Recognizing People’s Unique Roles in Our Lives

Most of who I am today is because of the people I’ve met, worked and lived with. I’ve never believed in the concept of the ‘self made’ person. We are hardly ever self made. I love the quote –

‘The difference between us now, and us 10 years from now, are the books we read and the people we meet.’

The books I’ve read in the past 4-5 years have indeed had tremendous impact but even getting that habit in place has been thanks to push and encouragement I’ve received from people I’ve met.

As a family, thanks to the way circumstances panned out, we were always very connected with people on the outside of our family. It’s our friends who were with us at the time of crisis and it’s something I never forget. As a result, I’ve always had, and to the best extent possible, done my best to maintain close relationships with those life has been kind to connect me with – friends, teachers, ‘wiser’ friends who’ve taken an interest in my development, colleagues and the like.

People, however, tend to be complex beings and there are times when I find myself frustrated with one close person on the other. I ask myself – ‘Why can’t she be more like him?’ or ‘Why can’t he be more like her?’.

And, while it’s easy to get sucked into this, I’ve realized over time that all I’m doing is placing an unfair expectation on someone I care about. First up, I’ve learnt to accept (slowly!) that people are in our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime. The ones who are around for a ‘season’ or period of time are the tougher to let go. But, I’ve come to realize that disengaging and getting out of touch (in this day and age, especially) is a choice and relationships are two way games.

Second, every one of those who are in it for a life time have a unique role in our lives. While they all might love and care for us, they likely express it in different ways – some might do so by being our ‘soft place to land’ and by affirming us and making us feel good, yet some others might do so by challenging us, pushing us and helping us be better people and so on. None of them is right or wrong.  It’s this tension that makes our lives special.. (In fact, if there is one thing that is extremely helpful – it is to surround ourselves with people with very different strengths and traits!) What matters, though, is that we engage people for the right thing.

We start feeling frustrated when we go to someone who is incredibly helpful directionally for specific objective advice, or when we go to someone who generally pushes our boundary and challenges us, for affirmation. In the ideal world, there would be people capable of all of this but that’s never the case. Every person has their own strengths. And it’s our responsibility to engage those we love on their strengths.

I am always reminded of a wonderful Paolo Coelho story when I think of close relationships.


When many animals were dying due to the extreme cold of the Ice Age, a group of porcupines decided to huddle close and keep warm. The moment they huddled close, their thorns began scratching each other. The moment they stayed apart, they started freezing to death again!

So they had to make a choice: either vanish from the face of the earth or accept each other’s thorns. They wisely decided to stay together again. They learned to behave courteously, overlooking the small wounds that closeness causes, because the most important thing was the warmth given by the other.


What more can I say..

Titima Suthiwan, Associate Professor for Thai Lang. and Lit., NUS – Real Leader Interview 23

