Are you what you write? (or, Machiavelli the playwright)

I just watched a documentary on Niccolò Machiavelli. You may know him as that scheming, deceitful, and generally rotten guy who wrote the political bible The Prince.

So infamous is he that his name has become an adjective synonymous with evil. Just see what Merriam-Webster has to stay about being “Machiavellian”:

suggesting the principles of conduct laid down by Machiavelli; specifically marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith

To be honest I never knew much about him – I’d heard of him and his book, but not much else. He lived in my mind vaguely in the same space as Sun Tzu and Zhuge Liang, and to a lesser extent political leaders like Mussolini, Mao Zedong, and Margaret Thatcher.

But watching this documentary gave me better appreciation for the man and his thoughts on politics and power.


It was the parts about his life, though, that really made me go: really?

You see, I always thought that Machiavelli was the right-hand man for the political leader(s) of his time and that he probably died as a martyr or as a grey-haired political advisor.  I never separated Machiavelli the man vs. Machiavelli the myth.

I always imagined him executed as part of a coup or something; which, come to think of it, would have been more romantic, no?

I had not realised that he was relatively young (~43) when he was deprived of his rather lofty official position due to transitions of power in Florence at that time.

It was only after that, as part of failed attempts to get back into officialdom that he wrote The Prince, which was his way of trying to get noticed by the new leaders. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work.

Eventually, he lived out the rest of his life writing plays. Plays. (Yes, plays.) 


Part of my amazement also lay in the fact that he still had friends after writing The Prince.

Though the book was published only 5 years after his death, he’d shared it among friends soon after first writing it.

Just imagine a modern day Machiavelli writing a blog on how to seize and hold on to positions of power, saying

one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.

Who’d be friends with such a guy?


It also reminded me sometimes of my own literary voyages.

You know how sometimes you’d be in a really good mood and ready to take on the world. Just about anything you write about then will tend to be upbeat too (“Believe in yourself and you the world will be your oyster! They can hurt your body but they cannot hurt you!”)

But sometimes those days precede days where nothing goes right, and you’re in a life-is-awful-kittens-are-Satan mood.

Imagine the dissonance when someone who then reads my happy post gets all upbeat him- or herself, and then talks to me about it during one of these god-awful days, saying something akin to:

“I love how you can turn:
the good from bad;
the happy from sad;
the new from old;
and lead into gold!”

F*** off my eyes tell them.

And they have to wonder if the writer and me were one and the same.


Well, there is what I write; and then there’s me.

Fast Cars

With a light press of the accelerator, the car effortlessly sped up. Without my realising it we were now a little over the speed limit. It was odd how slow it felt. The cabin deathly quiet as the car stoically glided along.

xiaojinche
This was taken back in 2008 while on a road trip to Albany, Western Australia. The GPS we had loaned went a little mad, and brought us to this rural track through a farm. Fun times.

Flashback 10 years: driving in Perth in the 小金车 (xiao jin che or “little golden car” – the name we housemates affectionately called our car). Onto the freeway I went at 90 km/h. The car rattled as the bumps on the ground made their presence felt; the engine groaning under the strain.

In the “slow” car going at 90 km/h felt like 120.

In the “fast” car going at 120 km/h felt like 90.

The experience of speed was far more obvious in the “slow” car despite the lack of the real thing: the elevated heart-rate; the adrenaline; the fun!

**********

Likewise, is life not often what you make of it?

Do not give me a gift of which I desire

A little note about happiness, from the book Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari:

If I identify happiness with fleeting pleasant sensations, and crave to experience more and more of them, I have no choice but to pursue them constantly. When I finally get them, they quickly disappear, and because the mere memory of past pleasures will not satisfy me, I have to start all over again. Even if I continue this pursuit for decades, it will never bring me any lasting achievement; on the contrary, the more I crave these pleasant sensations, the more stressed and dissatisfied I will become. To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it.

When I read the passage above, it reminded me of something I told my wife not too long ago, that “the more I have, the more I want.”

If I feel happy just thinking of purchasing something I long for, especially one that I can easily afford, why would I spoil it with an actual purchase?

You see, the moment I make that purchase, the want is taken care of; the moment that want is taken care of, something else would take its place; and if that something is not something I can easily afford, the “more stressed and dissatisfied I will become.”

So, my dear, no, I do not want you to give me a gift of which I desire (and which money can buy).

