“Momentum” in Finlayson Green, Singapore, by Israeli scupltor David Gerstein. “The 18.5-metre tall painted metal sculpture depicts an upward cycle of progress, symbolising the energy and momentum of the district, Singapore and its people.” Somehow it reminds me of the tower of babel in Genesis.

Photo taken by me, one car-free Sunday morning in 2017, riding my bicycle.

Sometimes the context and the environment matters. Reading Laura Vanderkam’s “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast—to jump-start the day productively” travelling through Japan’s very efficient JR train system put me in the right mindset to track my time and wake up early.

It is not so much the what I can do.
Laura Vanderkam suggests that we can nurture self, relationships and career with the extra time.

1) Discovering that I am actually a “morning” person. I just need to sleep early.

2) My important chores can be done

3) I have time for meditation and reading the Bible which clears up my mind and thoughts. I am less angry.

4) More conscious of time wastage as I can plan my logistics. And mindless surfing at night.

5) Read books I have been putting off because I have more energy.

6) My bowel movements have improved.

7) More conscious of my goals.

Its a thin book and I highly recommend reading it as well as planning a holiday in Japan using the public transport system. It makes you track your time more consciously.


Tracking through Matsumoto’s padi fields and mountain range.


Two stories about animals


Story in “Analect” records that one day, Confucius’ horse stable caught fire. Instead of asking about the horses, he asked if everyone was alright, anyone hurt. Although horses were precious asset, more valuable than the lives of his stable hands and servants, he demonstrated that he considered, human lives more important. (I am sure that Confucius was attached to his horses too.)

bǐng jí wèn niú

Another parallel story in Analects is about a cow. Premier BingJi asking about the cow.


One day while travelling through the villages to survey how his citizens were living, Bingji saw a few men fighting. Yet he did not intervene.

Later in his journeys he saw a sick cow and send his attendants to enquire about the condition of the cow.

Surprised, his attendants asked why he was more concerned about a cow than humans. Bingji explained that he did not interfere in the matter of the men fighting because that was the jurisdiction of the local authorities.

However, the sick cow may signal an unexpected weather change or epidemic that could affect the harvest and the livelihood of the peoples under his charge (China was predominantly an agriculture country in those days.)

When we lead and manage corporations and nations, do we value our employees more than the balance sheet?

Money is important and all nations and companies need to stay afloat and excel. Shareholder returns are important. Digitalisation of the economy is for the ease of lives. Not the enslavement of another human being.

Disruptive technology has worked in a large part to capture shareholder value but at the same time remove certainty of employment and other benefits to the owner of labor.

Will disruptive technology also disrupt the dignity of labor? And instead reduce the price of labor to the constant haggling we see in markets of third world nations? (We call that demand and supply to sound more posh.) Will it lead to the enslavement of one group of people with another group.

But in the deepest of hearts, do we sometimes forget that people are not tools for our purpose.

When we look at the balance sheet of a successful company, do we ask how they treat the workers of production ?

Upgrading of skills, salary. Do they disrupt without creating value for families and homes? Do we measure success from only the view point of shareholder returns?

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.

Taking pride in excellence at Kannesaka, 2 star Michelin restaurant. Where the simple becomes divine.

Pride in excellence at Kanesaka, 2 star Michelin restaurant. Where the simple becomes divine.


I start my class on HR and OB asking my students what success looks like to them. Invariably many will say “happiness”. Now then, what makes you happy in your career.

Many of us think that happiness is when we get a good boss, nice colleagues and a good salary, and get to do what we like at work.

Since Vicktor Frankl’s epic book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, we recognise that besides money, we all seek for something more.

I decided to turn to the literature on motivational theory to shed some light on this as well as  prepare for my class on designing strategic reward system. Favourite book is “Management and Organisational Behavior” by Laurie Mullins which I used for a course I teach at the University of London distance program. The 3 gurus: Herzberg’s two factor theory, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Job Characteristics Model:

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs

Source: Graphics produced on ppt. by Joanne Koo.

According to the framework by Maslow, we have a bucket of needs: (i) extrinsic needs such as food, water, shelter, security, safety. (ii) Need to belong to a social group: family or larger social identity. (iii) Need for self esteem and (iv) self actualisation.

Is our work in the office the only source to fulfill those needs?

Generally yes, but not necessarily so. 

