Personal Change

Your mind cannot hold two thoughts at once.
That means that a single thought can occupy your entire mind
Whether good or bad, everything stems from a single thought
If we are careful with that first thought, even tragedies can be prevented.

Catching the sunset in Hawke’s Bay, NZ 2016.

Dream big but start small
A small adjustment can have a big effect on your life
If you want to be healthier, start by going to bed half an hour earlier

Haemin Sunim, “The Things You Can See Only when You Slow Down”
Translated by Chi-Young Kim

Keep your thoughts positive, because your thoughts become your words.
Keep your words positive, because your words become your behaviour
Keep your behaviour positive, because your behaviour become your habits
Keep your habits positive, because your   habits become your values
Keep your values positive, because your
values become your destiny
-Mahatma Gandhi

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.

Every other day, Twitter and Facebook has someone posting that robots are replacing me.

Should I face this with fear ? When I was young, we were told the neighbouring countries are going to eat our lunch. Especially Penang. After all we have no resources. Then I learnt that the “Chinese and Indians are eating my lunch”. Now it’s the robots.

Let’s face it. Someone is always going to eat my lunch. I say this, not to underestimate the enemy. But to plan a strategy. What did I learn from the past which can set me better for the future.

Last week, my 12 year old nephew told me with all seriousness of a very cute and “voice not broken” that 10 million jobs will be wiped out in 10 years time. He learnt this while watching TV.

While we throw these words around, how then are we preparing the next generation? With a doomsday, Armageddon mentality or competitive steak?

I do not have the answer.

Machines replacing the jobs of humans is not a new story. When I first joined the Foreign Service, we had typists in a typing pool. When we tried to lobby countries in the UN to support us for a seat in some UN Council, 185 letters or Third Part Notes had to be typed – such jobs were essential. I could only type all alphabets with one finger. The body of the letters were printed but the typists typed out the names of the countries in 4 places in super human speed. Good luck if the names were typed wrongly. So proof reading was essential because humans make mistakes. We had to beg the typists to prioritise our work and bribed them with gifts and praises. There were never enough typists for the stuff that required typing.

Imagine our elation, when computers, mail merge and excel were introduced. The typists’ jobs were replaced but many of them moved on to other jobs in the organisation. The total number of employees did not go down. In fact more work was created.

Change is part of life. Seasons change, winds change. One of the key skills we need is to embrace change. Mindset of an adventure.

That’s the excuse I gave myself to acquire the Samsung S8+. I was very excited, the day I decided to buy the new phone, fiddling the model in the Samsung concept store and confirming with my telecom provider that stock was available. My preferred color: Orchid Grey.

On the actual day of the purchase, I was first in queue. But when the phone was in my hands. Dread overtook me. Inertia. Why did I buy a new phone with a new contract for 2 years. My Note 4 is excellent, why pay $438 (after the various discounts) just for a curved screen and a better camera.

Every action seemed insurmountable.
The transfer of data and learning how to use the new functions. You can learn everything yourself from YouTube, my friend said.

Well, I paid $38 for the Samsung Concierge and a kind lady walked me through the steps at the Samsung store in Plaza Singapura.

It’s ok. No matter how many phones I’ve changed, I’m still afraid and reluctant.

Mel Robbins calls it the 5 Sec rule. When you decide on a new challenge, take action within the first 5 secs or your frontal cortex will kick in. So I went straight to the Samsung Concierge and transfered everything.

My friend told me the story of his father, a former senior official (ie educated and highly respected) who refused to use a smart phone. Why is that an issue? Singapore is moving over to 3G soon and the network will not support 2G. My parents who were not university educated have long since moved to smart phone and WhatsApp. How did they learn? By asking people around them. Because they had to depend on their wits for survival, asking for help has become a skill.

Sun Tzu says it’s important to get a local guide who will show you the way.

In “Humility is the New Smart.” , the authors argue that Humility by “learning and unlearning” and asking questions are the new skills of the Smart Machine Age. Never being afraid to tear down old assumptions and ask those around us who know the way. Although beware of the blind leading the blind.


That’s why I bought the Samsung S8+ and the Samsung Concierge service. Learning something new destabilises me and makes me humble. And more empathetic to those who struggle to make sense of this new age.

Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age

Last night at my Chinese class presentation, I introduced a Chinese poem by 陆游《游山西村》


Photo taken at the 2017 Singapore Gardens by the Bay Cherry Blossoms exhibition.

Shānqióngshuǐjìn yǐ wú lù, Liǔ àn huā míng yòu yī cūn

Only to be told by the instructor that this poem had been commonly misquoted over the years. The first part of the phrase should read:

Shān chóng shuǐ fù yí wú lù


The poem means that sometimes, you may see only layers of mountains and rivers (ie face confusion and dangers, uncertainty). If you persist, soon you will see the beautiful shade of willow trees and cherry blossoms of the next village in sight.

