Placebos in our lives

Placebos are real; they have an actual impact on us. First described somehow by John Haygarth, it really demonstrates the power of the human mind and its impact on us. They reflect that the story we tell ourselves about things we do and experience is really important in determining our sense of well-being and subsequent actions. These actions can then continue to perpetuate our circumstances and the cycle continues.

And then the question is whether we are consuming placebos. We might not be conscious of it, but things like an Hermes handbag, or a gym membership that we don’t really use but just keep, are all placebos. They are there to make us think we are rich, or fit without really doing anything about our wealth or health. The list continues with magazine subscriptions, club memberships, and many of what people would call ‘trappings’.

So yes, placebos are real and all of us are using them in case you don’t yet realise. But the key here is to notice what they are doing to us. I’m assuming we are using these placebos because they do have a positive impact on us, and they work through the stories that we tell ourselves. What if we are addicted to our placebos? We need to ask ourselves to be conscious about the costs of these placebos – the financial, environmental and mental costs of these. And whether there are cheaper placebos as substitutes.

And in case you’re wondering, the Prata (instead of Prada) bag that was churned out in a random factory is also a placebo – at least for another group of people. So yea, there are alternatives when our placebos are costing us too much

Broken Systems

Our company policy means that you are ineligible for the bonus if you tender your resignation at this point. From the management point of view, it is to discourage resignation at this point of time, or to retain the staff for another month. Question is, what was the bonus for in the first place? Is it to reward you for the work you have done, or the work you are about to do? And what does talent retention really mean? That your people do not resign? Or that you’re developing them, deploying them in the right places befitting of their intellectual capacity, interest, and challenging them?

We’ve all encountered broken systems. They’re systems that are perpetuated because someone decides to follow rules and policies in a legalistic manner, forgetting what they were for in the first place. When we fail to honour and uphold the spirit of a law, but instead, just the letter of the law, systems are likely broken.

Those are points when we need to question who our systems are serving, and whether we designed them to work in the way they are working. Increasingly, there’s polarisation in politics and the world – and we come face to face with the point that some of these ‘brokenness’ is actually systems working as they are intended: to perpetuate the power of those who are already leading/ruling, to define merit in a way that legitimises further those who wield power, and to preserve the structure in place in society, in name of harmony and stability. Such thoughts can be dangerous but they are a culmination of leaders who refuse to admit mistakes, who do not take responsibility for their mistakes and the brokenness of systems that they have set in place.

Done your best

I wrote a while back that ‘Doing your best‘ is really an attitude. And I mentioned in that post that I never quite knew what my best was. Perhaps I know it when I tried; but we aren’t really sure if we did because there seem to be always something more we can do. And our minds are such that if we did put in the effort and already did our best but obtained an outcome less than our aspiration, we start questioning ourselves.

At the heart of every fear lurking around is our sense of inadequacy and being ‘not enough’. It is important to recognise why and how you have fallen short when you do. Because having done your best, in those specific circumstances and resources which you have can yield different results when doing your best in a different set of circumstances.

For example, you could have scored a 75 instead of 70 if you had not missed out reading a particular chapter in the textbook. But you could have gotten 85 if you had money to pay for a few more hours of tuition with Mr Wong. So yes you could have done more, you could have done things differently – the key here is that every outcome contains an opportunity for you. It is an opportunity to know more about the world and how it works. To know more about how your actions, circumstances, resources and even thought patterns interacts with the world. So use it wisely rather than get back into the cycle of fear and anxiety around your inadequacy.

Emissions Targeting

Been working on a project on emissions targeting. Or at least tangentially related. It’s been an eye-opener for me as I come to see how important it is to reduce the carbon intensity of electricity generation. Reducing scope 2 emissions for lots of different industries makes a really significant contribution as it turns out.

Yet at the same time, it got me thinking about those corporates that are targeting to go net-zero by 2030, or 2040, or 2050 for that matter. In each cases, they give themselves a little, or a lot of room to eventually hit their targets. But we need to realise that each year you delay reduction, you’re pumping out more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that actually stays there. In fact it stays there longer because we are simultaneously doing so much to reduce the planet’s capacity to absorb the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

This is unlike our other kinds of goals involving gaining mastery for example. You can give yourself more time to master something; and the consequence is at most that you are still not that good for a few more years. Or you could choose to take a gap year so you will graduate only later (which probably reduce your income by that one year). The consequence of the carbon dioxide thrown out into the air because you were lax with your target-setting can mean we no longer can keep temperature change within 2 deg Celsius – which by the way, will result in increased number of catastrophic weather events.

Intentionally or not, we are creating a future for ourselves and our offsprings. Unfortunately, it is not one that most of us would like to live in.

Value of a live tree

What makes the value of a tree? The quality, quantity of timber it produces? That’s probably just the value of the dead tree. How about the live tree? The value of soil quality it maintains, the prevention of soil erosion? The value of the biodiversity it creates?