Most of us draw a salary from a career in an organisation. Money helps us fulfill many of the extrinsic needs. Others have multiple streams of income from investments. How much is enough? Research shows that about $65-70,000 annual to provide our needs. Beyond that, more money doesn’t make you happier.

Today as most of our waking time is spent in the organisation, our workplace is also the place we find security and safety. A workplace fraught with politics and insecure future can leave one very dissatisfied. Everyone’s appetite for risk and safety is different. If you’re a risk averse person, don’t choose an organisation that’s known for high staff turnover.

Social needs
We are social creatures, we need to be in a tribe. No man is an island. Isolation leads to depression. Incidentally though some of us think that money can bring us friends. Gallup organisation has found through its research that the biggest determiner of whether a person will stay in an organisation is a close friend at work.

Some organisations such as Google provide a cafeteria with spread of food meeting physical needs as well as social needs, giving people the space and context to meet others in the organisation. [If synergies over work and silos can be broken across departments, all the more better.]  In my previous workplace, colleagues would bring a cake to share to build comaraderie. Food is the best team-bonding device. If you don’t have a friend in your immediate workgroup, look for one in other departments. The office pantry or gym is the best place to start. Some companies have recreational clubs to help you get started.

Not all of us love our boss. If your boss is your mentor, thats fantastic. Otherwise, its not something to sweat about. People leave lousy bosses. But lousy bosses are what Herzberg calls “hygiene factors”. They make you dissatisfied. Conversely, great boss and great colleagues will not motivate you at work. 

Job content
What motivates you is the actual work. Herzberg calls them “motivators” – work that gives task signifance, identity, meaning, learning and recognition.

Herzberg's Hygiene and Motivator Factors

Herzberg’s Hygiene and Motivator Factors

Herzberg 2

Many other factors affect the work you do, besides your interest and passion. Your skill level, availability of resources, timing, opportunity.

The literature is of little help. Because the only way to find work that you like, is to try it on first for size.

Self actualisation and esteem can be achieved through getting advancement at the workplace, having challenging work or being creative. Not all of us are so lucky.

Returning to Maslow’s hierarchy, if you don’t get recognition from work, it can come from social groups at work, or your social community or hobbyists club outside workplace. 

Today’s world of work, many of us realise that even our financial needs can come from our interests in the life/ leisure arena and not just the formal organisation. Technology has opened up the world so that entrepreneurs who recognise needs can tap into that to carve out some form of balance and finding meaningful lives.


Are you afraid of Feedback? Do you fear that twice a year sit down with your boss on work progress?

Why? I do too.

In fact, I have a deep-seated fear of personal feedback of all kinds, not just from my boss. From anyone.

My friend spilled his venom, of why his promotion had been delayed. His previous boss, a former judge had given him a “D” for his performance appraisal 2 years ago. Now he needs two consecutive “B” to override the “D”. What was more infuriating was that he had no idea what crime he had committed and no way to improve/ go for training. Duh…. His boss did not have the courtesy of having a face-to-face meeting with him. So the feedback came as a shock.

Performance management is painful for all sides. Both for the appraiser and appraised.  The appraiser is afraid of the emotional backlash. The appraised, for the negative feedback. If my boss were to call me up to her/his room, I doubt its to praise me. Ya, I’m too pessimistic.

So what does the research say concerning the performance appraisal process?

The appraisal process is about having a conversation around your performance. Not your boss as a judge passing a sentence.  Properly done, the process starts with setting planned objectives, on-going feedback, how I have met the agreed organisational goals and development needs (if I’ve not).  Remove any of these factors, and it becomes a moving goal-post.

With the best of intentions, some companies do this feedback process twice a year. Beginning, mid point (6 months later), and end of the year (6 months later).  Maybe its just me. I can’t even recall what I ate for lunch 2 days ago, and yet I am expected to remember how I pissed off my colleague.

There is a Chinese saying:

“Duo zuo duo chuo, sao zuo, sao chuo, bu zuo, bu chuo”.

“If you do a lot, you make more mistakes. do fewer, make fewer mistakes. Do nothing, make no mistakes.”

[Read in Chinese, make “no mistakes”, is a play of words and double meaning of “not bad’ = “good”. If you do nothing, you’ll be perceived as good.] It mocks those who are good at critiquing others from an ivory tower, but no efforts of their own. Ouch.

