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Spaghetti with seaweed, ume plum sauce and sesame seasoning Japanese style

My 10 year old nephew was recently in Japan, and to distract him from fighting with his sister, I asked him what the difference was, between Seoul and Tokyo.  His first response was that they don’t use spoons in Japan. How true. Even when drinking soup. They suck with loud air. The louder the sound, the more delicious. Don’t try this at home.

Even among Asian countries, we have cultural differences.

What is culture?  Culture comprises both national culture and organsational culture.

We can say that culture is the shared knowledge, beliefs and values, as well as common styles of behaviour and ways of thinking. Factors affecting national culture can include: language, traditions, religion, the legal and political systems, education, values, social organisation, tastes in food and entertainment, etc. It has becoming increasingly important to understand different cultures. Developments in international communication have given us all more exposure to the differences in attitudes and behaviours of other cultures. Due to the development of the global market there is an increase in international trade and workers are much more likely to work in different countries.


No eating while walking

National culture can affect: the organisation of the business, types of products, ways of promoting products, ways of doing business, the business mission, motivations to work and management style.  It can also affect what is known as etiquette, ethics and even organisational culture and values.

(i) Organisation of business – different countries traditionally organise their businesses in different ways, for example in some countries, small family operations may be more common e.g. Germany, in others, business growth to corporate level may be the accepted goal e.g. US

(ii) Types of products – traditions, religion and legal systems may restrict or encourage production of certain types of products, e.g. production of alcohol is rare where a dominant religion (Muslim) prohibits drinking it. In India, cow is considered holy and eating beef is taboo. McDonalds succeeded in adapting their menu to local tastes, introducing even vegetarian burgers and non-beef items into their menu.

(iii) Ways of promoting products – marketing managers need to consider what is appealing and what is not, to avoid causing offence.   A story goes about Chinese selling poker cards, which in Chinese pinyin is spelt “pu-ke”.  But when written in English and sold in Mexico, it read as puke.

(iv) Ways of doing business – different traditions for making deals or for communicating with each other, which could involve following certain protocols or rituals like using lawyers to come up with contracts vs spending time to build trust, making small talk or giving gifts which may be considered unethical in other cultures.

(v) Business Mission – culture may influence what a business is expected to do, particularly in relations to its social responsibilities. Some cultures e.g. individualist may expect businesses to focus on making profits, whereas others may expect businesses to provide employment for family members (e.g.India) or to improve the community (Germany and France) for the good of all.

(vi) Motivation to work – some cultures value loyalty and commitment to the employers (e.g. collectivist such as Japan) whereas others could approach work as just a means to enjoy other areas of life but not to gain status.

(vii) Management Style – style of management can be influenced by the motivation of employees and expectations placed on the business and cultural traditions regarding systems of authority. E.g. cultures with high uncertainty avoidance would result in a bureaucratic style of leadership. A dictatorial style of leadership would work in cultures with high power distance whereas one with low power distance would prefer participatory or democratic style of leadership.

So what are some ways which culture influence the way you think about success, life and work?




Photo credit: CSX (Thank you!!)

Today I taught a class on Performance Management at the university. The ever-dreaded quarterly, half yearly, annual performance dialogue with your boss. For most of us, it ends up as a negative emotional process.

But the purpose of performance measurement is itself motivational, done the correct way. You get a pat on the back on the areas you’ve performed well, and advice on areas needing improvement.

Clayton Christensen suggests in his book “How will you measure your life?” that instead of just measuring performance of companies and your life and work, the business frameworks can be applied to your life. Society can be more prosperous if there’re clear rules and there’s a process to hold people accountable. Once you commit to follow the rules, Christensen opines that life becomes simpler rather than make everyday decision on nuances and debating whether to follow the rules. What about asking if you can you leave something that will help other people? How do conduct our lives every day?

