# Internal and External Successes

Success can be internal or external. External success is easily measured in terms of money and material possessions. The internal one is measured in terms of less palpable yardsticks, like happiness, peace of mind etc. External success is related to extrovert qualities, like articulation, and depends on what others think of you. The internal one, on the other hand, depends on what you think of yourself. It is made up of things like duty, honor etc. Confusing one with the other leads to misconceptions like identifying money with happiness, for instance. You need one for the other, but they are definitely not the same.

The height of extroversion are the social medial networks like Facebook. Paradoxically, they are also an introvert’s desperate attempt at being an extrovert, but that’s another story. I think people’s success in life shines more through Facebook than anything else these days. It even leads to something similar to Facebook envy, as BBC recently reported. The report said something about people feeling left out because they see their friends having a grand time all the time. They then feel as though life is passing them by.

There is a flip side to this Facebook-evny phenomenon. You can try to generate as much envy as possible by posting your photos in fabulous locations, having wall-to-wall fun. If that doesn’t project an aura of external success, what does?

I should admit — I’m guilty of this Facebook bragging. I once posted a photo of mine with the Eiffel Tower in the background, and I even remember asking my daughter to be sure to catch the tower in the background. I guess in today’s day and age, you do need a bit of external success as well. The internal one by itself doesn’t quite cut it.

# How to be Successful in Life?

When I talked about the dimensions of success, I used the word dimension with an ulterior motive. I want to define success for you in a formal way. You see, an entity that has many dimensions is a space, similar to the three dimensional space we live in. When we have such a complex multi-dimensional space to define success in, we have to apply some good techniques from physics to do it right. Don’t worry, i am here to help.

Success is hard to define, but the lack of success seems obvious — no money, no family, no friends, no education, no wisdom, no health, no wealth etc. That situation is one dark point in this multi-dimensional success-space. Your station in life is another point in the success-space. How far away from the dark point your station is is truly the measure of your success in life. The distance from this zero point of failure is the so-called Cartesian distance. If you have special likes or dislikes for one particular dimension of success (like money, for instance), you can assign an appropriate weight to that dimension, which effectively makes the distance what they call a $chi^2$ distance. Of course, it would be impossible to assign precise numerical values to all these abstract dimensions and distances. But this mode of thinking should give you a tool to analyze and understand successes and failures. It will tell you, for instance, why Bangladeshis score higher in happiness index than Americans. They just happen to have a different set of dimensions that they consider important.

The trick in achieving success in life lies in identifying the dimensions that are important to you personally. Don’t let yourself get influenced by others (unless, of course, pleasing others is one of your preferred dimensions). Once your own personal directions are identified, channel all your efforts along those dimensions. Just be sure that your dimensions are right for you both in terms of your deepest desires and your abilities. Choose wisely!

# Dimensions of Success

Money is only one dimension along which success can be defined. There are many others, such as sports, music, art, acting, politics, professions and even more abstract things like articulation, soft skills, philanthropy, wisdom, knowledge etc. Excellence in any one of them can be thought of us success. Success is easy to spot — look at any one of the celebrities and ask yourself why you know them. The answer is usually one of the dimensions of success — and fame its byproduct.

Excellence in any field can translate to money, which is what Eddie Felson in the Color of Money tells the younger pool player. This transformability often leads us to mistake money for the measure success, which, by the way, is the theme of the afore-mentioned movie. Towards the end of the movie, when Felson realizes that there is more to life than money, he says, “I just want your best game.” Ability to hang with the best game anybody can dish out in any field is excellence; and it has to be reckoned as success. This excellence is probably what the ancient Greeks called arete.

Then, we have other dimensions of life, which, if lived well, lead to gratification and I suppose, spell success in life. Being a good son or daughter and taking care of your parents, for instance, is a worthy goal that my Asian and Indian friends will appreciate. Being a good spouse or a good parent is another worthy dimension of success that most of us would like to achieve, at least in principle. Excellence along these dimensions may lead to personal satisfaction, but no monetary glory. I wonder whether the lack of money makes these successes less impressive.

Success without money came to some other excellent souls as well. Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Karl Marx etc. had wretchedly poor existences, but were posthumously recognized as peaks of excellence in their own ways. Again, it looks as thought their success is somewhat less worthy because of its lack of financial rewards. Or is it the money-centric worldview of our era (or of my garden state of Singapore) that is talking? When we ask our kids to score A’s, are we asking them to be excellent in academics for its own sake and pleasure? Or are we hoping, secretly and hypocritically, that they will make oodles of money for themselves later in life? I’m afraid it is the latter.

