Change is the only constant.

I am a peculiar breed of Chinese. I picked up speaking Bahasa Malaysia as I grew up in a majority Malay area. At home, I spoke English. In my childhood years, I had minimal non-Malay friends, and as such did not end up learning any Chinese dialects.

But, one thing I did enjoy every evening were TVB dramas, typically broadcast on national TV at 7pm. It was my only source of Cantonese.

Other than learning “what is your problem?” and “busybody” in the Cantonese dialect, I unfortunately did not pick up any other phrases. What I did remember, though, was a particular scene in one of the episodes.

The restaurant owner and his customer.

Image source

Out of passion and skill, one of the characters in the show opened an upscale restaurant, serving more sophisticated food. Despite the quality of the food and ambiance, it did not manage to draw a crowd.

One day, a person who was working in a construction area nearby had dropped by to taste the food. The restaurant owner, sensing an opportunity, tried to persuade him to bring his co-workers over. The owner was confident that they would like it, as the food was good!

However, the customer had provided feedback that this is not what construction workers wanted. Despite the food being good, they want food which is cheap, fast, and large in quantity. They need to be full to work hard! If the restaurant owner was willing to cater to these needs, he will most definitely bring them over. There were many hungry workers ready to try out a new place, he said.

The turnaround.

The owner deliberated. Customers were still not coming into his restaurant. He was soon facing financial difficulties in up-keeping the cost of running the restaurant.

One day, he decided to give change a try. He invited that customer back to the restaurant, and this time, serving a menu that was cheaper, larger in quantity, and since he was skillful in cooking, it was also delicious.

Eventually, his customer brought in more of his colleagues, and they all raved about the food and the restaurant. They then promised that they’ll be frequent customers to his restaurant. All is now well. His restaurant was saved!

History repeats itself.

Similarly, real life offers many case studies. Take the example of Nokia. It was unable to see the need to innovate beyond its highly successful versions of mobile phones (remember snake?). What about Toys R’ Us? It did not see the urgency to move into e-commerce. Remember Kodak? It was huge while I was growing up, but nevertheless was made redundant when images went digital.

A familiar quote. (Image source)

By examining history, what can be learned here is that the only constant that we can expect is change. There is no such thing as complete certainty. We cannot expect to land a job and assume that it will always remain there. Similarly, your relationships, health, and finances wax and wane through time. It is up to us to not take these resources and blessings for granted.

It is within the nature of the world that change is constantly happening. This happens at the extent of the ever expanding universe, and even down to the smallest particle. Isn’t it interesting that as you are reading this, the cells in your body are even being replaced with completely new ones?

Who Moved My Cheese?

In the book “Who Moved My Cheese?”, the human characters wake up each morning always expecting the mountain of cheese, to which they get their source of nutrition from, to always be there. On the other hand, the mice characters always have their running shoes with them, constantly measuring volume of cheese remaining, and sniffing around for new cheese.

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Not surprisingly, the cheese eventually finishes. The human characters continue to grumble and be unhappy over the situation, while the mice had already found new cheese. Which would you rather be in this fable, the humans or the mice?

Put on your running shoes.

The only control that we have over change is our attitude. Being open and adaptable to change, always looking out for opportunities, and never taking things for granted are vital attitudes in welcoming change. By having these attitudes, we avoid being complacent, and are instead ready for success.

Do you have your running shoes with you? What are you waiting for, change is around the corner!

What are the habits that you have unknowingly learned?

As you all may know, I am quite fond of animals. Especially dogs.

Just now, I was filling up petrol into my car when I hear a group of dogs playing and barking at one another in the bushes nearby. A thought crossed my mind about the welfare of dogs, and how they have to live through difficult conditions. I felt a tinge of sadness.

Image source

And then I remembered about a night when I was driving along a quiet road. It was dark, but at the side of the road were a pack of dogs walking along. As soon as one of them saw my car, it immediately became aggressive and tried getting ahead. It was trying its best to put itself in front of the car. I remember having a hard time avoiding that dog and trying to get away without hurting it. It was as if that dog had a personal vendetta against my car, or at least, how my car looks like.

What could have driven that dog to perform that irrational behavior, putting itself in danger?

