In English, Random Things

20 Years Ago

At the end of the introduction of the course, I raised my hand. “Yes?” The professor examined me with his eyes from behind the lectern. “Sir, the textbook you just mentioned is the 11th edition. Is it different from the 4th edition?”

My mind went to the 4th edition of the Basic Financial Management book written by the same authors as the 11th edition. I used it in the Financial Management course in undergraduate school. If there wasn’t much difference, i could use it again and save money.

The professor grinned. “Of course it is very different,” he said. “The new edition is updated to include recent cases.”

It wasn’t until today when I skimmed through the new textbook that I realized something. My third semester in college was almost 20 years ago! By then, I bet nobody here had ever heard about Enron, and some of my class who took accounting major had their eyes on Arthur Andersen for their future career.

Apple was known for Mac, and internet was still in its infancy. A 14.4 kpbs internet connection was already considered fast. Mobile phones came in briefcases. The most widely used OS for PC was Microsoft Windows 3.11. The crew of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation were the only ones who used tablet computers. A 100 kb attachment was enough to suffocate an e-mail server, and a 512MB Harddisk was enough to run a small server. A Big Mac meal in Jakarta cost about a sixth of its price now in Rupiah. US and European boybands (and girlbands) were making it big.

And now, I’m writing this on a 64GB iPad, and online through a 14.4Mbps mobile internet connection. A thousand times more bandwidth than 20 years ago. Wirelessly.

Looking back into the past like this only makes me wonder what the future will be in the next 20 years. Flying cars? Interplanetary travels? Food replicators? Holographic music concerts? Fully humanoid robots?

And so with this I must remind myself to return to my work.

In English, Observation, Soul Searching

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.

A Life Journey, In English, Observation, Personal Observation

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?

A Life Journey, Travels and Places

When Another Wish Came True

I’ve written about this a couple of years ago. And then it happened again. And again. So I think I ought to write about it again.

Has it happened to you that you were innocently wishing for something, and then suddenly it unexpectedly came true?

Small example. Let’s say one evening you were bored at home. You began to think about stuff that would make you happy. And then you remembered that little pizza place across town where you had the most fun you’d ever known in the past twenty years or so. You wished you could assemble the gang again for a night out there.

Your phone suddenly rang. It was your best friend asking if you were free because the gang was in town and – what were the odds – they wanted to have dinnner at that place you just thought about!

A few years ago I watched a documentary program on TV (I cannot remember whether it was on Discovery or National Geographic channel). The program showcased a modern miracle in Seoul, a mega city that was plagued with traffic jams.

Instead of building more highway to ease the congestions, the city government decided to do something that may seem to be counter intuitive. They upgraded the public transportation system, and put in place a state of the art traffic information system.

The major unusual step was they torn down a major highway into the city, and restore the Cheonggyecheon, an ancient stream in the middle of the city that for many years had been covered by the highway.

They took water from the river Han, had it processed, and put it into the stream, resulting in a clear water flowing in the stream.

On the day they opened the restored stream for public, the mayor took his shoes off and waded into the clear water. He scooped some water into his palm and took a sip. A stream that used to be so filthy that they closed it under concrete now filled with fresh water good enough to drink.

I was mesmerized by the program. I made a promise to myself to one day go to Seoul and see this miracle for myself.

The problem was I didn’t know how I could make it happen.

Fast forward to 2012.

When planning for a company trip to Honolulu, we made an interesting discovery. Most of the possible flights to Hawaii from Indonesia with single stop must have more than 12 hours of transit. After comparing alternatives from several airlines it was decided that we would fly on Korean Airlines and to fill the 12-hour layover by taking a day tour of Seoul.

We had a great time spending the day visiting temples, palaces, museums, markets, and trying local food. At the end of the tour our guide asked, “We still have a couple of hours left before we have to get you back to the airport. Is there any more place you guys want to see?” I raised my hand and asked, “How about the Cheunggye…” I knotted my eyebrows trying to recall the name. Her face suddenly lit up. “You mean the Cheonggyecheon? Sure! It’s not so far from here!”

As I walked along the paved bank of the Cheonggye stream that cloudy winter afternoon, marveling at the clear fresh water running in it, I wondered at the series of what seemed to be unrelated events that finally brought me there. It was nothing short of miraculous.

Make a wish. Have a dream. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

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In English, Personal Reflection


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

Random Things

Finding Balance

I am mostly a thinking person. Some experts or scientists call people like me as a Visionary. We think in terms of long term, big picture things. We like to talk in big words like strategy, growth. We often justify slow progress as learning process. But to tell you the truth, nothing makes me more nauseous as showing little or no results.