# Definition of Success

We all want to be successful in life. What does success mean to us? Because success is goal in life, when it is not achieved, we get disappointed. We are then, to be blunt, unsuccessful. But the word success can hold anything within. So if you we don’t know what success is, disappointment is inevitable. We really do need to define it.

Let’s go through a few common definitions of success and see if we can draw any conclusions from it. By the end of this series of posts, I hope to give you a good definition that will make you successful in life. What more can you ask of a blog?

We life in a material world, and the most popular definition of success is in terms of the things you own, or your ability to own them, which basically translates to money. So we use money as a proxy to success, which is why questions like, “If you are so smart, how come you are poor?” make sense. Being smart by itself, or acquiring knowledge for its own sake does not success make. However, this definition of success has problems. For one thing, money is the kind of thing you can keep accumulating, which means you can be more and more successful until you become the richest person on earth. Secondly, by this definition of success, someone like Mother Theresa would have to be disappointed with her life. And someone like Madoff would be considered to have lived a good life (if he hadn’t been caught, that is). In other words, the intrinsic goodness (a concept again hard to define) takes a backseat to pure accumulation of the green stuff. This phenomenon and the associated excesses, of course, are something we do see everywhere in the world around us.

We are not going to address the ethical question about money being the definition of success. We just need to understand that it leads to unachievable goals to almost everyone. By this money-based definition of success, almost everyone ends up being unsuccessful and disappointed with the way their life has turned out, because they always feel that they could have earned more, which of course they could have.

One way of avoiding disappointment is to set a ceiling, a limit to how much you want to accumulate. Let’s say you set a “modest” limit of one million dollars on your monetary goal. Given that it is only three or four percent of those in a rich country like Singapore that make the cut, it is a fairly respectable, yet achievable, goal for most of the readers of this blog. Now the trouble with this redefinition is that it ends up becoming a moving target. By the time you reach anywhere near the target, your lifestyle would have changed so as to make it look too modest. But if you can stick with it, a capped financial target seems like sensible definition of success.

# Are You an Introvert?

Here is a simple 20-question quiz to see if you are an introvert or an extrovert. Introverts tend to agree with most of these statements. So if you get a score of close to 100%, you are a confirmed introvert, which is not a bad thing. You are likely to be a quiet, contemplative type with strong family ties and a generally balanced outlook in life. On the other hand, if you get close to 0%, congratulations, I see stock options in your future. And you are a party animal and believe that life is supposed to be wall-to-wall fun, which it will be for you. I’m not too sure of those in the middle though.

These questions are from Susan Cain’s best seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and a prelude to my review of it. The questions are copyrighted to Cain, and are reproduced here with the understanding that it constitutes “fair use.” If you have any concerns about it, feel free to contact me.

# Was Yours, Now Mine

I feel I have lived through an era of great changes. The pace of change can seem accelerated if you travel or emigrate because various geographical regions act as different slices in time. I have had the benefit (or the misfortune) of multiple emigrations. With that, coupled with my advancing years, I feel as though I have seen a lot. Most of what I have seen fills me with a foreboding of gloom and doom. Perhaps it is merely the pessimism characteristic of an unduly cynical mind, or perhaps it is the true decay of our global ethical standards.

On the positive side, the pace of change is indeed fast and furious. This is the kind of change you like — you know, vinyl to spool tape to cassette to MP3 to iPod kind. Or the land-line to satellite to cell to Skype to Twitter kind. However, along with this positive and obvious track of changes, there is an insidiously slow and troubling track creeping up on us. It is n this context that I want to reuse the over-used allegory of the frog-in-a-pot.

If you put a frog in hot water, it will jump out of the pot and save its skin. But if you place the frog in cold water, and slowly heat up the pot, it won’t feel the change and boil to death. The slowness of change is deadly. So let me be the frog with delusions of grandeur; allow me to highlight the unhealthy changes accumulating around us. You see, along with the technological miracle that we are living through, there is an economic or financial nightmare that is spreading its tentacles over all aspects of our social and political existence, transfixing everything in place in its vice-like grip. Slowly. Very slowly. Because of this invisible hold on us, with every iPod we buy, we (the middle-class) take a couple of dollars from the very poor and give it to the very rich. We don’t see it that way because some of us make a few cents in the process. The Apple store franchisee makes a few cents, the employee-of-the-month gets a token raise, an apple developer may enjoy a nice vacation, or a senior executive might get a new jet, the economy of the country goes up a notch, NASDAQ (and so everybody’s pension) goes up a tiny fraction — all are happy, right?

