The aftermath of a war for talent

[Enron] epitomized the “talent mindset” approach to management… Demanding Enron employees prove that they were smarter than everyone else inadvertently contributed to a narcissistic culture, with an overrepresentation of employees who were both incredibly smug and driven by deep insecurity to keep showing off. It was a culture that encouraged short-term performance but discouraged long-term learning and growth.

The same point comes through in the postmortem documentary on Enron called, appropriately enough, The Smartest Guys in the Room. During the company’s ascendency, it was a brash and brilliant former McKinsey consultant named Jeff Skilling who was Enron’s CEO. Skilling developed a performance review system for Enron that consisted of grading employees annually and summarily firing the bottom 15 percent. In other words, no matter what your absolute level of performance, if you were weak, relative to others, you got fired. Inside Enron, this practice was known as “rank-and-yank”. Skilling considered it one of the most important strategies his company had. But ultimately, it may have contributed to a work environment that rewarded deception and discouraged integrity.

-Angela Lee Duckworth
Grit
p. 30

Is the current (conscious or subconscious) emphasis on “talent” in academia leading us down this path?

Australia: 5 months

The wife came over to spend the past five weeks with me in Brisbane.

We visited the Glass House Mountains up north:

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Members of the Glass House Mountains as seen from a look-out. Names and heights taken from the information panels at the look-out.

And we visited Lamington National Park down south, as urged by Alvin Lok.

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Epiphyte-laden tree limb, seen from climbing up a ladder to a deck, along a tree-top walk near the Lamington National Park visitors’ centre and resort.

The in-laws came over for the fifth week, and we went to Tasmania. We started with Launceston (which I think is pronounced “lawn-sass-tehn”), the second-largest city in the state.

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The Cataract Gorge at Launceston.

Then we went to Cradle Mountain National Park (which apparently in Chinese would be called 摇篮山). In fact, we went up to it twice, because it was drizzling rather badly the first time. A cold place, with delightful wombats lumbering around in the scrub.

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Dove Lake up the Cradle Mountain, seen from the Glacier Rock, on the second visit when the weather was better.

Next we headed to Bicheno, a small seaside town.

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Rocky shore at Bicheno at sunset. The red algae on the rocks is probably the same one that covers the rocks at the Bay-of-Fires up north, which we skipped.

We didn’t see any penguins making landing that night. But it was really more of a rest stop for visiting Freycinet National Park next. So Freycinet is pronounced “fray-sin-nay”. So I guess the genus Freycinetia should be pronounced “fray-sin-nay-sure”.

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Wineglass Bay. Tip: this look-out is not a good spot for morning selfies without a flash. The sun is behind the peak, casting a shadow over this side of the slope. My guess is that in the afternoons, the sun will be glaring right into the camera lens.

Finally, Hobart, the state capital. Can’t get away without paying a visit to a nature spot too.

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Evening view of Hobart from the peak of the towering Mount Wellington. Very very high up, but you can drive all the way; felt like I was driving into the sky, and the legs were turning to jelly on the accelerator. Very strong winds and very cold.

The wife has just gone back and I’m all alone again. 😦

One week(end) in Brisbane

So I’ve survived a week of what will become the longest continuous period that I will be away from Singapore in my 32 years of life.

When I tell people who have ever been to Brisbane that I would be based there for the next 2 years, I get one of two responses: (1) Brisbane is a beautiful city; or (2) Brisbane has lovely weather. Both are true–the latter at least for now, because I am also usually also told that it will get quite hot in the summer.

I’m slowly working out a routine for the weekdays: wake-up meditation, having a cold breakfast of bread (mmm, my favourite??) and milk with assorted raisins; talking a nice 30-min walk to the office and getting in by eight; dragging my introverted soul to lunch with other post-docs and grad students at the roof garden, with a takeaway from the cafeteria in hand; knocking off at four or five, either to go jogging (which purportedly releases the feel-good chemicals that help to cope with the emotional strains of being away from home) or to go shopping for groceries; cooking (or doing my best at what is supposed to be cooking) dinner; taking the single bath of the day (too cold for too many!) before Skype-ing the wife; meditation again; and then finally going to bed.

Between regular exercise, twice a day sitting in meditation, and frequent visits to the nearest Asian eatery, I should survive, psychologically. As for scientifically, well, that’s for another day.

Yesterday’s (Saturday) trip down to the city centre was also a good break from the weekday routine. I finally bought and tried out the Go! card which is the equivalent of Singapore’s EZ-link card. After today, I have newfound confidence to be venturing out to a new suburb every weekend.

I took a bus to Fortitude Valley, with a mini-Chinatown street, on the advice of a housemate. (The true Chinatown, I was told, is in Sunnybank.) And I now understand why enclaves such as Chinatowns sprout up in many cities in the world: because there is a demand for this sense of security offered by seeing familiar hieroglyphs on advertisement boards and familiar products on shop shelves when in a foreign place. Interestingly enough, however, there were additional jolts of happiness from smelling Indian briyani and seeing the word “Malaysia-” as well as “Singapore-“, testament to how I am really Southeast Asian and not just from any other part of Asia, even while I am ethnically Chinese.

There were also a few (Caucasians) looking homeless or destitute on the streets.

