Don’t Run For The Train

19 08 2011

Well, that would be another reason not to run for the train. Photo from ManiacWorld

How many times have you missed the train by just that smallest fraction of a second?

How many times have you run onto the platform, only to have the cruel train doors slide close in your face?

And how many times have you thought to yourself, if I had taken a shorter shower, or had chewed my toast more quickly, or walked a slightly faster pace, I wouldn’t have missed the train?

I’m sure we’ve all had those painfully annoying moments.

But what if we were to take this entire mindset and flip it upside down on its head? What if, instead of running madly for the train, we instead teach ourselves not to run for the train?

It sounds high-brow, perhaps even naive and idealistic,  but the concept is somewhat appealing. Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduced the idea in his book The Black Swan. Here are some of his words of wisdom:

Snub your destiny. I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behaviour, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.

You stand above the rat race and the pecking order, not outside of it, if you do so by choice.

He sums up this idea with some powerful words:

It is more difficult to be a loser in a game you set up yourself.

In Black Swan terms, this means that you are exposed to the improbable only if you let it control you. You always control what you do; so make this your end.

Hm. Idealistic? In a sense, yes. After all, you can’t justify, say, failing an exam by proclaiming ‘I wasn’t aiming to pass it anyway! I’m above the pecking order, I don’t need to play the exam game!’. In another sense, it would definitely feel infinitely fulfilling to walk up to a just-departing train, and think, ‘Ha! You haven’t snubbed me. You think you’re so important?! I wasn’t running for you anyway, you egotistical sleazebag!’


Does Routine Kill Innovation?

12 08 2011

If we really boil it down, there are basically three ways you can spend your day:

  1. Doing nothing in particular. Waking up late, lounging around, wasting time here and there.
  2. Following a routine. Wake up, eat, work, train, eat, sleep…etc.
  3. Spontaneous living. Trying new things. Doing whatever comes to mind – things you don’t usually do.

Now, my question is: what kind of day is the best for innovation? And which is the worse?

The last few days have been pretty quiet for me in terms of innovation (hence the lack of posts). I haven’t had many ‘ding!’ moments, nor any sudden ‘a-ha!’s. No insights, no urge to create, record, or express. I would walk around with my camera hoping to capture something dramatic, but everything would look bland and mundane.Why?

I think routine is to blame. How might routine kill innovation?

  • You start living in a bubble. You wake up with your mind already set on the first thing on your to do list. After you finish that, you go straight on to the next item with no stops in between and so on. Your mind is closed to everything that isn’t on your to do list – how are you supposed to find innovation like that?
  • Innovations are (positive) Black Swans. Routines aren’t. I’m reading Nassim Nichoals Taleb’s wonderful book The Black Swan at the moment.  Black Swans are basically things  you can’t predict, yet can have a huge impact. They can be positive or negative – in this case, an innovation will be a positive black swan. Since they’re so unpredictable, it’s hard to come across them when doing something as predictable as a routine.
  • Mental stimulation is zero. We become robots if all we do is follow a routine! We might as well be programmed to run as a simple line of code if we’re going to be boring, monotonous and routine. Routine = doing things without really thinking = lack of mental stimulation = no innovation.

What do you think? Does routine kill innovation? And if so, what kind of day is best for it – spontaneous living or doing nothing in particular (like staring at clouds)?

To Become a Champion, Fight One More Round

3 08 2011

To Become a Champion, Fight One More Round.    James Corbett

When I read this quotation a few years ago, I knew that this was my philosophy.

Champions aren’t born. I believe that talent is important, but pure hard work is what nails it more often than not.

I take ‘fight’ to mean exert – to give it your all. You can fight one more round physically, but also mentally.

She’s a running champ because she trains more, but also because she trains with a better mindset: more concentration, more determination, more motivation.

He’s top of the class because he studies more, but also because he learns with the optimal mentality: more curiosity, more initiative , more skepticism.