Dhanya: I met Prof Titima Suthiwan through my friend Eunice. When I was speaking of Real Leader Interviews and about how we were meeting people with passion, Eunice thought it fit to meet her Thai Prof who was always passionate in her classes. She says its one of the best classes she ever attended. She said she would remember the class just for how Prof Titima always managed to keep the students engaged and interested in what was going on.
Charisma like that is something we at Real Leaders love! So Eunice and I met the Professor for a catch-up at the Arts and Social Science faculty of National University of Singapore. We had a good time listening to her story filled with quirks and little jokes! Hope you enjoy it too.
PS: I am sorry about the ‘okays’ you hear from me through out the video! I realised it can be really distracting when you are trying to listen to her. I promise to not repeat that with my future interviews!
About Prof Titima
Dr Titima Suthiwan holds a BA (Hons) in Thai language and literature from Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, and a PhD in Linguistics from University of Hawaii, U.S.A.. She was recruited by the Southeast Asian Studies Programme at NUS in 1998 to set up and coordinate theThai language program, which is now a part of the Centre for Language Studies, and the world’s largest and fastest growing Thai as a foreign language program. Prior to joining NUS, she taught in and coordinated Thai language program at various universities in the U.S., including University of Hawaii, University of Washington, Arizona State University, as well as University of Oregon where she also coordinated the Laos and Khmer language programs. Her publications are in the areas of Southeast Asian historical linguistics research, poetry, and translation.
Dhanya: Hello Prof, thank you for agreeing to this interview. We are really grateful to you for having you here. Do you want to introduce yourself first?
Titima: My name is Titima Suthiwan. I came from Thailand to Singapore almost 14 years ago to set up the Thai language programme at the National University of Singapore.
Dhanya: My first question is just getting to know you Professor. What is your story – how you ended up coming to NUS to set up Thai, what you did before that, where you grew up..
Titima: I was born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand. I studied Thai language and literature for my bachelor degree at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. During my time at Bangkok,  I was also a poet and a translator. Before I went to the US, I had published my collection of poetry that became the best seller in Thailand in the year that I published.
Later I studied Philosophy for my masters’ degree. When you do a PhD, you should have a question that you really want to answer! Back then I didn’t really have a question in my life. So I didn’t know what to do for my thesis after my coursework.
I noticed that a lot of my professors studied linguistics.  Since I liked language I applied and went to study Linguistics at the University of Hawaii. Initially I had just planned to do a masters’ degree, come back to Thailand and teach language. However I was awarded a scholarship at the University of Hawaii, so I decided to pursue a PhD since I felt it was a good deal – not having to pay the tuition fees. I also met a man there who I eventually married!
I taught Thai at the university by substituting the regular full time teacher when he was away. I also taught Thai at the summer school in various universities like University of Washington, University of of Oregan and Arizona State University.
So I had experience in teaching Thai as a foreign language and in managing programmes. In the University of Oregan, I didn’t really teach but I coordinated the Thai programmes. At that time there was no full time positions that were available in universities for languages. So I looked around and found out that NUS had a Southeast Asian Studies Programme but they were teaching only Vietnamese and Indonesian. I approached NUS and asked if they would be interested in offering Thai. They said yes and that’s how I moved here.
Dhanya: Could you tell us more about poetry book and what was it about?
Titima: The book was in Thai and it was about Love. Back then I was politically active and  very critical – especially about politics. In a while, I got sick of the dirty side of politics and decided to write about love.
I started writing poetry when I was in the fifth grade. I used to take orders from my friends for many occasions and sometimes I even wrote poetry for their homework. There have been times when they got better grades than I did.
I started to send my poems to women magazines and slowly got around to publishing.
One of my poems got turned into a song by a band and they were looking for the writer so they could pay the royalty. A lot of people claimed the poem to be theirs and I was one of them as well. Somehow, the band believed me but offered very little. I decided I would not take that little sum and let them use it for free.
It made me realize that it was time to have my poems published so there was some record of it all!
We planned the publishing around Valentine’s Day. 30 years ago in Thailand, most of the literature was about politics. When my book about love came out, 2000 copies were sold out in 2 weeks and we had to print 3000 more copies later. Eventually it was re-printed around 8 times!
I had another book that came out later that year. Recently, it was a children’s book about a cat at a university which was a real story! One of my best friends did the water colour illustration for the book.
Dhanya: My next question is what inspires you – what makes you wake up every day and do what you do – to teach Thai. What is it that drives you?
Titima: It is fun to be with people! I love being with the people. May be this is not politically correct but I like to teach and control people! Well actually control how you speak Thai. It is always fun to relate to people, to express yourself, to learn about others – especially about the younger generation. I like the older generation as well but it is tough to teach them unlike in the US. The students in the US were older than me because usually they were grad students. Here in NUS though, every batch of students gets younger each year.
Dhanya: In all these years, have you had this one experience that you always remember from your teaching?
Titima: To just be in a class is fun. To sum up all the fun moments we have had in the class, I remember the drama that my level 4 Thai students played at our programme’s tenth anniversary in 2008.
We had a Thai night and we had a variety of shows done by my students. The students in the Thai musical ensemble and my Thai level 4 students did a musical called “yîng rian, yîng bâaThe more we studied the crazier we become”. They imitated the classes and how we taught them. I specially remember the guy who played me. He dressed like I do – with these head bands and a bag. He even said “I am the queen and who dares to challenge me”. That was fun!
Dhanya: Who were your mentors through these years? Is there someone who is your inspiration / role model and has always said the right things for you when you needed it?
Titima: That would be the Buddhism education that I have received. I believe that I cannot become a Buddhist just by my birth. I studied the teachings and I really agreed! I also learnt from my grandparents and my father who became successful through education and honesty. My father never got corrupted by his position or power. I was lucky that my mom always told me about how honest my dad and her father were. I always rely upon these good teachings.
Dhanya: Since you mentioned Buddhism, could you share some of the learning from Buddhism that has formed your core values?
Titima: Buddhism has important teachings that I still can’t follow! The main teaching of Buddhism is that there are 3 characteristics to our world. The first – nothing lasts forever. The second – everything changes and the third – nothing is ours.  Of course I still do live in the worldly situation, this hand phone is very much mine!
When I was in my fourth grade, they started teaching Buddhism in class. I have discovered that principles I learnt there apply to my work – 1. Love what you do 2. Be diligent in what you do 3. Focus on what you do.
It is important that I just didn’t memorize them. I have thought these principles to be true. I have noticed that when I do what I love I could do it well. Buddhism is always something that I can rely upon and I agree with. This is what Buddha taught – you should not believe in anything just because someone told you to do so or just because your ancestors believed so. You have to think for yourself.
Dhanya: What advice would you give to the young leaders of tomorrow?
Titima: I think people should be sincere to themselves. When they do something they should really like it. It will be better if you know what you want to study, what you want to be or what you want to do for your living. Of course these are not constant wishes – they evolve as you grow up every day.
But the earlier you find out what your passion is, the better!  Suppose you like music or arts and instead you choose to study economics because you think it will bring you more money or more success, I don’t think that will make you happy. Because deep inside you would always think – too bad I didn’t get to be what I want. You have to be sincere with yourself.
Thank you Prof for a light and insightful chat! Your learnings from Buddhism were a highlight for us!
Thank you, Eunice for helping make this interview possible!
The Real Leaders Team,
Dhanya, Eb, and yours truly..

