Positive cycles in systems

There are certainly some positive self-fulfilling prophecies in life, and they represent positive cycles in life that we can do more to encourage and harness. Students who have teachers believing in them tend to end up doing better than if they were left on their own; encouragement matters, and more importantly, the social dimension of love and nurturing has an impact on the learning outcomes of students. That is an input for teachers beyond pedagogy, but are we training teachers to believe in their students?

The industrial system works best when we can identify success factors and then invest in them to keep those positive feedback loops in the system. The tricky part is how the industrial system seeks to interact with that ‘scientific management’ koolaid about measurability and creating metrics and indicators. As a result, some of those success factors that are strictly unmeasurable get left out. After all, how do you make sure that a teacher can ‘believe’ in the students evenly in the class? But that question, which is precisely what standardisation and industrialism are based upon, misses the point.

Some of these unmeasurable success factors can generate power feedback loops. Consider the culture of graciousness in a workplace, gentleness, kindness, patience. Just because we cannot correlate the attributes with outcomes doesn’t mean they do not exist. And we all are worse off because we have allowed measurability and ‘big data’ to take such a dominant position in our systems.

Our memory is more like a web and less like a shelf

I had a bad memory and in school I was never quite able to cram for examinations. I found memorisation a complete chore and my mind really strained trying to remember things. Most of the time, the harder I try, the more difficult I find it. Subsequently, whenever I had to remember something, it was important that I found something already in my memory to associate it with so as to bond the materials better to my mind.

It turned out that this exercise from young did two things for me.

One is that it caused me to develop an interest for learning and genuine understanding when confronted with something new. Since I wasn’t able to retain much in my mind, what I did, I kept them for much longer than everyone else. And I had to develop my own reasons and purpose for wanting to put something into my memory since they were usually stored longer term.

Second, it gave me a method that increased my memory capacity as I learnt more. This requires a bit more explanation. When I recall things by associating the new information with something already in my mind, I’m actually causing the web of my knowledge to be denser. When a piece of information stands alone, it is easily forgotten. But when you connect it with other information, it suddenly becomes more memorable.

Take for example you meet a guy and he tells you he is 23 years old, then says nothing further. Your memory of him is reinforced by how he sounded, his clothes, hairstyle and perhaps handshake. But if he also tells you that his Mum is a widow, and he had gone to college in Boston, you might actually take all these pieces of information, form even more associations and once you meet him, you’d be able to recall him better than if he had not shared the additional information.

In other words, we actually have a slightly mistaken analogy for our memories. We tend to think there’s some kind of limited shelf space such that trying to remember more things means we need to forget some old things or remove some of the existing memories from the shelf to accommodate the new.

After years of experience trying to deal with that poor memory of mine, I noticed that our memory are more like webs. When we don’t have much in our memories, it is as though there are many gaps within our web and most materials that comes our way just fly through these gaps rather than getting retained. But as you are able to catch hold of more using what you already have, then you naturally hold on to even more memories that allows you to capture more.

Our understanding and what constitutes deep knowledge from repeated practising creates new contexts for us to absorb further new information and knowledge. This is incredible because it means that our memory capacities are not being consumed but rather expanding. Capturing more and richer information enhances our ability to compress new information and knowledge further, drawing upon what is already in the mind.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A version of this article on the same idea was published in here a while back.

What did you expect my motivation to be?

What motivates you at your job? What gets you out of bed every weekday and makes you pounce on the challenges in the workplace, gets you to talk to people who may be unpleasant and gives you strength to overcome late nights? What are you working for?

I’m thinking of asking these questions to my bosses the next time I meet them 1–1; or at least just to pick their brains on this question because it is not so often that as staff, we get to that level of what really makes the boss tick. It is mostly inferred through actions, but getting an explicit answer may help to get them thinking. The reason is that for most of the millennials today, we are sometimes disgruntled by perhaps our bosses’ expectations that we’ll be naturally motivated to do the work that we are supposed to do.

To be fair, I started writing this article a bit longer ago than when Delane Lim put up his Facebook post. Beyond the foreign-local debate, I think there’s something about the narrative for young Singaporeans that have changed quite a bit. And this is important in determining motivation; I’d also criticise how much that expectation of motivation from younger generations of Singaporeans is really self-defeating. I will probably write a little bit more on the narrative that younger generations of Singaporeans live through in the future but this will likely be my seminal piece about it.

