Archives for category: Everything under the sun

I’m not an expert but over the course of my relatively few years so far, I’ve come to realise a few things.

Happiness comes from within.

Finding Happiness

First, let me briefly describe the conditions that have led me to that conclusion. When I was much younger, I used to think that happiness was something that external circumstances or objects brought you. For example, if I was happy, it was because my favourite show was on the television or my parents bought me a new toy. If I was unhappy, then it must have been because the helper cooked something I didn’t like (e.g. bitter gourd) or I was forced to do homework.

If you think about it, that’s an entirely valid way to see the world. After all, we humans are just like any other creature in this universe, drawn to pleasure and feeling repulsion to pain or suffering. That’s how evolution works.

Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple. After all, things like exercise are good for us but it doesn’t feel good for many of us. Even for those who get that rush of dopamine from exercise, too much exercise causes inflammation of the joints and some other negative side effects. It’s even worse for sugar where we get hit with a sugar high that causes us to crave more but sugar when taken in excess causes all sorts of health issues like diabetes and obesity. i.e. Too much of a good thing can also be a bad thing.

It took me many years to realise that and in those formative years, I basically sought happiness from video games, things, good food, alcohol but the kind of joy these things bring is fleeting and doesn’t bring lasting satisfaction.

First Hints

My first hint of what happiness might be, came when I heard about Buddhism. Unfortunately, it didn’t appeal to me with all the esoteric jargon and Dos/Don’ts. At that time, it felt like any other religion where you have to follow these set of rules and dogmas without questioning what they mean or are supposed to be. That’s blind faith and not something my rational mind could live with.

Then, I read about the happiest man on earth. And he just so happens to be a monk. This time, the appeal was that the title of ‘happiest man’ wasn’t just something some people gave to him but was a result of neuroimaging scans done on his brain while he meditated.

That kind of made sense. After all, there are plenty of people around the world that live on incomes that are poor by developed world standards but still report higher levels of happiness. There have also been studies that show that happiness levels don’t rise once you go beyond a certain level of GDP per capita. Pop psychology also shows that if you want to feel happier, you can try using your teeth to hold a pencil lengthwise. This activates the muscles involved with smiling.

Ok, so I knew I needed to meditate but how do I go about doing so? I didn’t really want to read books by monks as the description by these masters of meditation always seems very fluffy and esoteric. I guess it’s like trying to follow the steps to create a michelin-starred dish when you don’t even know how to scramble eggs. So I put it off for many years.

What helped

Then, Tan Chade Meng came out with his book, Search Inside Yourself. A former Google employee and an engineer by training. There’s probably no one more rational and systematic than an engineer right? So I bought his book. He described the steps and rationale behind each step in simple enough terms but his folksy, “isn’t-it-simple?” style of writing turned me off after a while. Too much spun sugar. So I put off meditation again for what must have months or even up to a year.

Then, last December, I came across Dan Harris’s book, 10% Happier, and this was the turning point for me. A news anchor and journalist by training, he detailed his journey of finding inner peace. Basically, if you are a skeptic and hate the esoteric fluff that sometimes comes with a lot of self-help books, Dan Harris’s book is a great starting point to convince yourself that meditation (1) works and (2) it doesn’t have to be religious.

All it takes is to be aware of your breath. Breath in. Notice the changes in your body- the chest rises, your lungs fill up with air and your diaphragm expands. Breathe out. Your stomach gets sucked back towards your spine. And repeat. If your mind wanders, just notice the sensations you felt that was associated with those thoughts. Maybe you remembered how your boss did some asshole move by piling work on you. Just notice that your ears felt hot and maybe your cheeks felt flushed. Bring the awareness back to your breath. And repeat.

My own experience

I’ve been, more-or-less, meditating for about 15 minutes every day and I can tell you that I’ve never felt better. I still get pissed at people who hog the lane in traffic. I still get pissed at colleagues who make me do more unnecessary work. But I quickly let it go.

On the other hand, when I notice something great. I hang on to it a little more. It could be the kid that waved to me and held the door open for me in the lift. It could be the sky looked a little clearer and the burst of blue that’s dotted with clouds. Whatever it is, I’m aware of it and I cherish it.

Why does it work? I think this short clip explains it very well. The guy in the middle (Jeff Warren) explains quite well from 1:09 to about the 2 min mark. Meditation gives you that mental clarity to figure out what to focus your energy on. I remember reading somewhere (could be the Dan Harris book once again) about someone asking the Dalai Lama what he would do if confronted with a robber in a bank and the robber potentially was going to shoot other people. The Dalai Lama said that he would snatch the gun from the robber and shoot him in the leg, then go and comfort him.

