Simpler, Fewer, Better

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” ~ Socrates

“Less is more” – three simple words of wisdom worth living by.  They underpin Minimalism, a movement which first began in art, and subsequently influenced many domains including product design, home design, and way of living.

More recently, Marie Kondo has taken the simple idea of “What sparks joy?” from decluttering homes to decluttering businesses and life – inspiring many to simplify their lives.

Consider apply the following questions to the various aspects of life, including possessions, relationships, clients, personal goals, pet projects, etc.

  1. Simpler – What is essential? What is non-essential?
  2. Fewer – What to keep? What to discard?
  3. Better – How to improve, make the best use of, or enjoy what is left?

“Voluntary simplicity means going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are

Must, Should, and Could

“So much to do, so little time.” Sounds familiar?

Although the number of hours in a day is finite, time actually flows infinitely from one moment to another. Each day, we are bestowed with another gift of 24 hours – a gift that we often take for granted whilst being caught up with the busyness of our daily lives.

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”~ Seneca

Seneca reminded us of the importance of not wasting this precious gift. It’s helpful to begin by examining how we live an ordinary day, as how we live each day is how we live our lives. Our days are typically occupied by doing things to take care of our concerns – both major and minor. Make breakfast, finish a proposal, call a client, attend to a crisis at work, consult the dentist, pay utility bills, pick up kids from school, chair a board meeting, meditate, call mum, take a walk with spouse, exercise, etc.

But not all tasks are created equal. Some tasks matter more than others. Some are urgent, and some are not. And not all of them need to be completed on the same day. Distinguishing the importance and urgency of each task is vital, as Eisenhower has discovered. The urgent is often mistaken as important. Consider three categories of activities that will occupy your day.

  1. Must do – important and urgent tasks, that if not completed, will have severe undesirable consequences. Strive to do them all today so that we take care of our major concerns daily.
  2. Should do – important but not urgent tasks, that should be done today if possible or scheduled for another day, before they become urgent. Strive to do as many as possible today.
  3. Could do – unimportant tasks, that even if not completed today, will not have any severe undesirable consequences. Do them if you have time to spare, especially the urgent ones. If they are neither important nor urgent, it’s probably OK to leave them undone.

According to Tim Ferris, “lack of time is actually lack of priorities.” Perhaps the first ‘must do’ is to make time to sort out what we must do, should do, and could do, followed by channeling our attention and energy accordingly.

Results, Reasons, and Actions

In life, we get either the results we want, or reasons for not getting them.

Reasons make us look good. They make us feel better, right, or less guilty. 

I didn’t’ get this or that because … It’s not my fault.

However, no amount of explanation, justification, or excuses will change the fact that we didn’t get the results we want – be it losing weight, having a loving relationship, or winning a new business deal.

To get results, we need to get off the reasons, and get on with taking new actions that will bring forth the desired outcome. 

Only actions will transform reality.

What is, what should be, and what could be

What is, is. What isn’t isn’t. It is what it is. That’s called ‘reality.’  And reality doesn’t always match our expectation of what should be.

Expectations are either met or not met – there’s no in-between.  Whenever there is expectation, there is a possibility of either a pleasant surprise or disappointment. But we can’t simply get rid of expectations. No expectation, no disappointment. And no surprises too. 

What if we expect life to turn out exactly the way it turns out? In other words, to accept that life is the way it is now.  But acceptance doesn’t mean resignation.  It simply lifts us out of the futility of dwelling on disappointment over the way life did not turn out as it should have turned out, and liberates us to take new actions toward realising the possibilities of what could be.

Accept what is. Let go of what should be. Strive for what could be.

Past, Present, and Future

Time is not a thing, thus nothing which is, and yet it remains constant in its passing away without being something temporal like the beings in time.” ~ Martin Heidegger

Time is not a thing we can grasp or manage. It cannot be stopped or stored. We can only live in it – moment by moment. 

The past has already happened and is unchangeable. It remains in our memories and recollections. The future has yet to happen and hence, remains uncertain. The present is all we can experience – right here, right now. 

It is common to think that our present is shaped by our past, and similarly, our future will be shaped by our present.  However, consider these propositions by Werner Erhard, founder of est:-

  1. The past has nothing to do with who you are in the present.
  2. Who you are in the present is given by the future into which you are living.
  3. If it is true that the future into which you are living gives you being and action in the present, and if you put the past into the future, it will appear as though who you are in the present is given by the past.

