Over the last two days, I attended a course on having ‘crucial conversations’. What is a crucial conversation and what was I doing there? Well, the second question is simple. I signed up as part of my organisation’s training programme for managers to learn how to engage with their subordinates. To answer the first question, a crucial conversation is a conversation that two parties need to have because of three elements: one, both parties have differing opinions. Two, high stakes are involved. And three, emotions are running wild.

It wasn’t too far along in the course that I realised that this course wasn’t meant for just resolving issues with subordinates. It’s a course for anyone who has to work with another person.While the entire premise and presentation of the framework for crucial conversations appear very academic and highbrow, the crux of it is simple. We were taught to ditch pre-conceived notions of the person, start with facts of the matter we were trying to resolve, get the person to open up to us about any difficulties that they have and of course, we couldn’t get ourselves emotionally ‘triggered’ by anything the person might have to say and constantly remind ourselves to focus on the outcome that we were trying to achieve.

While the entire premise and presentation of the framework for crucial conversations appear very academic and highbrow, the crux of it is simple. We were taught to ditch pre-conceived notions of the person, start with facts of the matter we were trying to resolve, get the person to open up to us about any difficulties that they have and of course, we couldn’t get ourselves emotionally ‘triggered’ by anything the person might have to say while constantly reminding ourselves to focus on the outcome(s) that we were trying to achieve.

Among the few sets of skills taught, there was always the recurring theme of observing yourself as well as the person you’re talking to. It’s only by starting with the observation that we know how to proceed. The only flaw I found with this approach is that it doesn’t how difficult it is to attain that level of mastery of the skills necessary to have a successful crucial conversation. To use an analogy, it’s like telling us how to run a marathon by having us practice using fancy techniques to run over much shorter distances on a treadmill.

Sitting in the course, I realised that the much more fundamental approach is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness training is always about being aware- aware of our surroundings, aware of others’ emotions and behaviours and most importantly, awareness of our own thoughts, emotions and behaviours. By practicing compassion and mindfulness, things like crucial conversations are but a byproduct or a way of life.

Overall, the course was a nice, academic way of putting mindfulness into practice.

 

 

So last Friday, I was tasked by the Commander-in-Chief (C-I-C) of the Household to carry out a very important mission. My mission was to get my hands on a redeemable plush toy from a particular CapitaMall Trust-run mall.

First, some background. CapitaMall Trust has been running a promotion where shoppers can redeem a Disney Tsum Tsum plush toy. CapitaMall Trust being the smart buggers they are (disclaimer: I’m a grateful unitholder) decided to have different characters available at different malls so real die-hard fans would have to go spend at various malls in order to collect all six characters.

 

CapitaLand’s really making money out of these guys. Ok, they have to pay Disney licensing fees so I guess Disney’s the real winner here. Photo: Alvinology

 

So, my task was to spend enough to redeem an Eeyore Tsum Tsum plushie. I was given specific instructions to get it on Friday itself because that was the launch day and no chance must be taken that the target would be fully redeemed before I could get my hands on one.

Dutifully, I met the minimum required spending amount by 7:13 pm and took a queue number for my chance to get my hands on one of those adorable buggers. To my horror, because the mall has a system that allows you to key in your mobile number and the system will send you an SMS when your number is about to be called, I only realised at around 8 pm that there were some 200 people ahead of me in the queue. Even at 10-plus pm when the mall was about to close and the C-I-C arrived, my turn was nowhere in sight. Now, my palms were sweating. Worse still, the mall had stuck ‘fully redeemed’ stickers up on their wall adverts and it looked like there were only 50 more or so toys left to be redeemed.

 

Nearly thought we couldn’t get this fella.

 

The mall staff stayed back for a bit, trying to clear as much of the crowd as possible but it was only at 11 pm when the mall decided to throw in the towel and tell people to come back the following day. As soon as I heard that the mall’s system meant that we couldn’t retain our current queue numbers the following day, I realised that the turn of events meant that things were in our favour. Had the queue numbers remained, we would have some 150 or so people in front of us. If we stayed back to gripe about how the mall staff could have alerted us earlier, we would just be wasting time on the time we had already spent. In short, we would have fallen to the sunk-cost fallacy.

Also, the marginal cost of arguing with the staff was less than the marginal benefit from going home early to get as much sleep as possible so that we could hit the mall again the following morning.

