Cognitive forecast

We are terrible at forecasting how we would think when we get into some kind of situation hypothetically. It is why we can be happier in situations that we think we’d be miserable. Dan Gilbert spoke about this more than 16 years ago.

And part of the reason I think, is that we often associate our identity with just a narrow subset of ourselves such that when things change, we imagine that there’s not much more within our identity to accommodate those events, situations or trauma. Yet our real identity is so much bigger, and so much more. Maya Shankar shares about this a bit more on Brene Brown’s Dare to lead podcast episode.


I found it fascinating that corporatism was an original political ideology that has to do with common interest forming groupings that will help to organise the society. It seem to have nothing or little to do with the ‘corporate’ that we know of today. So this piece has nothing to do with that original term and more to do with what we understand about corporate interests, depersonalisation and the need to be human.

Corporates are typically legal persons, they are responsible legally for a lot of things that the law subjects them to. But they can only be as human as the people who makes them up. Yet like a biological organism, they try to sustain itself, and that brings about certain behaviours that can be detrimental to parts of it.

After all, if your hand is stuck in something and there’s a truck which is about to run over you, you’re going to try rip your own hand away to save your life. When you’re in a corporation, and making decisions for the organisation, do you think as a human? Or have you accepted the only thing you care to keep alive, is the corporation?

They’re going to think I’m stupid

“Don’t give them reason to think you’re stupid”, the colleague tells you about your bosses; or your boss tells you about your clients, or your parents tells you about your teachers, or your teacher tells you about the Olympiad judges. The list goes on.

What about finding something that helps them think you are you? The negatives turn us up more than the positives do and so “Don’ts” feature more prominently in our brains than “Dos”. That is largely because fear is a powerful motivator.

But it is also a short term motivator. It is the NOx in your racing engine. It can have damaging effects on your body if you run on fear too much, for too long. Better to draw on purpose, on inspiration as motivators. And so start asking “why” on the “Dos”.

Don’t bother with avoiding things that will make you look stupid. Because if someone wants to think you are stupid, they will eventually find the reason to. Better to consider who you are and what can inform others of that identity of yours. Too much of our work life is about avoiding being stupid, optimising the frills, making ourselves presentable but forgetting what exactly are we trying to present.

Lose the “don’ts”, focus on the “dos”.

Getting better or feeling better

I was listening to No Stupid Questions and for some reason I just couldn’t recall and capture the specific episode and reference where I got this from but Angela was mentioning that she is working on a paper that looks at some of the kids in school doing some kind of activity. And the conclusion was somewhat related to how they deal with the particular experience, whether they approach it with the desire to feel better about themselves or to improve themselves through the experience.

I thought that was a very interesting dichotomy; and I’ve never really thought of experiences being set up this way. But indeed, as we go into various experiences, that intention lurking in the background is important. There can be mixed intentions but there will likely be a dominant one; and that can affect our functioning.

If we go into an examination thinking of it as a means for us to be sorted into different boxes, to be defined and ‘caught out’ for the level of proficiency we are at, we are going to enter it with a negative fear. That’s when we think the exam is there to make us feel good or bad about ourselves rather than help us get better thanConsider an alternative where we see the exams as a means to look at how far we have progressed and to uncover our weaknesses so we can work on them. There will be nervousness from anticipation but not that overwhelming kind of negative fear. It will also define how we approach the exam papers when we get them back – whether we just check the grade and toss it aside or mine it for the gold of identifying how we can improve.

Is our education system set up to bother about this? To inculcate the right attitudes? How about the parents? Are parents imparting the right attitude towards test-taking?

Problem Solving Apps

I was amongst the audience to a couple of pitches by youth entrepreneurs and this archetype of “we found this problem, and we created an app / website to solve it, we need money to scale this solution now” kept recurring. Defining and highlighting the problem is a significant step to identifying the solution – but the inherent elements of the problems that allows it to be solved using information technology has to be related to information.

The nature of problem solving is such that it should be mostly about the problem and less about the solution. I find it useful when people are able to characterise problems so clearly and well that the solution becomes almost a no-brainer. That’s really the value of most consultants because when we have problems, we tend to ask ‘What’s wrong’ but we don’t really observe the situation well. We are not going down enough into the way the problem distracts us from our end goal – rather, we focus on the phenomena we want to address rather than the mission we hope to accomplish.

I think before we articulate problems, we should first consider what is the mission in the subtext of the problem statement. Then draw out clear implications and consequences of not addressing the problem before diving into solutioning. And each part of the solution should speak to that subtext, and continue helping users get back on their feet to go about what they had wanted to do.

Too many solutions in the world are actually not about solving problems but about giving users new missions instead of old ones. They are more about distracting them from the root of their challenges. Take cosmetics for example; they pretend to deal with image when self-image is the underlying issue to be address. Imagine a beauty company that focuses on psychology as a solution. Won’t that be truly innovative?

Create a Project

I had a couple of people asking me about careers in sustainability. This is not a real sector or industry. It is an amalgamation of ideas and topics that have taken hold of the attention of businesses, government and the world economy. It is probably still largely western capitalistic ideal though it has local variants of it, and it co-mingles with other older topics that have been around for a while including environmentalism, public health, and maybe even finance.

So people are asking what skills they need, what qualifications they should get, what they should read in order to get into this sector. Now if you ask me, I’d say, go start a project. You don’t need an internship, you don’t need a temp job – but you need to start a project that shows that you care, shows that there’s work you want to do, and you’re capable of pulling it off. Or at least even if it doesn’t really work out, you are able to draw lessons from it.

