Feeling Sorry for Yourself in this Complicated World

I was feeling sick. I mean really sick. Walking five steps would leave me gasping for air. My throat felt like murder (:bad). My head throbbed like a discotheque.

But I had work to do. Work I didn’t feel like doing, but which my professional self wouldn’t let me off not doing.

Let me share with you a little bit of my work ethos using one of my favourite quotes from Will Smith:

I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories.

But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.

So I got to work. While working away through my illness though (whatever it was; or actually still is, because I’m still feeling its effects two weeks after), I couldn’t help but think if it was all worth it. This wasn’t change the world stuff; and I wasn’t being compensated enough to make up for that fact.

In fact, I started feeling quite sorry for myself. So sorry that I started googling for help: quotes on self-pity

And came across this little gem from D H Lawrence:

I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.

Which reminded me of the Will Smith quote and helped me carry on till most of the stuff I needed to do were done.

On my walk to school yesterday though (I’m back to school for a Masters in Tech, by the way), I passed by a bird. That bird was chasing down a worm, pecking at it. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the worm, though I knew very well it was just the natural order of things.

And I realised that the reason why wild things never felt sorry for themselves could well be the reason why we do: because we are not wild; because we feel pity not just for ourselves, but for our fellow living beings.

How complicated our world is!


The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.

Attributed to  Augustine of Hippo, the quote above reignited latent wanderlust. If I had to be honest though, as much as I like the idea of Travel, the execution of the act of Travelling is very different.

Alain de Botton, in his beautiful book The Art of Travel, put it best, when writing about his much anticipated trip to Barbados during his home country’s winter:

In my anticipation, there had simply been a vacuum between the airport and my hotel. Nothing had existed in my mind between the last line on the itinerary (the beautifully rhythmic ‘Arrival BA 2155 at 15.35’) and the hotel room. I had not envisioned, and now protested inwardly the appearance of, a luggage carousel with a frayed rubber mat; two flies dancing above an overflowing ashtray; a giant fan turning inside the arrivals hall; a white taxi with a dashboard covered in fake leopard skin; a stray dog in a stretch of waste ground beyond the airport; an advertisement for ‘luxury condos’ at a roundabout; a factory called Bardak Electronics; a row of buildings with red and green tin roofs; a rubber strap on the central pillar of the car, upon which was written in very small print ‘Volkswagen, Wolfsburg’; a brightly coloured bush whose name I didn’t know; a hotel reception area that showed the time in six different locations and a card pinned on the wall nearby that read, with two months’ delay, ‘Merry Christmas’. Only several hours after my arrival did I find myself united with my imagined room, though I had had no prior mental image of its vast air-conditioning unit or, welcome though it might be in the event, its bathroom, which was made of Formica panels and had a notice sternly advising residents not to waste water.

I was just thinking back to the best holidays I’ve had. And though I was tempted to put down “the best holidays I’ve had were those I’ve felt most like a local” (because my need for control is so strong), it’s not true. The holidays that I’ve most enjoyed have had just one thing in common: beautiful weather.

Give me 5-20 degrees Celsius temperature, relatively low humidity, and you’ve got yourself one happy camper. It would be one page of the world I’d gladly read and re-read many times over.

I don’t need to be good. Just better than you.

Abstention on the part of those who won’t venture
in creates opportunities for those who will.

The quote above comes from Howard Mark‘s The Most Important Thing Illuminated, who was referring to investors who, believing they cannot beat the market, stay away from the investing game. In doing so, these people allow those who think they can (and who do participate in actively trying to beat the market), opportunities to do just that.

It reminded me of a thought I had during my recent annual military service, where I saw a significant number of comrades looking more physically unfit than ever, many of whom were almost as or even more physically fit than me during our active days (about ten years ago). By virtue of simply having more or less maintained my fitness these past years, I was now perceived by them as being much fitter than them.

It was almost as if because they didn’t want to play the fitness game (“Not young; no time” was the common refrain), and I did, I “won” by default, even though I wasn’t naturally the “fittest” to begin with.

By the same token, I’ve known of plenty of really smart people who not quite wanting to play the “career game” (for whatever reason) get stuck in career mediocrity, giving us less naturally talented folks opportunities we wouldn’t have had if not for their leaving the game for us.

The World as it Should Be

Just thought I would share with you what has to be, for me, the quote of the week. Taken from the book Getting More, a beautiful book on negotiation by Stuart Diamond (emphasis mine):

Lower your expectations. If you come into a negotiation thinking that the other side will be difficult, unfair, rude, or trying to cheat you, you won’t be likely to have dashed expectations–and you won’t be emotional. When you lower your expectations of what will take place in a negotiation, you will be rarely disappointed–and you might be pleasantly surprised. Getting yourself psychologically prepared is important.

