Friday, 26 August 2016

Book: No Fears, No Excuses: What You Need to Do to Have a Great Career by Larry Smith

Professor Larry Smith is well known on the University of Waterloo campus for his energy, knowledge, and humour in his Economics lectures (of which I’ve been a lucky witness). In 2011, his TEDx talk on the many ways one could fail to have a great career garnered millions of views. As a topic of importance and broad appeal, Smith received numerous replies asking for the other half of the talk – “tell us how to pursue a great career”!

This book is Smith’s answer. His premise is that the marketplace has become even more competitive than during the previous generation. A university degree was a guarantee to a great job, but no more. One must provide uniquely value to the customer or employer to remain in demand in the market and have decent quality of life. This is my biggest takeaway from the book – it urged me to reflect on how I can provide more value in my current work.

In Smith’s mind,

A career is great when it offers satisfying work, impact on the world, a dependable and adequate income, and personal freedom.

Furthermore, he believes that to acquire such a great career, one must have passion for the work – it makes the going easier in tough times, and passion gives rise to creative problems solving as a differentiating edge, simply because one becomes quite literally, more “thoughtful” in those areas of intense interest:

A passion is more than an interest, although a passion may first appear as an interest. An interesting idea is easy to think about; when you have an idea that evokes passion, you cannot stop thinking about it. When you find a domain that engages passion, you want to understand it totally; you naturally see gaps that should be filled, errors that should be corrected, and innovations that cry out for creation. With passion, there is an inherent tendency to take action. None of those elements is necessarily present when you find something “interesting”. Passion invites an intensity of enduring focus.

Smith has had more than 30,000 career statements and conversations on the subject of great work, and this book draws from it. I found the examples were vivid, grounded, and illustrates his points well. In these stories, passion isn’t found through some quick moment of insight, but through lots of zig-zag and trial and error. It is not mere emotional excitement, and has components of conscious curiosity and commitment.

Even when a passion is found, it can take years for one to learn to nurture, conserve, and shape it to the demands of the market and to the values of the individual to become a great career. Passion can be an overloaded term, and Smith advocates against acting on a whim – quitting one’s day job and search for the elusive passion. Instead, one should search and research methodically about the area of interest. It is conscious and effortful hard work, but its results can be equally rewarding. The road to passion requires dispassionate analysis and discipline, Smith argues, and I heartily agree.

It is clear to me through this book and others that a life filled with work that one detests can hardly be satisfying. This book is a concrete guide for those having a drive and passion waiting to be discovered through very accessible tools – read trade journals and books to see broad trends, talk to industry insiders to further understand the needs of the market and one’s ability to create unique value, and set benchmarks for progress. Its analytical approach to great career provides great value, in my opinion. Other approaches I also value are Mike Rowe’s approach of doing practical work or Cal Newport’s exhortation on finding enjoyment through mastery or even Mark Zuckerberg’s talk about doing work (entrepreneurship in this case) with a sense of mission.

All the aforementioned ways, however, are in the pursuit of fulfilling work that provides value to family and society, and often requires courage – the courage to abandon the safety of conventional wisdom, to leave the comfort of social conformity, and accept the constant challenge of pathfinding. Perhaps that’s why great work is rewarding, because it is so arduous. Smith knows this intimately, as he also overcame painful shyness and endured much trial and error before finding his own great career that requires much public speaking as a teacher and industry consultant.

Courage is essential, Smith would say, but as to its origin and where one finds it? Smith perks ups and looks solemnly at his students – now that’s the mystery.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Book: What Do You Want to Do Before You Die, by The Buried Life

Provoked, I picked up this book from the library shelf on which it stood. The title with the 4 guys in the picture suggested a wild journey, and it was.

They are 2 brothers, a neighbour, and a close friend; each had his own reason for uncomfortable questions in life. Jonnie endured his parents’ surprising divorce and became skeptical in what he held to be true. Dave, reeling from the wild life as a competitive break dancer, felt finally ready to change the joint-a-day and overweight life he had. Faced with adulthood and the tragic drowning of his close friend at the graduation camping trip, Duncan found no solace in his backpacking trips and wanted more. Ben, a competitive rugby player who was invited to play at national level, turned it down and went into depression and felt powerless in his future direction.

They wanted to feel a sense of control, the joy of truly helping others and to connect. So in 2006, they asked themselves – “what do I want to do before I die” – a bucket list was born. It had crazy ideas like “singing the national anthem to a packed stadium”, “opening the 6 o’clock news”, and “be dumped by a stripper for being too slutty”. They found a mossy, ‘77 Dodge Coachman, named it Bedadu, and crossed the country realizing these dreams. To add some purpose, they made it a goal to help someone else realize their bucket list item for every one they cross from their list.

