Conference in December 3-4 (Thurs-Fri )
Queen’s Park Hotel, Bangkok – skytrain: Phrom Phong

How to lose business. The other day I went into a Yamaha music school near where I live. I wanted to rent one of their piano rooms for about an hour a day and, while I was there, enquire about their music appreciation activities for my young son.

The place was deserted except for the receptionist. She didn’t know anything about room rentals, so she called the owner. After a long discussion, she came back with the price: 300 baht per hour! I was a bit surprised. I only pay 30 baht an hour at a music school in Sukhumvit. After another phone call, she came back saying that she will accept 200 baht. I tried to explain that I wanted to rent a room regularly, so could she give me a monthly price? Still 200 baht/hour. Well, maybe it’s a really good, concert grand piano… So I asked to look at the room. It was the tiniest room imaginable with an almost toneless piano.

I said no thanks and didn’t even bother to ask about the music classes. I’ll never be going back there again…

I couldn’t help wondering… the school was deserted, so it would cost nothing but a few baht for the air-conditioning to let me use the facilities. The problem that most schools, restaurants, internet cafés and similar businesses have is to get customer traffic. Surely, one satisfied customer – even if he doesn’t buy much – is better than no customers at all? Customers bring customers, and eventually a growth in business.

I had a similar experience with Cabbages & Condoms. I recommend this restaurant highly – not only is the food and ambience really good, it’s part of the PDA and supports its community development efforts.

I was president of a Toastmasters club. We wanted to use one of their private rooms on a quiet evening for about three hours twice a month. There was no charge to use the room, we were just a large party of people coming to eat at the restaurant. Rather than order a buffet at 600 baht per person, we simply ordered a variety of items from the a la carte menu. We spent just over 300 baht pax as a result. It suits most people’s budget and the club blossomed.

But after a few months, the manager of the restaurant approached me, saying that we weren’t spending enough and if we wanted to continue to use the room, we had to order the buffet service.

We tried to negotiate, but in the end we stopped coming to the restaurant and found another venue.

A lot of business was lost. Not only did we bring new customers regularly to the restaurant when business was quiet (we were often the only people there), we also organized inter-club conferences, sometimes bringing 200 people at a time. Cabbages & Condoms was our home. It was ideal for all concerned. And many people who had never heard of the restaurant discovered that it was a great place for their own parties and for inviting their friends for an evening out. All of this disappeared when we left.

Compare this with the Elefin Café. A friend of mine invited me to a small dinner party there. It’s a beautiful wood & glass construction with comfy chairs, fresh coffee beans roasting on the premises and an internet café on the first floor. The food and ambience was excellent and reasonably priced. We had a small private room. I decided to try out the room as a venue for my smaller workshops.

Business multiplied. For six weeks, every Monday, eight people spent the lunch period at the restaurant. We didn’t spend a huge amount (considering that the set lunch only costs 120 baht), but we did also buy coffees and drinks and snacks while we there. And each person subsequently came to visit on other occasions and brought their own friends. One night, there was a birthday party for 12 people.

The experience was so wonderful that the Elefin Café is now my home for small workshops and various meetings. It will also be the home of the Bangkok Debaters Club that I will be launching soon. I will be bringing a lot of business. And many of my guests will bring in further business. It will soon become a busy and popular venue.

All because of one satisfied customer.

The same goes for Thai Language Solutions. I’ve been a satisfied student there for several months now. I actively recommend this school to my friends and customers who attend my Read Thai workshops or purchase my e-book Read Thai in a Day.

I even met a few people who had paid for a year’s lessons at Thai Walen language school, but became so frustrated with the bad service that they chose to pay all over again to go to Thai Language Solutions.

Thai Walen is a fairly successful and aggressively market language school, so they have no trouble in getting new customers who don’t know any better. But the visa department is already wondering why so many Walen students are getting their education visas re-registered to another school.

Many schools (as most businesses) depend on new intake through word-of-mouth recommendations. And nowadays, with so many internet forums, it’s easy even for people who don’t know anybody in the region to get advice about where to go, based on previous customer experiences.

Look after your customers, especially the dissatisfied ones. You don’t know how many friends they have.

Well, we do, actually. Studies have shown that the rule of thumb is as follows: each satisfied customer usually tells about 4 of his friends and colleagues, who tell a total of 2 other people on average.  A dissatisfied customer will tell around 8 people, who will pass on the story to another 8 people in total.

The cost of a dissatisfied customer due to lost business opportunities is staggering.

Please join us at the Understanding Consumer Psychology conference to learn more about how to harness customer power to grow your business.

Click here for more details.

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Conference in December 3-4 (Thurs-Fri )
Queen’s Park Hotel, Bangkok – skytrain: Phrom Phong

If you are a foreign company or director doing business in Thailand
– or if you intend to establish a presence in Thailand –
then this conference is for you.

More details about the conference here. And to understand the value-for-money you will receive from this conference, please read the last section below.

What do you think of when you think of Honda? I had a Honda Civic once. It was my favorite car, fast, nippy, responsive handling… and always reliable. But since I heard of the troubles that K Duenpen had with her Honda (the woman who hammered her car to bits in Bangkok) plus the woman in Chiang Mai who’s Honda had to go in for major repairs five times in eleven months – I’ve decided that my next car will be a Toyota.

Polls by Forum and Gibbons (in the USA) show that the main reason why customers switch to a competing business is because they don’t like doing business with the company (70%). Only 15% say they switched because of a better price. And 15% said they switched because of technical quality. Nevertheless, basic reliability and overall value for money counts a lot too.

When it comes to quality and after-sales service, I had similar experiences with Sony. I’ve bought four Viao computers over the last seven years and each time I had problems. Viaos are sleek and stylish, but it takes Sony two months to repair even minor faults. I need my computer every day, I can’t afford to be without it for more than two or three days. The last time my Viao broke down, I lost so much money from not being able to work effectively that it would have been cheaper to throw the computer away and buy two new ones, one to work on and one for emergency back.

That’s what I did in the end. I bought a cheap Acer and when the Viao broke down again, I just threw it away!

Now, Acer has a great two-day repair service. But, last year, my Acer began to fall apart at the edges: a key broke off, the touchpad is faulty, it overheats and shuts down regularly, there’s a small mark on the screen, the battery runs out after 2 minutes… I could get it repaired fairly quickly, but it’s a hassle. I haven’t been able to find two or three days when I can take it in for repair.

It turned out to be more convenient simply to buy another computer. I bought an HP Compaq this time. I’m using it to write this article. And it’s probably the best computer I’ve had… ever. I’ve had it for nearly a year now. It’s also sleek and stylish… not quite like the Viao, but it has been so reliable: no breakdowns, everything still working, the battery still lasts several hours, etc. etc.

I am a typical consumer. I like to buy things. I buy digital cameras and video recorders, computers and printers, video players, TVs, clothes, furniture, fridges, books, DVDs, mobile phones, MP3 players and other gadgets, souvenirs, gifts… I go out to watch movies, eat out at restaurants, stay at resorts, etc. The list is endless.

