Honing Strengths

I’ve spent a good amount of time so far reading Moneyball. It’s a book about how the Oakland A’s managed to churn out great seasons yet have the lowest budget or near lowest budget in the Major Leagues.

When I started reading this book, I had a feeling the high level theme would boil down to this: succeed by seeing things that others don’t see.

I haven’t finished reading the whole book yet, but this has been a consistent theme in chapters where the focus was not on background story telling. Whether it’s earning big bucks in a business or winning at sports games, the end goal is the same, but the process of recruiting and honing strengths is where it seems to count most. Sustained long term success, however you define it for yourself, is heavily contributed by good teams that care about the end goal, but are given the freedom to use their strengths to reach the goal. You need team members that bring in different strengths to the team. One member’s weakness should be compensated by another team member’s strength. A person tends to perform better if they focus on their strengths and mitigate the weakness; attempting to eradicate a person’s weakness usually isn’t the best way to go. It’s also about knowing where a member performs best in a team. Plugging random bodies in a gap won’t deliver great sustained results.

From personal experience, I failed to thrive in a startup because my strengths weren’t used properly. I was put in position where I had to use weaker skills to do the job. The president was mostly concerned about what he wanted me to do, but without any regard to whether it was the best fit for me. He had a vision of how he wanted his team to run, but his approach to making this happen revolved more around changing someone completely to fit the role, instead of finding someone with compatible strengths that could be groomed into the role. These observations are very subtle and usually only the most thoughtful leaders can recognize this. This president wasn’t able to see the strengths of an individual, he only thought of what he wanted the individual to do. He wasn’t aware of how and when people were most productive without instigating fear and verbal abuse.

 

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As This Year Winds Down…

I sat and thought for while to find the right word or phrase to describe all of 2013. I thought change would be a good one, but its almost too generic to use. Something will always change each year. But alas, I think the right word is:

Reawakening

It just happened, and I think it was a delayed reaction to the meditation in which I participated in at one and half years ago. I started the year continuing the job that began in September of 2012, and somewhere deep inside my body started to tell me something wasn’t right. After a near nervous breakdown in May, I made a bold move to quit and take a break from work and not have an income. I just knew I had to do something different and simply stop what hasn’t been working. Ever since then, each and everything in my life that I thought I once knew, is now beginning all over again. I see my friends in a different light. I perceive my job and career as two completely separate things. And it hasn’t ended yet. Things have been uncomfortable because my body is learning to readjust to a familiar environment again. Who knows what will happen in 2014, but what I do know for sure is I am happy that in 2013 I chose to stop doing what didn’t make sense and finally wake up.

The Process To Meet A Goal Lies In Your Personality

Like many overweight people in first world countries, I want to lose weight and look slim. But here’s the problem: I don’t like exercising. For years on out it has been an internal struggle for me to keep a regular schedule going. Even if I do manage to keep a regular schedule, during many workouts I became lazy and unfocused, so essentially I was going through the motions of exercising, but I was never focused on exercising. I felt good about going to the gym, but my body didn’t feel that much better after leaving. The only other alternative I have is surgery, but I refuse to choose that route.

I went through a period thinking that I couldn’t slim down because I had no desire to truly focus on exercising. I let the swelling in my left ankle be an excuse to take off more days than necessary. Pushing myself to the gym was always a chore. I wasn’t enjoying the process of losing weight, but yet deep down inside I did want to lose weight. Then not long ago it finally dawned on me that I had to break down the problem. I’ve been watching a lot of college football lately, and I noticed a good coach doesn’t focus on the number of games they must win, but instead they focus on the team they must beat each week. Ultimately the number of wins do matter if a university wants to be eligible for a championship game, but the process of beating the opponent each week is where the true focus is at.

