Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Equilibrium: The Universal Ledger, Or The Cosmic Balancing Act

In my humble and inconsequential opinion, the most important part of Einstein’s famous equation, e = mc2, is not the cryptic set of figures on either side of the equal sign. The most important part of this equation is the equal sign itself.

It’s a simple equation, stating that energy comes from some mixture of components. But in this simplicity lies its power. To me, the form of the equation (not the equation itself) presents the nature and structure of all things in the universe. It tells me that everything ultimately adds up, and that everything is a part of the grand scheme of things. It’s reduction and synthesis, but on a cosmic scale.

I learned about the laws of thermodynamics in high school physics. The first law states that the total amount of energy and matter in the entire universe remains constant, merely changing from one form to another.

I imagine a huge ball of play-doh, and this is creation in its entirety. I imagine this to be the stuff from which everything is made. If I want to create some planets, I pinch off some of the play-doh and roll them up into tiny little balls. If I need some stars, I pinch off some more play-doh from the giant play-doh ball and make me some. If I need some water, I peel off more play-doh from the giant ball and flatten it into a “sheet of water.” If I need whales to swim in the seas, I grab some more play-doh. If I need anything to be created, I just get more material from the big ball of clay. Soon, the clay gets all used up, but by then I have this diverse collection of objects that makes up my entire little universe.

But what if I need more whales? Well, I could recycle some of the planets (I’ve made too many of them, anyway) and use the clay to make more whales. If I need more cobalt atoms? I can pulverize a star here… or a corvette sportscar there… and come up with clay to build the cobalt atoms I need. In other words, if I need to create something, the material to build it must come from what was in the big ball of play-doh. That’s my own simplistic interpretation of the first law of thermodynamics.

But the point to all this that blows my mind is that we are but mere components in the grandiose, elaborate mechanism that is creation. And as part of this astonishing system, we are somehow connected to everything else that happens to exist. We share a purpose, a structure, and a destiny with the rest of creation. It’s just incredible to think that anything we do, any action that we take, any move we make, sends ripples of consequence across the entire universe, affecting everything else and tilting whatever delicate balance holds the cosmos together.

There is a concept in chaos theory called the butterfly effect. According to this theory, if a butterfly flaps its wings, it initiates a series of events that may or may not cause a typhoon to form. I’ve heard a teacher describe a variation of this concept as such: if a man sneezes here in Manila, it causes the stock markets in Beijing to fall a few weeks later. Or something like that.

In her book, “Biomimicry,” Janine Benyus speculates that the most important profession may actually be accounting. Accounting? Sure. Accounting, after all insists that the ledgers be balanced. At its core, accounting maintains that anything that is debited from one account is credited to another. Resources are finite and must be accounted for. Hence anything taken out from one portion of the system must be put into another area of the same system. Debits and credits. If you ask me, it sounds a lot like a demonstration of the first law of thermodynamics, not using clay, but using the bottom line.

Interestingly, this same concept of oneness seems to apply even to the non-material realm of human emotions. In his famous book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey describes the idea of the emotional bank account. It’s a metaphor for the amount of trust, or perhaps the strength of one’s relationship with another person. If you show kindness toward another person, then you are said to make a deposit into your emotional bank account with this person. Any negative acts, on the other hand, such as disrespect, or meanness, constitute a withdrawal from that account. At the end of the day, the account balance determines the health of your relationship with this person.

It’s an interesting metaphor. I don’t know if it’s correct, or if this thing can ever be proven quantitatively, but I like it, and it appeals to my intuition. And it seems to work in the real world. While it doesn’t quite present a finite store of emotions, it does build upon the same idea that everything somehow adds up to a grand total.

