Sunday, 31 July 2011

I'm nobody

I ’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there ’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They ’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

- by Emily Dickinson

Saturday, 9 July 2011


I'm a firm advocate of meritocracy. I believe in a reward system based on merits: on proven well-developed and properly utilized skills that lead to real contributions toward a common goal, to quantifiable accomplishments, to actual positive results that benefited your group or society. A person's progress should be defined by his well-intentioned outputs, and its contribution to the greater good, to be recognized free from any form of discrimination. I believe in a philosophy that transcends race, gender, privilege, appearance or wealth, and dignifies tangible achievements instead above all. A community or company that follows meritocracy in choosing their leaders and promoting members will consistently have qualified individuals at the spearhead, will be maximizing the capacities of those that can contribute, and sets precedence for everyone to improve and achieve.

For meritocracy to truly flourish though, equal opportunity should be provided to everyone. Knowledge in a certain field should be distributed properly to those seeking to pursue it. They should also be provided with the resources required to cultivate their skills. And they should be given a chance to apply the expertise they've learned and prove their competency, then to finally achieve their dreams and maybe even be recognized and rewarded by society for their contributions. Otherwise we would have just another elitist group of leaders again defined by select educational institutions, not much better than rulers defined by accumulated wealth, by association, or by royal blood.

Unfortunately, equal opportunity, and therefore meritocracy, does not currently truly exist. Education is still limited to those who can afford it, especially those provided by world-famous universities. And society mostly only recognizes training gained from accredited institutions or well-known experts, which makes them reluctant to provide those without credentials the resources to develop their skills or the opportunity to utilize their proficiency. A degree from some remote third-world country does not rank high amongst the thousands of others all vying for excellence, and they have a valid argument, since not all institutions have the capacity to provide exceptional instructors and learning facilities. Much more if you don't have that piece of parchment declaring you to be a holder of a certain degree. And since an individual's progress can be limited to how society judges your competency, those at the lower end of the spectrum are left foundering in the wake of those with access to better training.

There are hundreds of thousands of books available for a certain price that would improve your skills, and the internet is slowly opening up a large body of knowledge for free access, but they are usually still disjointed and incomplete for a proper in-depth learning and training on a certain specialization. They would definitely be a superior supplement to your studies, especially if you have the diligence and dedication to immerse yourself fully in it, but unfortunately, these books do not provide the written certification that society demands. And self-study or self-training can only take you so far, to advance further you would need the support of a group to take on larger projects.

But for those truly determined, these limitations set by society are merely challenges to be overcome. No one can restrict what you can or cannot achieve. It will be a difficult uphill struggle, especially if you're near the bottom rungs of the "educational hierarchy", but passion for your work and conviction to your goals will drive you to continue developing your skills, with or without certified training. Meritocracy might not fully exist, but there is enough of it for them to progress upon if they can convince one well-funded organization that they are proficient even without the credentials. History is replete with stories of high school drop-outs who became famous intellectuals and "uneducated" people who improved civilization with their innovative ideas . They achieved this by recognizing that real education or skill is not defined by institutions, but by the individual themselves, and that the real rewards comes not from the medals handed out by society, but from the self-satisfaction gained upon achieving a hard-won enterprise.

Monday, 4 July 2011

I need to drink more beer

Today is my birthday, and as part of my routine for this day, I usually spend half of it by myself. Just to have some peace and tranquility, be alone with my thoughts, reflect on what I've done for the year, and review if I'm still on the right path towards my goals. This is also my time to plan for the year ahead. And my conclusion from that self-imposed solitude for this year: I need to drink more beer.

My favorite beer
Let me explain before somebody brands me as alcoholic. I love beer. It is one of the simple things that make life enjoyable. There's nothing like an ice-cold drink of the gods after a hard days work to cool you off and massage the stress off your shoulders. And beer is also one of my greatest moderators of all time. You see, if I'm drinking too much beer and getting regular hangovers, I know that I'm not doing well with my life and and that I need to set my priorities straight again. And if I'm not drinking enough and becoming too stressed out, it means that I'm too involved in my plans that I need to lighten up, relax, and enjoy life's simple pleasures a little bit more.