It is so much more powerful to be able to tell prospective interviewers about the kind of project and work you have done. Sure, you can have had an internship with one of the Big 4 professional firms or the Big 3 consultancies. But being able to coordinate others, being able to practice your resourcefulness in making something, and putting it out there, is so much more valuable.

So go start a website, post your research, write an app, take photographs and post pictures, organise a community and make a difference.

Coaching Hub

Most of my writings on my blog are entries sorted only by chronological order and if I’ve written something you’re interested in but you don’t know it exists, you’d probably be able to find it only via google. For those who wants to have a more focused view of all my career coaching materials and resources, I’ve set up a hub for all my works related to career coaching.

Going forward, there might be a separate hub for my teaching and academic resources as they clearly deal with different sets of audiences while my main website will continue to function as my blog addressing various different topics I’ve great passion in.

Managing multiple platforms and sites would be a bit of a challenge but I hope I’d get the hang of it soon. There’s probably going to be another hub or platform where I gather material on economic history research that I’ve worked on. And, maybe another hub for knowledge and materials relating to sustainability.

Coordination problem

Most of modernity is built upon solving coordination problems. As we coordinate on more things, we discover yet more things that requires coordination to work and as we work on them, we progress. This is a story of Singapore, its progress from Third World to First. It is not about having brilliant engineers or Nobel laureates though they can certainly contribute something to this issue.

In case you haven’t realise, there’s a lot of resources about how Singapore came to be the way it is, at least in terms of physical forms and our urban system. The Centre for Liveable Cities publishes their research, rich with anecdotes and experience from our early nation-builders. In there, you’d realise most of the work in terms of raising living standards, solving issues of water, sanitation, energy, housing, are not rocket science but making bold trade-offs.

Charlie Munger had gone to the extent of saying that China’s transition into the economy today is possible due to its ability to model and take from the learnings of Singapore’s nation-building. Of course he goes on to attribute it to Lee Kuan Yew. The real world is much more nuanced and it’d be important to study the historical context, the team surrounding our nation’s first Prime Minister and so on.

But suffice to say, coordination problems are intractable; and in our society today, we continue to struggle with them even as we already had great success dealing with much of them. As we progress, these coordination problems naturally becomes more tricky and the roadmap we used to have disappears because we’re now at the frontier of development with no one else’s experience to learn from.

The climate challenge of today is exactly a coordination challenge that the world face today. And unfortunately, the experiences we had as a small island nation offers very little ideas to the world about how to navigate the climate change issues. Not to mention the fact that Singapore itself is often under flak for having high per-capita carbon emissions – which is nothing but a feature of a statistical quirk of being a highly industrialised, small island economy.

Staying Small

When I was in secondary school, I was part of a debate team that had to argue against the house during a round of debate where the motion was ‘This house believes that size matters’. It was a truistic motion; there was no way we could argue against it. The proposition simply has to define size in a way that is broad and all-encompassing including physical, or any other measurable metric, and size matters – not just when it is big but also when it’s small.

Size matters, and sometimes there’s nothing wrong with being small and refusing to scale. Not scaling is different from not growing. A. business can grow in different ways and it’s not just about size. Revenues can grow through pricing up and providing more value for the services rendered to the same client base. Profits can also grow if the products and services can be delivered at ever-increasing efficiency.

Sometimes businesses stays small because the potential client base they are good at servicing is just that group and the business sustains well with healthy margin without forcefully growing. I think we have to understand and appreciate that even from an economic development point of view. This is contributing to diversity and richness in an economy. There’s no need for every business to be like a Starbucks, MacDonalds, or IKEA.

Problem of nice culture

When I first heard Brene Brown spoke about the problem of a “nice culture” referring to workplaces and corporate environments, it blew my mind. She was talking about the need for brave leadership and from her deep and rich research with real world leaders, she uncovered facets what courageous leadership meant and what it did not.

So the difficulty with that research is that she had to look first at what it isn’t because most of language and expressions are more well developed on the negative side of things. As it turns out, we seem neurologically wired to dwell more on lack than what we have. Which probably is a post for another day.

One of the things in the workplace culture that lacks courageous leadership is the avoidance of difficult conversation. This gets masked in a culture where everyone is so nice and simply refuse to give negative feedback or be honest about failures. While it is probably plain that such a culture hurts innovation and prevents people from moving forward, the “niceness” bit of things seemed worth protecting.

That is until you realise the niceness isn’t genuine niceness; it is driven by fear. And when I mentioned this to a close circle of friends, they said it was the fear of conflict. Which on the surface may seem to have little to do with leadership but it does. It is because the leadership is not trusted to be bold to do what is right that the fear of conflict arises. There’s the sense an individual must fend for himself/herself even when trying to discover the truth and making things right.

Niceness is the fear of offending that results from having witnessed abuse of power from leaders who are insecure about themselves. It can be as subtle as just raising their voice over others to insist on a point, use of his/her veto regularly to ensure decisions made reflects well on himself/herself rather than for the organisation.

I’ve been in these cultures and I guess I’ve often also failed to look past the niceness into the fear. Rather than to say nice-ness is bad, it’s more important to ask whether there’s such fear beneath the niceness and how do we address that. How do leaders lead and inspire a courage culture where people can have tough conversations and be willing to tell their leaders “I don’t think I can take this…” rather than just silently resign and leave for “personal reasons”.