Well, there is this little question of the packaging material that may have killed part of a tree somewhere, in Brazil, perhaps, where people don’t know that the trees belong to them. May be a little bit of pollution escaped into the air or a river in China where the locals haven’t realized that these resources are their heirlooms. May be some moderately toxic junk ended up in a landfill in Africa somewhere where they haven’t quite grasped the concept of land ownership. It may have cost a developer in Bangalore or a call-center girl in Manilla an hour or two more than it should because they don’t know that their time is a resource bought low and sold high in markets they don’t see or know of. It is from these distant places and phantom people that we pick up a couple of dollars and pass on to the equally distant corporate coffers and stock markets. We take what is not ours from the unknown owners to feed the avarice of unseen players. And, like Milo Minderbinder would say, everybody has a share. This is the modern capitalism of the corporate era, where we have all become tiny cogs in a giant wheel inexorably rolling on to nowhere in particular, but obliterating much in the process.

The problem with capitalism as an economic ideology is that it is pretty much unopposed now. Only through a conflict of ideology can a balance of some sort emerge. Every conflict, by definition, requires adversaries, at least two of them. And so does an ideological struggle. The struggle is between capitalism and communism (or socialism, I’m not sure of the difference). The former says we should lay off the markets and let greed and selfishness run its course. Well, if you don’t like the sound of “greed and selfishness,” try “ambition and drive.” Associate it with words like freedom and democracy, and this “Laissez-Faire” ideology a la Adam Smith is a winning formula.

Standing in the other corner is the opposing ideology, which says we should control the flow of money and resources, and spread happiness. Unfortunately this ideology got associated with nasty words like totalitarianism, bureaucracy, mass murder, killing fields of Cambodia etc. Little wonder that it lost, save for this economic powerhouse called China. But the victory of China is no consolation for the socialist camp because China did it by redefining socialism or communism to essentially mean capitalism. So the victory of capitalism is, to all intents and purposes, a slam dunk. To the victors belong to spoils of history. And so, the socio-politico-economic ideology of capitalism enjoys the mellifluous association of nice words like liberty, equal opportunity, democracy etc., while communism is a failed experiment relegated to the “also-ran” category of ideologies such as fascism, Nazism and other evil stuff. So the battle between capitalism and the occupy-wall-street movements is pathetically asymmetric.

A battle between two well-matched opponents is nice to watch; say, a match between Djokovic and Federer. On the other hand, a “match” between Federer and me would be exciting only to me — if that. If you are into violent entertainment, a boxing match between two heavy weights would be something interesting to watch. but a brawny boxer beating the living daylights out of a two-year-old would only fill you with revolt and disgust (which is similar to the feeling I had during the ’91 Gulf War).

Don’t worry, I’m not about to defend or try to revive socialism on this blog, because I don’t think a centrally controlled economy works either. What worries me is the fact that capitalism does not have a worthy adversary now. Shouldn’t it worry you as well? Corporate capitalism is beating the living daylights out of everything that one might call decent and human. Should we ignore and learn to love our disgust just because we got a share?

# Ridiculous, Annoying and Embarrassing

Now it is official – we become embarrassing, ridiculous and annoying when our first-born turns thirteen. The best we can hope to do, evidently, is to negotiate a better deal. If we can get our thirteen year old to drop one of the three unflattering epithets, we should count ourselves lucky. We can try, “I may embarrass you a bit, but I do not annoy you and I am certainly not ridiculous!” This apparently was the deal this friend of mine made with his daughter. Now he has to drop her a block away from her school (so that her friends don’t have to see him, duh!), but he smiles the smile of a man who knows he is neither annoying nor ridiculous.

I did a bit worse, I think. “You are not that annoying; you are not always ridiculous and you are not totally embarrassing. Well, not always,” was the best I could get my daughter to concede, giving me a 50% pass grade. My wife fared even worse though. “Oh, she is SOOO ridiculous and always annoys me. Drives me nuts!” making it a miserable 33% fail grade for her. To be fair though, I have to admit that she wasn’t around when I administered the test; her presence may have improved her performance quite a bit.

But seriously, why do our children lose their unquestioning faith in our infallibility the moment they are old enough to think for themselves? I don’t remember such a drastic change in my attitude toward my parents when I turned thirteen. It is not as though I am more fallible than my parents. Well, may be I am, but I don’t think the teenager’s reevaluation of her stance is a commentary on my parenting skills. May be in the current social system of nuclear families, we pay too much attention to our little ones. We see little images of ourselves in them and try to make them as perfect as we possibly can. Perhaps all this well-meaning attention sometimes smothers them so much that they have to rebel at some stage, and point out how ridiculously annoying and embarrassing  our efforts are.