This is the philosophy that I keep in whatever I do. If I’m going to do something, I want to do it well – and so I fight one more round. I’ll get up early and run. I’ll jump into the pool and do 1000m before the actual training session starts. I’ll read more, write more. I’ll do more, but most importantly, I’ll do it with the best mindset I can possibly have.

It pays off to fight one more round, and it definitely feels very rewarding when you see results. This summer, I was determined to improve my swimming. I signed myself up for 3 sessions of training a week, and on top of that, I swam before training, after training, as well as the remaining days of the week. And guess what? It paid of, because my times have improved!

That sure felt good.

At the end of the day though, the reality is that I won’t ever be a top competitive swimmer –  it isn’t my strength, and I realise that. But that doesn’t matter to me, because as important as it is for me to be a champion, I also believe that it’s being your own champion that matters.

So, fight one more round. Give it you all. Be a champion – your own champion.

In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World

24 07 2011


“In wilderness is the preservation of the world”     

Henry David Thoreau

Sometimes, you just have to get away from it all. Even for just a few hours.

So that’s what I did today. There was an oppressive frustration slowly boiling in me for no apparent reason (perhaps I was exasperated with the lack of progress in my college research), waiting to erupt. It was mentally taxing, psychologically noxious. An insidious anger directed at everything, and nothing.

I just had to get out and do something. Move. The longer I stayed in the house, the more it felt as if the walls were pressing in on me. So I threw my book, pen, notebook and water bottle into a bag and headed out…to wilderness.

What I was desperately craving for was quiet, solitude, peace and seclusion. To get away from the din of the city. So I headed off to the seaside and sat down on some rocks, facing out into the vast open sea. There I sat, writing in my notebook. Sipping water. Reading The God of Small Things. Listening to the waves as they gently crashed onto the rocks, leaving a foamy trail behind them.

It felt good. Everything suddenly felt so much better.

A quick dose of wilderness...

I’ve just experience Thoreau’s quote for myself. This is what Thoreau meant when he said “in wilderness is the preservation of the world” – preservation of humanity. Wilderness reminds us of where we come from. It reminds us of our place in the world, and how small our problems are when compared to the vast, powerful expanse of wilderness.

To further quote Thoreau:

“We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the seacoast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thundercloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

At the same time though, Wendell Berry reminds us:

“In human culture is the preservation of wilderness.”

Wilderness. The world. Human culture. Wilderness.

It’s all a loop, isn’t it?

Reading and writing next to 'wilderness' - the preserver of the world and humanity.

Playing hide and seek with inspiration

27 06 2011

Finding inspiration is a bit like hide and seek.

Sometimes it’s staring at you right in the face, while other times you literally look everywhere and  search high and low, yet inspiration is nowhere to be seen!

Sometimes we’re just on fire, and it seems as if inspiration is boundless. Even on a mundane walk, we’ll find inspiration from the most banal of things. That tattered rubbish bin on the road? It’s probably giving off a lustrous purple colour which will later inspire you to create some groundbreaking piece of art. That old granny sitting on a bench staring into space? She’ll probably remind you of the transience of life, or prompt you to ponder some profound philosophical question.

Other times, though, we feel empty…it’s like we’re missing a magic ingredient. Everything just looks dull and plain. The bin looks like a bin. The old granny is just another old granny. There may be loads going on around you – interesting movements and interactions – but they all just seem to pass through you, undigested and glossed over.

I felt ‘on fire’ during my first photowalk one early morning, but subsequent photowalks just wouldn’t yield any good pictures! I couldn’t ‘see’ anything, probably because I’ve grown so used to my surroundings. It’s a bit like getting a fish to describe what water feels like.

So here are my ‘antidotes’ to that annoying feeling of being uninspired. It might help us win the game of hide and seek against that cheeky little thing called inspiration!

