Losing options

Fresh graduates from JCs or Polytechnics are thinking about degree programmes and university choices. They are thinking about their career options that comes after. There is a thousand voices and considerations blaring at them to go one direction or another.

Having a choice is such a powerful thing we may refuse to give it up. And often that can mean not making the choice. Because retaining the power is more attractive. Making a choice involves actually discarding the options which were once present. Going to law school means not being able to study medicine, and choosing to study locally means you may not get to build an overseas network during your college days.

When making a choice, are you focused on what you’d gain or what you’d lose? Because if you care about loss like the way you’ve been taught by the education system to, then you’ll never make the choice. And it is a shame. Keeping your options open does not necessarily make you better off.

On the ground

I grew up with a diet of Chinese dramas about emperors and nobility or the martial arts world. Often, an emperor or noblemen travels incognito in their own territories. Or a martial arts expert who blends into the cityscape as just a beggar. Great and amazing people who turns up as ordinary. And that kind of being on the ground was actually celebrated, and seen as a positive form of leadership. It was something admirable.

Yet when I’m grown up we don’t seem to be taught to feel this way about being on the ground. Or about being management; there’s always images of cushy offices, well-stocked pantries, brainstorming rooms, being in meetings. Do MBA programmes teach their students how to be on the ground? Or even the benefits of all that?

We don’t hear such stories of management being on the ground in our modern day life often. The latest story I heard that is remotely similar is the CEO of Sheng Siong supermarkets going down to their Tanglin Halt branch to shelf food items when they were shorthanded. And he apparently does the ground work very often. There had been incredible stories about how Sheng Siong staff are cared for, and also care for one another. But if this was never a metric, why would the management bother? Shouldn’t we be challenged to consider being ‘on the ground’ as a metric or attribute leaders need to meet? As a culture, shouldn’t we redefine what good management should look like?

Learning journey

What if learning was a journey and not a place to get to? What if there’s no target benchmarks of grades, no exams to sit for, and just a practice to get better? The beauty of the modern society and system is that we’ve created so many different scaffolding structures to help us learn and be better that we forgot what we were doing them for. We had created so many milestones along a journey so that we can walk it, so much so that we now care only for the milestones but not the journey itself.

So when we join a class to learn something, we want a certificate; we think we don’t need the peer support, the social pressure, the breaks and banter. We think it’s about the training, the content and the knowledge. We forget the interactions, the joy of learning and being uncomfortable.

What can we do to keep reminding ourselves it is a journey and we want to be in the place of tension, to be emotionally committed to the work of learning? How can we see the discomfort as a journey we embark on to be better and get better than one we want to get done and over with?

Practice versus testing

Should practice be harder than the real test so that we are less challenged by the actual testing? And that we’ll be able to respond well?

How much tension and discomfort should we be subjected to in the course of our education? Should we expect our kids to have it easy? What are our expectations on the teachers? What is the role of parents and how should they set their expectations?

Shouldn’t parents be trained in parenting before they are allowed to be parents? Drivers need licenses, accountants have to be certified and so why do we assume humans can grow into good parents? Do we not want some minimal hygiene level of ability in parenting?

Recruitment & HR

There are plenty of job scams around; and then there are lots of recruitment agencies running around trying to gather a huge database of profiles and just tossing them around to various parties who needs people. I get people contacting me about job opportunities every other week.

But incentives are pretty misaligned. The question is who does the recruitment and HR industry serve? Does it serve the employer, or the employee? Or is it just serving itself? Because “helping you find your dream job” or “finding your dream candidate” sounds compelling and yet from the revenue generation perspective, if people stay at the same jobs and employers hold on to the same people, they do not gain.

The presence of recruitment agency makes the whole process of hiring, handling resignations, searching for another candidate a very negative sum game. Is recruitment really so value-adding to the system? Or is it just really about value diversion.

Thinking strategically III

So when it comes to thinking strategically about jobs, and filling of roles, I’d like to give a brilliant example from Seth Godin’s blog post last month. Look at how it builds up this reasoning and strategic thinking step by step:

The typical online job site lists millions of jobs. And just about every one of them is a cry for expertise.

From the title to the requirements, companies hire for expertise.

Logic helps us understand that only one out of ten people are in the top 10% when it comes to expertise. And that means that most companies are settling for good enough. If the organization needs people with expertise in the top decile, they’re going to have to pay far more and work far harder to find and retain that sort of skill.

So most companies don’t try. They create jobs that can be done pretty well by people with a typical amount of expertise.

That means that the actual differentiator in just about every job is attitude.

This is a demonstration of how you can develop insights about the market, the jobs and work that you’re seeking to do. If there’s a certification, a clear degree-specific requirement on a job role in order to satisfy regulatory needs, then there’s no point fighting over it. Otherwise, things should be negotiable and how you get yourself through the hop would depend on what you identify to the more important attributes the company is actually hiring for.

Thinking strategically II

Given the university and scholarship application season, I thought we could discuss applying strategic thinking towards the application process. This could also be useful pointers for job applications. If you need more help, feel free to reach out for career-coaching of course!