So, it’s not like meditation means you have to be nice and kind and icky-gooey all the time. It simply means having the ability to choose what to focus on. And if you choose to focus on what makes you happy while using your mental jiu-jitsu to deal with what makes you unhappy, life turns out to be a net positive. It’s all about gaining control over your emotions and using them to make your life better rather than letting your emotions affect you in whatever way the world chooses to.

Like Dan Harris, I’m nowhere close to being the “happiest person” alive but I think I’m ever so slightly closer.

Notes:

*Sorry mom. Chinese folk tradition isn’t the same.

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I tend to find extremely religious people annoying. In Singapore, there’s a particular religiosity surrounding people who have children still in primary school who believe that all married couples should have children.

The immediate boss was going around the office on the eve of the lunar new year with the usual congratulatory greetings for CNY and he wished my colleague 早生贵子. This basically translates to wishing that someone will have children soon. Said colleague then diverted the attention to me because I’ve been married for a longer period of time but I still don’t have any children. I joked and said that I have a cat so that counts.

The boss then asked if I had any plans to have children, to which I replied, “If it happens, it happens.”

Not the first time the boss has heard that from me and being the pro-family person he is, he started telling said colleague and me about the joys of having a family. His main thrust was that we have to reproduce or we’ll go extinct. By the way, he has two kids and I think his world (3/4, at least) revolves around them.

I replied that there are no worries about that because birth rates in developing countries are high enough that the world population is growing so going extinct due to a lack of kids isn’t looking like a possibility in my lifetime. Then the boss clarified that his idea of extinct was confined to Singaporeans but to be honest, I felt that he was trying to tell us that having kids is a joy that we’re missing out on and therefore we should work towards that.

I don’t deny that having kids could bring some people joy and it may be the most meaningful thing in their lives but at the same time, I think the joy of having kids is highly overstated. The problem with people who have been raising children for the last 10 years or so is that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to NOT have kids. It’s almost like believing in the dogma of one religion that you don’t realise that other religions are probably/could be just as good for you.

Personally, I don’t think adding more humans to this planet is that much of a good thing from an ecological perspective. From the perspective of the economy and, therefore, financial markets, population growth is definitely a good thing. So all in, I’m neutral from a broad macro view.

From an individual point of view, there’s definitely a lot of work in raising kids. For a good part of their life, kids are basically dependent on you for everything. And as a teacher, I’ve seen so many examples of screwed up parenting- from parents that spoil the kids to parents who neglect their kids. Either way, the kid turns out a little wonky and becomes a net negative to society because they impose a cost either through an added burden on the legal or the healthcare system.

Then, there’s the environment. Singapore’s education system is a pressure-cooker environment where parents who don’t know any better compare their kids against their friends’ kids*. Many parents won’t be enlightened enough to encourage their children to simply explore or to pursue things they may be good at if the things that they are good at areas that defy conventional wisdom. I know of more than a few people that feel like moving overseas only because it’s tough to raise kids here.

Once again, I’m not saying that having kids is bad.

All I’m saying is that the people who believe in the religion of having kids need to be aware that there are downsides to having kids and that some people could easily be happy without having kids.

The wisest parents I know are those who live their lives to their fullest and become the role model that their kids need. The kids are just one part (a big one) of the couple’s lives but certainly not the only one. The couple still has their own social life, hobbies, and interests which the kids can then emulate should they also take an interest in it.

On the other hand, some of the worst parents I know of are those where their entire day revolves around the kids – working in a job they can’t stand because they have to bring home the bacon, fetching the kids to all sorts of classes in order not to ‘lose out’ to other kids, going on holidays as a reward for kids’ performance in tests/exams. These helicopter parents are going to turn their kids into pieces of junk.

All in, horny people who don’t want/forget to use protection shouldn’t be under the illusion that having kids is always a net positive. There’s really no need to try and convince people without kids about the joys of having kids** when all you really want is some validation that your irreversible choice is right.***

Notes:

*With friends like these, who needs enemies?

**We’ll figure it out on our own.

***By the way, the joke’s on these people when their kids turn into angsty, pimply teenagers who eventually fly the coop. The sweet kid you know maybe someone that you suddenly don’t understand and after a few more years, when the kid is busying with his/her own life, what are you going to do? Start doing stuff you wished you could have done instead of sending them to tuition classes?

PS: I think my parents didn’t get me when I was in my teens. But they were wise enough to let me explore and do (mildly) stupid things that didn’t kill me. I learned valuable lessons on my own and some of those lessons still serve me well to this day.

 

Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year (CNY) as it’s commonly known in Singapore isn’t one of my favourite holidays. As a kid, I looked forward to it because of a few reasons. One, it’s one of longest public holidays you get as a student. No other public holiday in Singapore gives you two full days off. Of course, as a kid, I always hoped that CNY would fall on a Thursday so that we had four days in a row without school.