Anyway, we went back early the next day, had a nice breakfast at Macdonald’s and were fourth in line an hour before the counter was due to officially open. The counter opened early and we got Eeyore within 15 minutes. Even better was the fact that we had so much time to kill before the next thing on our respective agendas for the day that we decided to catch “Beauty and the Beast” turning our morning into a proper morning date. It was one of the most fun things we’ve done in a while.

Despite my clickbait-ish title, I’m not saying economists have all the answers to help us deal with every situation in life. I’m saying that certain basic economic ways of thinking can help us make better decisions given the uncertainties of life. It’s inevitable that even if we make all the right decisions, the outcomes may not always be in our favour.

 

So I’ve been attending Republic Polytechnic’s Problem-Based Learning (PBL) Symposium 2017 over the last three days and there are a few things that struck me. From what many of the speakers shared, it’s evident that learning in the 21st century is moving towards students learning at their own pace, agenda and their own terms. This shift is the result of one major technological shift- the increase in ability to transmit larger amounts of data across the web at ever greater speeds.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, when I was growing up, the internet was already born. However, at that time, computer processing speeds, internet speeds, and bandwidth only allowed for text and images to be transmitted quickly via the web. These days, even video files can be streamed no, or at most, minor lags. Advances in technology have also led to a proliferation of smartphones which essentially has put a computer in everyone’s pocket.

What all this means is that students have access to all the information they need and then some more. In other words, they don’t really need teachers just for the information. Pushing content to students is something totally redundant. What role then, are we teachers supposed to play?

The answer to that question is not easy. We also have to deal with ‘The System’- a complicated mix of legacy- teaching philosophies and practices passed down through generations of teachers. On the last day of the symposium, I learned about ‘Productive Failure’, which is about getting students to work on problems that are designed to get students to think about solutions to a problem that they have no prior knowledge of the solution for. The teacher then acts a facilitator to keep teasing feasible solutions out of the student and finally, the teacher should bring all of the students’ solutions together to show how they were working towards the body of formal knowledge already known. Throughout Dr Manu Kapur’s sharing on productive failure, the one thing that was constantly emphasized was that students need to be allowed to fail in class.By failure, he didn’t mean that students should be left to get things wrong and that be the end. By failure, he meant that students need to be given the space to think of their own solutions to problems, the room to reflect and deliberate on what parts are feasible and what parts are not, and then

By failure, he didn’t mean that students should be left to get things wrong and that be the end. By failure, he meant that students need to be given the space to think of their own solutions to problems, the room to reflect and deliberate on what parts are feasible and what parts are not, and also to share and collaborate on what works and what does not before teachers lead them to the right answer. Many teachers I know go straight to the right way of doing things and leave out any exploration in between. And rightly so because the emphasis from the top seems to be on pass rates and exam scores. If exam scores are down, us teachers get asked how we can get improvement from the students. If exam scores are up, we get asked how we caused an improvement. Why do top management do this? Simply because these are visible and easily measured. These are also the things that count because students depend on their GPA for admission into universities. In short, the focus in schools is very much on the short-term outcomes.

I’m not saying that the short-term outcomes aren’t important. I’m saying that we shouldn’t solely focus on short-term outcomes in a world that is advancing and changing rapidly because teaching skills is easy and meet immediate needs. However, in a rapidly changing world, skills get obsolete very quick. It’s much better to inculcate curiosity and the ability to come up with new insights and solutions which prepare people better for the future.

In short, I thought it was going to be a pain having to dedicate three days of working time to this event but I’m glad I did because it gave me new insights. I don’t have the solutions yet but a path to action only becomes possible where one is aware that the current path needs adjustment.

 

 

I love baking bread.

It’s strange because I started with baking cookies, then cakes and somehow, I found my way to bread. Baking bread is different from cakes and cookies. Cookies are pretty easy to get a hang of and cakes can be pretty complicated.

