Saturday, April 19, 2014

Expertise Rule


Recently I calculated that I had spent more than 10,000 hours writing a blog, therefore following the famous rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’; to conclude I must be an expert in blog writing. Admittedly this is not creative writing, as in the form of writing a novel, but it is writing nevertheless, which gives me confidence in starting a career as a writer. I may have also spent nearly 10,000 hours reading books, so that makes me a near expert in book reading, too.  Most writers would tell you that reading and writing is important to being a good writer, therefore my experience so far should give me a step up. But the medium of a blog also provides other expertise as well, like being an expert on the Internet and ways one can monetize (or not) his online work. The point is that after nearly 8 years of writing a blog, one wonders what he is an expert in. Does it mean expertise in clear thinking, or expressing ideas, or is it a facility in understanding? One is sure that the motivation was to clear thoughts and de-stress, the act of journaling is really a form of meditation. Perhaps this is the true expertise one has gained, to handle anxiety and settle the mind, sort of like a wisdom practice.

I believe in making progress a step at a time, and one strove for expertise in writing, in finance and investment, real estate, stock, bonds and online ventures. One achieved modest success but the effort is wanting; a need to make a breakthrough so the investment in time is well spent. Unfortunately, one has dilly dallied, spending time indulging in a bookish life, to be a literati, or scholar in the Chinese sense. But the Chinese have a saying that unused learning is wasted learning. All the more reason that one must justify the past years of blogging, or it will turn out to be a large waste to time and resources. The conclusion one has a good foundation to succeed; hence, the challenge to control or manage the mind to get the job done. Perhaps this is where true mindfulness begins, to focus on the moment and sit down and write plus learn more about the other areas of improvement.  But there are visible signs of progress in real estate and stock investing, plus a direction to go to the next level, by forming an LLC, trying options (covered calls) or investing in bonds. Online ventures are also another way forward by maximizing experience into monetizing a food blog, using ad words and video resources. Hence, a way ahead in these areas.

Unfortunately, for creative writing projects, there is no other way but to write. Perhaps it is more of a creative exercise, where one must use tools like mind mapping or visual thinking to get a novel going. Thus a strategy is born, to maximize an experience that started with journal writing and de-stress, to blogging, to the internet and online investments. The other day my friends came to the house for dinner: Singapore dry noodles with minced meat, fish balls and mushrooms, ham, fried chicken wings, chocolate cake, mango and sticky rice. It was a nice time to catch up and especially share stories and future plans: moving to a new city, to a new job, a new house or new gadgets, all the trappings of moving forward.  These were all easy things to do, external movements toward something new; bereft of internal progress or perhaps a deliberate discipline to move ahead, one that requires reflection. But one is amiss as well, descending into stagnant satisfaction, not taking the considerable next step. Hence, time to assess what one achieved and to make a leap. It’s the courage to be dissatisfied, to know what one possesses is nothing if one stagnates; to undertake a journey that is primarily an internal quest.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tax Deadline


During the weekend, I struggled to complete my tax return using Turbo Tax, working on Saturday and Sunday and finally completing by Sunday noon. I have been working on my taxes since last week after office until I decided that the effort needed a full weekend; to focus on assembling documents, preparing spreadsheets, making calculations on expenses and so on. The task is time consuming and requires a sustained effort of concentration, made difficult by the many diversions available: movies, books and music.  After I completed my tax return, thanking God for Turbo Tax, I wanted to play golf but I did not have time, I vacuumed the house and watched movies borrowed from the library. The source of stress is oneself, and I realize that I am driving myself crazy, the only way to cut down is to avoid going to the library, where the many books and magazine lie in wait, ready to entice me with numerous possibilities for distraction and mental strain. But working on my taxes and organizing my financial affairs, one realizes is THE important task; all others are frivolous distraction. But there are just too many good films to see or books to read that I remember St. Augustine praying that he be converted a little bit later so he can enjoy his philistine life a moment more.
 
I also realize that one’s mind is not as sharp as before, coupled by the effects of medication like statins that supposedly cause mental confusion, realizing that a sustained mental effort requires a force of will. One wonders if the challenge at work is really a suicide mission: the urge to fight back and conquer the work place is really stressing the mind. Age is what stops people from achieving their dreams at a late age, except for the late bloomers who seem to reach the pinnacle of their efforts at midlife. The need for mindfulness, the meditation technique pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is now practiced by more people in the workplace, confirming my instinct several years back when I discovered his work, but lapsed in the years since with the occasional Tai Chi and Yoga practice. One is glad of PBS with sponsored programs that feature Deepak Chopra, Daniel Amens and others who advise on how to keep the brain young and fight the ravages of time. It all came together in the weekend as I struggled to complete my returns and watched these shows that advised on the latest techniques. Strangely, I had a chance to read about Southern writers, a book by William Ferris with supplemental DVD and CD, with accounts from Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, Robert Penn Warren and Arthur Haley, keeping the dream alive; as one struggles with age.

