The day I had Pad Kee Mao twice

Photo credit: The Churchill Arms, London

 

“Just eat first.” She said to me.

I stood in the center of her restaurant, overwhelmed. The trust that she bestowed upon me shook me.

It was before the lunch rush. Having the habit of rising up and exercising very early in the morning often leads to violent complaints by my stomach before noon. My mind was particularly occupied that day. By what? You might ask. That would be an independent and long blog itself. So I shall indulge you with your own curiosity.

I drove to this little unnoticeable Thai restaurant in Silicon Valley, parked in its very limited parking area. Got out of the car. Locked the car. Immediately felt my hands were empty. The left pocket of my coat was dragging down heavily with a book. Where is my little green purse? Oh, damn fool, you are! You came out to have lunch but forgot to bring card or cash! All right, all right! Stop criticizing me! Shall I drive back to get my purse? No way that I would come out again. Time is far more valuable than anything else! Hmmm, what shall I do? I do not want to starve either. Ah ha, I have my phone with me, do not I? Let me ask whether the restaurant takes paypal payment. I doubted such a little place would accept e-payment though.

With that doubt in mind, I walked into the empty restaurant. No one was there. I could hear some sound from the kitchen, but no one in my sights. Ok, really, you should leave before making this foolish situation embarrassing. Oh, no, let me check! I said: “Hello!” A young lady came to my view. “Hi, I came here to have lunch but found out that I had forgotten my purse. Would you accept paypal?” “Hmm, no.” She was going to check whether the restaurant accepts Apple Pay. But then turned around and said “just eat first.”

Shocked, overwhelmed, immensely grateful for her trust. I attempted to resume reading a book I brought with me, but could not. She trusted that I would come back and pay for the food, without even explicitly request me to do so. Being trusted by a stranger like this brought me a very powerful sensation. So many thoughts were racing in my head.

Did you just notice that I brought my book with me, but not money for lunch? I already said that I was mentally occupied though.

Her clear demonstration of trust towards me was so powerful, partially because to some extent our world is deprived of trust, both in life and work. In our professional worlds, every day we work hard to earn the respect and trust from people. Many times I would spend dozens of hours in preparation for an hour important meeting, some times might stretch to over one hundred hours if it is so critical. I would think deeply about the possible ways that my thinking might be flawed about some topics. I would invest every resource I have to do well in the subjects of my choice. When being evaluated by others, we often do not have a clear picture of: Do they trust our competence? Do they see the values of our contribution? Do they envision our potentials a quarter as big as our own ambitions and what we picture for ourselves?

Most of us strive to be trusted, to be respected, in all aspects of our lives. We are so hungry for that, far more so than for any food. Her offering of a lunch (Pad Kee Mao) to me fills up not only my stomach, but also some part of the void in my inner being. She trusted and respected me. How amazingly wonderful it made one feel!

I went back to pay what I owed her and asked for Pad Kee Mao again, for dinner this time. Pad Kee Mao is also known as No. 16 on the menu of my favorite pub The Churchill Arms in Kensington Church Street. It is the dish of trust to me now.

A Traveller

This is a post-travel rant, not a book summary.

A UK border agent half raised his hand, signaling me to come forward. I walked up and handed over my passport, said hello meanwhile. We exchanged a couple short sentences. The agent is English, mumbling, in his cubicle protected by safety glass. At times, it was hard to hear what he said and impossible to read his lips as they barely moved. I asked him to repeat one question. He was not pleased.

Was I intimidated or angered by him? No, he did not act violently verbally or physically, and I can imagine that he might be a very pleasant English gentleman outside his border agency job. But was I made to feel small in any way? A little. The attitude, the look in his eyes, unpleasantly judgmental and stone cold as if he was questioning me: why on earth are you bothering me with your entry to my country? What the hell are you going to do in my country? A less experienced or more sensitive soul than mine might have cried his/her eyes out and sworn never to leave the home country again. There was this invisible boundary drawn up right there between me and him, or between me and his England. Is it his England? Is it not partially my England too?

This encounter was not atypically bad at all. It is among the common ones entering many countries in my numerous international trips. To me, it would not have left a particular mark on my psyche, if Britain, more specifically England, is not one of the countries that forms my identity.

I am identified as Chinese by non-Chinese, mostly as British or recently maybe American by Chinese. My work style could be identified as very much influenced by the English, German and Dutch. My stomach is mostly Italian and British. My close friends are from all over the world.

Who am I really? I do not know the answer nor do I care. All I care is to better oneself with the good values and practices from people of each race, each culture and each nation, be good to people no matter who they are, cleaners or CEOs, boss or subordinate, homosexual or not. We belittle ourselves if we are not fair and just towards others equally.

