Sunday, April 03, 2005


I do my best work under certain conditions.

When I say work, I mean it in the most general of terms. It could be a piece of writing, or training at physical activity, or hacking a piece of code, or addressing a complex real-world problem.

Athletes know the condition as being "in the zone" when you are so focused totally on the activity that everything else (including pain) gets blocked out. Writers sometimes experience it too when the words and ideas just overflow in torrets faster than you can put them down. And in every day life, it manifests as what psychologists would diagnose as obsessive behaviour.

I call it passion.

Passion is not infatuation. Passion looks past the allure of the initial glamour, coldly weighs the harsh costs and is prepared to pay full price for it.

Passion is not lust. Passion is not satiated by "good enough". Passion has to push it to the limit, to reach beyond what any resonable person can expect, and is prepared to pay full price for it.

And passion shows. If you care about your work, it will show. I know it sounds trite and mythical but I have found that it is true. It is that little bit extra that sets apart the conscientious hardworking labourer at his assigned task, from the craftsperson working on a pet project of desire. It gives a greater if unexplained purpose.

There is this story about three labourers working on the same project. The first person was asked abut his job and he grumbled "laying bricks". The second person was asked about his job and he said "building a wall". The third person was asked his job and he replied with quiet pride "I am building a cathedral". [ Replace cathedral with your significant building of choice, for those who insist on political correctness. ]

There have been only a handful of times in my life when I have been blessed enough to be able to work on something which stoked into a burning passion.

And in those rare cases, the transformation is breathtaking. Whether the passion was pursued for a matter of weeks like in a piece of code, or months like building competence in a sport, or even years like at a martial art - the ongoing endorphin 'high' from the sense of achievement carries on long after the initial adrenaline surge is forgotten. And as a recovering adrenaline junkie, trust me - I know.

The extrinsic rewards like money and certifications then actually become irrelevant. External validation is nice to have of course but becomes totally irrelevant. It is a very bizarre situation that strangely makes perfect sense. A very good thing as well since the extrinsic rewards are seldom, if ever, worth the sweat, blood and tears put into the activity when measured by bean-counters.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.

- Kahlil Gibran,
The Prophet (on Work)
But passions are like plants that will shrivel and die if you do not feed them regularly. They will fade away into dust if you neglect them, thinking that you will return to them after you have taken care of the urgent business of making a living. And they will avoid you surreptitiously if you have spent a life doing the urgent and postponing the important.

I am running out of time. Over the years as a serf, I have been so busy trying to etch out a living. I am forgetting to how to make a life. And long-dead passions, unlike a dying ember cannot be stoked back to fire. And passion is fast deserting me. It has been a while since I have been obsessed by anything.


In contrast, I have always approached employment as a wage whore. The polite term is mercenary.

Main Entry: mercenary
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural mercenaries
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin mercenarius, irregular from merced-, merces wages
Definition : one that serves merely for wages; especially a soldier hired into foreign service
For me personally, employment has always been primarily about the money. I will always take the job that pays out the highest ratio from the (paycheck/effort) perspective. A mercenary will not switch loyalites in mid-job at the risk of damaging a valuable reputation. However in between jobs, skill sets are available for the highest bidder.

Mercenaries are hardly passionate about their employers' cause or interests. It is all about getting the job done satisfactorily to the employers' expectations and getting paid. A job done well enough will suffice. It is in the interest of mercenary to keep the employer happy for the duration of the assignment but there is no real identification with the employer interest.

Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man's ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.
- Kahlil Gibran,
The Prophet (on Work)

And that is exactly the problem I see with Singapore's model of social engineering. You have an authoritarian government trying to dictate the economic value of educational (and even social) pursuits, by modifying the economic incentives. First it was construction engineering, then marine shipping, then information technology, now bio-science research. In a tightly managed economy, serfs who want to eat well are required to bend to the whims of the current 'hot' fad.

I acknowledge that perhaps I am being too idealistic. But I really feel that wihout fanatical passion - we may achieve a okay standard of living, but never much of a life worth living.

And the sad thing is that you cannot buy such passion for work. I believe that in theory, the fundamental positions of a mercenary and a fanatic are diagrammatically opposed. So sometimes when I read of the Singapore government trying to promote the arts by throwing lots of money at it, or trying to poach top researchers from other universities, or trying to breed a new type of tech-science workers by perverting the education incentives.. I seriously wonder it will work in the long run.

You can always buy mercenaries on the open market. And they will always get the job done "good enough" for you. And they will always leave after the job is done and when the paychecks stop. There is a place for economic mercenaries as a stopgap measure, but I would think that they are hardly the tool of choice for building a lasting foundation for great achievements.

