Of Money and Value

The Minister of Education of Singapore recently shared a story to explain the limits of GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

“If you and I eat the dinner we cook for ourselves, there is no GDP.”

“If you exchange (trade) our dinners, suddenly there is GDP because it becomes tradable. And chances are welfare may actually drop because I may not like your cooking and you may not like mine. GDP has its limits.”

I’d like to offer a 3rd variation. If I give you the dinner I cook as a gift, and you return the favor by giving me the dinner you cook as a gift, there is no GDP but we build goodwill.

Even if I don’t like your cooking and you don’t like mine, chances are we become better friends as a result.

The market may be a great thing, but there are some things the market cannot provide.


Learning to Appreciate Cutthroat Kitchen

Blog - Giant whisk

I’m not a huge TV fan, but I first came to know about Cutthroat Kitchen because my wife liked to watch it.

The format of Cutthroat Kitchen is simple. It is a cooking competition where four chefs eliminate one another over three rounds of cooking. At the start of each show, the chefs are given an upfront prize money of $25,000, which they can use to bid for sabotages to inflict on one another. The more money they bid with, the less they have for themselves if they end up as the final winner.

The sabotages differ each week. In one episode, one chef had to do his food prep in a ball pit! (Talk about being in the pits…)

Blog - Cook in ballpit

In another episode, one chef had to make crepes “in” a terribly misshapen pan!

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After each round of cooking, a judge tastes the dishes and eliminates one of the chefs. The judge has no clue what the sabotages were, or who was sabotaged.

When I first watched the show, I thought it was silly, even sadistic. Why do we delight in seeing people pranked and sabotaged? If the point is to pick out the best chef, why place so many obstacles in the way of their culinary skills?

But after a while (and perhaps one gets desensitized over time), I began to appreciate the show. I think Cutthroat Kitchen reflects some realities about life.

How often we go into a situation with a great plan only to be disappointed to find out that critical parts of the plan are missing. Perhaps we don’t have certain resources. Maybe the cost of materials has gone up. Perhaps some other department is not cooperating. When that happens, we get anxious and upset. We think, no way we can do it like this!! So we do everything to raise the stakes, not too different from how the chefs in Cutthroat Kitchen raise their bets.

But as we’ve seen too many times on Cutthroat Kitchen, it is possible to take a sabotage (or more), and still finish the task. It may require a different process, it may require the dish to be refashioned or even reinterpreted, but it can be done. Often, the dish turns out quite well too. In fact, chefs who’ve had to work through sabotages at times outperformed those that had no sabotages!

Life likes to throw us curveballs, sometimes nasty ones. It is important to be able to adapt and change one’s strategy and plan in the midst of adversity. More impressive perhaps, are those who can change their mindset as well. The most impressive chefs I’ve seen are those who have looked at a sabotage and said, yes it’s dreadful but I’m not going to raise the stakes on this one because I think I can deal with it. There is something inspiring about people who are keenly aware of their skills and gain quiet confidence; people who focus on what is possible rather than what is impossible. These are often the game-changers.

As they say, things often seem impossible until they are done. I used to find Cutthroat Kitchen frivolous, even irritating. I’ve learnt to appreciate it better. I think there’s a lot we can learn from the show. I now watch it with a curiosity as to the breathtaking possibilities when we learn to adapt and change our plans and strategy, and perhaps more importantly, also our minds.

Blog - High stakes

Image credits: Food Network

Gratitude and Responsibility

This past week was Commencement week at Northwestern. It’s hard to believe how quickly two years went by (especially since at times it didn’t always feel that way… ;)

MSLOC (my program) organized an informal lunch for the graduates and our guests. Even though we were fully decked out in our graduation gowns, it was clear that there were far more important people in our midst. In MSLOC tradition (which was really meaningful and fitting!), each one of us was invited to introduce and talk about our “support system.”