If there is one last piece bread left on the earth and it is in my possession, I would share with you, whether you are identified as English, German, Arabic, Spanish, Greek, Chinese, Sri-Lankan, Indian, Portuguese, or whatever; as Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, atheist or others; as black, white, Asian or all else; for each of you is a wonderful and unique human being. I am grateful to people from all these diverse backgrounds for inspiring me through who they are.

A side note: one occasion in San Francisco Airport, a security staff was repeatedly, very aggressively shouting towards a few travelers who clearly did not understand English. In my view, she mistreated those fellow travelers and I wanted to speak with her after exiting from the security check, but did not find her. Not giving up, I went to another security guy who seemed to be supervising the operation in that area and complained about this behavior. Just imagine, you are traveling in a foreign country that you do not know the language and a security guard is yelling towards you repeatedly. Some guards are even fully armed. Would you know any better what to do when the guard has yelled one more time? Put some clear signs up or have posters in various languages handy to show to people. Your throat will not hurt. Your job will be more enjoyable. I, a traveler, will not interfere, I promise.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

As a reward for completing my one-book-a-week project in 2017, my family gifted me a beautiful book as Christmas present: The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Having not been exposed to many picture books as a child, I first saw and read this at my friend Dr. Mary Marshall’s office in Oxford a few years ago. It was fascinating. The book is also made into an animated film below.

It is surreal to hold my present and read it, as if I have wound back the clock and returned to my childhood. I want to be that caterpillar! Perhaps I have been one after all, merely hungry for a different kind of food: knowledge. Naturally, this little book reminded me how little commitment reading could be, compared with all my other books during 2017.

What kind of butterfly do I want to transform into? How? What are the steps to take?

Who Moved My Cheese?

 

One Sunday afternoon recently, I decided to unpack the book boxes. Many of them. One by one. It has been a very daunting project. Right now tons of books are scattered on the floor, each of them anxiously waiting for the sentence I hand down: shelving, return to a labelled box, or donation. How mighty the power I am holding over these books. How frightful it is to determine their fate and heartbreaking for me to part with them. Some have migrated across oceans, some travelled together with me, some accompanied me through the darkest times in my life. Who Moved My Cheese and Far From the Madding Crowd are among them. I could not help re-reading them.

My second-hand volume of Who Moved My Cheese has shown its endurance of plenty readings in the past. It is yellow, old, and rough looking. The wisdom in it ages beautifully together with its physical form.  

This little book is written by Spencer Johnson. It tells a parable of four characters: Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw, searching for cheese in a maze. The author summarises it very well here:

sometimes we may act like Sniff who sniffs out change early, or Scurry who scurries into action, or Hem who denies and resists change as he fears it will lead to something worse, or Haw who learns to adapt in time when he sees changing can lead to something better! Whatever parts of us we choose to use, we all share something in common: a need to find our way in the Maze and succeed in changing times.

To me, the author passes his insights to us via the notes that Ham wrote on the walls of the Maze. Many of them were for Hem, with the hope that Hem might one day would have the courage to get out of his comfort zone and start searching for a new cheese station.

The more important your cheese is to you, the more you want to hold on to it.

If you do not change, you can become extinct.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Smell the cheese often, so you know when it is getting old.

Movement in a new direction helps you find new cheese.

When you stop being afraid, you feel good!

Imagining yourself enjoying your new cheese leads you to it.

The quicker you let go of old cheese, the sooner you find new cheese.

It is safer to search in the maze, than remain in a cheeseless station.

Old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese.

When you see that you can find and enjoy new cheese, you change course.

Noticing small changes early helps you adapt to the bigger changes that are to come.

Below is the final summary written on the wall by Haw.

As Santa Claus is approaching, it is the time of the year to reflect and look ahead. What cheese do you crave for? How does your maze look? To paraphrase the verse from a dear friend of mine: what would you like to do in your wildest dream? And do just that!

Can I have a full English breakfast first? That is my wildest dream now, after getting up before 5am, walking for miles with an audiobook, cycling, reading, writing, etc. Perhaps I deserve a bit of proper bacon and sausage.

The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins mentioned his concern about people’s misjudgement of the book because of its title. Unfortunately, I was one such plonker. This book sat on my bookshelf for many years. I did not want to touch it because I shallowly inferred from the title that the book is about finding justification in biology for selfishness and moral degradation (if I may, as a far-fetched extension). Reading it might shatter my strongly held view that we human should promote altruism and not be selfish. I opened it one day recently, not remembering when and why exactly. It has proved to be a fascinating read and has demonstrated my pre-assumption to be completely wrong. Dawkins mentioned in the book that, retrospectively speaking, he should have named the book The Immortal Gene instead. I would have benefited from this book many years earlier if that were the title. The fault is all mine though. I learned the lesson to not make the verdict based on the title alone.