Recently I meet with insurance sales men, talking about life and term insurance, about annuities plus reading about retirement design. Financial planning is clear now, especially last weekend as one organized his financial assets, going in the right direction and following instincts. I think one made good decisions, cautious on spending and investment, making small mistakes, following Nassim Taleb latest book on probability, focusing on diversification, savings and value investing. This effort requires clear thinking and abstract reasoning but affected by age, stress, exercise, diet, sleep habits and alcohol.  It can all come undone if one is not careful. There is too much living in the future or in the past where one is not mindful of the present moment; a curse that one did not realize until one begins to have problems focusing, escaping into books or movies to distract the mind. Mindfulness is a Buddhist discipline, not only an effort of mental exercise but philosophical intent. One is attracted to the element of discipline but lost to the transformative experience if one does not accept the metaphysical implications; a contradiction of both thinking and unthinking; to focus on the moment.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Leaving the Tunnel


A few weeks back, we returned from a trip to Savannah, Georgia and Beaufort, South Carolina. A visit to the old South, as people would say, enjoying the parks and public squares of Savannah, the stately homes around the square, enjoying the tours particularly the pirate house and other interesting legends like the Williams Mercer residence, the subject of a book and a film directed by Clint Eastwood. My memories of the so called American South did come from the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”, the gothic atmosphere, the decadent and aristocratic city recovering from the Civil War, an update on “Gone with the Wind”, where the landed elite lose their holdings amidst the destruction of  General Sherman’s army.  But it was a young town, with students from the surrounding universities, the playing bands in the squares, the music festival, young people lazing in the park, bring a youthful vibe reminiscent of New York, with both its greenery in its public spaces and the cosmopolitan taste of its food and culture. The trip was a welcome escape after the area contest I organized and dues payment deadline which I worked on the previous week.

I did not expect Beaufort to be more interesting than Savannah, but I was mistaken, enjoying first the beach and lighthouse at Huntington State Park, imagining life in a remote area beside the sea, with the museum on light keepers enough to trigger romantic images. The mansions in Beaufort were next after an excellent lunch of Shrimp and Grits, fried oysters, shrimp bisque; enjoying the waterfront and finally a tour on a horse led carriage, around the quaint settlement beside the Beaufort river, the guide talking about the history of its old houses. But Beaufort was a Union town, after Robert Small (later congressman) helped the Union army takeover the surrounding coastal areas, effectively blockading the South and stop any shipment of arms from European enemies. The pace was slow and leisurely, topping the surprise and enjoyment of the Savannah excursion, thinking that one must return and enjoy these old cities saved by Sherman who visited the area before the war, instead marching on and burning Columbia to the ground. The legacy of the Union presence is Parish Island, the training ground of the US marines; also the historic capital of the Spanish colonies, long before the English came and changed the history of the continent. 

After returning from the trip, one was engrossed with the problems at work, back to the grindstone, fighting issues and assaults from colleagues, finally settling on a system of more organized work, instead of the current turbulence. Last Saturday was the division speech contest, where I served as judge for 4 contests; enjoying the orations and glad my term as area governor is finally coming to an end. I was crazy to take on that role plus my new assignment at work, compounding my stress and increasing work load. I feel I am emerging from a tunnel, hopefully better organized, with more free time, instead of being dictated by problems, meetings and fighting fires.  The trip to the old South was refreshing, reconnecting mental images conjured in books, finally seeing the old coastal towns where ships from Europe crossed the Atlantic and berthed into the New World. During the road trip, as we travelled along  towns and highways, we listened to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatzby’, possibly the great American Novel, equal to ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’, by exploring the way wealth corrupted the New World in its mad dash to supremacy. ‘The business of America is business,’ said Tocqueville.