My dog, Mocha.

One of my dogs at home came to our family as a stray. We started to befriend Mocha (his name) when I was operating a small cafe a few years ago. Each morning, he would greet us at our cafe, and would spend his time by laying around the corridor or would interact with us whenever we are seated outside.

My dog, Mocha.

When we brought him home, he too displayed rather irrational behavior whenever he is out on walks with me. He would crouch his body, as if being in a defensive position, whenever a motorbike passes by. When it is almost past him, he would leap himself forward just a little, almost like performing a small lunge towards it. This behavior happens almost automatically each time that kind of vehicle passes by him.

My mother related a story to me about a time when Mocha was still living at the compound of our cafe. One evening, as she was seated next to him, two youths on a motorbike rode dangerously close. It was clear that their intention was to taunt him. As they came closer, they tried kicking him. And then they sped off.

In a bid to protect himself in that situation, Mocha was fearful but also had to put up a front of aggression.

I can only wonder what he experienced during all those hours that we did not spend with him. We only caught a glimpse of his life as a stray. And I can also imagine how he had to respond to such situations in order to defend himself when put in such an unfavorable situation.

That seemingly irrational behavior of the dog that put itself in front of my car no longer seems irrational if I could understand more of what it had gone through in life.

Lessons from a dog.

Such behaviors do not only happen in animals. It also happens in us. Most times, we gradually learn how to respond to situations by receiving appropriate feedback and outcomes. This applies to all of our social roles, whether as a family member, friend, co-worker, and so on. For example, I can have a discussion with my schoolteacher when I get marked wrong for a math question. The next time I encounter a similar math question, I am able to do it much better.

But sometimes, we unexpectedly receive overwhelming negative feedback and outcomes that instead leaves a lasting impact on us. Going back to the example of the math question, I could instead be humiliated in front of the classroom for my inadequacy in answering it. A seemingly small challenge is instead met with an outcome that is overwhelmingly disproportionate.

These experiences could leave a lasting impact in how we view ourselves, others, and the world. The mental pieces that we are gradually putting together in building a stable and secure understanding of reality could instead be bulldozed by a traumatic experience.

The unknowing habits.

While there may be some of us who could display signs of trauma very obviously, most of us do not. As much as we think these events of the past do not bother us anymore, it creeps unto us unknowingly. It shows itself and is labeled as personality quirks, preferred behavior, or habits.

For example, behaviors labeled as “stingy” could instead stem from a family background of financial constraint. A personality that is quick to anger may have developed through a schooling environment to which aggression is a way to get by. A habit of being dependent on a romantic partner could instead be explained by a childhood home to which parents were often absent.

Examples of unknowing habits by the Average Joe could go on and on.

What are you going to do about it?

Both you and I have distinct differences compared to Mocha’s seemingly automatic response to a passing bike. Compared to him, we have the ability for deep introspection on the causes of our behavior, to examine available options for behavior change, and to practice freedom of choice in implementing those changes.

The mental faculties that we have has brought us great innovation in technology and the way we live. Our psychological and social well-being can similarly be improved by applying those same faculties.

Image source

We do not have fixed destinies. Past experience allows us to learn how to think and behave in daily life. Similarly, we can set up a path of present and future experiences to which we can learn new ways of thinking and behaving. Reality is completely changeable if we allow it to be so.

The question is: is the doer willing to exert time and effort in addressing this?

Making the unknown, known.

In all likelihood, the person engaging in an unhelpful habit would have the awareness that such a habit is unhelpful. Behaviors that do not serve us well can be noticed when it does not give added value.

We can further improve our insight into this by taking on a more active role in auditing our habits. We could elicit regular feedback from others, and take time to reflect and journal. I believe this is vital.

However, there are also unhelpful habits that could be out of one’s awareness. Despite all indications of a behavior being unhelpful to oneself, a person could continuously and unknowingly behave in ways which are detrimental to the self.

In this case, I believe that professional services in the form of a therapist can be most helpful. As a user of such services, I have received immense benefits of developing self-awareness and insight. I wouldn’t otherwise accomplish that through self-reflection alone. While it may feel like digging into a mixed bag, getting to the right therapist can be a transformative experience.