But how do you breed the passionate fanatics who will be plugging at their dreams long after everybody has forgotten about them? The obsessive crazies who will do everything (and more) to change the tiny part of the world around them. How do you allow an environment where passions can be cultivated, when all you have is a centralised system where the economic value of all pursuits are coldly weighed, calculated and valued on how far they move an elites' definition of a "nation" forward? How then do you get disenfranchised serfs to care beyond the next paycheck?


So far for most of my life, my major choices in education and employment have never been what appeals to me personally or what I have been passionate about. They have always been in a typically Singaporean pragmatism - of what makes the money to put the food on the table. The Hokkien term tan jiak (literally: to earn food) grittily describes the overriding factor in decision making.

I need choices. Options. Space.

Physical space to pursue possible passions that are economically nonviable on a tiny island. To be a pilot, to be a marine biologist, to be a geological engineer..

Political space to pursue possible passions that may extract a high personal price by opposing the status quo, and yet have a fighting chance as a anonymous non-elite serf to be heard..

Economic space to pursue possible passions that that have not been endorsed by a planned economy as being valuble for a nation's GDP growth..

Or simply just the challenge of surviving in a strange land, starting all over again from scratch in the hope of (re-)defining a life that would allow one to - as C. said - wake up every morning, take a deep breath and go "i'm so fucking glad i'm alive".

I look around at my peers and those about half-generation ahead of me who have "made it" in Singapore. Expensive tiny condo in an exclusive area, fancy car(s), a kid or two, long hours at work in a dual-income setup, bi-annual packaged holidays to exotic locations, yada, yada, yada..

And I wonder to myself: Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?


Blogger Jeff! Lim said...

there is nothing more. At least, not here.

April 03, 2005 9:01 PM  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

Ooooh, Kahlil Gibran. Love him.

More directly relevant to your post, however, is Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi's flow theory - about happiness.

Unfortunately if you read Mihaly's ideas carefully, you'll find that they do not quite support your general contention.

Mihalyi would suggest to you that a person may jolly well find great happiness in just about any kind of occupation (including, horror of horrors, your examples of jobs promoted & encouraged by Singapore government) -

the key to satisfaction lies in how the person perceives / defines his challenges and how closely those challenges match his skills (the match must be just right - ie the challenge should not so great as to stump him or so minimal as as to bore him).

If you read Mihaly in greater detail, you may also see another perspective to these comments of yours:

"I need choices. Options. Space.

Physical space to pursue possible passions that are economically nonviable on a tiny island. To be a pilot, to be a marine biologist, to be a geological engineer.."

Mihaly contends that a lot of dissatisfaction that we experience in modern life arises precisely because we (correctly) perceive that there are many possibilities, many options, potentially open to us.

We become dissatisfied because we can never explore all of them. For example, if you choose to be a pilot, you cannot at the same time be a marine biologist. If you choose to be a marine biologist, you cannot at the same time be a geological engineer.

In the days of long ago, this was not the case. A rice farmer's son would be a rice farmer, and the rice farmer's son's son would also be a rice farmer. Not only that, they would all live and farm on the same piece of land, year after year, generation after generation.

The likelihood of happiness was (arguably) greater because in the absence of choice, one focused on the only thing available (life on the farm) and in the absence of distracting thoughts (like migrating to Australia or becoming a marine biologist), one became more likely to experience more flow (complete absorption in one's tasks) and more happiness.

Finally, at the risk of sounding intrusive, I would like to ask if you truly have any genuine interest in becoming a pilot, a marine biologist or a geological engineer.

Can you cite me any concrete examples of your interest in these areas. For example:

did you ever try signing up for the Youth Flying Club; do you collect model airplanes; did you go snorkelling at Pulau Tioman or Ko Samui; do you have a marine aquarium at home; how many times have you visited the Underwater World at Sentosa; was geography a favourite subject of yours in school; do you collect any unusual rocks or stones; do you buy books about volcanoes, tsunamis, deepsea oil rigging, engineering etc?

I could be wrong, but I suspect that one fine day, when you make it to Australia, you're basically still going to be an IT guy. You may drink a little more wine; work shorter hours; have more backyard barbeques; but you're still going to be an IT guy.

April 04, 2005 9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

have you read "Zen and the Art of Motorbike Maintenance" btw?

April 04, 2005 10:17 AM  
Blogger KSM said...

"passions are like plants that will shrivel and die if you do not feed them regularly.... they will avoid you surreptitiously if you have spent a life doing the urgent and postponing the important"

So true.

April 04, 2005 10:48 AM  
Blogger KnightofPentacles said...