Today I asked my two classes of 19-23 yr old university students, how they defined career success. Those who were volunteered, said that in addition to financial security, they want a job where they are happy in.  Most agreed with that statement.  But what makes them happy in those jobs? Its as if happiness or motivation was something someone gave to them, or a place they wandered into and not something they pursued or have a part to play. So what is happiness? Is it a skill they get to develop, recognition for an ability or learn new stuff, live in new places, try out new experiences? What is it? Possibly, in this generation, where fulfilment can be obtained in so many other areas, e.g. many have travelled to distant places before graduation. Unlike in the past, where the only way to see the world is to travel for your job.

Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Scorecard: financial, customer, internal processes, learning, innovation and growth on yourself linked to goals is a useful one.

So, how will you measure your life? What is career success for you? What makes you happy?

Clayton Christensen will be in Singapore to deliver a lecture on disruptive innovation. Catch him on 11 Sep 2014. Lecture is organised by the Singapore Institute of Management.

Excellent article on “Singapore and innovation and what’s lacking” by Scott Anthony, who will join him at the lecture.

Genius is 10 percent inspiration but 90 percent perspiration. – Thomas Edison

I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable. – Sigmund Freud

My teachers at different grade levels repeated this mantra. Somehow I didn’t believe this. Hard work is for the less gifted. I worked hard in school, and scraped through upper honours. No matter how hard I worked, the results didn’t justify the effort.

Daily rituals – how great minds make time, find inspiration, and Get to Work” by Mason Currey caught my eye at the library last week. From the crisp smell of the pages, I’m probably the first person to read it which would also explain my receptiveness to the book.

From the over 160 creative authors and artists/architects cited in the book, whether an early bird or a night owl, most of them stick to a ritual.

The early birds like Ernest Hemingway rose early, at around 6am, even if he had been up all night drinking. In his younger days, he seemed immune to hangovers.  Work through the day, with a word count. Some of the authors keep a daily check of 2000 words, others 500 words. In Hemingway’s case, he “tracked his daily word output on a chart – so as not to kid myself”.   Margaret Mead, renowned cultural anthropologist was known to schedule breakfast meetings with young colleagues for 5am.

To break up long hours of writing/painting/creating, there would be some form of physical activity e.g. slow walk. Socialising with small circle of friend for dinner.  Hemingway wrote/typed standing up. [Note: I suspect because he’s a kinaesthetic and can’t sit still. Joan Miro would take a break by going for an hour of vigorous exercise such as boxing in Paris; jumping rope and Swedish gymnastics at a Barcelona gym  to avoid a relapse into depression etc. Freud would take a walk around Vienna’s Ringstrasse, “marching at terrific speed” after dinner. As Woody Allen described it, “the momentary change stimulates a fresh burst of mental energy.” Although he can no longer walk the streets, he would pace the terrace of his apartment. Woody Allen would take a shower. [My personal favourite too.]

Often the authors would write and read/ reflect/ edit what they’ve written or read to their loved ones.  Maya Angelou would read to her husband after dinner. He doesn’t comment but hearing it aloud helps her edit. Her editor is also another good source of feedback.  In the case of Simone de Beauvoir, she would sit with Sartre in the afternoon for 3 or 4 hours, and critique what he wrote that day – sort of intellectual partnership which lasted for years.

Simone de Beauvoir at work

Photo of Simone de Beauvoir – source: Susan Cushman. [I like her blog and entry on self-publishing.]

Even Jean Paul Sartre who famously said that “One can be very fertile without having to work too much” put in six hours of work, review his work with Simone de Beauvoir after dinner and had her to “do much of his writing for him—no doubt contributed to his view that you didn’t need to spend a lot of time with pen in hand”.  Altogether a misleading quote.

“Must-have” book to inspire  entrepreneurs and those who telecommute and work from home.  Work-life harmony may be exercising control over where you work, but the hours are still there minus the structure/ momentum that comes with being around colleagues.








Last week we attended the official opening of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2014, for the opera performance “Facing Goya”. About a woman’s passionate search for the 18th Century Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s missing skull [taken from the bulletin].

Facing Goya at SIFA 2014

Facing Goya at SIFA 2014

Photo taken from SIFA 2014 website:

Please visit the website and check out the other performances.

For the first time, I could understand an opera because it was in English.