I’m happy to stick to the simple joys of your company; our son; and our daughter.

The Run

We act very much as if we were on a voyage. What can I do? I can choose out the helmsman, the sailors, the day, the moment. Then a storm arises. What do I care? I have fulfilled my task: another has now to act, the helmsman.

If the weather is bad for sailing, we sit distracted and keep looking continually and ask, “What wind is blowing?” “The north wind.” What have we do to with that? “When will the west wind blow?” When it so chooses, good sir.

– Epictetus

I went out for what was supposed to be a short run today.

Didn’t feel like it. It was a long day; I was tired.

But the run was scheduled. “Not my problem,” the schedule seemed to say.

You don’t fight schedules. They don’t listen.

*****

Shoes on, I walked out the door.

Took a step; then another; then another.

A slow trot. Then quicker.

It’d rained earlier; the air felt fresh and cool.

*****

Reached a fork in the road.

Turn left as planned and in 30 minutes I’d be home.

Turn right and in 30 minutes… in 30 minutes I’d be 30 minutes from home.

I looked left. Turned right.

*****

29 minutes in and my legs were feeling good.

One-two-inhale; one-two-exhale. The rhythm felt like poetry.

But my mind — it disagreed.  “You can’t keep this pace,” it said. “Slow down.”

I feared it was right. Last time I ran this quick I fizzled out at 30. Which was… now.

*****

Then I remembered Epictetus.

My mind chose this route; this pace; this moment. It’s job was done.

My legs didn’t think there was a problem and neither did my lungs. They were fine; they were strong.

“Trust them,” I told my mind. “Trust them to do their job. If I collapse, I collapse.”

*****

Until then, I run.

Winning first place without ever being first

Or: what I learned from playing too much DiRT Rally (one of my favourite rally racing games.)

So here’s the context: I’m playing “career mode”, in which I buy a car, hire a couple of engineers, and go out to race. In order to win the championship, I have to have the best time across six “stages” or legs. Each stage is located in a different place so they all have their peculiarities: different areas of easy and difficult sections, some more suitable to the car’s set-up than others.

The thing about the game is that unlike real life, you have an unlimited numbers of do-overs – if you crash your car or get a time you don’t fancy, you can simply restart the stage.

When I first started playing this game that’s what I did. A lot.

I was intent on always finishing first for each stage. If I didn’t manage to finish first I would restart the stage. At times I found myself playing each stage close to 30-50 times; some stages I would spend an hour or two on and still not have the fastest time.

Then one day there was a stage in which I just couldn’t be the first for no matter how many times I tried.

I gave up. For that stage I ended up 5th and I accepted it*. The following stages were not much better either, with me ending up no better than third.

* (Side-note: actually my saying I “accepted it” is not really true. It was more of just getting the championship over, closing this chapter of my life, and uninstalling the game.)

Of all six stages of the championship, I ended up winning none.

And yet *drullroll please* I won the championship.

“But how?” I asked myself. “How??”

I couldn’t quite believe it but the overall time I had was faster than all my competitors. I won by virtue of consistency and not completely fouling up. Those who had won a stage had performed poorly for at least one of the others.

To me this was revolutionary and extremely zen: I won by not winning.

Thinking About Life

Maybe it’s do with the weather of late – cool, dreary, wet; or maybe it’s to do  the long runs I’ve been doing – lonely, peaceful, contemplative.

Whatever it was, I’ve been thinking about life – about how it has been; about how it is now; and about how it is going to be.


I first came across this beautiful poem called Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy more than ten years ago. I was about 17 or 18 then, and I must admit that I didn’t fully appreciate it. I had, in fact, actually thought that it had to be mistaken: what is life but the destination?

Now I’m almost twice as old, and its reading has a profound new meaning to me. And I don’t know why, but reading it always calms my nerves, especially when I start worrying about possible life-changing decisions (which, experience tells me, is truly life-changing in only 1% of the cases).

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(An aside: I’d come across the poem in Robert Fulghum‘s Words I Wish I Wrote, a book I first loaned from the library and which I later procured second-hand through a charity event. It was perhaps the most influential book in my life, introducing me to some of my favourite pieces of literature and authors, including the book Catch-22, which made me realise I could actually like fiction; and Albert Camus, who introduced me into the rather dark world of existential philosophy.)