A few thoughts occupied my mind while reading this book. There is no answer applicable to us as a group. I think each individual would have one’s own opinion. Also I would like to point out that I am not a biologist at all, merely one who is interested in the subject.

We are the manifestation of our genes to certain extent. I understand gene survival theory as that we maximise the chance of prolonging the existence of any given gene by producing and bringing up offsprings, or helping to increase the chance of survival of that gene as carried by our family members. Last year, when my father was in a coma and in imminent danger for a lengthy period, I, against all my scientific and atheist mind, was praying madly with uttermost sincerity that God would let me give up 30 years of my lifespan in exchange for 30 more years for him, or an even better deal if God is cruel and unjust, 30 years only for 10 years. It was not an attempt to preserve my genes, because it does not propagate back to prior generations at certain ages. It was not altruism either. Did I want him to live because I could not cope with the possibility of losing him? Or, did I want him to live because I truly think he could enjoy many more years of life that would be more relaxing and peaceful than one at working age, despite the prospect of being severely disabled? Looking back, I dismissed the second question fiercely and wanted father to be with us regardless of the medical conditions. I could not cope with the future of living in endless regrets that I have hardly looked after him. Damn me that I have not taken him travel around the world as I wished! Curse me that I have not done X, Y, Z for him! A very long list of unfulfilled wishes. To cope with the fear of not having a chance to give back, I had a belief that he must live. That was a strong and very selfish belief. On one hand, I find this book very convincing. On the other hand, we are so miniscule in the biology evolution, our thoughts and behaviors are greatly influenced by other factors besides the genes. This kind of non-gene-survival related influence appeared to be more dominating than the survival theory in the relatively constrained timeframe.

I am particularly drawn to Dawkins’ meme theory and more keen to find out more about further research on memes. Meme is the name given by Dawkins for a new kind of replicator. “It conveys the idea of a cultural transmission, or, a unit of imitation. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

The following paragraph from the book gives us great hope of the legacy we could create in our very trivial and limited lifetime in the long evolution river:

When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the colour of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king’s genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G. C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.

The end of the first edition was very upbeat and positive: We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

It is a book well worth reading. Do not let the title stop you.

Never Give In! – Winston Churchill’s Greatest Speeches

I grew up in awe of Winston Churchill, for his second to none wartime leadership during WWII, his mastery of writing, oratory and painting, and for his character, including his flaws. It would not be an exaggeration to state that most of us today across many countries owe our sheer existence to Churchill and the victory of WWII.

Some years ago, I went to visit Churchill’s birthplace Blenheim Palace and his family home from 1922 till end of his life Chartwell House. There was a small museum in the Palace dedicated to Winston Churchill then, giving us a glimpse of his early years. Chartwell revealed significantly more of Churchill in my opinion. Chartwell is also more pleasant to visit, to appreciate Churchill’s paintings and literature work, to soak in the history surrounding the Churchill family, as there are much fewer tourists than Blenheim Palace. Churchill’s painting studio with many of his paintings on the walls is also uniquely located in Chartwell. Churchill famously said a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted. I left Chartwell with a few thoughts in mind. First, if we let each individual develop his/her true talent to the fullest and tolerate his/her flaws, we as a group would be much better off than other scenarios, for example, pushing everyone to achieve the highest scores at school and becoming uniform in our pursuits. Second, we are truly only limited by our limited thoughts. If Churchill thought that “I am a good writer and that is enough for me as professional. One cannot possibly be both a great writer and a statesman, or to paint as well”, we either would have very different world history, or, not have his volumes on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, many great speeches and other writings. We are blessed that he did not think that way. Nor should anyone have one’s thoughts jail oneself.

Over two years ago I was listening to an episode of the BBC Radio 4 Great Lives program, Churchill was reported saying that this is what we fought for after receiving the news that he had lost the 1945 election. Those simple words inspired great admiration from me. To me it says much about Churchill’s vision for his countrymen versus his personal ambition.

Churchill was a great orator. He gave many magnificent speeches during the war time. The National Churchill Museum makes a list of them available online. In the limited space and time, I share excerpts from a few with you, particularly Churchill’s three famous ones around the Battle of France in 1940. May I alert you that I found tears swelling in my eyes every time I read these out loud or hear them quoted on the radios.

Churchill’s first radio broadcast as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940

Having received His Majesty’s commission I have formed an administration of men and women of every party and of almost every point of view. We have differed and quarreled in the past, but now one bond unites us all: to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be.

