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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Does success teach us anything? What can we learn from success if we try to examine the elements of luck that is incorporated? A whole load; it is important for us to recognise whether we are studying success to retrospectively tease out our brilliance or to really examine which part of our efforts actually contribute our success.
One of the problems I notice about people used to achieving success and smart about hacking ‘wins’ is that they want to optimise effort and they hate it when effort is squandered along the way not towards the success they wanted. Yet learning doesn’t work this way. Learning, being creative, solving problems, trying things out is always about applying effort in vain towards the ‘goal’.
But if you notice that your goal is instead is to be a better person, to grow your skills, to deepen your experience, to serve others. Then, detours are just opportunities. And ‘failures’, won’t be in vain. Your efforts are gifts to the world and they are never in vain.
When is self-sufficiency attractive? Or rather, why is it attractive? Does it have to do with trust, or lack thereof? Or does it have to do with pride? Or maybe these concepts generally go hand-in-hand. In Singapore, where our resources are scarce, it is difficult to be self-sufficient in things. We import almost all of our energy and food. And we learnt a long time ago that security can be achieved from diversification.
Same principle when it comes to an individual and recognising no man is an island. We have to work together and that’s why we form societies. The greatest beauty of the market economy is in allowing the greater society to be able to work together and co-create products, services in service of individuals that make up the society. At a global level, that idea has helped to enhance global collaboration to a large extent.
Trading relationships helps to stabilise politics as well; though of course, that is a big source of soft influence, and the challenge of forming connections and relying on others is that we lose some degree of our independence. Straddling that is important, and demystifying that allows us to be better leaders, not just as individuals but as a society, as a nation as well.
More of us are burning out; and we’ve been burning at both ends. There’s work and the strain of being at home. We can’t find breathing space. Meanwhile we are running out of fuel and the fire is still burning.
Stop. We have to stop. And we need to accept we don’t need to keep working and there is no shame or guilt about it. There is no shame that we need to take a break. So please ask for one. Please ask for less work; make it known to the higher ups that their working style is not promoting a healthy environment and culture; at least not during this season of pandemic.
There should be no fear of appearing like a lousy worker. This is not the time to be concerned about competition and work ourselves to death. Our mental health matters; and as the Chinese saying goes: “if we preserve the highlands and forests, we’d never run out of timber for fire”. Preserve our minds and bodies, the ultimate sources of our motivation.
In school, there seems like there’s only one basis of competition: grades. But there are other elements surrounding that in the school environment: friendships, relationships with teachers, appreciation of music and arts, sporting capabilities, popularity, leadership ability, strategic thinking, time management, charisma, etc.
Schools are supposedly little societies and a microcosm of the world that they eventually live in. But of course, being part of a bureacracy, a system, even an instrument of the state, there is top-down direction to skew the basis of competition towards one thing rather than another. It has to do with merit as defined by the prevailing “ruling class”. And since the ruling class is typically made of those who had good grades, that factor gradually gets amplified in importance.
But in overall society, those other basis of competition are still relevant. While the impact of grades might be persistent and have cascading impact in education, they can be compensated by confidence developed in the children from doing well in the other parameters in the “competition”.
Is every field a good field? Is every job a good job? I think we have to admit that the notion of goodness in schools has to do a lot with this society’s worship of grades by parents and this naturally transmit to the younger ones.
Giving up on suggesting every school is good might be a step in the right direction to acknowledge that the problem lies with a society whose values need some updating. Yes the “elite” schools have Oxbridge interview guidance but is that what every student needs?
What we need is to tear down the hierarchy where academics represents a hygiene factor on which other attributes such as sporting or music excellence can only serve as bonuses. And it is not just an issue of the system. The system changes the government implemented shows a good commitment to the desire to change our culture.
So maybe the next step is to clamp down on the private education sector like the way China did?