The Winning Nat Geo Picture: Hard Work and Fun

Yesterday, I spent a few hours checking out the National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest, something that takes place every year. This photo by Ben Canales which was the 2011 winner caught my attention and I spent several hours staring at it. Later I came across the story behind it. And that made me even happier. What an experience it must’ve been…

credit: nationalgeographic.com, Ben Canales 2011 Photo Contest Winner

Apparently, the picture itself happened at a relaxed moment when Ben was just taking in the scenery and having fun…following up on my last post, and the advice of many “winners” I’ve come across in my life, genius usually happens after you’ve dreamt something up, worked really hard to make it happen, and finally let it all go to have a moment of fun…

My Personal Challenges Working in Singapore

photo credit: http://80000hours.org/

I’ve been living and working in Singapore for well over four years now. Its the longest period of time I’ve stayed in a single place/region/area since I graduated from high school. Naturally, people assume (rightfully) that I absolutely love it here, when actually, they couldn’t be further from the truth. Like the yellow chick trying desperately to fit in above, I have never fit in here, and probably never will. At the office I’m fine…but I’m talking bigger picture here, and I stick out like a yellow chick. What makes it more difficult is the fact that I tried (and still try) really hard…and the sting of rejection at times is felt more acutely as you age. On one hand, I’m more resilient as a result, but I’m also battered up.

What keeps me here is a strange combination of fate and free will. Fate brought me here, and kept bringing me back everytime I nearly left (and did leave at one point for good); but I’m also here because of “free will.” I have loved the work and types of opportunities I’ve been given, however hard they have been, and the resulting professional and personal growth have been tremendous. But being beaten up regularly and constantly has its effects, and at some point your elastic limit is reached; your rate of fatigue outweighs rate of recuperation, and you start to feel permanently changed, even deformed.

For years, I struggled to succinctly describe WHY I was struggling to fit in or even enjoy the place…after all, Singapore is a really cool, hip and happening city. Most people who come here absolutely love it. It lies at the crossroads of interdisciplinary cultures; is vibrantly growing and brilliantly surfing the wave of Asia’s incredible economic boom; people speak English; and it has superb infrastructure and all the facilities to rival any other modern city in the world. Yet I, an avid world traveller really struggle.

Then today, I saw a brilliant venn diagram from LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner that summarized my answer. Jeff says that three qualities define the people he most likes to work with…something I would most definitely agree with: people who “Dream Big”, “Get Shit Done,” and “Have fun doing it.” (I would add a fourth one that includes “share my core values.”)

Credit: Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn.com

Credit: Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn.com

What has made it extremely hard for me to live and operate in Singapore is that its been HARD to find people who fit in any of these three circles, leave alone at the intersections. You find lots who talk about it and try to sell you on why they belong in those circles. But few, if any, actually do. In Singapore, Its easiest to find people who “dream big”, and then talk incessantly about their dreams and how cool they are as a result. The innovation usually stops there. Few work to make anything happen, and almost no one I know has fun doing whatever they do. Of course there are people who fit into these circles, but they all leave for the most part. Fleeing to places where they are welcomed and accepted, and the barriers to being innovative are MUCH lower.

So there you have it in a nutshell…the fundamental reason why I struggle in Singapore.

My Reading List: August 2014

credit: slate.com

A week ago, I gave my team a talk about the necessity of developing and maintaining a reading habit for a number of reasons, including its ability to keep you up with the latest trends in your line of work or interests in the world, infusing you with ideas, and generally keeping you fresh and thinking. Naturally a few of them asked me about what my reading list was.

A couple of caveats, before I reveal this…this is *my* list and reflects *my* interests; I don’t believe AT ALL that this is the perfect list for anyone including myself. My interests change regularly, and my reading list changes with it. I generally encourage people to come up with their own, as each of us is different. Finally, my focus in that talk was the emphasis of developing the habit of reading. In the beginning, content is moot…the point is to just make the habit of reading; but hopefully over time, it will evolve into something more significant and educational.

I’d also like to make it clear that I am practising what I preach in terms of developing the habit. As a child, I lacked the attention span to read…the only books I read were mandatory for school and the ones I read by choice had lots of  pictures in them. That said, ALL my closest friends and the people I admired most were bookworms…so I got knowledge by proxy. Over time, as I got separated from my friends and the internet, particularly during long waits “in the field” on remote assignments away from my regular life, often in places where I didn’t speak the language, books became my solace, my escape, and my “happy place.” I clung to them and they to me. And so began a new habit…to a point where a book is usually my constant companion. I have an old iPad and an iPhone, but given a choice, I would prefer a good handheld paper book, than the e-reader any day…

What I’m reading now: I primarily read non-fiction, with a focus on travel, history of science/technology, entrepreneurship, business, international development, and auto/biographies. I LOVE memoirs. Of course its constantly evolving and here’s what’s on my current list:

  • A Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson: Narrated like a detective story, this tells the tale of John Snow, a young, driven surgeon in 19th century England who was trying desperately to find the cause of Cholera. His discovery eventually changed the face of modern medicine, led to the establishment of the modern public health sector, and changed the way cities were designed and maintained. This was the birth of the modern water-sanitation-trash collection sectors. I’m at the tail end of this book. Its been marvelous so far!
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: I’m reading this because I’ve come to love and greatly appreciate what Steve accomplished through Apple, something that has blossomed into deep admiration. Its thick and daunting, so its taking me a LONG time to get through it…
  • Walking Home From Mongolia by Rob Lillwall: I love slow travel through foreign countries, and I love long walks. On my bucket list is to do a very long walk somewhere…but until then I will live vicariously through others. Rob and his buddy’s crazy 3000 mile walk from the Gobi Desert to Hong Kong was absolutely riveting. At the tail end of this book too.
  • Daring Greatly by Brene Brown: Like many other people, I was introduced to Brene through her superb TED Talk (which projected her into an insane fame spotlight) and was drawn to read more about her findings.
  • The Hindus by Wendy Doninger: A practicing Hindu myself, this book piqued my interest because of its highly controversial reputation in India where it was ultimately banned. Now that I’ve skimmed through it, I fail to understand the big deal. And I would encourage you to ignore most of the reviews (placed there to “kill” the book), as any non-biased person who has read it will tell you that its a great overview of the religion from an outsider’s perspective.
  • Jewels in the Crown by Ray Hutton: I just started this book, but its the ultimate revenge story in the best possible way. In six short years, Tata Motors of India acquired British automobile icons Jaguar-Land Rover, and turned the company around. This is the ultimate anti-colonial story that would make Gandhi proud.

What I plan to read in the future:

My blogroll/magazines I read regularly (this is NOT comprehensive…I read a lot of blogs…I read in breadth, not so much in depth when it comes to blogs…meaning I browse a LOT and find only a few things that I read thoroughly):

Two of the Most Important and Undervalued Skills for Success in the Workplace

Reading Constantly and Writing Well are by far the most important skills in the workplace for success.

A few days ago, I was giving my team a much-needed lecture on the importance of constantly reading and staying abreast of trends, as well as improving upon their writing skills. In Asia, where a liberal arts education is virtually unknown, few people have proper reading or writing skills. One might easily fault the language issue…and to be honest, I can be very forgiving of people from countries who were never exposed to English. Still, I don’t think that’s an excuse for NOT reading and keeping up with the latest trends, even in your own language, improving your writing and diction in your own language. That said, even of the countries with easily available English educations, and former British (or American) colonies - Malaysia, the Philippines, Burma, and Singapore to name a few, I find the South Asian countries (India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) churn out people FAR better at speaking, reading, and writing in whatever language, including English (of course, English is the only language I can really judge in, but I can extrapolate that to a general interest in writing as well). I also find them to be much more driven. Heck…even the Chinese, who don’t grow up speaking English, are more motivated, driven and speak better English and write much better in English than their South East Asian counterparts. I’m honestly not sure why that is, but its certainly an issue in the workplace!

Why is reading and writing so important?? Well, they are the basis for communication, and communication is the basis for ALL business and work, generally. If you aren’t keeping up with the latest trends and reading constantly, you will soon become irrelevant; and, if you can’t write, you can forget getting very far in any aspect of your professional development.

Read constantly. Keep up with the trends in your industry. It is the only thing that will keep you sharp and growing at a rapid rate. This is a necessary key to success in the workplace, because to mentor and grow, you need to stay ahead of the people who surround you. Don’t believe me? Read this article about Warren Buffett’s success formula, and this one from HBR.

Write well – clearly and concisely. Today I was reading this post about Jeff Bezos’ leadership style. A trained engineer (like me), I was impressed by his emphasis on writing. To be honest, I find writing to be an extraordinarily important skill. It is the fundamental for all success in the workplace…documentation, letters, communication all involve writing, and without it, you can forget getting very far. How you write is how people will connect with you; how they will perceive you; its where all your speech starts, and your thought ends. And I find that clarity of writing correlates heavily with clarity of thought. If you write clearly, it means you are thinking clearly. And how do you write well? Start with reading…the more you read, the better you will write…

Lessons from Costco and Founder, Jim Sinegal

On someone’s excellent recommendation, I watched this MSNBC piece on Costco, which was absolutely brilliant. Despite being a seemingly no-frills operation, the documentary showcased the immense amount of work going on behind the scenes, that keeps Costco being as successful as it is.

Amongst other things, these were the key take-aways:

1. Level 5 Leadership is key:  Jim Sinegal is (and his successor are) another example of successful Level 5 leadership. To date, I had NO idea who founded or ran Costco. But my family and I love going there every chance we get.

2. Work hard to make it look effortless: What looks easy and effortless, really isn’t. An immense amount of research, and work goes on behind the scenes of this seemingly “no frills” business.

3. Word-of-Mouth is cheaper and more powerful, but it also means harder work. Costco relies on word-of-mouth. There is no advertising revenue. But that means more research, more dedication to making smarter choices. Toilet paper

4. Everything is about the Culture. Maintaining the Culture and Core Values of a company is key to any company’s success. It takes continuous work and commitment, but it has HUGE payoffs. Jim says that at around 20:00, and he even highlights why. Watch more to find out.

