There Goes Another Year

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Last Sunset of 2016. Bogor, December 31.

If you’re on Facebook, and you habitually post something on your timeline every day, after a few years you will end up with a collection of daily happenings in your life. And Facebook makes sure that you notice that. Every day they picked a selection of events from the past years that happened on that very same date, and remind you about them. They go back up to the very first year you joined Facebook.

This is fun. I actually look forward to getting my daily memories. Facebook usually pick posts with pictures to feature in your memory of the day. It is fun to look back and remember when things happen in the past. The parties, the hangouts, even to the dark, sad moments in your life.

The worst thing about those memories is that you are suddenly aware how far back something had happened in the past. You thought that it took place only a few months ago, and then pop! It appears in your Facebook memories, which means that a year had passed between now and that event in your life. It wasn’t a few months, it was 12 months ago!

As you scroll down, you discover other items in the memories that happened two years, three years, four years – up to 2004. Then it dawned on you that it had been 3 years ago since the last time you hung out with your college buddies. The last New Year’s get together your family had with Uncle Bob before he passed? It was 5 years ago. The first time you took your one year old baby to the park? It was 8 years ago. She is in third grade now.

Facebook remind us how fleeting our lives are. At times, the realization is as jarring as checking your bank account balance before making an important purchase and found there’s only a few dollars left. A decade has passed, and you haven’t even done anything about that promise you made just before your wedding day.

Suddenly it’s already another New Year’s day.

At times I feel like I’ve been had. There are a lot of things I didn’t get to do in the past year, and suddenly it’s over. I wanted to stop time, or at least to make it go slower. Or to let me go back a few days. But I already knew 365 days ago that the year will be over, and still I didn’t do those things.

The best thing we can do once we got the shock from the Facebook memories is to learn the lesson. Yes, time doesn’t wait for no one. So don’t wait for time. Do it now.

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The Broken Award Trophy

The Friday night award dinner was over. It was time for dancing and fun. We wore Batik, long sleeved dress shirts in Batik patterns which in Indonesia enjoys the same status as a suit. We found it awkward to hit the floor in our Batik, so we decided to go to the mezzanine.

A lot of people were out there as well, to get away from the loud music and the dark room. Some friends came up to us to congratulate us for the Gold Cup award we received this year. In return we also congratulated other award winners that we met.

As we were chatting happily, our CEO Peter Handal emerged from one of the ballroom doors. Jolly and amiable as usual, he was soon surrounded by people who wanted to have their pictures taken with him. He was retiring from his position in Dale Carnegie. For people who came from far ends of the globe like us, this would be our last chance for a photo op with him.

I was holding the box containing the heavy crystal award in my hands. We were just getting ourselves ready for a picture with Peter. Suddenly I felt the box became a lot lighter. There was a loud crash and tinkling. When the surprise was over, all that remained of the trophy was just scattered crystal shards of various sizes.

It took me a few seconds to finally grasp what happened. I broke the award! That was the moment when I felt to be most stupid. How could I be so careless with something so valuable? The appreciation of one year’s hard work from our team, gone!

I was apologizing profusely, I said, “I’m very sorry,” over and over again. With his hand on my shoulder Peter said, “It’s not your fault, Stephen.” And then he lifted his face to everyone and said, “It was my fault. I tapped him on the shoulder and he reacted. I’ll have it replaced. I’m sorry.”

In the middle of the commotion, Dave Wright approached us. He is the President of Dale Carnegie of Austin, and his team won a Silver Cup award tht night. He stretched his neck out to survey the damage, and asked, “What’s that? You broke your award alredy? Is that a Gold or Silver? A Gold? You can use our Silver for your photo. They’re similar, right?” He graciously handed the crystal trophy to us, and the photo took place after all.

On Monday night, we were retiring to our room at the airport transit hotel in Incheon. I habitually took my phone and opened my email. I found one message from Peter. He said that he had arranged for a replacement trophy to be mailed to us, and that I should not let that incident affect me. It was his fault that he tapped me on my shoulder and startled me to drop the award. Before that, he shared, he dropped his watch on the bathroom floor and broke it. “You can say that this is Peter’s curse.”

I imagined that he had a big grin and a big twinkle in his eyes as he wrote that.

I spent a lot of time in our 20 hour trip from Atlanta to Seoul to revisit the incident. I was angry at myself for being such a bungling idiot. It was a simple logic to hold the box at a slanted angle to keep the award from toppling out. Somehow I stupidly held it upright.

