“My mom scolded me big time this morning for NOTHING!” That was the first thing Ann told me when we met up for lunch.
“I don’t remember your mom being unreasonable,” I said.
“Of late. We always fight. She complained that I don’t know how to cook! It is not fair!” she said.
Ann loves her mom. Last year, she gave up a job offer in the US because her mom was unwell. She returned to Vietnam. The opposite is also true. Her mom is a single parent and raised her single-handedly. Ann joked that she is the center of her mom’s universe which is probably true.
“Come to think about it, we used to fight like this too. Whenever I had to return to the US after a summer break in Vietnam,” she said.
“Aren’t you going to relocate to the Philippines next month?” I asked. Ann is management trainee in an international firm and part of her program requests her to relocate within the region for the next few years.
“Yup. And?” She asked.
“And your mom didn’t scold you,” I said.
“Listen. She is sad that you are leaving her again and she is annoyed that you are spending more time at work and with your friends before you go. And she is probably worried about how are you going to survive not knowing how to cook,” I said.
I woke up at 3 a.m. and worked until 9 p.m. Just when I thought it was a never ending day, I received a shocking text from a friend, Han.
“Brandon, my best friend has 3 months to live. She is diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, ” The text read. “You are a coach…what should I do?” Han asked.
She went on to describe her friend – a quiet, soft-spoken, and optimistic young graduate. She had a simple dream. She wanted to come to Saigon to find a job, and to make money to make her mom’s life easier. Her mom is her only family member and they are close.
“Her father passed away when she was three. Her mom is crying so hard now. I just wired her mom even dollar in my account. I told her to bring my friend to find a better doctor,” Han is devastated. She has a big heart.
I didn’t know what to tell Han. It wasn’t something easy.
Sheryl Sandberg wrote in her book “Option B” that the most powerful thing you can do is to acknowledge. To literally say the word “I acknowledge your pain and I am here with you, for you.” Speaking with honesty and empathy is a good start. But, never say “I feel you” because we can’t walk in their shoes unless we are dying too.
“Give her some time. Be there when she needs you. And I think you should go and sleep now, ” I said.
I offered Han monetary support instead. I know that she is dead serious about going broke to save her friend.
After we hung up, I took a deep breath. Suddenly, my long day didn’t feel that long anymore. It wasn’t a great week for me. I was bothered mentally for a while. Then, I thought to myself, “Really? Someone is battling for her life now and you are acting like a whiny kid here?”
I have lived yet another day healthily and that was all that mattered. I am thankful that my parents are healthy; that my siblings and my friends are doing fine.
Most things in life are dispensable. There are only very few things that are truly irreplaceable. Life goes on perfectly without us most of the time. The universe is designed in such a way that it does not collapse when one of us falls, which we each will eventually.
The irony is that we tend to focus on the wrong things. The petty things.
Often, we spend too much time on things that we think are larger than life but in reality, they are dispensable in the grand scheme of things. We devalue what is truly irreplaceable. We postpone our dreams. We let our today be someone else’s day. We live someone else’s dream because we think there is always tomorrow to work on ours. But, what if tomorrow is numbered?
Chris is my boss’s boss. He is one of the most down to earth leaders I’ve ever worked with. Recently, he gave me a new exciting project. The same reason that makes it rewarding also makes it scary. Simply put…high-risk, high-return.
Last week, while visiting the headquarter, I caught up with him.
“How are you feeling about it?” Chris asked me, referring to the project.
“To be honest, I am both excited and scared. I am not sure if I can make it,” Come to think about it, I shouldn’t be so candid and vulnerable with the big boss (who knows what he would think of me), but his authentic vibe made it comfortable and irresistible.
Then, I went on to describe my excitement and concerns. He listened attentively.
“It reminds me of one of my own projects, from many years ago,” he replied. “I was asked to revitalize a brand that was dying. It was sort of a do or die. No one knew if it would work. We just tried one step at a time. And like you, I was just a brand manager.”
“And what did you do?” I asked.
