Things We Forget

Today
My Favourite

I’m not sure how many people have chanced upon Post-It Notes with inspirational illustrations anywhere in Singapore and picked them up; the author/illustrator/documenter of Things We Forget is certainly doing something amazing for his/her own life and that of the others. The Post-It illustrations and notes are indeed inspirational if not a reminder of how much wisdom we lose in the course of conducting our lives. The address of the blog is apt in that sense.

It is amazing how the project have been sustained for more than a year, and done by just a single person.

And since I’m at introducing and recommending other websites, there’s an interesting free online textbook project at BookBooN. It’s not exactly free so to speak, since the textbook is interspersed advertising much like a magazine is. But well, you don’t pay a cent to download.

The Scholarship Interview

I think interviews are rather artificial settings; they surround a poor candidate and then bombard him/her with questions. Yet one should remember that an interview is not interrogation and the whole point is for the entire thing to become a natural interaction rather than an artificial, forced conversation that tells no truths. This is a rather short piece on the contents of a scholarship interview, not an article that tells you what to wear, how you should shake your hand or smile at your interviewers.

Questions to Ask
Although you usually start out being asked questions, you should be preparing stuff you want to ask the interviewer beforehand so that you are not caught off guard when the interviewer asks if you have any questions for him/her. These questions should be genuine questions so don’t bother to ask if you already know the answer because your face would tell that while you’re listening to the reply.

There’s a couple of areas you might like to ask about; in particular Scholarship selection procedures, life of a scholar, and the work of the scholar in the organization. For selection process you might like to ask “How many rounds of interviews will you be put through?” or whether there is “any other sort of assessments (like test/essay to do)?” Some organizations would have a psychometric tests, others have workshops that are sessions to assess their candidates.

On life of a scholar, ask if there’s any internship or attachment for scholars? And how will they be related to the work scholars eventually do at the organization? Related to that, is the work a scholar is going to do upon graduation; ask “What sort of work do scholars do after graduation in the organization?”, check if there is job rotation, and “How long is each cycle?” as well as “What functions will scholars be exposed to throughout the career/bond period?”

Depending on how you’ve set the tone of the interview, you should preferably be able to ask some casual stuff like how long your interviewers have been with the organization. Ask about their work if you don’t know their positions yet and see how they like the organization or if they face any particular difficulty/challenge in their work in recent times. This would help make the interview a more natural conversation rather than one that is zero-ed in on ‘work’.

Questions they might ask
Now for the more important questions, the ones they will be asking you. There are very general ones like your aspirations, reasons for choice of your course, how they tie up with your interests, how you’re coping in school right now (or how have you coped with school in the past).You should also be expected to share your experiences in school with leadership activities, or team activities.

Some organizations like to pose scenario questions like ‘talk about a time when you had disagreements with a teammate’, ‘tell us a situation where you had to overcome a huge challenge’, ‘tell us your most difficult time in life so far’. Otherwise, the open-ended tough questions like “What have you done in life so far that tells you that you’ll be suitable for our organization?”, “Can you tell us why you deserve this scholarship?”

Prepare to explain your present commitments as well: “What are you doing now?”, “How do you spend your vacations?”, “What interest do you have besides your studies (and work)?” Knowing some current affairs would help especially when they are related to the organization that is offering the scholarship: “What do you think is a challenge facing our industry/organization?” “Do you think there’s anything about our organization that we should change or need to change?”, “What potential markets have we overlooked in the course of our expansion?”

Other Tips & Advice
Try to remember your responses to their questions and also their answers to your questions because it’ll serve you well to remain consistent throughout your rounds of interviews; you’ll realise that some questions comes to you over and over again posed by different interviewers because they never heard your reply to these questions, so it’s also important to maintain that consistency.

Remembering their responses to your questions shows that you’re paying attention and not contemplating what to ask next or how to respond while they are answering your question or explaining stuff to you. If possible, jot down their responses to your question somewhere right after your interview (perhaps type a note in your handphone or something)

Remember there is no right or wrong answers in an interview so never look as if you regretted something you just mentioned (if you really do, please correct yourself immediately on the spot) and in many sense, as long as you are sure what you’re saying, you’re giving the right answer.