An encouraging word to the disheartened and confused especially given the constant reminders that robots are taking away our jobs.

He went on to recite other poems we think we know, but got it half right. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. One of them which I will write about is

人不为己 天诛地灭
Rén bù wéi jǐ tiānzhūdìmiè

In this Chinese proverb, the third word “为” or wéi is pronounced in the second tone and means “self cultivation” or “self reflection” “自修”. Pronounced in the fourth tone, the same word “为”changes meaning of the phrase to “everyone for himself “.

For me and nearly everyone in the room, indeed, we have always read or heard this word read in the fourth tone. Meaning every man for himself. But the real phrase meant if everyone does not practice self reflection, you will be destroyed.

A little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing. I have since checked on what he said and realised that he is right.

When I read Adam Smith in university as an Economics major, we were taught the invisible hand of free market forces, the evils of government intervention and the pursuit of self interest above all.

I’ve since realised that the context Smith had written about was very different from the one he had been credited with. Adam Smith was a Christian pastor and also wrote about the importance of moral justice. (I thought I first read about the misinterpretation of Adam Smith in Adam Grant’s book, “Give and Take” but cannot find my notes now.) I shall re-read what I know about Adam Smith.

Recall that was how the serpent tricked Eve. Did God really say that you cannot eat from the tree and that you will surely die?

With the threat of robots replacing me, I shall start with unlearning what I know which ain’t so. Practice the humility of Sun Tzu Art of War, which by the way is not about war. Sun Tzu recommended avoiding war at all cost.

Know yourself and your enemy

Knowing what you dont know is more useful than being brilliant. “The Tao of Charlie Munger” with commentary by David Clark

But do you really know?


Photo credit: Himself took photos of honey bees in my garden using his macro lenses.

A book review on “Asshole Survival Guide” caught my eye this morning. I sure could use this book having just survived two assholes this week. Alas, the book will only be out later this year. So, I searched out the author, Robert Sutton’s blog.

He is a Stanford University professor and has been writing on this topic as well as topics on creating better workplaces.

What caught my eye on his list of 12 things he believed in, that being “indifferent” was as important as being passionate.

His list is included here, but if you go to his blog post, he includes a link to explaining each of his beliefs.

12 THINGS I BELIEVE by Robert Sutton
1. Sometimes the best management is no management at all — first do no harm!

2. Indifference is as important as passion.

3. Saying smart things and giving smart answers are important. Learning to listen to others and to ask smart questions is more important.

4. You get what you expect from people. This is especially true when it comes to selfish behavior; unvarnished self-interest is a learned social norm, not an unwavering feature of human behavior.

5. Avoid pompous jerks whenever possible. They not only can make you feel bad about yourself, chances are that you will eventually start acting like them.

6. Anyone can learn to be creative, it just takes a lot of practice and little confidence

7. “Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.”

8. Sutton’s Law: “If you think that you have a new idea, you are wrong. Someone else probably already had it. This idea isn’t original either; I stole it from someone else”

9. “Am I a success or a failure?” is not a very useful question

10. The world would be a better place if people slept more and took more naps

11. Strive for simplicity and competence, but embrace the confusion and messiness along the way.

12. Jimmy Maloney is right, work is an overrated activity.

What’s your belief system?

I believe that speaking up is important, especially against injustice or wrong thinking. The greatest pursuit in life is for truth.

Indifference is as important as passion?

Suddenly, I’m confronted with the view by Robert Sutton and David Maister, that I too can be a jerk or asshole.

David Maister reflected on the times he behaved as a jerk.

1. I was over enthusiastic about a view that I got out of proportion.
2. I was tired
3. I felt I didn’t get the respect I deserved.

Suddenly I realised that I too have been a jerk many times over, simply because I was over passionate. I’ve blogged about the importance of speaking up, against injustice. But..

The people whom I consider as jerks were likewise very passionate about the topics they believed in, hence the desire to criticise others.

One jerk begets another jerk.

My self reflection moment this week courtesy of Easter :

First, do no evil. Google’s mission statement.

I’m going to check out Robert Sutton’s books on “Weird ideas that work”. If you’ve not read David Maister, his books on creativity are excellent.

How to survive assholes at work? (if you cannot quit)
Reframe the situation and see if they’re really perfectionist who are trying to help.
Avoid them.
Treat it as a game on how long you can avoid saying something. (Seriously, will they even listen to you? )

“It’s not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy” Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.