When analyzing my issues with exercising, I needed to break down the process into smaller problems that were easier to solve. I knew I hated exercising, and to not acknowledge that made it difficult for me. I can’t fool myself, but I can make it less painful. It came down to me writing down the questions I needed to address and answer it best by fully examining my own personality:

  1. How do I solve my ankle swelling problem without resting longer than my entire body needed?
  2. When is the best time for me to exercise?
  3. Where should I exercise?
  4. What kind of exercise fits me best? What do I need to keep myself disciplined during the process of exercising, so that I focus on proper form?
  5. To what extent can I change my diet such that I will continue the diet indefinitely instead of following it only during the short term?

Asking myself all these questions was a hassle, but as I focused on one question at a time, the problem became more manageable.

To fix the ankle swelling, I had to realize that I’m not the only one with this problem. There are tons of professional athletes, especially basketball, football, and tennis players, whom twist their ankles so many times that it’s no longer the way mother nature originally built it. With a bit of research, the answer was an athletic ankle brace. I scoured the internet to find out what the professionals were wearing – and all it cost is $27. The ankle brace I found, the MedSpec ASO Ankle Brace Stabilizer Orthosis, was loose enough that it didn’t restrict the required movements during a workout, but rigid enough to keep the ankle from swelling up. One of the worse things to anticipate on the day after a workout was my swelling ankle. This brace solved it. And during the workout, I didn’t need to worry about injuring my ankle.

When should I exercise? With my work schedule, my only real options are before or after work. I didn’t have the motivation to wake up early and get it done before work. After a nice dinner, I knew I wouldn’t put myself in gym shorts. Again, I had to keep in mind that I am not supposed to force myself to do something completely against my personality, but instead find something my personality would be willing to work with. I know I like eating, which of course got me into this problem in the first place. But this made it easy, I had to exercise before dinner. The next question is where….

I never bought a gym membership because I was fortunate enough to land a first job where a full service gym was onsite at the company campus, including an option to hire a personal trainer. This gym looked like the perfect place to get fit – but I don’t think I managed to shred an ounce of fat despite how many miles I ran or pounds I lifted. Looking back, it was clear I lacked true focus. In most sessions I waited too long between reps, make small conversations with coworkers, and at times when really fit guys were nearby, I became conscientious about how and what I was working on. My conclusion was the gym wasn’t the answer. I needed a place of solitude to block out the noise and maintain true focus on my technique and form. The answer was simple – my garage.

In the garage, I didn’t have any equipment. What kind of workout could I possibly do in there, and what workout could I stick to? I needed something with the least amount of equipment because I didn’t want to invest too much money, nor did I want to spend too much time getting started. I also needed a program that would keep me focused because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own, however I couldn’t afford to hire a personal trainer. I also couldn’t ask a partner to help me because then we’d have issues with working out a schedule. I needed something that got straight to point, was easy to start up, and had enough guidance for me to stay focused. Funny how when my head is trying to find an answer, one suddenly pops up. I was chatting with my friend about this and he recommended I pick up a copy of Insanity. Within a day I had the DVDs in my hand. All I needed was a laptop, yoga mat, and towel. It sounds silly, but this is the only way I could stay disciplined. At first I was embarrassed that I needed a DVD to exercise, but in the end, who really cares? Only I should care. It’s my health, not anyone else’s. I had to embrace the fact that a pre-recorded coach on a DVD was going to help me through this. And he did.

My next challenge was diet. This was the hardest obstacle, because there are no shortcuts. I needed to make a commitment to change to a healthier diet, but not so far to the extent that I would be disgusted with my food. Remember I said I loved eating, so I had to be very realistic about what kind of diet was sustainable for me in the long term. I decided to reduce red meat intake, cut down significantly on deep fried food, and replaced my breakfast with a nutrition shake/smoothie. Seriously, this was hard. And especially when I had just started the Insanity program, after the workout I was constantly craving the food I swore to cut down or stay away from. But it worked out because I realized from the bigger picture it was a small sacrifice for my better well-being.