“The 3rd Century Chinese Wei dynasty is renowned for the advancements it made in the creation of a civil service. One of its innovations was something called the nine rank system, by which candidates were selected and categorized, based on their abilities. A bad ranking would wash a candidate right out of the system.

Chinese philosopher Sin Yu, complaining about the bias of the system: “The Imperial Rater of Nine Grades seldom rates men according to their merits but always according to his likes and dislikes,” he complained. Source:

Not everything that counts, can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts. – Albert Einstein, apparently from a sign hanging in his office.

Performance review nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning; builds fear, demolishes teamwork and nourishes rivalry and politics. – WE Deming 1982


How would you prepare for feedback exercise? Is it really useful?

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.  – Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird”
Eat, sleep, play - Panda style

Eat, sleep, play – Panda style

Sometime last year, one of my students dropped by to thank me. He had gotten a job in a finance advisory position. I had given him some good advice which led to be a turning point in his career search.  What rocket science advice you might wonder?  Go for jog.
My mind raced to that evening in December. He had a high GPA, likeable pleasant personality. It was a stressful time, handling a day job in pharmaceutical sales, studying for his Masters in Finance at night, looking for a job in finance post 2008.  After 3 sessions, I told him, go take care of yourself.  Enjoy. Give yourself a break. What do you like to do? Jog? When was the last time you did it? Doctor’s prescription: jog 20 mins 3 times a week.
I wasn’t even sure if it was exasperation that I was at my wit’s end and don’t know what else to say or some genius insight. He did just that.  His mind became calmer and he had extra mental stamina to check the university’s career portal in December. Only 5 students applied (possibly because it was December). He was one of four students who got the internship.
Why does the caged bird sing? Because it loves to. If it didn’t, it would lose its spirit.
What do you love to do? When was the last time you did it?
Recently I stayed over at a friend’s place to recuperate from my illness. She was very helpful and kind. She had told me in the past that she loved to read. But throughout my stay, I’d never seen her reading. I noticed her spending 3 hours daily watching Korean soap opera and cooking shows on TV in between a very busy schedule of doing household chores.

But pick up a newspaper or book to read? Not once.


All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Somehow engaging in a activity that we enjoy and makes us happy seems to trigger a guilt trip.  We end up doing passive activities that are convenient. Such as watching TV, and picking up the phone to complain to a friend, under the guise of keeping them informed.

I find myself trying to be agreeable, going along with what others want to do, restaurants they like to eat. I was afraid that if I insisted, that no one wanted to come along with me, and I would be alone. As time went by, I got lazy and end up not having a voice, not having an opinion.  Anything will do.

1) What do you love to do?
2) When was the last time you did it?
3) When are you going to start doing it?
4) How often? (Once a week?) For how long? (15 mins?)
5) Write it down, schedule it.

Ernest Hemingway set up a goal chart to monitor the number of words he wrote every day.  No kidding.

Do you have difficulty trying to find a life goal, and finding your path?  Try taking care of yourself first.

Julia Cameron, in “The Artist’s Way” suggests

1. Writing 3 pages of A4 size every morning.

2. Go for a walk

3. Have a Play date with yourself. Do something creative once a week to feed your creative soul. e.g. you can fly a kite, walk in a Botanic Gardens, visit the museum, go to the library. Many local community gardens have free guided tours by volunteers.

Playing is necessary because you need to refill your well.  As an artist, [I would add, as a knowledge worker], Cameron says, we are drawing from our inner well. Unless you fill this well, its empty, there’s nothing left to create. More often than not, we feel guilty playing because of a work ethic.

In the name of playing, I’ve leaned Chinese calligraphy, learn to bake macaroons, mooncakes, bread, cakes. Whereas my analytical self would have said, that it was a waste of time, since the cost of the lesson would buy me more macaroons that I could ever eat. [Plus I don’t like to eat macaroons.]

What do you love to do? When was the last time you did it?

1. I love to dance and flag my banners

2. Read

3. Play with my nephews and nieces [not babysitting]

4. Nap

5. Walk on the treadmill in an air-conditioned room and watch TV

6. Take a long leisurely walk after dinner

7. Go to the library

8. Drink tea

9. Visit different restaurants (maybe once every few months)

10. Watch a play




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.