And I have learnt which are the brands to avoid – I no longer buy anything made by SKG, or Sony computers. I don’t buy products from Watsons. I’ve been stung enough times to avoid buying from eBay. No more ‘no name’ brands, even if they seem like bargains. My last MP3 player/phone was a cheap LG, but it was so awkward to save and listen to music that I don’t use it for music at all – the very reason why I bought it. I went out and bought a simple Nokia instead, just to use as a phone; forget the music… My next purchase will be an iPod, the one made by Apple!

I tell all my friends and colleagues to avoid the brands that I’ve had problems with. And I recommend brands that worked for me. I had an Israeli friend stay with me last month and on my recommendation, he bought an HP Compaq to take home with him. He was so impressed that he bought a second one for his brother!

Multiply my experiences by several thousands (or millions) of people, and you get a kind of ‘consumer intelligence’ that can either make your company super successful, or just mediocre. Sony lost a great deal of its market share to Acer as a result of its poor after-sales service, but it’s a rich company with slick marketing, so what do they care? Well, maybe they should… my partners in the UK started out buying Vaios for each of the 20+ travelling sales executives, but after having bought three units, we decided to switch to other brands that were more reliable and cost 1/3 of the price. We simply weren’t getting the value we were paying for.

Are your customers happy with the reliability of your product or service? And how do you know?

In the conference Understanding Consumer Psychology, we will discuss several approaches that connect product design with customer service & after-sales support and customer loyalty. It’s not just repeat business that brings you success, it’s the enthusiasm of your customers that brings in new customers and helps to expand your business.

And everything is connected. Good Corporate Responsibility means taking care of your staff, which means they look after your customers and take care of your business. And ensuring that you deliver on your “marketing promise” means that customers trust you to give them the best overall deal possible.

Once customers start to realize that the overall cost of your product or service is actually cheaper than the cheap ‘n nasty products offered by the competition, your company will become more profitable, even if you don’t have a larger market share than your competitors.

It will be this kind of thinking we will be helping you to develop in the conference.

Please come and contribute your questions, problems and ideas with other like-minded business owners and directors.

Even if you take back – and implement – one good idea from the conference, you are likely to see a return of possibly millions of baht (depending of course on the scale of your business).

Click here for more details about the conference.

So what value do you get out of this conference?

Well firstly, to hold a two-day conference in-house with just one seminar leader would cost 200,000 baht. We have four!

Secondly, we all have on-the-ground, practical expertise of establishing and operating businesses in Thailand. We’ve made many of the mistakes that you are about to make, or have probably made already if you’ve been here a while.

Thirdly, we don’t talk about general blue-sky, total quality, leadership laws and other theoretical principles. We will be discussing real, practical solutions that you can implement relatively easily to obtain dramatic results.

Finally, this is a conference of other like-minded decision makers, each bringing their own experience and expertise to the table. We will be tackling difficult issues that do not have simple one-size-fits-all solutions. We don’t have all the answers. Our panel has been grappling with these issues for years, and we are still looking for more effective ways to grow profitable and sustainable businesses. Your contribution counts too. And so do your problems and questions.

You can’t get that even if you hire in an international expert or two to provide consultancy to your leadership team, whatever the cost.

Two days of your time and 28,000 baht is good value. You will get back many times more than that if you implement one or more of the approaches we discuss during the conference. Our marketing promise to you is that we will make sure of that. Our reputation and future profitability depends on keeping our promises too!

Each member of our team will continue to assist you in developing and implementing these principles further in your organization. This is not just a conference. It’s a beginning. We want to help you grow successfully. After all, our success depends on your success. We’re hoping that you will subsequently engage us as practical consultants in helping you to develop your business.

As Stephen Covey advises in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Think Win/Win.

Click here for more details about the conference.

All about Home Schooling

6 January 2009

We Don’t Go to School – but we are learning all the time

Why do children go to school?

The usual answer is: So that they can be educated and get a good job when they grow up.

But what does it mean to be “educated”? And why is it so important to get a good job? Most of us who went to school are not really properly educated. And many of us are in jobs that we don’t enjoy or that doesn’t pay much money. If you look at really successful people – people who really love their work and who also happen to make a lot of money – many of these people dropped out of school and found another way to educate themselves.

Here are some famous people who didn’t go to school:

George Washington – the first president of America. 13 other presidents also never went to school including Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Albert Einstein dropped out of school[1]. He was useless at mathematics (at least the kind they do at school) – yet he developed mathematical theories about the universe that revolutionized our society. Also Michael Faraday, a chemist and physicist who made electricity and electric motors possible.

Claude Monet and Leonardo Da Vinci also didn’t go to school. As well as Hans Christian Andersen, Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Robert Frost, C.S. Lewis, Beatrix Potter, George Bernard Shaw. Also Louis Armstrong, Charles Chaplin, Whoopi Goldberg and Yehudi Menuhin. And Florence Nightingale, Bertrand Russel (a famous philosopher and mathematician), Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Irving Berlin, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Poulenc and Ansel Adams (probably the greatest photographer in the 20th century).

Then there are the wealthy businessmen: Andrew Carnegie, Amadeo Gianini (who founded the Bank of America), Soichiro Honda, Ray Kroc (McDonalds), Colonel Sanders (KFC).

Many top athletes never bothered with school either, because it would interfere with their training: Current stars include Bobby Convey (major league soccer), Brianna Weissman (figure skater), Jenny Keim (Olympic diver), Mallery Code (junior golfer in the US top 20), and Rebecca Ward (world champion in women’s sword fighting).

There are countless other successful people in all walks of life who didn’t go to school either.

A number of parents around the world have thought hard about this. And they don’t feel that schools give children the right education. They feel that the kind of education that happens at schools is far too limiting.

And if you think about all the really successful people, the first thing you’ll notice is that they love what they do. Even if they are not necessarily earning a lot of money, they are happy and content.

So at the end of the day, what would you want for your own child? To work really hard at a job they don’t enjoy so that they can make enough money to pay for a nice house, a car and have nice clothes – but have no time for holidays or their children? Or to find something they really enjoy and still be able to live a good life?

Some people do manage to do well in life because of (or despite) their school education. Most people, however, grow up not knowing how to be successful in life. Those who go on to study business or medicine or law or media often manage to get decent jobs and do reasonably well in life. But even highly qualified people often can’t do the jobs they are hired to do. So they seldom progress in their career.

The people who become managers or start their own businesses or live an independent life are usually those people who have discovered how to learn by themselves.

And that is what this article is about.

First, however, a digression: what is wrong with school anyway?

Well, the biggest problem with school is that someone else decides what children need to know. This completely distorts the way children are educated. Children usually have to study a body of knowledge that has been deemed important by a group of adults. The teachers have to be proficient in this body of knowledge. The children have to be tested on how well they have learned each of their subjects. And the teachers have to prepare the children for their examinations.