Erhard is a friend of Richard Feynman, whose quote was the only one that remained on Feynman’s blackboard when he died. The quote was: “There are certain things you can only know by creating them for yourself.”  He is inviting us to try on the idea that our being and action in the present is given by the future into which we are living rather than coming from the past.  So, if we stop projecting our past into the future, the future is simply a field of possibilities, unconstrained by our past. 

When we create a new future for ourselves, our current circumstances don’t change.  They are still the same as before, but we are now put onto a different trajectory that is unfolding toward the future into which we are living. 

Q: What is the future you are living into?

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  ~ Soren Kierkegaard

Follow Your Curiosity – 50 Days of Miloism

This weekend, a Facebook memory from a year ago, photos of Milo’s first day home compared to today, and a digital collage by Beeple (sold for USD 69.3 million) seemed to have conspired to nudge me to complete another almost-abandoned project – a digital collage for #50DaysOfMiloism.

As part of turning 50 last year, I embarked on a couple of 50-days experiments. The first, which commenced on January 19, 2020, was #50DaysOfSimpleLiving– inspired by The Art of Simple Living by Zen monk Shunmyo Masuno. Each day, I shared a couplet from Shunmyo’s ‘100 daily practices’ on Insta and FB. As the minor outbreak in Wuhan grew into a global COVID-19 pandemic that will impact our lives for years to come, these Zen practices turned out to be rather helpful in adapting to the new way of living.

Life took a new turn when Sean’s friend gave him a lovely kitten. On August 9, 2020, Singapore’s 55th National Day, Milo joined the Toh family. Cute, curious, and playful, he stole my heart and became my muse that inspired various creative pursuits. One of which led to the second experiment – and #50DaysOfMiloism took flight on September 28, 2020. For 50 days, I shared on @The_Miloist, a piece of daily ‘random wisdom’ from one of my favourite books, accompanied by a digital image of Milo.

A digital collage of 50 images featured on @The_Miloist from 28 September to 16 November, 2020.

The #50DaysOfMiloism is a confluence of multiple influences and sources of inspiration.

  • A desire to embrace the qualities of curiosity and playfulness of my Spirit Animal – inspired by Milo
  • A playful experiment with following my curiosity whilst satisfying a yearning to rediscover the wealth of wisdom that is sitting on the bookshelves (and an excuse to read my favourite books again)
  • A nudge from Carla Henry, a dear colleague and friend, to create an Instagram account for Milo – evidently a muse for my iPhonePhotography
  • An outlet for channeling my passion for learning, creating, taking photographs, and sharing of wisdom
  • A worthy idea to start another #50Day series after completing the #50DaysOfSimpleLiving

So, what have I learnt from these 50 days?

  1. Curiosity has its own rhythm. It is not to be dictated or directed intentionally. Best to relax, keep an open mind and open heart, let life spark your curiosity, and then follow its trail. You never know what you’ll find. The joy of exploring the unknown is in the discovery.
  2. There is abundant wisdom around us, if only we open our hearts to receive them. On some days, when faced with a difficult situation, I got just the ‘right message’ from the book or passage that I happen to read. And in various occasions, friends who followed the posts would find them extremely timely. There is magic in serendipity.
  3. Declaring a commitment publicly is helpful for building habits. In honoring my promise to do a daily post for 50 days, no matter how busy I was at work, I diligently read, took and edited photos, and spend time with Milo everyday.
  4. Discovery is only the beginning. It’s what you do with the wisdom that matters most. I still practice most of the ’10 Rules of Ikigai’ from Day #24 – especially smile, reconnecting with nature, and live in the moment.
  5. With curiosity, no problem is unsurmountable. When in doubt or in need for help, simply ask. In following my curiosity, I rediscovered the magic of “Ask, and you shall receive.”

Curious about #50DaysOfMiloism?

Simply download this compilation and enjoy your journey of following your curiosity!

Annual Review 50

In keeping to a ritual that I had started in 2019, this is the third year I publish an ‘Annual Review’ – a process inspired by James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. James has been publishing an ‘Annual Review’ since 2013 (https://jamesclear.com/annual-review) where he shares publicly his reflections on the following three questions:

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn’t go so well this year?
  3. What did I learn?