In the end, this wasn’t easy. It didn’t happen over night. I had to accept that I am not the guy that goes to the gym at midnight. I am not the guy hat gets hyped up to bench press 200 pounds off my chest. And for sure I am not the guy with a passion for personal fitness like Maria Kang such that I’d open a non-profit to promote fitness. I am none of these, and once I accepted that, the solution emerged. All I want is to lose some weight, and exercise had to happen. I just needed to know what worked best for me. The best part? Fitting into a slim fit dress shirt after it was all said and done. And there’s still more work to do.

Just a Thought about Self-Awareness

I woke up this morning with just barely enough sleep to function throughout the day, but yet the day still turned out just fine. I took an awareness to my mindset in two particular events today – lunch and dinner.

The day in general was very productive. I was almost irritated with my laptop because it had rebooted itself during the weekend (probably due to some updates pushed out by the IT department), so I lost some work that wasn’t save prior to locking my machine. But no worries, I remembered what I did and plowed through the work again, but at a much faster and accurate pace. I finished a software defect and moved it over to the next team. By then it was lunch time, and here is where I noticed something: I was able to control my appetite and I managed to order a veggie burger special, and avoided the unhealthy stuff that I sometimes get and end up regretting later in the day. I also throughly enjoy the veggie burger, and felt better about myself for not eating an unhealthy meal. A good example of the opposite would be going to a buffet.

My afternoon was just as productive as the morning. I left the office mentally tired, but not terribly exhausted or frustrated. I made my weekly stop at Trader Joe’s on my way home, and remembered all the veggie items I wanted for my breakfast omelet. The, for dinner, I was able to easily convince myself to pick up the falafel wrap instead of an unhealthy burrito. There were other nights were I ended up driving myself to a buffet because I had ended work so exhausted and frustrated from having a bad or unproductive day for various reasons.

When my mind was at peace for the majority of the day, it was very easy to make good lifestyle choices. I managed to pick a healthy lunch so that I wouldn’t fall asleep in the afternoon. On bad days I sometimes found myself driving to the local Japanese buffet to get lunch. I made myself feel better about it by inviting a coworker so that it felt more like a social outing instead of me trying to cope with something. Who am I fooling? Only myself. The same went for dinner with the falafel wrap. Besides the unhealthy burrito, on another night I ate at a Mongolian BBQ buffet. Neither of which were good for me. The falafel wrap, on the other hand, was delicious and I felt just fine after eating it.

I also forgot to mention I had a really good physical session therapy today.

It’s becoming more and more clear that it all starts at the mind. Our actions and the environment we live in do reflect our mental state. The good choices are easy to make when we feel good about ourselves. The bad and unhealthy ones come when we want to cope with something we’re unhappy about.

Just a thought – nothing more, nothing less.

Detachment from Money

*Crossing Fingers* – I was supposed to start my new job tomorrow, Monday, but due to outstanding background checks I will start Wednesday at the earliest or the following Monday at the latest. This brings my unpaid vacation to almost 8 weeks.

Like most, I initially freaked out when I was into the first few weeks. After starting my first full time job out of college, the most I have gone without pay was one week (that was during the job transition). I felt like my world would come to halt if there was more money going out than coming in, and no definite timeframe in the future in which more would come in.

Now that 7 weeks have passed, it doesn’t feel the same anymore. I no longer worry about money not coming in, I think more about whether I have enough to accomplish what I want to do. I feel like money is no longer as controlling as it once was. While money is limited and precious for sustaining life, I don’t have that utter sensation of money being the almighty powerful; in other words I no longer feel like I am slave to it.

I will use money when I want to. I will make money when I want to. I will find ways to not use money when possible. In the end I do need money, as anyone does, but it will not dictate the majority of my actions because I have the ability to go get it when I need it. Having that confidence to know that money can be obtained when needed frees up our mind to focus on the fundamentals of ourself.

 

Why I Broke the Conventional Rules

The last year has felt like a train wreck, but yet it also felt like it needed to happen.