Some years ago, I attended a personal productivity seminar called “Awakening the Power Within,” conducted by Frank Regis. In one of the sessions, Frank shared an anecdote from his life which illustrated the interconnectedness of the universe. One day, he told us, he was riding on a bus, on his way to work. If you’ve tried the public transport system in Manila, then you know how dreadful this experience can be, and Frank wasn’t exactly having the time of his life standing in a crowded bus at the height of rush hour on his way to work. As he stared out the window, a shiny, white Volkswagen beetle rolled along beside the bus. Frank was instantly smitten (this was during the 70s, when the VW beetle was a hot item). He claimed that right there and then, he made up his mind that he would soon own a shiny, white VW beetle. He also claimed that he didn’t worry about how or when, he just kept thinking and believing that someday soon, he’d be driving his shiny white beetle to work.

He said that a few months later, the company assigned him a car. Naturally, it was a shiny new VW beetle. Frank’s point was that he didn’t have to think about how he would get the car of his dreams. He said he left that problem up to the universe. He told us that there was a Universal Accounting System (UAS) that figured all these things out. All he had to do was visualize what he wanted, and plug into the UAS. The UAS eventually delivered!

I don’t think Frank was ever able to prove this concept as an empirical formula for wish attainment, but the thing that grabs me about it is the idea that somewhere in the background of our conscious reality is an ubiquitous, ever-churning engine that alots material items to those willing and ready to receive it. It’s like my conceptual ball of clay, magnified to cosmological proportions, and governed by some cosmological database that keeps track of where each item of creation goes and keeps the books balanced– the Universal Accounting System! In the end it all tallies.

Can you cool a warm room by leaving a refrigerator door open? This is a trick question that I’ve encountered a couple of times. I remember some very hot summers when I’ve tried precisely that. On scorching summer days, sometimes I’d leave the refrigerator door open to try and cool the room off. Sometimes I’d be really hot and impatient, and so I’d stick my entire head into the freezer to cool down.

The answer, of course, is NO. Heat travels from where it’s abundant to where it’s not. In other words, by leaving the refrigerator door open, you’re actually warming up the refrigerator, rather than cooling down the room. Interesting. But again, my point here is that heat – and all types of energy, for that matter – evens out. It’s like pouring liquid into an irregularly shaped container. The molecules of the liquid substance space each other out so that they evenly occupy the container.

One episode of the hit TV sitcom “Seinfeld” expounded on this universal tendency for things to even out. Jerry Seinfeld’s character is transfixed by his observation that things tend to be break-even for him. In one scene, Elaine borrows $20 from him, then she flings it out the window. Soon after, Jerry finds $20 in his jacket pocket. The phonomenon so fascinates him he declares himself “even Steven.”

Father Ruben Tanseco gives a quarterly retreat called the “Spiritual Deepening Retreat.” One of the stories he loves to tell is of this poor Chinese villager. The villager was so poor he had only one horse in his possession. While he was in his hut, the horse escaped and ran into the forest. “Ah, what bad luck!” lamented the neighbors, to which the villager replied, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

A few days later, the horse came back, along with a dozen other horses in tow. “What good luck!” shouted the neighbors. “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?” said the villager.

The next day, the villagers son attempted to tame some of the wild horses, was thrown off by one of them, and broke his leg. “Ah! Bad luck!” said the neighbors. “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?” said the villager.

Then a few days later, the emperor’s men descended unto the village and drafted all the able-bodied young men to serve in the army against the conquering Huns. The villager’s son, because of his broken leg, was exempted from the draft. “What good luck!” said the neighbors. “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?” said the villager.

Even Steven.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reduction: How To Swallow An Elephant

If something can be done, then it most likely can also be undone. That’s not necessarily bad, especially when you need to accomplish a task, and that task is overwhelmingly complex. The trick is to break it down into smaller component parts, then work on the individual pieces. The European colonial masterminds, during the age when Europeans were annexing most of the world outside Europe, had this down to a science. They called it “divide and conquer,” and this seemingly simple notion was all they needed to subjugate much of Asia, including the Indian and Chinese powerhouses.

The complexity instantly evaporates, and we’re faced with small, managable morsels of the original challenge. The trick then is to deal with each little bit, with each piece of success ultimately adding up to the big picture. Each component part of the big picture is like a little step on the road that ultimately takes us all the way to our destination.