The trouble with this is that:

  1. Children (and adults) only learn stuff that interests them. Anything else is quickly forgotten. Think about it for yourself. If you love collecting stamps then you will have no trouble learning all about stamps and their history and how to collect them. But if you aren’t interested in stamps then you will not waste any time learning about them. So it is very difficult for children to study something that someone else has decided they need to learn.
  2. Knowledge about the world is constantly changing, and it is impossible to know everything about a subject. There is too much to know. So a teacher can never be an expert in their field. Take mathematics for example. It is perhaps possible to know everything there is to know about the kind of mathematics that is taught in school (algebra, trigonometry, geometry), but mathematics and mathematical thinking is a huge subject that includes number theory, topological spaces, calculus, boolean algebra (logic), statistics, market theory, chaos theory and, in general, abstract thinking, logical reasoning and the study of recurring patterns.
  3. Most of what is learnt at school is not relevant to people’s lives. Studying mathematics at school was originally meant to teach people how to handle money, and then became a way to teach logical thinking. But because teachers are focused on examinations, there is no time to develop logical thinking skills. Nor is there time to learn about finance, such as how to produce a budget or understanding loans and interest rates, or how investments or the stock markets work.
  4. Learning is also limited precisely because students have to prepare for examinations. So much time is spent perfecting the standard knowledge, rather than learning new things about a subject. This means that children can’t study interesting things because it is not part of the examinations.
  5. Teachers spend their time teaching, rather than learning with the children. Many teachers might be specialists about their particular subject, but they are often ignorant about everything else in the world. This is not a good role model for children.

So what is the alternative?

The purpose of an education is to develop the ability to learn and adapt to the changing world. The most striking thing about successful people is that they look at the world creatively and then find ways to harness gaps in the market or changes in the way people live. The other thing about successful people is that they learn on-the-job. They don’t wait until they can find a university course and study for three years. They find out what they need to know and keep learning as they go along.

Knowing what you enjoy (and therefore are good at) in life and how to develop yourself is what real education is all about.

This means that one has to start with what the child finds fun and enjoyable to do – not what other adults think is important. Maria Montessori (a famous Italian educator in the early part of the 20th century) discovered that children learn very quickly if you just let them play. She devised an environment where children would learn while playing. What was really amazing was that young children actually taught themselves to write and then read simply by playing with letter shapes and having fun drawing them. Nearly all the educational toys that are available nowadays come from Montessori’s ideas about education.

The further implications are that it is not possible to devise a standard syllabus for all children. In history, for instance, one child might be fascinated by Egyptian culture, another child might want to learn about cave painting or the development of writing, another child might want to learn about war, and another about the development of technology, or simply the history of robotics or video games! There are so many ways a child can learn about history that is fun and interesting.

This means that it will be impossible for the teacher to teach each child differently, because she will first have to study the topic herself and then devise a syllabus and a way of testing the student’s knowledge.

The alternative is for the child and teacher to learn together! An adult (or even an older child) will have more experience and understanding about the world and so is in a better position to help a child to find information or get access to resources. In the end, the child will know far more about a subject than the teacher, so the teacher’s job is different. The teacher’s new job is to encourage children to learn about the things that interest them and to evaluate their work in a supportive way.

In the same way as a successful manager in business who coaches and develops his subordinates.

Evaluation is an important skill that teachers need to develop. Evaluation isn’t about testing. It is about providing constructive feedback on how to improve. Unfortunately, examinations have become ways to test how well children remember facts. In real life, it is more important to be able to research and synthesize information and present a cohesive, logical and persuasive argument (or proposal).

Being able to analyze information and understand the underlying principles is much more important than knowing (and remembering) facts. So preparing for a memory test is pointless. When I devised ‘examinations’, I allowed people to use their notes and books, access the internet, and even ask each other for help! Because this is how we do things in real life. If we don’t know how to do something, we ask someone for help or we find out from a book or the internet. Why should it be different for children?

When children feel they are playing and having fun, it is amazing how much they learn. Montessori’s children were reading and writing at about age 4 or 5. Not because they were taught to read, but simply because they felt it was a fun game to be able to read signs and write labels for things.

My own children do not go to school. Yet they are able to tell me things that I had no knowledge of. They are able to learn things for themselves. And also they can argue convincingly and persuasively. (I know! They manage to persuade me to give them money for activities or things they need; and I don’t always have a good enough reason to refuse.)


So what about university or jobs?

Most people believe that you have to have good grades to get into a good university. And that you need a proper qualification to get a good job. In one sense this is correct. But it is missing the point.

Firstly, there are many universities who accept students who haven’t gone to school. These are often the better universities, because they realise that it is the ability to think and learn independently that determines how successful you do at university. Some universities will simply require that you do well in an entrance examination (which might take a few months to prepare for). Some universities will let you study independently, or may treat you as a “mature student” – in which case, no prior qualifications are required. Then there are the “open” or distance learning universities where you study at home – usually via email or the internet. Once you achieve a certain number of credits, usually 1 or 2 for each course, you then become eligible for a diploma or degree.

It may be a little difficult to study for highly regulated professions such as medicine, law or teaching, but if you really want to do so then you don’t need a school education. A student might have to search a bit harder for a university that will accept him, but he will have the advantage that he is more persuasive and determined than many school-educated students. It may also mean that he will have to spend an extra year preparing for the entrance exam, but slightly mature students do much better at university than younger students who have just finished school.

For virtually any other profession, it is seldom the qualification that gets you the job. It is often your ability to sell yourself as well as your ability to work independently. Many HR departments won’t look at your resume if you don’t have the right qualifications, so you will have to be a bit more creative. Did you know that most of the really good jobs are created by the candidate? What often happens is that someone approaches a director of the company and will propose a way to solve a specific problem or increase sales – and then be hired to do that job.

Besides, there are many, many other ways to make money than simply to get a good job. People who haven’t gone to school usually start their own businesses straight away or become freelance consultants, often learning on the job. People get hired based on their ability to think creatively and communicate persuasively. Not on how good their grades were.

Nevertheless, many companies do hire on the basis of qualifications. But they often find that qualified people can’t do the job they were trained to do, or they find that the candidate isn’t prepared to adapt (because he believes he has already studied enough, so doesn’t need to learn anything new). What also often happens is that these people never progress in their careers because they don’t know how to manage people.

And many companies prefer to employ graduates because they feel that they must have some kind of intelligence and discipline just to be able to get through university. But more and more companies are realising that university graduates often don’t do their jobs as well as freelancers and people who have taught themselves about the business.

There is another concern that parents often raise: what about social activities?

This is another myth about school. Just because there are lots of children at school doesn’t mean that children make friends and learn to socialise. Most schools are unnatural social environments. Children are divided into groups according to their age and then separated into classes. Most children in a particular school come from the same background. And children are not allowed to collaborate or work together while they study.

In real life, successful people are able to get along with others at all ages and all walks of life. Adults also work together in teams, or ask each other for help. Children who don’t go to school mix with adults, older and younger children, and from different backgrounds. They also don’t have the same time constraints that school children have – so they can stay up late, go out with other people during the day (instead of being stuck in school) and can travel more easily without having to worry about missing a few days from school.

I should point out, however, that it isn’t easy to have a great social life if there are not many other children doing the same thing. It is easier to organize sports events and extracurricular activities if there are lots of children of similar ages and abilities. That is one advantage of a school. So it is important for homeschooling parents to work together to create a community where children can do activities together.