It could be a personal habit of mine, but I do find it an exciting endeavor in making the unknown, known. A hunch tells me that you would similarly enjoy such an endeavor too.

The Case Of The Dog And Its Tail

Dogs have taught me a great deal about life. This article is about one of them. (Image source)

It felt just like yesterday when I had taken my UPSR exams (note: an exam one takes in Malaysia before entering secondary/ high school). I remember that teachers would oftentimes give prep talks before lessons regarding how important that exam would be. They would say that not only is this exam important to get into a good high school, but also in employee selection. If there are two candidates of equal standing to choose from, employers would then go back to as far as your UPSR exam results to make their pick.

Imagine being a 12 year old boy and believing that is true. The UPSR exams felt like a mountain to overcome. There were countless hours of studying, extra tuition, and even an overnight camp at school to prepare for this.

I remember a great deal of anxiety leading up to that event. When it was all done and the results announced, a big sigh of relief followed. Wow, I finally did it?

Life After The Exams

About 20 years has passed since that exam. Was it a life changing event? Not as much as I thought it would be. It now feels like a passing moment I had went through as a 12 year old boy. As much as the teachers believed in its importance, the exam results were never shown on my CV.

Since then, I had gone through similar events in my life. I went through a couple of important school examinations, a pre-university exam, completed my degree, completed a master’s degree, got my first job, started my first business… and the list goes on.

Each one of these events felt the same like when I was sitting for my UPSR examinations. In my mind, it was a big challenge that I had to overcome, and that it was really, really, important that I accomplish it well.

Did it matter in the end? It somewhat did, but not as much as I thought it would be. When I’m done with a challenge, I move on to the next. Each time, thinking that this next challenge to be more important the one preceding it. Each time, thinking that it will somehow make my life better than before.

A Dog and Its Tail

Have you seen a dog chasing its own tail?

I did. One fine day, I managed to catch a glimpse of this amusing occurrence. As the dog spots its tail at the corner of its eyes, round and round it goes, thinking it can outsmart the tail. Lo and behold, to both the dog and my surprise, it did manage to bite on it. A long pause followed, as it mentally processed through what had just happened.

All its life, it has chased the tail to no avail. And now that it has managed to do it, does not know what to do next. There was a look of confusion. It let go of its own tail. And then it walked away, as if nothing happened.

The Chase of Life

While it may seem amusing to watch this happen to a dog, this is what we do in our lives as well. We continuously chase after our own metaphorical tail, thinking that this upcoming accomplishment will significantly alter the course of our lives.

Most of the time, it doesn’t. We move on to the next thing.

Looking at things objectively, we will continuously achieve our goals, one presumably bigger than the one before it. It is in the very nature of a person’s development. As we develop more skills and resources with the passage of time, we develop competence over incrementally more challenging tasks. This is life.

But I think the important question to ponder on here is: What is the purpose to all of this?

Process > Outcome

After all, what really matters? (Image source)

Looking back at the time of my UPSR exams, what I remembered fondly of wasn’t the grades that I received. Instead, I smile when I think about discovering what a leaf is comprised of. There were also the long walks home with my friend while eating snacks under the scorching afternoon sun. And we played games using whatever we had, such as pencils, erasers, papers in between classes.

What I most valued out of working towards that goal was the time spent being a 12 year old boy.

Whether or not we are able to have great accomplishments in our lifetime remains uncertain. But what is certain is that we cannot relive a moment. And you’ll find that the best moments aren’t the times when you actually accomplish your goals, but the memories made working towards it.

A great poet once said that “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women are merely players”. I think wisdom comes in knowing that we’re all playing our roles in this show of life; and savoring the time that we have doing it makes all the difference.

Jack Of All Trades

Greetings, fellow Netizens. I am excited to appear from an all new domain name (previously www.meetalvin.com). I also have a new e-mail address, hello@alvin.my. Remnants of my digital footprints bearing my former e-mail address is still floating around in digital space. I’m looking forward to getting to them, as I can then consider myself reborn into the realm of the Internet!