5. Know your Customer. Costco’s key customer is the middle-class and upper middle class. They know that their customers usually come shopping after a long day at work and don’t really want to spend a lot of effort making choices. Instead, Costco makes it easy to make decisions, and they stock everything within their customer’s price point, and to their taste.

6. Treat your Employees Well: This isn’t rocket science and yet I’m constantly surprised by how many people just DON”T get this. Find good employees and treat them well. They will stay. There is a reason why Costco boasts one of the lowest employee turnovers in the United States. They pay their employees well, provide good benefits, and keep them happy.

7. Stock a few items, but stock well: This is possible only if you know your customer well, which goes back to the need to research well. Costco usually stocks very few products in any category, but these are usually well thought out and win big…toilet paper and wine, to name a few, are BIG sellers. So they get the best in those categories and never let their customers down.

8. Even a small unknown company can be a BIG player: Who knew that Costco is the world’s largest buyer of fine wine? Well it is, and because it is such a huge player, they can even make powerhouse (sometimes egotistical) wine countries like France and Italy cater to their needs. Its similar to how California’s emission policy dictates world emission standards (because California is the world’s single largest car market), or for that matter how Gandhi brought down the British empire. Its not how small or unknown you are…its the power you can wield.

Where the heck have I been?

I know I’ve been very quiet on the blogging front, and I take full responsibility for this.

Not to make excuses, but I’ve just been insanely busy. Since January 2013, I’ve taken over the helm of a 20-year old boutique architecture firm in Singapore. This was done as a result of my passion for learning about design, really testing my theories of entrepreneurship, and having an impact on the language of sustainability and infrastructure development in Asia. Even though the firm has done extraordinary work over the years and has been a pioneer in design, architecture and landscape architecture, it seemed like it had lost its way, and like SO many architecture firms, had been badly managed for several years. Turning around an established company in an economy that is changing as fast as Singapore’s and Asia’s (where most of our clients are based), is NOT easy, and has taken an obscene number of hours of effort, energy and time.

Credit: http://www.smh.com.au/small-business/growing/stop-bringing-the-laptop-to-bed-20131109-2x849.html

I spend so much time talking to people and on the computer, on email, writing reports and memos and doing powerpoints all day long, that the last thing I want to do is sit on a computer for longer after a LONG day and type some more. I’ve started to compose so many different posts only to wake up two hours later, with a sore neck, a sleeping computer on my lap and three words on my post. Not surprisingly, two minutes later, I’m completely supine as is the computer, with three words still on the post. The next day, new thoughts come in and I do the same ritual everyday. Then I just gave up.

But in late July 2014, I realized that I HAD to make more of an effort. Too many lessons were being forgotten. I had stopped journaling and blogging, and it was affecting the clarity of my own thinking. So here I am, making another feeble attempt. I hope I do better this time!

Innovative Accelerator: Startup Bus

Startup Bus

Startup Bus is an innovative accelerator aiming to build a community of young entrepreneurs around the world, and succeeding in doing so. It started as a joke that became serious very quickly.

The concept is simple. You apply to be a part of one of the various organized bus trips (there are six that traversed Europe in Dec 2012; no plans announced yet for 2013). If you meet whatever they are looking for, you are accepted and assigned to a specific bus. Expect your peers to be from a variety of backgrounds, and hungry to dive into the startup culture.

The bus trip costs ~USD200, and lasts 72 hours. During this time you are encouraged to network and brainstorm and a number of tools are given to you; including talks and workshops. You stop enroute on a “startup tour” of sorts, meeting venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and incubators. By the time you get off, the hope is that you would have the beginnings of a company, with hopefully a couple of cofounders.

In the worst case scenario, you’ve seen Europe (or some other part of the world where the bus is). Not bad, eh??

Interested?? Apply here.

Here’s a peek into what its like:

And for a parody, check this out:

Innovation in Sanitation: Winner of the Gates Toilet Challenge…NOT SO CLEAR

The winner of the Gates Reinvent the Toilet Challenge is…drum roll please…

WELL, not so clear.

(I have a lot of problems with the Gates Foundation including their inability to communicate clearly what’s going on…)

Gates has decided to give money out in the form of grants; and its not clear what happened with any of those grantees. They got the money, yes…but then what?? Have the toilets been developed? Are they being tested? Are they being deployed?? Does the Foundation really care?? Well who really knows…

One of the grantees was the National University of Singapore, a place I was stationed at from 2010-12 and working in the field of water policy (including sanitation) at the time. Even with all my networking, I never heard about the grantees, or the development of the project. So I was never able to follow or support the project as it developed; nor was there any chance of collaboration.

From this article, it seems like CalTech was the winner of the challenge. Their model and development is innovative, effective and deserving, but a little technologically complex. I could instantly see problems with operation and maintenance in the developing world. But I’m not sure again what happened with it.

More results of the challenge are available here.