In London, we were involved with about four different groups of families. On Mondays, we joined about 30 children for ice skating. On Thursdays, we hired a hall and around 50 children came to play, some did pottery, some did drama, some did painting.

And one father’s hobby was botany. Every Wednesday, he would take around 20 children to the forest, where they had a picnic, played football and then explored the forest. One day, he showed them how to pick mushrooms and how to distinguish between poisonous and edible ones. Another day, they looked at the different mosses that grew on the trees. On yet another day, they dug around for worms and beetles.

There is a huge difference between studying botany from a text book, and discovering nature for yourself while having fun in the forest. The children learnt more about nature and forest life in a few days than most kids learn in a whole year at school.

But it does require a certain amount of extra effort by the parents. They need to get together and organize community activities on a regular basis.

Most parents worry that they are not qualified to teach anything.

Most of the time, this isn’t important. Children don’t need to be taught anything. But they do need help to organize activities or to find information. And, very often, if you have an interesting hobby then you probably know more than any teacher would about that subject. Children enjoy learning from someone who loves what they do.

So if you have someone in your group who can make clothes, or cook delicious food or bake cakes, or who enjoys origami or grows bonsai trees, then that person can work with the children. Even if you are not an expert, the children will probably teach you as they learn. They enjoy being together with other kids (and adults) and enjoy discovering things for themselves.

This is what Montessori discovered. Children didn’t care about what the teacher thought or what the teacher wanted. They weren’t even interested in praise or rewards. They were only interested in solving their own problems. Montessori tells of one young child who spent hours concentrating on solving a puzzle and then breaking it up again. She did it 42 times before she got bored with the activity.

Children can do amazing things if they are interested enough.

Many parents and teachers believe that children won’t learn discipline or concentration skills if they don’t go to school or if they are “just” playing games. Well, the exact opposite is true. Games (even video games) are what children enjoy most. And they develop amazing powers of concentration and discipline when playing games.

Video and computer games are surprisingly educational. Studies in America have shown that children who play a lot of video games have very high powers of concentration, excellent hand-eye coordination and (because of this) are also very good at sports. One thing that really surprised the researchers was that children who play video games actually spent more time doing sport and playing outdoors than their friends who didn’t play video games!

Some computer games are also horrendously complicated and difficult to play. World of Warcraft is an online community game where you have to master complex political and historical problems and collaborate with other players in order to wage battles against enemy players. If I wanted my children to learn about history and politics and develop logical thinking skills, I’d rather they spend all day playing WoW than wasting time learning about these subjects at school.

My son, for instance, could only read a little even though he was already 10 years old. He just didn’t enjoy reading books so much. He spent a lot of time playing video games. (My daughter, on the other hand, would read big, thick books when she was the same age.) And then my son discovered ebay and learnt about downloading “cheats” from the internet. Within a month, he had taught himself to read so that he could bid for games on ebay and understand the cheats. Children (just like adults) will learn whatever they need to know when they are motivated enough.

So what do children learn if they don’t go to school?

The most important thing they learn is self-confidence. They believe in themselves. That know they can learn whatever they need, and to do whatever they want in life.

These children are able to think creatively. They are possibility thinkers. They know that there is not just one way to do things: that there is never only one correct answer (as in an exam).

Indeed, the ability to recognize that there is seldom a single answer to anything and to never take anything at face value is probably the most important attitude that distinguishes homeschooled from school-educated kids. Schools tend to actively discourage scepticism and critical thinking (despite their claims to their contrary).

Socially, these children also tend to be better off than school-educated children. They usually mix with a wide variety of people of all ages and different backgrounds. By being part of the adult world, they learn to argue and debate issues with other people. You might be able to fool a teacher, or even pass an exam. But it is difficult to discuss ideas cohesively and persuasively with experienced people who know what they are talking about.

And because these children are socially adept, they are able to achieve their goals through collaboration and teamwork.

In a study done by Paula Rothermel at the University of Durham in England, it was discovered that children who were educated at home had much higher abilities and better social skills than school children, regardless of their economic background. Not only that, but they were also at least two years ahead of school children when it came to traditional school subjects.

Finally, children who spend the time doing activities they enjoy – and for no other reason – tend to appreciate life, beauty, music, art and culture. These children usually grow up to be happy adults. These children learn to lead a truly successful life.

[3,635 words]



For more information, try these websites:

www.homeschool.com
www.homeschoolinganswers.info
www.homeschoolviews.com

www.unschooling.com
www.holtgws.com
www.montessori.com/homeschooling.html

or google “home school” or “home education” or “paula rothermel” or “unschooling”.

Homeschooling is now legal in Thailand, but it’s a complicated process to register. There are tax advantages and benefits if you do register. Please write to the editor if you want more information about this topic.

© Gary Orman 2008


[1] Strictly speaking, he was later sent to an exclusive school in Switzerland to complete his formal education.

But it is a wakeup call.


This financial crisis is not new and has been expected for a while…Some have been issuing warnings since around 2002 (but were ignored as alarmists). By mid 2007, it was already fairly obvious that a global crash was imminent. So why does it come as a surprise to governments, businesses and ordinary people who are now either losing their jobs or having to cut back?


Yet there seems to be little good reason to slow down business activity, at least in Japan. The Yen is the strongest it’s even been and has been gradually getting stronger and stronger over the decades. Surely, there is a huge opportunity there? There is no need for such sensationalist gloom and doom-mongering. The sophisticated infrastructures are still intact and work efficiently. We still have electricity and gas and water. Trains and buses still run on time. There is still a relatively plentiful supply of food. Property values may have crashed but the buildings are still standing and in good condition. Schools and hospitals and libraries and government offices are still open. And television stations continue to churn out news, movies and entertainment. In short, the world is still turning!


In this article I will present an approach that may allow you to exploit the many opportunities that have arisen as a result of the current financial turmoil.


How did we it get into such a mess in the first place? I believe that, despite the unprecedented access to information, most of us have been trained to live lives of studied ignorance, as in previous ages when people were mostly illiterate or uneducated. In some ways, we haven’t advanced all that much. Just because you might be highly “educated” doesn’t make you impervious to this affliction. Indeed, some of the most ignorant people are highly qualified doctors, bankers, professors – primarily because they are so confident of their knowledge and seldom question it.


Schools teach us to accept facts on authority. We are discouraged from thinking skeptically, particularly about the process of learning itself, and the purpose of school education – which is ultimately so that we can go to university to be ‘qualified’ and get a ‘good job’.


Educators will argue against this. But think about it…. As a student, if you felt there was an alternative explanation for an historical event, say, you would be marked down if you expressed this point of view in the exam. So instead you simply learnt the point of view that was “correct” for examination purposes. Similarly, were you ever given the opportunity to discuss what you want to learn in the first place? If you studied mathematics, would you have been allowed to learn about investment and finance, or fun stuff like topology or game theory? And if you studied history, would you have been allowed to study Asian History or the History of Science, as opposed to whatever was the standard syllabus (American & European History?)