Excerpt from Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, also known as the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech:

That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion…

I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

Excerpt from Churchill’s speech to the House of Common on 4 June, 1940:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Excerpt from Churchill’s speech to the Parliament on 18 June 1940, known as the “This was Their Finest Hour” speech:

If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.

….

I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

English language is not only marvellously beautiful, but also immensely powerful. Churchill showed us that. I, among many, hold the belief that Churchill’s mastery of oratory lead us to win the war. I conclude this post with one last quote from Churchill. He wrote at the age of 22:

Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.

The Elements of Style

This little book, the Elements of Style, originally by William Strunk and later revised and expanded by Elwyn Brooks White. Strunk taught an English course with the original version of this book as the required textbook at Cornell University in 1919. White was one of the students took that class. Decades later, White was asked to revise and contribute to a new edition of this book, after Professor Strunk passed away.

The version I am holding in hand now is the fourth edition from 1999. Multiple sources have informed me that this book has been broadly adopted as one of the required readings for certain college classes in the USA. In my opinion, anyone who communicates in English would benefit greatly from this book.

It is my general observation that in the business setting we generate and circulate far too many badly written, confusing at best, and often misleading notes and documents. We do so on the grounds that we do not have spare time to improve our writings or the luxury to do so in a fast-paced work environment. Bad writing unfortunately often leads to a great loss of productivity. Unwillingness to improve one’s language skill and laziness to communicate with clarity is evil, as it adds a great burden on the readers. I highly recommend reading this book. I envisage myself revisiting it many times again in future.

The process of reading this book was filled with both delight and anxiety. I have been frightened and ashamed that many errors and bad practices of written English listed here were committed by me previously. I have also discovered many jewels of good practices.

Chapter one covers the elementary rules of use of the English language. I spotted one misuse often made immediately. It is “Charles’s friend”, not “Charles’ friend”. That is the first rule: form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s. People also often confuse “it’s” the contraction of “it is” with “its”, the possessive. Another mis-use I committed often many years ago and Daniel Rueckert helped me to overcome is: do not join independent clauses with a comma when forming a single compound sentence from multiple clauses that are grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction. The correct punctuation is a semicolon.

Chapter two focuses on principles of compositions. The book suggests:

    • Choose a suitable design and hold to it;
    • Make the paragraph the unit of composition;
    • Use the active voice;
    • Put statements in positive form;
    • Use definite, specific, concrete language;
    • Omit needless words;
    • Avoid a succession of loose sentences;
    • Express coordinate ideas in similar form;
    • Keep related words together;
    • In summaries, keep to one tense;
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

At the level of composing a sentence in English, I must have violated the last rule here many times before, as I was blindly unaware of this, despite my knowledge and practice of placing the most prominent sentences at the beginning and end of a paragraph. One pair of examples given in the book:

  1. Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.
  2. Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

The second option clearly places more emphasis on the “hardly advanced in fortitude” part of the message.

I strongly disagree of shorthand spelling of some English words, for example, writing through as thru. It is bad practice and unforgivable, even on road signs. Laziness of spelling should not be tolerated. If we choose to be lazy with words used to describe our thoughts, we would inevitably end up in a downhill spiral and find ourselves eventually becoming too lazy with clear thinking.

White added a new chapter on An Approach to Style to this little book. White describes:

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation – it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.

White’s advice on what style is not about:

Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is non-detachable, unfilterable.

On how to approach style:

The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style – all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.

Further, White gives us a list of suggestions to help us find our way to the desired style:

  • Place yourself in the background.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Work from a suitable design.
  • Write with nouns and verbs. (Not with adjectives and adverbs.)
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Do not overstate.
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  • Do not affect a breezy manner.
  • Use orthodox spelling.
  • Do not explain too much.
  • Do not construct awkward adverbs. (for example, tiredly, tangledly.)
  • Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  • Avoid fancy words. (I observe that technical writings from non-native English speakers often tend to use fancy words, which in turn hurts the readability of the papers. Better to use the simple ones.)
  • Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
  • Be clear. (Clarity is the top priority, regardless of the form of communication, speaking or writing, in my view.)
  • Do not inject opinion. (This is very challenging.)
  • Use figures of speech sparingly.
  • Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  • Avid foreign languages.
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

I am grateful that teachers like Strunk and writers like White pass their knowledge on the usage of English language to us in a meticulously concise and precise writing style conveyed in this book. Without it, I might stay much longer ignorant of the errors I made and would not be able to progress.

The Founder’s Dilemmas

In the last a few years, multiple friends recommended The Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam Wasserman to me. I did not pick it up till my recent trip returning from Canada. One evening, a friend, A.J., compared the startup environment in Canada with that in Silicon Valley. He commented on how this environmental difference affects the success and failure of startups, besides many other factors. That conversation reminded me to read this book.

