Category Archives: Simplifying








With a co-worker, he was explaining theory. I wanted to know about application. I had been trying to ask a question, initiating with body language and verbal grunts. “Does that mean…” “um…” “hey…” “well…” with increased frustration, until I said to him firmly. “I have a question – do you want to hear it?” And he said “No.”

“You don’t want to hear my question.” I said, stating it more than asking it.
“No.” He shook his head.
And this was a bit of a relief. He had helped me understand the theory, which I had not done on my own, but he was not interested in understanding its application. I’ll take what I can get, I reasoned, and find the rest somewhere else.

I recalled Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Huit Clos” in which the characters involved make each other miserable because of their personalities. Compromise is not possible because they cannot set their self-image aside. I recalled James Nalepka’s “Capsized,” where three crew a boat that capsizes in a storm, and they drift, surviving on fishing, gathering rain, and food stores until they hit land again. Their personalities bump against each other because there is no way off of the boat, but they are united by their common goal.

The latter is how I like to think of my company – united by a common goal.

The boat has been weathering a storm recently, but letting go of the urge to protect myself has enabled me to see more clearly.

Two weeks ago we were in a meeting. My boss called in. We hit a rough spot. My boss panicked, jumped in, and took control of the meeting. A few days later, my boss told me that I was being taken off the customer. I was upset, but agreed. We made plans to transfer the customer to my boss, and I offered to remain as backup help, internally working with our engineers to get answers. I viewed it as nothing personal – just a judgement of my ability to culturally handle this customer. The next day I was reinstated to the account. I now have a co-worker (not my boss) playing the role of cultural intermediary. He’s a top gun, switching in and out of dialect and talking the exact style with the exact phrasing that the customer wants to hear. We can say exactly the same thing in terms of content and get two very different reactions from the customer. They love him, which is fine. All I have to do is get him what he needs to answer questions.

I have been working overtime to get those answers from our engineers. They have been working overtime, too. Everyone is under pressure due to the product launch, but I handle it by being unattached to the outcome at this customer. Maybe we win, maybe we lose – I’ll give it my best shot.

That’s what Japanese warriors would tell themselves. They would train for life and death encounters, try to avoid conflict if at all possible, until for reasons beyond their control – shifts in balance of power of the land that led to war – they had to face off with an opponent who had also trained similarly. They would train to face this with equanimity. Maybe he’d lose, maybe he’d live, but he’d give it his best shot.

Giving it one’s best shot is all that matters. Accepting where you are. For example, not being ashamed of your current capabilities. I have a friend getting married in Japan to an accomplished martial artist. She practices, too, but has not yet attained a high level of training. To celebrate the occasion, their teachers will be present. With teachers and students all counted, there will be some seven black-belt Aikido practitioners, four of which are 4th-degree black belt or higher, and there will be a martial arts demonstration as part of the festivities. We were talking about this, and finding this really funny – “It will be less a reception than… ‘Sensei presents – team Aikido!'” My friend has asked me to be the “uke” – the “follow” – so to speak for her fiancé as he performs. Why not you? I asked. She’s afraid that she’s not good enough – and wants someone more skilled and better matched to her fiancé’s level. I told her that that was the wrong reason – that we are the sum of our training, and that for the amount she has trained, she has nothing to be ashamed of. I would do it to help her celebrate, but not because I have trained more. This leads me to another thought – why we do something does not have to be for the same reason that someone believes we should do it. The action is the same, but the narrative that we assign to it can be different. Maybe I’ll write more on this later.

Accepting where you are includes being in the present moment. Fear or striving both bring us out of the present moment. Anything that takes us out of the now leads to poorer results. Dancing makes this very clear. If I am dancing, and trying to play it safe, it’s boring. If I am trying to impress, I’m forcing it, which leads to loss of harmony.

The ego is the source of the should-bes and might-have-beens that cloud our judgement and separate us from the reality at hand. Strength is not in the rocks that can stand against the river. It is the river itself – water that flows, finding the easiest way moment by moment, and in time, wearing down the rock. This is a prayer that we might be less like the rock, and more like the river. At moments of conflict, or more frequently, let us let go of the ego which projects us where we think we should be. Let us see ourselves and others where we are. Only then, relaxed and with power, can we give it our best shot.

六月我因日本朋友來而請假, 陪他們在迪化街散步. 路過在執行藝術展的一棟樓. 走入看到有兩個學生坐在一間茶屋裏在飲茶. 她們看到我就出來解釋作品.

作品名叫「圄」. 圄字意「吾於框中」. 感到压迫時, 常因自己作了個圍牆而把自己置於內. 命品為「圄」是希望碰到該樣心況時能借此茶屋學個不同的看法. 是把自己置於不同的框子而找所処難況的出口.

作品制造者是銘傳學建築部的四名女子大生. 她們為了作茶屋和倒茶的研究, 去了農場, 由摘葉至烘焙學了制茶的流程. 又學了茶屋建築的歷史同應用. 甚至門框的高低. 日本的茶屋門框矮, 以使人低頭入屋. 銘傳大學生的茶屋亦該樣.