“My boss was one tough manager. She set a high bar for the project. But, come to think about it, she also took the shot on all the high-risk decisions. She made it clear that my job was to provide the best solutions humanly possible and hers was to take responsibility for the decisions including those that didn’t go well,” Chris said.
Then he said, “So, here’s my offer to you, Brandon. you do what’s humanly possible, the best you can. If it goes south, the blame is on me because the bucks stop with me, deal?”
He caught me by surprise and I wasn’t fishing for a safety net – my modus operandi has been the bucks stop with me. And I will (and ought to) own up to everything that happens to my business. But, I am proud that he offered because it reassured me that I am working for a kind empathetic human.
One of my favorite leadership books is “Leaders eat last” by Simon Sinek. He said that a leader’s most important task is to create a circle of safety for the team. It is a place where people feel safe to do their very best.
Leaders are expected to eat last because the true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.
On a separate note, this is why I think parenthood is the purest form of leadership. Our parents spend their life time putting our needs above theirs hoping for us to become a decent human being. And trust me, it is not hard being one if you choose to be.
That evening, Chris taught me how to “eat last” and I am inspired to pay it forward. This is one of the 20 minutes conversations that I’d probably remember for the next 20 years.
Small actions go a long way and if your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.
“But, what if I don’t want to be a leader?” someone asked me once.
“Then… be a good human being,” I said.
If we strip away our titles – we are first and foremost a human being. So, Be kind to one another.
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I was invited to deliver a keynote speech in the Digital Marketing Conference Malaysia 2017. I spoke nothing about digital.
Here is what I said.
Marketers, allow me to begin with a question.
“Did you sign up to be a fake marketer?”
I am sure none of us did. But, a quick google search shows that so-called authentic marketing is gaining attention over the recent years. If we are not fake, why is the world asking us to be more real?
Because three things have changed.
The consumers have changed. The world today is and will continue to be powered by millennials. In a recent Millenial study, Gallop summarized as Millennials is a generation that values “purpose over the paycheck”.
The living standard for millennials has improved dramatically compared to our parents and grandparents – so the kids have more time and mind space to think about the higher order of human needs in the Maslow hierarchy, in another word, they are more driven by a sense of purpose. They don’t care about you and your brands. Instead, they care about themselves and their purpose.
Secondly, the world has changed. Sorry to say the world is quite fu*cked up now. It feels more divided and chaotic than ever. Do you remember the good old days, when we ran free and could enter our neighbor’s house freely? Today, you get buglers breaking into your house despite having some of the most advanced security systems. There is a global epidemic of trust-famine. We now live in a world where we are starved of trust. Read More
A friend took a mid-career path change to join the company as a new hire.
“I am not sure if I’ve made the right decision,” she said. “I feel that I am behind the curve, especially when compared to them,”. Her peers are 5-6 years old younger than her.
What she said reminded me of my guitar teacher, Ben. It was many years ago since I last met him.
“If your life is the shape of an alphabet, would it be an A, O, S, or T?” – Ben likes to ask his student this question.
“Our life has shape,” Ben said.
A is the shape of a pyramid. Some of us live to climb the ladder to the top. We are taught the view is magnificent when you get to the top. But, it is a long climb. Some people do it patiently while some are just too eager.
“The watch out for type A is that you tend to compare life. You THINK everyone is racing towards the same destination,” he said. “It is an illusion. Our life is completely different. It is OK to go at your own tempo,” Ben said. Read More
When I was a kid, the adults told what was an ostrich. I was made to believe that an ostrich will bury its head in the sand when it is scared. The supposedly dumb bird believes that if it can’t see its enemy then the enemy can’t see it too. In fact, there’s even an idiom that says “bury your head in the sand”, so it must be factual, right?
Well, not so true.
The ostrich has a small head and her nest is on the ground, so it has to lower itself to the ground. The illusion optic makes some people believe it bury its head in the sand. No – in fact, the experts have made it clear that the bird is not as stupid as we think. But, why there are still many people who think otherwise?
There are many stories that we accept as truths because “everyone else” says so. We assume that they must be right.