One thing I’ve learned to appreciate from migrating to a new domain (and also watching a whole lot of the TV series Billions) is how vast the entirety of knowledge actually is. I wouldn’t have understood one bit of this IT thingamajig if I had purely defined myself as a psychologist. Furthermore, I wouldn’t have understood references to pop culture and also the financial markets in that TV series. Side note: coincidentally, the financial markets has also been my interest as of late.

I’ve been on a binge with this TV show about law enforcement, politics, and the financial markets. (image source)

What makes a complete person?

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time digging deep into psychology. I’ve even made it my career. While I thoroughly enjoy it, it does not make a complete education of what it means to be a person.

For example, being a brand of psychologist that I align with would mean having skills not only in mental health, but also (among many others):

  • Public speaking and training
  • Group facilitation
  • Copywriting
  • Marketing (digital and conventional)
  • Web design
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Accounting
  • Stakeholders management
  • Networking
  • And many others (this list gets too long)

These skills come alongside the crucial need to develop skills in my personal life that makes me a balanced individual. This can include communication and relationship management, personal finance, spirituality, physical health, appreciation of the arts, philosophy, and leisure.

Depending on where you skew towards in your pursuit of life, there can be many more facets to improving oneself. However, does a person adequately embrace these developmental needs? Most people would hope that the education that they’ve gone through would address their learning needs to sustain their life. I find this to be far from the truth.

Case in point, the first time I had ever verbally presented in front of a crowd was in University. Education till then did not at all include any element of communicating information to a crowd. Had I just relied on what I was good at (at that point, it will be to read, memorize, and regurgitate information), I would be a wholly different person now. And in my opinion, I would be a much more incomplete person.

Safe and sound

I have noticed that a bubble takes shape around a person once working experience starts to accumulate. If a person is a psychologist, that is all there is about the person. If a person is an architect, then that is all there is about the person.

There is a kind of uni-dimensionality that happens to a person with more time spent in an industry. Understandably so, as being good at something provides a whole load of reinforcement. Being competent means having social validation. Being competent also means that a person no longer have to make mistakes. And to a great extent, that is soothing and safe.

There’s big hype surrounding Industry 4.0. Are we ready? (image source)

With safety and validation also comes a great downside. Is being too niche into our skill-set allowing us to thrive (or let alone survive) in the 4th Industrial Revolution? Disruption to industries and the way we live/ work happens at breakneck speed. One day, my industry is booming. The next day, I could be out of work.

Calm seas never made a skilled sailor

In my view, going through life’s education in a holistic manner equips a person to sail through these stormy uncertainties. This journey would require me to stretch beyond skills that I’m good at to skills that I am a doofus in. It may even seem disconnected at times. Strangely, I find that oftentimes it is entirely related, especially when opportunity presents itself.

You and I know of this saying that goes “A jack of all trades, master of none”. I was surprised to learn recently that the complete version of this is:

“A jack of all trades, master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one”.

Should You Be GALLUP Certified?

According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report in 2013, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged in their workplace. In the same report, disengaged employees stand at 63%, while actively disengaged employees make up 24%.

The Gallup trainer gave an excellent analogy to this. Being engaged at the workplace is like noticing trash on the floor and deciding to pick it up to throw it in the bin. The disengaged employee would instead ignore it and pretend that it isn’t there. The actively disengaged employee is the one who threw it on the floor in the first place.

People are usually unhappy at the workplace. How do we solve this? Image Source

Why I decided to be a Gallup-certified coach

I have found it to be increasingly important to be passionate and enjoy being at the workplace. This became much more apparent while working with my current team. At the same time, I cannot imagine doing a job that I hate. We are working 2/3 of our lives away. For most of us, we have the privilege of choice. We can make better decisions with regards to how we choose to spend that huge portion of our time.

I decided to be a psychologist based on personal experience. I learned that psychology and therapy made me a better person, and as a result, live a better quality of life. This inspired me to provide a similar experience to others as well. More recently, gaining self-awareness and making active choices in my career also provided me with similar benefits. As such, it makes so much sense to learn how to provide this benefit to others too.

Coincidentally, Gallup has established a reputation to be one of the leading authorities in employee engagement surveys and solutions. Their main source of revenue comes from the administration of related psychometric tools, corporate consulting, and coaching services. I bought myself a seat to be trained in one of their tools and to be a certified “strengths coach”.

