Meditation and Body Practices for Relationship Management

My first exposure to Eastern spirituality came from the great book Way of the Superior Man by David Deida. In this book he gives simple, practical advice for living a fulfilling and enlightened life based on lessons from spiritual gurus he studied under.

At business school, I had the opportunity to take a leadership course taught by Clinton Sidle, whose belief system is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and esoteric mysticism. Since then I have continued to explore the wisdom of Eastern spirituality and lessons in mindfulness, in particular.

The practice of mindfulness encourages practitioners to enhance their awareness of their minds and bodies in daily living through concentration and meditation. Today I practice this both individually and through weekly group meditation classes at the Kadampa Meditation Center of Singapore.

I believe that I have experienced many great benefits from this practice, in regulating my emotions and creating a greater availability of peace of mind. I want to share with you one particular exercise that I have developed personally in hopes that it may also help you in your pursuits in life and in business.

Through deep introspection it is possible to explore our thoughts and emotions in a way that we may not always take advantage of. Buddhism teaches us that the connection between mind, heart and body is quite singular and our thoughts and emotions tend to display themselves in our body in predictable ways. Our teeth clench when we are frustrated, our brow furrows when we are worried and we feel a tightness in the pit of our stomach when we are scared. All of these fearful emotions manifest in our bodies in such a way as to not only rob us of our confidence and ease of being, but also to close off the energy lines in our body that allow us to communicate and empathize with others in a way that is giving.

If you have ever held a role that involves sales, you know the importance of complete congruence when dealing with your client and the need to clearly communicate that you have the other persons best interest at heart and will look after them. Truth be told, trust and altruism is at the heart of all we do in business, no matter what your role. Here is a simple exercise that you can do at home to enhance your ability to create and maintain meaningful trusting relationships with the people you do business with.

First, start by getting into a comfortable and relaxed pose that will allow you to focus inwards without distraction. Ideally you will maintain a straight back and a loose abdomen and most importantly you will breathe easily and naturally. Take a few moments to sink into your chosen position until you are completely relaxed and at ease. Clear your mind and focus on the sensation of your breath as it enters and exits your nostrils.

Once you have achieved a state of comfortable focus and relaxation, think about someone with whom you are currently concerned. This person could be your boss, or a client or prospect, a coworker or partner. Allow the image of this individual to come into your mind and breathe in deeply as you take your memory of their energy into you. Consider your recent interactions, conversations, times you have shared space. Think about how you met and what you know of this individual. You may be surprised by how many details come to mind. We rarely have the opportunity to observe people when interacting with them for fear of making them uncomfortable, but in retrospect you may find yourself noticing habits and traits that you had not previously considered, particularly if the demands of your life require you to manage many relationships continuously.

As you allow your mind to explore this person, begin to notice what is happening in your body. Do you feel yourself tightening up, almost as if to squeeze and contain this person? Do you feel an uneasiness entering your body, as though this person’s presence may give you cause to flee? Notice how your breath and posture changes and where you feel tightness in your muscles. Perhaps you feel yourself being lulled into a feeling of sleepiness at the thought of this individual, representing what may be an inappropriate level of dependence.

Continue to explore this individual and take note of the feelings expressed in your body until you are able to hold the thought of this person gently before you without the state of relaxation and focus you had earlier achieved being disturbed. Hold them in front of you as you would a flower that you may tilt to look better upon its petals or get a whiff of its perfume; neither tightly nor fearfully.

It is from this state of relaxed concentration that you will be able to offer this individual the very best of you, and in your next interaction with this person you will be able to call upon this state of being when exchanging energy with them. You may go use this exercise at any time and it will get easier with practice. The results can be quite powerful and I hope you will try it for yourself.

Singapore: a year in review

I moved to Singapore on July 4th 2012 to gain international experience, to be a part of the Asian growth story and to form new relationships in one of the world’s most exciting and international cities. A little over a year later, I feel that I’ve managed to achieve all of those goals.

First of all, it’s worth mentioning just the fact that I managed to stay here for so long. While perhaps not the most obvious accomplishment, my work circumstances changed in such a way not so long after getting here that it would have been the easier thing to just leave and start over back home in the United States. I chose to stay in Singapore and weather through some serious challenges, and I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my ability to achieve my goals through serious adversity because of it.