On The Amazing Case of Jerry Rice

This week’s book learning is from ‘Talent is Overrated’ by Geoff Colvin (Please click for prequel learnings 1 and 2).

Jerry Rice was average by NFL’s (high) athletic standards. Average build, average speed – good, but nowhere near extraordinary. He only received a sports scholarship from a small college in Mississippi, but went on to make every All America Team. Despite that, there were very few NFL teams willing to pick him and eventually, the San Francisco 49ers took a chance on him.

For a person with few seeming NFL attributes, Jerry Rice went on to become arguably one of the greatest players of all time. Not only was he exceptional in his Wide Receiver position, he was a virtual ‘iron man’ – in a position that’s known for injury, Jerry Rice only missed 14 weeks in his 20 season career.

What made Rice so good? In Rice’s case, everyone agrees that the answer is practice.

Jerry’s famous 6 days a week off season work out meant that he spent roughly 20,000 hours practicing over the course of his 20 year career.. out of which only he only played 150 hours i.e. only 1% of time spent on football was actually playing!

In short, Jerry worked harder on his football skills than any other NFL player did.

Photo by Ryan

I found that to be an incredibly inspiring statistic. Out of every 100 minutes doing what he did, Jerry Rice only spent 1 minute actually playing football.

But, here’s where it gets fascinating – was it JUST hard work? Would we all become like Jerry Rice if we worked as hard on football? Do look out for the answers to these are in the final edition of this 4 part series next week..

Here’s to practicing real hard for our presentations, meetings and tests day this week!

Finding Purpose

I sometimes wonder if most of the institutions we have dreamed up as human beings exist to fill that gap, that massive emptiness created by a lack of purpose.

I find these institutions to be of 2 kinds – the ‘bigger than yourself’ institutions i.e. religion, organized sports where you are part of something bigger than yourself and the ‘keep me busy enough so I don’t notice’ kind that involves everything we do to avoid getting ‘bored’ regularly – regular socializing and maybe, most work?

As developed as we are as a race, it’s amazing that we still ask ourselves ‘What should I do now to feel better?’, ‘What kind of job will make me happy?’, ‘What should I do different?’ – as if ‘what’ ever gave us the answer.

Perhaps we should just stop asking and listening to ‘what’ questions for a week. And replace them all with ‘why’.

Why am I not feeling good? Why am I not happy with what I do? Why am I always looking for something different to do? Why do I work?

Of course, it’s scary. And of course, most attempts will give us the wrong answers.

But, the way I see it, it’s better to attempt to solve the right questions than to spend a lifetime solving the wrong ones..