我及四個日本朋友, 加銘大的學生, 坐入茶屋, 賞飲茶. 話提講到茶, 天氣, 來自的地方, 要去的地方,  有時不談而賞微風股, 讓我覺得我回到人類的基本. 沙漠裏遊牧民在遠行中入當地包裏亦會聊般的. 學生招待我們飲茶, 我們共同取靜, 除之外暫無地位, 對屋主的儘力招待感謝.

四泡茶, 約二十分鐘後, 我和我的日本朋友出去, 継續逛街. 後來逛到無時間食午餐. 朋友說還好有幾會於茶屋取靜, 否則最後感情會漂浮.

送好朋友上車去機場後, 我回到藝術展再和學生欱茶. 那時, 有一位中年女氏也一起欱. 她一直不停地講哪裡買了房屋, 哪裡旅遊過, 親戚在國外的那裡住, 房子有幾坪. 她很好意地想要分享她的経驗, 但是我覺得還是大學生人格較大, 不必借財物地位講話. 不只是那樣, 自己周圍置的財物及地位會擋住她是視野, 阻止她和其他人溝通. 今世的社會勸我們更專業化, 鋪設條漂亮的路而寫履歷書, 賺更多錢. 但我常覺得那樣不過是給自己做個圍牆, 把自己放在裏面.

大學生的熱心的招待不是為著爭地位或爭錢, 而純是為著要斟一杯好茶. 那樣全面地研究, 純心地執行,讓我感動. 但願那些大學生可以継續那樣純真的.









我們組先在狩獵時,獵物也不會等著讓我們補水。在街上打架時,對手也不會讓我們補水。我們祖先一定是在又缺卡路里,又缺水的狀態能做出激烈運動。如Nassim Nicholas Taleb 說的,這種刺激我們不只可以忍住,而可能是不可缼的。要不然,我們的身体會衰弱。有幾會,不如做做看,找一找自己身体的限界。





Simple Answers

Numbers: Met with 15 family members (immediate and extended). Got 2 people at the grocery store in downtown Vancouver to remember me (why grocery store, and not a bar? haha!) Met 5 factory engineers I currently work with. Ate lunch with 10 other engineers. Flew 5 flight legs, having now 2 more to go till I get back to Taiwan. Trained 3 hours of Aikido with 5 beefy and 2 skinny North Americans at a Vancouver dojo.

Invigorated by interacting with new people and living with family again, I have reflected and compiled this list of things learned or remembered. Maybe I’ll write in more detail about some of these.

Answers I give to other people when simplicity is easy for me:
Usually, the answer stems from relying on an internal resource, like health or creativity, rather than an external resource.

When I am packing lightly.
Q: What if it gets cold outside?
A: Walk faster to create more heat.

When deciding where to park a car.
Q: What if we park and it is far from where we want to go and we have to walk?
A: Aren’t we here to take a walk?
Q: What if the kids get tired?
A: I guess we’ll have to walk back to the car.

When deciding whether to eat to preempt hunger.
Q: What if you get hungry later?
A: I don’t feel like eating now, maybe later.
Q: What if you get so hungry that you eat fast and overeat?
A: I’ll chew carefully so as not eat too fast.

When deciding whether to pack a dinner.
Q: What if you get hungry when you get to the hotel at night?
A: I’ll have some tea and go to sleep.

When deciding whether to move to Japan from the states.
Q: What if you have trouble communicating with people?
A: I like Japan. I will be friendly and do my best.

When deciding whether to move to Taiwan.
Q: What if you can’t get used to it?
A: I guess I’ll have to leave.

When deciding whether to go on sabbatical.
Q: What if you can’t find as good a job?
A: I will leave with gratitude and respect and burn no bridges in case I need to come back, but there are other things I want to do now.

When trying to find a job after graduation.
Q: What if you are unemployed for too long and become unemployable?
A: Seriously? I just graduated.

When trying to find a job after sabbatical.
Q: What if you are unemployed for too long and become unemployable?
A: Seriously? I just had a bunch of unique experiences from my sabbatical.
Q: What if you run out of money?
A: I have money saved, plus as part of my martial arts training, I’m doing construction work. I am actually getting paid to train.

When deciding whether to pack something.
Q: Do I need this?
A: If I am having to ask this question, the answer is probably no.

When being asked about my martial arts skill level.
Q: What if someone pulled a gun on you and asked you for money?
A: I’d give him my money.

The voice of consumerism.
Q: Should I buy this toy?
A: No. It wouldn’t help her to grow. Give her a toy that improves her thinking skills, or let her learn to improvise something.

Questions that make me hesitate, and answers that I wish would come faster.
Usually they stem from a fear of failure.

When I need to ask permission.
Q: What if he says no?
A: So what? Ask.

When I need help.
Q: What if he will not help me?
A: So what? Ask in a friendly way.

