What I learned in Jakarta

Last Thursday I flew to Jakarta to meet up with a business school friend whose family is in the palm oil business. Ever since I began exploring southeast Asia a year ago, I had been curious about the region’s most populous nation’s capital. It came at me like a ton of bricks, a massive urban sprawl, modern towers and shanties crammed together between streets so jam packed with vehicles they looked almost to crawl on top of one another.

Immediately I realized that the language barrier would be more significant here than anywhere else I had been in SE Asia, where everyone seems to speak at least a little English. Bills with endless zeros make it hard to get a sense that you know what you’re paying for things and people look and approach in a way that made me wish I had not come alone.

I arrived at my hotel, which was quite decent for the rate, although curiously placed outside of the normal thoroughfare, down an alley, in a neighborhood I would guess less frequented by traveling western businessmen. That night I stared out of my window and couldn’t help but wonder how I had gotten here, and if I hadn’t perhaps made a wrong turn somewhere along the road. It’s not being an expat or an entrepreneur that scares me, but the sum totality of all of it, the shoe string budget, the uncertainty, the sheer alienness of my surroundings, not knowing the customs, the ways, the rules. Having no guidance but that which I can pick up along the way, figuring it all out as I go along.

In that moment, the night burst into a cacophony of moaning and chanting, as the prayer calls came in from a thousand speakers through the city, praising Allah in low, deep whines from every direction as if to punctuate my thoughts of being out of place. “Go home.” they seemed to say. “This place is not for you, American.”

I thought of my recently graduated peers, with their generous salaries and long established companies, their medical benefits and retirement plans, their Monday nights at the local sports bar, their Sunday afternoon barbecues and their frequent visits home to see friends and family. I could feel resentment and regret build up inside me and I knew that if I was not careful I would decide then that it was over, and while I may not act on that decision immediately once the decision was made it would only be a matter of time and circumstance.

I drew the fear into myself from all the corners of my body where fear hides and sucked it into my abdomen like a thick poisonous mucous. When I had gathered it all up I pushed it out of my solar plexus and extruded from me like a thick snake and dripped out onto the floor before my feet. I watched it slither out under the door of my humble room and went to sleep.

If every trip were a good one, the good ones couldn’t possibly be that good, right? Yet I am forced to admit that my trip to Jakarta was hardly all bad. After an uneventful Friday trying unsuccessfully to find the local branch of my gym, I met up with my colleague for dinner. His presence was immediately reassuring and a great source of comfort. Not having spent much time together prior to this trip, I was pleased to find that we were quite comfortable in each others company and immediately fell into the roles of clueless tourist and seasoned guide, humble guest and perfect host. We ate some brilliant Indonesian food, brought out in the traditional way, plates upon plates stacked high, take whatever you like.

After dinner we met with a friend of his enjoyed a few drinks in a swanky lounge before heading out to a rather unique establishment where we sang karaoke in a private room whilst sipping iced capuccinos. Crooning and teasing, we bonded as I’d hoped we would.

Before heading home, we walked by a durian stall and selected one of the ubiquitous SE Asian fruits as a final snack. My comrades remarked with surprise at my appreciation for the strong smelling durian, famously despised by foreigners of all kinds.

As I sucked the creamy flesh off the nut like seeds, i thought about the durian as a metaphor for many of my experiences in Asia, and elsewhere in the world. Now a confirmed durian lover, it’s almost difficult to remember my association to the smell of the fruit when I first encountered it. You see, I think what happens when we’re presented with something powerfully different than what we’re accustomed to is a process of comparison and shuffling of the boxes in our mind that help us understand things. New sights, smells, ideas and people all challenge us in ways that make us uncomfortable and we are compelled to relate them to something we do understand, a lazy and fearful process.

The most satisfying breakthroughs and opportunities to gain new appreciations in life come when we allow something totally foreign to take root in us and carve out a place of its very own. So durian does not actually, I promise you, smell like socks or rotten eggs, but rather it smells quite exactly like durian, a smell you will never know until you smell a durian.