This week, I turn 51. As the second half-century of my life begins (assuming I make it to 100),  here’s how my 50th year had turned out.  It was an extraordinary year indeed – with massive disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic that will continue to shape how we live and work in years to come.

What went well this year?

  • Work.  Despite the initial cancellations of leadership development programmes due to travel restrictions, I’m grateful that we adapted to conducting our work virtually pretty rapidly.  As remote working and virtual learning became the ‘new norm,’ the frequent travel which I used to enjoy took a complete halt. Thankfully, with technologies such as Zoom, Webex, Adobe Connect, and Microsoft Teams, our work continued to reach leaders as far as Latin Americas.  Although I still enjoy in-person facilitation, when done right, virtual facilitation can be equally impactful too.  As more organisations experience the positive impact and cost-efficiency of remote learning, the good old globetrotting days are undoubtedly numbered.
  • Family.  Grateful that wife and boys are doing well. She’s approaching her counselling with greater confidence.  Sean finished his first year on the dean’s list.  Dylan completed his National Service (NS) safely and is doing what he loves (training young Math Olympians) while waiting for college to commence later in the year.  We spent lots of time bonding over meals, board games, and table-tennis matches at home, especially during the Circuit Breaker period.  On National Day (9 August 2020), Sean brought home a new member of the family – Milo, who has become my muse that inspired various creative pursuits (as well as our daily wake-up call).  Also glad that Dad is in relatively good health despite living alone – thanks to my siblings, nephews, and aunts who take good care of him.  And I became grand uncle for the second time – still yet to see baby Carlos in person.

pingpong miloday1 carlos

  • Travel. Our usual ‘couple-time’ on overseas travel (glad we did lots in 2019) was replaced by exploring Singapore on wheels.  The Polygon Urbana foldies turned out to be the best investment in 2020. With over 300 km of park connectors, beautiful waterways, and countless parks that feature a rich variety of wild life, I’m convinced that Singapore’s cycle-way can rival Japan’s Shimanami Kaido we have experienced in 2019.

foldies sunrise promenade

  • Friends.  With COVID-19 restrictions, our annual ritual of kicking start a new year at Chong Teik and Denise’s home continued with a much smaller crowd.  Had fun creating our iconic ‘Zodiac fruit platter’ too – a handcrafted sculpture (made of turnip) coated with dark chocolate to welcome the Year of the Ox.  Grateful to celebrate my 50th birthday with colleagues/friends from BRIDGE (before ‘lockdown’), and to have met some amazing people around the world on the GAIA Journey by Presencing Institute. Appreciate the deep and meaningful conversations we shared fortnightly as the Circle of 8 for almost a year now (and still ongoing).

ox KT50Bridge circleof8

  • Projects. Super proud to finish to a few personal projects – writing Let’s Hack Learning, starting @the_miloist and completing #50DaysOfMiloism.
  • Habits.  Still keeping up with qi gong (baduanjing) almost daily, reading regularly, and drawing occasionally.
  • Learning & Professional Development. Definitely a year of learning – ranging from virtual facilitation to systems thinking, systemic leadership, adaptive leadership, integral psychology, Hayhouse Writers Workshop, Warm Data Lab, and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain with Drawing Right.

DrawingRight botanic

  • Health. Unlike last year, have enjoyed good health – the reward of frequent exercise and possibly, mask wearing.

What didn’t go so well this year?

  • Unfulfilled dreams. Reframing the‘50 before 50’ list to‘50 @ 50’ to give myself another whole year to turn as many of the unfilled dreams into reality clearly didn’t do much difference.  Perhaps, it’s better to stick to a vital few and really work on them.
  • Work. Feeling sad to lose a few colleagues this year, as they left BRIDGE to pursue their own paths. Plus, missing the perks of travel, further compounded by excessive screen time and highly sedentary lifestyle.
  • Weight Management. Shot back up from 82.5 kg to 86.5 kg. Waistline is all time high, and love handles increasingly visible.

What did I learn (and relearn)?