My second major accomplishment is the development of a stable business around admissions consulting, a field of work I previously had no experience in. It was slow growing, as many new businesses are, but I have reached a point where I have a respectable income, fantastic work flexibility and the privilege of working with some incredibly talented people. Even better, this is a field of work I can pick up at any time, is completely mobile and pretty much guarantees me a decent income I can rely on should I ever be in a position where I need quick cash and immediate work.

Third, I founded the Black Professional’s Network of Singapore. We are coming up on our 6th monthly meetup on Thursday. I’ve recruited, or more truthfully attracted, a considerably talented board to help serve our almost 100 members and have created opportunities for the Black people of Singapore to connect professionally and socially in a way that was not previously possible. I have an inbox full of thank you messages for this initiative and look forward to seeing even further growth in the future.

Fourth, last month I was selected to serve as the President of the Georgetown Alumni Club of Singapore. I have been involved with Georgetown leadership since my time at the University and as an alumni in Florida, and it is an incredible honor to be able to represent my university here in Singapore. The position provides me an opportunity to deliver real value to my alumni community and it’s amazing to be able to connect with so many fellow Hoyas.

Finally, and perhaps most important, I have had the chance to develop relationships with some of the most amazing people I have ever had the chance to meet. On any given social outing, I am surrounded by people who have lived and worked all around the world, people who are dominant players in their respective fields and industries, high performing, high trajectory professionals, intellectuals and some of the kindest, most interesting and positive people I have ever met. I attribute so much of my growth in life to the people I have been lucky enough to be influenced by, and I believe I have put myself in the best position for growth with the relationships I have formed here in Singapore.

A few months ago I began experiencing some serious homesickness. Friends, family, American food and lifestyle… I began thinking about them all a lot. I could feel my confidence in the decision to remain here waning, and almost as if on cue, Singapore became enveloped in thick smoke from burning forests in Indonesia. The entire island was blanketed. You couldn’t get away from it. Pedestrians on the street wore medical masks and went about their business with relative aplomb. The news reported that air quality could be like this until September and for a moment I thought I was beaten. This was too much. I began making mental preparations to leave.

But before I could act on any of those plans, the smog lifted and I found myself once again in the ultra clean, ultra safe, economically thriving, diverse and beautiful garden city I had come to love.

I can’t yet say that Singapore feels like home. I already recognize that, should I leave, I will miss this place immensely. I do miss my family and friends in the United States more than I can say. I miss my aunts and cousins in Miami, my dad in New York. My friends all along the East coast and, of course, my sisters. I hope to be able to see them all soon. But I haven’t yet gotten what I came for. And I may find other things in the seeking that I may not be prepared to let go.

Such are the strange ironies of life. I love you all.

So I am doing MBA admissions consulting, did I mention that?

I work at a private test prep and admissions consulting center run by b-school graduates. I work with an incredibly bright and diverse population of people and speak to hopeful and energetic young professionals every day. It is an honor to be able to guide them through the MBA application process, it is a daunting one. I have no regrets about my MBA as it was one of the best and most eye opening experiences of my life, although I am still waiting for it to “pay off” in the traditional sense of the term.

Yesterday a young Indian coal trader came into my office to ask for advice on getting into MIT. He had spent the last 6 years in Geneva and moved to Singapore recently when his group was shut down. He let me know that he might not be moving forward with the MBA if he can confirm funding for an entrepreneurial venture he is trying to start. What is this venture, you ask? “I want to use agricultural waste from the palm oil industry to generate carbon neutral electricity,” he said.

How did it feel to hear this young man express the very same ambition that I spent the last 18 months working on? It was interesting, to say the least. I felt a bizarre sense of satisfaction, but only momentarily. I had always known the idea was good, and that others would soon be doing this. This was real business, I felt. Making things. Selling things that people could use. Keeping it simple and scaling up.

After my moment of smug satisfaction came a slight twinge of jealousy at the idea that this young man may be better equipped to succeed where I failed, then a tug of curiosity at how much he knew about the product and the market, about whether there might be a chance for me to get involved. But after cycling through these feelings in a few transfixed seconds, I found myself settling on a contentment. The contentment of letting go. I had recently began unsubscribing to the renewable energy and biomass email lists I was on, as I no longer read them. Maybe I will come back to this at some point of my life, but I feel like I’ve moved on and this was a beautiful test and confirmation of my readiness to explore new adventures.