Two, CNY as a kid means getting money. For a kid, it’s that one time of the year where you get extra cash. As an adult, the closest thing I can think of is the bonuses that companies pay out at the end of their financial year. Those, of course, are not guaranteed. Furthermore, CNY is usually a time where people gamble, so that’s an extra chance to make more cash. I was pretty good at the blackjack tables so that usually meant another week’s allowance.

Three, the snacks are awesome. In Singapore, food is generally delicious, to begin with, but the snacks at CNY are on a whole different level. From pineapple tarts to love letters to kueh bahulu to bak kwa.

However, once you get older, CNY starts to become a pain-in-the-ass. First, you keep meeting the same old people that you only meet once a year during CNY. Singapore’s a really small place so if there are people that you only see once a year, it probably means you don’t really want/have to meet them unless you really have to. Furthermore, because you only see them once a year, conversations tend to be awkward and naturally border on the mundane. Conversations get even worse with the older folk that you don’t normally meet because they only start to ask questions that annoy you. e.g. “How are your results?”, “When are you getting married?”, “Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?”, “When are you going to have kids?” etc.

So, it’s no surprise that many people head abroad to avoid CNY. After all, two days of public holiday means less leave you have to use. Tickets are now cheap thanks to low-cost carriers. Also, the fact that so many Chinese are celebrating CNY means that you have a lot fewer tourists to contend with in another country. All in, it’s a good time to travel.

The only positive I see in Singapore is that families are getting smaller. This means less visiting of distant relatives as celebrations are mostly within 3 generations. This also means more free time to enjoy the holidays which means more businesses that cater to the retail crowd remain open. In Singapore, most cinemas remain open throughout the period as we also have a good 30% of our population that doesn’t celebrate CNY. All in, it means that CNY is getting to be a more cosy affair with the people that really matter. And I think that’s really what CNY should be about- spending time with those you consider family.

 

So, just the other day I heard some shocking news.

An acquaintance of ours passed away and it turned out that she had been suffering from depression and took her own life. We didn’t know her very well but it was a shock because, from the brief time we knew her, she was very bubbly and cheerful. I don’t know if she was already suffering from depression when we knew her but it was also unthinkable that someone that appeared so positive could be suffering in silence.

The other shock was that she was EXACTLY my age. Right down to the day she was born. Someone my age passing away is a rare event, especially in a country like Singapore where life expectancy is high. But it happens. And in this case, it happened to someone that felt like life was troublesome than death.

And it’s a real shame because she had a gift. She helped my wife and I capture the memories of our wedding, which is one of the happiest moments of our lives. No doubt, she helped many others in the same way too and could have continued to help many more people do the same.

Dancing with darkness is seductive. It’s like a dance with a good-looking stranger dressed in black at a ball. The problem with life is that you can’t and shouldn’t keep revisiting that moment in the past. Doing so keeps your mind, and subsequently, your entire being captured in the memory of that moment while the entire world passes you by.

If you know anyone who’s suffering from depression, please get them some help.

This is for anyone residing in Singapore:
Samaritans of Singapore contact details
24 hours hotline: 1800-221 4444
Email (replies within 48hrs): pat@sos.org.sg

Update: Being more mindful didn’t help me remember that I didn’t have a title for the post. So here it is.

So, I’ve been trying to be more mindful lately.

And something interesting happened just the other day.

I was sitting alone having lunch and enjoying some “me” time. Then along came a colleague from the administrative office and joined me. That was ok with me because I’m kind of OK with him; We’ve had lunch and kopi before.

Then along came another two more colleagues- one, I’ve never had much contact with. So I was kind of neutral. The second, I’ve always kind of felt a bit averse to because of some prior contact with her. To be more specific, I’ve always thought she was a bit bossy, caused inefficiencies and wanted the limelight without putting in the work. To be fair, I still think that way.

But I reminded myself to be mindful and be present. And not to judge.

And the surprising thing is that the four of us who are not regular lunch partners (in fact, the four of us never had lunch as a group ever) actually ended up having conversations that were surprisingly engaging. We discussed a wide range of topics that ranged from politics to social change. Even more importantly, we didn’t agree on everything but there was never any animosity or ill-will. It was just a nice exchange of views and opinions even if we didn’t all agree on something.

I don’t know if it’s being mindful that caused me to have a different view or attitude towards this but I usually dread having lunch with people I don’t know well or don’t particularly like.

But after this instance, in fact, I realised that the colleague I thought was all bad was really not all bad at all. I can’t explain why but even the previous feelings of dislike for this person has been reduced.

And I feel better for it.

 

 

 

This is going to be a departure from my usual posts on investing. It’s also going to be somewhat of a personal post. I do hope it’s a useful post though because this could potentially be more useful than any investing knowledge there is.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness, as I understand it, is the awareness of being present.