  • Human beings are quick to adapt. The COVID-19 pandemic caught the world by surprise. But within a short time, safety measures were rolled out, factories reconfigured to meet the shortage of masks, vaccines were developed, and new ways of working were established.  Throughout history, human beings have survived many calamities and pandemics.  Perhaps the biggest threat to humanity isn’t a virus or a natural disaster, but the ‘a viral infection of the mind’ that prevents us from loving and caring for another, and working collaboratively to emerge stronger together.
  • Great work is done over time. Looking back in the year, and the many aspirations that I’ve failed to realise, I can’t help being reminded of a saying that is often attributed to Bill Gates: Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Instead of looking a year ahead, I start planning for the decade instead and work towards my dreams at 60.
  • Beauty is all around us. I’ve learnt to pause and seek beauty more frequently. There’s beauty in the most ordinary – if only we make time to see it.  And there’s no need to travel far to find it.  The sun rises every morning and sets every evening. And the birds sing all day long. How many sunrises, sunsets, or ‘bird symphonies’ do you enjoy in a year?
  • Ask, and you shall receive.  I don’t mean asking for material abundance, but being willing to live into a question whilst keeping an open mind and open heart, and listen to the answers that Life or God or the Universe has for us.  I tried to follow my curiosity and tune into street wisdom.  Here’s an answer I got when pondering about a future direction: “The future starts here,” “The future is yours to create,” and “Dare to dream.”  Give it a try!

futurestartshere createyourfuture dream

50 Days of Simple Living

Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Simplicity has been one of my major obsessions.

As an undergraduate in the computing school, I had always striven to achieve the best outcome with the least number of lines of code.  And now, at work, I enjoy distilling complex topics into a few core principles.

There is beauty and elegance in simplicity.  It’s no surprise that I am drawn to the work of a Zen monk and Zen gardener.  Despite having decided not to purchase any new book until I am done with a dozen of unread books accumulated from previous year, I couldn’t resist when I chanced upon The Art of Simple Living by Shunmyo Masuno.

I used to devour books like a hungry teen at a buffet.  But this time, I decided to slow down and pause after every bite.  Exactly 50 days ago, on 19 January 2020, I set out on a #50DaysOfSimpleLiving challenge to fully immerse myself into Shunmyo’s ‘100 daily practices.’  Each day, I shared a couplet on Instagram and Facebook, and tried putting them into practice.

Here are my Top 10 daily Zen practices from 5o consecutive days of experimenting with Shunmyo’s Art of Simple Living and how they have impacted me.

01. Day #11: Try just sitting quietly in nature.  I’ve always loved nature, but have definitely spent a disproportionately high percentage of my life being seated in front of the laptop.  This has prompted me to make time to connect with both nature and with myself more regularly.  It has brought greater clarity of mind and deeper peace in my heart.

02. Day #13: Focus on others’ merits. I’ve been known to be ‘highly critical’ and focusing on others’ merits (instead of faults) has enhanced the harmony and relationship both at work and at home.

03. Day #14: Don’t put off what you can do today.  A perfect remedy for the ‘chronic procrastinator’ in me. This practice had fueled actions to get a few things done, including publishing Let’s Hack Learning

04. Day #17: Be here now.  I’ve known the importance of being present to the HERE and NOW, but certainly haven’t put that into practice enough.  I think I’m more present now, especially when listening to another.

05. Day #24: Do not be swayed by the opinions of others.  A timely advice when faced with a recent dilemma amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.  I learned about decisiveness and the ability to trust in myself.

06. Day 27: Be grateful for every day, even the most ordinary.  Gratitude is indeed a powerful practice found in many spiritual and cultural traditions.  This had deepened the practice that I have observed when experimenting with A Year of Living Gratefully in 2017.

07. Day 27: Make the most of Life.  I am reminded that what matters most is not how long we live, but how we use the Life we are given.  Borrowing the words of George Bernard Shaw, “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.”

08. Day 34: Deepen your connection with someone.   Deep and meaningful relationships – that’s what I have always enjoyed.  I shall continue to do so, even with those whom I meet only once in my lifetime.

09. Day 43: Discard what you don’t need.  A very practical advice to simplify our lives.  I’m still working on my attachment to certain possessions and past experiences, but already enjoying the space created both physically and mentally from letting go of those that I am able to discard.

10. Day #50. Serve People.  Some friends have asked, “What happens after Day 50?”  Inspired by the words of wisdom from an old friend – “Being in service of another is a mutual gifting,”  I’ve decided to extend this final practice into the rest of the year with a next project: #50GoodHours.