For me, bread fall into that spot that’s just right- not too difficult and yet, could be a handful. Anyone who’s baked bread without a bread maker will tell you that bread is simple – after all, there are only three basic ingredients: water, yeast, and flour. Yet, bread can be difficult too. Kneading is a complicated skill (which I’ve yet to master) which greatly affects the bread and you still have to contend with shaping and scoring.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my bread rolls. They are soft, fluffy, and go so well with butter and kaya. The recipe is modified (just slightly!) from Christopher Tan’s Dinner Rolls recipe in his book, Nerd Baker. I’ve tried Christopher’s recipe but that requires a potato. I used tangzhong roux in place of the potato and it turned out just fine. The other modification is that I kneaded my dough by hand and to prevent issues when working with the sticky dough, I used olive oil to oil my hands.

bread_rolls

Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’

 

Recipe for bread rolls (makes 14)

Ingredients:
– Bread flour (500g)
– Water (230g)
– Two eggs
– Caster sugar (75g)
– Milk powder (30g)
– Salt (1 tsp)
– Instant Yeast (2 tsp)
– Unsalted butter, cubed (50g)

Steps:
1. Make a tangzhong paste/roux* using 25g of flour and 125g of water. When roux is done and cooled to room temperature, add to remaining water (105g) in a large bowl.

2.  Separate the egg whites and yolks. Retain the whites in a separate bowl. To the yolks, add the caster sugar, milk powder, and salt. Whisk yolks, caster sugar, milk powder, salt, followed by the egg whites, and add to the water from step 1.

3. Whisk everything in step 2.

4. Add yeast to the remaining flour and add flour to the already whisked liquids. Stir with a wooden spatula or by hand to form a shaggy dough. Cover bowl with a damp cloth and leave to rest for at least 30mins.**

5. Knead dough.***

6. Add butter to dough and knead until it smooth and not oily. Transfer dough to well-oiled bowl and cover with damp cloth for 1 hour.

7. Once the dough has doubled in size, pop it out of the bowl onto a well-oiled work surface. Divide the dough into 65-70g pieces. Round each piece and place on a baking sheet. Cover with a damp cloth and let dough balls rest for 10mins.

8. Take each piece in your well-oiled hands, flatten the dough slightly and fold inwards to the center of each dough, “squeezing” each ball lightly between your thumb and index finger in order to get a ball-shape (see Dr Leslie Tay’s wonderful video on doing this step). Place ball in a square-cake tin. Once all balls are in the tin, cover with an overturned bowl. Cover for 30mins or doubled in size. Melt some butter and preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius.

9. Pop in over for 25-30mins.

10. Once done, transfer buns in tin to a wire rack to let it cool. Serve while still warm or cut each bun in two, pop it in the toaster for 5-7mins and enjoy with lots of butter.

Notes:

*Basically, the roux is made by cooking flour and water to 65 degrees celsius. This uses 5% of the flour required in the recipe and five times that flour’s weight in water. For this recipe, to make the tangzhong roux, add 125g of water to 25g of flour in a microwavable bowl/cup. Microwave on high for 25 seconds, stir contents, microwave mixture again for another 15 seconds. Stir mixture and repeat microwaving at 10-seconds intervals until you get a gooey paste. I only needed one 25sec, one 15sec and one 10sec round of microwaving in order to get the roux.

**This process is known as autolyse where the dough starts to form glutens and develop flavour. I’ve read of bakers who leave the dough to autolyse for 2 hours or more but I haven’t tried it with this dough. My gut feel is that there’s no need to because it’s not meant to be a heavy tasting bread like a sourdough.

***I kneaded the dough by hand, in the bowl. Basically I used the Rubaud Method (as seen here). The dough won’t be as wet as the one in the video but it’s still very sticky and takes some getting used to. Be sure to knead for maybe 5-10mins and then rest 5mins in between. You won’t need more than 15-20mins of this.

I just read this article (Young Asian adults likely to face cash crunch in retirement) from The Straits Times and it pains me to read that the main reason for the alarming headline is due to a mortgage.

Young adults – so-called millennials – in the region are at substantial risk of a cash crunch in their later years, with many expecting to carry mortgage debts into retirement or even run out of money altogether.

I’m not against property as a form of investment but it’s pretty apparent that some young couples in Singapore are buying property that they have to take a 25 to 30-year mortgage to pay for. 20 to 30 years is essentially the entire working life of a person and if most of one’s CPF is used to pay the mortgage, CPF is going to be useless as far as retirement is concerned.

Some people may be banking on the fact that wages, in general, go up over time and hence their future increase in wages will be the solution to their retirement needs. There are two reasons why this is a terrible plan. One, saving at a later age means that money has less time to compound. Two, mortgages are typically pegged to floating rates. We have been in a low-interest rate environment for a long time. Any future increase in wages is likely to be offset by the fact that the mortgage will cost more in future too.