The subtitle of this book tells the gist of it: anticipating and avoiding the pitfalls that can sink a startup. It consists of three major parts followed by a conclusion. The first part talks about the pre-founding career dilemmas faced by the entrepreneurs. Part two presents the founding team dilemmas over multiple chapters: the solo-versus-team dilemma; relationship dilemmas – flocking together and playing with fire; role dilemmas – positions and decision making; reward dilemmas – equity splits and cash compensation; the three Rs system – alignment and equilibrium. Part three covers dilemmas beyond the founding team, specifically hires and investors: hiring dilemmas – the right hires at the right time; investor dilemmas – adding value, adding risks; failure, success and founder-CEO succession. Finally, the last but one of the most distinctive points I learned from this book: the wealth versus control dilemmas.

Some messages presented in this book read familiarly, as I previously read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One and various others, and the Creative Entrepreneur: Innovation Through Design Thinking programme I attended at Stanford referenced the Founder’s Dilemmas extensively. Taking an extensive research approach adds great credibility to the findings and arguments presented this book. I realize there could be many flaws in these studies. But the essence of reading a book like this is not to follow its prescription, but to establish a certain amount of awareness of the unknown based on others’ experiences, and when appropriate to integrate those options into our knowledge set to be called upon when the time comes. To be fair to the author, there is no trace of intention of prescribing any rules for the entrepreneurs-to-be in the book. Furthermore, as the author put it: we know amazingly little about the chief perils that beset the entrepreneurial activity we so often acclaim as the very heart and soul of the economy. So for the scarcity reason alone, this book is worth a read.

My takeaway from the book is: know yourself and your options at each stage of founding a startup, the potential consequences following each of your options, whether and how you can adapt yourself to match with the varying demand from each growth stage assuming you have not failed yet, the inevitable influence from being wealth-driven or control-driven, ways to adjust your approaches and mitigate the danger of failure.

A number of passages are fresh and educational to me. They either break down my old belief or broaden my view by providing arguments from new angles. Here are some examples.

Each of these founders aspired to build a high-impact startup, but “impact” meant very different things to each; to the financially motivated, it tended to mean a large gain in wealth, but to the control motivated, it tended to mean that the startup would bring to the world the product or service they envisioned.

Accumulating more experience is far less valuable if that experience does not shape the mental model in relevant ways (or, worse, if it shapes the mental model in counterproductive ways)….A broad range of work and educational experiences is indeed associated with a significantly higher willingness to become self-employed.

Among the founders in my dataset, only 18% had management experience before founding their startups, including 19% of technology founders and 15% of life science founders. (This is consistent with another study that found that technical founders tend to lack prior managerial experience and may even lack interest in developing managerial skills.)

Founding a startup requires the knitting together of all of the functions required to make an organization run effectively, from product development to marketing to sales to finance to human resources. Having prior experience in those functions arms the founder with the ability to understand how each one operates on its own and as part of the larger whole.

Prioritization is even more important in a startup than in a stable business. I realized that I needed people to not only prioritize what to do, I needed them to create not-to-do lists. It was easy for people to find new products for us to bring to market, new pieces to add, new customer segments to go after… when you are smaller, if you go after something, it takes precious resources. You are also moving a lot faster, so you can harm the organization…There’s much more at risk, much more damage you can do.

One hears a lot about “following your passion.” Potential founders should avoid the mistake of thinking that their passion excuses them from a rational assessment of their circumstances…. The heart is forever making the head its fool.

I learned that leadership is all about taking in information and making a decision – shared information but not shared decisions. Make decisions yourself and live with them. Another key is speed. I want a single decision maker, even below me. If I have a VP of operations, he makes the call about operations.

There are three recurring categories of founding-team decisions: relationships, roles and rewards – each involving trade-offs and tensions.

Researchers have already observed that specific founding experience is more valuable for startup growth than are overall work experience and educational human capital.

Knowing for sure that someone has to go is hard, but I have learned that if I start thinking someone needs to go, they need to go. It is always the right call to upgrade when you realize someone can’t or isn’t succeeding.

One of the most critical inflection points in the evolution of a startup: the “succession” from a founder-CEO to a “professional” (nonfounding) CEO.

Managing a technical team is quite different from managing multiple functions that must interact and with most of which the CEO has little direct experience. At this point, the startup’s finances and metrics also become much more complex, requiring a level of financial sophistication possessed by few founder-CEOs. The leap from leading product development to leading a multifunction startup challenges not only the founder’s skills, but – perhaps even more profoundly – his or her values.