This means to focus on the present and not have your mind running wild about the past (like the fun you had yesterday at a party), the future (like what your life will be in 10 years time when you are happily married with 2 kids and a dog) or things that aren’t there (like whether that person you like just checked you out or the blank stares that you may get when doing a public lecture).

Why does it matter?

The thing about life is that there are many things that happen every day that are out of our control. These things can either make us extremely unhappy or annoyed when things don’t go our way or, they can make us extremely happy or joyous when things go our way.

The problem with depending on external circumstances or conditions means that we are at the mercy of others or luck when it comes to our own happiness. It also means that we end up chasing something in order to make us happy. Unfortunately, that may lead to unintended consequences. For example, when I was much younger, I used to drink quite a bit of whisky. It wasn’t so much for the taste but more for the feeling that alcohol puts one in. That feeling of temporary weightlessness where you can forget about any worries or troubles. Unfortunately, that meant having a hangover and feeling horrible for at least half a day the next day wasn’t so fun. Also, it means that I always depended on whisky in order to feel that way.

Now, just to be clear, the above isn’t just about the evils of drinking. Many people have a different poison. It could be shopping, eating, travelling, buying expensive toys, sexual pleasure. Some of those may be more “healthy” than others but the common thing is becoming more dependent on external conditions to influence our state of mind.

And if you think about it, it’s ironic that something external or outside of our self is the thing that influences our mood which is largely a state of mind. Why is it not our mind that influences our state of mind?

Therefore, I believe it must be possible for our minds to influence our perception of reality. In this sense, it gets a bit confusing. After all, it’s not like I can simply wish away things I don’t like or want by meditating. Meditating isn’t some mutant power that can help you win the lottery or control the stock market. Meditating isn’t going to be the cure for some terminal disease that modern medicine can’t.

On the other hand, mindfulness meditation has proven to have some health benefits. After all, our perception of things is a result of inputs from our senses to our brain. How our brain reacts to those inputs naturally affects how our body will respond to external events. For example, if we experience stress, our body releases a hormone called cortisol and studies have shown that elevated cortisol levels aren’t good for the body. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to help people deal with stress better and therefore reduce the effects of stress on our bodies.

My take on how it works is that mindfulness is all about being aware. Aware of what? Aware of the sensations and thoughts that arise in our mind and just letting them pass. Why do we have to let them pass? Because the more we hold on to those thoughts, the more we let them affect us. And this happened to me at work about 2 years ago.

One day, I received a phone call from the admin office. Over the phone, the admin manager told me that a student of mine (I was the student’s form class teacher) had been sent to the hospital just before the start of a class. He then asked me to call another office that had reported the incident for more details so that I could call up the student’s parents and let them know.

I got pretty angry because I felt that this guy was passing the buck to me. After all, if someone in the school gets sent to the hospital, which is a seemingly serious thing, why does it matter whether it’s the admin office or the class form teacher that calls the parent? Shouldn’t the parents be notified as soon as possible? After all, who knows how long it took before he even managed to get me.

Second, he obviously didn’t do his job well because I shouldn’t have to call up another office to speak to the person who helped call the ambulance to get the first-hand account of what happened. He could have got the account when he received the call the first time around. What if I made the call and the person was not in? That would further delay the relay of the message to the student’s next-of-kin.

Anyway, I ended up making all the calls (which probably made me more pissed off). But that incident stuck with me and for the next few days, I was busy justifying how unreasonable the whole situation had been to anyone who would hear me out. The worst thing about this is the opportunity cost involved. All the time that I spent griping about how unfair the whole incident was could have been time spent doing better things. And those aren’t minutes of my life that I’m going to get back.

My journey

First off, I’m by no means an expert nor anywhere near the level of people who have been doing this for years. In fact, I’ve only just begun to meditate for 10 minutes each day and I find that anything beyond 10 minutes, my mind really runs wild. In fact, I only started meditating more regularly because the missus went away for a few days last December which I also spent a good part clearing my leave. So I had to wake up early to feed the cat but I pretty much had nothing else planned the entire day.

Prior to this, I had heard about meditation and been casually reading up on the subject for the last 10 years or so of my life. I’ve never been a religious person despite growing up in a household that believes in the metaphysical. My father is a self-proclaimed Buddhist which my mother only found out on the day they registered their marriage. But the thing is that like many “Buddhists” in Singapore, he isn’t really a Buddhist. In fact, the rituals and belief system is a mish-mash of Taoism and Chinese folk religion. Basically, Buddhism as translated by the Chinese when it was brought to China many years ago.

Furthermore, I spent the greater part of my school years in a Christian Methodist school where weekly chapel sessions were compulsory. Needless to say, I never really believed in either because neither made sense to me. After all, I prayed for good grades but I still had to study. So, not a very good system as far as the demonstration of cause and effect was concerned.