Just last week, I attended a week-long course on I.T. Project Management at the Asian Institute of Management here in Manila. Much of the second day was devoted to understanding and applying “weebies” or work breakdown structures (WBS). Given a specific project, we were asked to break this down into component tasks. After that, we carefully scrutinized the resulting list, and sought out the tasks that could further be broken down into even smaller tasks. And so on, iterating through the process until we had chunks of work no greater than 40 hours apiece.

The best example of reduction I can think of from my own experiences was back in college, when I found myself taking part in the campus debate competitions of 1986 – 87. I had just transferred from UP Diliman to UP Los BaƱos, where I eventually joined the UP Student Catholic Action. Far from being prayerful and contemplative, the UPSCA during that time was rather left-leaning, and some of its members were true blue radicals who translated leftist sentiments into tangible, if rather disruptive, deeds.

In any case, these were a smart bunch of people. Some of the best young minds I’ve ever encountered; so fiercely idealistic, and so overflowing with social angst. UPSCA had always taken part in the UPLB Great Campus debate, and was a perennial winner in that annual event. The year I joined UPSCA, they had sniffed out my previous experience in my high school debate team, and tapped me to be part of the three-man team (well, two men and a woman, actually) for this year.

Our captain, Francis, was hard-driving, energetic, extremely opinionated, and totally confident in his abilities. I was the second speaker, and Lourie, a methodical and thorough young lady, was the backup. This was a tremendously talented team, and what we lacked in overall charisma, we more than made up for in sheer firepower.

But formidable as this team was, its real strength was in the coaching staff. The coaches, of course, consisted of the wiseguys in the organization; those with lots to say, but who would rather sit on the sidelines than actually bask in the frontlines of battle. And of these wiseguys, none were wiser than our two secret weapons… Apo and Bing.

Apo was a bona fide social strategist who, as I remember, was great at exposing patterns of social behavior. He was a deep and profound thinker, able to thread together complex scenarios from the barest of facts. I remember thinking that Apo had a marvelous mind trapped in a body suffering from some congenital physical deformity. Bing, on the other hand, was the technician with the wide repertoire of intellectual moves. He’d grab whatever elaborate conceptual subtlety Apo would toss up into the air, and hammer it into a tangible strategem for us to employ. By the time these two were done, we had about 80 percent of our battle plan drawn. All that remained was for us to execute during the debate itself.

Reduction was their weapon of choice. They would start off with the given resolution, say, “All men are created equal.” Then they’d get right down to stripping this into the main arguments both for and against. Then they would get each argument, and they’d strip each one down to its component logic, or to its accompanying dogma, or to its inherent legitimacy. They would continue on and on until the entire truth was laid ot before us like a bucket of Lego bricks. All we had to do was know each piece by heart, and then put them together as necessary during the debate itself.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Synergy: Faulty Addition, Or When The Sum Is Greater Than The Parts

I used to watch the PBA at the height of the Crispa-Toyota rivalry, way back in the 70s and 80s, but with no real understanding of the game. It simply was fun to watch, and it was even more fun to pick a side and irritate the dickens out of those who picked the other side. Then Crispa and Toyota folded up, and that was the end of that.

Then came the 90s, with coach Tim Cone and his Alaska Milkmen – Johnny Abarrientos, Jojo Lastimosa, Bong Hawkins, Poch Juinio, and Jeffrey Cariaso. I was flipping through the channels, and I caught the tail end of a game between Alaska and some other team. I immediately became a fan, and a rabid PBA follower all over again.

Taken indivually, each Alaska Milkman was at best a solid performer capable of giving quality minutes. But none can be called a top-level superstar, in terms of skills and whatever other factors that the industry uses to tag a value to its players. The only exception would be Johnny Abarrientos, who is undoubtedly one of the best point guards to ever play in the PBA.

But Jojo Lastimosa was too small a shooting guard and too unorthodox a player. Bong Hawkins was a power forward with little leaping ability, and whose career was apparently on the sunset side. Poch Juinio did not provide the intimidating presence required of a center. Jeffrey Cariaso was a young, quick, and explosive small forward, but he was also error-prone.