As they gone on, words spread about their journey and they gathered a small following, some suggested newer items to the list (a WWII vet urging them to teach youngsters not to forget the terror of war), some to offer help in any way, others wanted to join in for the ride. This book is a collection of some of the items they’ve managed to cross off from their own list or for others. The items grew more ambitious – they swindled security and crashed an MTV party and played basketball with president Obama. But it’s the more somber moments that remained memorable for me – their visiting the Folsom prison, helping a man raise money to organize a ranch for kids in need. These were cherish reminders for me that what some others yearn to have – a shelter, nurturing from parents, relative health, I only deign to dispense. It puts many things in perspective.

They’ve since gone on to give speeches and interviews at various events, urging others to consider what really matters to them in the face of mortality, and how might one matter to others. The fame also culminated a feature show with MTV. So far, they’ve managed to keep themselves poor while being famous, in the hopes that it’d keep them grounded, not be slave to the advertising deals that might distract from their goal of finding that which is meaningful and ambitious.

The older adult in me wonder what they’d do after this. Would anything less exciting become too mundane for them, even if it’s useful for society? I certainly hope not. But for what it’s worth, their journey provides a thought experiment, a deeper inquiry into whether one’s living “the buried life”. And that’s a valuable lesson.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Book: The Outside Circle by Patti Laboucane-Benson. Art by Kelly Mellings

This is a Graphic Novel around the protagonist, Pete, an Aboriginal young adult who is involved in a violent gang dealing drugs and whose mother is a heroine addict. One night, out of self defense he killed his mom’s boyfriend, landing him in jail. The guardianship of his brother, Joey, would be forcibly transferred to the government of Alberta. Pete never knew his father and would not see in mother again until she passed away.

While serving his sentence, Pete became involved in gang violence in jail, but also joined a rehabilitation program that combined counseling and traditional Aborigional ceremonial practices for healing. Pete came to terms with his past and in the end, found his calling as a protector for his family and became a counselor for others who have the same challenges as he once did.

This is a heavy and tragic story of loss, but also of rebirth. I was in a dark mood while reading it, but it felt a necessary aspect of the Canadian culture to be aware of. While I had learned of the maltreatment of Aboriginals from some Canadian history textbooks, having it depicted in visual form was all the more immersive. The cycle of violence and poverty was vivid – of kids removed from parents, of the fights in gangs, the anguish of a minority whose cultural values are vastly divergent from the majority.

While the main character is fictional, it is drawn up from the author’s 20 years of work and research on healing of gang-affiliated or incarcerated Aboriginal men. The book also contained some appalling statistics: 57% of First Nations children in Canadian cities live in low-income families, and 68% of children in the Albertan child welfare system are Aboriginals. I’ve been ignorant of these facts until now. Fostering an amicable relationship with Aboriginals was pressing during John A. Macdonald’s time as Prime Minister. The outcome wouldn’t be satisfactory then, and I wonder if Macdonald would approve of the progress made thus far. Perhaps he wouldn’t.

This book is, in my opinion, beautifully illustrated and tells a compelling and important story. It had brought me better understanding to the tribulations of the Aboriginal Canadians and I recommend it, especially to fellow Canadians.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Book: Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times by Richard Gwyn

This is the second of two volumes of the biography on the life of Sir John A. Macdonald by Gwyn. I had read the first volume back in 2014.
This volume starts just after the confederation, and encompasses the building of the national railway, the establishment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that had taken a more cooperative approach with the natives and became one of Canada’s well known symbols, and the unfortunate incidents and handling of the the uprising of Louis Riel and the natives which still have consequences today.

A previous biography of Macdonald, George Parkin, summarized Macdonald thusly:

He believed that there was room on the continent of America for at least two nations, and he was determined that Canada should be a nation. He believed in the superiority of the British constitution to any other for free men, and that the preservation of the union with the mother country was necessary to the making of Canada. He had faith in the French race, and believed that a good understanding between French and English people was essential to the national welfare.

“Had there been no Macdonald, there almost certainly would be today no Canada”, Gwyn argues. The nation came into being after much hardwork and was by no means a given. Many issues, including foreign relations with many nations and domestic policy with the natives, remain to be solved. I look forward to the next chapter in Canada’s making.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Book: The Eleventh day - the Full Story of 9/11. By Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, two planes loaded with fuel for their intercontinental journeys crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center within a mere 17 minutes. With the blaze that ensued, one more plane is to hit the pentagon, another would crash to the ground thanks to the brave defiance of its passengers.

The entire terrorist attack on this day, including the collapsing of the two towers, would unfold within 2 hours and at its wake, 2,982 lives would be lost. Nearby hospitals were fully mobilized with doctors who had worked continuous shifts on standby ready for the tidal wave of patients, only to realize that most victims had perished during the attack; many with body parts severed and unidentified. Some body parts would be still discovered in 2009. This was the largest rescue mission for New York City to date.