And So My Journey Began

I flew over to the Philippines by paying a grand sum of about RM15,000. This course fee was for 4.5 days worth of training. Given the princely sum (at least for me), it is worth objectively evaluating whether the course has been worth the price.

I arrived a day before the training and checked into a hotel within walking distance of the place. The training location was comfortable, the food was great, and the participants were welcoming and eager to learn.

The course itself? To be honest, it was nothing short of impressive. As a business, they have certainly established the “why” of their value proposition:

  1. Disengaged employees are costing businesses a lot of money.
  2. People are unhappy at the workplace. They spend a lot of time doing something they dislike (while being terrible to their colleagues).
  3. Managers could be technically skilled. However, managers often work up the ranks from a technical position. As such, they may not necessarily have the skill set to manage people. Have you heard of the term “people leave managers, not companies”?

Gallup offers a solution to this through a psychometric tool which gives a glimpse to a person’s “strengths”, which are described as “talent themes”. These are a person’s tendencies in thinking, behaving, and feeling, especially in a professional setting. By developing this self-awareness (and going through coaching of how to best use these strengths to his/her advantage), he or she will be able to navigate through a satisfying career path, work along better with colleagues, and manage others more effectively.

I must say, the company has thoroughly done their homework. They delivered a solid learning experience. To top it off, I received a variety of learning materials, picture cards, handouts, booklets, and any possible tool that you can think of to start coaching with this psychometric tool. Gallup equips you with comprehensive material from start to finish. This includes coaching tools for the employee, the manager, the team, and even the initial business pitch to the company (with PowerPoint slides included).

This course provides tools to work with a variable number of people, which is neat. Image Source

The trainers are also highly knowledgeable in the ins and outs of the tool. If you are in it for the right reasons (continue reading below), then this training is definitely worth the money with great take home value. I also took home with me 5kg worth of materials, which they have nicely included into a Gallup tote bag.

But…

No doubt, this tool and coaching principles offers great utility in helping people navigate through a professional setting. As with any other tool, it measures a limited scope of human potential. A coach has to be mindful to not overgeneralize “talent themes” beyond what it can. From time to time, the training program may insinuate that it is possible to make this sweeping generality. For example, the trainers made us examine how Talent A can in fact be used as Talent B, Talent C or Talent D, which ultimately defeats the purpose of identifying what Talent A is in the first place (to know more, read the Barnum effect).

However, this does not change my high opinion of the course, tool, or trainers. I am aware that this is due to a commercial decision. The organization is treating this as a comprehensive product and service due to it being the bread-and-butter of the company. While a person who is highly competent in coaching through this tool will provide significant benefit to the coachee, it is not a be all and end all of coaching. It simply does not possess the scientific rigor for such an ambitious task. The same goes for any other psychometric tool.

Should You Sign Up For This Course?

You can consider signing up for this course if you:

  1. Work with people at a capacity of a consultant. This includes psychologists, counselors, coaches, trainers, and so on. This tool and training provides an angle to work with people who are seeking guidance in being better working professionals. If this tool can be an added value to your existing skills, is relevant to your clientele, and is a promising means of return on monetary investment, then you can seriously consider taking up this course.
  2. Are a passionate manager who wants to grow his/ her team. A great manager is one who is also a mentor, coach, and leader to his/ her team. This tool can be a great addition to your skill set. The caveat here is that the tool is purchased on a single use basis. Each team member has to take the assessment first.
  3. Are looking for marketable value if you have a related consulting business. Many companies use this tool. You can leverage on this.

You should not sign up for this course if you:

  1. Are looking for career advancement, and think that adding a (rather niche) coaching certification can add value to that. In this case, there is a bigger value add to instead go for a part-time MBA. Albeit requiring a little more money, time, and effort, there will be more weight to what you can offer the business. Where I come from, companies still rely a lot on paper qualifications.
  2. Have no relevant background in working with people and intend to start doing so. This course isn’t for you. You could instead go for more a general coaching course. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) do recognize some of these courses, which is an added advantage. It’s cheaper, you get a wider scope of study, and your coaching will not be narrowly defined by a psychometric tool.
  3. Are interested in consulting people, but not specifically for corporate settings. In this case, it will be much more relevant to be trained as a counselor. Mental health services has a wider market when it comes to individual clients looking for personal development.

