Lessons from the (melted) snow

The arctic cold that hit us earlier this week has passed!  The last few days has been much warmer (around -5’C to 2’C), thanks to a warm front.  And that is good! :)

With the warmer temperatures, the snow is melting (when it gets warmer) and at times refreezing (when it gets colder).  And that is not good! :(

Why not?

For friends back home who’ve not experienced winter, when snow melts, it turns into water (i.e. liquid).  We know how liquids have smooth surfaces (picture the surface of a lake).  When this smooth surface refreezes, it becomes a thin but hard layer of ice that’s very slippery (because it’s extremely smooth!).  There’s a name for it, called “black ice“.  It looks something like this:


Black ice is so slippery that wife had a fall the other day, and she is hurting :(  I had a few near falls too :(

At the same time, I was puzzled how the locals could walk quite easily on it.  It can’t be the shoes, because wife and I have good quality boots (that have good grip).  So we thought, maybe they are just more experienced walking on ice…?

This afternoon, as I walked Rusty I decided to try a different way of walking.  What if, rather than fight the slippery ice, we stop resisting and instead go with it?  That is, we S-L-I-D-E.

Turns out, sliding is a lot easier than walking on ice :)  Well, this is not a new discovery: when we go to a skating rink, we skate (i.e. slide). But when we encounter ice on the road, it is less intuitive (at least to folks like us) that we can slide on it.

I need to think more about why it is easier (and perhaps safer) to slide rather than walk on ice, and it’s probably down to physics.

But my instinctive thought is that it’s probably easier because we are not trying to apply an old method in a new environment.

When we walk, we are using mechanics that work well when the ground is full of friction.  On a slippery surface, where the friction is low, we need to put in a lot of effort to try and “find the friction”.  When we expect to find friction but do not get it, we slip and fall.  However, when we slide, we do not expect to find friction. We expect to go along with the slide, so there are no surprises!

The same may be said with some other things we encounter in our lives or in our organizations.  Often, we become used to old and familiar ways that worked, that when the environment changes we end up “slipping” and “falling”.  We find ourselves using a lot more concentration and effort just to get by in the new environment, almost like walking on ice.  But if we stopped fighting the environment, stopped seeing it as an enemy but instead as a friend, if we learn to “slide” we may do much better.  And have fun at it too ;)

Sometimes, we may feel that it has become a lot more difficult to do the same things.  Perhaps another way to look at this is: It is not more difficult, it is just… different!


Winter Break Post

Happy New Year! :)

It has been a nice winter break.  I spent more time with Fern & Rusty, and caught up on a few things I’ve always wanted to do but didn’t find the time to do so.

Winter 2013

Which included, four pieces of writing.  It sounds odd to be still writing while on break, but I guess it’s different when you choose to write vs. you have to write :)

I also read Michael Sandel’s “What Money Cannot Buy”.  It was a farewell gift from a friend, and a provoking read.

In short, Sandel discusses how we have monetized and applied economics think to more and more things.  Drawing from wide-ranging examples, such as paying for the right to pollute, cut queue, pick up kids late from the child care center, buy live organs, and even personal things like professionally scripted best-man’s wedding speech, Sandel argues why this can be troubling.  He draws his arguments from two main objections:

  • One, it is unfair when things go to those with the most ability to pay.  For example, paying for someone else’s live organs.
  • Two, monetary values can crowd out and corrupt other non-monetary values such as loyalty, tradition and sanctity, among many others.  For example, turning National Day Parade tickets into a business.

This is not a book review, as I’m not good at such things.  Besides, there are many people who do it better than me, and you can read one here.  But I would like to share quick thoughts on a related issue.

As you know, my interest is in nonprofits.  In particular, nonprofits’ adoption of market concepts, models and practices that emerge from the for-profit world.  The parallel to Sandel’s point is that while many of these concepts, models and practices can apply just as well for nonprofits, some many not be so.

One example is the use of financial incentives to achieve goals.  Increasingly, more nonprofits are using financial incentives to achieve quick wins, but this may be at the expense of larger mission goals.  For example, I know of some nonprofits who have explored paying for volunteers (despite the oxymoron!).  We are also seeing novel (and sometimes seductive) ideas such as market based pay for executives and social impact bonds (i.e. where investors pick and choose social projects to invest in, and earn a return).

