Matcha!

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Matcha Ice Cream at Asuka Japanese Restaurant

Once a friend of mine uploaded a curious picture to her Facebook timeline. It was green with folds and creases not unlike a brain. At first I thought my friend went to an intergalactic exotic eating place and was served an alien brain in a glass cup. Or maybe an alien cow brain. A closer inspection brought me to realize that it was a cup of matcha, or green tea, ice cream.

I never thought green tea could become an ice cream flavor. I already had some objections against unusual flavors such as black bean, or even durian. Green tea, as my reasoning went, was a drink that should be enjoyed in a liquid state, preferably hot. It was not supposed to be mixed with cream and milk and be frozen. No sir, that is just as strange as eating rice with fresh banana (yes I know some cultures find this to be appealing).

But I was wrong. Green tea, aside from being a drink, can be a flavor just like coffee. People do add coffee to food. Coffee ice cream, coffee biscuits, coffee bread, coffee cake, and the list goes on. So what is so strange about green tea in stuff other than, well, tea?

My first experience with matcha is very favorable. I like it! The green tea lends bitter taste to balance the sugar, and enhances the creaminess of the ice cream. I began to ask for matchas whenever I visited a Japanese restaurant.

The lesson here is not to limit the number of possibilities. With the right combination, you can come up with a great tasting ice cream, or highly effective team.

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Talents and Career Choice: Should They Match?

My best friend is a dance fanatic. He loves to dance so much that he took dance lessons, performed on stage on occasions, and took part in competitions. He read biographies of Nureyev and other ballet dancers, and took to learn ballet on his own. On top of that he is also into drawing and music. Immersed in 80’s music in his childhood, it became part of his identity as an artist.

For his career, he chose to be an accountant.

Nevertheless, he struggles with the question of whether he should keep his day job or pursue a career in performing arts. He longs to spend his days doing what he loves. He already holds a comfortable position in the accounting firm, and leaving that to start anew in a very different career seems to be very risky.

So he decided to audition for a televised talent competition to showcase his dance prowess. He’s hoping that by appearing on TV he could share his talent with a wider audience, and it turn that might open new doors for him to jump careers.

Unfortunately, in the second round, the jury voted against him.

What struck me was the question he keeps asking himself. What is the purpose of his having all this talent if he could not put them to use?

Which is exactly the question I have been asking myself.

A few months ago I watched a biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. As a young prince, His Majesty found love in arts. He enjoys jazz, and in school he used to play in a band. He loves photography, and he has a camera hanging around him almost everywhere he goes. He is also a skilled painter.

On 9 June 1946 tragedy struck the royal family. King Ananda Mahidol, the elder brother of Prince Bhumibol, was murdered under circumstances unclear even to this day. The Prince then ascended to the throne to be King Rama IX.

Being King, now all his attention must be given to the governing of the kingdom. With such a big responsibility, it would be understandable if the King ceased his artistic pursuit.

What I found to be inspiring is that His Majesty still makes time for art. He keeps bringing his camera when he is visiting his subjects, and takes photographs of them. And every now and then he entertains his royal audience playing jazz numbers on brass instruments.

Here is one video of his performance.
“Candlelight Blues”, King Bhumibol

If he had been born a commoner instead a royal prince, he might have chosen a career in the arts. But he became king instead. His devotion to his people is well known and well documented. He opened the palace gardens to be used as laboratories for agricultural experiments, resulting in advanced farming for the benefit of the nation. Thailand is now one of the largest rice exporters in Asia. He decreed for education for all. He left his palace and conversed with his subjects to learn of their difficulties and challengea. And he is also known and respected as an accomplished artist and musician.

Being a musician and artist he would have made a name for himself. But by rising to the occasion and ascending the throne, he made a name for his people.

Our talents are part of who we are. If we are lucky, we can make a career doing the things we love. But as human beings we are capable of achieving more than what we might have with our talents alone.