Results require execution, and execution is a discipline. For me, discipline is always a challenge.

My mission now is to come up with a good executable long term strategy that delivers short term results. And finding the balance is not easy. I’ll keep you posted with the updates.

In English, Observation

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.

In English, Personal Experience, Personal Reflection

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. 

In English, Personal Experience

How to Take a Cold Call

I used to let myself fee annoyed when receiving a cold call from a sales person. It could be about a number of things: credit card, life insurance, investment opportunity, collateral-free loan, you name it. I developed a deep dislike of cold calls so much that when my staff buzzed me to get a call through, I would ask them to tell the caller that I wasn’t taking any call.

One thing that I felt strongly about was those sales people who did not seem to understand when to accept a no. Whenever I tried to weasel out of a sales pitch, they would press even harder to close the sale. It seemed  impossible to make them understand that I didn’t not need whatever they were selling, and I was not buying.

I don’t know what they were taught when they signed up for the job. Perhaps their superiors told them things like this:

  • “Close every call!”
  • “When the prospects say no, they actually say yes.”
  • “Prospects are clueless. They don’t know that they need our products. They need us to make them realize that.”
  • “Don’t stop talking or you’ll lose the call.”
  • “When the prospects try to tell you no nicely, they’re sitting duck. Press them and they will say yes.”

Add to that the pressure to make the quota to or lose the job, and you get yourself some hardheaded salespeople who will get on your nerves and make you lose your temper. There is a very thin and fine line between determined and stubborn, and sometimes, being under pressure, some people mistake one for the other.

After an emotionally draining call from a salesperson, I complained to my wife about how infuriating they are. My wife gently said, “Well, it’s their job. They are going to do it whether we like it or not.”

Being a trainer for sales program myself, I came to understand that that’s how salespeople work. Some can do it well, some cannot. And since many sales people took the job out of necessity instead out of love for the work, you have better chance to get a cold call from those who don’t do it well.

It’s like complaining that the sun is hot, when that’s just how the sun is supposed to be. Rather than ranting about it, you had better get yourself under a shade, and let the sun do its job.

So I decided to control my reaction. I stopped asking my staff to screen calls. I now take the call, and I tell the salesperson in a friendly tone that I appreciate their offer, but at the time being I am not interested to take it. So the conversation now generally goes like this:

Salesperson: “Can I speak to Mr. Stephen Siregar?”

Me: “Speaking.”

Salesperson: “Mr. Siregar, I have the pleasure to inform you that you have been exclusively selected by our company to receive our best offer. [And proceeds to describe the product that he/she is selling]”

Me: “Oh so it is an insurance, isn’t it?”

Salesperson: “Well, yes, but this is not just any insurance. As soon as you are hospitalized for any reason, we will pay you a daily allowance to cover your hospital costs.”

Me: [In a friendly and smiley tone] “I see. I already have insurance.”

Salesperson: “This policy is especially created as addition to your existing policy, so you can have better coverage.”

Me: [Still in a friendly and smiley tone] “I know. But I don’t think I’m interested right now.”

Salesperson: “Are you sure? If you have objections on the premium, we have other policies at lower price [and begins to name other products and their lower prices.]”

Me: “Well, that is nice. But no, thank you. Maybe another time.”

At this point, if the salesperson happens to be the stubborn one, and keeps pushing for a close that is never there, I would end the conversation like this:

Me: [Still in a nice voice] “No, thank you for the offer. Good day.” [hangs up]

That may sounds rough, but if I let it to go further than that, there is a good chance that I will lose my patience and I would ruin my and the salesperson’s day. Besides, I have made it clear that I am not interested. So it is out of sheer kindness that I cut the call short.

On the other hand, if the salesperson happens to be well trained to handle rejections and knows that there is no good coming from pushing for a close, he/she usually says:

Salesperson: “I understand. May I call you at a more convenient time?”

Me: “Sure, no problem.”

Salesperson: “Thank you Mr. Siregar. Have a pleasant day.”

Me: “You’re welcome.” [hangs up]

Lately I discovered that cold calls become less and less a nuisance for me. It is very rare that I have to cut a cold call short. Maybe only one in every fifty calls.  I don’t know whether it’s because they get better training, or it’s really because I take the calls in a nice way. The good news is I don’t dread taking cold calls anymore. On the plus side, my staff are also happier that they don’t have to screen calls for me.

So being nice AND assertive can be beneficial both for other people, and for yourself. Almost like shopping when there is a buy-one-get-one-free offer.