Current Issues, In English, Lessons, Opinions

Embracing Another “New” Normal

The security guard watched closely as I unhooked my backpack from my shoulders and placed it on the x-ray machine. I was sure I already put my gloves, my cap and my phone in there, and I was about to continue my entrance into the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum when she stopped me. “Your cold pack too, sir,” she said, pointing at my winter jacket. Of course. I could have hidden some dangerous item inside my jacket.

It was December 2002, just shy of 14 months after a group of 19 terrorists hijacked four passenger jets and crashed two them into the World Trace Center towers on September 11, 2001. America was in high alert.

Special scrutiny was given to passengers going to the US or flying on US airlines. Flying on Northwest (now Delta) Airlines from Singapore to DC, we had to go through a screening interview by the airline security at Changi airport. “What is the purpose of your visit to the US? May I see your invitation? Is this your luggage? Who packed your luggage? Have you ever left your luggage out of sight? Has anyone approached you and asked you to bring something for them?” It was pretty jarring to be confronted with those questions at 4 in the morning. No amount of caffeine could ever give you the same jolt.

Post 9/11, there were more attacks by different groups and individuals on various targets in different countries. Some of targets were night clubs in Bali (2002), a school in Beslan, North Ossetia (2004), underground trains in London (2005), a hotel in Mumbai (2008),a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin (2012), a shopping mall in Nairobi (2013), a magazine publisher in Paris (2015), a church in Texas (2017), and a mosque in Christchurch (2019).

As possibility of violent attacks is ever present, nowadays security checkpoints are common sights almost at every public areas: airports, office buildings, music concerts, shopping malls, theatres, theme parks, schools, even in houses of worship. We have accepted security threats as a daily possibility, and security checks as part of our lives. Being subjected to searches, scans, dog sniffs, even body frisks has become routine. We no longer see it as overreaction. It is what our normal has become.

If someone from the 80’s had traveled through time and landed in 2020, they would have been dumbfounded at having to go through security just to stop by a hotel to use the restroom. “What do you mean you need to check my bag? Keep your hands off!” They would have been even more surprised when the security guard pointed a infrared thermometer at their forehead and asked them to sanitize their hands!

But that’s the new reality today. As terrorism and gun violence changed our world, so has Covid-19 pandemic. To stop the virus from infecting more people, governments imposed various rules that affected the way we live and work. Some believe that until  a few of those changes will stay for good. 

As the virus started to widespread, starting on January 23, 2020, authorities issued lockdown on Wuhan and other cities in the Hubei Province, China. People were ordered to stay home. Public transportation, airport and highways were closed. Some non-essential companies were ordered to shutdown. It took the cities nearly 3 months to be declared free of new Covid-19 cases, and finally the lockdown order was lifted on April 8, 2020. 

Bloomberg reported, when Wuhan workers slowly returned to their jobs, they are faced with measures that the companies have put in place to minimize risk of infection. In Lenovo tablet and phone factory in Wuhan, before returning to their work site, staff members had to pass tests proving that they were free from the virus, and they had to wait for the result in a special dormitory. The meeting rooms that used to accommodate six, now could only be used by three people. The cafeteria had partitions put on tables with reminders to avoid conversations during meals. Rooms were disinfected regularly, with the last cleaning date posted on signs. Robots were used to deliver parts to reduce the number of interactions between people. The elevators were shut, and everyone must take the stairs. 

Yes, Wuhan is no longer under lockdown, but infection risk is still present. The way people live there is no longer the same.

As some governments, including ours, begin to completely lift or ease restrictions, either due to its success in controlling transmission of Covid-19 or to economic pressure, the virus is still with us. There is no guarantee that the absence of new cases means that the virus has been completely eradicated. Some people will remain to be carriers although experiencing no symptoms. In turn, they may infect less healthy people in the slightest way possible.  

In 2010, there was an episode of a popular TV show on Discovery Channel called Mythbusters, where the hosts conducted an experiment to see how far snot from a person with a cold could transfer to others in the same room within an hour. Similar experiment was also done by NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster to see how far germs from a sneeze that was covered by hand could be picked up by people eating a buffet on a cruise ship. The answer was grim: in a short time, the germs landed on everyone in the room. Imagine if the sneeze was from a person with Covid-19. 