Developing Yourself, One Habit at a Time

Developing Yourself, One Habit at a Time

I just read the book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business” written by Charles Duhigg. And I realized that many things that I could not do well in life and work are rooted in my failure to develop productive habits.

I had been through 4 cycles of weight loss diet, and everytime a cycle ends, I would regain some of the pounds I lost. During 1997-2009, I even gained all and added 24 more kilograms. I was disciplined enough to keep a healthy and low-calorie eating patterns during the diet program. But after I completed the cycle, I would forget everything and eat whatever I wanted.

The reason is simply this: your body can only survive on 1,500 calories per day for so long. Afterwards, weight loss from eating low calorie diet must be replaced with a regime of exercise. From there, you can slowly return to 2,000 calories a day and maintain weight by doing regular exercise.

I lost the weight, but I failed to build a habit of exercising and of eating healthy food. According to the book, a habit can be learned, but cannot be erased. It can, however, be replaced by another habit. That is why as soon as I stopped the diet program, old habit of snacking and eating greasy food kicked back in.

Benjamin Franklin, the renowned US Diplomat and scientist, devised a method of self development. He made a list of 13 things he wanted to learn or master. Each week, he would devote himself to learn one thing in the list. On the 14th week, he returned to the first item on the list, and so on. In 52 weeks, or a year, he had reiterate the list 4 times.

I reckon that building a habit will take a similar route. I need to identify a list of habits I want to develop in a year, and to set aside a specific amount of time to learn the habit.

The book also mention what is known as a keystone habit. It is one habit that will cause you to develop other productive habits. For example, let’s say that you want to make it a habit to jog every morning. To give you enough time for that, you have to wake up earlier than the time you are used to wake up now. To wake up early, you must sleep early. To sleep early, you must stop watching TV and get in bed early. To sleep early without digestive trouble, you have to have dinner early. And in time, you become a healthier person who jog regularly, sleep early, watch less TV, and who do not eat at night. Morning jog in this case is your keystone habit.

The keystone habit that I need to develop is to write down my daily activities. I chose that because my biggest failure is not in my health and well being, but in my use of time. By writing down what I did daily, I will have a clear idea of my use of time and can manage it better.

What about you? What habit do you want to develop in the new year?

The Failing Desklamp and the Total Blackout

I had packed all my bags (there weren’t that many, really) and I took the last check of the room. It was still dark outside. If I hadn’t so keen to get as soon as possible at the airport, I wouldn’t have waken up so early.

Satisfied that I didn’t miss anything, I reached to turned off the table lamp. As I pushed on the button, suddenly there was a flash of white light from the bulb, and the all the lights in the room went dark. As I recovered from the slight shock, I realized that the burnt bulb must have had tripped a fuse.

I considered for a moment whether I should report the incident to the front desk. I was checking out anyway, and there wouldn’t be much harm if I just walked out of the room. I decided to call the hotel staff.

Luckily, I had left the curtains open, so I had some faint light from the window that guided me to the phone. “Hello, the lightbulb in the desk lamp just blew off, and I think it tripped a fuse in the room. Could you send someone up to fix it, please?” I told the front desk staff. He promised an engineering staff would come to take care of the problem.

A few minutes later, there was a knock on my door. The technician quickly worked, and in a short minutes, the lights were back on.

While sitting in the dark waiting for the engineer, a thought crossed my mind. I knew there was something wrong with the desk lamp as soon as I checked in. After dropping my bag, the bellboy proceeded to show me how to turn on all lights in the room. When he clicked the desk lamp button, it stayed off. “The bulb needs changing, huh?” I pointed out. Of course, changing light bulbs was not in the bellboy’s job description. And apparently, neither was the task to report the problem to the proper authority. He simply excused himself and left.