Just to distill it down to a quick list of steps to think through:

  1. Consider what is your long-term goal or target and why
  2. Consider how you connect the programme you are applying, to that long-term target, explain how
  3. Ask yourself who are the other people vying for the university places or scholarship slots – what can be a differentiator for you
  4. Put yourself in the shoes of the evaluators of those applications – what are their interests, how do you think they select candidates, what will catch their attention

Long-term Goal

I always explain that this is the logical end of a trajectory you are on. It is not necessary where you will land eventually. And it does not matter whether it can land or not. Being reasonable or outrageous isn’t the point here. It is about extrapolating the path you’re taking to an end point. It needs to be something you convince yourself of.

It can be taking the form of a career, a lifestyle, an activity you get to do regularly and so on. If the logical outcome of what you are about to embark on isn’t to your liking then what is the point of doing it? So you have to consider why you want this as well.

The Programme

Whatever you are applying for must match that long-term goal. If you are applying to a music school you can’t be telling them you want to be a professional wakeboarder. It is just part of telling a story that is compelling, that draws people to desire to help you achieve your goal. When you clearly articulate how the programme serves you; then you’re activating the staff of the programme to see the impact they can potentially make by having you on board.


As much as I don’t want to think about this, there are others applying for places and ‘competing’ with you. At some point, there isn’t really an objective sense of who is perfect for the programme. Because the rubric is subjective to begin with. So we need to consider how they contribute to the pool of accepted candidates if they do get in; and how can you be differentiated from that competition, so that you’re not just pitted against them on simple, obvious attributes.

Evaluators’ interest

We can go back to thinking about what are really the interests of the evaluators in a practical sense. They might want to be entertained by your application; they might want to be surprised. They are interested in reading a good story and be invited to allow their decision to supplement that narrative in a beautiful way. So how is your application going to do that for them?

Buy and sell

I’ve been thinking about how trading – the practice of buying low and selling high – contributes to the energy transition and sustainability. I think about it across various components, commodities, products and services exchanged to help with the energy transition. For example, power is bought and sold, and so are solar panels, rare earth metals used for batteries, wind turbines, software systems, etc.

In general, trading creates liquidity in the market and in long run allows prices to converge towards the actual cost of production plus a competitive margin depending on how easy or difficult it is to source on both the supply and demand sides of the market. Concentration on either side would also influence the margins. I tend to think another impact of traders is just creating that sense of product/commodity availability. This is powerful as it plays an important role of enhancing adoption.

Trading can be a sustainable business if you know how to stay ahead on trends, keep close to the buyers and sellers. In the market for all of those components and works, there’s a mix of repeat and non-repeat buyers so you have the opportunity to hold on to a mix of long and short term supply contracts. Solving supply and trading operations issue are going to help you grow and is an excellent way of providing value. So don’t think buy-and-selling is a problem that has been solved nor take it for granted. We will always need traders, especially so for the good of the earth

Growing expectations

Like I mentioned, I’ve been watching The Dropout; and I think one of the recurring theme is around what it takes for a CEO to raise capital, and also to what extent should the entire company operations be subjugated to the whole fund-raising process that it is just about window-dressing what investors want and have come to believe.

On one hand, there are dangerous stories in the mind of a founder-CEO which needs to be addressed. But on the other hand, what is the extent the overall operations of a company should just follow the story? How can reality catch-up and what are the mechanisms in Wall Street, or Silicon Valley to create that cut-loss mechanism.

In some sense, Theranos mocks Tesla and Elon’s other ventures. It is a more extreme version where some of the scientific fundamentals were still on shaky grounds. Elon Musk worked hard to rebuild supply chains from scratch in order to get components and materials the way he wanted. He could very well have failed and he did break promises on production or delivery dates often. How do we know when that is a red flag for a startup or not?

Sometimes it is more about the escalation of expectations. The way it escalates can give us a good sense of how likely it is going to fail just as the way a market bubble pops. Looking at a startup, it is important to observe the size of the ambitions, properly size up the problem it is trying to solve. Ambitions need to be match by resources and time.

What is experience?

‘Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.’

Aldous Huxley

And this is an important fact we must recognise as we look at changing the entire HR industry, the way we define job requirements and perform searches or tests for our ideal candidates. I strongly believe that recruitment agencies and the next generation of HR consultancies will need to start looking into this.

For the longest time, the world have remained stable enough for strategies to stay roughly the same and then it is just about being able to execute well, exploit the same strategies again and again. Most of them focused on the demand markets, with the labour and supply-side more a matter of long-term fundamentals. The competitive context shifted and as labour markets got disrupted; firms are now competing both in labour and demand markets in the short term, forcing them to have to develop models and strategies that aligns both.

What this means is that we probably won’t be able to find the same kinds of profile of people who have had 10-20 years experience in 1 or at the most 2 things. We would have people who had experience in a dozen things. We need to start embracing what is good about people like that: they learn fast, they desire to perform, they might be less silo-minded and perhaps less entrenched in a fixed way of doing things.

Companies that change their paradigm would continue to deliver goods and services well into the next decade and become new champions. Those that continue thinking labour is for them to mould into their own cultures to deliver the goods and services they always did; they might eventually wind down for lack of suitable manpower or management talents.