3 Lessons From A Pair of Leaky Goggles

So last week, I decided to go swimming after like a 5-year hiatus. Yeah, I blame my ever-increasing waistline.

I’m the kind of guy who needs to wear goggles – I don’t get how people can open their eyes underwater and not get blinded by all the crap that’s in there. Anyways, I couldn’t find my old pair of goggles, so I decided to pick up a pair from this ratty little store (which was inexplicably blasting Flo-Rida songs at 10 in the morning) before driving to the pool.

The goggles were cheap, somewhere to the tune of 2 bucks. I drove away from the store feeling like I got a helluva bargain.

The first thing I noticed was that the straps were ridiculously hard to adjust. Describing them as “tight” was an understatement – it would’ve taken a brain surgeon with tweezers and a microscope to undo them. Also, they were really low-quality. I would have been able to make a better goggle strap with a pair of rubber bands.

I decided to just screw it and force them onto my head, making my skull feel like it was slowly being crushed by a boa constrictor. Also, the goggles were leakier than the Titanic. By the time I’d done half a lap, there was a complete ecosystem of coral life in front of my eyes. On the bright side, I was learning how to open my eyes in water.

After about 2 laps of swimming with a constricted head and water-filled eyes, I felt dizzy so I stopped and pulled the goggles off. And then one side of the goggles just COMPLETELY FELL OFF. I couldn’t believe it – my goggles were disintegrating before my very eyes.

I had enough. I got out of the pool, threw my goggles in the bin, and went home in disgust. I’d done a grand total of 2 laps.

Three lessons I’ve learnt from this episode:

  1. Never trust any store that plays Flo-Rida songs at 10 in the morning.
  2. Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean good. Always do your research before you buy, and opt for long-lasting and high-quality even if it costs a little more. (However, some people may misread this and automatically assume that “expensive = good”. This isn’t necessarily true either especially when it comes to unit trusts, mutual funds, financial advisers and ETFs).

But really, the most important lesson would be:

3. Always strive for high-quality.

It’s often tempting for me to rush through a to-do list by doing the bare minimum for each task. But I’ve always found that it’s usually a bad idea – the work gets compromised, my boss tells me to do it again, and it becomes the equivalent of a pair of crappy rubber-band-boa-constrictor-leaky goggles.

Instead, I’ve come to approach work in a totally different manner these days by just focusing on just three important tasks a day: two tasks in the morning, a slot to answer emails after lunch, and then one last task till the end of the day.

That really helps me to zero in my focus on what’s truly important, allowing me to really kick ass to produce the highest quality work I can offer. I do this even if it takes a little longer to accomplish ’em. The downside is that I don’t get to complete a lot of my other, less important, tasks, but I’ve found that they usually take care of themselves after awhile 😉

It doesn’t just apply to work – I’m trying to approach the blog and the book in the same way too. That’s why I take a whole week to write a blog post. That’s why I’m spending hours and hours researching on nuances just to write one paragraph in the book. That’s why I have hour-long conversations with friends to test ideas out. My goal is to make it so absolutely freakin’ awesome that it would easily trump the pants off any other personal finance book out there.

So I encourage you to do the same. If you’re going to do something – a report for your boss, a product for your customers, or a gift for a friend, make it high-quality. Don’t worry if it takes a little longer – that extra hour you take to craft it will be totally worth it. Start forming the habit to NEVER settle for mediocrity.

As Faith Jegede proclaims in this awesome TED talk, “The pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential. The chance for greatness, for progress, and for change, dies the moment we try to be like someone else.”

Never settle for “normal”. Get out there, and create something amazing.

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Taking A Break

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t disappeared off the face of this earth yet – I’m just on vacation on the West Coast of USA, and I didn’t have time to blog this before I left.

In the past 9 days, I’ve covered LA, Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Monterey; and I’m now on the final leg of my trip in San Francisco. Pretty much loving the Californian weather, the long drives, and the FOOD right now.

Will be back to my usual blogging routine in early September – In the meantime, here are a couple of interesting reads I’ve come across in the past couple of weeks:

1. The Big Lie About Engagement Rings – anyone thinking about proposing / getting proposed to should read this.

2. The Disciplined Pursuit of Less from the Harvard Business Review. Great article describing how we should be decluttering our lives – not just in the usual time-wasters, but also saying no to some terrific opportunities if we don’t absolutely want/need them. Kind of ties into my recent Revenge of the Ping post too.

