February 28, 2010 § Leave a comment
photo by Billie Jane
I sometimes wonder about how I dealt with bureaucracy and hierarchy in the army, when I find it challenging to work for others. I spent two and a half years serving out my National Service in the bureaucracy of bureaucracies. But it didn’t feel that way. I thought I was pretty fortunate to have worked under a fair and just man that taught me the importance of emotional fortitude.I didn’t feel like I was working for “the man” either. Working for and with those around you gave it meaning and purpose.
The danger of working alone and attempting to “do-it-my-way” is working without proper focus and direction. After much thought though, I believe being independent in thought and being teachable are not mutual exclusives. I believe it to be possible to be both.
The key in being an independent thinker while taking advice and correction from mentors is the ability of Choice.
Malcolm Gladwell mentioned in Outliers: The Story Of Success that being teachable, focusing your 10,000 hours, requires concentrated and directed efforts. The role of a mentor, then, is to direct your efforts, such that you are constantly brought back into focus. Without deliberate practice and effort, 10,000 hours will not get you there. Without feedback, your efforts are diffused and unfocused.
A friend of mine remarked that her sister has decided to emigrate from Singapore to Australia. Malaysian and Indonesian friends would probably think of Singaporeans who emigrate as crazy. (“Clean streets, high income, stable government, nice homes. What else do you all want? Don’t you appreciate what you have?”)
I could guess at the reasons why my friend’s sister emigrated to Australia, but I decided to ask why anyway.
“Its the environment that’s limiting her. Firstly it was the weather. She didn’t like the heat, after having spent years studying in a place with four seasons.”
“Then the working environments is what gets to her. Most of all, she lamented the lack of feedback from peers and superiors. She could not get any suggestions on how she could progress in her career, simply because bosses never told her what she could improve on, or whether she was doing well on her work. In western countries, you get praises and commendations for good work. If there were areas you could improve or work on, you could get feedback on that too.”
This probably fit into the description of focused work without feedback. It is probably maddening when you’re devoted into your life’s work, but not getting a dime on what works or doesn’t.
How does one go about seeking feedback while keeping your independence of thought?
1. Start a blog.
The single most helpful thing that can give you feedback on you and your work is this. There has already been a ton of tips that encourages us to start blogs, for a variety of positive reasons: personal branding, improving your writing, self-introspection. Writing about your “stuff” also forces you to think hard about the “stuff” you’re trying to improve on. Its only been half a year at this blog for me, and I still find it hard to sit in front of a blank screen, trying to put words on it. But I find myself clearer in thought and improving in my writing ability. I’m going to sum it up by saying that its a great feedback channel that gives you all of the previously mentioned benefits.
2. Mentor-seek: The Tim Ferriss Method
The lifestyle design uberhacker recommends having difficult conversations (email and phone) to increase your chances of success in life. One of the best ways to put this to use is to find your Yoda. Tim gives specific scripts on how to contact the uber exclusive and hard to reach. I’ve personally used this to contact CEOs and directors of companies for suggestions, and will continue to use them.
3. Mentor-seek: The Ramit Sethi Method
Ramit wrote a great post on GetRichSlowly.org about how spending $20 could help you make a great friend and mentor. How? Ask them out for lunch and “pick their brains apart”. My suggestions is to approach this as a great opportunity for friendship as well.
4. Smart Pro-Bono: The Charlie Hoehn Method
Charlie has become recognized recently for writing “The Recession Proof Graduate” a guide that teaches fresh or soon-to-be grads on the art of smart job-seeking. He’s used the same methods to get work with Tim Ferriss and Ramit Sethi. This is a free ebook that’s highly recommended by Seth Godin and many others. Charlie’s methods enables you to get feedback on the Quality of your work too.
February 14, 2010 § 2 Comments
photo courtesy of Tony Trần
The cab driver always waited outside the gates of the volunteer hostel. Everyday it was the same. Between 1pm to 5pm, the same cab with the same driver will be at the gates of the Peace House, smoking a fag or drinking green tea at the coffee stall.
He knows foreigners pay big money. Some of the volunteers don’t bother negotiating. And its an hour and half to Hanoi city centre from here. Cab fares are usually arranged before hand. There are no other cabs, unless you walk 15 minutes out to the main dusty road.
“Ga Hanoi, Bao nhiêu?” (Hanoi train station, how much?)
He would give me a price. I’d insist on a much lower one.
He would shake his head, I’d show my pissed face.
He gives me the same figure, I start walking along the dusty road. Still pissed.
Seemed like a permanent stalemate.
Back in Vietnam, I had an issue with negotiation. I thought negotiation meant putting up a strong front and insisting you get it your way, or the highway. Those feelings came easily. Foreigner in a unfamiliar land surrounded by people who don’t understand what I’m saying, and I couldn’t make a word out of the beautiful language they were speaking.
