Lessons from 2020

Ray Dalio says that pain + reflection = progress.

2020 has felt like I’ve gone through a growth spurt. This is my documentation of some of the top lessons for the year.

  1. Your body is not separate from your mind (and heart). 

In the words of an esteemed coach, we tend to think of our mind and heart as the control centers, and the body is simply there for the ride. I’ve learned that my body constantly gives me data to work with, often much more clearly than my emotions (which I’m trying to get better at discerning). The implication is that things like drinking, while it is a social lubricant, is indeed abusing the body. You are your body so go walk, exercise, hike.

  1. The belief generates the system. but the system also generates the belief. 

This one came from Charles Eisenstein. That’s the argument for why we have to go beyond changing beliefs. I’ve always believed marketers underestimate the power they’ve been handed. In the words of a legendary non-marketer (self-professed) Bill Matassoni: Marketing is about creating new systems that house new markets that explore new dimensions that create new value. That’s why I’m going beyond my current container for marketing to strategy, in order to create new markets and systems for change.

  1. Pleasure is not a bad word

There’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking pleasure. Somebody said that if its not pleasurable, you won’t do it for long. It’s ok to want something. Sometimes we tell ourselves we can’t do this, or we shouldn’t do something because it’s too indulgent. I think it’s better to do it, and then see if your thirst is indeed quenched. If it’s not, you learn something about the nature of that desire. And if it does, that’s something too. That’s an example of a “pure” signal. You don’t have any confusion about what it’s like when you do or have it. I think of it like the second mountain (David Brook) effect. You have people who go really hard at what they want. They get to the top of the mountain and then they have absolute clarity. That’s how you have people make such complete transformations because they have no illusions about what that mountain top looks like. 

  1. And neither is anger

Anger is a secondary emotion that comes up when you feel like you can’t handle the challenge. It musters and focuses your energy to help you breakthrough that challenge. Like our other emotions, they are data points helping me understand who I am. A friend recommended the book Honor your anger to understand the different styles of anger. 6seconds.org also does amazing work in this domain. 

  1. How you respond to someone tells you more about yourself than the other person

I don’t mean this in a “you’re a bigger/superior person” kind of way. Rather your response gives you a window into your mental models, what you think, feel, believe. I just read an article about the concept of intentional learning. In the new world, people have to learn how to learn better. More simply (and crudely) put, to squeeze more juice out of each of the lemons AND oranges we get. Personal development has always emphasized an examination of our actions in order to make the unconscious conscious. In other words, never waste an opportunity to introspect when you feel strong emotions, whether it be intense pleasure, or anger, etc

  1. Relationships can be built, but the most powerful ones are created

Possibly one of my biggest breakthroughs for the year. We tend to think of relationships as being built layer by layer, becoming ever stronger. It’s not wrong. However, I realize that doesn’t explain how the nature of relationships can change in an instant with one single interaction – especially when you least expect it. That illustrates the risk inherent in relationships, and indeed, life. You can “destroy” friendships with one insensitive remark, or the lack of response to one. And yet it’s exactly because of this risk, that there is the opportunity to create the relationships we want. I love the slogan of Human Systems Dynamics Institute: Nothing is intractable.

  1. Help is a complex social dynamic

In 2018, I organized an event to help position a not-for-profit group I was part of. The event met with heavy resistance. Efforts to sabotage it ranged from outright verbal abuse to clandestine character assassination. I was bewildered by how in my opinion, I was backstabbed by the very people I was trying to help. My faith in people has never been lower. In 2019, I shelved that experience, but I have yet to learn the lesson it was trying to teach me. In 2020, it came. Thanks to Edgar Schein’s teachings, I realized the process of helping is fraught with pitfalls eg. the helper is perceived as superior (and hence the helped is inferior), when a group is involved, who exactly is requesting help? I realized I was complicit in enabling their behavior. No one asked for my help. Who said they needed help? Discerning my own intentions, and understanding the dynamics of helping improved my relationship skills, but that context applies equally to consulting relationships and the process of change management. We must see others as equals, not as victims to not hinder the process of creating change

  1. Understanding is not an experience of the listener

“Understanding is a feeling another person has about being listened to and of being seen, heard and felt.”. With that I’ve modified the serenity prayer (I’m not Christian btw) for my purposes: 

God grant me the serenity to listen to things unsaid, 

The strength to say the things that need saying,

And the wisdom to know when to do which.

