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This August officially marks ten years of investing.

Ten years is a long time and I’ve learnt some things along the way. However, my investing journey is by no means over and I’m pretty sure there are many more things I will have to learn.

This post is going to be a reflection of the steps, missteps and lessons I have learnt so far. (Beware: long post ahead)

How I got started

Investing was something I read about from Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I know the book is controversial (see the criticism the book got) but that’s the first time I even got the idea of being an investor.

However, that idea never really took any shape until one day in 2006 when I saw a flyer on campus that the business school at the National University of Singapore (NUS) was organising a talk by Robert P. Miles. Robert P. Miles was invited to give a talk about his book, Warren Buffett Wealth. That was my first introduction to Warren Buffett.

Subsequently, I read whatever I could find about Warren Buffett and Value Investing. Of course, it didn’t help that I had no idea how to read a financial statement. By nature, I’m not one to go through the details with a fine-toothed comb and I was studying for an undergraduate degree in Economics. Not exactly the kind of major that teaches much about accounting.

Thankfully, the mid-2000s had some resources online. I’m forever grateful to Value Buddies and its predecessors (Wallstraits and subsequently, Afralug). Some of the regulars there have been generously sharing their wealth of experience and that really sped up my learning.

I bought my first stock (technically, it’s a unit since it’s a Reit) in 2007 and still hold it to this day. To be honest, I didn’t buy it because I had great insights or superior analysis of its financial statements. I bought it because I figured that Singapore’s ageing population will be spending a lot more on healthcare in the years to come. Thankfully, that investment has paid off handsomely.

Of course, that investment wasn’t all smooth-sailing. Buying in Aug 2007 meant that basically, I was buying at the top of the market. For those too young to remember*, Aug 2007 was as high as markets got before things started to go to hell. End 2007 to September 2008 was just a long descent into hell and Lehman Brothers’ collapse just caused everything to fall off a cliff.

Getting through the Global Financial Crisis (GFC)

The GFC seemed so long ago but anyone who lived through that would have seen their investments get totally wrecked. I’m pretty sure some of my investments were down by 50-75% at one point.

The silver lining was that having just started out in the market, I didn’t have a lot of skin in the game. In fact, that was the best possible time to commit even more money. So did I make tons of money from that period? Not really. There was always this constant fear of whether the market would go down some more. And by the time, the market was in an uptrend, you start worrying about whether another shock will hit the system.

That, however, provided me with a good understanding and experience of classic market psychology. It’s a lesson that not everyone may learn or may even learn too late. A very senior colleague of mine who made his retirement nest egg in the GFC by buying tonnes of stock at what was almost the market bottom basically sold out in May 2015. He was vindicated by the horrible second half of 2015 but practically missed out on collecting dividend income in 2016 and the run-up in late 2016 till now.** On the contrary, I stayed in the market and my portfolio is roughly 7% higher based on pure investing returns for the same period. In short, market timing is a difficult business.

Investment Record

First off, a disclaimer. I’m not putting my investment record here to brag or in hope that someone will recognise my prowess and give me a job. In fact, you’ll see that my record is nothing to brag about. My objective is to show that any average person can achieve decent returns in the market with a solid plan, plenty of patience and a decent understanding of markets.

In 2007, I started with a portfolio of roughly $6,000. This may not seem like much but I can assure you that it was a substantial sum to a university undergraduate at that time. Unfortunately, I was young and not smart enough to know what records to keep and where to keep them (this was all before we had cheap gigabytes and cloud storage) so I only kept records of how much my portfolio was growing. It was only in early 2011 that I began to keep records of both my investment returns (that is pure investing returns not inflated by me adding more money) as well as the actual growth of my portfolio.

From 2011 till now, my investment returns (capital gains and dividends reinvested) or what’s more commonly known as Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) is about 7.51%. However, the actual growth of my portfolio is 18.85% p.a. for the same period.***

So what gives? As I’ve said before elsewhere on this blog, that big difference is down to mainly two things: (1) I started from a low base. In early 2011, my portfolio was below six-figure territory. Just by saving $1,000 a month, that would increase my portfolio by somewhere about 12%. (2) Savings are key to building your portfolio because that acts as a buffer or insurance. When markets are down, that continual addition to the war chest helps you add positions when the markets are cheap. When markets are expensive, you just build up your cash position to take advantage of when markets (eventually) get cheaper.