I still don’t know what can or will come next for me. I have some ideas of what I would like to happen, but there is no telling what will happen. I stay nimble, lean and open minded. I read a lot and listen to podcasts while I walk and ride the train. I keep my ear to the ground and look for trends. I go to networking events and meet people. I listen carefully.

And sometimes I still find the time to play a game of pool with a co-worker, have dinner with a friend, his wife and their newborn child or share a bottle of wine with a statuesque blonde. Life is good.

The Burden of Belief

Happy New Year to all of my friends in Asia, America, Africa and around the world!

Allow me to break the silence between this and my last post with a story. As you know, I came to Singapore almost 6 months ago, wide eyed and bushy tailed, with larger than life dreams of making it as an entrepreneur in the noble field of renewable energy. I was betrayed by people I placed my trust in, but more painfully, I was betrayed by own naivete. Society fills us with confusing mixed messages; we are told to believe in our dreams, to never give up, to sacrifice and risk everything, and ultimately we will be rewarded. A former boss of mine whom I have utmost respect for once shared with me some sage advice, “Lawrence,” he said. “Whenever you try hard, you gain something. You either gain what you wanted, or you gain experience.” So what I have gained is experience, I know this psychologically, but emotionally I remain skeptical.

On Thanksgiving day I attended a large dining event for the Distinguished University Alumni League of Singapore. Imagine a very large wedding, nothing at all like the cozy Thanksgiving’s I have come to know and cherish. I sat down beside a loquacious African-American wealth manager, a Stanford graduate who had been living in Singapore for over 9 years and made a convincing case for why Singapore was the new Switzerland, and would be the first choice for storing wealth for the world in the upcoming decades. To my right was a plump Chinese Hong Konger with a pronounced British accent and a fully waxed and twisted Dali mustache protruding easily 3 inches from his upper lip on either side. Two Indian girls sat across the large circular table and tried to make polite conversation. I attempted to respond amicably, but felt so tired. In my mind’s eye I saw myself merely walking from table to table intrusively interrogating each person on what they did for a living and whether they were in a position to offer me a job, or introduce me to someone who could.

A woman came around and asked me if I would like to purchase raffle tickets. They were 1 for $5 or 3 for $10, she said. In an attempt to remain positive and channel an abundance mentality, I purchased 3 tickets for $10 and immediately regretted it. I got up and walked over to the buffet line where a typically sized American was glaring at a Vietnamese server who was slicing strips of turkey so thin he could’ve been a human deli slicer. Another American behind him finally spoke up, “listen, this is Thanksgiving, you need to cut the turkey thicker than that. If you served someone a piece of turkey like that in my family you could be killed.” I scooped up some mashed potatoes and waited for my Asian sized portion of turkey, which was just hilariously tiny, but I was too tired to argue.

I sat back down on my table and people were eating and chatting awkwardly. I felt like I had a sign on my forehead that said “failure”. Or maybe I was wearing a t-shirt that said “I have an MBA from Cornell and I make less now than I did the year I graduated from college.” The Stanford wealth manager turned towards me and remarked on how nice the raffle prizes were. Teasing, I told him that he shouldn’t keep his hopes high on the top prize, as I will be winning it. He laughed and this seemed to take, so I carried on with it. The Chinese Dali, playing along beautifully, asked me how I knew I would win. I explained that I have a tendency to win games of luck, and that certainly there must be some people that are luckier than others, and I was just one of them. My arrogant speech juxtaposed with my meek and depressed body language must’ve amused my table because I spent much of the rest of the evening explaining in various pseudo-scientific ways why my winning of the grand prize was a near certainty.

As the raffle began and the lower prizes began being given away, the talk silenced a bit. I thought about my life, my dreams, and how maybe it was all a big joke.

