Category Archives: Wisdom

Taking Pulse

An police officer I met at martial arts practice told me this. He doesn’t like to arrest people for minor offenses, like driving without a license, “if I catch someone driving without a license, I’ll say, you can call someone who has a license, and I’ll wait here with you, and they can come here and drive you home, and I’ll let you off with a warning.”

He says he know some of these guys make 200 dollars a month, and if he were to write them up, they have to pay for the fine, they’d have to pay to get their car unimpounded, and they be in a lot worse a situation – like having to steal to get by.

They remember him, and they’re greatful. Then, some time later he’ll be going after a really bad guy, and he calls on his people for leads. And he’ll protect his sources. “They don’t need to know how I knew.”

I thought – this is a good cop. He knows the people he is charged with protecting, and knows when to use discretion.



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.


Reverse Culture Shock

A thoughtful friend of mine recently returned to the United States wrote to me about reverse culture shock.

“[I was shocked when my friend said.] I don’t care what you think. I’m gonna do it my way.” — which was one thing you mocked Americans for saying.

… I’m kind of surprised by how much noise there is, how loud and noisy people themselves are. It seems like we use space to “solve” issues, mitigating problems just by putting more distance between ourselves. Not just manners … we move our trash away to landfills, people move away from people they don’t like, etc.

And I’ve found myself coping by re-adopting a lot of these bad habits. Americans are also great at fighting fire with more fire.

I was first of all surprised at the speed that my friend absorbed a lot of Japanese thinking very quickly his brief stay here. I noticed the things that he mentioned, but it took me longer – maybe on the order of five years to his two weeks.

Why is reverse culture shock a sad thing at all? It seems like it must be a gain, because people who don’t absorb the culture where they travel never get culture shock. This additional cultural knowledge should result in being more able to empathize with people and more skill in working with ambiguous situations.

Why then, the sense of disorientation when coming back to one’s home culture, which one should in fact understand better than when he left? As with so many forms of interpersonal interaction, I find insights through the practice of martial arts. Martial arts is physical practice in negotiating ambiguity and conflict resolution, and represents the world in microcosm.

Each art, and to a large extent, each school is a collection of strategies for dealing with situations, and expectations about what your partner will attempt to do. This makes up its culture, and this structure is necessary because the actual world is too chaotic and boundless to lend itself to study. Some level of formalization is necessary to begin exploration and mapping of the world. Yet when the practitioner goes to another school to study, or switches to a different martial art, he finds that the formalization is a gross approximation. There is shock at encountering a different system of expectations, movement, and negotiation. He may exploit some effective openings, and face difficulties where he has his own gaps in understanding. This is culture shock.

After which, the student returns to his school, and is able to see what is wrong with what he is being taught. He may see possible counterattacks that have not been accounted for. He may see more efficient ways of moving. He may see that his partner is moving in response to a preconception, instead of responding to the situation at hand. When he sees such discrepancies in the people he was studied with and tried to learn from, he may become disillusioned with his teachers and fellow students. This is one definition of reverse culture shock.

Reverse culture shock requires its own coping mechanisms. At times people’s thinking and behavior look so obviously to stem from blind dogmatism that one has a strong desire to overtly educate people, but this seldom works well. The knowledge that we have is generally gained through experience, and acts at a level deeper than conscious thought. While a theoretical explanation works on a conscious level, it has a limited effect on behavior. What you have learned through experience, the other person must also learn by experience. Yet relentlessly exploiting a weakness to attempt to compress the experiential learning can make the other person become psychologically closed off. So, the most natural way to bring about change is to work within a framework of trust and feed the practice partner a set of ideas and experiences at a level appropriate to him. This may be done so subtly that the other person sees them not as things you are teaching but as insights that he has gained through interacting with you.

So this takes care of the problem of transmitting knowledge… This is another definition of reverse culture shock – the strong desire to pass on what one has learned. But the other issue is once there was the comfort of expecting that there was a correct way of doing things, and the confidence that it could be discovered. That comfort is gone. What is left is a feeling of being an outsider after having traveled to a different school, yet on returning in one’s home school, there is no relief – one still feels like an outsider. This is something I am still struggling with, but I think it is the beginning of being one’s own teacher, of having the sense that there is a lot to be learned, but we have to walk our own path, and there might be no one who can teach us everything that we want to know.

Yet, this path is formless and by definition, unwalkable. I can see in children of bi-cultural families where the parents are inconsistent in applying discipline, and in students who try to start two martial arts at the same time, that the students are confused by conflicting messages. While it may be possible for parents to completely educate children biculturally, or for the student of high physical aptitude to start in two martial arts at the same time, this is generally very difficult. For any student, there must be a home culture, a starting point. And, because we are all students, we must choose for ourselves a place to start. We must choose for ourselves a home ground, even with the realization that the worldview it represents is not objectively correct. American and Japanese culture are not correct to the exclusion of the other. Aikido and Karate are not correct to the exclusion of the other. Mathematically speaking, euclidean and polar coordinates are not correct to the exclusion of the other. They are just better adapted to different situations. After the shock of discovering the limitations of one’s original value system, one is painfully aware that choosing any perspective means that some things will be obscured from view. One is loathe to take on any obstructions again, so it is counter-intuitive to choose, but for any progress to be made, we have to choose a starting point.

In Aikido, I have often traveled to schools where they say “we follow” a certain teacher, and I have met Jewish rabbis who say “we follow” a certain rabbi. These are vast systems of codified and sometimes contradictory points of view that try to map the chaos of human choices into a transmittable system; the hope is that each generation can learn just a little bit faster and get a little bit smarter than the previous one. Without this codification, each generation would be stuck with the enormous task of creating its culture from scratch. But, even Aikido and Judaism are so vast that people choose a teacher to follow – one who has wrestled with contradictions and developed explanations – they explicitly choose a point of view to be the starting point of their experiential learning.