Obviously, as time goes by, your savings will contribute less and less towards your portfolio growth. The growth in your portfolio will come to consist of only your investment returns and that shouldn’t really be a cause for concern because when that time comes, you will probably have reached your financial goals. In fact, the more you save each month, the quicker you will reach financial freedom assuming of course that your spending stays the same after having zero income.

Three steps to get started

Step one, read as much as you can. You should not be reading about the theoretical or technical knowledge regarding investments but as much of the history, different schools of thoughts, and the different participants in the markets. In other words, don’t just know how to read the financial statements of a company and be able to do all the not-so-fancy calculations but start to appreciate how markets used to be and how they are now.

Also, not everyone in the market is an investor. Even among investors, there is substantial variation with regards to how long-term an investor’s view is. Get to know how traders and speculators behave because invariably, the siren song of being a speculator is tempting and you need to know when you call yourself an investor while acting more like a speculator. Traders have their place in the market but you have to know if you have brains and fortitude to be one.

Step two, just do it. I’m sorry for borrowing Nike’s slogan but there is really no better time to get started. As long as you are using money that you are prepared to do without for 10 years or more, being in the markets should not be an issue.

Step three, keeping learning and getting continuos feedback. Feedback doesn’t just come from the markets. You should seek out like-minded individuals who want to better themselves. ValueBuddies.com is a valuable place. There are plenty of investment bloggers (e.g. kyith at Investment Moats, Dividend Warrior) out there as well who maintain a good conversation with people who leave comments on their blog.

Environmental factors

A note of caution for those trying to replicate my model. Your investment portfolio cannot exist in a vacuum. If my wife was a high-maintenance trophy wife, the portfolio definitely wouldn’t be where it is today.

Fortunately for me, my wife was raised in a very practical household with parents who are the most down-to-earth people one would ever meet. Our expenses are minimal and our housing expense is way below our means. In a world where mortgages can stretch up to 30 years, we only have 5 years left on your mortgage despite only having bought the place a few years ago.

Of course, circumstances vary among households but I believe that contrary to what most people say about the average person living in Singapore, we are living proof that staying in Singapore doesn’t have to be an exorbitant affair.****

What’s the end goal?

My personal goal is to have my portfolio provide enough income for me and my wife to meet our expenses. These could range from daily expenses such as utilities and groceries to one-off expenses such as medical emergencies and holidays.

Once that goal is met, we will have much more options on how we want to live our lives. I don’t know about my wife but I certainly would explore my creative side much more. I have dabbled in some of these things recently but I really would want to pick up some skills like drawing/sketching, creating web apps, dabble a little in simple DIY tech-related craft (like using a raspberry pi as a security cam), baking bread and cooking at a more advanced level.  Or as my students might put it, I want to become a pro at these things.

If you’ve been following this blog, you will realise the slowdown in postings. I won’t be blogging as much as before because of impending changes on the job front as well as this minor obsession I’ve developed on programming.

Good luck investing! Here’s to the next 10 years.

Endnotes:

*I feel weird saying this but I do have some students who have just gotten in the market and for whom the GFC of 08/09 seem like a distant memory.

**Of course, financial planners will rightly tell you that your age profile matters when it comes to asset allocation. However, converting almost your entire portfolio to cash is not a valid retirement strategy either with interest rates on cash being so low and inflation for seniors (healthcare) being higher than the general inflation rate.

***My investment portfolio consists only of stocks and cash. I haven’t included my property, CPF monies and other assets such as insurance-based financial products that could be surrendered for cash.

****We are by no means extremely frugal people. If I wanted to go to that extreme, I would not have gotten a car and we wouldn’t be taking yearly or even twice yearly holidays to places like Japan, London and my favourite retreat off Bintan.

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There’s a mystery in my current organisation that I’ve been trying to solve.