The intent is not to write off such ideas.  For the nonprofit sector to flourish, I believe it needs to keep an open mind to all possibilities, even those that we eventually conclude to be inappropriate.  At the same time, nonprofits need to be mindful how such concepts and models could potentially shape (or even corrupt) their mission and values.  To do so, nonprofits will need to start out with very clear ideas and understanding about their unique purpose, role and identity.

So, much as there are some things that money cannot buy, there may also be concepts and models that do not benefit nonprofits.  In principle, I think most nonprofits would agree with this, but in practice it may not always be obvious until perhaps they get too deep into it.

The Spirit of Christmas

I was busy the past few weeks, as the quarter was ending and many team projects were due.

But, with the winter break, I’m glad to have had more time to relax and read :)  And I’ve been reading a great book this past week, Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy”, which I will write more about in a subsequent post.

With Christmas around the corner, wife and I decided to send packages home.  Somehow, the idea of receiving a package in the mail seems quite exciting (at least we think so!), regardless of what’s in it.

Having said that, choosing a gift can be a challenge nowadays, given how global we have become.  There are very few things that one cannot find back home in Singapore!

Fortunately, we did find some local chocolates and cookies which we’ve never seen back home, so we promptly built up a stockpile of these to send as Christmas gifts.  And we spent a whole afternoon packing and sealing these, and writing notes and cards for them.

This morning, we headed to the post office to mail them.  The post office is always packed with people during Christmas season.  The queue was long, but we figured it should not take more than half an hour.

When we reached the counter, we were told we had to repack all our gift boxes because the postal service does not accept the masking tape that we had used to seal all our packages!

So…  We had to take all our packages to a corner of the post office and take them apart, and repack them in the USPS postal boxes and seal them with the USPS packing tape.  It took a long time to do so, including filling out many sets of custom forms.  End to end, we spent 2 hours at the post office!

The postage didn’t come cheap too.  I estimate it’s 4 to 5 times the cost of the chocolates and cookies?  In fact, the lady at the counter jokingly remarked, “These must be the most expensive chocolates and cookies ever!” 

And she’s probably right! :P

I was reminded about something I read in Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy”.  It was about Christmas and gifts.  Sandel writes that the most economically efficient gift is cash, because people can use it to buy the things they value most.  However, sending cash makes many people feel “degraded” about the Christmas experience, so a new industry has emerged around gift cards (e.g. Amazon, iTunes).  Somehow, they are more acceptable as gifts, than cash.

I contrasted the Christmas gift card idea and our experience.  The gift card would have been swift and neat.  You key in the receiver’s details and click send.  You can probably settle it in 5 minutes or less.  And the economists would also consider it highly efficient, because $100 in gift card value would translate to $100 worth of products that our friends would choose to spend on.  Contrast this to the amount of time we spent shopping (and possibly buying something people don’t want), spending an afternoon to pack and seal them the first time, only to spend two more hours at the post office queuing, repacking and then paying 4 to 5 times in excess of the value of the gift.

Sounds like a whole lot of money and effort relative to the actual dollar value of the gift that our friends would receive?  To this, I would agree.

Yet this seeming irrationality may be explained by a Chinese saying, “千里送鹅毛 物轻情意重”, which translates literally to “sending goose feathers over a thousand miles – the goods are light but the meaning is heavy”.  In this case, the meaning and the spirit of Christmas is also about the trouble we take, and the inefficiencies we go through (money and time).  If these turn out to be the most expensive chocolates and cookies ever, maybe that’s what make them special!  In an age where money can buy almost anything, what we go through is something that money cannot buy.  And if we bothered to go through all that trouble and expense to honor some great friendships, those are also cherished relationships that money cannot buy :)

Natural Destruction

It was mayhem in the Midwest yesterday.

Tornadoes swept many cities, with the nearest one only an hour away.  Unlike the recent typhoon in the Philippines, the casualties were low, thankfully!  But many homes were destroyed, with winter fast approaching.

Tornado 2

Last night, when Fern and I took Rusty out for his night walk, the night was unnaturally quiet.  The sky looked too clear and serene to be true – it belied the havoc a few hours earlier.  As we stood in the peace of the night, it was hard to believe that hours away some families lost everything and will spend the cold night (and the next few winter months) in makeshift shelters.  Hard to believe, but it’s true.