Fern was there to support me in the final leg of what must have felt like two long years. Two long years of caring for me, of lonely evenings and late night dinners, and of fighting with books and notes for my attention ;)

My parents flew halfway around the world to visit. They rarely travel, and have never been to this part of the world. To be able to come on this journey must have been a life moment for them (and in their doing so, so it was for me too). It struck me that graduation is not only the milestone of two years of hard work for the student, it is also the milestone of a lifetime of hard work for the parents!


The MSLOC community is also a huge part of my support system. It always makes me proud to share with others how diverse our learning community is. My teachers and classmates come from various walks of life – HR professionals, OD practitioners, coaches, consultants, leaders and managers, CEOs, partners, and executives, ranging from people in their late 20s/30s to their 50s/60s; we even have a few grandparents amongst us! Each one is as much a learner as he or she is a teacher to others. Where it comes to learning about human systems, I think there’s no better diversity than what we have at MSLOC :)

In MSLOC tradition, the community was invited to contribute words to describe each graduating student, and a word cloud was created for us. I’m not going to post my word cloud here, except to say it meant a lot to me. I think what the community says about someone is far richer than what is reflected in a diploma or a transcript. Even though society will unlikely recognize the piece of paper that contains my word cloud, it means a lot to me, perhaps even more than the diploma (that society recognizes!).


Unseen and unheard on graduation day were also the larger support systems out there. These include my friends, colleagues, and working experiences of jobs past and present. They include people who came into my life, enriched it, and created life experiences that helped me grow as a person and with which I continue to learn from.


It’s sobering when you picture all that. As much as it takes a village to raise a kid, it also takes the village to build a person. And it continues to take the village to create success. Barrack Obama was spot on when he said, “you didn’t build that.”

“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own… If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” – Barrack Obama, July 2012, Virginia.

There is a Chinese saying, 饮水思源, which translates to, “when you drink water think of the source.” When we look at any success, hopefully we also recognize all the multiple sources that contribute to it.

Which leads to the question – if one’s success is owed to so many others what then is one’s responsibility? If the skills and gifts that one gains in the course of education are possible only as a result of everyone’s contributions, surely they cannot be private goods used for private benefit. Particularly in a world where only a small percentage of people have the privilege to be educated, there is an even larger responsibility to give back to the world.

However, we are also a world that tends to notice and focus on the most tangible things. While it takes the whole village to build a person, where different people contribute different investments – investments of time, energy, emotional attention, moral support, and many other tangible and intangible resources, unfortunately it tends to be those that invest the financial resources who get repaid first. Many students start out in the working world saddled with huge study loans, and their most tangible (and perhaps too, foremost) obligations are to the financial institutions that provide those loans. This principle of reciprocating what others have invested in you is correct, but it should apply to all types of investments that others have made however big or small, tangible or intangible.

And certainly, the last person to be “repaid”, if it ever comes round to it, would be ourselves. For those who have enjoyed the privilege, we have the responsibility – to learn, to grow, to lead, and to pay it forward.

Business and Social Mission Tensions in Nonprofits

Blog 1 - Business and social mission

Over the past year, I did a research on business and social mission tension in nonprofit organizations. The work stems from my background, experiences, and interest in nonprofit and public service. I had the joy and privilege of interviewing eight nonprofit executive leaders in the US, and gained much insights and learning from them.

In four LinkedIn posts, I shared my research.

Part 1 – What business and social mission tensions in nonprofits look like

Part 2 – How does being nonprofit contribute to such tensions

Part 3 – What nonprofit executives do to manage those tensions

Part 4 – My thoughts and takeaways on the research

I’m sharing these as links, rather than the full articles themselves.

If you are interested in learning more about the research, or the details, please contact me at stanfong78@gmail.com.

We Are One


George Yeo, the former Foreign Minister of Singapore, shared the following story in his new book, ”Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao”.

The late Cardinal Jan Schotte, who had served as Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican, was drafting a speech for the late Pope John Paul II. In one of the sentences, Schotte wrote,

“despite our differences, we are one.”