Two Sides of the Same Coin

With every initiative we take comes frustration and excitement. They are two sides of the same coin. If we are headlong into a pursuit, it is equally likely that we walk back home feeling on top of the world or walk back home feeling hopeless.
Disappointment and joy are part of the journey too. At the end or at major points in these initiatives, we are likely to taste one of the two. Not everything ends in joy, of course. That said, this also depends on how we measure success and what we attach joy too. Failing is one thing, not learning is another.
Still, two sides of the same coin.
The alternative to all this , of course, is not to take any initiative at all. That way, we keep away from the bad stuff. We show up at work, take up projects where we always have a place to hide, another person to blame. We won’t have to work late or during weekends or ever feel the need to carry on when our body and mind plead with us to give up and walk away. There is no doubt we would get by just fine.
But, when are 70 years old and looking back at our own life’s tale, would ‘getting by’ make us the hero of our own movie? Or would be left reflecting on what could have been and be another one those who pens a bunch of inspirational regrets for the next generation to ignore?

Frustration, Annoyance and.. Change

I have noticed a trend when I attempt to bring about change in myself. Every change goes through a very definite cycle.

Thought -> Decision -> Action -> Result

And this never changes. There are times when I read something, mull it for ages before acting on it. For example, the Godin advice on changing the first thing I do every morning from consumption (checking feeds, email) to production like blogging was out there in January. It’s practically been in the ‘thought’ phase for a long while. Not actively, but sub consciously. And finally, as of 3 days ago, I decided to throw it out.

What changed? Frustration and annoyance came into the picture. I found myself annoyed at passively taking in information first thing at the morning. The learning came to mind. Okay. No excuses. Time to change.

As a result, I find the change from thought to decision critical in bringing about change and in my case, that frustration and annoyance at myself. This was a comparatively smaller decision, of course. Every 2-3 months, I am pushed to make a big change in my self management game for some reason or the other. Sometimes, it’s to wind down, other times it’s to wind up and in day before yesterday’s case, it was to reduce the number of focus points because there was simply too much to do in a day and I was getting overwhelmed.

Change is good. But, change is hard. And I go through the same process (when I really want to push for change, these typically take a week each). And the breakthrough is typically the day when I’m really frustrated and annoyed with myself.

I felt that frustration and annoyance on Tuesday. And, for a change, I was very happy in my heart of hearts because I sensed imminent change. It bubbled for a while.. and then the change came. My daily focus list was brutally cut down to the most essential tasks until the end of October. I am still moving from decision to action but I’ve gone through the most difficult part of the change curve and I’m more confident of moving things along now.

The biggest ability we humans have compared to animals is the ability to observe ourselves and take an outside view in a situation where we are very involved in. It really is a fascinating ability because that’s the ability that gives us the deepest learnings.. learnings about ourselves.

Work Hacks Wednesday: Learning to Structure – A Series

When I started out reading AVC, a daily blog by venture capitalist Fred Wilson, I used to be critical about typos. There was typically one every post and I used to point them out in the comments once a while. Those were the days when I only blogged ‘long form’ occasionally. Now that I do a ‘long form’ post a day, I have all sympathy for typos. I think I have one a day, too! You’ve got to feel the pain.. 🙂

The idea of structuring topics by days of the week (Eg: Work Hacks Wednesday) also comes from the structure I see him adopt. He does MBA Mondays and Fun/Feature Fridays. I can see the benefit. It helps simplify blogging every day. And now, for the first time, I’m copying another Fred Wilson feature – a series! And funnily, it was because I was wondering how I would cover the very useful topic of ‘structuring’ in a post. And, of course, the series idea made perfect sense..

How does this relate to structuring? Structuring, in my mind, is breaking things down to digestible/comprehensible chunks to help ourselves and others understand the situation at hand and what we/they need to do.

So, structuring in the case of an ambiguous thing like daily blogging is adding bits of consistency like a work hack every Wednesday or an interview every fortnight. That sounds an awful lot like organization, of course but it isn’t. Structuring is a lot more than just organization. It’s an approach, a way of thought that translates into what we do. And most importantly, it is one that can be learnt.

I feel structuring, as a skill, is underrated and is one that should be taught in schools. While we love emphasising people who get things done, getting things done effectively always involves upfront structuring. In essence, it’s operationalizing what Stephen Covey describes as ‘Begin with the end in mind.’

Of course, I’m not claiming to the most structured person around by any means but I’ve learnt a lot over the past few years or so thought I would put down some ideas that help me structure –

1. Verbal Communication
2. Written Communication
3. Presentations
4. Projects
5. Thought

Any other requests/ideas for the series is, of course, welcome.

I am experimenting writing without the traditional image. Thanks to nudges from William and Nishanth and reading this blog post on using images from Google Images, I am contemplating stopping using images altogether. Thoughts on this are much appreciated as well!