In English, Passion, Personal Reflection, Soul Searching

Looking Out

I often think about what it will feel like not having to spend a big chunk of the day working. Or even going to school. I remember when I was in elementary school, I discovered how funny the education system was. I was sitting in my classroom, wondering aimlessly while my class was immersed in some kind of an exciting activity. I could not recall what it was, but it must be exciting or the teacher would have seen me daydreaming and thrown something at me to wake me.

But I remember how beautiful the sun was that day. How bright the morning was. I remember thinking how inviting the schoolyard was. But somehow the teachers and the headmaster and the majority educators in the world think being stuck in a room while listening to a teacher was a better method of learning compared to playing and having fun outside. I wouldn’t say that the education was bad. I was just thinking what a waste it was for God to create such a beautiful world, which was meant for man to enjoy, but instead they chose to stay indoors and did something they which they believed to be more useful.

How come? How can being stuck in a room with two dozens of other kids be better than playing outside in the sun? How can it be that mornings are better spent indoors than outdoors? Is it true that learning can only take place in a classroom?

Thirty years later. When I had the opportunity to teach a class in our training center, I would roll up all blinds and let the sun shone through the glass windows into the room. As the room grew brighter, so did the hearts and the souls of the people. Some other trainers chose to let the blinds rolled down to keep minds from wandering to irrelevant things outside.

But I’m sure there is not a day goes by without us yearning to be free. Free from our cubicles, free from work hours, free to spend the day doing something else than working. That is why we are often tempted to daydream. That is why the one thing we want to do when standing in front of a window is to look outside. That js why we are so keen to escape the city and go to find beautiful sights in the country side.

To be free.

So why keep people from doing what I myself would want to do?

Last Thursday I just could not help myself. The blinds had been down since Wednesday morning because we were using the projector to show visuals. “Are you planning to use the projector today?” I asked my co-trainer. “I want to roll up the blinds.” He gave me a perplexed look and said, “No, I won’t use visuals. But isn’t opening the blinds detrimental to concentration?”

I just chuckled and began pulling on the plastic chain. The blind slowly rolled up and the morning view materialized from behind the thick glass of the ninth floor window.

It was a glorious morning.

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In English, Observation

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.

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In English, Observation, Opinions

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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In English, Observation

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!

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In English, Passion, Personal Reflection

I Work, Therefore I Am

If you try to engage me in a long conversation about things of which I’m passionate, I might give you a blank stare. I would experience a loss of word so severe that it would take several minutes of self collection before I could speak again.

Of course I’m not serious. But the question still stands as legit. It’s nice to have something that you feel so deeply about that it actually defines you. Painting defines a painter. Music defines a musician. Singing prowess defines a singer.

Some people, like me, defy logical definition of self based on passion. We work day in, day out on things that we do not feel so strongly about. Yet we chose to endure that existence for whatever reasons we think are justifiable. Self preservation, survival, security, you name it.

There’s nothing wrong about it. But can you imagine how mundane life would feel to come home from a job and suddely realize that you just spend a whole day doing things that you’re not really interested to be successful in? Or things that you don’t feel to be the definition of you?

It’s difficult to be true to your calling, to the things that bring excitement and a whisper in your heart. Can you do your job now without feeling that you are wasting your time and talent, or that you are not bringing any meaningful contribution?

I took a hard, hard look at myself, and I realized how fractured and unwhole my being has been. It’s like having a sundry of unrelated spices and ingredients thrown into the mix only to realize that they are not making the taste that you are looking for.

Focus, and discover.

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In English, Personal Reflection

Finding Balance in Imbalance

My first instinct when waking up in the morning would be to hope for some sort of balance to take place in the day. Day by day I would hold on to that hope. Many times I spent a day convinced that it wasn’t really a true day, that it was just a phase and it would go away soon, replaced by a quiet and balanced time.

It used to be true. After a period of uncertainty, upheaval, and imbalance, a sense of balance would take place. I would feel happy, content, and enjoyed my day.

This started when I was in college. I routinely experienced a feeling of out of rhythm at every start of a semester. New classes, new courses, different classmates, those changes threw me out of balance for a few weeks, before I got “the hang of it” and got back to my rhythm. It was almost like a pendulum that would return to its balance position after a period of swinging from side to side.

Lately, I found that it is getting more and more difficult to return to that point of balance after a swinging period. The balance would remain for shorter and shorter period, and the swinging would remain for longer and longer period.

These days, it seems that the balance has disappeared altogether. I only experience changes, day in, day out. Change of people, change of organization, change of roles. It’s like playing a game in which a different rule applies at every move.

I realized that I could no longer rely on finding a point of balance that remains for a long time. I am a perpetually swinging pendulum. The only point where I am not in a swing is at the farthest end of a swing, or at the farthest of the amplitude, when the pendulum stops for a fraction of a second before it swings back the other way.