The most likely scenario for people who have over-stretched themselves on an expensive live-in property is to either downsize to a cheaper place or to use some sort of reverse mortgage on the property in retirement. Either way, it still means being a slave to your property for a long time.

The best thing young couples can do is to buy a home that is within their means. It’s a time-tested, age-old advice that still remains true to this day.

 

So, I’ve written about how Warren Buffett is a very rational person and I’ve also written about learning Mindfulness from Tan Chade Meng. Both posts are very reflective and theoretical in nature so I thought I’d share how both ideas can bring about a positive outcome.

This story comes from an ex-colleague. Once, she told me about how her husband, let’s call him Q, was driving on the road in the fast lane when a car on the next lane signalled, indicating that this car wanted to change lanes. Since Q’s car had the right of way, he never intended to let the other driver change lanes in front of him. For some reason, the other driver must have thought that he had enough room to change lanes before Q’s car and promptly did so. The result is that there was a minor accident which resulted in a nasty dispute about who should pay whom and both parties ended up in court.

Now, if Q were rational, he should realised even though he had right of way on the roads, it would have been smarter to avoid an accident completely as the subsequent cost and hassle of the incident would have been more costly than being right. If Q was also mindful, he should have recognised that satisfying his own ego was the driving purpose behind him wanting to be right. He would have also recognised that the other driver also had an ego. Being able to ignore one’s ego is a blessing. It’s akin to releasing a weight attached to one’s body.

In short, being rational and mindful is not just because it’s some new-age, fashionable thing to do (in fact, it’s not!). The more important thing is that practicing both those ideas have tangible, beneficial outcomes, it’s the person who is wise that recognises this.

Following the post about the new Warren Buffett documentary, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the most useful things I’ve learned over the years reading about Warren Buffett. Most people would think that this is a list about his investing acumen but this goes beyond that. This is more like a First Principles list and if you never deviate from these first principles, then you will most likely arrive at the same methods that he does.

1 . Be rational

Ok, it’s no secret that Buffett has an extremely quick mind when it comes to numbers and that’s helpful when doing calculations to weigh odds. But it wouldn’t help if he was counting the wrong things.

That’s where his hyper-rational mind comes in. In Becoming Warren Buffett, there was a part where Buffett describes why he switched to a Democrat. And the reason he gave was that it didn’t make sense to him that the country was essentially not giving the same kind of rights to Blacks or Women as that essentially stifled the growth of the economy by shutting out the human capital that was left in these two demographics.

While also unconventional, Buffett and his first wife, Susan Buffett, lived apart for a fair bit of their lives because he knew that she wasn’t happy living in a town like Omaha. Warren Buffett also famously said that he wasn’t going to leave a lot of money behind for his descendants because of the dangers of raising ‘trust-fund kids’.

Buffett is not cutting his children out of his fortune because they are wastrels or wantons or refuse to go into the family business — the traditional reasons rich parents withhold money. Says he: ”My kids are going , to carve out their own place in this world, and they know I’m for them whatever they want to do.” But he believes that setting up his heirs with ”a lifetime supply of food stamps just because they came out of the right womb” can be ”harmful” for them and is ”an antisocial act.” To him the perfect amount to leave children is ”enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.” For a college graduate, Buffett reckons ”a few hundred thousand dollars” sounds about right.

Fortune Magazine, September 1986

But the biggest testament to his rationality is the fact that he still refuses to pay a dividend to shareholders because he knows that he can still compound money at a faster rate than if he were to pay a dividend and this would ultimately be more beneficial to shareholders.

2 . Simple ideas are more effective

Early in the documentary, Buffett shows a framed picture of the front page news from Black Friday, 1987. He also detailed his rule for deciding how much to spend on McDonald’s breakfast each day. If you read his annual letters to shareholders, you’ll find many more simple aphorisms and anecdotes that convey exactly the idea he wants to bring across.

My favourite one has to be the one on how to decide if you should do something that may be damaging to one’s reputation.

We can’t be perfect but we can try to be. As I’ve said in these memos for more than 25 years: “We can afford to lose money — even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation — even a shred of reputation.”

We must continue to measure every act against not only what is legal but also what we would be happy to have written about on the front page of a national newspaper in an article written by an unfriendly but intelligent reporter.

– 2010 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Letter

Aside from his thoughts on business, Buffett lives very simply too. Him living in the same house that he bought all those decades ago and subsisting on a diet of cherry coke and burgers is the stuff of legends. How many people do you know behave differently once they come into wealth?