May be my theory doesn’t hold much water – after all, this teenage phase change vis-a-vis parents is a universal phenomenon. And I am sure the degree of nuclear isolation of families and the level of freedom accorded to the kids are not universal. Perhaps all we can do is to tune our own attitude toward the teenagers’ attitude change. Hey, I can laugh with my kids at my ridiculous embarrassments. But I do wish I had been a bit less annoying though…

# An Office Survival Guide

Let’s face it — people job hop. They do it for a host of reasons, be it better job scope, nicer boss, and most frequently, fatter paycheck. The grass is often greener on the other side. Really. Whether you are seduced by the green allure of the unknown or venturing into your first pasture, you often find yourself in a new corporate setting.

In the unforgiving, dog-eat-dog corporate jungle, you need to be sure of the welcome. More importantly, you need to prove yourself worthy of it. Fear not, I’m here to help you through it. And I will gladly accept all credit for your survival, if you care to make it public. But I regret that we (this newspaper, me, our family members, dogs, lawyers and so on) cannot be held responsible for any untoward consequence of applying my suggestions. Come on, you should know better than to base your career on a newspaper column!

This disclaimer brings me naturally to the first principle I wanted to present to you. Your best bet for corporate success is to take credit for all accidental successes around you. For instance, if you accidentally spilled coffee on your computer and it miraculously resulted in fixing the CD-ROM that hadn’t stirred in the last quarter, present it as your innate curiosity and inherent problem solving skills that prompted you to seek an unorthodox solution.

But resist all temptation to own up to your mistakes. Integrity is a great personality trait and it may improve your karma. But, take my word for it, it doesn’t work miracles on your next bonus. Nor does it improve your chances of being the boss in the corner office.

If your coffee debacle, for instance, resulted in a computer that would never again see the light of day (which, you would concede, is a more likely outcome), your task is to assign blame for it. Did your colleague in the next cubicle snore, or sneeze, or burp? Could that have caused a resonant vibration on your desk? Was the cup poorly designed with a higher than normal centre of gravity? You see, a science degree comes in handy when assigning blame.

But seriously, your first task in surviving in a new corporate setting is to find quick wins, for the honeymoon will soon be over. In today’s workplace, who you know is more important than what you know. So start networking — start with your boss who, presumably, is already impressed. He wouldn’t have hired you otherwise, would he?

Once you reach the critical mass in networking, switch gears and give an impression that you are making a difference. I know a couple of colleagues who kept networking for ever. Nice, gregarious folks, they are ex-colleagues now. All talk and no work is not going to get them far. Well, it may, but you can get farther by identifying avenues where you can make a difference. And by actually making a bit of that darned difference.

Concentrate on your core skills. Be positive, and develop a can-do attitude. Find your place in the corporate big picture. What does the company do, how is your role important in it? At times, people may underestimate you. No offence, but I find that some expats are more guilty of underestimating us than fellow Singaporeans. Our alleged gracelessness may have something to do with it, but that is a topic for another day.

You can prove the doubters wrong through actions rather than words. If you are assigned a task that you consider below your level of expertise, don’t fret, look at the silver lining. After all, it is something you can do in practically no time and with considerable success. I have a couple of amazingly gifted friends at my work place. I know that they find the tasks assigned to them ridiculously simple. But it only means that they can impress the heck out of everybody.

Corporate success is the end result of an all out war. You have to use everything you have in your arsenal to succeed. All skills, however unrelated, can be roped in to help. Play golf? Invite the CEO for a friendly. Play chess? Present it as the underlying reason for your natural problem solving skills. Sing haunting melodies in Chinese? Organize a karaoke. Be known. Be recognized. Be appreciated. Be remembered. Be missed when you are gone. At the end of the day, what else is there in life?

# How Friendly is too Friendly?

We all want to be the boss. At least some of us want to be the big boss at some, hopefully not-too-distant, future. It is good to be the boss. However, it takes quite a bit to get there. It takes credentials, maturity, technical expertise, people skills, communication and articulation, not to mention charisma and connections.

Even with all the superior qualities, being a boss is tough. Being a good boss is even tougher; it is a tricky balancing act. One tricky question is, how friendly can you get with your team?

At first glance, this question may seem silly. Subordinates are human beings too, worthy of as much friendliness as any. Why be stuck up and act all bossy to them? The reason is that friendship erodes the formal respect that is a pre-requisite for efficient people management. For instance, how can you get upset with your friends who show up thirty minutes late for a meeting? After all, you wouldn’t get all worked up if they showed up a bit late for a dinner party.

If you are friends with your staff, and too good a boss to them, you are not a good boss from the perspective of the upper management. If you aspire to be a high powered and efficient boss as viewed from the top, you are necessarily unfriendly with your subordinates. This is the boss’s dilemma.

