I’m better at one-to-one or small group relationships. I get over-stimulated by large groups, and need to balance this with “alone” time. My extrovert students tell me they like introverts. Introverts make better listeners. Giving someone your full attention and clearly listen is a skill. Susan Cain’s “Quiet”.

Remember Mona Lisa. “The ideal smile, according to Leonardo da Vinci is a half smile, because it enhances the quality of gently gazing eyes.”

Do you smile because you’re happy or are you happy because you smile? In “Words can change your brains“, Newberg and Waldman cite researchers who found that when a mother sees a happy infant, dopamine is released in her brain’s reward centres, and she smiles too. But if a mother is being inattentive (italics mine), the smile will quickly fade away.

Myth #7 I’m afraid to be rejected

Not everyone will like you. Think of Mandela, Gandhi, Jesus or even Steve Jobs. Being rejected can happen to everyone. Perhaps there’s no match or appreciation for what you bring to the table. [Sometimes, the person could be deep in thought with their own issues and miss what you’re saying. This happens to me quite often, and my friends would ask if I was angry or something bothering me.]  Move on.

All of us have our own inner baggage, and the people you may be working with, may have their own set of values, stereotypes and bias. Ask if you’re banging your head against the wall. Or you simply need more practice in building social skills. Networking is a skill that needs practice. There are books teaching you how to create small talk. Read them.  Practice in a safe environment.

Myth #8 Don’t talk to strangers

How to be a Power Connector, the 5+50+100 rule” by Judy Robinett, who says to people who tell her they hate talking with strangers, “I was a stranger five seconds ago and you’re talking to me”.

Robinett suggests making it a game. Talk to 3 strangers a day, starting with people who are “trapped” next to them in a grocery line.

Observe your inner speech. When it turns negative, it can bring about a downward spiral of inattentiveness, negative emotions, retaliation and other problems. You may want to generate positive self-talk, think kind thoughts towards the people you are interacting with.

If that still doesnt work, understand what motivates you and what is your networking style. Extroverts for instance, like bigger groups of people. Introverts on the other hand, are not socially isolated as previously believed. Rather, they are motivated by their passion. An introvert can talk non-stop especially in their area of interest. But as it takes less to stimulate an introvert than an extrovert, take time out and rest. Know when you’re spent.

All the best to your networking!

Tibetan man with his yak  at Yangpachen, Namtso

Tibetan man with his yak at Yangpachen, Namtso

Gift #4:   April Showers bring May flowers

Everything has a season, Everything has a reason

Had Steve Jobs not been fired from Apple, he would not have met his wife, and bought Pixar, which made him a billionaire. [This is according to his commencement address.]

In Chinese, there’s an expression that comes close to the English idiom, every cloud has a silver lining. In every terrible circumstance, there’s a tiny sliver of hope of something good that may come as a result.

塞翁失马 [sai weng si ma, yan zi feifu]

The expression 塞翁失马 literally means Sai Weng lost his horse and comes from 《淮南子》written by Liu An in the Western Han Dynasty. An old man called Sai Weng lost his horse, but when others came to comfort him, he said, “I have only lost a horse, and this is not a big loss. Maybe something good will come of it in future.” And so it came to pass – a few days later, his horse returned followed by another good horse.

Although from the story my mom told me, it continues that one day, his son sat on the new horse and was thrown off this wild horse. His son became a cripple. When neighbours came to console him, how is he going to start his own family? No one will want a husband like that?  The man said, its not a big loss. Perhaps something good will come of it. Several years later, the country went to war with a neighbouring country, and all the able-bodied men in the village were enlisted. But because his son was a cripple, he was spared and able to marry a young woman of his dreams. Perhaps the story has other twists and turns.

Tibetan yak

Tibetan yak

The Chinese saying, is usually twined with a question “Is this good or bad?”

Was colonialism good or bad for Singapore?

When World War II came, and the British came, and the Japanese occupied Singapore, was it good or bad?

When Singapore was expelled from the merger, was it good or bad?

When the British withdrew from Singapore in 1971, was it good or bad?

As I looked back at my own life, whenever I face a setback, fear crept in. At times, I was even paralyzed with fear and depression. Be positive, pull yourself by your boot-straps, friends tell me. They are not wrong. But somehow I couldn’t muster the courage to positive thinking.