Despite these limitations and perceived weaknesses, though, that Alaska team went on to win championship after championship. They beat the best of the best in a decade that will be remembered for the breadth and depth of talent available. How could a team with unimpressive component parts dominate a league during one of its best years?

I suppose the best word for this phenomenon is synergy. These boys worked together to produce an effect much greater than what everyone expected of the team. And this kind of thing happens a lot, not only in sports, but in many endeavors in all aspects of human existence where people need to work with each other. In the trade rags, I often read about how companies perform way better than expected. I read a lot about project teams delivering more output than they originally intended.

In my own life, I’ve experienced the power of synergy many, many times. One such time was back in college. My college fraternity, Gamma Kappa Rho (the Grand Knights of the Republic) was a small, rather nondescript organization. During the time I was an active member of the group, the main activities included populating the org hangout three afternoons a week, playing basketball as often as we could, and attending as many beer parties as we could.

During one particular beer party, the alcohol we imbibed caused us to become ambitious. One brother gave an eloquent and well-applauded speech about achieving. Another brother urged us to commit our dreams to action. Another round of applause. Then Gener whips out a poster he stole from one of the campus bulletin boards. On it was an announcement for this year’s Himigsikan, an annual music competition. Flush with alcohol, and emboldened by our brothers’ speeches, we all committed to joining the contest and making a name for our fraternity.

I wish I could now say that the following day we all worked hard and gave the endeavor our hearts and our souls. But no. When we sobered up the next day, we all went to our respective classes, and no more mention of the competition was made. Until a couple of days before the contest.

Gener had signed us up, and the group was committed to perform. We had a couple of days to come up with something. So we found a guy who had written a nice song (at that point, we had no other options, anyway, so whatever we got sounded nice). Then we slapped together some choregraphy, practiced a couple of times, then called it a day.

The next day, we gathered after classes, practiced a couple of times more, then headed off together to the auditorium for our date with destiny. When we got there, whatever bravado, whatever audacity we brought with us quickly dissolved with the warm evening air. Around us were all these people, so totally intense and seriousl resolute in their will to bring home the bacon that night. It was beyond frightening. There they were, in their specially-designed costumes, all made-up and sparklingly sequined as they warmed up their voices and went through the moves with their designated choreographers.

But by the end of the competition, we, the humble members of the humble Gamma Kappa Rho fraternity, in our humble jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers, with but a couple of days to prepare for the contest, and wishing we were elsewhere having a beer party… we had won the prize. We were the Himigsikan champions.

It wasn’t because we had incredible members who could belt out their parts with aplomb and gusto. It wasn’t because the song we sang was a potential hit. It wasn’t even because the words of the song were full of meaning and poetry. It wasn’t because of our sterling choreography, and it wasn’t because of our shining, shimmering costumes. It could have been because of our good looks, but that’s highly unlikely.

We won because at the moment we were onstage, when it was our turn to dish it out, magic just happened! Everything fell into its rightful place in the universe. Having nothing at all to lose, not even our pride, we just got up and did it. And we did it well.

Blame it on synergy.Each one simply put in what we all agreed we each would contribute, with no ifs, no buts, just pure, unadulterated participation. And each individual contribution resonated into an avalanche of positives, producing, well, a really nice result.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Evolution: The Art of Incremental Development

I first became truly aware of and fascinated by the concept of evolution during my freshman year in college. One of the required subjects for students in my batch was NatSci 3, which I suppose was basic biology (I never paid attention to these petty administrative details). Our professor was a scrappy little woman who (although she was probably only in her middle 30s at that time) seemed resigned to the inevitability that she would end up a spinster. Once, after a very spirited lecture on human sexual reproduction, which included a detailed elaboration of the male and female sexual organs, she ended the class with these words of encouragement for the ladies in the lecture hall, “So girls, don’t ever be afraid of the male penis. It’s just a muscle that tends to go out of control. Besides, your vaginas are designed to accommodate them.”