An added bonus here. I was just re-reading Words I Wish I Wrote and came across this gem from Franz Kafka, which is another magnificent calm-your-nerves piece:

If we knew we were on the right road, having to leave it would mean endless despair. But we are on a road that only leads to a second one and then to a third one and so forth. And the real highway will not be sighted for a long, long time, perhaps never. So we drift in doubt. But also in an unbelievable beautiful diversity. Thus the accomplishment of hopes remains an always unexpected miracle. But in compensation, the miracle remains forever possible.

On meritocracy, luck, and giving back

Kottke’s post on meritocracy, a concept that I had in my younger days considered infallible, reminded me that even those of us who have worked hard and achieved so-called “success” have much to owe to “luck”.

Even the smartest, hardest working, most beautiful of us all, would likely have not fared well, had we been born in the midst of a famine to parents who couldn’t even afford to feed themselves.

And even the dumbest, most slothful, and ugly of us all, would not have fared too badly, had we been born to highly influential and powerful parents whom held us in even the slightest regard.

So let us all remain humble if are ever lucky and become “more successful” than others.

We probably owe more to chance and luck than we think.

Lucky

I met up with a friend last week over lunch, and one of the things that was brought up in the conversation was on our work, our careers. He was genuinely happy and excited for me that I was (finally) going to graduate from my Master’s degree in Analytics.

To him, my having these analytical skills, backed with a Master’s degree, would easily propel me to the top. I would, he said, be in high demand.

Being quite the realist, though, I didn’t exactly share his optimism.  I knew that even if I was the best in the world at what I did, if nobody knew what I did, it didn’t matter. There would be far too many people like me with similar qualifications and experiences.

But I knew where he was coming from.

It was true that my skill set was in demand. And it was true that I probably had an easier time than most in finding career opportunities. Unlike many others I knew, I was in the rather envious position of not worrying whether or not I’d find another job if I left my current one, by choice or otherwise, because I knew I would. I only stayed because I wanted to.

It then occurred to me how lucky I was.

Living the Dream

“I am living the dream,” I said to the group, “doing what I love.”

I was in a management development workshop organised by the company, and that was my response to the question, “tell us something nobody else in the workshop knows.”

It had come spontaneously and was as much a surprise to me as it was to everyone else.

It wasn’t that my career was perfect — I still had much I wanted to do; much I wanted to achieve.

But given all the million-and-one constraints, my career’s turned out pretty good: leveraging my business-IT background, I work within Sales but deal with technology (even doing some scripting and programming) every single day; I develop data products that are used by hundreds, from the frontline through to senior management; I regularly get to present my ideas and train Sales on technology and data literacy; and I lead a team of wonderful colleagues who do excellent work (and at the same time have a great boss); it’s almost precisely how I would have envisioned a “good” career outcome (shame about the pay!)

But it could have been so different.

I knew was lucky.

Right Place, Right Time

I was lucky in that my parents weren’t poor, and had purchased a computer for the home even when that wasn’t a very common thing to do. And I was lucky that I was allowed to use this very expensive toy, which exposed me to technology at a very young age.

I was lucky that I grew up in a time when the Singapore government wasn’t too interested on clamping down on software piracy — I suspect the government did this on purpose because many of us, though not poor, were not rich enough to actually purchase professional-grade software to play around with. 99% of what I know I learned on bootleg software.  This move alone probably bumped up Singapore’s technological literacy a fair bit.

I was lucky that I was never stopped in pursuing my love for technology — when I opted for a technology-focused polytechnic education (i.e. the Diploma route) instead of going the more traditional “junior college” (i.e. the A-Levels route), I never met any parental resistance (which in a way, was because I was lucky enough that my grades were good but never exceptional, and so my parents didn’t really care — had they been exceptional, my guess would be that the would have been far more opinionated).

I was lucky that I was hired for an analytics position at the very last interview that I decided to go for before heading into the world of Financial Advising, thereby leading me to my current world of technology and analytics… what were the chances?

Right place. Right time. And if not enabled by the luck, at least not hindered.

But not everyone will be so fortunate, and it is up to us, the lucky and empowered ones, to give back and to try to provide opportunities to others who may not be as lucky.

Yet.

On Giving Back

My one simple philosophy on giving back: that anyone whom I work  or in any way interact with should find that if I had never appeared in their lives they would have been a little poorer for it.

I seek to be the luck in people’s lives.

Because so often they are in mine.