The lighting setup in the room was dim, and missing a desk lamp reduced the brightness quite significantly. Anticipating the possibility of having to work on the desk later, and being left on my own to take care of the desk lamp, I began to tinker with it. I tried to loose the light bulb a bit, and voila! The desk lamp was on!

The next night, it was off again. I called housekeeping to send an engineer up. After putting down the phone, again I tried to tinker with the desk lamp, and behold! It was on again! I quickly cancelled the engineer, and was happy for the night. Until the fateful early morning when the bulb blew.

Doesn’t something like this often happen in an organization? Somebody noticed something that was wrong. He reported the problem through the proper channel, but no action was taken. So he tried to work the problem out himself, but it did not solve the problem at the roots. It keeps happening again and again, until the problem becomes too big and shut down the entire system in the organization.

This is the importance of having an open communication channel in the organization. And on top of that, it must be equipped with sufficiently authorized personnel who can quickly take action once a problem arises. If the personnel is not able to solve it, he or she must have a direct channel to a higher authority who can, and who is quick to make a decision. Otherwise, the problem will stay hidden until it gets to big and brings down the entire organization.

Learning from the colossal failures of giants like Barings and Enron, ethics play an important role when dealing with problems. When there is no ethics, then whatever chain of command or channel of communication in place will not work.

What Hard Work Means

“Sorry, I’m taking my toilet break,” the hairdresser told her waiting customers as she was sweeping locks of hair away. She just finished the fourth customer since I got there, without stopping. Although it was my turn to have my hair cut, I understandingly nodded to show my agreement to wait.

The barbershop had 6 chairs, but never in my visits have I seen 6 barbers working. The most number I could remember is 4. The last time I was there, I saw only 2. Today, there was only 1 barber on duty. And it was a holiday. Customers never stopped coming, and she had to serve everyone alone. On top of that, she had to clean the shop, answer the telephone, and receive payments. I could imagine she had been on her feet for hours with no break. I could understand if she took her toilet break for somewhere between 5 to 10 minutes.

She politely asked everyone to step outside the shop because she had to lock the doors. A wise precaution since she was alone, and there were considerable amount of money in the shop. I decided to stand near the door, took out my smartphone and began reading my Facebook timeline to kill time. I was ready to give her at least 10 minutes.

It was less than 5 minutes later when she was back to open the doors. I hurriedly pocketed my phone, and take my seat on one of the 6 chairs.

“How would you like your hair done?” she asked me as if I were her first customer.
“Spike, please,” I said.

She began to work. In 10 minutes, she was done. It was a perfect cut. I gave her double the tip that I usually give. Partly because of her doing a great job, and partly because of my admiration of her commitment in giving her best under a tough situation. And partly because I saw the customer before me giving her double of what I gave her, while patting her on the shoulder with a heartfelt thanks.

Up to this day, I had difficulties in defininf hard work. What does it really mean when you say that someone is working hard? Does it mean the person stay at work until late at night? Complete all of the required tasks? Produce more?

From observing my barber today, I could say that work hard is doing everything you can to keep your commitments. Although she never verbally promised anything to her customers, she was aware of the written sign outside the shop that says “10 Minute Haircut” and she strived to keep that regardless of the circumstances. She might be working alone on a holiday, when she could have taken a leave herself. She could take rests between customers if she wanted to. Her limbs and fingers would need them. She could use myriads of excuses to give herself a break. Her customers would have understood.

But she didn’t.

Instead, she ploughed through.

To work hard is to stay committed, no excuses, no complains.

Taking Charge

I’ve been learning, applying, even teaching Dale Carnegie’s principles for years. And it is not until the past few weeks I began to understand the underlying philosphy.

A co-worker spent about 10 minutes complaining to me about her boss. As I was listening I began to wonder why she didn’t do something about it. It wasn’t something that’s beyond her influence. Even obstacles that she said might be keeping her from doing so, were actually things that she could overcome. She only needed to stop assigning blame, and to use the time to find ways by which she could correct the situation.