Anyway, this professor of ours one day lost her voice, right around the time we were taking up evolution. So instead of giving the usual lecture, she had the good sense to show us instead the entire “Life On Earth” video series of the renowned naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough.

It took us three days to get through the 13-hour series, which presented evidences on how life evolved from simple, single-celled organisms to the rich diversity that we have today. At the end of it, my mind seemed to have been cracked open. It was an open dome, the restrictive ceiling lifted, and new ideas came gushing in like light flooding into its dark, empty recesses.

Evolution! What a beautiful word; what a marvelous concept! Until now I still get goose bumps at the thought that our very existence is driven by such a simple concept. It simply is amazing how the engine of life is powered simply by the need to improve and adapt. A few years later, my fascination was sort of dampened when I took up genetics, and saw firsthand that the simple engine of life wasn’t simple at all.

Nevertheless, I remained enthralled by the concept. I felt like I was holding the intangible key to something important, something big, something that truly mattered even in this day and age of shameless cynicism and uninhibited materialism. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

The moment of epiphany came years later. I was reading one of these business publications (I forget which one), and there was an article on kaizen, that process of incremental improvement that was to catapult Japan to the forefront of business and manufacturing. At that moment, the years seemed to condense like a crumpling accordion until I was back in NatSci 3, gaping in wonder at Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries. Of course!

Evolution, the engine that spawned the multitude of species that define life on this planet, is the very same mechanism that drives kaizen, the engine that insures constant and continuous improvement of products and processes. It’s also what forces markets to change, or cultures to adapt.

Same trick, different animal. Same engine, different application. It’s the very same reality functioning on different levels of the human experience. And it’s a fundamental strategy for successful living: to thrive within your environment, you have to adapt, to evolve, to cope.
Seven Life Lessons I Have Learned

I just turned 41.

After thinking long and hard about it, I have finally come to terms with the fact that I am past my youth, and am at the doorstep leading into the next stage of my life. Hello mid-life, please welcome your newest member. I should have accepted this a year ago, but denial is such a sweet pill against reality.

Frankly, I don't know why I’ve been so averse to accepting mid-life. I think and feel exactly the same way as I did when I was 18. Well, except for the additional body mass. And the occassional gout attacks. And the occassional instance when I forget what word I should use to say what I mean. And the heightened cynicism. Well, ok… I’m worlds different from when I was 18.

I’ve been told that mid-life is the stage when one blossoms into wisdom, having acquired much life experience and having learned valuable lessons from these experiences. I also read somewhere that many people actually became successful once they reached mid-life, having burned out whatever store of youthful, hormonal zeal they carried with them, and so then can let their wisdom come uncontested to the forefront

I, too, have had my share of lessons from my own store of experiences. Today, I took some time to look back at what 41 years had taught me. Then I made a list of these general concepts, and came up with these seven keys to life, meaning, and the universe.

These concepts, imho, are so important, they apply to just about anything in nature, in life, in business, in relationships – in everything. They are so deceptively simple, I’ve taken them for granted, scarcely noticing that they form the very bedrock of existence (Here’s a word to roll around the tongue: ubiquitous, being present everywhere, at once).

They are:

  1. Evolution
  2. Synergy
  3. Division or Reduction
  4. Equilibrium
  5. Communication
  6. Process
  7. Cycles

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Defining Moments

Recently a colleague at work asked me for some help. Her daughter was scheduled to take the admission exams at the universities she was considering. One of these universities was requiring her to write a short essay explaining how specific events in her life demonstrated her character, and my officemate asked me to coach and motivate the kid.

That exercise got me thinking about my own life, and the events that define my own character. It’s quite amazing how these events paint a clear picture of myself, and reveal so many things that have escaped my attention. It’s like watching city traffic from the top of a tall building versus being part of the traffic on the road.

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20, and so with some perfect backward vision, here’s a look at some episodes from my past, and what they mean for me today.