Until I saw how a street smart Estonian girl show me how its done. Same scenario, occasionally with a different driver. Valen was all smiles, she had similar language difficulties. But boy did she charm him into lowering the cab fee.
“C’mon, một trăm hai mươi ok? I’m your friend! :)”
And then she tried to shake hands with him. She got it. He was smiling too. Yeah I know what you’re thinking. Valen’s a pretty girl, she has golden hair, so its easy for her.
Yes and no. This is actually a great case study in negotiation can be learned and duplicated.
Doug Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen’s Difficult Conversations has been helpful in revealing the details of a successful negotiation. Here are four basic concepts to keep in mind:
1. Stop Arguing About Who’s Right: Explore Each Other’s Stories
Its really not that difficult, and investing another minute into understanding why the other party is giving you a certain price will be key to finding middle ground. We think that they’re trying to make money of tourists and travelers, they think we’re foreigners and we ought to pay more.
In many South East Asian countries this is the foreigner-local conundrum. The Harvard Negotiation Team that wrote Difficult Conversations calls this “We Think They Are the Problem, They Think We Are The Problem”. If this sounds like a situation you’re facing with your girl/boyfriend you’re right on.
2. Move From Certainty To Curiosity
Of course, I’m not asking you to sit down with the cab driver over green tea, talking about his childhood or work experiences. But if you spent more time with locals, talking to them and finding out what their perception of foreigners are, I think you’ll get a ballpark idea of how they dream up these big money figures. What do they think of us? How do locals expect foreigners to be like? What would make the locals feel at ease?
The first mistake we make is that our assumptions about their intentions are often wrong. Is it really true they are all out to make lots of money from us?
In the case of Vietnam, most of the locals would never dream of a chance to travel out of their country. While wars may seem a distant past, the country has limited interaction with the outside world. I wrote a deeper analysis of the Vietnamese and South East Asian experience previously.
I’m Asian and I probably look just like the locals, but a smattering of broken Vietnamese blows my cover. Thats why I’ve paid three to four times what locals would pay for a drink or a baguette.
3. Abandon Blame: Map the Contribution System
If a negotiation is going nowhere, its probably safe to say both parties made a contribution to the situation. In the above scenario, I made a hard-to-spot contribution to the stalemate.
“The flip side….is having an interpersonal style that keeps people at bay. You contribute by being uninterested, unpredictable, short-tempered, judgemental, punitive, hypersensitive, argumentative, or unfriendly.” -Difficult Conversations
Yep, I was ALL of the above with the cab driver.
4. What Can Be Done Differently?
Valen did a couple of things right. She had been in Vietnam for four months, worked, played, partied with the locals. She understands where the locals are coming from with the money issue.
If there is any one thing that rivals (and sometimes complements) the importance of money in Vietnam, its the friendship of foreigners. Really, the Vietnamese people want to be your friend!
But only if you show that you can be their friend first. You do that by being friendly and open. Sure, its risky, but isn’t that the way with life? The pro-active person takes a small amount of risk with rejection, but she wins by having more friends and favors on her side.
Beyond local sentiments, our Estonian friend also demonstrated that feelings are at the heart of tough conversations. Inject some humanity into your negotiation to get the other person to loosen up and play ball. You won’t get anywhere with a poker face.
“If you can make a girl laugh – you can make her do anything.”
A month later I made my final trip back to the Peace House for one last time. I had backpacked down south to discover the multifaceted Vietnamese lifestyle. I’m back in Hanoi to catch my flight back to Singapore for the evening. But not before going back to the Peace House for goodbyes.
At the Old Quarter, I stopped a xe ôm (motorbike taxi) driver. I was tired and weary, and its a bloody hot day. Not in a happy state of mind.
The driver gives me his price, and at that moment, Valen’s words flash by in miliseconds. My cue, with a smile:
” Hey I’m not new here! Sáu Mươi Nghìn? 🙂 ”
February 7, 2010 § 2 Comments
photo by New York Public Library
I got my 50th positive feedback on eBay recently. Geeky as it sounds, I’ve decided to pause and think about what I’ve learnt about doing business online during my short but sweet experience on eBay.
“Well Hidden Cash”
In The Big Moo, the authors talked about pushing a little further and more in you business, which would make you stand out from others. I had a vague idea of what he was refferring to, but couldn’t really get around to a specific example of how I could do it.
I’ve been on eBay since 2002. I had a fascination for buying stuff from around the world that wasn’t readily available here in Singapore. I’ve since learnt to cut down on needless spending, learning to be a minimalist.
Back in 2002, I had no credit nor debit card, and the very mention of asking my mom to use her credit card on the Internet would raise hell.