Currently, my organisation offers employees who reach the official retirement age of 62 years a one-year contract for the next three years. There is even an option to have that extended to 67. Of course, the employee has to meet certain performance requirements before these options are offered.

Some additional context

My organisation doesn’t offer a pension upon retirement. Singapore has a compulsory savings scheme called the Central Provident Fund (CPF) where workers have a certain portion of their monthly salary socked away until they hit a certain age.

Also, the colleagues in question are not low or even average-pay workers. They would easily be considered middle to upper-middle class folk for the last 20 or 30 years of their careers.

The mystery and my theories

The mystery for me is not what my organisation offers but why would my colleagues want to take that offer up in the first place. I have a few theories but none seem to be wholly satisfactory.

Theory #1: They need the money

One possible reason could be that some colleagues who work until 62 and beyond do so because they need to. In other words, if they retired at 62, they would have problems funding their retirement.

I’m not very satisfied with this theory because I’m pretty sure most of my colleagues have enough put away for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, most of their liabilities such as housing loan(s) and children’s education (yes, in this part of the world, parents usually pay for their education if they can afford to do so) would have already been settled.

Also, if you can’t afford to retire at 62 years old, then is another three to five years going to matter? It might also have been that many moons ago, these colleagues planned their retirement up till 65 or 67 and therefore, they are near the end but not quite. In that case, isn’t that level of planning a little suspect? What person plans to the exact year without having a buffer of some sort?

Theory #2: Retirement is boring

I can understand this sentiment. If you look around, there are many people who say that once their professional lives are over, their minds degenerate quickly because there is nothing to keep them engaged. This is a particular statement many elderly businesspeople make.

The flip side for my older colleagues is that interests can be cultivated or expanded. In fact, most of us have other interests outside of our professional lives. Wouldn’t retirement free up a lot of time to pursue those other interests in a bigger way?

Many older colleagues also tend to be grandparents and I’m sure their children would appreciate their help in taking care of the grandkids. Or maybe it’s finally time for my older colleagues to go out and see the world.

Theory #3: They love the job

Truth be told, there are some colleagues who fall into this category. They love the interaction with their students so much so that they don’t want to step away from it. However, the job isn’t all fun and games. There are many mundane administrative aspects to the job as well as the boring and utilitarian committee work that we’re all forced to be a part of. If they really love the job, they could always become a freelancer. This would allow them to focus on the teaching without having to be a huge part of all the administrative machinery.

If they love the administrative machinations, then that’s a whole other story but which begs the question- why not be part of an administration somewhere else instead? Other administrations would probably pay better.

Also, teaching doesn’t have to be confined to the classroom or the school. Sharing knowledge and guiding others happens digitally and in other venues such as religious organisations as well.

Conclusion

Those are my theories and none of them seems particularly satisfactory. From the viewpoint of a 30-something year old who’s been here for about five years, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to stay until 62. The only sane thing is that they really can’t bear to leave this place because of the joy of work. Therefore, my money is on theory #2 or #3 although there are some holes in that argument.

Having said that, if I could, I would go when I’m ready. After all, age really is just a number. If I was financially free, I would be doing what interests me or what is meaningful regardless of the amount of money it brings me.

Yes. That’s the exact clickbait-y (which obviously works) title of an article I saw on a site sanctioned by our Central Providend Fund (CPF)* and their answer is:

As an ideal, the correct amount to have saved up – at any age – is six months of your income. Any amount beyond this should be redirected into a retirement fund. This is because savings are just to deal with emergencies, whereas investments are for the long-term.

So if you have an income of S$5,000 a month, your savings are good if they are at least S$30,000. Note that your CPF doesn’t count, as it’s not savings you can immediately access.

That’s actually pretty sound advice.

At first pass, I nearly thought they were recommending you have savings of $30,000, period. I was thinking that it’s a pretty low number but after reading it properly, I realise that the article meant that if you earn $5,000, you should have about $30,000 in cash or equivalents.