Founders who refuse to give up ownership and control in either or both of these ways will be less likely to attract the resources they need and thus not be able to fully pursue the opportunities they envision. It appears, then, that each of our founding dilemmas is also a dilemma of what resources to acquire at what cost in ownership and control. This is the dilemma behind all the other dilemmas.

My analyses also suggest that founders who keep control personally give up a significant amount financially. Such founders tend to build a less valuable startup while keeping a larger share of equity in it, but it turns out that the value-seeking founder’s “smaller slice of a larger pie” is generally greater than the control-seeking founder’s “larger slice of a smaller pie.”

The hardest decision a founder, inventor, or entrepreneur needs to make is “when do I give up some control to grow the company”.

Hegarty on Creativity – There Are No Rules

Rule number one of traveling to a new place is to visit its museums. I wish some museums offer lodging service, for example, one could happily spend three days and nights of a long weekend in Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rule No. 2 is its independent or secondhand bookstores. I have a very soft spot for secondhand book shops. Sadly it seems that I have not come across many of them outside London. Rule No. 3 is to see its cemeteries. One I visited recently is the Mountain Cemetery and its adjacent Veteran Memorial in Sonoma. I was struck by sadness when I saw the empty space left for future names on the memorial stone. It is indeed practical to plan for further additions, nevertheless upsetting to think about the inevitable. These are the rules to be exercised with flexibility and a priority ordering given the circumstances.

I wandered into Ben McNally Books in Toronto one late afternoon last week. The bookshop was beautiful and private. There were very few people there probably because it was a workday. Exploring its collections felt like being spoiled in a private library of one’s own, although I would remove probably three quarters of novels from the shelves and replace them with science and engineering books, but leave the other categories untouched, if it is my library. There I was browsing randomly. A small book with lemon yellow cover and neat design caught my eyes. Hegarty on Creativity – There are No Rules, I picked it up without any hesitation. Judge me if you wish. I cannot resist a book as elegantly presented as this and especially one with such a title. I must find out what is inside and who is Hegarty.

The interior design of this book is as beautiful as its cover, if not more so. Many drawings and compositions fit appropriately with the content. The writing itself is witty and humorous. A subject like creativity that could potentially be very dry and abstract is discussed in a delightful way.

The author states clearly at the beginning: this book is about how you get started, how you keep going. Not what you want to create. It contains 50 provocations on creativity, on nurturing it, sustaining it, and harnessing it. Hegarty gives the definition of creativity as: the expression of self. This is true in the art profession. Perhaps in the science and engineering world, it is the expression of self (into which the intuition acquired through experience falls into) and knowledge. I suppose having certain knowledge is a state of being, so it could be part of the self too. If we interpret self broadly, I would agree with this definition.

Whatever you’re creating, simplicity is the ultimate goal. The power of reduction, as we say in advertising, means taking a complex thought and reducing it down to a simple, powerful message.

Stop thinking. Start feeling. Creativity is an intellectual process, but it is also one driven by the heart. Irish writer James Stephens summed it up perfectly when he wrote: What the heart knows today, the head will understand tomorrow.

Words are a barrier to communication. If it’s a race to get into minds and stay there, then it’s the artists who make their points faster, smarter, and more thought-provoking that will be the ones to succeed. I particularly like the example Hegarty quoted to show the power of pithy phrases: Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

I like the visual simplicity and profound impact of the Levi ads that Hegarty and his team designed, with the phrase “when the world zigs, zag.” You must see the sheep visually yourself to see its beauty. Here it is in the BBH website. As Hegarty pointed out: that single line of text was added to reinforce the point made visually in this image.

Hegarty wrote about the relation of technology and creativity: Technology is not an idea. It’s the means to express an idea. So under no circumstances should you become overawed by it. No matter what piece of technology has been invented, from the camera to the computer, or will be invented, and no matter what value it claims to deliver, if it can’t in some shape or another deliver the full impact of a well-told story its worth will eventually diminish. I suspect there are not many computer scientists who are afraid of technology. On the other hand, would technologists be fearful of exploring art domains leveraging their technology expertise? My belief is that profession or expertise could be as fluid as we want it to be, or as rigid.

Hegarty’s writings on cynicism, collaboration, mixing with the best and respecting but not revering echos my experience at AMD Research. Creativity grows in a nurturing and positive environment. No idea is stupid, no question is silly. We can extend, build upon, mix with each other’s ideas. The complementary skillsets and diversified views allow us to bridge the gaps and generate the best as a team. Even someone like me raising far more questions than most people never felt that I have gone too far. In that kind of positive environment, creativity thrives organically. I cannot help sharing the quote by H. L. Mencken: A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin. The contrary is true too, the right place for creativity is where we smell compost, we think how delightful and fragrant the roses will be, once we use the compost as fertilizer.