In August of 2012 I left my cushy job at a biotech company. Looking back it’s obvious I made a good choice, but at the time it didn’t quite stand out so much. Money wasn’t the problem – I felt I was compensated fairly for the work I did, and the bonuses I received each year never disappointed. Benefits were terrific – the combination of vacation time and insurance were practically second to none. I worked for a department that was significant to the business – we actually did things that made the company money. I could always easily and proudly explain what I did if anyone ever asked. My boss was great. He trusted my gut instinct and let me do my thing. He recently gave me a reference stating that I was like his right hand man. But in the end, I just felt I couldn’t stay any longer. In my previous posts I listed other factors, like upper management, lack of growth, etc. You’ve probably heard these same reasons from others that left their job. These reasons definitely played a major role, but when I look back tonight, it was never the core reason of why I left.

There was a point in time, years into the job, that I simply no longer enjoyed what I did at that company. The problem was I could never admit it to myself. I found excuses to keep myself there. I shouldn’t leave because my parents had it so much worse, so I need to be appreciative of what I have. Anywhere else I go won’t be as good as what I have here. The tough times will pass, just stick it through. There are so many unemployed people out there that would KILL to get into this biotech company, so don’t throw away such a good thing. The list goes on and on. Whenever I wanted to quit, I thought of another reason to replace the old ones that had clearly run its course. With each new excuse I made up, all I did was continue to bury something inside me that wanted to rear it’s head – my own inner voice. I let the expectations and judgment of others toss more dirt to bury the inner voice that always found a way to slightly pierce it’s hands above the ground, no matter how much more dirt was thrown on it.

It got to a point where I felt I started losing control, which was somewhere around May of 2012. I then finally decided to participate in a 10 day Buddhist meditation retreat in Twenty Nine Palms, which took place in July. When I told some friends and colleagues about it, their instant reaction was that something was wrong with me. A small handful thought it was the coolest thing in the world. But unfortunately I let the negative judgments get to me. I became defensive when explaining why I chose to burn vacation time on a silent retreat, instead of going on my usual trips to Asia to be more “cultured.” I would spin the retreat in the same way, saying things like how it was cool, hip, and different. But deep down inside I was hurting and needed a way to let out pain without the judgmental noises. I needed to be in a safe place to let loose.

On the third day into the retreat, my mind had finally calmed down. All of a sudden nothing seemed like a pressing issue, which allowed me to analyze my problems with a bit more clarity. I only realize this now when looking back – my inner voice finally pulled itself out of the ground, the same ground that I had managed to bury it so deep inside before. For the remaining 7 days, my inner voice paced itself around and found it’s way to communicate with me. As crazy as that sounds, this is actually what happened. It didn’t give me all the answers, but it was clear I had to stop what I was doing now so that I could open my eyes to see what was next. It spent the remaining days convincing me that the obstacles were not as big as my ego had made them out to be.

When I returned home, I spent the first week getting my personal chores in order. Then the search began, and within 3 weeks I had a written offer ready to sign and commit. 10 months later, as I had alluded above, this new job came to a screaming stop. I wanted to cry and bang my head on the wall. I thought I had it all figured out. But I recalled again that my inner voice only told me when something was wrong, it never spelled out a straight path to what was right – I still had to figure that out on my own.

This next decision was the unconventional part. I quit without finding another job. I needed to give myself time to sort things out. Worrying about finding another job before quitting was the kind of societal noise that I had to break apart from. I needed a period of time with no judgments or expectations of returning to a job. In the seven years that I worked, I managed to save up quite a bit of money and also invested in enough assets to allow me to afford a short career break. So I simply said, fuck it, lets do it. I owe this to myself.

This time around something was very different. I had no problems explaining what I wanted to do with my new found freedom. I wasn’t planning to travel. I had planned on using the time to stay home, wake up when I felt like it, exercise more consistently, and handle personal chores that had piled up over the months. I guess you could call it a staycation. When asked about whether I found another job (some questions had the assumption already in it), I could proudly say I purposely didn’t look for one. Simply put, I no longer cared what they thought. I no longer cared if they thought I was crazy. What I found out later was these same folks wished they had the courage to do what I did.