Although it was drizzling, I decided to take a walk along Ann Street back westwards to Brisbane City Centre proper.

Along the way this 20-ish Australian dude walking past me suddenly jabbed his index finger towards me and yelled, “Catch’ya later!”

I don’t think I showed any expression but just walked on. About 10 seconds later when it finally registered in my brain what had happened, I briefly entertained the thought of going back to punch his nose in.

I also took the next available opportunity to check my reflection for any wardrobe malfunctions. OK, maybe I looked like a dork with hiking socks sticking out against my legs below my windbreaker and berms. Hey, both pairs of ankle socks I had were drying on the clothesline. Or maybe, for some obscure reason, he thought it would impress the girl that was walking together with him.

In my wanderings, I happened to pass by two book stores that were top on the search results when I was just briefly Googling “Brisbane bookstores” for the heck of it while having lunch. There were no “nature” sections, only “gardening” and “animals”.

"Australian Native Plants" & "Birdscaping Australian Gardens"

Two books of professional interest.

Apparently, there are more people who yell at other people on the streets. A group of kids at an open-air bar on a second storey were randomly calling out to pedestrians below. Because I had just popped in and out of Target to buy a laundry basket, I had to endure a “hey, the guy with the laundry basket!”

There was a crowd gathering at Brisbane Square. I didn’t think much of it until I was waiting at a bus stop along Adelaide Street. After a while, I could sense that something was up. No vehicles had passed. My fellow would-be commuters were a little fidgety and got up now-and-then to look down the street, from where an occasional chorus of shouts could be heard.

It turned out that there was a small protest march going on, and it was moving slowly up the street. Realizing that this means the buses would be indefinitely delayed, and I would be better off walking all the way home, I sighed internally. It was bad timing to have bought a laundry basket.

Some Singaporeans might immediately laud the benefits of how public protests are banned back home. Right now I am at best neutral towards such statements. It was a small, peaceful event; in fact, I walked right through it to get away from it. Along the way I got a close look at their banners which showed that it had something to do with an Imam Hussein, and about oppression, etc.. They held up both palms every few steps in semblance of a prayer, punctuated by slogan-shouting. Some of the protesters were in Islamic garb. There were at best 100 to 200 participants, and all they seemed to want to do was to get their message across.

It took me 50 min to walk back, and true to my judgment, no bus passed me until back at Dutton Park, which means that I managed to avoid spending money to get back home in the same amount of time, but without the exercise.

Staying positive!

Leaving The Lab

Finally, it my turn to “Leave The Lab”.

While packing up, there was no sadness, but a certain amused satisfaction going through all the mementos accumulated over the years.

Perhaps this is a lesser version of what we need to strive for by the time we reach our deathbeds: that I have done my best and I have no regrets at all (see William Hung).

Perhaps it is also because I know I’m coming back.

Is that what a tulku feels on the brink of passing away, satisfied with his life’s work, and knowing that where he’s going is simply an intermediate stage, a “bardo”, between lives?

This (part of the) world will not wait for me. But I’m coming back.

Tea on the lake

Frustrations
are like the waves on the lake
bobbing your little mind-boat up and down
so
that
you
can’t

even

take

that

one

sip.

A prayer with palms together

Let us put our palms together and pray:

As a first step, may we be generous to others.
At the least by making a habit of giving to the needy,
Giving not just goods but also time, energy, and our smiles.
May we win in our struggles to forgive,
And to give the gift of fearlessness,
Over and above to give the gift of Truth.

Next, may we treat others as we would have others treat ourselves:
To treasure their lives and welfare as we treasure our own;
To respect their property and their bodies;
To learn to use our mouths as a source of truth, gentleness, empowerment, and inspiration.

To do so, we must develop a heart of love and kindness,
That has the quality of giving happiness;
Let us develop a heart of compassion,
That has the quality of taking away suffering;
Let us take delight when others are delighted;
Let such a heart stand like a large boulder,
Unmoving in the eight winds
Of pleasure and pain,
Gain and loss,
Praise and blame,
Fame and infamy.

Let us then turn to our minds,
Train it patiently as we would train our children.
Not just to watch it grab, push, and run around,
But also to discover its breathtakingly serene brilliance.

As The Water settles and stills,
May we come to see and reflect things as the way they are,
Contingent upon causes and myriad conditions,
Ever-changing,
And in seeing so become at peace.
May we thus arrive at the other Shore,
The very same Shore as the Teachers past.

May the Teachers guide us,
May our Friends help us,
May all beings and I together,
Achieve the highest and final Awakening.

Friendships

… need energy to cultivate. Anyone can gush during and after a gathering, but more often than not the flow of energy is asymmetrical; some put in more than others. When we were younger, we had lots of extra energy to spare. When we grow older, we prune down to only those that put in as much to maintain the bond as we did.

Human interactions

We are assailed by human-to-human interactions
And the memories of yesterday’s interactions
From the time we wake up
To the time we sleep.

Positive interactions give those little sparks of energy
Making us last the day longer.
Negative interactions drain our battery
Making us wish that bedtime would come sooner.

Dreaming

We think we flit
In and out
And in again
Of many different dreams

But Life is surely one big Illusion
From Beginning to the End.

Ironies

We expect others to be perfect,
but we also expect others to forgive us for own failings.

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