3. How To Do Presentations That Don’t Induce Suicide – awesome presentation about… how to do a presentation

Till next week! 🙂

How To Never Have Monday Blues Again

The Mondays after a long weekend or a vacation are the worst. You get into the office, and it’s like walking into the set of Night of the Living Dead. Everyone is a freakin’ zombie: blank eyes, slack mouth, and shuffling (not the LMFAO kind). This week started with one such Monday – we had a public holiday on Thursday, so most people took time off on Friday to enjoy an awesome 4-day weekend. The Monday hangover was especially severe.

I was feeling a little out of it myself on my way to work (totally losing control here – 2 glasses of wine is enough to destroy me… and I’m only 27). My Kindle had mysteriously stopped working which only served to annoy the hell out of me. So out of boredom, I turned to YouTube and scrolled to SNL’s classic Can I Have Yo Numba? video. Okay it’s not like the funniest video in the world, but it made all the difference:

It made me smile.

Everything changed after that. I got off the bus feeling considerably lighter than when I got on. That brought on another smile because I thought about the awesome things coming up in life: a stable salary, an upcoming holiday, and great-tasting coffee in the morning for 65 cents. Grinning, I stepped into the coffee line and breezed a cheerful “good morning!” to a colleague. She looked at me like I was crazy and exclaimed that she’d never seen anyone so cheerful on a Monday morning.

Behavior –> Motivation

It sounds clichéd, but smiling really does work, even if it’s forced. In 2002, researchers led by Robert Soussignan performed an experiment where participants were asked to grip a pencil horizontally between their teeth, naturally activating the muscles used for smiling. The participants had no idea that the experiment was about happiness, but reported considerably more positive reactions to several videos they were shown.

Say you attempt a fake smile. Just try it. Right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Does your brain know that you’re faking it? Of course it does. But that action tricks your body into producing chemicals that make you feel happy anyway. It’s a textbook case of how your actions can trigger internal motivations – not the other way round.

By the way, this applies to saving and investing too. Most people wait for years to get the “motivation” to save and invest, and end up never starting because “willpower” never works. The truth is, all they had to do was get started – to save and invest as little as $50 a month. Once you get started, your body adapts itself to towards the action you’re performing, developing an “investor mindset” that triggers further investing behavior.

A System To Destroy Monday Blues

So – back to Mondays. I know, it sucks to go to work on a Monday after you’ve partied all weekend (Or in my case, had TWO WHOLE GLASSES of wine. Yeah, you know party rock is in tha hoouuusseee toniiiiight). But if you’ve gotta be at work for the next 5 days anyway, you might as well try to enjoy it, right? So SMILE. You’ll feel happier. And it’s been proven that happier people do better work, are more effective, and are more likely to succeed.

One tip: Set up a system to remind yourself to smile. Yes, it’s corny, but it works. Simply set a daily reminder to SMILE on your phone’s calendar to go off at the same time every day – I set mine to coincide with the lowest point of motivation in the day: walking from the bus to the office. My phone buzzes, I let out a huge grin, and the day automatically becomes awesome after that.

Try it out 🙂

Freshly Pressed Ping

freshly pressed

So last night, in my sleep-deprived, mentally frustrated state, I dashed off a post – Revenge of the Ping – about how the Ping totally ruined my plans for yesterday. I totally didn’t expect it to get featured on the Freshly Pressed section of WordPress.com, generating more than 5,000 hits, 74 comments and 79 followers (and counting!) in a single day! Woweeee!

Ironically, today was my biggest Ping day ever with my WordPress app buzzing every other minute and my inbox flooding with WordPress notifications. Lots of people also commented that the only way to stumble across my post was to submit to… the Ping. Oh, the irony of it all 😀

Something struck me while I was reading through the comments: We could be from anywhere in the world, but we’re all pretty much the same when it comes to situations like these. EVERYONE’S been hit by the Ping before and screwed up their plans, so don’t feel too bad about it if it happens to you. Take a breather, then switch off your phone and your chats and your email client, work on that to-do list, and hunker down and work your way through it. Guilt never got anyone anywhere.

(Pretty much everyone also agrees that the phone stack is an awesome idea, and quite a few people share my distaste for Justin Bieber’s single “Boyfriend”. So that totally made my day.)

So anyways, I just wanted to say thank you. Really. It’s superduper encouraging to know that there are actually people who appreciate the stuff I write about here. (When I first started blogging I got kinda worried that the only people who would be reading this blog is some drunk college kid trying to google how to fry an egg at 4am.) A friend told me that sometimes people just need to get reminded about the painfully obvious things that we forget – which are sometimes the ones that would help us the most.

