A good place to start

Last Saturday night I found myself staring into the etchings of an original Dali, contemplating whether the painting or my own life were more surreal. I developed a rather cliche appreciation for the Spanish artist during college (as one does), and while I have seen Dali’s (with whom I share a birthday) works in person before, never in such an intimate setting.

I was at a private art exhibit put on by the good people of the Harvard Club of Singapore, where the curator was displaying her private collection of human body themed art to a group of no more than 20 members of the Distinguished University Alumni League. I looked sharp and my date looked stunning. I made strange, quirky friends, in strange, quirky lines of work that I have already seen again.

Later that evening I met up with the CEO of a South African marketing company who had flown to SE Asia to pursue a business interest I had introduced him to. We had dinner and drinks on Arab Street, a very hip, sort of low key area of Singapore. Among the topic of conversation was how my previous situation unraveled, how Asia and Africa could do business together and how great it was to have great friends.

At the end of the night, I walked into the dorm style apartment I have since moved into and hung up my Hugo Boss slacks and my Ralph Lauren sports jacket, relics of a richer time, almost hilariously out of place in my new setting. I lay in bed and contemplated the meaning of my life and could not help but smile a bit.

I guess I am a guy who is ok not being where he wants to be. It’s commonly preached that one should always be happy with where they are in that very moment, that each moment is a perfect gift in time. I believe this is true, but I also believe that in the real world we cannot always be happy, but if we can at least be happy with sometimes being unhappy than that is a pretty damn good place to start.

It’s late now, and writing helps me sleep. Maybe I will create another blog for the mix of academic/intellectual pieces and unique business/travel reviews this blog was meant to be. Maybe I was never meant to be that kind of writer. Maybe that will come later. In any case, my readers (of which my tracking statistics tell me there are quite a few), are surely curious as to what happens next, so here goes.

I took a cab home from my firing meeting and called British Airways to see what the procedure would be for me to change my ticket date. They said it could be done, and I double confirmed that the purchaser of my ticket could not cancel the ticket if he found out I changed the date, and had not promptly run away tail tucked as he desired. The next move was to figure out what my next move would be. I called a close friend and mentor at Cornell who had been my career coach throughout my time there to get his take.

I won’t use names without permission in this blog, but my friend is a silver haired man in, I would guess, his mid-50s. A ruddy sort of a face with keen, skeptical eyes, a full clear voice and a spry step. Both salesmen, charmers, fast talkers, jokers, big lovers, we had a lot in common and hit it off immediately. He likes to talk about how Cornell is the working man’s Ivy, and loves to champion the underdog, which I was upon my arrival at Cornell.

Before I could say a word, he told me he knew it was going to be bad, because I was calling too early. I told him briefly what happened and you could almost smell the rage coming from the other side of the phone. He asked me many questions and I gave him my answers. He advised me to write my manager’s manager a letter and request severance, which I did. His anger was healing for me. Although my greater concern was for my survival it meant my feelings of outrage were justified and more important than anything it was great to know that he cared.

Next was to find a place to live. I scanned my mind for potential options. I knew that if push came to shove, there were a number of places I could stay. A handful of couches in Florida I could crash on, but my plane ticket was to NY and I’d have no way of getting there. Not to mention that a freshly minted MBA trying to make it in Florida is like an aspiring actress trying to become the next big thing from Omaha. Maybe not that bad but you get my point. Staying at my dad’s apartment in NYC was a very short term option at best, but in a worst case scenario I know he would kick in some cash to get me on my feet somehow, maybe a move back up to Ithaca where at least I have a network, or DC. While all of this reeled in my head all I could think was that I was not ready to leave Singapore. My work here was not done. There was opportunity here and here was where I wanted to be. I fought so hard to get here, was I really going to be beaten so easily?

I called an entrepreneur who I had first met pitching a business plan to my bio-renewables company last summer. His work was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was exciting, fresh, new, full of life. It was like someone had taken the MBA skillset and breathed life into it and used it to create something new and astounding. All the EBITDAs and the WACC’s and the market segmentation and the operational throughput and the five forces strategy was all there, but there was something else in there that I had not seen before. The unmistakable touch of the artist. I was deeply inspired, and I can say honestly that most of my work for the next year was based on that short presentation. We kept in touch during that time but I think I could say honestly that our friendship was still very much in a budding phase when I called him for advice and could not have expected what happened next. “No problem,” he said. “You stay with me.” He was in Helsinki at the time, closing a sweetheart deal with Finnish investors and said we would confirm soon. Nervous that he could change his mind as quickly as he made it the first time, it took an incredible act of faith to change my plane ticket with the last bit of money I had and pray that everything would work out.