Since I established that it will be a virtually uninterrupted swinging period anyway, I would rather be the one who swings the pendulum, instead of being the one being swung on the pendulum. I would rather be the one who decided when it swings, and to what direction.

I would rather be the one who created my own inequilibrium. I would rather be my own distruptor, than be disrupted by the situations. I would not wait for the circumstances to balance, but to create my own balance by disrupting the prevailing balance, at will.

“Live a deliberate life.” – Dale Carnegie

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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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In English, Personal Observation

Lessons In Team

I watched a rerun of the first season of MasterChef US last night. It’s a TV game show contest for amateur cooks to win the MasterChef title and a $100,000 prize. I already knew who would win the competition, yet it was interesting to watch the episodes that I missed.

In last night’s episode, the remaining ten contestants are divided into two groups, blue and red. Each must prepare burgers for 100 hungry truckers. The winner of the challenge would be the team with the most votes for best burger from the truckers.

The blue team was led by the winner of an earlier challenge, and he picked best people to be his team members. The red team comprised of who were left.

As expected, the blue team had a very good start. They were well organized. Everyone knew what to do, and there was a clear sense of direction. When the first truckers arrived, they were all set and ready to serve the burgers.

The red team were at first a mess. They made a mistake of mixing blue cheese into the patty, and the cheese melted right into the hot grill. They basically ruined their first batch. But they quickly adapted their strategy. They made a new batch of burgers with all the tastiest ingredients thrown into it: meat, pork bacon, barbecue sauce, and cheese. They even put double meat patties when ordered.

The tide turned to the red team’s favor with votes for their burger adding up fast, and soon they were leading the tally. The judges came to the blue team with the red team’s burger and told them to taste it, and to adjust their recipe to match. But the blue team leader adamantly refused, saying that the red team’s burger was disgusting, and the blue team’s burger was better.

The truckers however, disagreed. In a short time later, 51 of them voted for the red team, making them the winner of the challenge.

Here are the interesting lessons:

(1) Do what is best for situation at hand, not what can serve your ego. The judges said that the chefs should think like a restaurant owners and serve what the customers wanted: gourmet burger, or simply the tastiest and satisfying burger. The greatest mistake would be to putting your ego first by serving gourmet meal for a non-discriminating crowd who are just looking to satisfy their hunger. The red team was able to discern this, and won the challenge.

(2) It is not shameful to admit that we are running the wrong strategy, and adjust necessarily. It’s better to be a humble winner than an arrogant loser. This was the blue team’s mistake. They were so confident that their burger was the best, they refused to accept the fact.

(3) Sometimes starting wrongly doesn’t mean that all is lost. As long as we can keep our spirit up, make improvements, and focus on getting better results, there is always hope that we can finish proudly.

(4) Never underestimate your team members, although they may not be considered as the best. What matter are:
A. Strong leadership with clear focus and ability to make quick decision
B. Spirit of camaraderie. Team of underdogs with excellent L’esprit de corps can still put up a relentless fight. A “Dream Team” can turn out to be a “Nightmare Team” if its members are more interested in assigning blame and defending ego.

Let’s go team!

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In English, Personal Reflection

When In Doubt

“To believe with certainty we must begin with doubting.”

Stanislaw Leszczynski
Selected Polish king 1704-1709, 1733-1734 (1677 – 1766)

We always have doubt when we first travel to a strange place. I remember the first time me and several friends going to a certain destination in Bandung relying entirely on vague directions scribbled on the back of a crumpled receipt from a fastfood restaurant. I had to reconcile three things during that journey: the unclear directions, the dubious street map, and the actual condition that we found. After a frustrated, futile search to find the elusive landmarks described in the direction, we added the fourth item into the confusion: direction we solicited from people that we met on the street.

There was a point in that experience when all the four items so contradicted one another that we found it impossible to be certain of which information was the most reliable. When that happened, we had to make a faithful choice to use one as our own sole guidance.

Facing challenges in our lives, either personal or professional, can be quite a nerve jarring experience. The tough reality is that every day is a new path down which we have never traveled before. There are people with similar experiences from which we can draw ideas, but there will be one or more differences in our circumstances that make our problems uniquely different from that of other people’s.

We therefore can only use them as “possible solutions” instead of the only solution.

One of my favorite TV series was “Star Trek: Next Generation.” When facing a situation dire to the safety of the Starship Enterprise, Captain Jean Luc Picard would call a quick, standing-up conferences of his top officers. He would concisely state the problem, and ask for their ideas. He would then make a decision that was either an adoption of one of his officer’s idea, a combination of several ideas, or his own idea. He could never be sure of the outcome, but he would ask for inputs and decide one that was considered to be the best under the prevailing circumstances.

That is what we can do when having to make tough decision.

1. State the problem
2. Understand the cause
3. Gather important information on possible solutions
4. Choose one that is considered to be the best.

In my experience with my friends, we ended up choosing to forget the maps and the written direction, and go with the bystanders directions.

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