Having gone from Third World to First within two generations, we have had for a really long time, this great sense of optimism about the future and being able to obtain the fruits of our labour. Frankly, our forefathers who were in their twenties and thirties during the time when our nation got its independence, life wasn’t expected to transform radically, nor necessarily better. They didn’t live in a wretched existence, and, of course, there was some degree of inequality; but the society was not only much more equal, other kinds of differences (speaking different languages, or dialects, being in different clans, or being of different races) were more stark than differences between classes. Because people tasted some fruits of their labour, even if it was just a bit of it, in the form of more materials, more comfortable living, more convenient lives, there was clear motivation in trying to achieve the lifestyle deltas.

Consumer credit was scarce, which meant that the only way to access the lifestyle deltas was to work hard, and hence there’s that ‘hunger’ to move forward, and to forge ahead. Collectively as a society, the government, our institution had a good sense of the investments needed: in terms of education, in terms of infrastructure. The wage improvements were substantial when you move from A Level to a Diploma, not to mention a Degree — in the days when only less than 5% of the working population actually had degrees. The narrative was that working hard, being hungry pays off for real. The improvements in terms of social systems that provided housing, retirement savings, education for one’s children and so on, provides the predictability that takes off some of the salarymen’s stress and allow them to concentrate on climbing that corporate ladder, bring the dough home and please their families.

That narrative maintained its clout for two generations, and it was natural because the kind of improvements was somewhat similar and consistent. Of course, the second generation inherited some kind of social hierarchy from the first generation but then in an industrialising economy, low-skills are still important and the wage gap wasn’t as significant at a time when the labour force of populous economies of India and China was released to compete in the global economy. Then when the third generation came in, there was increasing pressure from global competition but Singapore occupied a good position in the skills ladder of the world at that time and would also have one of the best-educated workforce, as had been planned by the government right from the start. But optimism may have shrunk as we knew that we inevitably have to move towards a genuine knowledge-based economy. Yet our management philosophy and social structures were still largely industrial; it was critical that this generation started changing their thinking about motivations of workers and the future of work, but they didn’t because they might have felt like they held up their side of the bargain with the preceding generation so things should not be any different with the succeeding ones. In any case, they continue to enjoy rises in living standards, buoyed by wider availability of credit and various schemes to keep pockets of cost of living under control.

Alas, the narrative for millennials took a sharp change as the lifestyle deltas were no longer that apparent through ‘hunger’. One thing for sure is that consumer credit means now you’re not working for something you don’t yet have so that you’ll find yourself with the day when you enjoy the sweet fruits of your labour. You are probably working for something whose sweetness has long worn off while the bitterness of its instalments or interest payments still kept you working. It makes for a completely different dynamic and narrative about life.

Just think about the motivation of a 30-year-old man in the 1970s who just got his first public rental flat with a young family. He knows he has to keep up the rental payments so there’s shelter for his family and he works hard, also trying to set aside funds for the future education of the child, and even maybe eventually to buy over the rental flat from the government one day. The ratio of House prices to the Annual Median Gross Household Income was definitely much lower than as well.

Today, if you turned 30 and just bought a resale flat in a more upscale area to move in with your spouse; chances are that you were able to avoid only on the basis of double income, and you’re paying your mortgage through CPF, which you don’t see much of but you realised you’ll need to hold on to your job to keep the payments going. You might not have kids yet and you could quite easily afford good food and other luxuries through our globalised economy and e-commerce. You are already living the life! What kind of lifestyle delta are you expecting by working hard at your job? In fact, the additional hours you put in is decreasing the quality of your life, you’d reason. And you like job stability, because life is good now — it is acceptable to say the least, with little prospect of improvement. After all, what are you trying to afford with more money?

And so yes, what the boomers expect as motivation from the millennials? It will have to go beyond the material; the sense of purpose cannot be assumed — it can only be imbued.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be.

Projection vectors

I had a very interesting conversation with my colleague about projections of reality. When you take a picture of a scene, what you are doing, is to capture and preserve the light that is reflected off the three-dimensional scene and projected on a flat two-dimensional surface such as a film, or a sensor chip. Using mirrors, lenses, and all the other photonic gizmos, we are able to shrink the pictures, create effects on the projection, or to just make edits after the projection has been made.