I thought maybe I would have a moment of epiphany, where it would just hit me and I’d know exactly what to do next. Unfortunately, none of that happened. All I had was time to look back and reflect, and that’s what has happened in the past seven weeks. I’ve been asked tons of questions about what I did, how I feel, and what I’m thinking now. Honestly, I will give a different answer depending on how I’m feeling on a particular day. Many days I felt liberated, but for an equal amount of days I also felt a lot of fear. There’s always that little side of me in the back of my head that thinks I made a mistake, simply because I haven’t found the next thing yet that I could feel passionate about. But its OK. I am finally honest with myself and allowing my inner voice to be a better guide.

One of the first things my inner voice told me to do was observe the kind of work where I was naturally productive and genuinely enjoyed doing. It doesn’t means that it will be the right answer, I’m simply being told it’s something worth considering as I’m figuring this out. I also had to make adjustments to my personal life. There are some friends and colleagues that I had to cut out because their judgment wasn’t helping me. There are several friends that I haven’t seen in a while because I have to give myself time, and I plan to continue not seeing them until I feel ready. Actually, this is one of the cool things about listening to my inner voice – I can now better feel when things are right or wrong to me, without having to look to others for answers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still scary. Sometimes I’m told things I don’t want to hear, but as nasty as medicine can be sometimes, the patient needs to take it.

On Monday I start a six month contract at a major financial institution. I’m at a point in my career where I have enough experience to offer this kind of consulting service, so I’m hitting it full force to see where it takes me.

The train is up and running again, and I’m ready to hop back on.

Finally Back to the Grind

I am happy to report that I will be returning to work soon after taking a short hiatus to recharge and not worry about making money. Now granted, we all need money and I don’t dispute this for one second. We need to eat and most of us prefer to eat well whenever possible. But while we need money, it doesn’t mean we need to making money all the time. If you’ve been reading my past entries, you already know that in May I decided to take the plunge, and in early July it officially started. Making money is like any other habit we have that is initially tough to break. My first two weeks were a bit odd, and I did keep worrying that I wouldn’t have enough money to last, and then I’d possibly take longer than expected to find another job. But nonetheless, I persisted and after some time, those thoughts slowly disappeared. As those emotions settled down, I eventually felt that it was OK to give myself time to relax, and not feel the slave bondage of trying to bring in income all the time. Once that mental break happened, my mind found a way to focus on more deeper issues that had to be addressed. Likewise, my mind also found it’s way to think about things I enjoyed doing, but without the burden of having to relate it to generating income (or the lack of). I did things simply because I enjoyed it.

I recall that before quitting my job, my mind habitually associated “right” answers with money. If it saved money, then it was the right choice. However, there are occasional exceptions like medical care. I’m more than willing to pay top dollar for the best surgeon in the county.  It’s actually the smaller, and somewhat trivial things where we tend to make choices purely based on money savings. Take for example my choice to move out of my condo (where I had rented out the other rooms) and rent a room from someone else. This topic came up a lot amongst my friends and acquaintances, and many people will generally like to ask whats going on with my life. So naturally the easiest answer is “I just moved to a new place.”

Before I continue, let me take a brief moment to explain a bit about the economics of renting a room versus an entire house versus a single bedroom apartment.  There is a slight fundamental difference and it works this way – the market rate of a room isn’t necessary proportional to what it costs to rent that entire house where the room resides. When tenants look for rooms to rent, they usually compare it to what it costs to rent their own place, like a studio or a one bedroom apartment. For example, assume a 3 bed / 3 bath house can rent for $1800. This means the argument could be made that each room should be rented out for $600 ($1800 / 3). It doesn’t work this way. It’s also necessary to see what a one bedroom could go for – in my area $1200 is typically the low end, but the more desirable apartments were between $1300 and $1400. Also, there weren’t many studios in the area. If a tenant is faced with the prospect of paying $1300 for a 1 bedroom apartment AND all of the necessary utilities, almost anything could be perceived as better. From my own experience, each of those rooms could actually easily rent for $800 if the upkeep is good and the landlord is a decent enough salesman. $800 looks VERY attractive because in the tenants’ minds, they are comparing it to the cost of a place to live on their own. They’re saving at least $500/month and reduced utilities, and the thought of saving this absolute amount of money is more than enough to convince them $800 is downright “steal.” They aren’t actually thinking “hmm…if this place could rent for $1800 in total, that means I should only pay $600.” It may seem surprising, but it really doesn’t work this way. In addition, if they chose to rent a big house and find roommates, there’s the hassle of finding a suitable roommate, and the risk that they could be liable for more rent if they cannot find a renter to take one of the rooms. Many tenants can’t swallow that kind of risk. If they rent only a room in a big house, their rent is not tied in anyway to the vacancy of another room. In short, a landlord with decent sales skills that chooses to live in one room and rent out the others usually can save a lot in living expenses, just like I had experienced for over 5 years.