In Conclusion

Gallup’s psychometric tool and it’s accompanying coaching course can be a great addition to your existing repertoire of skills and resources. I enjoyed myself throughout the training. I personally find that I made a worthwhile investment. My only caution is to not harbor hope in it being the only tool that you’ll need to rely on. After all, personal development is a journey that never stops.

Team Work Makes The Dream Work

Recently, a student had uttered the title of this post during one of our many group sharing. As of late, I’ve come to appreciate this tagline much more.

I completed the MBTI (a kind of personality test) sometime last year, along with team members from the university that I am attached to. What I’ve taken away from it is that I thrive more when tasks/ projects are pursued based on the “big picture”. Also, I do well when tasks are done more spontaneously in a less-structured manner. In a nutshell, I get “fired up” when something has a strong “why”, with problem-solving done as things go along.

Understanding Differences

This resonates with me, as I oftentimes find myself getting excited over prospects of projects and pursuits that I have in mind. I am very motivated when piecing parts of my life together – the opportunities available, the skills that I can contribute, resources that I can gather, and the hypothesized outcomes of that. Throughout the course of the year, I have also realized how drained I become when following through with a highly-structured routine or task. If I’m caught up with tasks that requires intense organization skills, it’ll only takes a fraction of the workday for me to feel completely exhausted.

On the other hand, there are people who LOVE doing things that I’m weak in. There are people in my department who thrive in a highly structured and organized environment. This can include tasks in designing and going through lists, steps, and specific formats to get the job done. At the same time, these are the people who would also be drained and irritated when tasks or projects do not have clear and detailed rules or steps to completion.

Obvious fact: Teamwork leads to positive outcomes (Image Source)

Although these two attributes may not be so clearly defined within us, you and I tend to have our preferences. And when two individuals with strong opposing attributes are in a team, there is a chance for unproductive and damaging conflicts to happen. Likewise, when team members understand each other deeply, these attributes can instead complement and improve a team’s performance.

Intentional Teamwork

What I’ve learned is that intention matters a lot. In improving relationships, whether romantic or collegial, intention is the key in making it work and bringing it to the next level. Intention allows for investment of time and effort into the relationship. One aspect of what I like in the current department is that there is the intention to develop a culture of deep understanding with one another. This involves spending a great deal of time with one another.

We have weekly meetings which starts with personal updates and icebreakers. There is also tremendous investment in training which develops not only our primary roles, but also in learning new things about one another. Not forgetting, all the retreats and outings that we have gone for, with the intention of not only to having fun, but to have sessions to reflect and learn about ourselves and others in the team.

As a result, our strengths and weaknesses complement one another. There is little, if at all, damaging criticism or finger pointing. There is ownership over assigned tasks, and no hesitation in seeking for each other’s support when times get tough. Projects are completed well, and the team spirit is high.

Happy Career = Happy Life (image source)

A Meaningful Career

Not many teams I’ve belonged to, or if at all, have reached this level of cohesion. With this experience, my aspiration is to belong to working groups that has the intention in developing high levels of team work. I strongly believe that investment should be prioritized in developing human capital, and only with that is it possible to reach new heights in career advancement.

After all, we spend 1/3 of our lives working. Wouldn’t it be all the more meaningful to spend it in a way that’s enjoyable?

READY TO LAUNCH: Comprehensive Guide To A Fulfilling And Meaningful Life For The 20 To 30-Something [INTRODUCTION]

Note: I had started on writing a book a while back, but had not prioritized completing it for the longest time. After much deliberation and soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that now is the best time to accomplish this. I expect this book to be completed and published by the middle of next year. This is the introduction to the book:

INTRODUCTION

I remember being depressed when I was 20 years old. Like many others at that age, romantic relationships formed a big part of my life experience. Upon a traumatic relationship breakdown, I went through months of feeling helpless, hopeless, and incompetent in handling myself. I wasn’t a happy person, and had no clue on how to get out of that deep hole that I was in. As a result, I wasn’t keeping up with my studies, suffered with my health, and neglected the existing relationships that I have in my life. I was merely surviving, barely scraping through the day just to live another day. It was a mess.