In the eyes of my friend I see a deep appreciation and love for the capital city of his people. It is an understanding I am not satisfied not to possess. I have already decided I will return to Jakarta at some point, and many of the things I saw and experienced there come back to me quietly now that I am back in the perfect order and harmony of Singapore.

I remember, in particular, a look shared with a woman. It was Saturday and my friend and I were having lunch with some of his work colleagues at a very upscale mall restaurant. It was very easy to forget the Jakarta I had experienced in my short survey so far, in this environment, and perhaps because I would be leaving so soon, my interest to experience more was at a peak.

I turned to see a couple dining at a table beside ours, the man engrossed in his meal, the woman leaned back in her chair, thinking those thoughts only women know. She looked at me with lion like disdain as I took in her mane of jet black hair, her impossibly long lashes, cat-like eyes and cheeks, dark, full lips and skin the color of dried bamboo. Unspoken, we both knew she was one of the most exquisite examples or the female species I had seen, and I would remember her long after she had forgotten me.

Her looks were, as far as I could tell, quite uniquely Indonesian. So return i must, for Man is not equipped to argue with such evidence as that.


Sometimes, the pieces can wait

Do you remember the stage in the distance at the end of the last video?

I’m there now, writing this on my iPhone. There is a concert, classical music, a mixture of Western and Eastern instruments are being played. I am laying down on the grass, surrounded by smiling faces playing frisbee and soccer, blowing bubbles and laughing in every language I’ve ever heard. Children chase each other between the trees, young lovers nestled against the trunk whisper secrets.

I close my eyes and I think this would be a fine moment to die. It is not hard to imagine that this is what heaven might be like. The music changes and I begin to visualize a portal opening from a line at the top of my temple running down my body. Out of it comes all of my dreams and hopes for myself, my fears and my weaknesses, my friends and my enemies, my assets and my liabilities. I let them float there for a while, just appreciating the components that make up my life. I begin to move them around.

The MC just announced that the next orchestra is from Taiwan and will be playing an African symphony.

I move the pieces around and around, look at them from different angles, try different combinations. I experiment with taking some pieces off of the board. I introduce new pieces. I keep it small. I keep it tight. No single purpose elements. No mercy for non- performing assets.

A random kid just ran up behind me and grabbed my shoulders. He had huge eyes and a toothless smile. I smiled back and he ran off, mission accomplished. I am not making this up.

The pieces can wait.

Thank you for my existence

I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am to you for reading these words, right here, right now. The human desire to be understood is a powerful one.

The first article I remember reading in my first psychology class was a piece on “ontological insecurity.” I don’t remember the author or the name of the piece, but they are both very famous. He describes people suffering from the feeling that every conflict, every argument is an affront to their very existence. People, somewhere deep down inside, harbor a fear that they do not exist.

If imaginary fears can cause real reactions, what human terrors are capable of being produced by this insecurity? What triumphs?

In business, we are accustomed to this feeling because manifesting reality is our job. Business without risk is only management. Risk without belief is futility. Belief without faith is insincere, and faith without intimacy is impossible.

The businessperson who will not take ownership of his/her project is not incapable of success, but their reality will cease to exist when confronted with a more powerful one. Think of the ontological security it took for Mark Zuckerberg to say no to the first billion dollars he was offered for Facebook.

Some time ago I saw a documentary about young female boxers. One boxer was talking about how she gives her entire life to boxing, and she expects the same from her opponent. Thus when one boxer defeats the other, she destroys not only her winning record, but her entire identity.

So then I ask myself if I am willing to put my entire identity in the ring. To believe I am capable of something and risk everything to prove it.

There are some days that are easier than others, but I thank you for sharing this moment with me.

Outstanding Moments

I’ve always felt that one’s life is ultimately a collection of singular moments, and that one should always strive to both seek and appreciate those moments to the fullest. With that in mind, I want to share a few of the moments that have occurred in my life in the last two weeks since I returned to Singapore in the hopes that I will in some way capture their meaning and that you too will find them in some way remarkable.