This year's conclusion came as a surprise really. Usually I'm telling myself to start getting serious with my plans so that I can move forward. A little less loitering around bars and street corners with my drinking buddies and a little more dedication towards improving my profession. But this past couple of years I guess I overdid it. I've been so consumed with my work that I barely have time to drink anymore. From my usual average intake of 6-12 bottles per week several years ago, I'm now down to 2-3 bottles per month. I rarely go out now and have not much of a social life beyond the office and home. I have become irritable from all the unreleased stress at work.

I've been too driven lately with improving my skills and getting to that next level that I've forgotten to pause every once in a while to enjoy the small milestones, and commiserate the usual failures, with a bottle of beer or two. That life, like beer, if rushed though the fermentation process too fast, might come out acidic, yeasty, or bitter. Our goals will only be worth it if we take the proper steps, relish our progress through it, learn from our mistakes, and patiently follow through the development of our plans. Having a destination is all well and good, but the journey we take to get there is important as well. Rushing through it is useless and might even prove detrimental. We should learn to appreciate the intricate process and recognize the ingredients it needs to make superb beer, or a good life. Realizing this makes the whole beer tasting experience all the more enjoyable.
My son's first sniff of the drink of the gods.

So here's a toast to the brew drinkers out there who aspire of impossible dreams, who struggles mightily, failure after failure after failure, against overwhelming odds to reach their goals, who keeps on pushing the boundaries beyond sober perceptions. May you always remain true to your convictions, to be always determined and focused, but not be too intoxicated by your ambitions, and remain appreciative of the simple pleasures of life; to find contentment in what you have, but push the limits on who you are and what you can do. May you be able to revel in your successes in-between failures, and not let your craving consume your spirit. Kudos to those who can find happiness on the smallest of things along their way towards their aspirations.

And with that thought, I'm off to enjoy the remainder of this day off from work. I still have an afternoon of rare freedom to go out a bit and enjoy some of the city's sceneries, maybe go to my favorite bookshop or for a walk in the park, watch the sunset over mount victoria, then enjoy a mug of guiness in courtney place. Then later on savour a relaxed evening with my wife and son, and a bottle or two of beer. Cheers guys! Bottoms up!

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Learning To Walk by Borivij Dovnikovic

Just found this really good animation by Croatian Borivij Dovnikovic. Check it out:

Learning To Walk (Skola Hodanja) 1978, dir. Borivij Dovnikovic

There will always be people around us (mostly more experienced seniors) who will continuously provide (often good-intentioned) advice on how they think we should approach a certain aspect of our life. We should always listen, but our life is different from theirs, and their advice, more often than not, is not applicable to us, and we should make our own decisions and choose our own way, but always taking their comments into perspective.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Book addiction

I was six-years old when I was indirectly introduced to books. I didn't really have much choice in the matter then though. I was always one of the last ones to get picked-up from school by our parents, and since I was running all over the campus making a mischief of myself, they decided to bring me to the school library instead after classes, there to spend the whole afternoon while waiting for my mom to finish work and pick me up. I guess that was  the start of my addiction to books. By nine years old I was already a voracious reader and a dedicated member of the library club, spending most of my weekday afternoons and even my saturday mornings there. By twelve years old I was consistently at the library's top five borrowers list. Until now libraries and bookstores are one of my favorite hang-outs, and if only they're open until 4am in the morning, serve beer, and have the occasional rock band, they would've been perfect.

What made me addicted to books? I guess firstly because they serve as portals to new exciting realms. Good fiction sort of serves as my sanctuary and provide relief, serenity, and entertainment whenever the real world becomes too irritating, confusing, noisy, lonesome, or just plain old boring. They take me to places I've never been to, and probably never will. They provide many possible illusions that the mind can conjure and blocks off reality for a while . A good novel with a healthy imagination is probably one of the best hallucinogens out there, and they're legal. Who needs drugs when you have Terry Pratchett or Ayn Rand or Tom Clancy.

Mommy reading baby a story
Secondly they serve as good sources of information and alternate point of views on everything under the sun. Some of the weirdest people are writers, they look at the world at a skewed angle, and they often come up with so many strange infos and ideas. Some writings will tickle your imagination, some will light the bulb above your head and provide that "aha!" moment, and a few will twist and wring your mind, deforming your reasoning beyond its current shape. Either way they will expand your perceptions on different aspects of life and provide fresh outlooks on various situations.