It was a treat to be in the presence of great talent, from the talented architect who modernised the grand dame Victoria theatre yet incorporating pieces of the old furniture into the panels of the hall. The artistes, director. I’m especially impressed by the set, projection, lighting, costume design transforming the experience of the audience.  The theme was ambitious. If Goya’s skull was found, and his creativity cloned, what next?  “Can we clone the human soul?” reads the bulletin.

The performance started with a historical account on human interest in predicting talent: Greek phrenology. Can the size of your skull and facial features predict your performance and psychological attributes? [Apparently Queen Victoria would have her children’s skulls read by phrenologists.] Craniometry – can your facial angle measure intelligence among species of men?

Science using evidence-based research to promote scientific racism and the superiority of one race over another. Flashes of Hitler and reminders of his Utopia with the Aryan race as the Master race.

The operatic performance set out to tackle a very big topic- “cloning vs the human creative soul”. Yet, the opening scenes, 1st and 2nd Act were pushing towards a difference direction.

Does scientific racism still exist today? In what forms? Does globalisation truly celebrate diversity? Or are we being McDonalised?

1. What is performance (or creativity)? Can we measure it? Can we predict it?  These age-old questions have been asked for centuries. Still relevant today in companies when managers recruit talent into the organisation.

2. What is talent? How do we measure it?

A study by Greg Mankiw, Economics Professor at Havard University, found a positive correlation between height and income. The typical 6-foot American earned $5,525 more than a 5-foot-5-inch worker, after correcting for sex, age and weight. Height builds self-esteem.

3. Does height build self-esteem in young people or do we project those qualities onto tall children giving them opportunities along the way?

4. Should we “select” talent for fit or “mould” talent?

I stumbled upon an article by Marina Krakovsky, “The effort effect” on Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success“. (

Dweck’s work attempts to answer the question: Why some people reach their potential while others don’t. We know from Malcolm Gladwell that its hard work, 10,000 hours. (In fact Gladwell noted that some of his research were based on Dweck’s work.)

While it is true that some people have innate talent than others,“the fallacy comes when people generalize it to the belief that effort on any task, even very hard ones, implies low ability,” Dweck says. Dweck highlights the difference between “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset“. Quoting Krakovsky:

“Dweck’s study showed that praising children for intelligence, rather than for effort, sapped their motivation. But more disturbingly, 40 percent of those whose intelligence was praised overstated their scores to peers. “We took ordinary children and made them into liars,” Dweck says. Dweck explains. Students may know how to study, but won’t want to if they believe their efforts are futile.

Similarly, Enron executives who’d been celebrated for their innate talent would sooner lie than fess up to problems and work to fix them.” (Many companies have a high potential list where the talent is groomed with a career path.)

Some of us may think, “Well this is common sense”.  Not so. A friend recounts the   story of her maternal uncle, born in the year of the Tiger (Chinese Zodiac sign – Tiger is good, scares away bad fortune), told by his father that he didn’t need to study because opportunities would come. The uncle today is uneducated, and has no discipline to pick up any skills. History repeats itself. Her brother tells his children “Work smart and not work hard”.  Fortune telling, face reading is still a roaring business among educated Chinese.

People must of course, want to change.

What then, is talent? A person with some innate ability, values, and the ability to persevere and learn from their mistakes. I find this view very liberating for me. A fixed mindset implies that “nature” goes on its pre-programmed course, once the button is pushed. A growth mindset helps me forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made, and look on my failures as a learning process. How do I measure success? Not pegged against another person, but whether I’ve learned and grown a little more today compared to yesterday.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” is a literal translation of the Chinese idiom “臥虎藏龍” which describes a place that is full of talented or extraordinary people who remain hidden and undiscovered, or simply means “talented or extraordinary people hidden from view. (Wikipedia). In 2000, the term received international prominence as the title of Lee Ang’s martial arts epic. The cinematography and martial arts moves are choreographed in ballet-like manner, which to a Chinese audience familiar with martial arts movie, too  unrealistic. An analogy would be to think about  the speed of the bullet from a cowboy shoot-out in a wild wild west movie. Beauty in the eye of the beholder.