If that statement is making you turn on your head, there is more to come ” The Gratitude Diaries, how a year looking on the bright side transformed my life” by Janice Kaplan.

While you take another bite of your thanksgiving turkey, chew on this:

Kaplan suggests that: People with every advantage could still be cranky and unhappy while those who faced huge obstacles sometimes radiated good feeling and bounced merrily along.

In a survey with Templeton Foundation, she found that:

More than 90 precent of those polled agreed that grateful people are more fulfilled, lead richer lives, and are more likely to have friends.

Yet only half express gratitude on a daily basis to immediate family (spouses, children, parents—though elsewhere in the survey 63 percent indicated daily gratitude expression to spouses) and even fewer – less than 15 percent, express daily gratitude to friends or colleagues.

Why don’t we do it even though we know it’s helpful?

Maybe you don’t believe it. If so, try it on for size.

Kaplan suggests the following steps:

1. Just do it.
Most of us know we should be grateful but something holds us back. If that’s you, don’t think anymore. Just do it. Although studies have mentioned that gratitude led to higher level of happiness and lower levels of depression and stress.

2. Start now
Keep a gratitude diary with three things you’re grateful for. Start small.

3. Reframe whatever happens
Dr Robert Emmoms of University of California found that you don’t need good events to happen to you to see gratitude. Grateful people reframe what happens to them. They see the good in what they have.

4. Resist the impulse to ruminate.
Kaplan quotes Daniel Kahneman who found that if ten great things and one bad one happened in a day, most of us will spend dinner telling about the bad one. This makes evolutionary sense because our ancestors remember the poisonous berry they encounter and tell their friends.

5. What’s reality
Perhaps you feel that being positive all the time is very Pollyanish. Is writing about gloominess more realistic than writing about gratitude? Neither is more true than the other. The famous line from Hamlet “nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”.

6. Give yourself time
It takes more than 2 months or even 6 months to change a habit.

Make the best use that we can of the things which are in our power, and use the rest according to their nature.

If you can change anything that makes you unhappy, go ahead and change it. But if it’s done, gone or inevitable, fretting about it doesn’t change anything.

Can being positive change your neural pathway?

Apparently so. According to Brian Atkinson, the relentless pursuit of positivity could change your neural pathways and rewire automatic response.

Taking the time to have loving, giving and grateful feelings could change how your brain functioned in emotion related areas. Kaplan has affirmed that a year of living gratefully has changed her in so many ways and given her the simple ability to experience joy for almost any reason.

She has shared her own experiences of being retrenched. Stories from survivors of accidents have affirmed her experiences.

Does Gratitude and compassion benefit society or is it the law of the fittest?

Kaplan cites two academics: Charles Darwin who believed that societies with the most compassion are best able to flourish.

Adam Smith who started as a moral philosopher and his first book “The theory of moral sentiments“, focused on social relationships and our drive to lead moral lives. He put forward the point that humans have natural inclinations towards sympathy and kindness and care about the happiness of others. Gratitude is the emotion that prompts our most admirable natures.

Understanding the preceding thought process of Adam Smith then allows us a different appreciation of “The Wealth of Nations” – that people are motivated by their own self interest. “Talk to others in terms of their advantages and not our own necessities, if we want something” becomes less materialistic if seen from that perspective. Pursuing our own personal gain must ultimately serve the good of society.

On our part, we feel grateful affect when someone helps us and so we want to return the favour and do good for another person.

Kaplan reflects that to the great Adam Smith, gratitude and giving on one hand and self interest on the other is the same thing. Giving made you feel good, which made it ultimate in self interest.

Anxiety comes from wanting what you cannot control, Epicetus.

Kaplan recounts the story told of a lute player who plays happily by himself until he goes on stage.

Suddenly he becomes anxious. He realises it’s because he wants to obtain applause which is not within his control.


Why the extra “t” in Gratitude ? Gratitude is an attitude.

Wise men and philosophers throughout the ages have disagreed on many things, but many are in unanimous agreement on one point: “We become what we think about.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius put it this way: “A man’s life is what his thoughts make of it.” In the Bible we find: “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”

One Sunday afternoon, a cranky grandfather was visiting his family. As he lay down to take a nap, his grandson decided to have a little fun by putting Limburger cheese on Grandfather’s mustache. Soon, grandpa awoke with a snort and charged out of the bedroom saying, “This room stinks.” Through the house he went, finding every room smelling the same. Desperately he made his way outside only to find that “the whole world stinks!”

So it is when we fill our minds with negativism. Everything we experience and everybody we encounter will carry the scent we hold in our mind.

Flowers at Hamilton Garden, NZ.

May your day be carried with scented blooms.