After I was done criticizing myself, I began to think about the people that offered their help. About Peter who took the blame and offered to replace the award, even though I was so sure it was wholly my fault. About Dave who offered to loan his team’s award so we could somehow took a group picture with Peter. I have never seen so much kindness in the face of a mistake in my life.

I wrote back to Peter. “If there was a purpose behind this incident, it is so that we could see kindness from others. From you, from Dave. And if anyone ask me what I remember best about you, I would tell them about this incident to illustrate the kind, warm and friendly person you are.”

Instead of a misfortune, this has become a beautiful parting gift from Peter to me. I will never forget that day.

Thank you Peter for being a great leader for us. Have a wonderful journey ahead.

Who Moved My Aisle Seat?

Each time, almost without fail, I managed to secure myself an aisle seat in long haul flights. I made it a point to get the booking number as soon as possible and to pre select my seat way ahead before the travel began.

The reason is simple: I have a small bladder and in some cases I had to use the restroom almost once every hour. An aisle seat would save me the trouble of having to politely ask a stranger to allow me to cross his personal space just to relieve myself.

Most of the time I was able to get the seat myself. In some other time, I was lucky that I could ask for a seat change when I checked in. The rest of the time I just had to accept a middle seat.

Such is the case when I was preparing for this flight from Jakarta to Atlanta. I started to have a sinking feeling as I scrolled through the seating plan of the aircraft on the airline website. All aisle seats were not available. If it were a short flight, it wouldn’t bother me. I could survive being stuck between two strangers for two, three or even five hours. But it was a thirteen hour leg. Thirteen!

Arriving at the airport, I made some last attempts to request an aisle seat, but it was to no avail. So I braced myself for the worst.

And it was even worse.

Because of some mobile check in mishap, I was not allowed to check myself thru. I was not to get the boarding pass for my next leg until I checked in at the transfer desk in the transit airport.

During security check in transit in Incheon, they saw a suspicious item as they scanned my cabin luggage. They had to go through all my stuff twice, before they dig out a small pocket knife that I forgot to take out from my bag. The officer gave me a long what-were-you-thinking look before he turned his attention to the next passenger.

And for some not so strange reasons, they selected me for a random secondary physical security check. They went through my bag again, and they frisked me. They swabbed a piece of paper all over my bags, shoes, and outfit for explosive residue. As the result, I was among the last passengers boarding.

As I made my way down the aisle to my row, I saw someone else sat in my seat. I had to politely ask him to move. When I looked for an overhead bin space, all has been taken. I tried to rearrange one sparsely loaded bin to make space for my bag when the passenger sitting beneath it stopped me.”FAA regulations. The attendants put that bag horizontally because it doesn’t fit vertically,” she said. “Please put it back the way it was.”

I could feel the stare of the other passengers behind me. I was blocking their way while frantically looking for a vacant bin. I finally turned to a cabin attendant. “Could you help me find a space for my bag please?” She led me back to that same bin, pushed the content aside and said, “Do you want to see if your bag fits in here?” I pessimistically followed her suggestion, thinking that my bag was too big. But it fit!

I settled down in my middle seat, and tried to read a book. Because of snow, the ground crew had to de-ice the Boeing 777-300 ER, and it took a long time. It was already one hour past the departure time when we were finally airborne. The plane slowly climbed to its cruising altitude to avoid bad weather.

With every passing minute I could feel my bladder filling up to the point of bursting. I looked up the flight progress on the personal monitor in front of me and counted every altitude increase. I wished that the plane already reached 30,000 feet.

Suddenly there was a ‘ping’ on the PA, and the fasten seatbelt sign was off. It’s the sign from the pilot that it’s safe to move around the cabin. I quicky turned to my right hand neighbor and poked her awake. “Excuse me,” I said. I rushed past her to the aisle and walked down to the nearest lavatory.

In retrospect, it wasn’t such a bad experience. Revisiting the whole episode, I found some things I could be thankful for. I now understand that the reason I wasn’t allowed a check through was because I tried to do a mobile check in with a new passport when my US visa was on the old one. Unable to match the new passport number with its database, the system automatically rejected my check in and flagged me for inspection. That’s why I had to personally check in in transit.

The lady at the transfer desk was just arriving at her post when she took my case. She was late for work and was embarassed with her supervisor. And my case took some time to solve. She had to re-register my name, my passport and my visa in the system before she could produce my boarding pass. Yet she was all professional, and gave me a polite smile as she returned my documents.