This realization will change in the way we conduct our day-to-day lives. We must be aware not to touch surfaces with our bare hands. We must keep our faces and hands covered. We must wash our hands often. We must keep a minimum of 6 feet from others. Much of our life will move online. Some of us may have to keep working at home as companies reduce their space. We no longer hold meetings in person, but online. Our children learn at home while the teachers give lessons through the internet. 

For many of us, it will be difficult to accept these changes to our way of life. The bad news is, this won’t be the last time it would change. Some experts predict that there will be other pandemics in the future, and that crisis will be our continuous mode of thinking.

The good news is this is not the first time our normal has changed. We have survived previous changes and we will survive more changes, as long as we have the right mindset. For myself, here are some that I am learning to internalize.

  1. Stop hanging to the past. When my father passed away nearly three years ago, I was having a hard time accepting his absence. I thought of the many things that I could have done with him that I didn’t, and the regret was bearing down on me. One thought that consoled me was my Dad was already happy where he was, and nothing in this world could make him happier.  If we wanted to move on into the new normal, we must stop thinking about how good our lives were in past. Who knows, this new situation can also bring good things.
  2. Accepting the new normal. It wasn’t easy to adapt to working from home. There were things that I could not do from home. But as time went on and my team and I began to find ways to make it work, I realized that it is not that bad. We found that we did not have to print everything on paper. There were resources that we could use to stay in touch and communicate. For me, being apart from the others give me the space to think without feeling pressured. 
  3. Enjoying the new normal. There are things that I could do now that I couldn’t in the past. In the office, I often got invited to meetings where I did not have much to contribute. It was almost always a waste of time. But when it is online, I could move my attendance from my laptop to my phone, put on my earpiece, turn off my microphone and camera, and spend the time doing something else while listening, and making occasional comments. 
  4. Taking advantage of the new normal. Now that many people will spend most of their time online, there are opportunities to exploit. It is now easier to learn anything as there are now many free webinars and online courses. I found it easier now to attend community meetings since many of them are now online. Some people decided to make more social media content since they have so much free time now that they don’t have to fight traffic to work. For me, the opportunity is to expand my online presence by writing articles and blog posts. 

There are challenges in the future, that is a given. We have gone through changes in the past, and we have prevailed. As there are crisis so there are opportunities. Our choice will decide how much better or worse off this situation make us. 

Have a great New Year!

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In English, leadership, Lessons

Don’t Stay In The Dark

Yesterday was the 11th session of our Dale Carnegie Live Online Effective Communication and Human Relations class. In the second part of the session, one participant gave an inspiring talk on how he recovered from depression after an accident. “Everyone said that even if I was able to recover, I would walk with a limp. That crushed me because that could mean I would never be able to work again. I was so dejected I did nothing but stay in bed,” he retold his darkest hours while holding back emotion.

“One day I read a quote that said, ‘Do not stay in the dark, because in darkness even your shadow leaves you.’ That quote snapped me out of my self-pity. I asked for a pair of crutches and started to learn to walk again.” he said. “Finally my legs healed. I was able to finish my school and get back to work. Now I can walk normally.”

The speech won him an Outstanding Performance Award.

The quote he mentioned haunted me. I looked it up, and I found that the actual quote was different:

“Do not depend too much on anyone in this world because even your shadow leaves you when you are in darkness.”

Ibn Taymiyyah

But the essence is there. Sometimes we lock ourselves inside a terrible situation because we either wait for someone to get us out or because we blame it on somebody and refuse to take responsibility to get ourselves out.

Regardless of which way see it, we lose. Nobody benefits from our staying in a rut. We might as well stop relying on and stop blaming others, pick ourselves up, and walk away.

Previously published as a Facebook post.

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In English, Lessons, Personal Observation

The Importance of Being a Good Person

During Dale Carnegie & Associates 67th Annual International Convention in Honolulu last December, I had a conversation with a colleague from Taiwan. I complimented him on the success of Taiwan team in the past fiscal year. With great enthusiasm I recounted some facts about their achievements (which in retrospect should be something that he already knew).