“Are you crazy??” she stared at me with disbelief. “The Internets not safe you know?? What if someone steals the information??”
That might have sounded like paranoia, but it is a concern that can be taken of these days with additional precaution and smarts.
A friend gave me a method to get around not having a digital means for payment.
Varun was an avid record collector. He digs heavy-death-metal. He faced the problem of not having access to all the rare recordings in Germany or Norway. But he knew people on IRC and forums that would sell him these things.
Method of transaction? Well-hidden cash.
“You put your cash in between two pieces of wrapped blank papers. So that they won’t show up under the light. Then into the envelope it goes.”
That gave me access to my first “buy” on eBay.
Lesson learned: Sometimes constraints force you to find creative solutions, you just gotta read between the lines.
How I Found The Big Moo
Jason Fried of 37Signals has a saying that “making money is like playing the piano, it just takes practice”. I’d like to think that I’m on that journey.
My first thirty transactions on eBay were of me being the consumer. But those transactions gave me an insight into different sellers online, what made me happy and what pissed me off.
The best eBay sellers made you feel that they were human, and they cared. Christmas season nearly five years ago, I bought a 7″ 1970 extended play recording of Santana’s Black Magic Woman / Oye Como Va / Jingo / Evil Ways, and when the package arrived, the seller slipped in a note saying “Thanks for buying! Happy Holidays.”
It was refreshing to see that. A handwritten thank-you note.
All the while my buying experience on eBay sometimes left me wondering if a bot had put these auctions up, and possibly a fulfillment company packed and shipped these to me.
I wasn’t complaining about the nicely packed, sturdy packages the others sent, but it seemed mechanical. Out of all my purchases on eBay the last five years, I remembered the only one that left me a noteAnd when I decided to become a seller on eBay, I thought if this made my purchasing experience special, my customers would appreciate something like this too.
Sure enough they did.
Last month, in an effort to declutter and raise extra cash for travel, I sold a bunch of records during Christmastime. While most of the buyers were from the U.S, a few were from Eastern Europe and East Asia. Along with the packages I sent, I wrote thank you notes too, and relevant holiday greetings in the customer’s own language. All were pleasantly surprised, and mentioned this in the feedback they gave me.
Sounds trivial, I know. But I finally understood what Seth Godin meant by a Big Moo. Everyone’s doing the same, selling stuff online, but it takes only a little effort to go to greater lengths to provide a better experience for your customers. And when you do, customers find you special, a cut above the rest.
What would happen if your company focused soley on giving customers this “cut above the rest” experience? You get a company like Zappos.
I love eBay.
December 6, 2009 § 2 Comments
I find myself increasingly attempting to live minimally- reducing what I use and purchase.
Everything I am curious to learn about or am learning reinforces the beauty of minimalism. Minimalism sounds easy but is hard to put into action. At the very start, attempts to live a minimal lifestyle requires attention to every aspect of life.
Keen to work on my writing skills, I finished On Writing Well, penned by the passionate, writer-extraordinaire William Zinsser. Simplicity is the second basic tenet of writing he mentions in the book. Simplicity, the way Zinsser explains it, keeps writing compact and clean. Writing that is simplified to its core elements are a pleasure to read.
I found it helpful that Zinsser declares “clutter” as the enemy of writing. He identifies corporate jargon and political correctness is the posterboy of cluttered writing.
Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes
What Zinsser preaches for writing , I found in the mantra of good business and computing. Getting Real! is Chicago based software company 37Signals’s manifesto for simplicity and minimalism in computing. In a world where the word “simplicity” is loved by all, not all businesses practice what they preach. Especially when all around you, competitors are striving to one-up each other in functions and capability. How could you not do one better, or at least follow suit?
The 37Signals team preaches simple, straightforward functionality over things that seem to represent actual work done. Delivering a project with just one awesome function will always beat a product with unfocused and cluttered objectives.
Don’t use seven words when four will do.
-Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) in Ocean’s 11
Kids, Try This At Home!
The most immediate application of elimination/ simplification was with my closet at home. Of all the clothing I owned or bought for the past 5 years, I could tell that I wore 20% of it for 80% of the time. That leaves a bunch of stuff that I hardly touch, or probably worn once. (like really bright colored stuff, oversized jeans after I lost weight etc) After all, we’ve only got 24 hours in a day, 7 days a week. There’s only so much clothing you can wear at any one time.
I ended up cleaning out that 80% that didn’t matter, handed it all to the Salvation Army.
Congratulations to the lucky guy/girl that gets my 2006 Eric Clapton Singapore Tour T-shirt. Well its a good thing, now I have to be creative with whats left in my closet by doing smart color combinations and layering.