I felt a connection to the old towns of the South and Jay Gatzby, the drive to accumulate wealth by vice, enriched by slavery in the cotton, indigo and rice plantations, transforming the local planters into a landed gentry but eventually destroyed by war; the cleansing of an evil, the stately homes now owned by carpetbaggers as the old aristocratic families fled in the wake of Sherman’s destruction. There is history looking around the stately parks, the old churches, the ruins in Sheldon of the Anglican cathedral, of long lost grandeur and decaying mansions, the military presence in Parrish Island was like a lifeline, a sort of equalizer that started de-segregation in it’s ranks after the world wars, a lifeline for Jay Gatzby, too as he embarked on a quest of re-invention and wealth accumulation, perhaps like the slave owning plantation owners, with a sort of twisted purity of a lost time, only to perish in violence. It’s crazy to try to link the history of the south, with its stately homes and crumbling ruins, to a romantic hero chasing a gold digger, who also owned a mansion beside the sea. But there is the same core of purity amidst the corruption like living in the antebellum South with its soft gentle manners and cruel slavery.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The New Role

Initially one thought the work was not done well, plans forming in the mind to make improvements, dropping the manual job of entering stuff in a separate spreadsheet, instead thinking that extracting a report from the tool will dictate work like a breeze. What a moron! Deluded that innate intelligence, insouciance and luck will make the job easier, another overconfident idiot walking naively to the lion’s den, a naïve lamb to the slaughter.  Soon one is confused, dazed and bewildered, scrambling to respond to emails, lost in the tumult of work traveling at the speed of light, aware that more organized managers stay calm, one thinks the work volume is larger than anyone else. What a mess, looking around for help (panic just below the surface), finding assistance from a French lady and a middle aged manager, showing their ordered demeanor while one flops from one near disaster to another. One was filled with overconfidence, a walk in the park; one’s clever plans would make it, trying all sorts of new things when one just needed a notebook and a daily check list. The trick was to focus and complete one task at a time, keep your wits despite the onslaught of emails, problem tickets and stressful meetings.

But the mind reels from blow to blow: a sudden request to enter time sheets, to reconcile figures, to schedule meetings, an emergency rush job, change in personnel, missing team mates, people without commonsense, looking for someone to blame. It is a milieu of confusion or rather the hectic bustle of ethereal work invisible to the eye: emails, online chats, meeting invites, all occurring in cyber space, eyes glued to the computer screen (and wrestling with abstraction). One attempts to use white boards to visually manage work, to write check list or reminders, to unearth all the tasks in mind and bring out in the open, plus the need to communicate by phone or emails, all under deadlines, hampered by poor leadership and clueless supervisors. To survive is to follow a work flow process, to intelligently use tools at hand,  master the spread sheet one scoffed at, preferring to keep everything in mind and wing it like some hero until one finds he is unprepared, a sure recipe for disaster. One gets to the basics: write a TO DO list daily, keep a notebook, read your emails and plan meetings.

In the early months, one was buried in customer demands, with never ending wants, the mind jumping from one task to another, planning work at home or at weekends but lost in distraction of television, after all one needs time to rest and keep sane. The program has sophisticated dashboards and filters, extracting reports to check status and organize work, but one did not master the craft, instead relying on experience to survive the daily grind. In the end, the work is not difficult, one’s ignorance, naiveté and overconfidence had blinded one to the challenge, as the onslaught pummeled him without mercy, one must control his emotions (or cultivate detachment) and do the task one by one, rising above work that came like the flood that drowned New Orleans after the levees broke.

NEW ROLE + NEW AUDIT PROCEDURES + NEW TOOLS + PREASSURE and STRESS + VOLUME OF WORK was a tsunami the washed over the overconfident moron.

So what is the plan?

NOTEBOOK + TO DO LIST + PLANNING + MEETINGS + WORKFLOW + SPREADSHEET REPORT + STATUS CHECKS + DASHBOARDS. 

Hence, one goes to work, look at the dashboard, extract report by status and do the job required: follow-up, plan meetings, write emails. It’s that simple.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Spring Break


Last Saturday I attended a District meeting in Columbia, feeling unprepared because I did not visit any clubs except my own which is not doing much since I attend the meetings anyway. Nevertheless, half the battle is showing up, in that respect I have done well considering the performance of the other area governors who are often absent. I did manage to write an email last Friday where 1 club president out of 3 responded, but only because our division governor was a member of his club. But I think I achieved a passing grade (barely), more for some effort than achievement since the other 3 clubs under my jurisdiction are strong clubs who do well despite the meager efforts of its governor. All in all, my record would show that I attended district meetings, did my reports, and completed at least 1 club visit, participated and organized speech contests, attended conferences and club officer training sessions. In the remaining months of my term, I hope to do more club visits and reports before I step down. At least I will try to orient my replacement by showing him or her the ropes. I actually enjoyed my time as governor despite my shortcomings, where I learned my limitations and priorities.