What I think is more important is that people take heed of the second part of the first paragraph which tells people to invest any amounts above this buffer of 6 months’ income. Where and how you invest should be determined by the amount of financial knowledge and fortitude you have. If in doubt, consult a financial advisor you can trust. (Buffett’s pearl of wisdom about never asking a barber if you need a haircut comes to mind.)

The later part of the article is quite sad though.

Everyone’s financial situation is different. You may have responsibilities that others don’t. For example, some people have parents or siblings with medical conditions, who need more expensive healthcare. Some people have an income lower than the median, which makes it hard to save. There’s also one element that many people in their 30s have in common.

Your 30s are typically the age in which you’re saddled with your first major financial costs. It is probably the first time you buy a flat or car, and you might be settling down with your first child. It’s quite possible that you did save diligently from your 20s, but your wedding has wiped out those funds.

Seriously, if you find yourself agreeing with that part of the article, you have a serious spending problem. If you have an income so low that it makes it impossible to save any meaningful amount, then you really need to be prepared to work really, really hard.

I was looking through my records and it shows that my 30s (so far) have been the greatest period of my wealth accumulation and to be honest, without a proper savings game plan, it wouldn’t have turned out so well.

Don’t be surprised but there are plenty of 30+ year-olds out there holding very ordinary jobs who easily have six-figure bank accounts or stock portfolios. These are the people that you just never read about.

*The CPF is the name of the organisation that handles the compulsory pension savings account every Singaporean resident has.

The Sunday edition of the Straits Times has the Invest section which was the only real reason that I read anything in the Straits Times. I use the word ‘was’ because I haven’t gone through the paper in a very long time. The main reason is that I had access to copies of the Straits Times get a little more restricted and to be honest, the content in the Invest section seems to have gotten a little less useful.

Take the latest exhibit, The real cost of avocado toast. The article is obviously riding on the trend of bashing the guy who advised millennials to cut back on avocado toast in order to save for a downpayment on a house. The article does rightly point out that cutting back on certain habits every day and letting that extra savings compound will help you get quite a bit richer.

The problem with such advice is not that it’s wrong but that it doesn’t really provide you with a solution for getting it to work. It’s like telling an overweight person to eat less otherwise the chances of dying early gets higher. It’s good advice but the more important thing is how is the person supposed to use the advice to get results?

Since the article rightly points out that people need to cut back on certain habits, we must also acknowledge the fact that habits are hard to break. It takes a lot of willpower or an insanely good strategy to avoid going back onto the wrong path.

This is where I’ve found that it’s much easier to focus on how much you want to save each month and set up a standing instruction with your bank that automatically transfers that sum to an account that is relatively less liquid. i.e. You don’t normally use that account for daily spending.

Any monies that are left in the account after the automatic transfer to the ‘savings’ account is then left for spending. It’s that simple. People often think that this is not doable but I am willing to bet that it’s possible for the average person. After all, in Singapore, 23% of your monthly income gets put in your Central Providend Fund (CPF)* account and we’ve pretty much learned to live with that ‘savings rate’ of 23%.

So, try it. Start with transferring 10% of your monthly income to an account that you won’t touch unless you absolutely have to and have as much avocado toast you want with what’s left.

 

 

“The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

I don’t know who to attribute the above quote to because the first time I read it, it was something that Warren Buffett said but online sources say that it’s probably something that Samuel Johnson said.

Anyway, what’s more important is how true that saying is. We are all creatures of habit and particularly when our willpower is low in times of stress, we revert to the very things that we do without much thought. The danger is when some people fail to realise that their habits have taken them down a dangerous path that increases their chances of permanent ruin.

This morning, I watched an episode of a programme called “My 600-lbs Life”. The show follows the lives of extremely obese people in their bid to lose weight and regain their lives. This particular episode featured a man named James K. from Kentucky who is probably the heaviest person ever to appear on the show.

What struck me over the course of the two episodes that aired was that this guy and his girlfriend made all these bad choices that they basically couldn’t unwind. He’s so fat that he was basically bedridden and therefore it was his girlfriend who kept bringing him both the wrong kinds and wrong quantities of food. Her justification was that if she didn’t do so, he would get grouchy, argumentative and basically a pain-in-the-ass.