From the employee’s perspective, if your boss gets too friendly, it is usually bad news. The boss will have your hand phone number! And an excuse to call you whenever he/she feels like it.

Another unfortunate consequence of accidental cordiality is unrealistic expectations on your part. You don’t necessarily expect a fat bonus despite a shoddy performance just because the boss is a friend. But you would be a better human being than most if you could be completely innocent of such a wishful notion. And this tinge of hope has to lead to sour disappointment because, if he your boss is friendly with you, he/she is likely to be friendly with all staff.

By and large, bosses around here seem to work best when there is a modicum of distance between them and their subordinates. One way they maintain the distance is by exploiting any cultural difference that may exist among us.

If you are a Singaporean boss, for instance, and your staff are all expatriate Indians or Chinese, it may be a good thing from the distance angle — cultural and linguistic differences can act as a natural barrier toward unwarranted familiarity that may breed contempt.

This immunity against familiarity, whether natural or cultivated, is probably behind the success of our past colonial masters. Its vestiges can still be seen in management here.

The attitude modulation when it comes to the right amount of friendship is not a prerogative of the bosses alone. The staff have a say in it too. As a minor boss, I get genuinely interested in the well-being of my direct reports, especially because I work closely with them. I have had staff who liked that attitude and those who became uncomfortable with it.

The ability to judge the right professional distance can be a great asset in your and your team’s productivity. However, it cannot be governed by a set of thumb rules. Most of the time, it has to be played by ear and modulated in response to the changing attitudes and situations. That’s why being a good boss is an art, not an exact science.

# When the Going Gets Tough, Turn Around!

Elton John is right, sorry is the hardest word. It is hard to admit that one has been wrong. Harder still is to find a way forward, a way to correct one’s past mistakes. It often involves backtracking.

But when it comes to hard-headed business decisions, backtracking may often be the only thing to do. It makes sense to cut further losses when there is little point in throwing good money after bad. Such containment efforts are routine events in most establishments.

The biggest loss containment effort that I had a personal stake in happened in the US in the early nineties. I began noticing its worrying escalation in a hotel room in Washington DC. I was student delegate in the annual conference of the American Physical Society (APS). Despite the happy APS atmosphere (where many graduate students find their future placements) and the beautiful pre-cherry-blossom weather, I was a worried man because I had just seen a TV commercial that said, “Ten billion dollars for a particle accelerator??!! What the heck is it any way?”

The ten billion dollar project under attack was the so-called Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas, which was eventually shut down in 1993. The cancellation came in spite of a massive initial investment of about two billion dollars.

To me, this cancellation meant that more than two thousand bright and experienced physicists would be looking for jobs right around the time I entered the job market. This concern represented my personal stake in the project; but the human impact of this mammoth backtracking was much deeper. It precipitated a minor recession in the parts of Dallas to the south of the Trinity River.

Similar backtracking, though at a much smaller scale, may happen in your organization as well. Let’s say you decided to invest two million dollars in a software system to solve a particular business problem. Half a million dollars into the project, you realize that it was a wrong solution. What do you do?

It may look obvious that you should save the company a million and a half by stopping the project. This decision is exactly what the collective wisdom of the US Congress arrived at in 1993 regarding the SSC. But it is not that simple. Nothing in real life is that simple.

Corporate backtracking is a complex process. It has multiple, often interconnected, aspects that have to be managed with skill.

If you decide to backtrack, what does it say about your business acumen? Will it trigger a backlash from the top management accusing you of poor judgment? In other words, will your name be so much in the mud that you would find it impossible to secure a job and support your family?

Let’s say it really wasn’t your fault and you had valid arguments to convince everybody of your innocence. Would that make it simple enough to pull the plug on the project? In all probability, it would not, because all big projects involve other people, for no man is an island. Stopping a project half-way through would probably mean sacking the whole project team.

This human cost is something we have to be aware of. It is not always about dollars and cents. If you are kind soul, you would have to move the team to some other (potentially unproductive) project, thereby eroding the savings that would’ve accrued from stopping the project. Wouldn’t it have been better to have continued with the original project, doomed though it was?

In most corporate cases, it will turn out to be wise to shutdown doomed projects. But don’t underestimate the costs involved. They are not always counted in monitory terms, but have human dimensions as well.

It is far wiser never to embark on dubious projects. When you must get involved in uncertain projects, review your exit options carefully. For instance, would it be possible to reshape the project in a different but still salvageable direction?

And if and when you do have to shut them down, do it with decisiveness. Do it with skill. But most importantly, do it with decency and compassion.