  1. Allow space to create

John O’Donohue says a great conversation is “…when you overhear yourself saying things you never knew you knew, that you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that found places within you that you thought you had lost (…)”. Life is creation, and creation needs space. If you hold on too tightly – to your preconceived notions about what you want to happen, then there is no space to “overhear” yourself, or whatever else that may emerge. To create, is to allow space. 

When doing the right thing is the wrong thing

I never imagined my first post on this site would be related to politics.

When LHL announced Pritam Singh as the leader of the opposition, my first thought was, – why bother announcing it? As part of my voter research, I’d stumbled upon the term earlier in Wikipedia, with LKY as the first-ever leader of the opposition. It never occurred to me that the role would have access to resources tagged to it.

The point about resources is why i think this is worth thinking about.

Like many other things I think about, they stem more from curiosity than passion in the subject. Therefore, I’m not so much interested in politics, as I am in trying to figure out how politics contributes to Singapore’s growth as a nation.

Without speculating the intentions of the announcement (since I’m not much of a mind reader despite what I like to think), I’m going to instead focus on what that statement from the ruling party means from the lens of corporate growth strategy – with Singapore as the organization, and growth referring to the general well-being of the nation.

Every business has core lines of business that deliver growth. No matter what that core is, its growth will eventually decline and then stop. Singapore, as an organization, is no different. The PAP is like the division heading the core business, responsible for the growth of the organization. The PAP has its own culture, idiosyncrasies, metrics for success etc. Through the years, it’s been finely tuned to efficiently deliver the outcome it strives for, whatever the outcome may have been determined to be.

And yet the day must come when an organization’s core business stops growing.

It could happen for a myriad of reasons, with disruption being one of them. When that happens, most such organizations never recover because they’ve never made the effort to seek out additional engines of growth.

The solution then is to be actively seeking out new opportunities. New possibilities for the next engines of growth for the organization.

Organizations have tried to do this by establishing new teams within the existing structure tasked to do so. But when it comes time for resourcing, the desire for growth ends up allocating resources to the core division and starving out the new teams. In the case of Singapore, the teams are exploring new ideas, policies that improve the well-being of Singaporeans.

I’ve been dipping into complexity and leadership of late. With a question as complex as what should Singapore do next, coming up with a compelling response is in equal parts figuring out WHAT to do and HOW it is done. And the opposition presents opportunities to up-level our capacity for both.

My hypothesis: LHL’s recognition of the leader of the opposition is an attempt to seek out new engines of growth for the nation. The announcement sends the following messages:

  1. It’s time to explore new engines of growth
  2. it’s going to take a team who thinks differently from the core business division
  3. It’s going to take resources to experiment so take it with my blessings

I feel, for LHL to make that statement, speaks to the level of maturity of our political climate.

My analogy so far is that PAP is a division of a company. But their status as the ruling party also means they actually wear 2 hats. Meaning, they are not just executives, but also board members. Their concern isn’t restricted to winning votes or a strong mandate, but also to make sure the organization stays true to its mission – the well-being of Singaporeans over the long term.

I’ve heard comments that if LKY looked at the results of the election, he’d shake from his grave. I don’t think so. I think he’ll be elated with how the situation is unfolding.

During my short stint as a civil servant, I remember a particular training session on policy drafting. The trainer shared that if you took a knife and opened up his heart, you would not see a PAP flag, nor will you see an opposition flag.

You will, instead, see a Singaporean flag.

LHL’s decision to recognize and give resources to the leader of the opposition isn’t an easy one because resources don’t exist in a vacuum. Recognizing the leader of the opposition means they have to take away resources from the core business to explore future opportunities. I’m way oversimplifying it, but it looks like PAP is ceding control in the short, medium-term for the long-term good of Singapore.

Tasked with the long term prospects of Singapore, we are in essence facing the innovator’s dilemma – a theory by Clayton Christensen, the father of disruptive innovation where.

Doing the right thing is the wrong thing

This dilemma is at the heart of the ruling party’s relationship with the opposition.

WP has proven itself as a team with the quality of candidates, as well as their connection with voters. This has made LHL’s decision easier to make.

Yet WP’s resonance on the ground also means, collectively, we Singaporeans have reached a level of political sophistication. You can only sell a solution to a problem the customer is aware of. Therefore, in an ironic twist, the ruling party’s decision to sell this solution – of recognizing the leader of the opposition – actually reflects a vote of confidence that Singaporeans will be discerning of not just of the work the opposition is capable of doing, but also that of the ruling party to grow and develop the nation.