When I fear rejection.
Q: What if she doesn’t say yes?
A: She won’t say yes if I wait.

When I am afraid of fear.
Q: What if I mess up because I am afraid?
A: So what? Learn the triggers and learn to relax.

When deciding whether to start.
Q: What if I don’t have enough time to finish?
A: Time is going to pass anyway. Do as much as I comfortably can.

When my opinion differs from others.
Q: What if I offend with my opinion?
A: What do I care what other people think?

When I am deciding where to sit in the office cafeteria and I don’t see anybody I know
Q: What if I am intruding?
A: If they wanted privacy, they wouldn’t be sitting here.

When I am debating whether to invite myself along with some people.
Q: What if I am intruding?
A: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Q: What if they say no?
A: So what?

When about to go into a situation or interaction that requires improvisation.
Q: What if I am unprepared?
A: The wrong preparation, plus over-thinking, could blunt my instincts. Do it now. Pay attention. Relax. Smile. Improvise.

Resources I am confident of:

  1. Health and strength
  2. Discipline
  3. Creativity
  4. Simplicity and improvisation as opposed to complexity and preparedness.

Resources I am less confident of:

  1. Being a jerk. I care too much about coming across as nice, but I should allow myself to be a jerk. Both “nice” and “jerk” imply inappropriate reaction to the situation at hand. Instead of losing a nice-guy attribute, I should think of it as gaining a jerk attribute and expanding my range of expression.
  2. Improvisation skills in a conversational setting. I should treat small talk like dancing or aikido and go for flow rather than precision. This does not mean not paying attention. Mistakes and bumps are made almost unnoticeable by timely redirection, and this is a cooperative effort.

Both these skills/resources require calibration as outlined in this article (分かるように調整する). Unless I make mistakes, I will not develop the right calibration. Mistakes should be interesting instead of something to be avoided. Interesting is a good word because interesting things can be looked at in a relaxed and insightful way.

Five principles for action: Do it now. Pay attention. Relax. Smile. Improvise.


Frontier Spirit

I spoke with my boss today about some debug issues that we’ve been dealing with at a customer. One issue has been dragging on for about two and a half months now, though I’ve been working on it for only a month. My boss gave me some good advice: some direction in terms of lines of investigation and people to enlist for help. But then she went on a frequent tangent.

“Be careful,” she said. “I can see that you’ve been working on it, but the project engineers at the customer have a habit of naming names. This issue has been open for two and a half months. The fact that it’s unresolved has already drawn the attention of one of their middle managers. If it drags on much longer, they could get impatient. If they get impatient, they might get frustrated. If they get frustrated, they could complain. If they complain, they might complain up to the our business unit. They might attach your name. And then, well your reputation, and then…”

I cut her off. “And then, we wouldn’t win their business, would we?”

“Not only that. Your job could be at stake.”

I considered this. A difficult engineering problem that I’ve been coordinating work on between the customer and our engineers leading to my job being at stake. And I shrugged. My boss gets on to this tangent nearly every time we speak about work.

I appreciated her concern for me, but I had this thought: “That’s not me.”

I have been fortunate never to have found myself in such situations on the job, but in my personal experiences and in the experiences of my friends, family, and co-workers, I find that it’s not unusual, even if one puts his best forth, to be misinterpreted or even to be cast out. When judgement time comes, there are those who try to play someone else’s game: they try argue and prove themselves, or they agree too easily with others’ estimation of them, and then there are those who walk away, to another department job, or other frontier. While grit is important, the latter don’t look like they ran away from their problems so much as outgrew them.

It is a characteristic of societies, be they on the level of a company or a nation, that the more developed they become, the more advancement becomes dependent not on ability, but on cunning political maneuvering. Rome and Enron are extreme examples. Such silliness can be avoided by heading for the frontier. There are difficulties in adapting to the frontier, but there are also difficulties trying to play someone else’s game. Haruki Murakami said it best: “We cannot avoid suffering, but we get to choose its form.”

This post is dedicated to my friends of frontier spirit, many of whom I met in Japan, and many of whom, in the search for their own blue ocean, have moved on to other places. I love you guys. I miss you. When we meet again, let’s swap stories and say to each other “That was a good ride.” 🙂

Silencing the Ego

After 1 1/2 weeks in the states, a taste of Japan in the ANA airport lounge before my flight to Taipei. I ordered noodles at the noodle bar, where there is a noren curtain concealing my and my server’s faces from each other.

Irasshaimase, said my server. Kitsune soba, I ordered.
Some activity behind the counter, and she presented my noodles.

It is not common for such a noren curtain to be in such a place, but that it is there does not feel restrictive at all.

In Japan, people do not seek for personal recognition, but seek to perform their role well with a respectful distance. It is not so much self-effacement as it is an emphasis on doing a quality job, and it is refreshing.

Once I tried to strike up a conversation with a barber while getting my hair cut. After a few pleasantries, he said that he would prefer not to talk. An unusual reaction, but entirely consistent – he would simply prefer to concentrate on doing a good job cutting my hair.