Maybe it’s still a joke. Maybe I will win a huge victory in 2013 and suffer major losses in 2014. Maybe that’s just how life goes. Friends come and go, so does money, and status and so do lovers. But on Thanksgiving day I won the top prize. When I returned to my seat, the entire table gazed at me in wide eyed amazement. I think they expected me to express more surprise than I showed, and maybe the idea that the raffle had been fixed crossed their mind. It wasn’t that I was unsurprised, but rather that this small victory had not brought me into elation, but only back to normal. So I sat among this eclectic group of highly successful professionals and for a few moments felt normal. It was enough.

As I walked home, a scary thought crept into my head. Perhaps, I thought, it was not over. Perhaps my dreams would still come true. Perhaps it was time to believe again.

It is a happy burden.

The 10 Most Important Types of People to Know

1. The ones who are always willing to offer their advice, but don’t resent you when you do your own thing.

2. The ones who you can call at 2am and will answer concerned and not annoyed.

3. The ones who believe in you, and tell you so.

4. The ones who will listen when you need to talk something through or get something off your chest, and thank you for sharing.

5. The ones who won’t rush to end long pauses, and even sit silently with you.

6. The ones who are happy when you need help, so they can take the chance to prove their friendship.

7. The ones who will ask for your help when they need it.

8. The ones who will not value you based on your status but on your heart.

9. The ones who will tell you when you are wrong.

10. The ones who will dare to be vulnerable with you, and with whom you are safe to be vulnerable in return.

Last Thursday I…

Aside

Last Thursday I found myself staring out of the enormous floor to ceiling windows in the penthouse skybar of Ion at Orchard, one of Singapore’s flagship commercial/retail luxury skyscrapers in the heart of the city center. I could see the entire city from there, like a diorama. Singapore is bigger than I realized, with many neighborhoods and many little districts all seeming to teem with so much life and activity. To me, it is still a city very full of wonderment and secrets.

I had come for a special meeting of the Johnson Alumni club of Singapore. We would be hosting the core Finance teacher, who was in town lecturing professors at different universities and defending his research on the relationship between institutionally owned equity and leverage. He had been one of my favorite professors, he had stuck up for me when I was going through some difficult times, and has a no-nonsense air to him that perhaps reflected his time in the Israeli Defense Forces. He was very much a man’s man, he had style and he was warm, kind and intellectual without being puffy or effete. He isn’t the kind of guy that has to run his mouth every second or use a lot of big words to try and show his superiority. I was looking forward to seeing him, and hoped he’d draw out more members of the Johnson Alumni group I could network with.

We had coincidentally met at the elevator on the way up got to walk in together, which made me feel cool. The first two people we saw were co-presidents of the club, who had both met with me in the last few weeks to offer contacts and advice. One was a female, ABC or American Born Chinese as she called herself, who works in new product marketing for a major consumer packaged goods company. She is a thin woman of medium height with a brilliant and generous smile and bright sparkling eyes. Her feminine appearance and dress is often playfully at odds with her raspy voice and tomboyish mannerisms. She originally moved here with her co-president, neither of them having jobs. Their story is inspirational to me.

Her co-president is a mountain of a man, 6’4″ and built like a football player. He has short sandy brown hair and large, warm features. He is soft spoken and gentlemanly and gives the impression of a guy who knows a lot more than he is letting on. He arrived late to the first Johnson Alumni club social, but before he arrived everyone insisted I meet him. We chatted briefly then and seem to get each other’s sense of humor a bit and had many of the same reasons for wanting to be in Singapore. When we met for coffee when I begun looking for new work, he had a ton of advice for me and contacts and just genuinely seemed to care. Ivy league MBA types are not known for their warmth. A classmate once elegantly described this special class of type-A’s as “not inherently mean, just having a narrow threshold of sacrifice when considering the needs of others.” I can say that my impression of the male president of the Johnson Alumni Club of Singapore is as someone who really cares deeply about other people and I already consider him a friend.

Only a few people ended up showing up, but no one seemed to mind. I remembered that one more thing I had in common with the finance professor who was our guest, a highly polarizing personality. He was easily the most hated and most loved one of the core professors. He would often push students to think harder about their answers and was known to isolate students in class with flurries of questions that would leave them feeling embarrassed. Perhaps worse, he was known for giving his opinion easily and crushed the dreams of many a student when he would let them know point blank that they were not cut out for the career that they had in mind for themselves. He alienated a lot of people this way, but for those of us who weren’t quite so thin skinned or easily embarrassed, we were hungry for his realness. Watching him speak to the group, I wondered if one day I would be invited to travel the world, lecturing on my research, or some parallel honor in whatever field I find myself in 20 years.