So thank you for the encouragement and the love! I’ll keep blogging as much as I can. Leave a comment if there are any personal finance / rich life topics you’d like me to write about – I read every one 🙂

Revenge of the Ping

I’ll make this quick – today, I planned for a totally productive night of getting shit done. I was gonna review my budget, research some investments, blog a little bit, and organize my articles. Yeah, I can tell that you’re totally jealous of my ridiculously awesome life of sex, drugs and alcohol.

But it all started going downhill from work – First, I was given a big task to do in the morning. Instead of focusing on that, I spent my day answering emails, attending discussions, customizing templates, and intermittently going back to that task. And then my colleagues mucked around at the snack corner so of course I had to join them for that. And so I had to work late, and I decided to reward myself with a Swensen’s dinner (come here you, chicken baked rice and US fries and dips, you!), and then I decided to read a few chapters of my book, and check out a few other blogs at the same time… and before I knew it, it was bedtime. Dang!

So hey, if I couldn’t do any of that other stuff, the least I could do was squeeze in a blogpost, right? So much love for you, dear reader, so much love.

Saying “no”

So I thought I was being awesome my multitasking my ass off (generating Pivot Tables while shooting off emails? pssshhttt. No problem.), but I was actually unknowingly falling prey to the insidious monster known as the Ping. The Ping creeps up on you, often disguised as activities like “multitasking” or “urgent priority”, but really, it just pulls you away from the most important things you’ve gotta get done today.

This article from HBR talks about staying focused on only the most important things. It sounds cliched as hell, but we don’t realize how crucial it really is to prevent us from crashing and burning:

“Never before has it been so important to say “No.” No, I’m not going to read that article. No, I’m not going to read that email. No, I’m not going to take that phone call. No, I’m not going to sit through that meeting.

It’s hard to do because maybe, just maybe, that next piece of information will be the key to our success. But our success actually hinges on the opposite: on our willingness to risk missing some information. Because trying to focus on it all is a risk in itself. We’ll exhaust ourselves. We’ll get confused, nervous, and irritable. And we’ll miss the CEO standing next to us in the elevator.”

More data = more noise

At the risk of sounding like I’m writing a General Paper essay for junior college, we live in a hyperconnected world. Breaking news, stock prices, tweets, and drunk photos of you last Friday night on Facebook are literally at our fingertips. (Of course, I could do with some types of media being not so easily accessible – such as Justin Bieber’s latest single Boyfriend. Shudder.) But as Nassim Taleb shares in this article, having more data makes it even more likely for you to make mistakes. More data generates more noise, which makes the likelihood of finding what you need – the signal – even lower.

Keeping up with the flurry of information is a loser’s game. In fact, it is very likely that all that information could screw you over. Or kill you. (statistics show that in 80% of car crashes, the driver was distracted during the three seconds preceding the incident.)

Staying focused, #likeaboss

So make your to-do list before you start anything in your work day, and stick to it. Turn off your email alerts and your instant messaging chats. Leave your phone in a place where you cant reach it. And do just ONE THING at a time. You’ll be way more effective than trying to “multitask” everything away.

Something non-work related: When you’re having lunch with friends, try putting your phones in a phone stack. I tried it last week and it was one of the most enjoyable lunches I’ve had in awhile 🙂

And the next time you hear the siren call of the Ping, tell it to go screw itself.

The Great Sit-Up Challenge

I like to do many things on a whim. So when I saw this picture on my Facebook newsfeed, I decided to re-post it on my wall, with the text:

“I’ll do 5x worth of sit-ups on however many likes I get in 24 hours. Deadline is Tuesday 8:43am. Bring it on, bitches ;)”

Essentially, it was a challenge: For every Facebook “Like” I got in 24 hours, I’d do 5 sit-ups. I figured the most I’d do was like 200-ish – It was such a lame challenge that I figured no one would give a damn anyway.

But I completely underestimated my friends’ propensity to sabotage: I got 111 Likes, which meant that I had to do a grand total of 555 sit-ups.

Now, you must understand that for all my talk of being sexy, I do not actually have a six-pack of steel abs (even though I like to occasionally delude myself sometimes). In fact, 2 years of sitting my ass on an office chair have consolidated whatever stomach muscles I used to have (fyi for my international friends – all Singaporeans have to serve almost 2 years in the military) into a solid, and slightly wobbly, one-pack on my belly.