I’ve come to learn that adverse situations are pivotal circumstances and contain seeds of new growth = turning points. Life-changing experiences take place, when I’m not preoccupied with grumbling. I’m not trying to justify the works of evil people. They will be judged in their own time.  Whatever man meant for evil, God can turn it to good.

My response to such adverse circumstances in future?

Ask: What is the lesson that I am supposed to learn from this situation?  What is my responsibility? Did I contribute to this problem? What can I do differently? [Which leads me to Gift #5 – Learn something new.]
What do I have to mourn and move on?
10 years later, when I look back, what can I give thanks for now?
Are there qualities, growth that I have gained?

Having a routine helps in adversity. And friends.

What are the lessons adversity has taught you? Let me hear from you.

Don’t judge each day by your harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.  – Robert Louis Steveson

Instagram media by swwong - A repost from friedricebucket. Praying for Mr Lee and his family through this time.

Photo by Ong Yi Teck. This talented young man, wrote 18,000 squiggly times Mr Lee’s name.

[Reblogged from my post at Potgardening]

Goodbye Mr Lee

Despite the hoax last week, we should have been prepared.
But when the news came, we still teared
Seeing you in your younger days
Fiery and defiant
Like a lion

Thank you Mr Lee
You make me want to be a better me

A middle aged lady who used to clean my home remembers you canvasing for support. Those early days, with a tin can. Asking for donations. She put in her little 2 coins. Believing in the dreams you painted. For water, electricity and a roof above our heads.

You gave us more than that.

The taxi driver uncle who worked in the airline repair in the 1960s. You were then the Prime Minister. When unions urged them not to turn up for work. Remembers you rushing down, cajoling, and reminding, that Singapore cannot fail, or the world will make us a laughing stock.

You gave us a dream
You gave us respect

Thank you Mr Lee
You make me want to be a better me
There will never be another you

The greenery, the city planning and the friends you made overseas, you worked so tirelessly.
I hope you go from glory to glory.
Thank you Mr Lee

You’re a great man. Even great men call you great. For you are known by your deeds.

前人种树 后人乘凉 (qian ren zong shu, hou ren chen liang)

We sit in the shade of tress planted by those before us. – Chinese proverb.

National Day by Liu Kang (1967) - National Art Gallery

National Day by Liu Kang (1967) – National Art Gallery




Photo credit: CSX (Thank you!!)

Today I taught a class on Performance Management at the university. The ever-dreaded quarterly, half yearly, annual performance dialogue with your boss. For most of us, it ends up as a negative emotional process.

But the purpose of performance measurement is itself motivational, done the correct way. You get a pat on the back on the areas you’ve performed well, and advice on areas needing improvement.

Clayton Christensen suggests in his book “How will you measure your life?” that instead of just measuring performance of companies and your life and work, the business frameworks can be applied to your life. Society can be more prosperous if there’re clear rules and there’s a process to hold people accountable. Once you commit to follow the rules, Christensen opines that life becomes simpler rather than make everyday decision on nuances and debating whether to follow the rules. What about asking if you can you leave something that will help other people? How do conduct our lives every day?

Today I asked my two classes of 19-23 yr old university students, how they defined career success. Those who were volunteered, said that in addition to financial security, they want a job where they are happy in.  Most agreed with that statement.  But what makes them happy in those jobs? Its as if happiness or motivation was something someone gave to them, or a place they wandered into and not something they pursued or have a part to play. So what is happiness? Is it a skill they get to develop, recognition for an ability or learn new stuff, live in new places, try out new experiences? What is it? Possibly, in this generation, where fulfilment can be obtained in so many other areas, e.g. many have travelled to distant places before graduation. Unlike in the past, where the only way to see the world is to travel for your job.

Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Scorecard: financial, customer, internal processes, learning, innovation and growth on yourself linked to goals is a useful one.

So, how will you measure your life? What is career success for you? What makes you happy?

Clayton Christensen will be in Singapore to deliver a lecture on disruptive innovation. Catch him on 11 Sep 2014. Lecture is organised by the Singapore Institute of Management.