Only a very few schools rate students on their ability to present an argument, based on good quality research and critical thinking. In general, the quality of even post-doctoral research and analysis is appalling. A typical case in point is the recent debacle regarding Olanzapine.


We are being lied to consistently by the very people who are supposed to safeguard our interests. It suits them that the majority of the population accepts their “explanations” for how the economy works and about taxes, health, education, warmongering, and even the state of the environment.

Henry Ford said a hundred years ago that if people really understood the financial system there would be a revolution. Not much has changed since then.


Most of what we know and believe has been carefully conditioned over the years. We are almost as indoctrinated to believe in our Capitalist, Consumer way of life (whether Japanese or Western) as the Soviet or Chinese children were made to believe in the merits of Communism and the socialist way of life.


This perhaps hasn’t been planned deliberately. I doubt there is a secret society of wealthy and influential families conspiring together to make it so. Usually, these things come about simply because it becomes fashionable. It was fashionable for quite a long time to believe that women were mentally inferior to men and were biologically designed to stay at home and look after the family. It was fashionable amongst eminent doctors to believe that blood-letting was healthy or that anesthetists were quacks. It wasn’t so long ago that knowledgeable professionals advocated for eugenics as a means of purifying the human race. And up until the 1970’s doctors were fairly convinced that masturbation was unhealthy. More recently, most of us were willing to believe in the effectiveness of powerful psychoactive drugs for dealing with discipline and behavioral problems in young children… Doctors, lawyers and politicians in the UK also readily accepted that women could harm or murder their babies as a way of drawing attention to themselves (MSBP or Munchausen’s Syndrome By Proxy is what it is still called). And insurance companies in the US readily fork out millions of dollars for treatments identified by the DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual) published by the Psychiatric Association. Yet it isn’t based on scientific principles at all. And despite this, people who are diagnosed as having a personality disorder under the DSM are routinely considered sufficiently dangerous or incompetent by family courts to have their children taken away.


Judges do not question the underlying validity of the DSM or the professionalism of the practitioners involved.


You are a highly skilled and experienced professional. Do you think, however, that you are immune to this kind of ignorance? For myself, despite being on my guard for attempts to hoodwink or indoctrinate me, I am often astounded at the depths to which I have been deceived. It very often goes to the core of our value systems. Our “Capitalist” lifestyles probably depend to a great extent on the wholesale squandering of fossil fuels. We value convenience and choice and “freedom” and material comfort. Personally, I would find it extremely difficult to live the life of a Buddhist monk, only eating before 11am and entirely dependent on others for my food. Yet, approximately 90% of the people in the world live lives not so different (but perhaps without the “spiritual” nourishment that the monks have).


The very basis of our financial systems seems to be based on a gigantic pyramid scheme – albeit very sophisticated. Like most MLM businesses, the successful people are those higher up the pyramid – those who get in early and quit while they are ahead. But this kind of system only works if the 90% at the bottom of the pyramid supports the 10% at the top. If you look at the mathematics, pyramid schemes become saturated very very quickly.

In my humble opinion, the boom and bust economic cycles of the 20th century are a direct result of the pyramid principle in action. Just on a larger – and now global – scale.


Take the recent property crash in America. The only way that a property can increase in value if someone else down the line buys it at a higher price. The only reason why he would do so is because he believes that he can sell it to the next man for an even higher price. But when you reach saturation point, the people at the bottom of the pyramid can no longer find anyone left to buy into the scheme.


Banks and financial institutions depend on the expansion of the pyramid in order to justify their existence. Finance 101: a bank borrows money from you, the depositor, at X% interest and lends it out to someone else at X+y% interest. If they have no-one to lend to then they can’t pay you your interest. So banks tend to find creative ways to lend to people who simply cannot afford to borrow. This works so long as the properties they buy continue to increase in value.


When this is no longer sustainable, the people at the very bottom are saddled with loans secured on properties that are worth less than the original loan. So they have to make up the difference out of their own pockets! And, ultimately, it is these poorer people who support the entire financial structure by spending the next 10 years of their lives paying off their debts – either directly by negotiating a repayment schedule or indirectly by increased taxation and an increase in the cost of living.


Where do governments find the $800 billion or so to rescue the banks and bolster the economy? Either by printing money (which therefore means that it becomes worth less over time) or by borrowing from the people (which gets paid back through sustained high levels of taxation).


It can make one feel cynical that so much money can be magicked up when one hears that nine million children live in refugee camps at any one time; or that around the same number die every year from treatable conditions such as malnutrition or malaria and that it would take around $18 billion (or the cost of four aircraft carriers) to prevent most of these deaths. Perhaps there is an unstated accord to indulge in a form of ‘natural’ population control (after all, 9m extra poor people in the world every year might simply exacerbate the poverty problem); or perhaps the livelihoods of the people dependent on the aircraft carrier construction industry has higher priority than a few million poor children who have no future anyway… It does seem grossly unfair, however, that money can be found when it’s expedient, but obtaining comparatively small amounts of money is often problematic.


I’m not a finance expert, so I may have got some of the details wrong. (Please comment below if you can support or refute this notion.) I do believe, however, that most of us are fairly ignorant about what really happens behind the scenes and how it affects our work, our incomes and the cost of living.

My guess is that the underlying reason why governments and big businesses often get it so wrong is these institutions operate on the basis of “it’s other people’s money”. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if the money is wasted. After all, the worst that can happen is you lose your job; and for a CEO this isn’t always such a bad thing if there is a golden parachute involved. For a politician or senior civil servant, either the departmental budget is reduced (or simply not increased!) or the person responsible (or his scapegoat) gets pushed sideways.


There is really no strong incentive to deliberately and thoroughly think through the repercussions of any particular plan. A simple process that might help would be to work through a particular proposal using Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats framework. But hardly anyone knows about it (and very rarely in the public sector), let alone makes use of it as a matter of course.


As ordinary people we don’t question the fundamentals of business practices, trading and investments, and the economy in general. Even if our job involves finance or budgeting or accounting or planning. Indeed, we are deliberately discouraged from doing so, usually through confusion or omission of information. The aim is to maintain “confidence”. We seem to understand that so long as everyone else feels confident then the global monetary and banking systems won’t collapse and we can keep our jobs, borrow money, and buy things. No one wants a run on the bank, even if we know that there isn’t enough money in the bank, because then everybody suffers. And there’s nowhere else to keep our money anyway, other than keeping cash or buying gold perhaps.


And even this is fraught with difficulties. What kind of cash should we keep? Yen? Dollars? Euro? Baht? The value of any of these currencies fluctuates so wildly that it is impossible to know which is a “safe” currency. A hundred years ago, one British pound could buy you $100 worth of goods. Now you get only $1.50. For many years the South African Rand was worth more than a dollar. Now it’s only worth 10 cents! And in the early 70’s, $1 bought you around ¥350. Now you only get ¥90 to the dollar.


And what about gold? Sometimes it’s worth a lot: it was $850 (per ounce) at one point in 1980; but mostly it’s been around the $400 mark. Some people say it could eventually reach $2,000. $800 in 1980 is worth $2,000 in real terms today. So gold should already be at this level if it had kept its value.