I am sure there is more to life in Singapore. There is a citizen population of 2+ million. Resident population of 4+ million. I am sure some have managed to carve out a satisfactorily fulfilling life. But the problem is locating them and seeing if their success can be replicated in our generation.


I like Kahlil Gibran. Do not agree with him on many counts, but it is hard not to love his work which manages to pack so much meaning into so few words.

Have heard of the Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi flow theory of creativity but I have yet to read his works firsthand. Any book recommendations?

My grouse is not with having to choose between a plethora of choiced, but the constraints that limit the range of possible choices. There are a wide range of options that are simply not possible in this land. The examples of pilot, marine biologist, geological engineer, rabble-rouser challenging the status quo, and starving artist are just that - examples.

I have no idea where my lifelong (work) passions lie, hence the first order of business for me is to find out. However I seem to have little luck finding that passion here so far.

Being an IT guy pays the bills. Or at least it used to. It was the 'hot' profession that the government was pushing young adults at my time. Like I said, in a tightly managed economy, serfs who want to eat well are required to bend to the whims of the current 'hot' fad.

It is not a passion. But you may be right. Or you may not. Guess you just have to keep following this blog journey over the next few years to find out, eh?


Yes, I read Pirsig. His second book Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals is worth the read as well, imho.

I am sad to report that most of my current work possess no Quality.


Hence the need to remember to focus on what is important (making a life), and not neglecting it for what is urgent (making a living).

April 04, 2005 1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's true that Singapore is not a place for IT. There's too much legacy system here. I mean 'human legacy system' in terms of management by previous generation still, all because of greed from these people. They are just like the manual accounting system that are highly inefficient and incompatible with the modern computerized accounting system that's powered by today's generation. What they are trying to do is putting the manual accounting system as the frontend application, and hoping that it can interface with the modern system as a backend, and reap the credits and benefits of modern system.

April 04, 2005 4:35 PM  
Anonymous the nat said...

To go out on a slight tangent, what is the price of having a population that is fundamentally mercenary? A population that responds strongly to government direction / economic incentives in choosing their work?

If one looks at the blistering growth rates that Singapore experienced between independence and 1990, you can't help but be impressed. GDP growth of 8.5% p.a., per capita income growth of 6.6% p.a.. But if you look at the story more closely, virtually all of it was due to increases in inputs of capital and labor. However, these inputs can't provide long-term growth for a country. To continue growing, a country needs become more efficient, to become more productive. In this, we've failed. (See Paul Krugman - The Myth of Asia's Miracle)

Why, then, have Singaporeans not become significantly more productive over the years? One of the main culprits, I would suggest, is this very lack of passion that you address here. The soulless, bureaucratic movement of labor into industries has deprived Singapore of it. And one of the consequences is the lack of increased efficiency (total factor productivity growth). People have been simply doing what they have been told to -- nothing less, yes, but more importantly, nothing more.

April 04, 2005 9:13 PM  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

Miscellaneous points from me:

First-time readers of Mihaly C should read his seminal work "Flow" - not his later works about flow and creativity etc.

The availability of more options means nothing if you do not intend to exercise these options.

For example, the additional options of being a marine biologist or rabble-rouser are irrelevant to a person who is neither interested in marine biology or rabble-rousing.

Extending this idea, the constraints in Singapore should not matter unless these constraints prevent you for attaining or doing or becoming something that you wish to attain, do or become.

For example, the high cost of cars and private property in Singapore is no constraint to someone who does not in fact aspire to own a car or a private property.

Say you are the sort of person who looks at materialistic luxuries and then asks yourself, "Is that it? Is there nothing more in life?".

If you are such a person, then ultimately you will feel the gap in your life regardless of whether you own an expensive tiny condo in an exclusive area in Singapore, or a huge cheap bungalow in the Australian suburbs.

You will feel the gap whether you own a BMW in Singapore, or two BMWs for the same price in Australia.

Fortunately or unfortunately, KP seems to be that sort of person.

Also, the fact that the government actively encourages Singaporeans to enter certain industries at certain times should not matter to a Singaporean who does not know where his passion lies.

To illustrate, if Knight of Pentacles had a burning desire to be a dance choreographer or had an innate talent for geological engineering, then he might be justified in feeling that the Singapore government has stifled him.

On the other hand, if Knight of Pentacles felt no passion for any particular discipline, then at that point in his life, and based on available information back then, IT would have been as good a choice as anything else for him.

The fact that Singaporean IT personnel subsequently suffered a lack of market demand is inconsequential in this analysis.

This is because if KP had chosen any other course, he would also have been exposed to the risk of subsequently suffering from a lack of market demand (for example, if he had instead become an arts grad or an electronics engineer).