Thirdly, and probably the most important for me, those literary crafts provide you with life-changing experiences that you probably won't get in reality. Based from the writer's in-depth research and personal experiences, they meticulously construct conflicted worlds that their characters will re-shape with their actions depending on the principles or ideologies they live by. They take us intimately into the mind and soul of their heroes and villains, and show us what drives them towards their thoughts and actions at any given scenario. Granted that not all books are realistic, and life is, more often than not, stranger than fiction, but good books (also news articles, good blogs, etc.), can be very convincing, and I believe provides good exposure for everyone. At the very least it would prompt us into thinking as to how we would approach the same dilemma and would react in that given situation.

Books opened up the world to me. It introduced to me so many possible opportunities that a lifetime can offer. It expanded my dreams beyond the perimeter of the country where I lived in that time. It showed me that there's significantly more to explore, and shouldn't limit ourselves to what our parents or teachers or friends tell us. It also taught me to how to listen to others attentively, to sort out which stories have merit, to search for my own facts to validate or disprove, and to finally distill what lessons I can from it. And most of all, it set the stage for my own life story, and demonstrated to me that everyone is a writer, our life our magnum opus, and how we write it should never be controlled by the destructive actions of our antagonists, but by the strength and principles of our protagonists.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Searching for the career you'll love

I'm a lazy person. Ask my wife, and she'll immediately say yes, with colorful descriptions (and maybe a few expletives) on why she thinks I'm the most indolent person on this side of the universe. You'll often see her bustling about accomplishing household chores while she raises an eyebrow at me permanently glued to the couch. The dictionary defines lazy as "too inclined to avoid hard work". I guess I am at that. I've never had the proper disposition that encourages diligence or perseverance, especially with undertakings that I am not interested in. Not to say that I'm completely useless at home. There are several household chores that I like doing. I'm quite handy with a hammer or a screwdriver, and I'm known to have held the paintbrush roller several times. These I don't mind doing, in fact, I appreciate working with my hands on construction works. And I'm also the official family driver, pick-up / delivery man, and weight-lifter, errands that I like. I may be a worthless-piece-of-.. sloth.., but I'm very enthusiastic with duties that I enjoy, and my wife appreciates the quality of my workmanship.

Same thing with your career I guess. If you enter into a profession solely for monetary gains or because it's the popular thing to do, with no consideration to what you really like to do, expect a big surprise. Well, more like a shock. Expect a big shock. Imagine spending eight hours a day for five days a week doing tasks that you're not interested in.. For the rest your working life. And if those tasks are difficult ones requiring effort and perseverance, add to that a boss or client constantly nagging you to meet tight deadlines, well, welcome to your personal hell. Every morning you'll have to muster enough self-discipline to get out off bed and go to work. You'll always feel constrained by your assignments and would need to make it a routine to make it more manageable. You have nothing to look forward to except the 5pm bell or the next holiday or payday. Maybe you'll get used to it and start to like it later on, but I wouldn't bet my happiness on it. Sure it might be a glamorous or financially rewarding career, but only if you'll become proficient at it, and it's hard to excel at something that you have no interest in.

I might be cajoled into a few onerous tasks in exchange for monetary or material gains, but rest assured my heart won't be in it, and it will be a finish-it-as-quickly-as-possible-so-I-can-wash-my-hands-now attitude. And if the financial reward is sufficient enough to fund my early retirement, then in will now be finish-it-as-quickly-as-possible-so-I-can-spend-the-money-doing-the-things-I-want attitude. Either way it would not provide the real satisfaction for a job well done. But ask me to do something that I'm interested in, and I might even pay you for giving me that opportunity. (I take this back, I still want my money. =P )

Friday afternoon beer while finishing my design.
It's not an easy walk in the park though, trying to find that career path that you'll love. We should've at least narrowed down our choices to a few options before going to university, but that is too idealistic for most of us. Not when you're eighteen and constantly floating on parties and alcohol. With all the outside influences pulling us to do this or do that coupled with the hundreds of possible career options, it’s a struggle to really understand what we want and recognize where we're good at. But it needs to be done; we need to internalize and define who we are, analyze where our skills point us, and research diligently our career options, carefully weighing the pros and cons of each choice. If you need to be diligent just once in your life, this is the time.