There’s no reason why the tornadoes could not have headed our way.  Sometimes it’s hard to fathom why terrible things happen to large swathes of good people.  Amid such madness, the discomforting truth is that sometimes the fine line that separates those affected and those spared is simply a matter of luck.  When disaster comes within touching distance, we can’t help but feel blessed and thankful to be spared.

In a world that has grown so unequal and apart, a natural disaster reminds us that there are many things we still share in common.  When nature strikes, it does not matter whether we live in a hut or a $10mil mansion.  Our fates are joined, and we are the same community.  It fades the sense of self, and you just want to do something nice to help someone else.

Many of us live blessed lives.  Particularly so in Singapore, where we have never experienced natural disaster.  The closest we experience is tremors when there is an earthquake in Sumatra, and sometimes we get calf-deep flash floods when the rains pour hard.  But nothing devastating or earth shattering.  Yet we are always complaining and unhappy.  There are so many things to be thankful about.  We really should count our blessings in life…

When’s the best time to take a driving test?

Three weeks ago, I took my US driving test.  I have driven for many years back home, and also drove in the US with my Singapore license a few times.  But I didn’t want to be presumptive and hence I took four practice lessons with a driving school.

On the morning of the test, it rained.  The visibility was not good, and the road was slippery.  Not the best conditions for a test.  I felt a bit nervous, and even entertained thoughts of taking the test on a better day. 

My driving instructor picked me up in a different car (a Chevy) from the one I had driven in practice (a Toyota).  He apologized for the change, as there were issues with the Toyota. 

At that point, my mind began to drift back to those essays I wrote in primary school about “The day that everything went wrong”.

We arrived early and were among the first test-takers.  I suspect some people might have decided to postpone taking their test.  Not a problem for me, because it meant I didn’t have to wait long :) 

My test proctor was a middle-aged lady called Michelle.  She was very nice and kept giving me reminders throughout the test (e.g. where to stop, where to yield etc.)  It felt strange, because I thought test proctors were always waiting to catch your errors!

And I thought, maybe this isn’t such a bad day after all…  :P

At one junction, Michelle again “guided” me through the turn.  There was a car in the opposite direction signaling to turn (i.e. not going in my direction).  I’m usually cautious about such turns, because some drivers give one signal but do something else!  But Michelle told me to proceed, so I went ahead cautiously.  It was a good thing I did, because the driver went straight at me!  Fortunately, I was able to brake the car in time.

Even when things seem to be going well, you never know where a situation would emerge!

Fortunately, it was the only incident in an otherwise uneventful test.  I got my license (yay!), but the day’s developments got me thinking: 

Is there a best time to take a driving test?

Sometimes when we approach a significant challenge, we like to wish for the perfect conditions (or as perfect as it can get).  We pay much attention to things that might enhance or derail our chances.  Unfortunately when we do so, we may get unnecessarily focused on those things, rather than our capabilities and adaptability.

It’s like playing cards.  We hope to get a great hand, but most of the time we don’t.  Yet we still have to play on, and if we are skillful enough we can play an average hand very well, and we can salvage a poor hand. 

In my view, there is no “ideal” set of conditions.  Just when I thought the rain and change of car were going to lower my chances of passing the driving test, I got a nice test proctor.  Just when I thought I got so much help from the test proctor, I encountered a driver who drove badly!

In a way, that’s life – complex and unpredictable!  In fact, far more complex and unpredictable than a game of cards.  There are limitless variations, and when we worry too much about such external variables, we lose focus on ourselves.


This past week, I was reading about mindsets, how they influence one’s inclination to learning and one’s outlook in life.  I learned there are two types of mindsets: fixed mindsets and growth mindsets

People with fixed mindsets tend to perceive their qualities as fixed or carved in stone.  They are less likely to pick up something new, thinking that it is something they cannot learn well.  They say things like, “Oh, I’m not good at this”, “I tried the last time and it did not work”, “These things are not for old timers like me” etc.

On the other hand, people with growth mindsets tend to perceive their qualities as things they can work on and improve.  They are likely to see something new as a challenge to be overcome, and they have greater confidence in their abilities to learn.  When they don’t succeed, they learn from it and try again with a different approach.

I see some parallels to the driving test.  If we look to life to deal us a great set of cards each time, we may implicitly concede that our abilities are fixed and we subject ourselves to lady luck and life’s unpredictability. 

Conversely, if we look upon each hand not as a pre-determinant of our success, but as tools to make best use of, we will have greater confidence and control over our own destinies :)