What I’m reading

In this digital age of selfies where narcissism is all time high, it is critical for self and employers to sieve through who is a real asset, and those who have a sense of self entitlement. 

Coupled with a talent to tell a good story, the blur becomes greater. It is not unusual for someone who is only a novice, yet feel s/he is entitled. Or someone who has more experience and yet feel that they are not as competent. 

Just sifting through the amount of “self-help” materials on resume writing and career coaching by people who have not much success themselves in searching for a job, the Dunning-Kruger effect becomes a good depiction. 

Everyone can give career advice. Check the credentials of the person giving you his.

But are you getting advice from a mentor who has broad exposure to all industries, especially yours? Someone who is constantly being in touch with understanding the different professions? Or someone who has great success in a very narrow scope?

Referring to advice given by Financial analysts in banks, Warren Buffet once commented, “Wall Street is the only place where people who ride to work in a Rolls Royce take advice from someone who takes a subway”.


Measure how much time you talk about:
(a) how smart, special or wonderful you are – or listening while someone does this, plus
(b) how stupid, inept, or bad someone else is – or listening while someone does this

From Marshall Goldsmith, “MOJO – How to get it, How to Keep it, How to Get it Back if you lose it”.

Actually, its Tool#11 in his book. But I like it so much, I put it as #1.

Goldsmith asked his research subjects to guess. Some people estimate 100%, because they believe that all workplace communication serve only these two purposes.

In his view, whether we’re boasting about ourselves or criticizing someone else, such chatter is pointless. We learn nothing and its not good for your MOJO.

Measure yourself and Reduce this number.


Photo: L

As is a tale, so is life
Not how long it is
But how good it is,
Is what matters
– Seneca

In her commencement address at Havard University in 2008;  JK Rowling spoke to the graduating class about:
(i) Benefits of failure and
(ii) Importance of imagination

Having failed at marriage and her job, what’s failure?

“Failure was a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.

Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.

I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom was the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means you are ever after secure in your ability to survive.”

The speech was recently published (2015) in a think book, beautifully illustrated in red, white and black.

If you have a chance to travel back in time to meet you at 21, what advice would you give you?


Recently, I did a mental count on how many young adult students I interact with, in a week, during my intense teaching period. Close to 600. In a year, it comes to 1,000.  Like many leaders, lecturers and people in the customer service business interact with different personalities.

In a book, GEN Y NOW, Millenials and the Evolution of Leadership by Buddy Hobart and Herb Sendek, the authors believe that most organisations are broken down into three types of folks: Teamers (20%), Fence-Sitters (60%), and Lottery Winners (20%).

“Teamers are loyal and dedicated employees who always give their best. They to be positive folks who trust their leaders and strive to do their best. Unfortunately, as they are low maintenance, managers and leaders tend to ignore them and not give them much time or energy.

Fence-sitters make up the majority and tend to be silent, neither overtly negative or positive. Managers also do not spend much time with them either.

The final group “Lottery Ticket winners” are the squeaky wheels. To them, nothing is ever right. They think (and say) they are smarter, more qualified and more talented than their bosses ( or anyone else).Seldom do they offer proactive ideas, but always first to point out the negatives. Usually, they are the most vocal and demanding of attention, and managers spend overwhelming  majority of their time and energy with this group.

Teamers tend to just shrug the lack of attention off, while the fence-sitters quickly learn that in order to be noticed, you need to be negative. Managers convince themselves, that, if they could just win over these negative folks, everyone else will follow.  Therefore, managers waste countless hours and enormous amounts of energy trying to motivate employees who are frequently a lost cause.”

Powerful. Do you have employees, volunteers or students like that?

The authors tell a “Lottery Ticket” Story. [Incidentally, the $13.9 million lottery ticket was claimed last night!]

A husband and wife woke up one Sunday morning, check the newspaper, and discovered that they have just won the lottery, a $45 million jackpot. The paper says there are two other winners, so their take will be $15 million.

The couple was overjoyed.  However, as they reflected further, both were afraid the windfall will change everything. But not for the better. They have read countless stories of how lives were ruined after just such a lottery windfall.  Already, happy and healthy, there’s nothing else they need.

So both decided, after hours of soul searching to give up the ticket. They decided who should bring the ticket to office, flipped a coin, and it was the husband who wins the toss. On Monday, the husband walks into work, and will have to hand the ticket to the first person he sees.

On Monday morning, our generous husband sees Joe, the office naysayer and cynic. True to the agreement, the husband approaches Joe, explains the situation, and hands him the one (of three) winning $45 million lottery ticket.

Joe takes the ticket, puts it in his pocket and says “Tough luck, you give me the ticket, but I have to split it with two other tickets” and walks away.

That’s a “Lottery Ticket Winner.

The authors’ advice is that, for some folks, even being given a winning lottery ticket is not enough. Yet it is just this type of person who demands our time and energy. The regrettable mistake is, we give it to them.  We are ignoring the “Teamers’ and teaching the “Fence-sitters” that inappropriate attitudes are rewarded with time and attention. Your goal for the Lottery Ticket winners is simple. They can:

  • start pretending to be positive
  • Start being positive
  • Shut up altogether or
  • Leave

Are there negative people you interact with?    If you interact with a lot of people, its natural.  Where do you focus your energy?   On the 5% negative ones or the rest?

Focus on the “Teamers”, the authors suggest. They deserve it and you will be teaching the “Fence-sitters” the correct leadership lesson.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Give us this day our daily bread.

the daily reader/strong>, 365 selections of great prose and poetry to inspire a productive and meaningful writing life. By Fred White

I have a ton of assignments to mark, but everything else seems more interesting. Especially this book which surely is a cure for a writer’s block. Each page is divided into 3 parts: summary of a book, points for further reflection and “try this” – suggestions on what you can practice writing about.

Example, the entry on Jan 8 is about “Alexandria: City of the Western Mind” by Theodore Vrettos. White invites you, the reader to reflect on how a city like Alexandria, can prepare you in writing your own story, and describing the setting, the people and how life is organised. In “try this”, White suggests that the reader describes a scene based on Vrettos’s reference to Julius Caesar strolling with Cleopatra through the streets of Alexandria. Describe the citizens and try to capture as many sensory impressions as possible.

At other parts, White invites you to try writing a story in which individuals from two vastly different cultures or time-periods come together such as “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain. And if you think that time traveller stories are passe, recall “The Time Traveller’s Wife”.

All together, if you are searching for suggestions on what to read next, there are 365 ideas, from “The story of Jazz” by Marshall Stearns to “The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance” by Henry Petroski.

Did you know that a lead pencil while seemingly simple by today’s standards, involves an “exacting process employing a multiplicity of raw materials. And the materials depends on the most modern and cosmopolitan of political, economic and technological systems. The lead might be a mixture of two kinds of graphite, from Sri Lanka and Mexico, clay from Mississippi, gums from the Orient and water from Pennsylvania and the wooden case from western incense cedar from California.

From St Augustine to Nero, from “Coffee” to “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”, there’s a good selection of genres ending with “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler.

The stages of a hero’s journey can be traced to all kinds of stories. The book ends with Vogler’s depiction of story patterns as described by Joseph Campbell in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, how writers can construct a story using the 12 stages of the hero’s journey, including the call to adventure, crossing the first threshold, facing enemies, suffering ordeals and setbacks, and coming home.

How about writing your own, 100 stories that changed your life.

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!

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!