Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Only Constant

The Only Constant

In the business world, we often like to parrot the cliche , "change is the only constant", but when it comes to people and their attitude, change is often the most difficult thing to do. Businesses fail because of the inability of the people themselves to change and adapt.

Every now and then, through sheer effort, physical or external change is often achieveable. With the right motivation and discipline, someone can make himself say, lose weight through exercising. But if we were to encourage someone to change his lifestyle or behaviour--stop smoking or womanizing--it is extremely difficult because it requires a fundamental change to our basic character and mental attitude.

Why is psychological change so difficult? Why do we have this aversion to change if we know that it will bring good to ourselves?

First of all, human beings don't behave logically. We can only reason to a certain extent. Everyone has a threshold of susceptibility to reason. When someone is confronted with irrefutable logic proving the error of his ways--more often than not, he will react with denial, anger or even violence. In the case of women (and some men), they will resort to crying.

Secondly, we don't like pain. Especially pain that we have to suffer here and now. We'll rather choose immediate pleasure (even though it will bring us long-term pain). Everyday our choice is always, almost without fail, the instant and immediate pleasure. If there's an interesting book lying on the desk in front of me now, I'll immediately want to flip through it rather than continue doing my work. Discovering a new book is a great pleasure whereas work is very painful because you have to rack your brain for ideas and suffer constant self-doubts and fear of failure in the process.

We will go to great lengths to avoid pain. We are almost like automatons in the way we veer towards instant gratification of the mind and senses--no different from the way moths are attracted to bright lights.

For the smoker, the moment he feels bored, lazy or fidgety, he'll think of smoking. A cigarette brings him instant pleasure and gives him an excuse to avoid work. Years and years of such mental programming makes it extremely difficult to change. No wonder we become automatons. We all think we make intelligent choices in life but most of the time, we are just governed by the mechanics of pain and pleasure.

Is it then a hopeless situation for us? This is a huge subject to tackle--let me for the meantime avoid it by resorting to my favourite excuse ( and immediate pleasure :-)): I'll save it as a subject for another posting.

But let it be said that all is not lost in this battle that everyone has to face. The most important thing that we have to do first is to acknowledge the fact that we are creatures of our pain-pleasure programming. Most people will only change when they encounter a massive immediate pain--e.g. the smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer before he is willing to accept the lesser pain of not lighting up cigarette.

We can only change if we want to change. Wanting to change doesn't mean saying yes today and going back to your old ways tomorrow. We must desire change to the point that we feel it in every fibre in the body. The desire to change for the better must be a motive force driving us forward, everyday, every second, every moment of our lives.

If we can't even make that strong conscious decision, then let's forget about the whole thing altogether. Let's wait for that massive pain to come someday to finally make us change.

Well, we like to think that massive pain might not come. We'll take our chances. Life is to be enjoyed. Which is absolutely fine. But we don't realise that we still suffer in various other subtle ways. Only when these are pointed out to the person as "suffering per se" then, perhaps he or she will realize that there's actually an imperative to change. It's like discovering that you have been paying way too much for your telephone bill simply because you did not bother choose a better subscription plan.

Recognizing and understanding the dynamics of pain and pleasure is that essential first step. Then we need to ask ourselves: Do we really and seriously want to change?

If the answer is in the affirmative, then there could be a glimmer of hope...

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Moveable Work

Moveable Work

Like a Bedouin roaming from one oasis to another, I drift from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another all across town to do my work. I enjoy changing my workplace everyday because new environments help me to get fresh ideas.

The only challenge for some people in working the way I do is that it takes time to settle in to a new environment before you can start concentrating. But sometimes having a regular workplace in the office could be worse: many of us, whenever we're at our desk, immediately think of surfing the Net or calling a friend and pretend to be busy working.

Everytime I set up camp at one of the Starbucks or Coffeebean cafes, I'll go through the ritual of hooking up my computer, connecting to the Net, checking my e-mails and then start looking into my work files. Sometimes I concentrate better outdoors because unlike working from my room back home, there are no distractions like books or a comfortable bed within sight. Well, sometimes there are pretty women to ogle but It's rude to stare too much at other people, so you end up staring at your computer and inevitably you'll start working.

Many writers like to write outdoors in cafes too. Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling is one of them--or at least she did that when she wrote her first book. Now that she's so well-recognized, I don't think she enjoys that luxury anymore. Ernest Hemingway wrote everyday from cafes during his time in Paris in the 1920s. In my favourite Hemingway book, A Moveable Feast, he describes his time living in Paris as a young writer in simple but moving prose ("This is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy..." ).

There's only one thing that I dislike about working from cafes: I end up drinking lots of American-styled coffee which I'm not particularly fond of, because I'm more of a tea drinker. Being rather old-fashioned, I also dislike tea that comes in the form of teabag and hot-water. Like many Malaysians, I like skillfully made, steaming hot, tea with milk from Chinese kopitiams or teh tarik from the mamak.

Thank God I don't have the habit of eating while I'm working (I'm not attracted to cakes and other types of microwaved junk that they serve at cafes), or my mobile work sessions will also end up being moveable feasts!

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Life's Feedback Control System

Life's Feedback Control System

"The only target is to improve. I will look at the match video after we have played and if I see 10 mistakes, I will try to correct one. The next time I will try to correct another. And in three months maybe there will be only two mistakes in a game. That would be good enough."
- my favourite quote from Rafael Benitez, the new Liverpool FC manager.