When John Paul II saw it, he replaced “despite” with “because of”.

because of our differences, we are one.”


For me, this ranks as one of my favorite simpler ideas.

We often focus on our differences, and we draw lines that divide us. Actually, noticing differences is not a bad thing in itself. For our differences make each of us unique, and they allow each of us to bring something unique to the table. It becomes a problem only when we use those differences not to strengthen ourselves but to divide ourselves.

And in trying to divide ourselves, we become a lesser one.

George Yeo’s story also shows how profound change can be achieved through subtle shifts in how we think. By simply changing a few words, we can see the possibilities of a better world.

And to close, here’s another simple idea :)


Photo credit:


A social dynamic to change

Dan Price, the founder and CEO of Gravity Payments, has decided to take a pay cut and forgo a large part of the company’s profits to raise the minimum salary in his company to $70,000. He hopes this will reduce income inequality within the company and motivate employees.

As an organizational development (OD) person who believes that a better world is one where businesses are a growing part of the solution for many social ills, I have a strong interest in Price’s story. My current reading project is on social dynamics and the diffusion of ideas, so I’m also looking at the story from that angle.

Although Price talks about income inequality and worker motivation, by his own accounts the tipping point came when he went on a hike with a friend and heard her struggle with rising rent prices. Prior to the incident, income inequality had been on Price’s mind for months but nothing concrete came out of it.

Notably, the person who influenced Price was his friend, and not an employee. Could an employee have moved him? We don’t know. What we do know is that people tend to be influenced more by their friends and peers. Notably too, the encounter took place on a hike in the outdoors, and not in the office. Could the same have happened in the office? Again, we do not know. We might guess though that when Price was engaging his friend, he probably wore a different identity from the one he had in office: as a friend rather than a boss, and in a social or recreational setting rather than a work setting.

Here lies an interesting opportunity where it comes to integrating business and social interests, or some might say, resolving the tussle between the head and the heart.

Often when we look at CEOs and business leaders, it is easy to focus on their business personas and make assumptions about them. Someone who looked at Price’s salary a few months ago might have noted that it was 22 times that of his lowest paid employee, and concluded that Price was just one of those leaders who didn’t care.

Yet, we are all complex beings with many identities. Someone who comes across as a cold-hard boss at work could well be a doting parent at home, or someone with interest in some social causes. A change that cuts little ice with one identity may gain traction with a different identity, e.g., as a friend on a hike vs. as a boss in the office.

Having said that, it is not always obvious what ideas will resonate with what identities. Often, change may feel like a mountain that can never be moved. Yet, everything could change with a spark at the right moment in the right setting.

If we cannot tell for sure which ideas will resonate with which identities, how might all this be useful? Well, even if we don’t know what will work, we may be able to surmise what won’t work or is less likely to work. For example, we may surmise that if we apply fixed labels to people and box them in within certain identities, we may constrain them to act and behave within those few limited identities. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand though, if we keep ourselves open to discovering and embracing more facets about people, we stand a better chance of connecting with other identities within them.

And so, one of the keys may lie in connecting with different identities in people. And also, exploring mediums that can help this, for example, through the use of stories.

Separately, something else seems to be happening. Even though Price may have been personally swayed by his friend’s story in a non-work context, he tries to articulate what he is doing in the context of business. He talks about the change not as a charity offer to his workers but as a “capitalist solution to a social problem.” Two things happen when he does this. One, Price reinterprets the change in a way that may connect better with the business identity. Two, he potentially reaches out to some other business leaders as a peer or friend; the same message carries different weight because he is one of them.

So a change in one person can look quite different in another person. Where it comes to social change, meaning is seldom fixed or objective. It is constantly reshaped and reconstructed from one person to another. Therefore, even though some of us may wish to be able to execute change neatly and efficiently out of a playbook, what affects change can often be a rather subjective process. This is what makes change such a fascinating phenomenon :)