When I was in my primary school, my basketball coach told me that I was heavy, I had a lousy stamina, and I would never do well in sports. I carried the “truth” in me for the next twenty-odd years. I felt inferior when it came to sports, especially running. I seldom ran with my friends because I didn’t want them to see me run.
One day, by mere coincidence, I had to take over my friend’s spot in a 10 km run (don’t ask me why!). It was painful but I did it. I remembered telling myself at the finishing line,” Hmm…I am not that bad after all.” One thing led to another and I did a few half-marathons since then.
The first step is the hardest because you have to rewrite the story in your mind.
Mike Dooley said, “Thought becomes things”. The universe is fair and neutral because we are responsible for creating our own meaning.
Our minds love “stick-it-note”. It is how we see the world.The mind creates meaning by putting a tiny mental “stick-it-note” on each and every moments and memory from our lifetimes. Everyone writes their notes differently. That’s why some people see a glass half full while some half empty.
How you remember something is more important than what you remember.
“Brandon, he is an asshole. BUT, I can never let him go…” Tina said. We were having a coaching conversation about her boyfriend.
We discussed in depth to uncover the meaning of her relationship. In Tina’s subconscious mind, she labels the relationship as “if this ends, no one will love me anymore”. That’s why she always find excuses to forgive him.
“Tell me more about the ideal man you’d like to spend the rest of the life with,” I asked Tina. It took her a while to come up with a vivid description and it sounded complete opposite of her ex-boyfriend. She wanted someone loyal, driven, and funny. Her boyfriend is none of those.
“What if… this is not an end but a beginning?” I asked.
“Tell me more?” she asked.
“We need to experience the bad to appreciate the good. Imagine, you are on a journey to meet the ideal man. Along the way, you have to take a pit stop to learn a few lessons. Your ex is here to teach you what makes you miserable,” I said.
A lesson will repeat itself until learned.
“Now, there are two ways to write this story. One, no one will love you anymore. Two, be grateful for the lesson learned and it is time to move on in the journey,” I said.
You are the story you tell yourself. Remember the ostrich? Not all stories are real.
Oh, and guess which story Tina decided to put on her mental “stick-it note”?
I get these two comments often because of my special abilities.
Whenever I go out for dinner with my friends, they would forewarn me to eat in half of my usual speed because I will vacuum up my food. On top, they also tell me to quiet and eat!
Yes, I eat too fast and I talk too much.
When TEDxUUM asked me to share the secret to great communication, I thought, “Oh yeah? You want ME, a guy who talk too much to talk about talking and keep it under 18 minutes?”
I can eat anything under 18 minutes, but not for talking because I like to talk about talking.
You and I, the younger generation, tends to celebrate speaking up as a sign of intelligence and strength. When we see someone who speaks up eloquently, we subconsciously think he or she must be smart and good, right?
Well, speaking up is good until you over do it.
My friend is doing her part-time MBA with one of the most prestigious business school in the world. Interestingly, her class attributes 25% of her credit to “classroom involvement”, in essence, for speaking up.
She oftentimes tells me the story about one of her classmates, Albert. While my friend always said, “I just want to get my homework done”, Albert is THE champion. He is always the first one who raises his hand because he has an opinion and the last one who puts it down because he has run out of things to say.
Sometimes, he repeats the same point in 3 different ways for 5 different times. Obviously, he usually ends up confusing himself and the hell out of everyone else. But, Albert probably took home full 25 marks on “speaking up”.
Albert has very high “share of noise” in the class. Show me a raise of hand if you know a friend, family, colleagues like Albert?
That was me too. I talked a lot. My mantra was to “talk first and think later”. Making noise was my way of life. I use it to mark my attendance and to let people know that “I am here”. I wanted to be noticed.
But, noise is not voice.
I can not communicate with each other if the only thing I hear is my own voice. So, like what my friends do, they filter me and hush me “Shhh”.
About 10 years ago, my already not-so-good communication with an important person broke down.
I was young and hot-blooded. I thought I was always right and he was always wrong. There were many things that we didn’t see eye to eye; from how fast I should drive, when I should come home, to which political party to support. etc etc.
I became emotional, angry, and frustrated.