A dramatic moment…

I was quite the thespian in my younger days, and one feather in my cap was performing the hugely demanding role of Azdak the judge in our high school production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. This was such a fun role, and what made it even more enjoyable for me was working alongside Hector, a very gentle, very funny, very lovable Puerto Rican guy. Hector’s character Shauwa was my character’s side kick in the play. In one scene, Hector was supposed to hand me a prop knife that I was to use for something. During one performance, he went onstage and forgot to bring the knife. When the cue came up and he reached toward his belt, his eyes widened in terror and his face turned as white as a sheet. No knife! Without missing a beat, I ad libbed, “Where is your knife, Shauwa? You pawned it again to visit your whore, didn’t you?” Then I pointed toward a bottle lying on the stage in front of me and bellowed, “Grab that bottle and bring it to me. I ought to stab you with it, you lousy goat!”

That was a defining moment, because everyone literally froze onstage, not knowing what to do next, not knowing how to get out of the royal kerfuffle we were in. And I carried on. I carried on and found the door through which we all jumped through to escape imminent disaster. This episode also bestowed upon me an abundant harvest of praises, affirmations, and the much sought-after pat on the back.

Years later, I’d like to think that I continue to wield this kind of on-my-toes, unflappable, spontaneous creativity that gets me through the thorniest of thorny situations.

A shameful moment…

Not all my defining moments are positive. Here’s one that hounds me to this day. I was also a wrestler back in high school. I competed at 136 lbs (62 kg). During one wrestling meet, I was feeling rather low, and didn’t have the competitive fire with me that day. My first bout was with a fellow from Faith Academy, who eventually won the championship for my weight division. I held my own for a while, even throwing a couple of surprising maneuvers that got me the upper hand, but I eventually lost out to superior technique and experience. I was more successful in the next match. The guy was also from Faith Academy, but, like me, wasn’t as polished or as experienced as my first opponent. I won the match on points, but I was dog-tired. I also ended up de-motivating myself by doing a quick survey of my future matches, and talking myself into submission. You see, the 136 lb. division is one of the most populated divisions in wrestling. In other weight classes, the wrestlers would commonly need to engage in two or three matches to make it to the championships for that division. In my division that day, I had four matches to survive, and the championship match if I made it that far. Five wrestling bouts. In one morning!!! In my mind, there was no way I’d survive the day. And in the remote event that I did make it to the finals, I’d have to face the tough guy from Faith Academy again. He beat me the first time. He’d beat me again in the championships.

My next bout was with this guy from Wagner High. He was kinda cocky, and at that time he struck me as a bit too intense. So we wrestled. I really really felt I could take him. He wasn’t as strong as me, although he was quite tough. And I felt my technique was more sound, more masterful. I knew deep in my heart I could win over this fellow. But at that time I executed my survival strategy for the day. I tanked. I was deliberately sloppy in my execution, and I allowed the Wagner High boy to take me down on the mat, and when he had done so, I let him pin me. And in so doing, I eliminated myself from the competition.

I spared myself from the agony and the pain and the hard, hard work lined up for me that day. But even as my mind flashed a secret smile at my deviousness, my heart instantly felt the shame. It didn’t feel right. And I knew, even then that I regretted the lost opportunity. What was I thinking???

I was thinking of the easy way out, that’s what. And this has persisted in many instances when I’ve had to deal with adverse situations. When the going got tough, I’d often take a quick survey of the odds versus the hardships, and many times, I’ve walked away from the challenge, opting for the easy way out.

Now that I think about it, I remember a college professor of mine wryly commenting that I practiced the culture of avoidance. He was right, of course, but I refused to accept that.

Energized moments…

Back to something positive… My wife and I serve at a leadership seminar for our local marriage encounter group. It’s a weekend thing that happens every quarter or so. During the Saturday session, right after lunch, for the last three years or so, I’ve been assigned my own special session – a 10-minute “picker-upper” where I lead all the participants in dancing to the tune of “YMCA” by the Village People.