After the meeting, we ate at a Japanese Mexican restaurant, enjoying the hipness, especially the seemingly contradictory cuisine of sushi, sashimi, tortillas, bento box, quesadillas, burritos and miso soup amidst an interesting interior with art objects that seem to depict American Indian culture, exhibited in a bright red wall along one side of the restaurant. I used to enjoy going to interesting places like this, where one’s imagination is piqued because of the creative mix of different or even contradictory styles. But I found myself bored and unimpressed, thinking that this place would appeal to a younger crowd. An interesting television show did piqued my interest: “Top of The Lake” a detective show in New Zealand with Holly Hunter in a cameo role, created by Jane Campion, with the breathtaking landscape, a plot about women victims including the female detective heroine. The atmosphere was distinctive, including the culture and subject; I especially liked the sub plot that featured Hunter as a sort of guru for abused women. I completed the series on Saturday and the effect was having a new life view which is the impact of great art. I also liked ‘Nebraska’ and ‘American Hustle’ which I also watched in the weekend.

On Sunday, I brought my other son back to college, traveling to Clemson and looking for a place to eat in Seneca and the surrounding suburbs of the university town, finally circling back amidst Oconee lake and finding a smoke house near the soccer stadium, walking distance from the campus green. But the smoked meats were not good and the ribs were a disappointment although the fried oysters and okra was not entirely bad. It was an interesting place compared with the other alternatives, which featured uninspired fare for college students, way below my bon vivant expectations. Hence, my weekend was spent traveling, eating and attending meetings, watching movies and series like ‘The Pacific’ by HBO, produced by Tom Hanks, about the war in the Pacific although I was disappointed because it did not feature the liberation of the Philippines. But it was another lost weekend as I had no time to further my goals of writing, starting an Internet business or further studies in investments via options and bonds. But the past five years were good as I achieved incremental progress, slowly increasing my knowledge and skills one small step at a time.

For instance, I achieved progress in the investment area with rental property, ROTH IRA and US stocks, taking advantage of the market recovery. The next step is to invest in options and bonds and create an LLC. In the writing area, I took short courses in creative writing and continued my exercises via blogging, starting short stories and reading more. The next step is to complete a book, not just creative fiction but non-fiction like a food blog. With regards to the Internet, I have about 7 years of experience maintaining blogs, learning Twitter, YouTube and Google+. The next step is to use this knowledge, to start monetizing my sites with an Internet business. I am reading ‘Get Rich Click’ and watched some videos on internet marketing and I need to learn about Google Ad sense and affiliate marketing. A strategy is forming in my mind, where I can use my experience to make the next jump. Sometimes one feels time is running out, with work place changes and paranoia plus the coming graduation of my sons; one need to start something soon. The Internet is the new gold rush where dreams can come true as some people say; the key is knowledge and the old virtue of perseverance.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

FOMA

  
Stands for ‘Fear Of Missing Out’, a subject of a recent TED lecture, delivered by a young man, accurately describing what most yuppies feel in being left out in a world of social media and instant events. In fact this is an affliction experienced by people like me too, someone who is afraid of missing out on the next big thing, constantly driven by being in the know. The speaker said that one must not shun this feeling but instead go further and explore why, why does one have this feeling instead of just saying no and enjoying a quiet time at home. Good question. One was not always like this and recalls of times when just prefers to stay home, away from the hustle and bustle of active socializing, then one realizes he is old and approaching middle age, that he wonders what was lost, what could have been and the results is a mad scramble, succumbing to the fear of missing out. I think I should watch that video again and see if the speaker offered any clues on how to proceed, to learn one’s inner motivation and find out what to do next if one realizes that he just wants to give his life some meaning, perhaps a last grasp of his youth.

There is also an economic component in this fear, to lose out on relevance in the office, to be wholly ignorant and unaware of what is happening around him. But it is a sad cycle, to constantly watch movies and borrow books to be relevant that one realizes the others around him are trivial and ordinary, not the sophisticated and smart people that one sees in movies or television shows. The realization that one has more sensitivity than the others around him is difficult, requiring one to hide his own and live under the cloak of being ordinary. Another TED lecture was significant, about embracing oneself, told by a self-proclaimed creative gay Latino, with cerebral palsy, being the ultimate outsider.  Another lecture was about building ice castles and another about comparing burn outs and post-traumatic stress disorder, in turn requiring the same sort of medical benefits and consideration. I guess I was close to burn out several times, driven not only by the expectations of work, FOMA and attribution errors due to cognitive bias, something that I had hoped to cure by cognitive therapy, journal writing, exercise and meditation.