The security officers who had to check my bag were not happy of having to go over my things. If possible, they would rather disregard their suspicion and let me pass. But they had the responsibility over the safety of hundreds of lives. They had to check. Twice.

And the secondary screening officers? I’m sure if they could choose, they would rather do something other than spending the morning running their hands all over strangers. Who knows the places these people have been to? Yet they did their job respectfully to the passengers. I was not at all feel humiliated for being chosen for a random check while other passengers watched as they rushed to board the plane. With halting English a young officer told me nicely that I had to undergo a secondary check. They patiently guided me through the process. They even smiled when they completed the check.

I learned a valuable lesson from this. You cannot really know what surprises life might throw at you. Sometimes what happens is not what you expected. The most important thing is what you get from that experience. And what you get reflects your attitude. When you react with negative thoughts, it will be a harrowing incident. On the other hand, you will get gold from dust with some patience, humility, positivity, and some bladder control.

The Upside of Being Under Limitations

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For the third time in 4 years, I go on a diet. My weight increased a lot in the past year due to change of lifestyle and stress. Okay, the last one is an excuse.

I go to the same diet clinic that helped me lost 45 pounds (about 20 kg). This time they gave me a slightly different treatment. They gave four different types of drugs instead of the usual one type, and they insisted on a different (in other words, more expensive) intravenous medication.

But on the eating side, the same limitations apply. Red meat in small amount only once a month, fish in moderate amount only twice a month, and chicken breast as much as needed. No processed food, no flour based anything, no fried food, no sugary drinks, and no alcohol. Fruit and vegetables are allowed, except for jackfruit, durian, and avocado. For breakfast, I can only have wheat bread and low fat cheese.

One consolation is that I can drink coffee as long as it’s not instant, and as long as I keep the sugar under 5 teaspoons a day. No problem.

At first, this seemed to be a burden. My wife has to prepare meals for lunch and dinner, which means she has to get up very early. I am very indebted to her in this, because otherwise it would’ve been difficult for me to stay on the program.

Having lunch with my co-workers becomes a challenge. They all either buy or bring tasty meals that when I wasn’t on diet I would’ve had myself. “This fried chicken is good, you know,” teased one of them. And I could only scowled and continued eating my no-dressing salad.

Another problem is when we go shopping. The mall is full with restaurants, cafes and bakeries, all are offering delicious treats. I often must remind myself that I am not allowed to have those for the time being. So much temptations.

On the bright side, having few options make things simpler. Unlike before, I don’t need to fuss about what I want for lunch, and I don’t have to go out to get it. I simply eat what I brought.

When shopping, choosing a place to eat takes less time. It must be Chinese, because that’s the only place where they serve boiled or steamed chicken. No need to decide between Japanese or Italian or Sundanese.

In the morning, I simply prepare myself a cheese toasted sandwich and coffee, and I have my breakfast home. No need to take time to get breakfast at the office. I can use the extra time for other things, like writing this post.

Having less options removes a lot of clutters and allows me to structure my life better.

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Changing

As a trainer, I often approach a problem from a positive, optimistic and almost naïve point of view. I assume that people want to be more productive. I assume that people want to be a better worker. But do they, really?

Some people may deliberately choose to lag for lack of motivation. Some choose to not to do 100% because they think 75% is already earning them a comfortable lifestyle. So what are they doing in a training class if they feel things are just fine?

The biggest challenge here is not to change the paradigm of the participants, but to challenge assumptions and one-sided thinking, which I unfortunately have. And the best place to start is by thinking that they don’t need this training. What must a trainer do to sell the idea of change to the participants?

Some use a case, some use to use an example of a person so successful others cannot help not to want to be like that person. And yet, many people are like the story of an old man and his dog.

In a rural area far from the city, a visitor lost his way. He finally came to a cabin where an old man was sitting in his rocking chair while nursing a drink in one hand, and a pipe in the other. The visitor asked for direction, and while the old man was talking, he could not help noticing the big dog
that was lying in a wicker basket near the rocking chair. Every now and then the dog whined pitifully, but its master did not seem to care.

The visitor could not restrain his curiosity any longer, and asked, “Is your dog OK? It seems to be in pain.” Upon which the old man replied, “This old wicker basket? Some of the nails sticks out and pricks the dog.”

“But why didn’t the dog move somewhere else?” Asked the perplexed visitor.
The old man put the pipe in his mouth, scratched his graying head, and said, “Well, I reckon because the nail ain’t near that painful for the dog.”