How about the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions? And oh by the way, each tree absorbs only 21 kg per year when it is fully grown. And it is estimated over a 100-year lifespan, it will absorb a tonne of carbon dioxide (because when it is young, it absorbs way less and it takes time to grow). And how much are we pricing/taxing a tonne of carbon dioxide in Singapore? $5 a tonne. That’s US$3.70 today. Yes, so we are saying, that a tree, living for 100 years, taking in carbon dioxide for us, and helping to ‘offset’ our emissions, is going to only contribute US$3.70 reduction to the industry’s tax dollars. No wonder we prefer to pay that than to plant a tree.

Not forgetting the value of the shade of the tree, the fruits it provides, but of course it also offsets the ongoing costs of irrigation, and maintenance of the tree. So the Singapore Green Plan claims that planting 1 million trees between 2020 to 2030 would allow us to absorb another 78,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. It is not clear if that statement is a per-year absorption or over the 10 year period. But yes, if it’s per year, it’s possible that because we manage to plant some insanely amazing carbon-absorbing tree that is immediately fully-growth, they can take in 78kg of carbon dioxide per year on average. Or if it’s over the 10-year period, then it’s only 7.8kg per tree per year, which is probably closer to the truth.

And yes, in case you’re wondering what this post is about; it really is about the fact that we are not taxing carbon dioxide enough to get anyone to do anything about it in Singapore. It’s clearly also about trees. Key message here is we need to grow more trees, and tax carbon more heavily.

The Eisenhower Matrix

Busy at work? But not challenged? ‘Bored-out‘?

Try the Eisenhower Matrix and see if you can lead a more fulfilling life. Named after Dwight David Eisenhower who was the 34th President of the United States, the matrix is not just about allocating and organising your ‘to-dos’, it gives you very clear prescriptions about how to approach them:

  1. Urgent and Important thing: Do them now
  2. Important but non-urgent things: Schedule a time to do it
  3. Urgent but unimportant things: Get someone else to do it
  4. Non-urgent and unimportant things: Why are they even on your ‘to-dos’?

Apply it not just to work but to most other things in life; purchase services that allows you to outsource all the bits that fall into category 3. And for category 4, if it’s something you enjoy doing and ‘want’ to do them, they don’t belong to your ‘to-do’ but falls into leisure, so no need to stress over them.

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.

Societies & culture

Today online ran a story about toxic workplaces; and it boils down to culture – not just a workplace culture but society as a whole. I’m going to share some quotes from this today online article as I share about how the toxic cultures of our workplace interacts with the kind of narrative that we have grown up with as a society. I’ve written about this before; and I think we all can make our society better by considering better stories for ourselves. And to choose to take action rather than continue the narrative of helplessness.

Story of Job Description

When she finally plucked up the courage to report her problem to the bank’s HR department, she got brushed off with the remark: “He is just like that la, Jo, what can we do?”

Our society has a narrative around predictability and the job description (JD). There is expectations on everyone and they are just supposed to fulfil those expectations; students to study, do well in exams, parents to help them compete in school, adults to work and produce for their company. And so our work and life becomes boiled down to the JD.

‘What can we do?’ is a statement of resignation, of lack of imagination, of being procedural rather than upholding the spirit of a role. We are telling, there are more important things my job calls for than to think about this.

Story of the Stoic

“(The HR manager’s) attitude towards this is like, ‘Don’t make HR life difficult. If you can, just try to tolerate it’. It is like telling you …if you are not happy, find another job,” Sarah said. 

Stoicism can be very subtly celebrated in Asian culture. Or maybe not so subtle. It is a virtue to be able to remain resilient in face of adversity. We all will experience pain in life, and how we respond to it will determine if we suffer. By speaking up, by taking action, we choose suffering or acting. And that courage should be lauded, and receive a response that is aligned with the spirit of action.

It is almost selfish, to tell others to put up with misery so that others can have the life they want. The HR department can lack that empathy and miss out on the vision of the better people they can be, and the better work they can do.

Story of Power

Some of these workplaces have highly developed human resource (HR) structures to handle such complaints, yet the rank-and-file do not have enough trust in these as the best avenues to seek help. 

We live with the narrative that the HR, processes and structures are laid down to support those in power, not to help those in need. We’ve been fed that story when policies are laid down without too much consultation. That story gets reinforced when taking an alternative stance from those in power tend to result in punishment.

When HR fail to take an active stance to support individuals, to act against abuses in a manner that lets sunlight on to the wound, then it is hard for employees to trust them. It is hard for people to change their narrative about power and where HR stands. After all, our capitalistic society would cause us to ask, who’s the one paying those staff in HR?

Story of doing things in vain

When she left the organisation, her exit interview took just five minutes as she sensed that the HR manager was not truly interested in acting upon what she would have to say. 

Smart people are concerned about efforts in vain. They want whatever they do to contribute towards their intention, to achieve something. And the moment they detected it doesn’t matter, they don’t try. They think they are only being reasonable. I wrote previously about my exit interview and how the new HR officer seem to think I was bringing ideas up in vain. I probably left her thinking I was the idealistic sort. She might even justify to herself ‘that’s why this person left’ – the poor soul who couldn’t accept things as they are.

Maybe exit interviews can be about holding HR officers accountable – that even as they listen to what they may think are complains, they need to somehow act on it. If I were the CEO, I’d pay attention to what the influential leavers are saying to the organisation.