Just last week, a young entrepreneur asked me to join his team at Unreasonable at Sea, a 100 day start-up accelerator taking place on a ship as it circumnavigates the globe, stopping in port cities to give lectures and presentations on our design. On Friday night I met him and one of his colleagues in Clarke Quay, the night life district to chat over the idea. There is no doubt that the technology they have in hand is remarkable and their potential is significant – they have received more unbelievable honors than you can imagine, MIT’s TR35 award for top global innovators, Forbes Magazine calling the founder one of 30 people under 30 most likely to change the world. Where I fit in at this point is somewhat unclear however. I am a lot older than most of the people on the team and my priorities in life are different, despite how exciting their work and their opportunities are.

Whatever the next opportunity to come my way is, I can say that I look forward to it.

Risk and Recovery

Greetings my delightful readers. I am happy to report that I am in one of the finest moods I have been in, in months and looking forward to sharing with you some of my thoughts on Risk and Recovery.

Don’t you mean Risk and Reward, Lawrence of America, you ask?

No, risk and reward has been covered to death and I will be discussing it only briefly here today. We all take risks in hope of achieving some reward in return, what kind of risks we take in return for what kinds of reward does merit a short discussion, but I think the more interesting and less talked about issue is how to recover from those risks that inevitably do not work out favorably and how to return to one’s optimal risk taking position from there.

What is the optimal risk taking position, you ask?

That’s a fine question, reader. May I say you are quite sharp today and looking good as well.

Most everyone is familiar with the concept of risk/reward. It is the cornerstone of the Capitalist economic system, it is what allows entrepreneurs to become disproportionately wealthy, it is what drives trade in the capital markets and fosters innovation around the world. Anyone who has ever been to a casino is intimately familiar with this phenomenon in it’s crassest form, but risk/reward plays out in almost every area of our lives, from our careers to the people we give our trust and love to.

When I was a Financial Advisor at Merrill Lynch, part of my job was to accurately assess the risk tolerance of a particular client, and construct a portfolio of investments for them that maximized their returns at that particular level of risk. Stocks are riskier than bonds, treasuries are even safer than bonds and by combining different types of securities you can create a portfolio of any almost any level of risk/return that you can imagine, with one important exception. You can never do better than the risk/return optimal curve. You see, at any given level of risk there is a maximum potential return that you can potentially receive, as well as a maximum loss.

For example, if I invest 100% of my money into ultra-high risk junk bonds, the best I could possibly do is get the high yield returns these risky securities offer, and have none of them default. That is the best possible case scenario, and it is quite unlikely because these bonds wouldn’t offer such high returns unless the risk of default was proportionately high. So perhaps, by creating a combination of other high and low risk securities, I can achieve the very same level of potential return, at a statistically lower rate of risk.

Does this make sense? I hope so, I fear I am possibly not explaining this as well as I could. The point is, at any given time, one should always seek to take risks that will give the most bang for the buck. OK let me simplify.

There are three basic types of people. There are those that despise risk and avoid it at all costs. There are those that seek to understand and master risk, and there are those that get high on the thrill of risk. These groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive as all of us are likely to fall into one category or the other in different areas of our lives, but for the most part the majority of people fall into the first category. The average person despises risk. Studies have shown that the average reward:loss ratio that will induce a person to take a risk is 2:1. That means if you give them a 50/50 chance of either gaining $2 or losing $1, most people will take that bet but not if you offer them the same probability of gaining $1.50 or losing $1.

This is, of course, ludicrously unproductive behavior. It is well documented human instinct to place a greater importance on the avoidance of pain than the seeking of pleasure, and yet those people in society we so often admire most have achieved their success by flipping this notion on their head. The technically correct answer is to take any bet that offers a positive expected value, that is to say that the probability of success multiplied by the reward of success is greater than the probability of failure multiplied by the punishment of failure. The popular game show, Deal or No Deal is a gorgeous example of just how out of touch with this very simple rule of success the average person is. People like Warren Buffett, however, have made careers out of taking any bet that will produce a positive expected value, analyzing which bets those are very carefully and doing so over and over and over. In fact, repeating the activity is the key to this strategy working, as losses only get averaged out in time. As is so often the case in life, a half-hearted commitment is a guaranteed failure.