Often times a good inspiring story is like a nail that doesn’t give enough pain to make someone want to leave his situation for good. For a moment it sounds so electrifying and people ooh and aah over the glitzy powerpoint. But by tomorrow everything is back to the way it was before the training.

So we need to build such a strong case to persuade people to make a permanent change in their lives. Something that got them thinking and saying, “This is not acceptable anymore.”

To Be Continued

Being The True You

Yesterday, at the closing of a sales training class for one of our major clients, the host trainer from the client graciously asked participants to say a few words for me, as the external trainer. This is not something that I expected, and being a naturally introverted person, this also put me in an awkward situation. I know that most of the time any participant would be glad to share some appreciative comments, to which I am grateful (though frankly it may prove to be difficult to keep a humble face and not feeling smug at the same time).

But of course some participants chose to differ. They took the opportunity to give me a piece of their mind. Publicly. If receiving praise is somewhat embarrassing for me, then getting a ‘constructive feedback’ in public is almost beyond description. Nevertheless, I appreciate every opportunity to learn and to improve myself. 

One especially critical participant stood up to speak. I could almost feel my heart skipped a beat in anticipation to what he was going to say. He started to summarize some positive words from other participants about me, like ‘is always smiling’, ‘never criticizes’, ‘welcomes humorous interjections’, etc. And with a knowing smile, he added, “But that is the way he is in a class. We don’t know how Stephen is outside the class.’

I wasn’t in any way bothered by his comment. It was actually a good reality check. 

We sometimes put a different face for different audience. At work, we may put on a professional face when dealing with clients and customers. We treat them courteously, we listen to them, and we welcome whatever sharp words customers say as far as they concerned to the services we render to them. 

Once we get back at home, we put on our real face. We get irritated when our spouse ask a question or require our help. We put aside courtesy and criticize our loved ones without regards to what they feel. We may be more likely to pay better attention to the people on TV, who don’t care about us, than to our spouse who want to have a conversation with us.

I consider that comment to be a reminder for me to be genuine, to be the same person wherever I am. 

Jack Welch has this to say about being an authentic person. He says,

“The most powerful thing you can do is, well, be real. As in not phony. As in grappling, sweating, laughing, and caring. As in authentic.”

That is how a leader can influence other. Not just by being a great communicator, but also by showing his/her true self and values.

Dale Carnegie had this to say about building rapport to people around you, and to influence others: 

“Be a good person skilled in speaking.”

The first rule in being a good communicator is to be a good person first. Anyone can be a fluent speaker. But can we maintain integrity to be true in whatever we say, or we still tend to put on a different self? 

That is one question I keep asking myself. 

Life Without Borders

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When in a new place, I make an effort to try something new. For example, when traveling to a new place, I would veer off the familiar, and try local food. This is the reason why I rarely go to a Starbucks, McDonald’s, or any of the well known global brand when visiting a city. I would look for a local restaurant or local coffee house for a different taste.

Like this bowl of ramen that I just had for dinner. I’ve been wanting to try the restaurant for a long time, but didn’t get the opportunity to do so until now. And even then, the reason that I finally chose this ramen house was because other places were full with saturday-nighters. Even then, I was so glad that I ate here because the ramen, especially its broth, was exceptionally rich and delicious.

Trying new food can really widen your horizon. Before I visited Seoul, I had reservations regarding Korean food. I heard about kimchi, bibimbap, and I’ve seen some korean specialty restaurants in Jakarta, but I barely had the interest to try one. And after three bibimbaps in three different occasions (two of them as airline meals), now I look at Korean restaurants with a curious, almost a longing, attitude.

Imagine what trying an entirely different experience and meeting new people can do.

I remember the first time I held a live firework tube in my hand. Before that, whenever I wanted to light a firework, I would put the tube against a solid thing, like a brick or a flower pot, lit the fuse, and ran to safety. Until one new year’s eve someone (I truly forgot who it was, but I must say I’m thankful for the forceful persuasion from the person) told me to lit the fuse, hold it high above my head, and aim it at an empty part of the sky that was free from electric lines and trees. I counted each blast with a racing heart, fearing that the next one would explode in my face. After the final fire, I found that I was still alive and unscathed. I stopped fearing firework since that day.

Mark Twain, the famous author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer once said, “Do the thing that you fear most, and the death of fear is certain.” Dale Carnegie, the bestseller author of How To Win Friends and Influence People said, “If you want to conquer fear, don’t sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

I think would count anyone as fortunate if he could spend each day to conquer one thing that he fears. The more fear we defeat, the wider the boundaries of our lives become. And one day, our lives may become simply boundless with possibilities.