Of course behind all my excitement I wanted to know how they managed to make it happen. To be honest, I was expecting something in the line of, “Well, our team got together, we drew a strategy, and in the execution everyone chipped in their best effort.” Something that shows camaraderie, team work, hard work, focus, and so on.

Instead, Arthur gave me the biggest smile and said, “We have a good boss.”

At that moment, the doors were opened and everyone in the foyer began pouring into the ballroom for the morning’s General Session. I did not get to ask him what he meant by that. I wish I had pulled him aside and grilled him more on that. Since I didn’t, so I was left to myself to figure it out.

I know his boss. Although John Hei is a popular public figure in Taiwan, the first impression you take on him will not show that. He speaks with a soft voice, and he smiles a lot. One thing that truly leaves a strong impression on me is his humility. He is already in his 70s. In Asian culture, he is considered a senior to whom people pay a great respect. People will understand if he would choose to stand in the sidelines and let the younger generation do the hardwork.

Despite of that, he is not beyond sitting in a classroom with people half his age, to learn from a trainer 20 years his junior, as evident in a program that I had the privilege to be part of in 2011. He did the same exercises as the rest of the class, he took part in small group discussions, and the most amazing thing for me was he was willing to be coached in front of the younger people.

I am sure that is not where the list stops. If I were to interview his team members about him, I think I can get at least 100 more reasons why he is such a good and inspiring boss.

For me, this is where leadership plays an important role in an organization. All the management knowledge remains important to run a successful business. But in the end, what drives people is their leader. What the leader does, what the leader says, how the leader relates with others, will be the driving force behind a great organization.

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In English, Lessons, Personal Observation

Lessons from the Man of Action

The title on his business card said “Executive President – Asia Pacific.” It was quite intimidating for us, the three young visitors.

For me, it was the first time I had a meeting with a client in which I met the top man himself. No subordinates present, just us and the man. From what the title sounded, he’s not only the boss for the country, but also for the entire Asia-Pacific operation of the company. It did carry a lot of weight.

The broad forehead gave him the appearance of a scientist or an academic faculty member, instead of a corporate executive. His tall build, broad shoulder and tanned demeanor immediately commanded respect. He was there strictly for business.

“I assume you would like an introduction about our company,” I said, several handshakes, introductions and business card exchanges later. He nodded, and I quickly turned my 10.1-inch netbook to face him. I already loaded my presentation, and I meant to present it right from the device.

“Wait, you’ll need a projector,” he said, standing up. I thought he was going reach for the phone and call someone to get it.

Instead, he walked up to a sideboard cabinet, opened a drawer, and pulled up a small, black bag. He then proceeded to put the bag on the table, unzipped it, and took a small projector, about the size of a standard Bible. Without a word, he began to connect cables into it.

We were taken by surprise. It was an awkward moment. Should we help him, or not? It was apparent that he was the hands-on type of guy who didn’t mind doing all the work if needed, regardless of his title.

“It’s.. It’s the smallest projector I’ve ever seen..” I blurted weakly. But he didn’t seem to notice. He handed one end of the VGA cable for me to attach to my netbook. No time for small, insignificant talk. It was time to get the show on the road.

It was a no-nonsense meeting. Unlike interactions with fellow Indonesians, this one proceeded seriously. He listened to my presentation, asked questions, and he in turn explained what he wanted.

He had a clear idea what he wanted to see and what he wanted us to do. He knew the kind of people he believed to be capable of giving him the results he was looking for. No doubt, no nonsense. He chose to meet us ourselves instead of delegating the task so he could be sure that we got it fresh and direct from him.

In an hour, the meeting was concluded.

There was much to learn from the experience.
1. Being the boss sometimes mean you have to get down, get your hand dirty and do the job to be sure that it gets done right. Delegation is important, but there are things that you have to do it yourself to get it right.

2. Title is just a title. It shouldn’t stop you from doing what needs to be done. Goal oriented action is more important than your job description.

3. Knowing what you want, where you are going, and taking the necessary action to move towards that direction is what leadership is all about. Planning, organizing, directing, and the rest of management are just tools.

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