Economic activity ground to a halt. The New York Stock Exchange would close for the rest of the week. The Federal Reserve Bank in New York would evacuate, but no one knew how to lock up the bank as it had never been unmanned before. Within 24 hours of the attack, King Abdullah from Saudi Arabia sent 9 million barrels of oil to America to stave off an economic crisis in the States. A year later, the damage to NYC is estimated to be between $83 to $95 billion.

Ever since, the shockwave of the attack rippled through America and beyond. My own motivation to read this book was to understand this event better, but more questions seem to be raised than answered, all of which have no simple answers:
While the deaths on the day of 9/11 is known, many rescuers have since died slowly and painfully after the incident due to respiratory problems.  Their stories aren’t often told. During the Iraqi war, a war instigated on false premise, it’s estimated that 100,000 civilians died during and following the invasion. Could they find justice?  What of the lacking of details on intelligence work prior to the attack and the accompanying accountability?  What of the transparency in various country’s involvement in the attack? The cost of the attack was estimated at around half a million and 10 years on, the war had costed 1.15 trillion.  Could this be a sustainable response to future attacks?  How could different peoples resolve such differences and seek understanding?

I have learned a tremendous amount through this book.  It is a detailed and articulate account of the 9/11 attack – its historical background, the urgent question of Israel and Palestine, the stories of the perpetrators, the intelligence and military response from America and other countries, and of the pillars of the conspiracy theorists and how it does not stand up to the evidence at hand.

Since then, the attack has permeated every form of artistic expressions – in languages, in films, and even in clothes. While the original leader of the attack, Osama bin Laden, had been killed, the conflict between various peoples persists. I fervently hope in the near future this contention can see a peaceful resolution.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Book: Losing the Signal by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff

This is the story of BlackBerry's dramatic rise and fall. The company pioneered the smartphone product category and in 2009 became its biggest maker with roughly 20 billions in revenue.  Its phones started as a tools for business executives, then was seen carried by celebrities, politicians (Obama refused to give it up after having been elected President), and regular consumers seemed to embrace it, too.

As the story goes, a few years later, Apple and Samsung entered the market and took the lead from BlackBerry (formerly RIM).  Today, BlackBerry sales constitutes less than 1 percent of global smartphone market.

It was hard to imagine, but before Apple and Samsung, BlackBerry was the Apple and Samsung to vendors like Nokia and Motorola – conceived as innovative, reliable, and user friendly. Their phones brought consumers into the smartphone market.  While expanding at a furious pace, the company went through intellectual property fights that distracted its leaders, who over the years started to grow apart in the overall direction.  Apple then championed the conception of a smartphone being the most personal computer for the masses, a strategy that was profoundly different from BlackBerry's catering to a business professionals user base.  Steve Sinofsky wrote on the importance of re-evaluating underlying assumptions about its product when such new entrants emerge.  These were the major accents of the book.  Here’s an excerpt of the book.

Overall, the story was enlightening.  I'm sad as a Canadian who went to the university overlooking BlackBerry’s campus. However, the rise of BlackBerry was and has been a big boon to fostering the tech talent in the Kitchener-Waterloo region.  Their lessons and experiences are carried with its employees as they join other companies.  The two co-founders, Mike and Jim, continue to be active as mentors and investors in the KW area and in Canada at large, helping to build and enrich institutions such as the Perimeter Institute, the Quantum-Nano Centre at University of Waterloo, and the Centre for International Govenance Innovation.  While a chapter of the BlackBerry story has closed, I look forward to the next fruits of such sown seeds in Canada’s technology sector.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Book Thoughts - Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician by Christoph Wolff

(Pulitzer Prize Finalist)

For most, the name “Bach” probably conjures up this most famous portrait of him – seeming serious, formidable, maybe a bit like a bureaucrat, and ripe with seniority evidenced by the double chin:

This was the time before the invention of photography, and the portraits’ subjects would choose how they’d like to be seen by the viewer, which often amounted to their job functions or what they did.  Bach is shown as a composer here holding a piece of music.  The title says it’s a 6 voice perpetual canon, so it requires 6 simultaneous melodic lines.  But there are only 3 here – where are the others?

After years of puzzling over the riddle, it’s discovered that by reading the 3 lines from our perspective as one is doing normally, combined with the same 3 lines read from Bach’s perspective (ie. backwards and with different clefs), a 6 voice canon would thus emerge as titled.  Bach, though principled and disciplined, seems to have a playful and maybe slightly mischievous side, too.