Okay, so with that out of the way, the point I am getting at is people would then follow up by asking me if I was saving money. The automatic assumption was that I wanted to save money. In fact, I was not saving money. Their facial reaction explained a lot – they thought I was making a mistake. Their minds are glued to the habit of labeling decision as correct or right only if there was a positive impact to money. Any further follow questions continued to revolve around money. If they were potentially open to finding out why I really chose to move out, questions were prefixed with “why would you….(do such and such)?” The prefix words and tone in the question are subtly STILL suggesting that I am making a bad decision or going against some kind of defined common sense.

We often hear, “there’s more to life than money,” but more often that not it stays as a saying and not much more. We still continue to revolve our decisions around how much money we stand to gain or lose. When I decided to move out, it was for a life style change. While I saved lots of money as a live in landlord, there were also many downsides, and these downsides are specific to a person’s individual personality. In my case, I had these issues that regularly clouded my mind (and that translates into wasting precious time) while living with numerous tenants throughout the years:

  1. I am particular about where things are placed, so it bothered me when things are not put back as it was found.
  2. I don’t like wasting electricity by leaving lights on in rooms that are not used, but my tenants couldn’t break their habit of leaving all the lights on.
  3. Tenants left their TVs or mini heaters on in their room while not at home, and their doors were locked.
  4. I liked keeping the common areas clean, but the coffee and dining tables were constantly cluttered with mail, magazines, and any other random items that belonged to the tenants.
  5. While not life threatening, sometimes I didn’t really like the guests that my tenants brought over because I felt they were unfriendly.
  6. Some tenants didn’t shower enough.
  7. The kitchen was regular cluttered or greasy.
  8. I can easily adjust to the weather by dressing light or heavy, but the tenants didn’t want to, so that meant the AC or heater was regularly left on.

You get the idea – tenants simply don’t maintain the household the same way as I did because to them, they were just renting. And they didn’t care as much about utilities because they only paid 1/3 of it – there was no way to accurately measure how much each person actually consumed. Even if I reminded them to stop the bad habits, it would continue regardless. If I became too difficult, then it would be hard to keep any tenants because of my attitude. Something had to give – I had to let loose a little, but in the end, it all still bothered me because that’s simply who I am.

So it made sense for me to move to simplify my life. It wasn’t about saving money. The only money concern I felt was worthwhile to think about was whether or not the hit had any practical impact on me. So suppose I stood to lose a net total of $300 per month, from the bigger overall picture did this difference really matter? Another way to ask this is, can I afford this decision? Or as I once heard, “does the difference make a difference?” The answer, of course, was no. The subjective pros drastically outweighed the financial cons.

This was a rather long example, but I wanted to illustrate that sometimes it is necessary to break the habit of labeling decisions as right or wrong based on the immediate financial impact. In fact, by moving out, I’ve freed up my mind to think about more important areas in my life, such as my career. Ultimately, this led to me making more money. But the results weren’t quickly realized. It took a few additional steps after the decision before it was realized. So I encourage people not to simply write down the pros and cons of a choice. Every decision ultimately has two choices. You either stay the same, or make a change. Take the time to write down the positives of both choices, and then think about which decision has the better positive.