In university, I took an excellent module called “Introduction to World Religions” where I finally learned that Buddhism, as understood by most other Buddhists, was not the Buddhism that I knew. What I knew was basically Chinese folk religion masquerading as Buddhism. Why it happened was probably for the same reasons Christians believe that Jesus Christ was born in the middle of winter in a barn. It’s basically the adaptation of an existing pagan festival to the Christian worldview in order for the religion to gain acceptance. Ditto for how the Buddha got assimilated into the same universe as all the other Chinese gods that appear in folklore.

More importantly, I learn that Buddhism was actually more a philosophy than a religion and the whole idea behind Buddhism was to seek nirvana which is this state of enlightenment. Unfortunately, that’s where things get seriously complicated. Buddhism has evolved into so many different schools with so many different practices that one doesn’t really know where to start. Furthermore, translations of Buddha’s teachings enter this realm of utterly confusing and convoluted jargon coupled with a whole list of “don’ts” or riddles that didn’t make sense. Nothing helped much and my search for meaning continued. Subconsciously I knew what I was looking for because I wrote my honours year thesis on happiness and incorporating it in cost-benefit analysis. Happiness and economics. What a combination. Didn’t find it though.

I must say that before 2010, mindfulness and meditation were still pretty much confined to Buddhists and the self-help realm. Too many of them write in ways that are either confusing, pompous or full of things that offer grandiose claims (e.g. Deepak Chopra). For me, the big breakthrough came from Tan Chade Meng, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow who created a mindfulness meditation program for Googlers that seemed fairly successful. So I bought his book but I never developed a sustainable practice. His book, while describing mindfulness in very, very simple terms and prescribing very, very simple exercises to get started is good for beginners. But for me, I just couldn’t buy in completely because of the overly saccharine, “feel-good” tone of Tan’s writing. Add to that the lame jokes that get boring after a while and I never really bought into it.

What got me started again

2017 was a tough year of sorts. The worst part about it was not things that happened but things that happened that I could have controlled. In the face of a lot of things that happened, I pretty much turned to cracking open a can or two or saying, “never mind, let’s have a nice meal.” This led to my weight gain (which I’ve, thankfully, lost some) as well as this nagging feeling that there were things I could have done better.

And a few days ago, I discovered a book by Dan Harris called “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story“. In it, he details his journey from skeptic to being a regular meditator. What got him started was a meltdown on national TV (he’s a newsman) that was triggered by stress as well the use of drugs. However, the best part of his journey is not the fact that he’s attained nirvana or any supernatural bullshit. The best part of the book is that it details how he struggled to convince himself to start meditating and the various struggles on his journey thus far. He showed that meditation isn’t going to be some cure-all. In fact, after getting started, there will be lapses in practice as well as lapses in behaviour. He reverted to some old habits pretty quickly and for a while, he questioned the gains that he had made because it all seemed to have gone away. You don’t have to get the book because his talk at Google (link here) provides a pretty good overview of what it’s about.

So, for what it’s worth

I’m not saying that religions are all hokey. My beef is more with the people that practice the religion. I’ve seen good people who are Christian, I’ve seen horrible people who are also Christian. I’ve seen good people who are Muslim and I’ve also seen horrible people who are Muslim. Ditto for Buddhists or even Atheists or Agnostics. Or any other religion beyond the major ones.

I’m also not becoming religious or spiritual and starting to pray to some idol. Rather, it’s becoming more aware. More aware of my thoughts, my feelings, my emotions and the impact that’s having on my life.

I can’t say that there’s been any meaningful change nor am I sure that I’ll be able to objectively say that there’s been a positive change in any area. However, I’ll know that it’s working if the people around me start to notice the change and tell others about it. That’ll be validation for me. In the meantime, yeah, I do feel that I don’t reflexively react to things all the time. There are lapses but then I usually recognise and acknowledge them. I don’t beat myself up about it as I focus on the present.

There are

So now, I’m pretty sure that for 2018, meditating regularly until it becomes a habit will be something that I’m doing.

 

2017 has been a crazy year.

Globally, Trump has proven to be the destabilising force he said he would be. After all, how can you upset a country with nuclear bombs (i.e. N.Korea), an entire religion (i.e. Islam when he decided to move the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem), and of course, an entire gender (i.e. women, thanks to his support of Roy Moore amongst other things).

Markets have obviously ignored all the geopolitical risks and trended higher throughout the entire year. While the local market (proxied by the Straits Times Index (STI)) has performed pretty decent, US markets have rocketed. The Dow Jones has hit all-time highs multiple times all year.

On a personal note, this year has been more tumultuous than most. Funny enough, a student from two years ago whose family runs a fortune-telling business read my fortune and said that 2017 would be a “tsunami year” for me. I don’t know exactly what a “tsunami year” is supposed to mean but I suppose it was supposed to be a disaster of epic proportions.