  • I go on Twitter…there’s always something going on. One link brings me to another, then another, then…inspiration (hopefully)
  • I look for something interesting in my RSS feeds
  • I pick up an old book. Flick to any page. Read it.
  • Read a poem (Poetry Foundation’s iPhone app is great for this)
  • Get out and walk! I try to absorb my surroundings, paying attention to everything that’s going around you. The colour of someone’s shoe. The book they’re holding. The adverts on buses.
  • Do something new. Anything. Just jump at any opportunity and go for it. I helped out at an inaugural scavenger hunt called the Airmazing race, organised by the Hong Kong Clean Air Network. Volunteering at the event was fun, but what was more awesome was meeting new people, chatting with them, looking at different viewpoints, and just generally finding new sources of inspiration and stimulation.

Stand Up, Sit Down.

19 06 2011

Problem:  As my work load has steadily increased over the past two years, I’ve found myself sitting more. As my sitting time increased, I felt increasingly restless and craving movement.

Solution: Ditching the chair (mostly) and standing up while working.

I started this practice of standing even before the large number of studies came out about the dangers of sitting (see infographic here), so it wasn’t for reasons of health/weight loss that led me to this habit. It was more a frustration and annoyance with being on my butt the whole time, and feeling very fidgety because I couldn’t move.

Some of my standing up methods include putting my laptop on a stack of thick hardcover books, and writing on a little bookcase that comes up to my chest.

I’ve been working while standing for over a year now and here are some observed results:

  • I’m more productive. Because sitting made me feel restless, I started to fidget with my fingers, spin my pen, drum on the table and so forth – all of which made me lose my concentration. Standing up, though, put an end to my restlessness. Now I’m fully concentrated 99% of the time and can do more with less time.
  • I think better. For some reason, I can never think quite as well sitting down as standing up.
  • I’m happier because I’m not stuck to the chair on my butt.

This isn’t to say that the method is perfect.

  • Standing does get a little tiring. To take the pressure off my feet I’ll shift my weight between my right and left legs by swaying my hips a little. Of course, I’ll also sit down and work like that for a while before switching back to standing when I feel restless again!
  • Stiff neck and lower back. This is especially true with writing while standing, but I think it is more to do with the surface being too low. It’s not a big problem though – doing a handstand or the wheel pose instantly relieves all my stiffness, not to mention giving me a boost in energy.
  • When I get tired of both sitting and standing, I walk. Granted, this only works with reading but it’s wonderful anyway. All I have to do is take my book, slowly waltz up and down the room/corridor, and feel totally refreshed.

Bottom line: mix it up. Sit, stand, walk…after all nothing is good in excess.


Subscribe to this blog via RSS, or enter your email in the email subscription box above.

You can also follow me on Twitter to receive regular updates.

Rise and Shine

16 06 2011

I took this picture of the famous Huashan Sunrise on a recent trip to China.

Early mornings…

One key reason why I wake up early is to enjoy movement.

1. I get to see things that others don’t. Early morning light is amazing. For me, this is definitely the most beautiful part of the day. The sun is creeping up slowly from behind the hill, and bars of gold and yellow paint give the surroundings a heavenly hue. I saw this little plant on on an early morning photo walk – the soft rays of the sun caught it from the side and gave it a golden halo. I wouldn’t have seen this if I had come even an hour later.

2. Breakfast. My favourite meal of the day for sure. Slices of soft, whole wheat bread with smooth peanut butter topped with slices of banana, coupled with some early morning reading – what more could I ask for? I wouldn’t have time for this indulgence if I stayed in bed.

3. Exercise. Early morning runs and bike rides. Yoga on the roof top – literally doing sun salutations. I kick start the day with exercise and it leaves me feeling pumped for the rest of the day.

4. Peace. It’s an amazingly peaceful feeling to walk around the campus/my home knowing that you’re the only one awake. In all the peace and quiet, I get to notice things that may otherwise be glossed over. It’s also a great time for thinking – I’m not distracted by all the other things that will pile up as the day moves along.

5. Head start. By the time everyone else is awake, I’ve already been up for a long while! I can pack so much more into the day and feel productive.


Subscribe to this blog via RSS, or enter your email in the email subscription box above.

You can also follow me on Twitter to receive regular updates.