Don’t appear self-important but show the interviewers what you are willing to do to serve them and what you’re not willing. When you’re given the tough questions, ask for time to think about it. You could say, “Wow, that’s a big question, give me a moment to organize my answer” or something like that. Try to think about the tough ones beforehand so that you’re more prepared to handle them. Don’t bet on them not coming out.

Don’t hesitate to clarify their questions; if you don’t know what they’re asking, ask them questions to clarify; sometimes the question they’re trying to pose is more close-ended than it seems.

Life as a Proletariat

SAS Logo
Paradise for the Proles

Slightly less than three-quarter of a person’s lifespan nowadays is spent on work and so it is really important to love your work. And while internal motivation is important at sustaining you, the environment that you work in, the boss that you work for and the people you work with are all going to affect the way you see your work.

Of all these factors, your employers can mould quite a substantial portion of your experience. They might not control working culture but they have a great influence over it; they might not be able to dictate your life but they can create circumstances to urge you to do as they see fit. That makes choosing your employers important and the recent ranking published by Fortune Magazine is particularly valuable for that purpose.

SAS top that list of ‘2010 Best Companies To Work For’. You can see from the perks how the employer really ‘cares’ in the real sense (no sarcasm intended). Although the title of this entry is somewhat demeaning, I do believe that treating your worker well makes great business sense. In fact sometimes I think that there should be Human Resource Consultancies that help check companies’ books and then find out how to improve performance through treating workers better – the military around the world are in need of that. Maybe there’s already such firms and they probably borrow tricks from SAS as well.

So if you’re intrigued by Google and want to work for them, maybe you should consider SAS if you treasure job security above remuneration.

The Truth About Procrastination

To all my friends at EPRZ, I am back!

I have been intending to write this article for months, ever since I published my first in June 09. But why didn’t I write it? Because I have to practise what I preach. I have to do the things that I advise my readers to do. Today’s article discusses the benefits of good procrastination and there is no better way to validate its credibility than to use myself as the test subject. Here are the facts of my research.

As children, we were told by our parents to stop procrastinating and start working on our household chores. As students, we were told by our teachers to stop procrastinating and start working on our school assignments. And they would always use this popular saying, “the early bird catches the worm”, to support their argument. Fair enough. But what happens to the early worm? Doesn’t it get eaten? The truth of the matter is that procrastination can be good or bad depending on how you use it. So the important issue is not how you should avoid procrastination but how you should use procrastination to your advantage.

There are many activities that you could be doing now. All these activities are competing for your time and attention. How do you decide which activity to begin and which to postpone? Through objective evaluation, you will have to rate each activity in importance. After that, you will have to practice the principles of good procrastination- to learn when to do the right things and to postpone the wrong things. It means choosing to avoid lesser activities in favour of greater goals. If you have just been struck by a brilliant inspiration, for example, then you should work on that new idea and postpone the thought of running an errand for your parents. Learning to prioritise is, thus, the key to good procrastination.

During my absence from ERPZ, I have completed my National Service, organised several grassroots events, and earned my driving license among many other completed tasks. I have been using procrastination to my advantage by avoiding the less important activities to do the real work. And even though I have sacrificed the cleanliness of my room, the well-being of my stomach, and of course the welfare of the readers at ERPZ, I have accomplished much by practising good procrastination.

Most people will tell you that procrastination is bad and that you should avoid it or cure it. Their ill advice is predicated on the false belief that procrastination means doing absolutely nothing. Author Paul Graham writes that “there are three types of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on a) nothing, b) something less important, c) something more important.” The last type, good procrastination, is what you should strive for.

Carrots & Sticks

Carrots and Sticks
Singular Representation...

The Economist recently featured an article on the need to package carrots as sticks to help people be more motivated. It is essentially saying that people responds more strongly to loss than gain but since companies need to make credible threats (a very game theory sort of idea) without being deemed unfair (as they would if they had threatened to dock pay) they will have to make their carrots seem like sticks.