Now the question: how do you find out which career you want? I don't know. And if anybody knows the full answer, I'd like to know. I think it's almost like asking "what is happiness?" or "how do I fall in love?". Difficult to explain verbally but you'll know it once you've experienced it. Maybe the first place to look at is your hobbies and interests, see which ones correspond to certain professions, then see if most of the requirements of that profession matches what you want. Find out where you're good at as well, see if you can match those skills into a profession that you think you'd like. Asking people close to you helps as well, for they sometimes recognize exceptional skills in you that you yourself don't see. Do a lot of research as well. There are heaps of materials online that lists down and discusses all possible career options, easily accessible with a simple internet search.  And it's free. I strongly suggest to do that. Your life may not depend on it, but your future happiness might be, so start searching. The professions you choose should be practical though. It should at least be able to provide you with financial security, making sure that clients and/or companies are willing to pay for those skills you'll be developing. And you should be able to see how you would progress along the way and recognize the rewards you would receive at certain milestones.

You'll still get chances later on to shift careers if you made the wrong choice, and I'm still naive enough to believe that the world is full of opportunities to turn around and start all over again, but the longer you delay, the harder it is to change paths. And at a certain point in your life you may find it too risky already to alter your course, where financially-secure-but-detestable-work is now more preferable than financially-insecure-but-enjoyable-work. So you choose instead to bear and grin and try to find your contentment instead on something else outside your office walls.

Aguas Family - May 2011
The rewards are enormous though if you made the right choice from the very start. A very fulfilling and enjoyable career is just the beginning. If you like what you're doing, difficult tasks are challenges instead of sources of stress, to be approached with gusty enthusiasm instead of a cloud of morbid air. Tight deadlines aren't a problem since you won't mind working overtime (You love what you do right?). You'll find satisfaction at almost every accomplishment. And you'll probably become very good at what you do, since your learning and growth isn't bound to the 40-hours work week nor the perimeter of your work place. Developing your skills continuously even outside work is a fun and exciting exercise, instead of a dreary and troublesome task. It's almost like having a hobby that provides financial rewards, with people happily paying you so you could do what you want. Definitely a win-win situation.

I’d like to end this with a famous Confucius quote: "Find a job you love, and you will never work a single day". An idea that maybe too idealistic, but I believe is true nonetheless, and searching for that career you'll love is a worthwhile endeavor that would provide clarity and outline for your life plans. Choosing the right career path is probably one of the first essential key steps towards integrating personal happiness and career success together.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The corporate ladder revamped

It had always been a long established norm to define career path and corporate ladder as almost one and the same. As had been advised by our parents, family members, teachers, and colleagues, most of them company-employed, that to be successful, you have to find a profession that you want, graduate from university, find an employment that suits you, and work hard to advance up the corporate ladder and therefore advance through your career path as well. That's still sound advice, especially when you're a new grad just starting up, and I agree that it's a formula that sometimes still works until today.

But what has changed? There are considerably more firms now, all of them vying for excellence in their chosen business field or perhaps attain a specialization that no other can offer. The world is littered with carcasses of establishments that fail to compete at the top level or produce a specialized product/service. Also with the rapidly improving Internet age, corporations can now offer their services from all over the world, when before they're limited to the geographic location of their offices. All this contributes to a very stiff competition to the global market that sees companies being made or broken at a fast rate. This leads to firms being constantly on the look out for top talent, actively spending on recruitment firms so they can separate the wheat from the chaff. They constantly need innovative people who will contribute further to the growth of their establishment.

On the other hand, there also significantly more professionals today, not only because of population growth, but also because education system all over the world are rapidly improving, and technological advancement is no longer bound to the western hemisphere alone. This leads to a huge burgeoning world-wide population of graduate professionals all seeking top employment. And with the information age we are in, where almost everything can be researched and studied online, almost everyone with the proper determination can learn and advance his skill to be a world-class professional. A lot of companies are outsourcing manpower nowadays in order to cut costs.