One more “provocation” from this book that I was drawn to: good is the enemy of great. Within this maelstrom of thoughts veering all over the place, it can be easy to settle on something that feels right. Something that seems to make sense of all the confusion. You’ll feel relief when you get to this point. You’ll think you’ve cracked it. You’ll feel good. But then you have to take a step back from what feels really good and ask: But is it great?…Park that good idea and keep going. Trust in inspiration to come up with a great idea – that idea that’s going to put everything else in the shade. 

When Hegarty was in a life-drawing class at art school, his teacher pronounced: “When a drawing’s going wrong, what you don’t do is turn over the page and start again. You keep working on that drawing until it’s right. Only then do you turn the page over. That’s how you learn. I suppose I’m talking about life as well.Never move on until you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve.

Without elaborating in length, a few more arguments I like in this book are common sense at the surface but great to be reminded of in an artistic and playful storytelling way by Hegarty:

  • Keep your focus!
  • Practice only makes perfect if you make progress.
  • The importance of editing. In creative work it really is hard to be both subjective and objective. A great idea comes from a subjective point of view but then it has to be reviewed objectively to see whether or not it will work. This second objective stage is called editing.
  • Creativity has to be nurtured, cared for, invested in. Money just wants to exploit your career, without any concern for its longevity or future.

At one point in the book, Hegarty wrote “Yes, we’re all artists. But some of us shouldn’t exhibit…Just because technology has made it easier to create and express yourself does not mean you’re any good at it. Every day I’m inundated with badly written, poorly structured, uninformed blogs. Please. STOP. Do us all a favor and find something useful to do.” What about this blog and all previous ones that I wrote? I wonder. On the bright side, at least the large amount of quotes that I relayed to you from the great works that I read are not badly written.

 

Story Craft

Up and in my home office. It is 3:12am. Again around 3am. Here I am with the book Story Craft – The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart. Am I eternally cursed by some dark magic force of 3am? I first fell victim to this probably in autumn 2005, living in Paddington, just north of Hyde Park in London. The frequency of early wakings varied, with far more in some periods than others for either external or internal reasons. I am happy to remain so though and to continue exercising the freedom to naturally wake up early and work on what interests me. Knowing that I have this choice, I am very grateful. It is wonderful to have taken great pleasure in reading or working on a subject of interest before the dawn; by the time the dawn cracks, hitting the road for a jog and seeing the world around me slowly wake up to a new day, I secretly think to myself that I am ready for this new day. One benefit of starting the day early is that it helps to direct attention to truly important topics during the day. To think that I have been very much immersed in certain subject a few hours before the typical start of the day, it would be insane to waste the rest of the precious day on any trivial matters. It is the third 3am over a week time that I have been accompanied by this book. It is not a hard read. But it is far away from my area of expertise that so much of it feels very fresh to me such that I like re-reading some passages.

 

You may find this very encouraging, if you are concerned about the lack of experience and talent for narrative nonfiction writing: One of the other things I discovered during a quarter-century of working with nonfiction storytellers is that successful popular storytelling demands neither blinding talent nor decades in a writer’s garret. If you’re interested in exploring the art of true-life storytelling, don’t let lack of experience intimidate you. Time and again I’ve seen writers with absolutely no narrative experience grasp a few core principles, find appropriate story structures, and draft dramatic tales that moved readers. Some of those virgin ventures into true-life storytelling achieved far more. At the Oregonian David Stabler, the classical music critic, plunged into his first narrative, a series on a musical prodigy, and made the finals for a Pulitzer Prize. Rich Read’s first narrative won a Pulitzer Prize….The only real requirement for great nonfiction narrative is determination to master the craft.

 

In talking about what this book is about:

The entire media marketplace is in upheaval, and young storytellers everywhere will face unprecedented challenges. The most entrepreneurial will adapt to changing technology, finding new ways to combine print, audio, and video in a digital environment. But the most successful will also carry with them the unchanging, universal principles that apply to all stories, regardless of the technology used to deliver them. Those principles are what Storycraft is all about….to share what I learned in the trenches….

Speaking of the wide application of storytelling:

Ultimately, I don’t think the source of a great true-life story matters much. When it comes to learning by example, where a story appeared is far less important than how well it was told. Skilled, passionate storytellers will excel at their craft in whatever medium allows them to reach an audience. The story and craft of good storytelling even transcend the mass media. As Ted Conover demonstrated, both ethnography and nonfiction narrative share immersion reporting as a core technique. Lawyers attend workshops on constructing narratives that will persuade juries. Psychologists use storytelling in therapy. I hope Storycraft offers insights valuable across the spectrum of narrative possibilities.