As for full-time employment, jobs are not as secure as thousands of people are (re) discovering. The more flexible and entrepreneurial self-employed consultant, contractor or businessman is in a better position to weather economic downturns. Primarily because they are practiced at responding to market conditions. Permanently-employed people are in very shaky positions – their jobs can be terminated in an instant: when there is (yet another) financial crisis, when the CEO makes a blunder, or if the company becomes bankrupt, is sold/merged, or simply transferred to a new country. They do not have basic skills to think creatively, to sell themselves, to read the market or to ask the right questions. Most employees work in a world that seems to be stable and secure; and they have no idea how their work affects the overall wellbeing of the company; or how external forces shape their futures. Very few employees actually understand the Big Picture of how the company operates and how the quality of their work or actions affects the profitability and sustainability of the company. Our modern day corporate companies are not so different from a Ford production line of 100 years ago, other than the fact that today’s products are more “knowledge” based.


It is perhaps a little facetious to over generalize. Many things have improved beyond measure since 100 or even 50 years ago. We live in a truly magic age of instance communication, cheap and abundant food, flying carpets that can whiz us across the globe in a day (it took the Mayflower two months to cross the Atlantic) and automated systems that make life extraordinarily convenient.


But many things have also stayed the same. We are all remarkable creatures of habit; and we seldom learn from our experiences, good or bad. It’s only when something really bad happens that people sit up and notice. But in time, we forget. It was just twelve years ago that we had a spectacular meltdown in Asia. Are our business practices and personal habits any different now as a result of that? Probably not. Seven years before that there was a fairly serious downturn in the US. Three years before that the property bubble burst in the UK. And in 2002 there was a dotcom crash.


There are lessons to be learnt from all these crises. Governments, banking and financial institutions have sometimes implemented measures that protect our wealth, but on the whole the measures seem to have been sticking plasters that unravel again a few years later. Sufficient to maintain the illusion of “confidence” until the next time and perpetually delay any really serious meltdown… We hope.


Some say that this time it will be different. Our way of doing business and managing the economy is inherently unsustainable. Maybe there will be a return to the Gold Standard, and the true (lack of) value of currencies such as the dollar will be exposed. It may take 5-7 years for all of this to unravel and, along with other self-defeating habits, the downturn will be a lot deeper and a lot longer. Whether this comes to pass or not, only time will tell.


It does seem tomake sense that in a global economy, there should be a single universal currency. The individual states of America manage with a single currency, and so now do the European member states.


Now is a good time for reflection and fundamental restructuring and development for the future. It is a golden opportunity to harness the wealth of knowledge, talent and expertise already existing in your organization. People are not so busy selling and fulfilling orders. Now that it is quiet, you can use this time to develop your people (who already have an innate knowledge of your product, the industry and your corporate culture) and work on new products and strategies in preparation for the future.


Letting otherwise productive staff go has a double cost. The first is that it costs 2-3 years’ salary to recruit and train a replacement in terms of fees, delays, errors and lost opportunities. And the message you send to otherwise loyal staff members is that their jobs are not as secure as they thought; which means they will be more amenable to transfer out to another company if the opportunity presents itself. If I were a headhunter, I would look for likely candidates by deliberately targeting those companies that had let go the most people during this crisis.


Instead of cutting back, companies should use this opportunity to invest. Many people find this concept difficult to grasp. Saving a million dollars on cutting costs and laying off of staff seems better than investing the same amount on exploiting new opportunities. In the short term, you may save a million dollars. But think of what is likely to happen in the medium to long term.


An economic crisis is, however, the ideal excuse to get rid of useless or negative people. Many employees do become entrenched in corporate life and are no longer productive, but it is often difficult to get rid of them without a significant reason. Bad managers should also be removed while you have the opportunity – those who block progress and treat their subordinates like serfs. Particularly those who “do” rather than “manage”.


That aside, it is unfair and bad business practice to lay off otherwise talented staff during this time. It’s a sign that the business has been operating on an unsustainable basis. Intimate knowledge of the corporate culture, clients, business practices & procedures, trade secrets are being leaked to savvy competitors (those who take up the slack quicker when the economy improves)…


Much better, then, to keep them on for those 2-3 years and develop them so that they become more productive (by value) in the future. Most accounting and trading practices don’t allow for this kind of long-term internal investment of human capital. It takes strong leadership to take this kind of action and to persuade investors that this is better for them in the long term. Most traders and trading systems only look at trends in the figures, without really looking at the fundamentals of the business model and the strength of the corporate infrastructure.


Except for people like Warren Buffet of course.


Besides, with the Yen being particularly strong compared with the dollar, pound, euro and wan, it is relatively cheap to employ American, European or Korean labor, so long as you can retain them in their home country.


Here are some additional approaches you might want to consider as a strategy for dealing with the crisis:


  • Invest in intellectual capital
  • Care for your staff
    • Staff are unlikely to move on to higher paid jobs(the competition?) if the environment is pleasant, they have a social network and support for their family, get on with their superiors and colleagues and have a career path that suits their personal goals (which may be no path at all, but just enjoying their work day…)
    • Eliminate bullying
    • Encourage leaders to praise and appreciate subordinates
    • Remove bad managers – allow “stars” to excel at their expertise without necessarily gaining status through management. Teach managers to manage (vision, delegate, coach) not work as hands-on experts.
  • Encourage entrepreneurship, independent consultancy positions particularly for part-time/contract staff), develop a business mindset.
    • Encourage creative and critical thinking
    • Overcome barriers to providing honest feedback
    • Make it safe for whistle-blowers
  • Implement Six Thinking Hats in all your meetings.
  • ·Foster creative ideas
    • Test the best ideas – pilot studies, mini start-upventures, etc.
    • Implement the ideas that work
  • Understand customer care, and how it impacts on every aspect of the organization
    • Product promise
    • Customer service
    • After sales support (and guarantees)
    • Encourage and reward complaints – feed back into product development/customer service/operating procedures
    • Staff and suppliers are customers too
  • Learn to work “smart” not busy.
    • Are there superfluous activities in your organization that can be dispensed with?
    • Is it really necessary to have people working 8-10-12 hours a day? Maybe they can do the work in 4 hours and spend the rest of the time either spending time just thinking, or with their colleagues or their customers, learning from each other and strengthening relationships,or have more time with their family, or spending time learning & improving themselves. (Most people only do 4 hours productive work per day anyway; they just look busy for the other 4+ hours!)
  • Apply the Seven Habits

If you’ve gotten this far then you are probably fairly serious about your business and would like to consider various avenues to take advantage of the current economic climate.


Please contact me if you’d like to have a discussion about it. I am happy to visit you at your convenience.


I’ll be in Japan until Jan 14, 2009 and after that in Bangkok.


Data Security

This may seem a dry subject – like insurance – but data security is an issue that should be dealt with as a matter of priority.

It can cost days, if not months, of work if data is lost and you have no backup. It can happen in so many ways. Inadvertently deleting that important folder when your mind is elsewhere. A freak bug in a software application. A power surge ruining your hard drive. A drink spilled over your notebook. Or simply a hard drive failure or corruption of data.

