6 things I learnt in the past 3 years

I get this question now and then from well meaning close friends, and recently I’ve been doing to the same as I shift gears in my day job, on what how I benefited from being gainfully employed as a cog. It’s roughly my 10th year in employment, time for a blog!

It will be a shame that after monthly rejections for greener pastures, that I also benefited little from my endeavors running a side show in a big money making machine. Fact is I did, immensely, but crystallizing it into 6 (there could be more) salient points for my future self to reflect on can be quite daunting.

After some reflection, here it is:

1. Business in general, is immensely local.
Technology business can be a bit of an exception, but the rest of the business world has a tendency to resent globalization unless there’s a compelling reason to move or scale. In fact, going just by numbers, the small and medium enterprises around the world should prove the point.

Recently an SME customer abandoned an engagement with me as they are moving most of the company out of Singapore. While I can empathize with their plight of high cost of labor here, it was also clear to me: they were earning most of their money elsewhere, and it is better to simply situate closer to their customers to serve them better, serve them “locally”.

I work with MNCs here too. Those who carry the arrogance of a global big boy never goes far. Those who succeed often forget that they are foreign. I have one such partner whose outlook and culture is so immensely local, that I didn’t realize that they are not locally registered company until I asked for their ACRA filings. Another, though an all-in-all Caucasian package in all forms of communication, works harder and tailor their offerings better to Singapore customers, than some of the local companies themselves!

This alludes to the 2nd point, that is:

2. Business is people, nothing more. Everything can be attributed to people, the actors.
In a place who treasures such relationships for doing business, people stand in the middle of everything that happens. To a technocratic government it might be dangerous as the controls they have on physical goods, money, and other tangible non-actors are stronger than they have on people. People are simply too multi-faceted for me to have good grasp!

Businesses can be the good, the bad, and the ugly. Although I can say that everything I’ve done so far is on the table, that can’t be said for some of the businesses I had to deal with. Then again, most people are acting under their own circumstances. If they find the local constraints to be difficult to overcome, they might just leave. Cost benefit analysis and out-of-the-box thinking inadvertently result in shortcuts.

A business however, is not the one taking the shortcut. It’s always the person (no matter how much power he or she has in the organization to “represent” the business). I learned that I’m never dealing with a business – I’m dealing with their assigned single point of contact for me. Although our conversation is usually ideas and events, I’m actually dealing with the hopes, fears, and rewards of the person who wants something from me.

However, in the position I’m working in, that person isn’t always someone I want to work with. This leads to the next point:

3. To take the first step to be kind to the most unkindest people of all, is hard.
Everything I’m dealing with is fluid, especially since I wore an engineering cap before. More often than not, people expect clear work scope, only to be frustrated by the millions of permutations that others can throw at them. I sometimes feel guilty, but not exactly apologetic, that I’m also an unpredictable person especially to those who care for me.

Based on my previous wisdom, the way to tackle people then is to under-promise + over-deliver. It turns out that, it’s no longer sufficient. Beyond under promising scope and over promising delivery, it’s also about *how* both parties come to the agreement of each other’s responsibilities and reward expectations upon delivery. In other words, this isn’t just putting in an extra 10 minutes of massaging time and giving a 10% discount for loyalty, this is steeping into poo and giving the person who poo-ed on you a beautiful flower, without wincing.

This plays strongly with my ego, which is hard to tame at times (blame the astrologists who assigned me Leo). Being acutely aware of my thoughts, I notice it is not in my natural self to always wear a smile and brush off a personal attack. Fortunately, I was sufficiently gifted thanks to my parents, to find ways to defuse situations and what I call “counter-kind” the aggressor. Even though this does not shape my character well, it keeps the cog oiled and the business engine moving.

What is most challenging is when the aggressor is myself. Without my conscience controlling my temper, and then countering it with an alternative universe that everything can make sense again, I fall easily into depression and a state of self-immolation. Most of the time when this happens, I can still manage a retreat to solitude. On very few occasions, it earns me negative reputation, which is also itself unkind.

Nevertheless, expect not of others for what one cannot achieve. Learning to be kind is sorta been on my list for many years, especially when it comes to:

4. Be there, even when you are not wanted.
More often than not, the person who doesn’t come to you is the person who needs you most. Being present in their lives can be the best present you can give them. The reverse is also true. You will realize that best advise and/or listening ear is one that you didn’t ask for, but was open minded enough to receive it even when you’re rejecting everything else in your life.

The best moments in the past 3 years has been moments when the unexpected kindness came. Sometimes from an unfamiliar vendor. Sometimes from an unsuspecting customer. Colleagues? Maybe people are too close to each other as the team here works rather cohesively, and there’s a higher respect for personal space. But when I’m unexpectedly lonely (and might be clinically considered depressed), hearing the sunshine from someone unexpected can set my mind off like a burst of serotonin.