What happened however, was that a three-dimensional reality is captured somehow in a two-dimensional world. The picture, is a projection of reality at some point of time. That is what we were referring to as projections.

We were speaking more about how we perceive the world as projections – cast not on a surface but in our minds. Each and everyone of us experiences the world differently but the richness of the world is not fully captured by the experience we have because we are limited in our ability to perceive. It is as though our ability to perceive each represents a dimension. Not just the five senses of sights, sounds, smell, taste and touch but there are psychological lenses, cultural lenses by which we perceive and experience the world, and recognise patterns formed from combinations of those senses, and our logical or irrational interpretation of reality, or even events, how they had been sequenced, how they line up in the dimension of time.

If the richness of reality contains N-dimensions, then our ability to perceive is often limited to (N-x) dimensions, where x is an unknown non-negative number and potentially really large. We don’t get to really experience reality, only what can be captured by that (N-x)-dimensional hyperplane that will never truly encapsulate the contents of the N-dimensional hyperspace that the reality consist of.

I hope to be able to explain this better some day – but for now, this hopefully suffice to help encourage me to develop further my capabilities to grow my hyperplane of perception.

Learning from mistakes

The tricky part about trying to learn from mistakes is to overly focus on the mistakes rather than the lessons that are being taught by the mistakes. The lessons are often things you discover upon making the mistake; they represent new knowledge or information that you previously weren’t aware of. Yet we rarely dwell on those; because we’ve been told that finding those ‘reasons’ are actually just finding ‘excuses’.

A few good questions to tease out the lessons to learn would be:

  • What is something I did not know that I now know, having made the mistake?
  • What new relationship between variables did I discover upon making the mistake?
  • What are some patterns that should raise red flags for me in future?
  • What are false red flags created by this mistake that may cause me to be overly worried or cautions about actions in future? How do I tell?

Moving past blame and finding fault after discovering a mistake is not easy, but it starts with a mindset that is focused on learning, and moving forward. To release oneself from the emotional downward spirals, diving deeper into some of these questions is useful.

Sizing the slices

How much time do we take to bake a pizza compared to working out the even-ness of the distribution of various ingredients on the pizza and then slicing it all up into sufficient slices to be shared around the table. And why does that matter. So it matters when there are different people involved in baking the pizza and thinking about the size of the slice they will be getting later. There may be some putting different topics and determining how evenly distributed they should be and so on. And then there’s the guy determining how the slices are cut. And then maybe some kind of system determining who gets which particular slice. Maybe that is by a ballot or random system.

And yes in case you’re already suspecting, I’m thinking about the economy. An economy where people are obsessed with trying to secure a bigger slice for themselves will not behave very optimally to enlarge the overall pizza. Because their energies are caught up in the distribution process; then resources aren’t quite properly allocated. The best approach is to maximize the size of the pizza before splitting it up. But the challenge is that the way we determine the split can affect how to maximize the size.

And then how do you deal with people in the overall scheme of things, who genuinely has very little to contribute to the size of the pizza but is very much part of the overall process? Do you exclude them from the distribution? How are they going to affect the others who are productive? And if you do include them, will you be disincentivizing those who are contributing a lot more to producing the pizza?

As an economy moves from the early stage developments to more mature stages, and with more specialised industries and niches in the economy, these questions will crop up more often. What we need to do is to take a stance on which direction and how we want our markets to be headed. And what would we sacrifice to make that work.

Sprinting downhill

I was 13 when I met this senior in my Secondary school (it is kind of like a combination of middle school and high school in Singapore) who taught me that I need to open my strides when sprinting downhill. I had to pass my 2.4km run but it was a point in my life when I was a little overweight and not exactly a fast runner.

The distance was not long enough to win out just purely by stamina, and yet not short enough to be completed with just a crazy dash. It was challenging, especially when we have to run a course that included some elevation at different points of time. It was hard to maintain a consistent pace when running up and then downhill but because I was slower uphill, I needed a way to gain more ground downhill when logically, one could be faster.

So I learnt that opening up my strides allows me to cover more distance even as the gravity was pulling me down. Every step forward kept me from falling while taking me closer to the finish line. It was a great feeling, though my lungs were screaming for air, I could keep my leg muscles going.