You might feel, “Hey, I shouldn’t have to do things like that.” Okay, maybe not. But we live in the real world, not in the “should” world.

The beauty of that statement, I think, lies in the fact that it embraces the irrationality of people, the irrationality of the world. Where things are done sometimes for reasons beyond human comprehension.

And even if you don’t believe in the irrationality of people, as I sometimes find myself wont to do, the fact is we as human beings have so many hidden motivations that though we are, perhaps, ultimately rational, we are for most practical purposes just the opposite.

The Trolley Problem and Being a Leader

In my previous post I wrote about the trolley problem (aka “the train dilemma”). Though an interesting problem in its own right and one which rightly deserved its own post, it wasn’t really just for the sake of interest that I wrote it.

As regular readers of my site would know (yes, all 60,000 of you, +/- a few), I sometimes write posts for the sake of providing background for a future post.

This was one of them; and that future post is this.

And it’s going to be about leadership.

The Trolley Problem

You may see the trolley problem as a philosophical and moral problem. One which makes you ponder the complexities of life a little; question your own values a little; and makes you ask yourself what would I do? a little.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m faced with such tough morally ambiguous philosophical questions, I’m glad it’s not real. I wouldn’t want to make a decision either way.

A Thought Experiment

But imagine if you had to make a decision, and that real lives were at stake. And imagine that you were going to be judged on that decision by both people you know and those you don’t.

To make things a little easier for you, suppose  you get to pick an advisory committee.

You can pick as many people as you want, whoever you want, to be your advisers on this issue (the Dalai Lama; Presidents and Prime Ministers; Iron Man; God), but with one catch: you can’t tell the anyone who will be judging you who your advisers are. (And even if you tried to, they wouldn’t listen.)

This was the thought experiment I had when I read about “failures” in government — failures I thought were not so much failures as much as people making what they probably thought were good decisions, but with not-so-great outcomes.

Whether it was the introduction of Obamacare, the handling of the (as of now still) missing Malaysia Airlines MH 370 flight, or the Singapore government’s two-child policy in the 70’s, things that make sense from one perspective are make nonsense in another.

The Two-Child Policy in Singapore

Of those above, the one that hits closest to home is probably the two-child policy (I’m Singaporean after all), and is the one I’m most familiar with.

Singaporeans, it seems, aren’t reproducing enough to hit the replacement rate. This means the Singaporean population will drop over the years if not for the effect of positive net immigration.

A lot of governmental effort has gone into encouraging Singaporeans to have more babies (e.g. “baby bonus” schemes) and relaxing restrictions on foreigners (willkommen!), which many Singaporeans aren’t too happy about (e.g. overcrowding on public transport, “foreigners stealing our jobs”, bla bla bla bla).

Many naysayers of the two-child policy cite it as one of the root causes of the low fertility rates we’re having now (and by extension the immigration “problem”), and lament the government’s lack of foresight when they were implementing the policy in the 70’s.

The thing is, I’m not too sure.

Yes, it’s true that the policy might have exacerbated the problem of low fertility rates we’re facing. But it has also occurred to me that we might well be facing the same issue because Singapore might not have prospered as much as it had — fertility rates and economic development could well be negatively correlated. We Singaporeans might have sought greener pastures elsewhere and/or foreigners wouldn’t want to come here anyway.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I find it difficult to believe that any person in a leadership position would choose to make bad, unthinking decisions on purpose.

Outcomes and Decisions

One important distinction that I learnt in University (thank you Ms. Olaru) and that has shaped my thinking ever since is between outcomes and decisions. You should never confuse a bad outcome with a bad decision, and a good outcome with a good decision (just ask me crossing the street without looking and narrowly escaping certain death, looking all cool and unflustered).

If an outcome turns out to be disastrous, it isn’t always obvious that it led from a bad decision. And even if an outcome turns out to be great, it isn’t always obvious that it led from a good decision.

Good/Bad Outcome = [Good/Bad Decision] X [Good/Bad Luck]

On Being a Leader

The trolley problem to me pretty much embodies so much of what leadership is. Leaders have to make decisions on many issues steeped in ambiguity. Issues where there’s no right or wrong but only probably right or probably wrong.

When it comes to the trolley problem, the more I thought about it the more I realised that leaders would choose to do what caused the least harm overall, and not necessarily the least harm to themselves. And they take responsibility for what they’ve done.

If it means that pulling the switch would likely save a few more people then the switch will be pulled, even if it means explaining themselves to death in court or to the public.

Because that’s the right thing to do. And that’s what leaders do.