But hey, what the heck – I figured this would be a helluva opportunity to get started on getting those muscles back. So I approached it like how I would approach any big project, which was to:

1. Set a goal

The goal had to be tangible, quantifiable, and specific. Some corporate programs would ask you to do it SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) – I’m allergic to corporate jargon, but you can totally adopt it if that floats your boat.

So this was perfect – I had to do 555 sit-ups, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to finish it in a day, (like I said, my one wobbly pack isn’t the most optimized for such punishment) – so I set my target for the end of the week – Sunday, which gave me 6 days to complete it.

2. Be accountable

I posted my deadline on Facebook status for all the world to see: 555 sit-ups by the end of the week. A friend commented: YOUR HONOR IS AT STAKE, YOUR INTEGRITY. DON’T LET YOURSELF DOWN. DO IT.

Talk about pressure.

The most common reason for failure is not following through, which is why accountability is critical. Tell your boss that your performance this year should depend on the success of this project. Pay your friends $5 everytime you don’t meet a deadline. Stake your integrity and honor on something. And be serious about it. Don’t be a pussy.

Yesterday, I attended a gathering of awesome people (termed “Awesome Anonymous” – which is a freakin awesome name btw). We each had our own individual projects we wanted to complete, and we all agreed to hold each other accountable by meeting every month and reporting on how we were doing. Miss your deadline, and risk being ridiculed and buying everyone coffee. Helluva motivation.

3. Break it up into smaller chunks

Any big task can be broken up into smaller, less scary, bite-sized chunks. For mine, it was a matter of 93 sit-ups a day. Even better, when I was up to it, I did more than 93 a day and it totally motivated me to finish ’em even earlier than expected. Focusing on a smaller chunk also makes you less likely to procrastinate or get distracted.

So what does this have to do with hatching a rich life? Well, do you remember a time when you just graduated from college, wanting to change the world, to fulfill your potential, or just to do something superdamnawesome? Yet, somehow along the way, we might have gotten lost, spending most of our time living workday to workday, bar to bar, movie to movie, in a zombie-like state of existence that isn’t very dangerous… or exciting. I suspect most of the awesome things in your change-the-world / be awesome list are probably a little bigger and a little tougher than your average to-do list at your day job. Tackling them could seem a little daunting right now.

But hey, if a lazy ass like me can do 555 sit-ups in a week, I’m pretty sure you can do something awesome too 🙂

Build Your Skills, Not Your Resume

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ndeliciousbass/4477273516/in/photostream/

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook (insert snide comment about IPO here), shares some good career advice in her address to this year’s graduating class of HBS.

What I liked:

Build your skills, not your resume. Evaluate what you can do, not the title they’re going to give you. Do real work. Take a sales quota, a line role, an ops job, don’t plan too much, and don’t expect a direct climb.”

And further on:

“You’ll have to rely on what you know. Your strength will not come from your place on some org chart, your strength will come from building trust and earning respect.”

Everyone in Singapore is obsessed with titles. We assume that we all fit into these little boxes of a doctor/engineer/banker/lawyer/executive with a fancy title that come with our jobs. We assume that if we stick to the job and it checks all the boxes, we’d be happy and content, chugging along on our pleasant, 2-dimensional lives with a defined role and a jobscope. So if you’re an accountant, you’re supposed to be meticulous, quiet, unassuming, and emotionless. And if you’re in advertising, you’re supposed to be free-spirited, creative, and… lowly-paid.

But Sheryl’s speech reminded me that a career gives you a lot more than what the world stereotypes it to be.

My previous job posting was in operations – when I received my posting letter, I was like “WTF?! This has NOTHING to do with my degree!” (which was in Finance and Economics) And so I got annoyed. But 2 years into an ops job taught me how to negotiate with everyone from the airport authorities to a baggage handling agent, it taught me how to sweat the small stuff while keeping the big picture in sight, it taught me how to simultaneously juggle 4 ongoing projects, it taught me how to deal with 100 emails a day clamoring for my attention, it taught me how to set up systems that would run themselves, and it taught me how things really work. I don’t think I could have picked any of that up if I’d gone into my “preferred” department.

So hell yeah. I’m glad I did it. It gave me skills in areas that I sucked at, and gave me new business perspectives – real ones, not the theoretical, clinical, abstract ones behind a computer screen or an annual report. 3 weeks ago, I got moved to a new department in the same company, with a focus on a completely different skill set, one that was closer to what I studied, but not really. We’ll see where that takes me! 🙂