Well, I guess this year had a little more volatility than most- we had to deal with a lot of lifestyle changes with changes in the work environment, getting a cat and a medical condition. Emotionally, some days were trying. Physically, some days were exhausting. I’ll never forget sleeping for just a couple hours two days in a row while the cat adjusted to our sleep schedule.

Thankfully, markets have been kinder and all portfolios only went one way – up. Some things like bitcoin have gotten all the attention but everyone’s forgetting that markets had a solid run this year as well. I’ll focus on the markets a little more in a separate post.

Despite all that has happened in 2017, I would say that I’m the better for it. We managed to check out more of Tokyo this round. I never had Ikinari Steak or gram pancakes before this and both were worth checking out. I also had a mind-blowing lager and braised pork belly combi at Yona Yona Beerworks.* It was also my first time seeing sakura so that was cool.

 

 

yonayona

This was magical

We also managed to check out Cempedak island- the sister resort of Nikoi Island Resort. The place was amazing. While the beachfront wasn’t as nice as Nikoi, each villa had its own pool. The food and service were also spot-on just like what we experienced on Nikoi.

 

DSC_0092-EFFECTS.jpg

This is paradise

 

But I think the best thing that happened to us this year was that we got a cat. He thinks about food all the time, tries to get a taste of breads and cookies, wakes us up very early in the morning only because he wants to be fed, sits on our laptop keyboard while we’re trying to do stuff and rather play with all the empty cardboard boxes than the toys you get him. Despite all that, he’s really adorable and pretty well-behaved. I never had a cat before but I have to say that taking care of a cat like the one we have is much easier than taking care of a dog (at least, the ones that I’ve had).

 

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We still love him. We really do.

I guess that in 2017, I wished that I could have cooked more, baked more bread, done a little more coding, lost a little more weight, got much fitter, bought some bitcoin**, made more money, quit my job and saved the world. So despite all the downs, my 2017 may not have been perfect but I’m glad that looking back, there are things that I really, really am thankful for that happened in 2017 and I wouldn’t change a single thing.***

Here’s hoping that I’ll do all of the above in 2018 (except bitcoin, of course).

 

 

 

notes:

*They are two separate things on the menu but together, make for this endless cycle of satisfaction.

**Just joking.

***Chaos theory lah.

In physics, escape velocity is the minimum speed needed for an object to escape from the gravitational influence of a massive body. – Wikipedia

Some colleagues and I were talking about how really rich people have a happy problem, which is figuring out how to spend all the money they make even while they sit around doing much.

First of all, escape velocity is NOT financial independence.

For me, financial independence is when you don’t need a job to take care of necessary spending. For example, let’s say you need $1,500 a month to pay the bills and the expenditure necessary for survival (i.e. food, clothing, utilities). Financial independence will be when you can generate enough passive income to cover these expenses. The money coming from a job is basically a bonus to treat yourself to things that are more of a luxury (i.e. holidays, gadgets, meals at restaurants).

Escape velocity is a little different. Escape velocity is reached when passive income generated from assets is so huge that you have trouble spending it all even when spending on things that are common luxuries.

Essentially, escape velocity is the complete absence of worry about money.

The idea goes like this:

Once you attain a certain level of wealth, it becomes quite difficult to spend more than the amount you make even if you get very low returns on your investment. For example, someone with $100m in assets that generates just 1% a year has to spend more than $1m a year in order to start running the principal down. Given that the median monthly household income in Singapore was S$8,846 in 2016 (that’s S$106,152 per year), it seems ridiculously impossible to spend more than $1m on consumption goods.*

I call this level of wealth escape velocity because once you reach those levels, it seems almost improbable that a sane person will ever fall back down to the income or wealth levels of an average person.

So what’s escape velocity for me?

I suspect I’ll need a level of about $10m (at today’s prices). At a spending rate of 3%, that’s something like $330,000 a year. Given that my wife and I are not frivolous spenders, that’s probably escape velocity for us.

Notes:

*buying ridiculous things like one-of-a-kind artwork and yachts not included.

Focus on what you can control.

– Michelle Obama

In just six words, Michelle Obama reminded me of the most important thing that I’ve already come to know but constantly forget to apply.

Life constantly throws things our way. Sometimes, those are nice things like someone saying something nice about you or, someone doing you a kind deed or favour. Other time, you just get hit by something terrible like someone saying or doing something unkind to you or, some stroke of bad luck which could be minor or major.

You can’t change that.

What you can change is your perception and reaction to the event.

Someone cuts your lane in traffic. You can curse and swear, put your foot to the pedal and give him/her a taste of his/her own medicine. Or you could always take a deep breath and realise that the person behind that wheel is just a fly that happened to buzz around you and that fly is long gone. Why bother with a fly?