Most of the time nowadays, computers are extremely reliable. Deleted files can usually be recovered from the Recycle Bin. Data from a hard drive can often be retrieved.

However, it does occasionally happen that important data is lost. Even in a minor case, it can be very expensive or time-consuming to recover the data. In some cases, can be devastating for your business. Particularly if a notebook is lost or stolen and someone else gets access to your data.

Here’s what has happened to me, despite occasionally backing up my data. I had transferred several days’ worth of photographs to my computer and began the work of retouching them. I decided to create a separate catalog file in Adobe Photoshop. I happened to give it the same name as the folder the photos were in and, due to an obscure bug in the software, all the photos were wiped out. Not deleted and stored temporarily in the recycle bin, but completely wiped clean! I spent the next few hours using data recovery software to try to locate the files on the drive, but to no avail. Only the last few photos were still on the camera’s data card, but hundreds of photos were gone. I hadn’t got round to making a backup since the previous week, so I had no backup either. I had spent the last six days solid, travelling all around the city to take these photos. I would have to do that all over again!

Of course, if they had happened to be pictures of a recent wedding or corporate event then this could mean disaster.

I have a friend whose disk failed. He has about three year’s worth of personal photos, videos and other data, which he lost. He also had all the material for the publication of a monthly magazine. Despite it being not a total disaster, it has cost him dearly.

He was able to recover some data from an old archive drive. The last time he backed up was about two years ago. And he managed to rewrite the magazine and only lost two weeks. He lost another week, trying simply to recover the data and it turns out that if he is prepared to spend about $1,000 then some of the data might be recoverable by opening the disk in a clean room.

On another occasion, I inadvertently spilled a glass of water over the keyboard of my notebook. The repair shop told me that it was ‘uneconomical to repair’ so I retrieved the hard drive from the damaged computer and bought a new notebook.

Only to find that when I attached the drive to the new computer, the data wasn’t readable. You see, I had used the encryption feature in Windows to keep sensitive information secure from prying eyes. Unfortunately, Windows encryption is locked to a specific computer and I hadn’t been aware of the need to backup the various keys that would allow me to access the data on another computer.

Never mind, I had made backups of all my documents onto an external hard drive. So I would only lose a couple of days’ work.

The trouble was that I had used the encryption feature on the external backup drive also. And Windows wouldn’t allow me to access the data here either. My last unencrypted backup was made three months previously! I spent the next two weeks on the phone to Microsoft and various data recovery specialists to try to get my data back.

It was useless. Three month’s work down the drain – and, even worse, three month’s worth of correspondence, which I had kept in Outlook, gone for good.

Of course I had to move on and make do with the odd printout I had. Luckily, I had emailed some work-in-progress to various clients and colleagues, so I was able to recover some of the work that I had done. But the next month or so was spent basically re-doing the work that had been lost.

I did manage to recover the data in the end. I bought a second-hand computer, the identical make and model to the one that had got damaged, and inserted the old hard drive. Voilá! I was able to boot up using the old Windows configuration and access the encrypted data.

However, I now had several versions of data on different drives and folders that I didn’t get round to tidying up for another six months.

Yet, no matter how careful or dilligent one is about data security, losses still inadvertently occur.

Recommendations

So this is what I’ve learnt.

  1. The first and most important is to subscribe to an online backup service where your data is automatically and transparently backed up, without any intervention on your part. I use Carbonite because, despite its limitations in providing feedback on its operations, it backs up every file continuously, almost as soon as it has been modified. As I have an always-on broadband connection, this means that my backups are securely encrypted and always up to date. It also integrates nicely with Windows Explorer and allows me to back up all sorts of obscure system files or files stored in application folders. And it only costs $50 p.a.

    (Update: in some ways, this service is perhaps too simple, because it is difficult to know what it’s doing.)Other similar online backup services include iDrive (the first 2GB free) and Mozy. It is worth looking at these too, but whichever one you choose, ensure that your data is being backed up transparently and continuously.

    Relying on CDs or DVDs or external drives is risky because one inevitably makes these back ups intermittently, usually every few days or perhaps even only once a week. This could mean days worth of work being lost, even if you do back up.

  2. Encrypt your hard drive. Especially if you have a notebook. There is so much personal and valuable commercial information on a hard drive that if it gets into the wrong hands, it could ruin you.There are several systems around. I used to use the built-in Windows encryption file system (EFS), but didn’t realise that it is not meant to encrypt external drives either, and gets locked to your computer hardware – even if your data drive is intact! The lesson is to use a third-party system instead, costing around $50-$100. Encrypted Magic Folders is quite good, but perhaps a bit dated now. Others include HandyCrypto and TrueCrypt (which is free). Here is an excellent resource for on-the-fly encryption software: www.thefreecountry.com/security/encryption.shtml.Just make sure you have some way of keeping your passwords safe. There’s no point in locking your front door, if you hang the key on a hook on the doorpost!

Data security is cheap and effective. Do it now while before it slips from your mind. Or face the inevitable consequences of the loss of work-in-progress or your privacy.

It costs only around $100 to secure your data. If you consider how much even a day’s work is worth to you, the price is negligable.

Living Healthily is a Natural Instinct

Losing weight or dieting or keeping fit seem to be the most difficult things to do.  But don’t lose heart.  If you keep in mind some of the following fundamental principles then it is actually quite straight forward.

The First Thing to remember about diet and fitness is that It Takes Time.  There are no short cuts.  If you are seriously ill or obese then supplements and medications or a dietary regime might get you to a point where the ‘normal’ rules apply. 

It is vitally important to develop good eating habits.  To do so requires training of your body and mind gradually over a period of time.  A crash diet will get you slimmer or lighter, but it is unlikely to last.

And here’s why.  Our civilization is probably not more than 10,000 years old – more or less since agriculture was invented.  Our bodies, however, are the product of approximately 2-5 million years of evolution.  Our digestive system is designed primarily for a life of scarcity.  It is in fact only over the last 100 years (or less) that humans have lived in such abundance.  Primates have been around for around 60 million years (with the Great Apes appearing around 20 million years ago), and their digestive systems are designed almost entirely for plant matter.  It is still a mystery why our brains evolved at such huge expense in terms of energy requirements (our brains use up a fifth of our entire body’s resources); but one clue could be that being able to use tools to kill large animals enabled early humans to obtain more concentrated forms of nutrition (meat), which in turn may have led to a natural selection towards larger and more intelligent brains (as well as the capacity to digest meat).

The point is that, despite living in a modern world, we inhabit ancient bodies.  In dietary terms, this means that our digestive systems work most efficiently when following a roughly ‘caveman’ diet.  This consisted mostly of root vegetables, fruits & nuts, berries and, occasionally, meat.

We can survive for long periods of time with very little food.  It seems that we even don’t need great amounts of water – the Bushmen of the Kalahari survive on a cup of water a day!

However, our bodies are designed to go into emergency mode when starved of food.  Our metabolism slows down, non-essential parts of our brain are put into suspension and we prepare for famine. 