I know the guy has a food addiction problem and his girlfriend was obvious taking the easy way out by giving him what he wanted when his willpower was depleted. It didn’t help that they seem to be in poverty because at one point, her car broke down and she couldn’t get it fixed and that prevented her from going to get fresh produce which James needed in order to stick to his diet. Seeing all that, it’s obvious they weren’t going to be very successful in their goal.

Which is why I’ve realised that more than anyone else, I’m a creature of habit. I go to the same canteen every day to order the same cup of coffee, I have pretty much the same thing at the canteen in my school. When I’m home, my wife and I are watching the same few channels. Most importantly, I channel a part of my income into my portfolio automatically each month when I get paid.

That’s the trick with habits- habits can be both good or bad. What you want to do is develop good ones that help you meet your goals. And if you have bad habits, you want to make sure that they are inconsequential ones. If they are big, bad habits, then the first thing is to recognise them and set out a plan on how to correct them. It’s the old zen tale of a master who poured tea for his disciple until the cup overflowed. When asked why he was still pouring the tea, the master replied that new ideas cannot take root until old ones are uprooted.

I’m not perfect. I have many bad habits that I should work on. But at least I’m aware.

PS: There are so many people I know of that have developed terrible habits that they aren’t even aware of. Even if they’re made aware, they become defensive and think of all sorts of reasons to justify their behaviour. If you’re aware of your shortcomings, then kudos to you, you’re on the first step to putting things right.

Recently, I came across an article about how a fresh graduate from SIM Global Education (SIM GE) who graduated with a University of London degree in Accounting and Finance has been trying to get a job that pays at least $2,500 a month. However, he has sent his resume out 40 times but only received a handful of interviews and an offer of a basic salary of S$2,000 with added commission from sales.

One of those clickbait sites that pass news off as politically charged nonsense basically took the article and even offered additional commentary on how even a S$2,500 salary would be below an average graduate’s starting salary. I’ve also seen further comments on forums about how S$2,500 as starting salary for graduates is a figure from 10 years ago.

The thing is, these people don’t understand Demand and Supply. The don’t understand product differentiation or inelastic demand either.

The simple fact is that the number of people graduating with degrees has gone up over the years. While the proportion of each cohort going to NUS, NTU and SMU may have been relatively stable, we have seen much more graduates from overseas and private universities.

At this point, some people may start to go along the usual anti-government stance of how many foreign workers we have on employment passes in Singapore but before one goes down that path, I suggest thinking of how many of those passes belong to workers in jobs that a fresh graduate can’t or won’t do. If you have those numbers, by all means, make an argument.

The other part of the article that I have a problem with is the implicit assumption that all universities are equal. They are not. A quick look at the University Rankings will show that and any prospective employee should know that any employer knows this. If employers know this, then any prospective employee with a degree from a lesser-known university should have spent their time in university not just studying but thinking of how to differentiate themselves from the bunch. For example, if I went to a business school known more for accepting students who can afford the tuition instead of acceptance due to meeting a stringent entry criteria,  I would have actively participated in business plan competitions, tried starting a business, actively networked to get to know and ask business people or C-suite personnel to be a mentor.

I suspect the student profiled in the article is a sign of things to come. Graduates, as a group, need to expect lower starting salaries in the near future with the increase in the number of graduates in the job market as well as the fact that more entry-level jobs can be automated.

Holy cow! 1/3 of the year has come and gone. So how’s your portfolio doing?

I just wanted to share a great insight on investing prowess vs. building wealth. Obviously, the better an investor you are, the quicker you’ll build your wealth. However, for mere mortals like most of us, I want to assure you that it’s still possible to build wealth.

Enter exhibit A. (Actually, this is the only exhibit.)

 

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NAV per share (in blue) vs. Growth of actual portfolio (in yellow)

The blue line (NAV per share) shows how much $1 invested in the portfolio would have grown to. So naturally, this involves removing the effects of adding more cash to the portfolio which basically shows us how good an investor I am.

The yellow line (Actual growth) shows how many times the portfolio has grown by relative to the starting date. Of course, this includes savings and additional cash added to the portfolio.