Storytelling has such wide application because, at its root, it serves universal human needs. Story makes sense out of a confusing universe by showing us how one action heads to another. It teaches us how to live by discovering how our fellow human beings overcome the challenges in their lives. And it helps us discover the universals that bind us to everything around us.

To support that narrative is part of our fundamental nature, the author quoted Barbara Hardy:

We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.

This scientific evidence included in the book suggests that mastering storytelling would be great for non-literature, for example, in our case, the discussion of technology and leadership topics too:

Most human beings have a better grasp of narrative than other forms, that narrative delivers a clearer message to the majority of readers, and that readers prefer narrative presentations. Research also demonstrates that we remember facts more accurately if we’re exposed to them in a story, rather than a list, and that we’re more likely to buy the arguments that lawyers make in a trial if they present them as part of a narrative. We see our own lives as a kind of narrative, too, which may explain why we’re so fascinated by the narratives of others. Psychologists have studied the way we picture our own life stories. They’ve found, according to the New York Times, that each of us has a kind of internal screenplay, and that “the way we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but also how we behave.”

 

To write a good piece of narrative nonfiction, the first step would be to identify and choose a story to tell. So what are the roots of a story?

At its most basic, a story begins with a character who wants something, struggles to overcome barriers that stand in the way of achieving it, and moves through a series of actions – the actual story structure – to overcome them. That’s a succinct expression of what’s generally known as the protagonist-complication-resolution model for story…a story follows when “a character we care about acts to fulfill his desires with important consequences.”

In Writing for Story, Jon Franklin defined narrative nonfiction as:

A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.  

 

After reading this book, my understanding is that the key ingredients of a good story are its characters (or protagonists), a sequence of actions (including narrative and plot), complications and resolutions.

  1. The protagonist is the person who makes things happen. Jack Hart advises us to choose a sympathetic character over a dark one, for the reason that it helps the readers to establish the connection with the protagonist. He also advises to not shift point of view too much and that it is better to stick with one through a single character.
  2. Narrative is about a chronology of events, whereas plot is about the cause and effect, or the force that supports the story to take certain trajectory.
  3. Complication is the trouble that our protagonist has to deal with. There is no story without a complication, on the other hand, complication alone does not make a story. To demystify the choice of complication: not every complication has to have life or death consequences…“The great dangers in life and in literature are not necessarily the most spectacular,” Janet Burroway says. “The profoundest impediments to our design most often lie close to home, in our own bodies, personalities, friends, lovers, and family. Fewer people have cause to panic at the approach of a stranger with a gun than at the approach of mama with the curling iron.”
  4. Resolution: the ultimate aim of every story. The resolution releases the dramatic tension created as the protagonist struggles with the complication. It contains the lesson that the audience carries away, the insight that the story’s readers or viewers or listeners can apply to their own lives. It seems to me, we too often err on the side of dragging the resolution for too long when we should have put the final stop to the article or book. It is more appealing to hint the reader with a very succinct “telegram” that prompts the reader to do the thinking rather than spelling out the full message. When I read articles like that, we feel more involved in connecting with the story and contributing to the creation of that resolution.
 

In creating a story, one technique recommended is to list the plot points and use them to plan the story’s trajectory. To illustrate what a plot is and how it is different from mere narrative:

A plot emerges when a storyteller carefully selects and arranges material so that larger meanings can emerge. A plot, says Burroway, “is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.” For Eudora Welty “Plot is the “Why?”” Or, as the novelist E.M. Forster famously put it: the narrative is that “the king died and then the queen died.” The plot is that “the king died and the queen died of grief.”

 

A lot of the messages in this book are larger than being guidance for writing narrative nonfiction. For example, “You can resolve a complication…by changing the world or changing yourself.” Is it not true in every aspect of the universe? “A compelling story must immerse readers in another world, carrying them away from their mundane daily cares.” This applies not only to written stories, but also to other forms of inputs, like technical writings, maths deductions, music, paintings, presentations and so on.

 

After educating us on the principles of story structure, Jack Hart dives into the practical specifics in the rest of the book. It teaches “how to convey character, action, and scene”, helps the readers to explore the point of view, find the voice and develop his/her own style of narrative writing through sharing a large amount of excellent examples and the author’s first-hand experiences.  

 

The last chapter of the book discusses ethics. Jack Hart leaves us with his fundamental principles: Be honest, get it right, keep everything transparent. Don’t fudge, ever, even if a tiny departure from reality produces a huge payoff in drama, clarity, or style.

 

This book challenged me, like a number others I have read this year. But then, what is the point of reading or doing anything, if it does not challenge us to be better?

I hear birds are singing. Time to get out for the fresh air of the beautiful dawn.