So, if you were to ask Warren Buffet to take a 50/50 chance on losing $1 or gaining $1.01, he would take it, any day. Of course, this also operates under the assumption that your losses do not compromise your survival, an important distinction explored in the landmark finance article Beyond Markowitz.

But in addition to the potential loss of one’s ability to survive by risking more than they can really afford, what about the emotional difficulty of recovering from a loss? There are very few risks in life that are so clearly delineated as to be absolutely certain. The market of life snaps up these inefficiencies as quickly as hedge funds do on the Nasdaq, so the best we can ever do is make a sober assessment of our risk and then proceed boldly and with confidence. The downside is the maddening questioning upon a major loss of whether the system we use to assess our risky behavior is itself flawed. This is why Warren Buffett is famous for saying that the best investors are not necessarily that intelligent, but they are emotionally stable people.

Emotional stability is something that seems to come easy to Warren, and yet has never come easy to me. Like the athlete whose genetics are less than ideal, I have to put in a little extra effort to make sure I am making decisions from an objective and logical viewpoint, that also includes an introspective understanding of my own emotions and how those will play into the game. For me, it’s always been difficult to not take failure personally, or for that matter, success as well. I think such a key mentality to have is one of feeling blessed at all times and realizing that those things we lost are usually things we never really had, and those things we’ve accomplished are often more gifted than earned, if we are really honest with ourselves. And yet, we have to feel empowered to make our best efforts whenever we can, psychologists call this Locus of Control. A higher locus of control indicates a greater belief in your ability to influence your surroundings, which is a self fulfilling prophecy, but only up to the point that you are able to manage the disappointment of recognizing that there are some things that are truly and completely beyond our control.

For me, recovery occurs in a few stages:

1. Grieve

First of all, I think it is important to allow ourselves the time to grieve. Others will say that getting back in the saddle as quickly as possible is ideal, but I would add the caveat that you must be ready, otherwise getting back in the saddle too early will only slow your progress overall. We live in a culture that so often disregards the need for people to grieve, I happen to think there is absolutely nothing wrong with locking yourself in your room for a few days with all the lights off and eating nothing but ice cream until you actually feel like rejoining the world. The key is not to overindulge in this behavior, but to deny it entirely is also, I think, a mistake.

2. Think

At this stage I will start doing activities that are positive, but do not necessarily have anything to do with the loss or “repairing the sytem.” The key here is to allow myself time to think and regroup. Reflect. Reflection is being pushed hard by the leadership and management community as an often skipped step in learning and growth and I am inclined to believe them. Non-stop action is not always the way to go and sometimes it is important to take a step back and consider carefully what has occurred and what it means.

3. Destroy

I am not, necessarily, referring to literal destruction, but rather the destruction of expectations and a reality that did not come to pass and is not the actual reality. Destruction is a critical step to growth and creates space for new things. I think that after you’ve had the chance to grieve and reflect on a loss, the first step towards acting in the new you (as every loss creates a new, better you) is to destroy those parts of the old you that are no longer necessary. Notice that his must be done BEFORE you can rebuild anything in their place and often before you even know what you will be building in the new space you have created. The point is just to take a sledgehammer to the parts of yourself and your life that you don’t like anymore and be done with it. This is a humbling stage and often the most difficult for those around you, but it must be done.

4. Create

In this stage, you have the emotional capacity to act from your optimal place – that of gratitude, compassion and humor – the three forces that are the greatest tools of internal and external influence known to man. You can now freely accept new options and already you are starting to feel the power of the new you and see the loss as a great gift that will deliver many more rewards in the future by the improvements it forced you to do the system. That is not to say that the bet was ever a bad one or that the system was ever broken, but you have improved it anyway and now you are in a better position to make even better bets in the future.

Unfortunately, there will be another loss before long. Such is the life we are given, and for those of us that choose the path of excellence, even more so because we deal with a heavy burden of self imposed expectations. So keep in mind that your last loss is never your last loss, but open your heart and be free to act, live and love from the very best parts of yourself and know that you will be rewarded.