1. My first weekend here, I drove to Putrajaya, Malaysia with my good friend and colleague Cristian Shoemaker, to build contacts for our fertilizer business at the Putrajaya Flower Show. The Putrajaya Flower Show is one of the largest of its kind in the world and attracts over one million visitors. Before we got to the show, I was floored by the development of main, downtown Putrajaya. It was incredible to me that a city I had never heard of would be so massive and so modern. As I contemplated my own ignorance about the world, I marveled at the structures that all looked like they might have just come out of the box.

2. Muslim women walking around the Putrajaya flower show in brightly colored burqa’s, surrounded by enormous kaleidoscopic flower arrangements. For a moment I felt completely transported into an episode of Star Trek, an impossibly bright and beautiful costume world.

3. Two interesting wildlife moments: seeing a family of monkeys cross the road outside of my boss’s condo in Singapore and a monitor lizard look directly into our car outside our factory in Malaysia. He glanced askance and licked the air with his long, forked black tongue and for a moment I felt that maybe I could talk to animals.

4. A man advising me on how to eat Durian, and know if I’ve been given a good one. I had purchased one of the large (and expensive!) fruits at a local open air market and was enjoying it on a bench. The man, a distinguished looking old Chinese fellow, explained that I must separate the pods with my palms by pressing the fruit against the bench, rather than try to pull them apart with my fingers. His method worked like a charm, then he looked sadly at the pale fruit inside. We both knew it should have been a deeper yellow hue, and shared a look that said “don’t let it happen again” and “it won’t.”

5. Seeing an “arrangement” at the Singapore Garden Festival. I put arrangement in quotes, because the display was massive, featuring trees uprooted and planted upside down into the ground,and grass grown over huge slabs of marble jutting out of the earth and odd angles, to convey a sense of a world in chaos. It was one of the most stunning things I had ever seen and made me think perhaps art may play a larger role in this second act of my life.



I have an iPhone now, so new pictures and videos coming.

The Dean and The Cube

Like most people of my generation, one of my favorite shows growing up was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. One of my favorite episodes featured the indomitably spirited Will Smith interviewing for a spot in the Princeton freshman class with a comically dour Dean. I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the show, so it won’t be hard for you to imagine what happened – Dean is originally put off by Will’s brash and jocular demeanor, but eventually comes around and practically begs Will to attend. In this particular interaction, the turning point was when Will proved his intelligence by completing an unsolved Rubik’s cube sitting on the Dean’s desk. Immediate. Intellectual. Credibility.

Interesting fact – Will Smith repeated this performance almost exactly in his role as rags to riches businessman Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness, with the “Dean” being a partner at investment firm… Dean Witter (weird, right?).

Another interesting fact – it takes no special level of intelligence to solve a Rubik’s cube. Well, not now that it’s already been solved, that is. What was one of the greatest mysteries of the 1980’s has been reduced to a totally predictable algorithm for transposing specified cubes in certain ways. The best cubers now measure their solves not in hours or even minutes, but in seconds. The set of moves I’ve memorized is not so robust. I can generally solve the cube in about 3 minutes.

Like most people, I didn’t know solving a cube was possible for anyone but the uber-gifted, until a young uber-gifted mathematician showed me how it was done. It took me about a week before I had solved it for the first time, and I slowly honed my skills from there. I would estimate I spent about 60 hours of time to get to where I am now, and have stayed. In my old age (I turned 30 last month), I have become a lot more discriminating about how I invest my time. Long gone are the days of 5 hour video game sessions. I am not quite at the point where I put “personal time” into my Outlook calendar, but I can see it happening soon.

I guess the best thing I can say about the time I wasted, is that at least I wasn’t doing something worse. I try not to torture myself by over-analyzing sunk costs. I have been able to impress people with my cube solving abilities a small handful of times. A wave of smugness washes over me when I see an unsolved cube on someone’s desk or bookshelf. I always make a show of it. I start by asking politely if I can take a try. I look at it curiously for a while, like I’ve never actually held one before. After some time, I give a nod of understanding, like I’ve just figured it out. Then I spend the next 3 minutes sliding the pieces around as quickly as possible, making as much eye contact with my audience as I can without losing my position.

I haven’t met my “Dean” yet, but I think one day I will. It’s going to be one hell of a show.

I might even show him how it’s done.