So how does this affect us, as professional employees? We need to re-visit the tenets that had been given to us by our mentors, are they still applicable, in part or whole, to the current rapidly advancing market we are in? If you believe it is still applicable, all well and good, but if not what can we do?

I believe that the old approach still works, but as with any technology it needs to be updated to stay current with the market trends. First and foremost, and this still holds true ever since, we need to find a profession that we want. We need to love what we do, appreciate our profession's part in the world, recognize our purpose, and enjoy our professional achievements. And we need to have well-defined career paths, planning early on our how we want to progress through our career path. This is important to have clarity on this, for if you don't plan it properly, someone else will plan it for you (most probably your boss or company), and you most likely will find later on that their plan for you isn't exactly what you want.

Secondly, we need to be good at what we do. With the competition nowadays, being just "ok" is not ok anymore, you would need to excel at certain points to even be considered. A relevant quality Bachelors Degree will always be a good platform to start from, and a Masters and Ph.D will always work wonders for your professional growth. Then comes employment. We need to find an establishment that can provide us with the career development we need. A large proportion of our skills learned will be from professional experiences, and it is only proper that we actively seek out the projects that we need to further enhance our skills. Many companies often have management and technical trainings established already for employees to benefit from, and usually some of them will be aligned to the career path you want. But more often than not, one company alone cannot provide you with all the training and experiences you need. Hence the need now to separate corporate ladder and career path. This is where we start to deviate from what has been deeply ingrained in us.

For clarity purposes, I'm defining corporate ladder as a person's advancement through a certain company's hierarchy of supervisory positions, and career path as a person's professional growth in his chosen field of endeavor. For some, their career path IS climbing the corporate ladder. That's all well and good, and there's nothing wrong with that. But for some, me included, it's not quite as simple as that. I'm a structural design engineer, I want to be technically good at what I do, and there are certain structures that I want to do. I want to continuously progress towards my goal by slowly ticking off one-by-one the structures I want to learn how to design and proving that skill by actually designing it. And I have a long list. Companies sometimes cannot fill up that long list of ours. It is easy to get pigeon-holed once a company likes your performance on a certain project and you are constantly asked to do the same type of work over and over again. It's all well and good for the firm since you are now very efficient at what you do, but precious years could pass and you're not growing anymore.

Firms recognize this restlessness and proposes promotions up the corporate ladder as compensation. You have a better title now, higher remuneration, and you're leading more people. But all in all, you're still doing the same thing over and over, albeit with control of a much larger group. For those looking for management growth (climbing the corporate ladder), this may exactly be the opportunity they're looking for. But for those looking for technical expertise growth, I believe that's almost equal to stagnation. So you have to move on to follow your career path, sometimes this can be done requesting for new challenges from your company, by lateral movement within the  firm, or by looking for other companies that can provide what you need. There are great companies that can provide both corporate ladder and career path growth, but they are few and very picky with hiring, and chances are their corporate plan won't perfectly align with your career path.

Titles provided by companies are just that, titles that define who you are within their corporate hierarchy. They could or could not mean something out on the outside world. When applying for other companies, your high-sounding title might not mean anything if you don't have the proper experience to back it up. But the skills you gain, though not as flashy as a title, is what defines who you are professionally. In the end, it is the projects you've been involved in and the skills you've gained from it that will provide the satisfaction of accomplishment, not the promotion.

So more often than not, it's either you'll need to stick with just one company to follow the corporate ladder, or  keep moving on from company to company (or by lateral movements within the company), to follow your career path and gain the skills you need. Companies are now just meeting points of individuals along their career paths where they can improve and share their skills, not the final destination.

I only have around seven years experience working for engineering firms, but on all of them the common mentality I see from many of my colleagues seems to be to get promoted as fast as possible. Development of skills seems secondary to promotion, in fact, they seem to just go with the motions of developing their skills just to get promoted. I believe it should be the development of skills first, the promotion secondary.

Don't take me wrong, I believe that the corporate ladder is important as well (my boss might be reading this, so don't want to get fired :P), but focus first on your career path, develop the skills that you need, and the corporate ladder will follow.

(Also once you've progressed enough and have a unique idea worth pursuing, you could branch out and start a business of your own or with a group of like-minded people. But that is a story for another day.)