As in this portrait, it is the many sides of Bach that I find fascinating.  As one of the best organist of his time playing the hymn at church, he would add many embellishments of his own that confused the congregation who were trying to sing a simple tune.  Then as it is now, his music is very demanding for the musicians, and at a rehearsal for a difficult piece he scolded a bassoon player for messing up the part, leading to a brief sword fight between the teacher/student pair.  Intending to leave his employer he forced the issue of resignation to an extent that earned him one month of jail time, making him one of the very few western musicians in history to have been imprisoned.  While having written music that can seem heavy and overly structured, the man who gave birth to them could be feisty, demanding, and not willing to conform to every rule.

Beyond this seemingly cavalier personality, however, Bach’s skill as a composer was honed through incredible hard work.  He was very much self taught and often studied and copied works of many other composers.  He also composed at a furious pace - at one point writing 20 to 30 minutes of music for choir and orchestra, then perform it during the Sunday service every week, not to mention he has to teach at school, conduct for other city and church functions, host out of town musicians, and raising 20 children (only 7 survived to adulthood).  It’s no surprise that he left very little letters and personal journals.  There simply was no time.

What most fascinated me about Bach though, is that while I’ve known him mostly as a composer, it may be more apt to describe Bach as a musical scientist, interested in all aspect of music.  As a music virtuoso he played the violin and was one of the best organ players known for his musicality, technique, and improvisation.  His technical understanding in musical instruments and player ergonomics, especially the organ, allowed him input to the design and construction of organs, violins, and the fortepiano that would later become the modern day piano.  As a scientist and scholar, he composed pieces that systematically navigated all major and minor keys showing the harmonic possibilities afforded by the new tuning system on the keyboard so that instead of staying within the keys of 3 sharps and 3 flats, one can navigate through the entire set of 24 keys.  As a teacher, he wrote pedagogical pieces for multiple and progressive levels of musical expertise on keyboard and string instruments that are still played today, training player’s evenness of the left and right hand on the piano, for instance.  He was a conductor for choral as well as orchestral groups and driven by his curiosity and gregariousness, was eager to receive many visiting musicians to the city.  Being entrepreneurial, he bought and rented out instruments for a fee, and sold compositions for himself and other musicians.  In all, Bach was involved in all aspects of music making – the intellectual process of composition, the act of teaching, conducting, performing (individually and collectively), the engineering aspect of instrument design, maintenance, and the politics and commercial procurement of music.  He had an obsessive curiosity in the nature and science of music that permeated his art and path of inquiry.

Of all the roles Bach held, he chose to portray himself as a composer first and foremost, probably viewing the written music as his greatest achievement.  Yet, at the time of his death at the age of 65 in 1750, Bach was most remembered as an outstanding organist and improviser.  His music was considered by the public as too old fashioned, too ornate and dense, belonging to the bygone provincial style of the Baroque period, while the music world had shifted its gaze to the simpler, cleaner international style of the Classical period, with Vienna at its centre and to be represented by masters such as Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn.  Bach’s music would only remain known to his students and a small group of international connoisseurs.  It was only when Mendelssohn performed an abridged version of his St. Matthew Passion nearly a century after Bach’s death that the general world had revived the interest in the works of this great master.  His music integrated the previously independent principles of “thorough bass, harmony, and counterpoint”.  As he was inspired by the Newtonian era’s sense of inquiry for truth, Bach’s exploration in the musical science would set new frameworks for western music and his contribution would be compared to this great scientist.  His composition had a great influence on the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Max Reger, and is still much admired and performed for their technical demand, pedagogical value, and artistic beauty the world over, including popular works like Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and the Prelude from the Cello Suite No. 1.

There’s a small story on Mozart’s early encounter with Bach’s works.  40 years after Bach’s passing, his former position as conductor at the St. Thomas School is now held by his student Johann Friedrich Doles. One day, Doles invited Mozart of Vienna to visit the school, and

the choir surprised Mozart with the performance of the double chorus motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied by Sebastian Bach. Mozart knew this master more by hearsay than by his works, which had become quite rare; at least his motets, which had never been printed, were completely unknown to him.  Hardly had the choir sung a few measures when Mozart sat up, startled; a few measures more and he called out “What is this?” And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears.  When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy: “Now there is something one can learn from!”

The learned musician as given the world something to learn from.



ps. I’m not a Bach expert and don’t have formal music training, and am simply an admirer of his music.  I hope this post still provides some value in understanding the composer.

Other Sources:

From the Repertoire: Western Music History through Performance, from Curtis Institute of Music, offered by Coursera

Listening to Music, Lecture 13 and 16, from Yale University

Great Composers – Bach, from BBC

Bach: a Passionate Life, by John Eliot Gardiner, from BBC

Rilling Lectures: St. Matthew Passion

Peter Sellars and Simon Halsey on the St. Matthew Passion performed by the Berlin Philharmonic

John Eliot Gardiner: In Rehearsal (of Cantata 63)

Interviews from All of Bach

An Art of the Fugue, played by Glenn Gould

Bach Performance on the Piano, by Angela Hewitt