Often when we are asked to state what we want to achieve out of life, we cannot or dare not articulate them clearly for various reasons: fear of failure is one of them; lack of confidence could be another. We even try not to think too much about it because it feels very discouraging to set huge targets only to see them slip further away from us everyday.

Well, I think the task of achieving success in life shouldn't be such a daunting affair. If for some reason we feel that we are not worthy of our innermost dreams, let's change the paradigm a little bit and just set the "easier" goal of making ourselves a slightly better person everyday. The only target is to improve. That shouldn't be too difficult.

Improvement can come in many ways; even seemingly trivial things do help to contribute to our overall cause of achieving our dreams. We can for example learn to be less easily agitated over small things; if we cultivate such a habit, we learn to be calmer in our handling of our everyday affairs, thus making less mistakes in the long run and achieving better results more consistently.

A pilot does not set the direction of his plane just once before take-off and expect his aircraft to land at its intended destination. Instead he (or the onboard computer) makes many tiny little adjustments throughout the entire duration of the flight to correct deviations due to changes in wind speed and air turbulence.

Having grandiose targets alone is not enough; we also need to put in place what engineers call a feedback control system. Every seemingly insignificant experience in life is an opportunity to produce data that could help us realign our course.

Every encounter with the external world exposes certain weaknesses within us. The feedback control system must kick in immediately to correct these tiny little deviations, which if left unchecked can set us off-target.

Like what motivational guru Anthony Robbins likes to say: "There are no failures, only results". And results are the data for life's feedback control system to make the necessary corrections. The key to success is ensuring that this feedback control mechanism continues working incessantly.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Rush-Hour Education

Rush-Hour Education

The good thing about being back in KL is that I get to go jogging every morning, even if it's just around my Subang Jaya neighbourhood park. I love the sight and smell of grass and the touch of the morning sunlight on my skin. An hour of light workout there makes me feel invigorated and ready for a productive day ahead.

I used to jog a lot when I was living in Singapore because lovely green parks are located around every neighbourhood. But during my two years living in the congested and polluted city of Jakarta, I had to settle for the hotel gym. It is never quite as fun working out in the gym because the environment is artificial. Jogging in the outdoors makes me feel very free; it also helps to clear my mind for thinking. I often get interesting ideas and insights while I'm running.

I suppose I'm lucky that I don't have to join the rush-hour traffic to go to office everyday. But once upon a time when I was working in downtown KL, I had to do that every morning--I even had to leave home before seven to avoid the massive jam at the old KFC exit from Subang Jaya. But I made the drive tolerable by always having an audiobook cassette with me.

I have fond memories of myself driving along the Federal Highway listening to classics such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Bram Stoker's Dracula and The French Lieutenant's Woman. At times the story was so exciting that I often wished the jams would last longer so that I could find out what's going to happen next.

I don't normally read fiction because I tend to get very deeply affected by them. But during that period in my life I managed to "read" so much good fiction, thanks to the KL rush-hour jam. I'm glad I managed to turn those unproductive hours on the road into an opportunity for education and entertainment.

Makes me kind of miss joining the rush-hour crowd to work.

The Winds of Providence

The Winds of Providence

Many of my middle-aged friends face what is popularly known as mid-life crisis. According to this article, people encounter a crisis as they realize their own mortality and they start experiencing a change in perspective from "time since birth" to "time left to live".

The article goes on to say that, "mid-life crisis is often thought to include: worries about the future, inability to enjoy leisure time, a feeling that health is deteriorating, a negative evaluation of the marital relationship, a negative evaluation of work life, and stress arising from taking care of the elderly."

When you are in your early twenties, with all the time in the world, and you've just got a job that pays a decent four-figure salary, you simply have no idea what mid-life crisis is all about. Then when you enter your thirties, you suddenly realise that your lifetime is depleting very fast, and you don't have anymore time to waste.

In a way, no one can be prepared for it. Somehow God architected things in such a way that you always need to learn your lessons in life through the recklessness of youth before you can gain the maturity of middle-age. A lot of the lessons in life have to be learnt the hard way.

Pain is a good teacher. Through pain and suffering, you chisel your soul into perfection. All pebbles on the riverbed were once sharp and jagged; but the river of time chips away at all the rough edges and make them as smooth as a baby's bottom.

When you are young, you hurl yourself headlong into idealistic pursuits, wild love affairs and reckless adventurism. You would often come to a certain threshold of pain before you realise that it's not worth pursuing anymore--the price you are paying is simply too high. You can call it disillusionment; or to look at it positively: you've finally acquired maturity.

Middle-age need not be a time of regret and reflection on how things might have been. It is actually a good age to start anew. I am always perplexed as to why people wait until New Year's Eve or their birthday to make fresh vows and new resolutions. Each day is as good as any other. Why shouldn't we celebrate each new day like it's our birthday? Everyday, every moment is a fresh start.

During the Asian Financial Crisis, one of the cliches you often hear is that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters which mean "danger" and "opportunity". The time of crisis is also a time of opportunity.

Well I suppose you can choose to see mid-life as a time of opportunity too. You've already weathered the storm of youth. The ship has been proven to be sea-worthy. There are vast oceans out there with the promise of new lands to be explored. Time to unfurl your sails and catch the mighty winds of Providence!