If you’re aiming to be financially free, I can’t think of why building wealth would be inferior to being a good investor. Sure, being a good investor gets you there quicker and probably allows you to enjoy consuming more at the same time but if the goal is to eventually not have to worry about working for money, then getting a big enough portfolio that will allow you to live off a safe withdrawal rate (3-4%) should be your main priority.

My experience so far is that being an average investor will help you get there too.

 

PS: Of course, once your portfolio gets huge enough, your savings will hardly matter. An average household in Singapore makes something like 80-90,000 SGD a year. If the portfolio reaches 2 million SGD, saving half a year’s income (which is near to impossible for most people) will only move the needle by about 2%. Having said that, if your household can’t retire in Singapore on a 2million SGD portfolio with your house fully paid for, you have a spending problem.

I love Tokyo. This is the fifth time I’ve been there but this is the first time that I’ve been there during sakura season. The best part about the trip is that the cherry blossoms were supposed to be in full bloom that very week that we’re there. Unfortunately, forecasts are typically proven wrong and it wasn’t until the last day of the trip that we got to see a line of cherry blossoms at naka-meguro. Even then, it might have been me but I expected them to be more pink than white.

 

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So beautiful. Not my picture so kudos to whoever took this. (source)

 

Nonetheless, I enjoyed myself very much despite getting a cold the day before I was set to leave for the trip. I suppose it was the thrill of the trip that cured me because, by the second day of the trip, I was feeling a lot better than when we left Singapore.

Besides the sakura, other highlights of this trip include:

1. Sakura Onsen.

Despite its name, you don’t get to see any cherry blossoms. What you do get is a lovely onsen (public bath) experience that’s conveniently located on the JR Yamanote line. It helped that we were staying in the heart of Shibuya so we had a direct line that was only a few stops to Sugamo station where the onsen is.

 

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The lovely entrance of the onsen. (source)

 

 

2. Yona Yona Beerworks

I went to this bar while the missus spent some time shopping around Shinjuku. This place is right beside Bicqlo, the collaboration between Bic Camera (an electronics store) and Uniqlo. I had their lager, which was fantastic, and an order of their stewed pork belly. The pork belly was done right- lightly seared on a grill before being dropped into stew in a bath of dark soy sauce and mirin.

 

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This was the counter I was at. Lovely view of all their taps. (source)

 

3. Hidemi Sugino

I marked Hidemi Sugino’s place on the map the last two times we visited Tokyo but never found the chance to visit. See, the place is popular that a line forms before the opening time of 11 am. It also doesn’t help that a certain cake of his (the Ambroisie) is made in limited quantities.

Anyway, we got greedy and ordered four cakes. My suggestion is to just go for the Ambroisie which is what won Hidemi Sugino the La Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie way back in 1991.

 

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I wish I took a pic of this. (source)

 

4. gram pancakes

I saw these jiggly, fluffy pancakes in a video on facebook and knew that I had to try them. They were divine. A stack of three airy, pancakes, made to perfection. Basically, it was like having a cotton candy pancake. Amazing.

 

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Tower of awesomeness (source)

 

Of course, there were old favourites such as:

-ichiran ramen (we went twice!)
– tendon at kaneko hannosuke
– tsukemen at roukurinsha
– katsu curry at hungry bear restaurant in Disneyland

We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in the heart of Shibuya. I totally got us lost looking for the place but once we found it and got our bearings, we realised how convenient the location was. Just 7 mins from the JR Shibuya station and a stone’s throw from eateries like Viron and the upper end of ‘center-gai’, we couldn’t have asked for a better location. Having a washer in the apartment also meant a lot of time saved doing the laundry and the apartment was pretty clean and surroundings were quite quiet.

The trip was wonderful but of course, it was only wonderful because of the company. However, just like the fleeting bloom of the sakura, the trip came to an end all too quick. The trick to seeing the beauty in sakura is in realising that the brief moment of full bloom is a perfect metaphor for life and that savouring each moment is key because all moments, no matter how long they may seem, are a transition to the next stop in life.

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.