Looking into other people’s problem provides me a mirror to look at my own situation. Are there situations where I wait for somebody else to do something? Have I been blaming others without taking responsibility to do my own part?

Embarassingly, the answer is a loud, resounding ‘YES!’

The next question is, “Why?” Why do we choose to blame others instead of taking responsibility? Why do we wait for the other person to do something?

1. Because we feel it is not within our power to take action.
2. Because we feel helpless.
3. Because the situation is already there when we first arrived.
4. Because we don’t want people to dislike us.
5. Because we would rather let someone else do something and if anything goes wrong, we won’t get blamed.
6. Because we would rather let others do the difficult thing.
7. Because it’s not our problem.
8. Because we are afraid things would backfire.
9. Because we don’t like to take chances and endanger our position in the constellation of the office politics.
10. Because we are afraid.

It’s like arguing who should pump the water as the boat is sinking.

Participants in a management leadership program that I had the privilege to teach, complained about their current boss and reminisced about their former CEO. They said, “He’s got guts. He would take risk and say, ‘The worst thing that can happen is I got fired.'”

Of course people are eager to stand in line behind the person who is willing to take the bullet. The question is, are they themselves just as willing? Are we?

I began to see the value of taking charge of our situation, instead of waiting for other people. Yes, there are probably things that we cannot influence directly. But why bother about stuff that we can do nothing about?

In a selling skills class that I co-taught last year, I asked the participants to list the challenges they were facing in making a sale. Some of the items they mentioned were ‘lack of management support’, ‘need better promotion program’, etc. Things that were externally controlled. As the list got longer, I could almost feel the Sales Manager, who were sitting in the back of the room, shifting in his seat, trying hard to keep himself from cutting into the discussion.

I then asked them to identify from the list the items that they could control. And they picked almost half of the items on the list! “These are what we need to focus on in this program,” I concluded.

Taking charge is not taking control of everything, but of things that we can directly influence. That, in Dale Carnegie’s philosophy, means people. We may not have power, but we can build relationships which can produce bigger effect that if we try to do things ourselves.

We were evaluating the first session of our Saturday weekly class when the discussion focused on one participant who asked to be re-registered in a workday class because he felt attending a class on weekends cost him his time with his family. A senior trainer in our team said, “That’s out of the question. He must remain in this class because his boss asked me to give him my personal attention.” We could not ignore the fact that the guy lived in a city 600 miles away and only had time to return home every weekend.

The senior trainer said, “I will talk to the boss. I am his godfather when was baptized. He listens to me.”

Our senior trainer was able to pull this off not because he had the power, but because he had strong bond with the person who had the power to make it happen.

We may not have the power to take charge, but we can take charge of the relationships we have, and ultimately, we can influence any situation we are facing.
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Why Do You Want It?

I spent about half an hour this afternoon talking about the merits of a management accounting system. This system can help track expenses and costs, and can bring higher degree of control of financial and operational performance.

“Just tag anything you do with a code generated by the system, and you can track everything. From hours spent to pennies expended on a project,” I said (or might have said something to that effect; my sense of self importance inflates when uttering big, complicated words that it is difficult for me to remember everything verbatim).

And our Sales Manager said, “I don’t know if our sales team can be expected to work with codes and transactions.”

Which brings the point to the underlying principle of utility: something will not do any good if it does not possess any of the following properties:
1. Ease of use
2. Convenience
3. Benefit

Why would anyone want a system that is difficult to use, inconvenient, and is not directly beneficial?

To be completely honest, if I am a salesperson, I may not find the idea to be palatable, based on those criteria. For whom exactly the system would bring ease of use, convenience and benefit? Mostly for the finance people who must analyze data and prepare reports to management. For the salespeople and other staff members who must remember to enter codes every time they need to do something, it will be a different case altogether.

The only way this system can be brought across to the users is if there is a way to help all of its users to work easier, better and more profitably.

So back to the drawing board!