At this moment of writing, I am filled with an odd feeling of gratitude. Things are different now. In the past decade, I have been investing a lot into figuring out myself. More importantly, I have been learning the tools necessary for me to have a happy and joyful life. I now remember that event as the beginning of a long journey towards personal development. I’m happy to see a significant progress towards being empowered to make the necessary changes in my life, to live according to my values, to have a clearer sense of purpose, and to develop meaningful relationships and career. It has been a fulfilling journey thus far.

Being happy and fulfilled is one of the most important and sought after experiences in life. It is the foundation to the “why” in our actions. It is what gets you out of bed in the morning. It fills you with passion for experiencing life. There isn’t a reasonable person who would want to perform a routine without believing (which may be different from the outcome) that it will provide them with happiness, or at the very least, some relief. In an ideal world, every person deserves to be happy.

However, reality tells a very different story. In 2014, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that about 1 in 5 adults experienced a mental disorder in the United States during that one year duration itself.1 In Malaysia (where I am from), the figure for “mental health problems” rose from 10.7% in 1996 to a shocking 29.2% in 2015!2 That is 1 out of 3 persons in my country experiencing some kind of mental health concern, commonly depression and anxiety.

That is indeed a very worrying number.

That same concern applies to the way we work. For the most part of the urban population, we will be spending at least 1/3 of our lives doing work (measured in hours of the day or years in our lifetime). Considering how much valuable time we are investing into this portion of our lives, I’d think that it is vitally important that work is done in a way that fulfills us. But, the percentage of employed working-age adults across 155 countries who are engaged – meaning they are enthusiastic and very involved in their work – stands at only 15%3.

These numbers show that a significant amount of people in the world are living a life that is unfulfilling, unproductive, and unhappy. Why is this so?

That is the same question that I have been asking myself in the past decade. What started as an inquiry for my personal development also then grew to become a subject for academic understanding and career path.

Studying psychology as a subject matter and completing my undergraduate and postgraduate thesis in studies of happiness, sitting through hundreds of hours of therapy with individuals from all walks of life, and facilitating groups for personal development gave me insight into what people really needed in their lives to become the best versions of themselves. The crux of the matter is this: to live a fulfilling, productive, and happy life, what is needed most are skills to navigate through the seasons and challenges that we face.

As a 30-something who had gone through my 20s experiencing challenges faced by young adults for the first time, such as how to manage and grow relationships, finding a purpose in my daily actions and career, and how to regulate my emotions, I can understand how lost and alone it can feel to not receive the kind of support to know what to do in life. When I look around, it seemed like everyone knew what they were doing and what they wanted. But, hours and hours in therapy with clients tells a different story: while it may seem like things are in order, people are actually struggling with getting a grip on themselves. We are desperately looking for the support and guidance to live a fulfilling life, and for the most of us, we fail to find that holy grail.

The reality is, a one-size-fits-all approach to personal development is not possible.  There is no magic advice that can be given by a guru which will immediately transform your life. This is because we each have different strengths, aspirations, past experience, and chapters of our unique lives that have yet to be told to the world. What is very possible, however, is to bring awareness of the skills that can be developed and applied in your day-to-day life so that you are able to live a life that is to the best of your abilities. As a result, you’ll find that your individual potential can be realized, and life will be more meaningful, joyful, and fulfilled. That is the purpose of this book.

The material gathered for this book comes from years of experience as a psychologist. You’ll find that the skills highlighted in the book may come from empirically-driven approaches from existential, humanistic, and cognitive-behavioral psychology. It also comes from understanding the lived experience of the many clients that I’ve seen throughout my career. Lastly, as someone who is also in your shoes, I hope that my personal experience of living through this part of life can be useful to highlight that just like you, I too go through the same challenges, and that you are not alone.

I hope that you’ll get as much value reading through this book, as much as I did writing it. Let us begin.

What makes a good life?