I start off by demonstrating some of the dance steps we will be using. There are only eight or so major steps, which I developed myself, and we’ve used them for the last three years, with an occassional variation here and there. Then we all jump right in, and put these moves together with “YMCA” blaring full blast on the sound system. This is such a simple thing, but I always marvel at how much fun everyone has doing this crazy dance.

Each time I get to do this little act of mine, I get to demonstrate how I can energize/entertain the people around me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been quite a livewire. I think this is a good thing. When people are in a slump, I often create enough energy to get everyone going. There must be a practical use for this somewhere, somehow. Now all I have to do is work on being able to energize myself, when necessary!

Getting the sum total...

“A man is the sum of his actions, of what he has done, of what he can do, nothing else.” ~ Andre Malraux

So there you go. If M. Malraux is correct, then what do these actions make me? And what more can I become? The upside doesn’t sound bad… spontaneous, creative, quick-thinking, high energy. But the negatives are just as compelling… lazy, needs loads of motivation, unfocused, turns back on and walks away from tough situations. These then are a few of the factors that make up my own equation. The next few years or so will see me busy tweaking these factors to make sure that the equation nets a positive for me.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Living By Design or Losing By Default

Being the CEO of a company means you have to have control over everything. Everything. Being the CEO of your own life requires pretty much the same thing. That’s where my problems begin. I’ve grown old wielding the philosophy that I only need to keep my focus on a handful of things. This is what keeps my life simple: I don’t sweat the little stuff. And for the most part this has worked for me. I mean, I’m here, aren’t I? Still alive, still kicking.

But I’m nowhere close to where I want to be, to where I know I can be. And that’s precisely because I don’t sweat the small stuff.

Some years back, I read somewhere that a good program operates by design, and not by default. Extending this wonderful bit of wisdom, a good programmer, then, attends to the design of his program, and does not rely on the defaults set by the environment.

We, as programmers of our own individual lives, and as coders of our own successes, would do well to keep this in mind. In many instances, I have swept aside the small stuff, smug in my belief that the universe will always take care of the loose ends for me. Is it any wonder, then, that many of my undertakings have somehow fallen short of expectations? Why am I surprised to feel as if I’m trying to climb out of a hole I’m sinking deeper and deeper into when I take on a project?

Now I know why. Or at least I know what a big part of the reason is: I’ve relied on the default, rather than impose my design.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Why didn't I vote?

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a Brit named Mike, a rather geeky engineer who introduced me to South American music and an instrument called the xampodium. That was way back in 1994, and in one of our talks, we ended up discussing Philippine politics. One of the bits of wisdom I walked away with from that discussion was that "people who don't vote deserve what they get." Or was it, "people who don't vote get what they deserve?" I forget exactly, but the point Mike got across was that voting is some sort of sacred privilege; the cornerstone upon which a working democracy is founded. Since that point in time, I have been conscientious about voting in every election. Mike, the geeky Brit engineer, had taught this wild-eyed Filipino a very important lesson."

"That's the reason they're called lessons... because they lessen from day to day." -- Lewis Carroll

Just a couple of weeks ago we had national and local elections here. And the fellow who learned that voting was a sacred privilege, that guy who vowed to have his vote counted, well, he didn't vote. He didn't even care!

I dunno, man. I just didn't feel it. I guess I'm tired of hearing the same old people promise the same old sun, moon, and stars, and deliver the same old fat zero. But, boy, did I get it from my daughter, and from my friends and colleagues who are still passionate and hopeful about the Philippine electoral process. I understand their passion. I've lived that passion until now. I haven't abandoned my belief in the electoral process as a cornerstone of a democratic society.

In fact, there was nothing wrong with the last elections. It was clean, it was orderly, it worked. My issues lie after the vote. It's one thing to cast your vote. But having your vote counted is quite another matter.

I believe that in this country, the voting population has somewhat evolved and matured, so much so that voters are now capable of selecting political candidates based on their values, merits, and capabilities. But at the same time, the infrastructure and management side of the election process remain in the dark ages, virtually assuring that the sacred votes will be perverted in pursuit of someone or other's agenda.