Excellent article on “Singapore and innovation and what’s lacking” by Scott Anthony, who will join him at the lecture.

Lavender Fields in Furano

Lavender Fields in Furano

Display at the 2014 Singapore Gardens Festival

Display at the 2014 Singapore Gardens Festival

In my earlier blogpost, I reflected on the importance of silence.

Words are often necessary as a language of trust.

Recently, a friend introduced me to a book “Five Love Languages” and shared that her love language was “Quality Time”. Sundays are reserved as special time for her husband as both spent the rest of the week on the road. His love language was “Words of Affirmation”.  Every day, he messages her that he loves her, lamenting that she does not do the same. Reminds me of the story of a man when asked by his wife why he longer tells her “I love you” remarked, “I’ve told you on our wedding day, if anything has changed, I’ll let you know.”

Some of us need constant reminders.

At last week’s Prime Minister’s National Day rally, he recounted the story of a very observant resident who noticed that a fish-ball stick thrown on the ground was not swept after two days. Obviously the cleaner was not doing his work. The resident helpfully reported this to his MP who investigated and discovered that it was because the stick fell on “no man’s land”. She gamely intervened and got the various agencies to work together.

When I heard the story, I wondered why the man in question did not pick up the fish-ball stick in the first place.

Foreigners used to joke that Singapore was a “fine” city. If you were caught littering, you pay a fine of $500. Today, we are a “cleaned” city. Not clean, but cleaned, with an army of cleaners.  Its our right to throw fish-ball sticks around, and its the cleaners’ fault for not cleaning after us. We wonder why its becoming so expensive to live in Singapore. [Now the joke is on us.]

Norms have changed. We worry more about what the western media projects of Singapore. The slogans have gone because it sounds too communist. We are a modern global city.

When we visited the flower fields of Furano in Hokkaido, I was amazed that no one picked the lavender flowers, leaving it for everyone to enjoy. Only in Japan. The Tourism Board in Singapore tried to display orchids along our tourist shopping belt one year, and by Day 2, the displays were bare from people helping themselves. Tragedy of the Commons where everyone acts in their own self interest. So no chance of the beautiful displays at the Singapore Gardens Festival finding their way for permanent display at Orchard Road.

What is so different about the Japanese spirit of discipline? Education and constant reminders. In my recent visit to Japan, I was surprised to find that in public trains are clear signs in multiple languages (Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean), not to use handphones. Japan is a society where clear rules and etiquette are communicated. Before you become too enamoured with the Japanese lifestyle, I’ve seen young moms carrying babies plying the crowded sub-way trains and no one would give up their seats. [The young moms were probably walking to the “charity” seats reserved for pregnant, old people.] No illusions of a polite society.

I first visited China in the 1980s. In 1999 I was back in Shanghai for a company retreat. My colleague lost his wallet. In most countries, you can forget about seeing your wallet again. He informed the hotel receptionist, suspecting it was dropped in the taxi we boarded from the hotel. We didn’t recall which taxi but gave a rough estimation of the time we left hotel. Wallet returned the same afternoon with everything intact.

A different China from the one reported by the media these days with stories of melamine in milk powder and meat scandal.  []

I’m not asking for a return of communist China. But as society “evolves”, the unspoken norms or rules that have guided civic or ethic behaviour needs to be articulated differently. Dr Newberg and Dr Waldman in their book “Words can change your brain” wrote that inner values used to be a popular topic in the1950s and 1960s when books by Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning appeared. During the past 20 years, values based research mostly disappeared..

Dr Newberg and Dr Waldman in their book “Words can change your brain” recalls having a church auditorium filled with religious believers and disbelievers and people of various political, economic beliefs. They guided the participants through a inner values exercise and asked them to share their values aloud, everyone ended up feeling a deep sense of mutual respect for each other. The authors cited Havard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter who found that when people discuss business values openly, the need to impose impersonal and coercive rules disappears.

Some organisations go through lip service. The stated values on the vision and mission statement contradicts with that of the unspoken organisation decision-making centre and behaviour.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Commonly attributed to Aristotle who said that nature requires everything to be filled with something.  A utopia demolished of social constructs and clear norms, be it family, religion or big brother indoctrination, and left to free forces leads to anarchy.