I had a rather profound moment whilst vacationing on a beautiful island off the coast of Terengganu recently. It was at night, and one of the staff divers was enthusiastically showing us a spot on a big rock for us to look at the stars. Indeed, the sky was really beautiful. The stars looked as if it was hanging off from the atmosphere. I laid on the rock, looking up at the canvas which forms the galaxies to which these stars come from. The gentle blowing wind and sounds of the ocean waves made me imagine what it is like for creatures from the sea to live through this everyday. It must be a peaceful experience.

“It looks good, right?” asked the diver. I replied to the affirmative.

He then exclaimed joyfully, “Of course it does. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been here for 22 years!”. There was a lightness in his steps as he  then headed back to his room.

A stroll by the beach, with a view to remember.

That statement made an impact on me. Sure, the view is incredible. It is peaceful. I feel very much connected to nature. To live like this for 22 years? That seems much more of a sacrifice than a reward, as I would then need to let go of the many worldly desires that I aspire to have.

At the same time, his expression of pure joy to a way of life that he has experienced for a whole 22 years, is very, very, inviting. Clearly, that is an inner experience that I too would like to experience for 22 years. But, I realized that the way to achieve that joy can also be very different. I then snapped out of my illusory trance. While island life serves his inner calling, it is a momentary leisure pit stop for me. We are different individuals meant to live out our unique and individualized purpose.

There is a convenient but tragic flaw in our logical reasoning. When we see someone having something that makes him or her happy, we assume that too, is something that we need to have in order  to be happy ourselves. While this statement may be true for certain universal characteristics of being a person, such as fulfilling basic needs of food, water, shelter, and meaningful relationship(s), in most cases, our estimations of what we need to make us happy are highly inaccurate.

At times, we get so mesmerized by what we see.

What makes us happy depends more on our intrinsic experience, such as living to our values and purpose. Depending truthfully on our  inner compass then leads to fulfilling and meaningful actions. Unfortunately, we find observations of our external environment to be a more valid predictor to our well-being. We oftentimes confuse happiness with what the person has or does. The former is an inner state, while the latter is a way or means of reaching that state of mind. The way to being happy for one person may include amassing power, wealth, and fame. However, that may not be necessary for another person to also achieve happiness. In most cases, such worldly possessions is more of a by-product than an end goal.

The reason a deep neglect of our inner being exists is because external observation is a much more convenient tool. There is little need to inquire on our own individual existence, to explore the plethora of emotions that lies within, and to ultimately be comfortable with answering the question of “Who am I?”. Questioning oneself is akin to opening a Pandora’s box. It is an effortful and frightening process. For many, this becomes overwhelmingly frightening that mimicking the behavior, desire, and goals of others becomes an automatic response.

But, as the saying goes, nothing that is worthwhile is ever easy.

On a related note, I really enjoyed a parable that I’ve read before, of which I will loosely paraphrase here to conclude this blog post:

An explorer from a big city enters a vast jungle. In his adventure, he managed to make his way deep into the jungle. As the afternoon sun began to set in, he rests by the river to regain his strength. Coincidentally, he was met with an aboriginal man. The aboriginal was dressed in nothing but some leaves covering what is necessary.

The explorer, clearly shocked, said “Oh my, look at you! You need to be brought into civilization. Look at the kind of life you are living!”. The aboriginal replied, “What is it that is wrong with me?”

“Firstly, you need to get properly clothed, and go through some education”, said the explorer. “How will that benefit me?” asks the aboriginal.

“You get educated so that you can be smart enough to go to University”, said the explorer. “How will that benefit me?” asks the aboriginal.

“You go to University so that you’re able to get a degree and get a good job”, claimed the explorer in a proud tone. “How will that benefit me?” asks the aboriginal again.

“Well, you get a good job so that you can save enough money to retire when you’re older!” said the explorer, looking increasingly irritated. “How will that benefit me?” asks the aboriginal again, looking even more confused.

“So that you can then do whatever you want!” said the explorer in a loud tone. “Like what?” then asks the aboriginal.

“Well, you can wake up without an alarm and do nothing, go fishing, go for a walk…anything that you feel like doing for the day, really. You can enjoy life, obviously!” the explorer said in a defeated tone.

“Oh..”, the aboriginal murmured under his breath. There was a short pause as he pondered on what he had just heard. He then said, “Isn’t that what I have been doing all along?”