You find out that you have a major illness and require major surgery. You can curse the gods and question why this had to happen to you, be angry at the world for not having to experience the uncertainty and anxiety that you have to go through. Or, you could try to find out more about the procedure and think about how to best deal with the recovery from it. Perhaps the awareness of the fragility of life will make us treasure each passing moment more? With that recognition, maybe we’ll spend less time on unimportant things with unimportant people.

The stock market tanks and takes your portfolio down by 50% or more. You can panic and give in to the mania; Turn to drugs or alcohol to (temporarily) forget about the problems. Or, you can look at the evidence that manias tend to pass and be thankful that you didn’t overextend yourself and were forced to liquidate. The same is also true when you see and hear people around you with stories of wildly profitable “investments” in esoteric asset classes. You can develop a major fear of FOMO or you can breathe in and remember that all bubbles (in tulips, the South Sea Company, over-priced growth stocks, unprofitable dot-com companies, over-leveraged bets on real-estate) don’t end well.

You can choose to be angry and unkind. Or you can choose to be calm, firm, grateful and kind.

Most importantly, you can choose. This is something I have to remember. Always.

It’s been another year and what a year it has been.

I don’t re-read what I’ve read and it appears I should. Because this is what I wrote in my birthday post last year (emphasis mine*):

Of course, life is about pushing one’s limits and in the coming year, I’m going to push those limits much more.

I can think of at least three areas – health, wealth and new skills.

I definitely need to get healthier. Recently, I’ve begun doing morning runs but that’s still pretty infrequent.  I need to get those in on a more regular basis like every other day or at least once every three days. That’s on top of my gym sessions which need to be at least once  a week.

As for wealth, I don’t want to make this an explicit goal but rather it should be a byproduct of something like picking up a new skill that I can freelance some stuff with or creating some little business that can be run in my spare time.

For skills, getting more proficient in coding would be something. Right now, I’m probably familiar enough with python to get other people’s packages to work for me. I need to get to the level where I can program enough to get it to do simple repetitive tasks for me. Also, trying to put together a machine would be awesome as I can get more bang for buck. That would also give me the chance to get more familiar with modifying systems.

I’m happy to report that I failed spectacularly on every count.

First, let’s see where I went with getting healthier. This year, for the first time ever, I hit a new high in terms of my weight. I haven’t been all that regular with my once-a-week gym routine either. Thankfully, it’s not like I had any serious health issues due to the weight gain and fortunately, I’ve gotten my weight back down to below that high but looks like it’s going to take a lot more to get my health to where I want it to be.

The upside is…I’m happy to say that after serious reflection, I’ve realised that the weight gain always comes after a deviation of my usual routine. That is to say, my usual eating habits, while not perfect, weren’t contributing to my weight gain. It was usually after a holiday or a gathering with friends when the weight gain happened. Why? Usually, because there was either a smorgasbord of food that I had to try or an increase in consumption of beer. Or both.

On the second count, wealth, I’m glad to say that the portfolio has done exceptionally well (by my standards at least) this year. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up creating some sort of side hustle because I lost sight of all my goals.

The upside is…that my system of accumulating wealth is pretty much running on autopilot and has proven that it can survive the vagaries of my horrible lack of focus. In fact, the portfolio might have worked so well because of my horrible lack of focus on things.

In late April, I shared a graph showing how much my portfolio has grown since 2011.

Here’s how it stands today.

 

navVSwealthNov2017

Basically, I have 3.5x what I had in 2011.

.

 

This isn’t really much of an update but a reminder that while your portfolio is small and tiny, it pays to have a good habit of saving and adding to that portfolio. Keep saving and keep letting your dividends and gains compound until you reach a stage that your savings can’t move the needle much on your portfolio.**

Third, I was getting better at coding but for some reason, I took a holiday and now I’m in a funk. The problem was also that I kept getting pulled in all directions with respect to learning how to code. One moment it was learning basic programming. Next, it was learning Flask. And because a website is pretty much useless without data, I started learning how to scrape and add data to a database. Then I realised that without being able to analyse the data, it was useless so I started on Data Analysis. Then sometime later, I realised the language of the web was JavaScript so that’s where I went.

In short, I went in so many different directions without having mastered any one first that I got burnt out. It’s really difficult to learn things on your own without having someone to guide you. -_-”

The upside is…I’ve managed to get a grasp on how to solve many different coding problems despite the lack of focus on a particular area. In fact, the one common thing that you keep having to do in coding is to sift through whatever lots of other people have encountered and thankfully there’s stackexchange.

Other stuff

Besides failing to do any of the above, this year has also been a year that I can only label as volatile.***

On the downside, I had a near nuclear meltdown somewhere in the middle of the year. Thankfully, it didn’t take too long to recover from it. The reason for that episode is personal and shall remain so. The irony of the whole situation is that earlier in the year, I was blogging a lot about rationality and mindfulness. (see here, here and here) yet when it came down to it, I was overcome by a flood of emotions and I actually felt the physical effects that come with being depressed. It’s a serious thing and it’s no fun.