To reciprocate, I will try to find time for others when I sense the need. Although this has always been an instinct and can sometimes invite some really strong rejections, I have learned to trust my instincts in reaching out to people.

I also learn that, a person is a person, no matter what role he plays in society and in business. The needs are the same. I spent just as much time with people carrying the title CEO as it is with engineers and I hope in the future janitors and hawkers. By listening to them and helping them discover their hopes and fears, I discover mine.

One of the more poignant discovery:

5. Stop working for a job. Employment is dead.
I’m finally completely convinced that the employment in my generation will be for the poor. The final generation that will live a rich life are the ones who are not employed, but spend time cultivating humanity. Being involved in a number of stop gap measures to make employed life bearable, I witness the positive transformation of people once they turn their focus away from the job.

I intend to experiment the four-hour-work-week thing some day. Although widely read, including Tim’s book etc., I never had the chance to spin my job into an offline transaction that doesn’t involve active human engagement (as described above), so this four-hour-work-week thing needs to take a very different form.

I’m not inviting decadence. We should all spend time on one’s passion and hone our skills to stay in demand. I’m referring to this idea of caging oneself in a cubicle, workplace, and talking to people. One way is to transform it into #cubicle, /workspace, and @people, if you know what I mean, but that won’t be enough. One has to re-scope work itself.

How can one always work only for what one has the highest value for? A simple example will be to compare my work in putting together music arrangements and my day job. For sitting in the office chatting with colleagues (which is a learning experience itself, but produces no output), I get in the ball park of $20 per hour. A pretty decent past time? Compare that with intense output mode with me activating all shortcut keys on Sibelius to produce a 3 min arrangement for 30 parts – that usually takes 6 hours and costs $300, which nets me $50 an hour. Is that full use of my time? Private trombone lessons or tuition can go $80/hour and upwards, consultation services for SMEs in Singapore can easily net me $200 an hour, and finally the upside of me investing full time in building some web or mobile technologies can have many fold return. Why am I in my $20/hr job who tells me what can and cannot be said on facebook? Health benefits?

And that brings me to my last point, and my most important learning:

6. Be stubborn about long term value. Both for yourself and all around you.
I’m in a $20 job because I think it brings to bear the possibility for me to grow to a point where I can tackle billion dollar problems. I aspire to be a global leader, but to get there I need to cut my teeth on local issues and learn how to play as a team. You and I have big dreams, you and I are also not born that special from the guy next to you, so by being stubborn about your larger goal is what will set you apart.

However, there’s where the buck stop. Literally. If you don’t take big steps to build the trajectory towards your goal, towards what you see as long term value to your career, you end up with many *activities* and no *achievements*, with many *contacts* but belong to no *network*, with many *bosses* but no *贵人* (can’t find the exact translation, somewhere in between savior, benefactor). It gets especially bad if eventually you end with enough *salary*, but not enough accomplishments and happiness. Serotonin pills are bad you know.

How do you make sure you are creating long term value for yourself? My way would be helping others create long term values for themselves, and then together we try to achieve long term plans. Ignore all the howling by the accountants to deliver numbers. If the numbers are not sustainable long term, we are simply delaying the burial of the grave. But if we can shift our fundamentals to better adapt to this rapidly changing world, we have a higher chance to set sail should there be an apocalyptic tsunami.

It’s easy to say this when there’s still bread on the table. But think about it – how much do you actually need to survive for the next few days / months? Conversely, look around and see the rapidly deteriorating institutions, ecosystems, morality and rapidly increasing car prices, garbage dumps and sea levels. Aren’t you concerned today to make sure that your child has a future? Even within my work scope, the battle of long term value and tomorrow’s budget presentation has caused much uneasiness. We must not give up on the ideals on which the our business, institutions, and some say countries are founded upon, that is to make good (not goods) from the economic benefits that are bestowed upon us by the shareholders. If that’s not the ideals, that organization deserves to be destroyed for living rent free on earth.


Would I be able to learn these things in another place? Perhaps, and perhaps even in a shorter period of time. But I’ve other agenda on my to-learn list that I didn’t achieve my desired level in the past 3 years as well, including but not limited to, loyalty and perseverance, focus and determination, as well as navigating the fine lines of man made politics and o.b. markers.

It’s a constant struggle between the homo economicus and the homo reciprocans in me. Should I feed the family or should I feed humanity? Does the starfish story even make sense? If I decide to go for a hard reset and come back a new person, will I be able to find the balance of pursuit? Or must it be built upon my twenties?

Here’s to another 10 years of work life.

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