Far From Zen
I haven’t have much success simplifying and minimizing other aspects of my living space though. Cleaning out work and living spaces is a nightmare. The last time I did it, it took me all of daylight, leaving me physically and mentally drained. And since I did it a few months ago, clutter has been building up around me ever since.
I’m looking towards one successful writer that managed to achieve 19 impressive breakthrough goals by focusing on simplifying one habit at a time.
Leo Babauta of Zen Habits sums up his success formila for achievement in two steps:
1. Identify the essential
2. Eliminate the Rest
What makes Leo’s mantra so compelling? Its simple, straightforward, and actionable. No complicated set of systems to buy into, no messy flowchart of what to do next.
Perfection is now then there is no more to add, but no more to take away
-Antoine De Saint Exupery (author of The Little Prince)
Perhaps the biggest actionable lesson I got in “living the simple life” I got during my “vagabonding” trip in Vietnam. As mentioned in earlier posts, Vietnam was a huge learning experience. I was amazed at how much I managed to fit my life into a backpack. I lived out adventures and new friendships out of it. While the living conditions at dormitories and hostels couldn’t compare to the comforts of home, they weren’t uncomfortable at all. For the price of what a Singaporean college student would pay for a Starbucks drink, she could pay for a night’s stay at a backpacker’s hostel in Hanoi. For the price of a restaurant meal in Singapore, she could buy herself three days’ worth of sumptuous street food in Bangkok or Penang.
In retrospective, Vietnam made me conscious of my spending habits within a consumer, spending-oriented society.
As with, say, giving up coffee, simplifying your life will require a somewhat difficult consumer withdrawal period. Fortunately, your impending travel experience will give you a very tangible and rewarding long-term goal that helps ease the discomfort. Over time, as you reap the sublime rewards of simplicity, you’ll begin to wonder how you ever put up with such a cluttered life in the first place.
-Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
It might seem like counter-intuitive thinking at first, but the big lessons come down to:
1. Reducing material burdens actually gives us more options in life.
2. A simplified creation process gives us a beautiful and useful end product.
November 22, 2009 § Leave a comment
photo by You Need Style
I’m very late into reading Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why The Future Of Business Is Selling Less Of More, and I it’s one of the best (if not the best) I’ve read this year. All through the books were “aha” moments that make so much sense when you look at media and commerce on the Internet, and the physical world.
For those who’ve been preached to death about the Long Tail, please bear with me while I paraphrase Chris’ explanation of The Long Tail. The way I understood it, economies are shifting from domination by hit-based, one size fits all, to the emergence and success of niche goods that make up the true majority of any given market.
Three forces make this possible:
- Democratized production
- Democratized distribution
- Supply and Demand connected
The Long Tail Of Temple Worshipers
As a result of reading the book, I attempted to see long tail effects around me, and voila, saw a mini-long tail story in the local Straits Times yesterday.
For the most part, Buddhists in Singapore head to well-established temples in Singapore, the same way Muslims go to mosques, Christians to their churches, and Indians to the Indian temples.
With Buddhist temples however, Yen Feng and Feng Zengkun realized that many micro-temples are appearing in numbers throughout Singapore’s famous red-light district, Geylang. These have appeared for a number of reasons:
- Strict zoning laws for institutions registered as temples per se. (Scarcity of physical space) Micro-temples apply for more flexible zoning as associations instead
- Micro temples cater to the seniors who are unable to climb high temple steps that are a feature of the larger temples. (There is no one-size fits all solution)
- Having a large body of micro-temples in one area serves the varying needs of the community. (The same way CDBaby and ITunes does this for music fans online)
This shouldn’t be a surprise in the late 2000s, when people are exploring their own unique interests, rejecting the majority / mass media solution of “one-size-fits-all”. Micro-temples are a lot easier to set up as compared to the humongous temples we’ve seen around Singapore. We are seeing transportation getting efficient day-by-day, with the upcoming Circle Line and electronic bus-reporting times at bus stops. Having micro-services in one area adds too convenience too.
Chris Anderson simplifies the rules to creating thriving Long Tail businesses as:
- Make everything available
- Help me find it
Which can be expanded into:
Lowering your costs
- Move inventory way in… or way out
- Let customers do the work
- One distribution doesn’t fit all
- One product doesn’t fit all
- One price doesn’t fit all
- Share information
- Think “and” not “or”
- Trust the market to do your job
- Understand the power of free
Will this happen for the other religious groups in Singapore? Micro-churches, mosques and Indian temples? The use of Facebook, Twitter, Meetup.com, and other social media? We’ve already seen the emergence of churchgoers attending services online, so it might become an emergent trend, probably by word of mouth.
I do think Geylang is Singapore’s most colorful quarter. For friends traveling in Singapore, stop by if you’ve only got one day here.