Sure enough, my entrepreneur friend gave me his address and I shoved the few earthly possessions I have left into a cab and headed to the northern most tip of Singapore, where he lived. It was my first time seeing a house in singapore, as what they call “landed properties” here are very rare, but this house was unique in every way. My friend deserves a description. He is a tall, 6’5″, Swede with a warm, Tom Hanks kind of face and a charming sing-song Scandinavian accent. He is a self made man, from a small town, who has followed his passions around the world and had his fingers in many things. He has no shortage of stories and tells them well. He has, in more recent years I take it, become completely obsessed with climate change and sustainability and sees himself as a primary agent in the battle against this crisis. He has the wild innocence and eruptive temperament of an artist as well as the keen mind of a businessman. He is gregarious, generous and utterly bipolar.

For the next few weeks I lived with him and his Indonesian housemaid in their luxurious home while he regaled me constantly with stories of his conquests of every kind on every continent. His wife and young son had recently moved to Bali where his son would be attending a special school to prepare children for a sustainable future (not making this up, google “the green school”). He would be moving soon once some business in Singapore was finished up.

In the mean time I began to think about what I wanted to do. I thought about what was important to me, what I was good at, what I wanted to learn and be exposed to, and what I wanted my life to be about. I thought hard about these things and will probably discuss them further in a different post at some point. I also thought about my survival. I did get my severance pay, but it wasn’t going to last forever and most of it is already gone. I needed to balance what I wanted to do with what was achievable and would start bringing in money now.

To truncate the ending a bit, my entrepreneur friend kicked me out somewhat abruptly upon the return of his wife. I have been on and continue to go on a few interviews. My dad has offered to help me out, but it is pretty embarrassing how much financial support I have taken from my father in the last few years, especially since I used to be independently wealthy and drive a BMW (a fact which he loves reminding me of).

It all comes down to the BMW. How could anyone who ever drove a BMW ever need money for anything ever?

All pettiness aside, my dad has been an incredible source of support for me, financially and spiritually, my entire life and in a renewed way in the last few years. He deserves better than a son who would use him as anything but a last resort of financial support and that will be how it goes.

But if I’m going to make it on my own, I really do need to get some sleep now as it is very late.

Say nothing at all

Many of us, as children, learned that if we had nothing nice to say, we should say nothing at all. While the intention behind that aphorism was probably to discourage us from gossip and slander, an unintended consequence for many is the realization that most people really only want to hear nice things, and if you haven’t anything nice to share, you’re really best keeping to yourself. And so most of us learn to suffer silently during our painful times, which is not a terrible thing to do, but like all things can go to far.

Such is the logic behind my unusually long absence from updating this blog, and yet as I sit down to write I can think of so many positive things to share. Probably still best to start with the bad.

Just about a month ago, shortly after my return from Jakarta, I was driven to a special “meeting” with my boss that was in actuality him telling me I was fired, and left there. Although the relationship between that particular manager and myself had been deteriorating rapidly since I arrived, never in my wildest imagination would I have predicted the end to take such a form. Lessons learned:

1. A person’s perceived station in life is no accurate predictor of how petty, selfish or vindictive they may be.

2. As anyone who has dealt with addicts knows, despite your desires, intentions or qualifications; you simply cannot save a person, or a company, that does not want to be saved

 

There is probably something in there about teamwork and humility as well.

Whatever the case, after over a year of preparation, I was unceremoniously ejected from the company I had hoped to bring into profitability. What to do?

I was given a ticket to NYC for three days from that date, and given that my apartment was rented by my company, knew my lease would be terminated on the same date. Writing this is more painful than I can describe. I am going to stop here for now, but I promise that there are good things soon to come and even better things yet to come.

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.

Exploring the Singapore Botanical Gardens

Video

I hope you guys enjoy this video of me exploring the Singapore Botanical Gardens. I still have a lot of improvements to make before these videos are on the level of quality I am looking for. Just little changes like holding the camera in landscape v. portrait orientation make such a big difference. Your comments, feedback and suggestions are always welcome and appreciated!

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.