There are points of life when a lot of work you had done previously have taken you to a point of elevation. You’ve been putting in the hard work, and built up to that point but there hasn’t been any results yet, you don’t seem anywhere close to the finish line. Perhaps you’ve prepared yourself to that point where you can now sprint downhill, where the force of gravity could take you to the finish line with a lot more natural momentum even if it may still take efforts.

Are you ready for the sprint downhill?

Independence of time

Time is something we experience through our memories but because we measure it, time became independent. Independent of our experience such that it goes by whether we feel it or not. And we then treat it as a resource to use or to waste. Yet it slips by even when we don’t use it, so we consider it wasted. Or is it?

Was time ever ours? And in trying to use it, and pressured to use it well, do we end up rendering our experiences empty and meaningless instead? And when we have a looming deadline we think time is short and there is always so much to do.

What we have to do is given by ourselves though. And if we had gone the other way around and measured time by the work we do instead, will we actually get more out of time rather than get things out of shorter time?

So should we treat time as independent from our experience or to let it be something that is there only because we experience it? Much to ponder.

Broken systems

In any civilisation, you’re in a system; so there are rules to follow, structures to abide by, and hence a sort of order emerges from the system. Of course the order can be disorderly but you get my drift. When however, certain realities don’t line up the way they do in a system, we think that it is broken.

I’m not too sure about that. Sometimes, we think that a system is broken because it is leading to an outcome which we don’t desire nor think is desirable. Whilst the designer or perpetrator of the system may agree with you on the outcome and results, they may not think the system is broken.

The reason being that their key objectives for the system does not align with yours. What you think as an undesirable outcome may be an unintended but necessary consequence of the system; and the results which you don’t agree with may not even be part of the consideration.

And that is the challenge when one works within a system. It is terribly difficult for a system to start paying attention to a new attribute that is worth looking at when measured against the values that inherently power the system. Effectively, the conversation goes like this:

You: ‘Hey system, you need to start looking more into the environmental damage you are causing while trying to make profits!’

System: ‘Ah, environmental damage. Does looking into it generate more profits?’

You: ‘Well, the point is thinking about we are trading-off environmental sustainability in our process of profit. Maybe we can rethink about the way we make a profit?’

System: ‘Sure! Come back to me when there’s a profitable way to reduce the environmental damage. Meanwhile, we carry on with what works.’

The reason we are facing climate change is not really because the system is broken but because the system we designed is working perfectly well – it is just trying to solve a completely different problem than the one we are facing or trying to get it to solve.

The only way is to establish new rules and new ways of doing things, of structuring our lives, our companies and our economy. This is why Enea Consulting, where I work at, has combined efforts with Isabelle Kocher de Leyritz to form Blunomy.

For now, the branding might still feel very foreign to an Asian mind, the URL quite strange (is the firm French or Malaysian?), the fonts on the website feels a tad bit too avant garde for the liking of the general masses. But the message, the intentions and planned actions are clear. We understand that the systems are not broken but they are simply not designed for the challenge that confronts us today. That is why we are not here to fix the system; we need new ones to replace them.

Just to reiterate that views presented here are entirely personal and do not represent the stance of any organisations I’m employed by or have any affiliations with.

Downward counterfactual thinking

Counterfactual thinking is a concept in psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred. I’ve no doubt this is a sign of intelligence and it is a residue in our ability to project forward into the future. After all, if you can imagine the different possible futures, you could also imagine different possible pasts.

The question is whether the content of your counterfactual thinking is upward or downward. In other words, do you think the reality could have been better or do you think things could have been worse? People could be more positive when they consider that something worse could have happened rather than the actual outcome. In that sense, downward counterfactual thinking is actually a habit or strong mental re-frame that helps improve our well-being.

Nevertheless, the mind tends towards negativity because it sticks more than the positive. What I think is interesting is that different positions we are in can cause us to have inclination towards upwards or downwards counterfactual. It is interesting how being in second place encourages upward counterfactual thinking more than being in third place – just because you only have one person in front of you. So there are some kind of defaults that our counterfactual thinking drifts towards.

That’s not to say you can’t change your defaults. Part of my coaching practice especially around mindset shifts is exactly about that.