Burn out also comes when one experiences change, meeting new conditions and trying to live up to new expectations. Recently one realizes that one has bitten off more than he can chew, especially being area governor when one is moving into a new and demanding role plus continuing the stress of FOMA. But instead of more exercise and museum going, to engage in more constructive distraction, one indulges in narcissism and alcohol which further exacerbates stress. Again one has the paranoia felt when one seems to feel that he is persecuted behind his back, perhaps thinking that his pay is too much, surrounded by mediocre loud mouths when that is the culture of the people around here, trying to avoid the disdain that one feels when one has a mistaken sense of superiority, driven by the sense of not missing anything and being in the know. What a laugh. Now one hopes to be part of a new project, not as a manager but as a tester, striving to fill up the time needed for his time sheet as the chargeable hours are less in the new role. But one also loses time at home where there is much to do to be a writer or internet entrepreneur or a stock trader because one is watching or reading because of FOMA.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Heartbreaking Genius


Dave Eggers has written a new form of novel, an anything goes type of narrative, a manic obsessive point of view that shows the frenzied mindset of an aspiring yuppy nerd; something like Jack Kerouac meets JD.Salinger. The novel’s locale is Silicon Valley, Chicago and New York; the perfect places to give a snapshot of the country especially start-ups like a new magazine business; plus the brilliant way the orphans try to make up for the loss of both parents, an extraordinary account of survival. This is the second work by Eggers I have read, the first is ‘Zeitoun’, another ground breaking book that has themes in multiple levels: the disaster in New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina, the story of Middle Eastern immigrants, especially hard working entrepreneurs achieving the American dream, the racism and prejudice against Muslims after 9/11 plus  Iraq and Afghanistan wars; the chaos of government responding to a natural disaster. Eggers is a genius, a brilliant writer who is unafraid to address delicate issues, attacking head on the core subject, perhaps due to the sudden loss of his parents that he had to overcompensate in everything, bringing to mind the theme of Malcolm Gladwells’ ‘David and Goliath, where famous dyslexic achievers like David Boies, Brian Glazer, Richard Branson, overcome their constraints and become world class in their endeavors.

Similarly, several examples in the Gladwell’s book show high achievers like American presidents who lost their father but have risen to greatness such as Washington, Clinton and Obama. ‘David and Goliath’ is perhaps Gladwell’s best book to date, concise and to the point, explaining well that the underdog is actually someone with a strategy in mind, unwilling to accept the common thinking and striking out on his own and winning against superior forces. For instance, orphans achieving great things even without parents, turning a disadvantage into a strong motivation to succeed. I finished both books this week, running through them through the weekend or listening to the audio book to and from work, hungry to grasp their ideas. Good to have finished both, avoiding late return fines from the library, though missing out on the work that I planned to do in the weekend. On Saturday we picked up my son from college, driving for about 4 hours to and from Columbia, going to the excellent State museum and eating at a Japanese Hibachi restaurant, though it was not really authentic but more like an Americanized version with emphasis on quantity and less on the quality, losing the delicateness of Asian cuisine; a fast food version whose incarnation had only a slight resemblance to the original.

During the weekend after coming back from Columbia, I watched Baz Lurhmanns excellent movie ‘The Great Gatzby’; his over the top rendition of the classic that I think clearly captures the excess of the 1920’s including the depiction of New York; his staging of the scenes and the acting I think encapsulated Fitzgerald’s book more than the earlier movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow; allowing one to finally understand Fitzgerald’s genius. The DVD’s special features focused on Ric Burns’ documentary ‘New York’ especially the section on Fitzgerald, capturing the magic of Manhattan, its golden years and promise. This was a brilliant move of Lurhmann to study Burns documentary about the city and use its insight to depict its essence. It is the first time one understood F. Scott Fitzgerald and what he meant to the American psyche. The movie is a  work of genius, the coming together of talents to bring to light a literary classic into the visual age; brilliant capturing the interior landscape of the book that it becomes better than the written original; that one can return to the literary tome with better insight and understanding that one would not normally see. I think Fitzgerald (like Salinger) portrayed the essence of New York and one should read him to understand the city. Fitzgerald's life is tragic, dying relatively young, an alcoholic, his wife becoming mad in a sanitarium, but his writing has an exquisite delicateness, completing several classic books and short stories. Whereas Eggers is like a writer in steroids, pushing the envelope several times, expressing a youthful enthusiasm with a tinge of darkness, emerging from a terrible tragic loss into a hopeful  future.