Cultures, like all maps, are feeble approximations of the real world, but one map must be chosen. In realizing that the map is not the territory, dogmatism turns into a healthy distrust of the map, which one follows with a measure of faith, but with an awareness that there are places not mapped accurately, or not mapped at all. We heed the GPS, but keep our eyes on the road.

Story Wars

Isn’t it interesting, how our life story comes out in everything that we do? It comes out in the stories about ourselves that we tell, in the advice we give to other people, in the way we approach work, in the way we approach play.

Today, I was at a seminar whose keynote was given by a man whose life story was he was the youngest (38) mid-level manager at his company, each fact which he drew attention to three times throughout his talk. At the beginning of his talk he said – “Don’t be intimidated by my ‘manager’ title. I’m a person, too.” The talk sounded like “I’m the most successful young guy at my company, and it’s because I’ve worked intelligently to get here. Here’s how you can work intelligently, too.” He spoke in generalities, and I felt like needling him. So I did. For example:

When he asked “What is one of the things that a marketer should do?”
I said “Avoid saying anything bad about the product, and say only good things. For example, if you raised beef on a feedlot without pasture, you might say that the beef was raised in an area with ample space, clean water, and the companionship of his kind, and simply not mention that there was no pasture.”
“Yes, I would interpret your answer as ‘make sure the customer knows the benefits of your product.'”

When he asked “Why should we try to model successes?”
I said “How can you know that the success wasn’t by chance? Maybe the successful guy was just lucky, especially if he’s never failed before.”
And he said. “We’ll I’m speaking in a sales context, of whether or not a salesman has met his quotas, and believe me, I’ve had my share of failing to meet my quota.”

He was a good sport – he took everything that I said and turned it around into a motivational exhortation. Good for him. I can admire that. So the “you can work intelligently, too” part of his life story was a genuine desire and a belief. For this, I had to respect him.

Not only did I learn a few tricks on how to put a positive spin on things, but this has me thinking of me and my own life story. Why do I feel the way I feel? And this is the first time that I’ve been able to see it in this way. I guess my life story is: “I’m moderately successful, but I’ve been very lucky, because I’ve met a lot of intelligent and motivated people who have not been so lucky.” So I become suspicious of people who come across as believing they are successful because they have worked so intelligently.

Writing about this now, I can see that the root of all personal conflict is when another person’s story conflicts with our story. The problem is that people are so into their own stories, that sometimes they can’t step out.

I recall an argument between a former president of my local Toastmasters club and a member who wanted to come back to give a speech after having taken a hiatus. The president was new enough that she had never met the old member until the day that he showed up wanting to give a speech. The exchange went something like this:

I’d like to give a speech. He said.
Her response to him was – only members can give speeches.
I am a member.
Have you paid dues?
I haven’t paid because I’ve been away.
You’ll have to pay dues before you can give a speech.
I’ve been away because I’ve been sick. I’ll pay my dues, but you’ve made me feel very unwelcome. You should apologize.
Why should I apologize? I’ve only stated the rules.

This actually escalated into having to call the district governor in to mediate. You can see that maybe on the one hand, the president felt that the man was asking for an exemption to the rules, and she had to put her foot down, and on the other hand, the old man was willing to pay dues, but just wanted to be acknowledged and welcomed as an old member, which the president was unwilling to do because she felt a man she didn’t even know was questioning her authority. They never did apologize to each other, and the president ended up leaving with half the club to start a new one on the same day of the week at a different location.

Amazing, right? Two people, having the same conversation, constructing two very different webs of meaning, to the extent that they’re not really having the same conversation. To the extent that we can have safe conversations, from a pool of shared meaning, we can have harmonious relations with each other.

The president could have said. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to make you feel unwelcome. I’m glad you’re back after being sick, and I’m looking forward to hearing speeches from you. Let’s reactivate your membership so we can schedule a speech for you.”

Or the man could have said. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to ask for an exemption. Let me reactivate my membership today. If I seem disappointed, it was expecting a warmer welcome back.”

To get to the pool of shared meaning, we have to step inside the other person’s story, uncomfortable because it feels as if we must give ground, and difficult because we have to speak from inside a story that is a challenge to ours.

Willing to Be Lucky in Tokyo

Remember how to approach Tokyo: turning chance meetings into friends, saying yes to trying new things, having a feeling of weightlessness. It is already defying gravity to uproot and replant oneself on the other side of the world. Now, feel weightless no matter where you are.

Watch your emotional set-point. Be relaxed, balanced, and happy. Beware of cynicism and fear. A touch of fear makes the trains run on time, but makes people meet and talk endlessly over the same things, struggling to control things out of their control, regretting the past, or complaining about things without taking responsibility.

Do not chalk things up to culture. Culture is a set of patterns in a population, but individuals can change their opinions. Diversity is not valued in Japan, but your friends may find you refreshing because they will find in you parts that they have hidden away. If they find you frustrating you cannot demand that they change.

Beware of hidden meaning when running to catch the train. Are you for the machine, or is the machine for you?

Do not lie to yourself about sleep. Sleep lets you pay attention to work, to people, to your environment. Life happens fast. Pay attention.

Stay young and leave room for novelty by keeping things uncluttered – keep you mind uncluttered, keep your apartment uncluttered, keep your relationships uncluttered.

Strength is not in engineering your environment; it is the ability to face vulnerability and overcome defeat. Call the girl. Meet the customer. Be bravely honest. No mountain biker ever got good by going at a speed that he knew was safe. The danger is thrilling. Keep your eyes where you’re going.

Stay willing to be lucky.