Votes here are still canvassed and tabulated by hand. Election returns are hand-carried from the precincts, many of these in the far-flung barrios where malaria cases outnumber telephones, to the designated election centers, at tremendous risk to those assigned to the task. All throughout the process there are many, many, many opportunities to cheat. The Commission on Elections has sat on the whatever modernization initiatives there are. Politicians continue to bribe, steal, threaten, harass, murder their way to insure their own victories. In the 21st century, our electoral process is only a minor improvement from how things were when the concept of suffrage was just beginning to take root. It's all a big, bad joke!

So there. Rather than support what I feel is a travesty upon my democratic right to have my voice heard through elections, I choose not to take part in a circus that has no concern at all for what I or anyone else believes. A very good friend of mine has even suggested that we Filipinos should protest the sloppy election procedure by not voting and causing a failure of these elections. Maybe then, the knuckleheads who run the Commission on Elections will be forced to act on modernizing the polls. I agree with him, and that's precisely the path I have chosen to take.

Dream on...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Today, out in the field, I had another eureka moment. A minor one, but significant, nevertheless.

I'm currently doing the copy for this major web rehash by one of the large local banks, and as I say in today's meeting, the project manager revealed one of life's beautiful secrets.

"Under-commit and over-deliver."

The skies never parted. There were no glorious choirs of angels, no bright lights. There wasn't even coffee. But there it was, laid bare in front of me like a virgin on my bed.

"Under-commit and over-deliver."

I rolled the words around my tongue. They tasted marvelous.

If I ever get the chance to teach business (that, of course, assumes that I learn the lessons of business myself) this will be the first lesson I would teach my wards.

"Under-commit and over-deliver."

The words were too compelling; I immediately launched a review of my own life vis-a-vis this new-found wisdom. My problem, you see, is that my own practice has reflected the exact inverse of this philosophy. Because of my natural zeal, I always find myself over-committing when I take on new projects. I can't help it; I'm a natural optimist and my greatest hubris is enthusiasm. The prospect of succeeding at a new challenge excites me and thrills me to the bone. My ego revels at the thought of taking on a project and making a shining, shimmering, splendid something out of the tangle of problems and pitfalls. So in my eagerness, I over-commit!

But then something happens during the course of the undertaking. I lose steam. The tangle of issues, difficulties, and dead-ends somehow diffuse the spark that set me going at the beginning. The mirage of a successful finish dissolves into the reality of a long, dreary journey. I lose steam. And when my energy level dips, my universe usually goes downhill. So does the quality of my work. I under-deliver.

Over-commit and under-deliver. What a truly powerful recipe for disaster.

Well, it's never too late to change course. At least I'm aware of it, and that's where it begins.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Monday, February 19, 2007

"I must have traveled down a thousand roads.
Been so many places, seen so many faces,
Always on my way to somethin' new.
Ohh, but it doesn't matter,
'cause no matter where I go,
Every road leads back,
Every road just seems to lead me back to you."

Bette Midler, "Every Road Leads Back To You"

So here I am again. I thought I'd forgotten all about this here thing that I'd started, what, ages ago! But like the song goes, every road seems to lead back to it. I remember a beautiful time long gone,standing by a cliff on White Beach in Puerto Galera, with myself and the buddies facing that 30-foot wave about to slam on the face of the cliff, promising to give us an unforgettable, if painful memory. With only a few seconds before impact, Stuart has a eureka moment, and he shares his insight with us.

"Don't worry guys... just go with the flow!"

That mammoth of a wave came roaring in, sending us all into various degrees of pain and fear. In retrospect, though, Stuart may have actually saved all of us from a fate worse than getting our pretty little faces cut up on the sharp rocks... or being drowned... or being swept out into the South China Sea for the sea turtles to gobble up. Just like the guy in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe," who learns how to fly by being distracted at the last second, we too got distracted by Stu's strange words at the last moment before impact. We were all too distracted to do anything silly, and so we went with the flow.

My point is, the tides of fortune have brought me back to this blog. And so, in keeping with "the flow," I make this entry here and now.