Also, on the work front, I was supposed to leave the school. To be honest, I didn’t know why I accepted the posting at that time because right now, I love my colleagues and the environment is fantastic. I guess I was thinking that I should challenge myself and put myself in a situation where I would have to work probably 2-3x as hard as I have to right now. Anyway, things happened, and I’m not going anywhere.

Also on the work front, I screwed up big time. I made a major mistake that no one ever should. I felt really bad about it though and I hope none of my colleagues ever make the same mistake ever again.

What’s the upside to all this?

The upside is that having a year like this gives you plenty of fodder for reflection and introspection. Giving myself enough time to think about the things that happened, how I felt about each event, and whether I could have handled things differently has led to a few conclusions.

One, in order to be a better person, I need to cultivate better habits. After all, there’s a famous quote attributed to Einstein that goes like this:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Your habits will definitely lead you to the same results. If you want different results, you have to change your habits. Some of my habits are downright terrible.

Two, in order to change your habits, you can’t just depend on willpower. I should have realised this sooner given how my wealth accumulation strategy was going. In fact, even with some semblance of a strategy, you need some great incentive or disincentive to stick to it. For example, I had come up with a simple rules-based strategy to lose weight. Basically, I already decided that on days where I go canteen A, I would only have the sandwich from there and if I went to canteen B, I would order the salad.

What actually happened is that whenever I had a lunch kaki**** and when classes started,  this plan would utterly fail as I didn’t have the willpower to stick to the strategy. When you’re tired and want to relax, your willpower is spent. Your mind then naturally thinks of stuff that gives you the most reward. In my case, that would be fried stuff or carb-laden dishes as most local foods are.

The only solution I can think of is to increase the stakes of committing to the plan. As discussed in an episode of the freakonomics podcast, you can do so in many ways such as having a pre-commitment to donate a painful enough sum to the person you like the least or, my favourite, hanging a jar of vomit around your neck and opening the lid to take a whiff of it whenever you feel hungry.

Three, getting majors fails and feeling really lost is not fun but there is some good that came out of it. I feel a lot more grateful for my life. I’m grateful for a family that loves me and that has confidence in me.

I’m grateful for the fact that I was part of the lucky sperm club. Just being born in the right country means that I never had to face the threat of war and that basic infrastructure has not been a concern. Being born at the right time also reinforces those notions as one or two generations before mine would have endured a lot more hardship. Being born into the right family meant that I basically only faced #firstworldproblems. And all of the above also increased the odds that I would meet the right person to spend the rest of my days with.

My wife isn’t the perfect person (show me someone who is and I’ll show you a phoney) but she’s the perfect person for me. She’s smarter than I am but she never lets me feel inferior for it. That automatically makes her more humble than me as well. When baking, she’s the one who will follow a recipe to a T while I might read the recipe to get a feel and then adjust accordingly. I don’t tell her enough but I love her.

Also, we adopted a cat! I never had a cat in the house before so it’s a whole new situation that we have. Initially, there were a lot of known unknowns. Will he scratch the furniture? Will he pee outside his litter box? Will he leave us alone when it’s time for bed? All those fears turn out to be unfounded because cats, like everyone else, can be trained to a great extent. Watch enough “My Cat from Hell”, do your research and through trial and error and you’ll see that most of the horror stories you hear about are due to bad owner behaviour. In other words, it’s not the cat. It’s you. I’m glad to say that our cat loves it here and we love having him around.

What’s next?

30 something years of life isn’t that short but yet it’s far short of a lifetime in this day and age. I’ve already decided on my goal for the next few years and it’s for me to embark on the path to being a craftsman.

In this day and age, with the threat of automation to jobs that are repetitive and mundane, I believe that there isn’t a future for those who take on a job hoping to go through the motion of passing each day while meeting the bare minimum.

Therefore, I need to hone a craft. Get the fundamentals right, repeat the fundamentals until they become second nature. Then push the boundaries and create something new.

That’s what I need to do with investing.

Notes:

*lol. who else could it be? I only realised the irony of the parentheses after I typed it. Hence this very meta-sounding comment.

**Let’s say you have an average job that pays S$4,000/month (that’s literally the average in Singapore). Saving 10% (S$400) a month easily adds about 10% of growth when your portfolio is $48,000. However, once your portfolio hits $480,000, that same savings rate only adds a percentage point a year. The solution is, two-fold, either (a) increase your savings rate over time and/or (b) increase your income. The problem is that for most people, both options are pretty difficult to do.

***I use the term as it would have been in the finance world i.e. flucuations.

****kaki is the local term for a buddy.