I’m committing 50 hours of pro bono service to individuals seeking coaching, mentoring, or consultancy in the areas of personal development, leadership development, life transitions, and parenting.

If you know anyone or non-profit organisation (any where in the world) that I could be of service to, please have them contact me. Thanks for spreading the word. 🙏

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Why not check out The Art of Simple Living and find out for yourself how Shunmyo’s 100 daily practices could bring more simplicity, calm, and joy into your life?

Decisiveness is about having the ability to trust in yourself

“To go, or not to go?”  That’s the question that I have been wrestling with over the weekend.  As a consequence of COVID-19, all our face-to-face programmes with clients scheduled in February and March have been either postponed or replaced with virtual options, except two.

I was due to travel to Dubai next Monday, followed by Batam, Indonesia in late March.  Dubai will be my first overseas destination since the beginning of the outbreak.  Part of me yearns to return to ‘business as usual,’ get on with normal life, and carry  on with my work in leadership development.   Another cautious part wants to minimise non-essential travel so as to lower the risk of being infected or infecting others.  At present, there are more confirmed cases of infection in Singapore than UAE.  And I certainly don’t wish to be known as the guy who spread the virus to Dubai.

Confused and undecided, I chose the easy way out.   Instead of facing into the dilemma, I expressed my preference for postponement and left it to the client to decide.  Eventually, as the company put in place a ban on non-essential travel and that some participants would be travelling in from other middle-eastern countries, the workshop was postponed.

I was relieved, but somewhat disappointed with my cowardice.  Why hadn’t I just said ‘No’?

Then I thought of one of Shunmyo Masuno’s 100 Zen practices that I had previously shared on Day 24 of #50daysofsimpleliving:

75. DO NOT BE SWAYED BY THE OPINIONS OF OTHERS. The secret to breaking free from confusion … Decisiveness is about having the ability to trust in yourself.

 

This time, I trusted myself, and took courageous action.  I wrote to the CEO of the other client, shared my concerns openly, and recommended strongly to postpone the training in Batam.  I also expressed firmly my withdrawal from the engagement should they decide to proceed as planned.

I’m not going to Indonesia this March, no matter what the latest news or COVID-19 statistics may suggest. And I shall not be swayed by others’ opinions.

I made my stand and felt fully at peace. And the CEO responded shortly:

Dear Kenny,

Our policies are in line.
We just decided to postpone the school 2 hours ago. I will get back to you in the next days with proposals for new time slots.

Great minds think alike.  Looks like ‘business as usual’ is not about to return anytime soon, if it does, at all.

And I learnt my lesson on leading in uncertain times.   As much as rational and well-informed decisions are often preferred, in the absence of sufficient information, we still need to take a courageous stand.  Whether we choose to be guided by intuition or grounded on values, Masuno’s wisdom is worth heeding.

Decisiveness is about having the ability to trust in yourself.

 

 

Give yourself the gift of done

I’ve been pondering about a key lesson from my previous blog: “Done is better than perfect.”  Perfectionism has been one of my longstanding achilles heels.  And I’m known to be a chronic procrastinator too.

I excel at starting new initiatives, but not always finishing them.  There are way too many partially-baked ideas, abandoned projects, and half-written books that I’m too embarrassed to mention.

Enough is enough.  Turning 50 has heightened the sense of urgency to utilize my time and energy wisely and more productively.  Assuming that I live to 100, that’s 18,250 days remaining.  Each day provides a new opportunity to put the knowledge, wisdom, and experiences that I have amassed over the last five decades into good use.

I am reminded of a Chinese saying that came to mind as I was putting Shunmyo Masuno’s Zen practices into action on Day 38 of #50DaysofSimpleLiving

学以致用 (xuéyǐzhìyòng) means “to put into practice what has been learnt.”

 

So, last weekend, I decided to combat both perfectionism and procrastination by applying what I’ve learnt from Jon Acuff in his book FINISH and give myself the gift of done.  Finally, imperfect, but done – I brought closure to one of many half-written books that has been yearning to cross the finishing line for years.  And it feels great to make the first step from being a chronic starter to a consistent finisher.

Here’s the first edition of Let’s Hack Learning: How to become better at anything, faster.  I hope you will find it helpful.  Feel free to share it with others and spread the joy of learning!

What will you finish today to give yourself the gift of done?