Also, economic growth rates must necessarily slow down as an economy matures. It is easy for a $2 company to become a $4 company, but it is much harder for a $200,000,000 company to grow into a $400,000,000 company.

Finally, there may not really be a conflict between the "pay-your-mercenary-well" school of thought and the "pursue-your-passion" school of thought.

For example, suppose I am passionate about being a banker. I pursue my passion and I become a banker at Citibank. Citibank pays me well to keep me. They should - they must, they have to.

Otherwise, I will leave, to pursue my passion ....

... at HSBC, or DBS, or UOB ...

... whoever pays me best, for pursuing my passion.

April 05, 2005 3:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A farmer was in his rice field one day, looking at his cow. He lamented that his cow was not meant for ploughing the field. It's legs was too short and it's temper was not too good.

His friends gathered to help him decide what he was to do with his cow. Along came a well off Indian man who happens to be a devout Hindu.

"Oh how could you be so cruel to our holy animal? How can anyone make them work so hard? They should be worshipped and well taken cared of!!!" screamed the Indian man.

To which our farmer replied, "But this is the way things are in my world. We take our cows to the field and we work them. When they are unable to work, we eat them"

"What!!! I CANNOT understand how you can do that!!!" screamed the Indian man. "I TELL you. You should be grateful you have a cow. NO! You should be HAPPY. What the cow do is irrelevant. You are the farmer. No matter what animal is given to you, you should be the one ploughing the field. *snort*. PROVE to me that you need a cow to work!"

"But I need help." Stammered our farmer. "The ground is hard and there are many rocks."

"NOOOO. That's your problem. YOU are a farmer and will FOREVER be condemned as one. Your PERCEIVED constrains are irrelevant to you because you plough the field, NOT the cow."

"But if I plough the field on my own, I will not be able to meet my other obligations."

"BAH! Stop giving excuses. In my world, obligations are myths. They don't exist. YOU are just plain materialistic and you want the option of doing whatever you want with the cow."

"But it's MY cow."
"I know your cow better than you do."

Silently, a man stood out from the farmer's group of friends. "Sire, I'm afraid you have totally lost us. You are obviously not of this place and what you see, we don't."

"You obviously don't understand our situations because our lifes are just another page in _a_ book. If you really want to help us, please, see OUR world through OUR eyes."

April 06, 2005 2:58 AM  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

This little allegorical tale could very well have taken a variety of different twists.

One version could have been:

The farmer paused and thought about it. Then he said, "You are right, what on earth do I need a cow? I don't need to plough a field! I am actually a CHICKEN farmer! Not having a cow does not constrain me in any way."

This would illustrate my idea that a constraint is not a constraint unless it actually prevents you from doing what you want to do. Not having a cow is not a problem for a person who wants to do chicken farming.

Your version of the story also has the tinge of a "have-&the-have-nots" theme. For example, you mention that the Indian man is well-off and there is the implication that the farmer is not.

On the other hand, yet another version of the story could have been as follows:

The poor farmer paused to think about the Indian man's words. After some time, the farmer said, "You are right. I am after all Indian too, and a Hindu, and it is wrong for me to treat cows in such a way. I have decided to free this cow, and indeed a sense of peace now fills my head."

Et cetera. As you can see, allegories at best illustrate points, but cannot in themselves show that the points are correct.

Let's try to see the world through KP's eyes. He writes about his successful peers in Singapore, the ones who have the expensive condo, the nice car, the luxurious holidays ...

and then KP says:

"Is that all? Is there nothing more?"

Obviously, KP is dissatisfied with this model of life. There are two possible ways of interpreting this dissatisfaction:

(1) An expensive condo, a nice car, luxurious holidays twice a year etc are insufficient to satisfy his materialistic desires. He actually wants even more material luxuries than that.

(2) He is actually looking beyond materialistic things. Cars, houses etc can only mean so much. KP is actually looking for the meaning of life; engaging on a search for self; trying to find happiness, etc etc - those spiritual / philosophical type of things.

Point (2) above sounds like the more plausible interpretation to me. But KP will be the best person to tell us so.

My point is that if Point (2) is what KP is really after, then Australia may not be any better a place than Singapore to look.

(IMHO, right where you are, wherever you may be, is the best place to start looking for such things - but that's a different story for another time).

If you go do some googling, you'll find that there are actually plenty of studies which try to find out which are the happiest nations in the world.

Surprise, surprise - the top spots are almost always taken by countries such as Bangladesh, India

April 06, 2005 12:24 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...


I've went through some of your posts, and your thinking mirrors a lot of what i've thought thru before i left Singapore for an internal transfer job to my company's HQ in USA.

The latest post on passion agains mirrors what i felt in most of my work life.

April 06, 2005 1:25 PM  

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