But then, is it always about money? A couple of days back I was walking around the bookstore and I spotted a new book – Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he talks about the stuff that motivates us. We often thought of them as money but he figures out that it’s about “autonomy, mastery, and purpose”, which makes a lot of intuitive sense. The incentive systems in our world often do not drive ordinary souls to excellence. Perhaps, firms and organization must rethink their way they manage their people and this will revolutionize human resource departments and HR work.

The ideas in the book relates closely to another book I saw. It’s Richard Sennett’s documentation of the philosophy of craftsmanship, The Craftsman (reviews here and here). His definition of craftsmanship, “an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake” sounds like a logical consequence when an individual is well-motivated. Perhaps then, craftsmanship is the spirit to be promoted.

Once again, it’s time to stock up books…

A Quick Thinking Kiwi

Kiwi
Good Fruit

A Kiwi working for Tesco London

A man in London walked into the produce section of his local Tesco’s supermarket and asked to buy half a head of lettuce. The boy working in that department told him that they only sold whole heads of lettuce. The man was insistent that the boy ask the manager about the matter.

Walking into the back room, the boy said to the manager, “some old bastard wants to buy a half a head of lettuce.” As he finished his sentence, he turned around to find that the man was standing right behind him, so he quickly added, “and this gentleman kindly offered to buy the other half.”

The manager approved the deal and the man went on his way.

Later, the manager said to the boy,” I was impressed with the way you got yourself out of that situation earlier, we like people who can think on their feet here, where are you from son?”

“New Zealand, sir,” the boy replied.

“Why did you leave New Zealand ?” the manager asked.

The boy said “Sir, there’s nothing but whores and rugby players there.”

“Is that right?” replied the manager, “My wife is from New Zealand!”

“Really?” replied the boy, “Who’d she play for?”

Importance of Focus

Lenses
Getting focus right...

It’s been a while since I last written something on studying; recently I observed how some students take a long time to study. Obviously, many of these people spend substantial amount of time plainly staring at pieces of information, occasionally reading through them with a tiny bit of appreciation and often not quite understanding what they are studying anyways. Computer gaming, and loads of interactive stuff online coupled with consistent television watching has reduced our attention span significantly and impaired our abilities to focus.

So to improve how you study as well as your concentration, you might like to try a few of the following:

Plan Revision & Stick to it
The first step to keeping focusing is having a good, realistic plan. Without a plan, when we decide that we’re going to study, we’ll often just lay out the books and stare at words, possibly read a little and then zone out. When we don’t have a plan that dictates specifically what we are going to study and for how long, we’ll often just drift about the different materials we have, not doing anything eventually. So come up with a proper plan, noting down what topics for what subject you’ll be studying and for how long. Give yourself breaks between topics and when you’re executing your plan, make sure you follow through and only skip the breaks if you believe you can continue. If you find yourself needing more or less time than planned, adjust your plans accordingly. Don’t tire yourself out if you are fast with your studying; reward yourself with a longer play time or break when you finish early.

Find a Good Site
Some people just can’t study at home. I’m not exactly such a person but many people around me are like that. The problem is when there’s people familiar around you, you’d be tempted to eavesdrop their conversation, observe what they are doing – in other words, doing everything else except the task at hand. This happens less (at least at a lower intensity) when it comes to having strangers around you, unless you’re really busybody. Studying outside might be a better option; Starbucks is pretty friendly with studying people, especially the more remote branches, The Coffee Bean is not.

Media White-out
For those who can’t even withstand a bit of distraction will need to try a boycott of media and other attention-seeking stuff. Turn off your TV, radio, computer for a pre-designated time that follows from your study plan. Do not allow yourself to use the computer or those devices even when you’re taking a break. Limit distractions to nuts, snacks, and drinks without digital or analog devices that produces visuals or audio. These people might realise they’ll be better off staying at home and paying their family to get out of the house. Of course, once you’re done with whatever you need to accomplish, you can get back to the stuff you like to do so that they act as a reward for your efforts.