Every time we try to communicate, It was as if going into a war zone. I would have formed a defensive answer in my mind ready to fire back before I heard what he had to say. I speak to him because I wanted to prove him wrong. I heard him but I never listened.
We talked but we did not communicate.
The entire process was emotionally draining. So one day, I decided to stop.
For the next few years, our conversation became mechanical.
How are you? I am OK
Have you eaten? Yes
Weirdly, he never missed slipping pocket money into my wallet and fill up the fuel on my car. He would still call to make sure I come home before the curfew.
Yes, this person was my father.
Eventually, I got less hotheaded and ready to talk again. But I felt awkward to the extent that I did not know where to restart anymore. So, I let it be and the silence continued.
One day, I got an offer from P&G for a job in Bangkok. With a one-way ticket in my hand, I was going to leave home to start a new journey.
In the airport, my mom pulled me aside. She said, “I might not be the smartest and most capable mom in the world, but I try my best.” My mom has always been a great listener and that was all that an angry son like me needed.
Then, unexpectedly, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “So is your father. He is trying hard too. You just have to listen. You know, give him a chance. He just doesn’t know how to talk to you because you seem to shy away from him. Try to listen to him. He loves you and you know that.”
My phone buzzed before the plane took off. It was a text message from my dad.
“I love you. Remember to come back often.”
I wondered, “How much courage did he muster to send the simple message?” Only God knew. I was ashamed.
As a son, I should be the one who says I love him first; I should be the one who reaches out to communicate; I should be the one who listens first. Why didn’t I listen?
This life experience taught me an important lesson about communication. You see, communication is more than your share of noise, the language you speak, or your body language. The fundamental of communication is something simpler yet difficult.
Can you listen?
Do you listen?
You connect two souls when you listen.
Make no mistake. Listening is tough.
That’s why God gave us two ears and one mouth. One ear to hear to what people say; the other one to listen to what they really say Very often, when you truly listen, you uncover the real story.
Today, I am a part-time life coach. Oh, my! It is a misunderstood profession. Many people thought my job is to talk and give brilliant advice; Oh no! they are so wrong. As a coach, my job is to shut up and listen.
“Brandon, Sometimes I feel like I am not being myself. I constantly want to make people around like me. Should I continue with it?” I get questions like this rather often.
If you listen with both of your ears, the story she wanted to tell me was not in her spoken words.
“Do you like the person you have become in the process of pleasing the peoples around you?” I asked. One of the ways to truly listen is to get clarity by asking questions.
“Then why do you do it?” I asked.
she said after a long pause, “Because I am afraid of being alone”
The story she wanted to tell me was, “Brandon, I am scared because I think I am not good enough.”
What she needed at that time was not a reply. She knew her answer anyway. So, I gave her a hug.
Sometimes, silence is the best communication.
We can divide the world into many types of listeners. Here are the three interesting ones.
We listen like a debater…to reply
We listen like a jury…to judge
We listen like a curious kid... to understand and explore
When I was a little boy, my dad bought me to the zoo for the first time.
I was so excited because I finally get to see the animals I wanted to see, like the tiger, giraffe, and the monkey. I ran around the zoo, holding my dad’s hand and I asked so many questions.
“Papa, why is the lion yawning?” I asked.
“Mr. Lion is tired. He slept late last night just like you,” My dad said patiently.
Then, I went on and asked many other questions about the other animals. My father answered all of them patiently. I listened carefully, then I asked questions again. We went on. The communication between us was smooth.
The 8 years old Brandon knew more about communication than my 18 years old self. See, you and I had the magic of communication in us since young, some of us just forgot it as we grew up.
Lastly, how does it matter to you?
The world is noisy. We have too many debaters, jury, and too little curious kids. That’s why we have conflicts that can be easily prevented if only we have listened.
My friends, one day, the world will belong to you.
You will graduate, leave the campus, and do amazing things. You will become someone’s manager, boss, lover, partner, and eventually a parent. Some of you will even build a castle in the air.
You owe this ever noisy world a simple favor…
P.s: I send out tiny bits of inspiration every day to my exclusive reader community. Interested? HERE is YOUR invitation.