3. Be willing to face up to your weaknesses and work on them

Buffett’s performance hasn’t been without its downs. Berkshire bought into Salomon Brothers right before the bond trading scandal almost brought the whole place down. In fact, if not for Buffett, it may well have. More recently in 2011, Buffett had a star hire, David Sokol embroiled in an insider trading scandal. Buffett has been quick to admit his mistakes where they happen.

What I find more amazing is that even when Buffett was younger, he was quick to recognise that he needed to fix some weaknesses. This resulted in him enrolling in a Dale Carnegie course on public speaking where he has described it as ‘not learning how to speak without his knees shaking but rather to learn how to speak while his knees are shaking’.

Now, I’m not saying that Warren Buffett has had the best life and that I would like to emulate every single aspect of his life but by and large, I think whatever he’s done and continues to do, is going to be worth keeping track of and learning from.

Wow, what an inspiration!

Ng Joo Seng, a businessman with a rags-to-riches-to-rags (ok, maybe not quite rags) story was featured in Goh Eng Yeow’s column in The Sunday Times. While the article is sketchy on details (The Straits Times should do a follow-up on this), I find the fact that a person, regardless of age, attempting to climb back to where he once was is a wonderful story on its own. Let’s not forget that Colonel Sanders of KFC fame was also in his 60s when he started his business so age shouldn’t be an issue.

In Mr Ng’s case, his experience of going bust during a financial crisis and his boardroom battles should be instructive in helping him build an even more resilient business and I’m hoping that the lessons he learnt will be shared with all of us.

 

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new documentary on Warren Buffett. If you don’t even know who Warren Buffet is…well, it’s time for you to find out.

HBO’s documentary on Buffett is a fantastic introduction to the living legend of a man. Why’s Warren Buffett a legend? Well, he’s not just one of the richest men on the planet but he’s pledged and has already started giving, a substantial portion of his wealth away.

For me, there isn’t much that I haven’t already heard before (the part on him buying breakfast from McDonald’s was interesting) but it’s always refreshing to see it on a screen rather than from the pages of a book. For a more detailed account of his life, check out his authorised biography, The Snowball by Alice Schroeder.

Why Warren Buffett is such an inspiration to me is a more personal tale. It started sometime in 2006 when I was still studying at the National University of Singapore. The NUS Investing Society (or Finance Society), which probably stems from the Business School, was organising a book sharing by Robert Miles, author of Warren Buffett Wealth, and I guess they wanted a wider audience and so they were putting up all these advertisements around the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences where I was.

Prior to the talk, all I knew about Warren Buffett was that he was one of the richest guys on the planet but other than that, I knew nothing about him. I knew nothing about the stock market. Heck, I didn’t even know what I wanted to do after university. That talk changed everything.

After that talk, I started reading up on Buffett, Graham, Value Investing, the stock market, financial statement analysis, stock valuation and so on. And there’s something new to learn about the markets every single day. I’m now approaching the tenth year that I’ve begun investing for myself and it’s all thanks to that talk back in 2006. Probably the most useful thing that came out of my university education. Watching Becoming Warren Buffett just might do for you what attending that talk did for me.

PS: I’m not sharing a link to the documentary because I’m pretty sure that goes against copyrights but I’m sure whoever’s reading this will know where to find it.

Ah, Valentine’s Day. The day where people all around the world find a reason to celebrate or profess their love for one another. Sure, some countries do it differently from others. Japanese custom has it that women give chocolates to the guys they are interested in and wait for ‘White Day’ where they hope to receive something in return. Getting something in return from a guy they like will mean that their Valentine’s Day gift and feelings have been reciprocated.

Well, doesn’t matter where you are in the world, but if the society you’re in celebrates Valentine’s Day, you can be sure that things are going to get expensive. Flowers will be more expensive, restaurants will come up with “special set menu” where the most special thing will be the price of the menu and gift shops would have seen an increase in business. Of course, this all boils down to the forces of demand and supply as well as price elasticity of demand but no one can deny that Valentine’s day is a very, very commercial construct.

So then, how to think of Valentine’s Day if you’re a Singaporean trying to build up your wealth? In my opinion, the best way to think about it is to figure out how much satisfaction or utility you would get from things such as buying overpriced flowers or going for an expensive meal.

What did I do for Valentine’s this year for my wife who absolutely deserves the best that I can give her?

I bought flowers and I cooked a meal.