A measure of self-awareness is necessary to help you with this; knowing how your mind gets distracted and what it is easily distracted by will help you attain focus through the elimination of these distractions. It sounds like a pretty simple concept but people usually don’t take steps to help themselves concentrate. Instead, they wait around for their moods to come or the distractions to go away; if you want to make any progress at all, you’ll have to start taking charge of how you waste your time.

The Value of Pessimism

Smile Frown
To smile or frown?

I felt a bit vindicated to read in the Lexington column in The Economist‘s Christmas edition that two writers have decided to tackle ‘the American tendency towards mindless optimism’. Being a habitual pessimist it does feel good occasionally to read about people who are pessimists and stand up for their views instead of let themselves be bashed by optimists.

The two writers mock the optimists for being too positive and too dependant on positive thinking to help them in their lives, from defeating cancer to not gaining weight. I like that the example of the banking crisis was used to justify when one should listen to ‘the killjoys’ and stop letting the bubble inflate. Optimism apparently blinds sometimes, and this is where pessimism comes in. I like how one of the writers allude pessimism to ‘foul weather’ like thunderstorms: it might be dampening and depressing, but to some it refreshes and energises them. It can wake people up from their daydreams and their eternal sunshine (even though many people love thunderstorms because they can sleep comfortably through the cool weather).

But of course, there needs to be some optimism. Ultimately, Lexington argues that pessimism should be taken like a pinch of salt, just a pinch / ounce and not too much. For instance, one of the writers (a conservative) argues that mass immigration will not benefit America, but ultimately ‘America was built on the mass immigration of optimists’. I guess there needs to be a balanced dose of both sides.

On a side-note, reading The Economist makes me feel more and more pessimistic about the world… is it because of the coverage, or are world affairs really that gloomy and glum?

Corporate Responsibility

Corporate Social Responsibility
More ideas to have more trees

While we tinker with the idea that governments and politics are important sources of forces for the good when it comes to climate, corporations are already doing loads in the real world with the advent of Corporate Social Responsibility.

To be frank, CSR can sometimes be make-up for the company’s public face but there are still substantial number of firms who are doing real big good stuff and tackling different aspects of social costs the company might have inflicted on the society. Knowledge @ Wharton introduces the CSR moves of Campbell, which covers not only environmental actions but also social programmes (mostly to do with employees).

The Economist thinks little of CSR but highlights the ordinary good that firms and companies does by just doing their own stuff (manufacturing, marketting, improving, innovating). The newspaper argues that business people should probably trumpet these achievements of fostering innovation, cooperation between groups and individuals across the globe besides being so engrossed with CSR.

Sometimes I guess if you look on the bright side, everyone is probably doing good through being selfish – the central idea of economics.

Back in Competition

A recent article on Slate.com revisited the theme of competition, something I’ve been writing about (here and here) in response to their articles. Ray Fisman discusses studies on whether man or women are more competitive and whether any difference is explained by nature or nurture.

More importantly perhaps, he questions the significance of competition in our world and whether it is a good thing at all. I believe, like many other things, a balance has got to be struck somehow. Once we reach a certain threshold whereby competition achieves positive gains, its cost will start outweighing benefits.

Look whos trailing....
Look who's trailing....

But perhaps the problem isn’t one of female passivity—many have claimed that if women ran the world, there wouldn’t be any wars, and anyone who has read testosterone-driven Wall Street accounts like Liar’s Poker, or more recently House of Cards, might question whether all-out competition is the best way of managing our economy. If competition is nurture rather than nature, perhaps we’d all be better off if we lost a little of our warrior instincts.

I know it sounds rather like an economic analysis but this applies for practically everything. We are entering an age of sophistication where competition basically consist of sub-units of collaboration, which is in turn divided into sub-units of competition. Just think about it, when we work at a company, we may be competing with our colleagues for attention from boss but the whole department, together with the boss is collaborating to compete against other departments and other bosses to a higher level and the company on the whole is collaborating to compete against a rival company and the industry as a whole (perhaps beverages) is competing against another (say food, they’re all competing for consumers’ stomach space). Competition and collaboration are not ends of a spectrum but co-evolutionary forces that shapes the world and our sophisticated activities.