This means that as soon as food becomes available, it is stored as a priority (usually as fat) before the body is allowed to return to normal and the lights inside are switched back on again.

This is what will happen when you diet.  Your body is likely to over-compensate when it can by slowing down and overeating.

The trick is therefore to sustain a level of balanced basic nutrition that resembles the scarcity of a cave man.

This isn’t as difficult as it sounds.  Your body is probably the most finely and automatically balanced machine in existence.  It seeks out what it needs to maintain optimum efficiency.  That is why you don’t need supplements, despite what the adverts say about lost minerals and deficient diets.  I say this even though one of my businesses is to grow food using mineral-enriched organic fertilisers! If your body needs a nutrient then you will develop a craving for any substance that has it.

So one rule of thumb is to eat whatever you feel like! Whenever you want.  Train yourself to recognise when you are hungry and when you are full.  Then eat whenever you are hungry and stop as soon as you are full.

If you are a parent then the worst thing you can do to your children is to insist they eat at prescribed times and to clear their plates! It’s even all right to eat those sweets & candies before dinner, rather than eat them when you are already full.  Physiologically, it is often better to have a light liquid-based breakfast (i. e.  juice or fruits) and snack (on fruit or vegetables) until lunchtime than to have a ‘good’, solid breakfast as the breakfast cereal companies would have us believe.  Saying that, everyone’s body is different.  So if a big oily breakfast works for you than go with your stomach’s desires rather than your head’s.

However, here’s the catch.  Because of our modern lifestyles of overabundance, we have confused our bodies.  Naturally, quick & easily digestible foods like sugars take preference over other foods because, in a world of scarcity, sugars are useful.

So you have to train your body to rely on its more basic instincts.  The way to do that is to try as much as possible to eat unrefined (unprocessed) whole foods and to truly savour and enjoy the sensuous experience of eating.

That’s about it!

Of course, it is never as simple as this, because we are surrounded by deliciously tempting fast foods.  This is one of the chief attractions in Thailand and one of the reasons why I chose to settle here :).  There is just so much mouth-watering food around that it is hard to be selective or to restrict one’s intake.

A good trick is to develop your good habits gradually.  That’s why Rule No.  1 is: It Takes Time.  It is not possible (for the majority of us weak-willed individuals) to suddenly change to a ‘healthy’ lifestyle overnight.  Our bodies don’t work that way.  Which is why tough New Year’s resolutions fail after a week or two or three.  There is a psychological aspect as well, in that any kind of denial is resisted or sabotaged.  We thrive on treats and rewards; we become depressed and ineffective when punishing ourselves.

Our bodies need to be gradually trained to develop a taste for wholesome foods.  The way to do this is to gradually replace an unhealthy food with a healthy one – and as much as possible to choose something that we relish. 

Replace just one cup of coffee or glass of beer a day with fresh juice.  Choose a juice you really enjoy.  And for your ‘unhealthy’ food or drinks, go for taste and quality every time.  A really good, strong coffee once or twice a day is better than mindlessly drinking many cups of caffeinated muck several times a day. 

Buy a cheap juicer and start each day with a glass of juice.  It’s quite fun to experiment with different fruit and vegetable combinations. 

Preparation

Preparation is an important tactic.  The day before, make sure you’ve stocked up on a few fruits & vegetables.  Prepare some ready-made vegetables (sliced carrots, cucumbers, celery sticks) that you keep in a bowl of water in the fridge or take in a tupperware container to work – and find a few dips that you enjoy (even if they are technically unhealthy).  Houmous, tahina, cottage cheese, etc.  all make great dips – you can get them all from Villa.

Preparing in advance is key if you want to overcome lethargy.  Make sure the juicer is all ready and laid out the night before with your fruit & veges conveniently piled up in the fridge so that all you have to do is cut ‘n juice in the morning.

Our lives today are all about convenience.  So make it convenient to get into good eating habits.  The thought of spending more than 2 minutes to peel a carrot and flavour it is enough to kill the habit.  But if it’s just a matter of opening the fridge door and picking out a sliver then you get to look forward to satisfying the munchies in this way.

And get into the habit now of always including a little bit of salad with every meal – even if it’s just a single lettuce leaf.  After a while, this becomes two lettuce leaves, then two lettuce leaves and a slice of pepper… And before you know it, you begin to prefer salad meals over a burger and french fries.

Some things to avoid

Avoid sweeteners & diet drinks – these actually enhance the appetite! Use unrefined sugar if you have to.  Get to like the taste.

Also avoid the low fat, ‘diet’ foods.  These often have more sugar than regular full-fat versions.  Your body needs fat.  Your brain can’t function without it.  Your cell membranes are ‘fat’.  You cannot even move without the lubricating benefits of fat.
You will have heard about ‘good’ fats, the omega 3’s and 6’s.  Rather than cutting down on your fat intake, start enjoying top-quality olive oil over your salads and in your cooking and on your (whole-grain) breads, and eat fatty fish like mackerel and salmon. 
A good tip is to dip bread in a mix of cold-pressed virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Develop a taste for olive oils – they are as varied and as flavourful as fine wine.
As a principle, avoid anything that is in any way refined or processed.  Or at least go for the ‘whole’ version.  At first, whole foods taste a little strange if you are used to your corn flakes, croissants and white rice; but gradually (mix some brown rice in with your white rice, add a few bran flakes with your corn flakes…) you will begin to prefer the whole version for its superior taste and texture.

Some things to reward yourself with

Eat chocolate.  There’s nothing wrong with chocolate as long as it’s high in cocoa (70%).  Once you get the taste for good chocolate (or any top quality food), it is hard to go back to eating rubbish.  I can’t stomach ordinary milk chocolate anymore.

Occasionally, pig yourself out at a scrumptious buffet – but only after fasting for the day.  Begin to enjoy feeling hungry.  It’s a wonderful sensation – you feel light and alert.  And it enhances the enjoyment of eating.  It is not necessary to fast excessively – just skip your lunchtime meal, avoid fast food snacks, drink water & juices and eat the occasional piece of fruit.  The idea is to aim to feel sufficiently hungry to thoroughly enjoy your evening meal. 

A slightly better habit to get into is – as in France – to enjoy a hearty lunch, but only have a light meal at night (or eat as early as possible in the evening) and only have water-based foods in the morning (i. e.  juices, fruits or vegetables).

Part of the problem that we have in our modern lifestyle is that we don’t eat because we enjoy it: we eat because it has become a habit, often out of boredom, and we seldom actually taste our food or drink anymore.  That’s why you must treat yourself all the time, with the highest quality, best-tasting food & drink you can afford.

Your body will thrive and, before you know it (a year passes by pretty quickly nowadays), you will be slimmer and healthier than you could have imagined – and without any particular wilful effort on your part.

Savour your food (NB)

Probably the most effective way of developing good eating habits naturally is simply to focus on the taste and savour your food.  Most of us simply eat or drink without tasting.  This is how we end up eating more: in order to continue the taste sensations.

Despite what I wrote above, you really can eat whatever you like if you follow this principle.  You don’t need to eat or drink as much if you turn it into a sensuous experience.  The ancient Chinese Tao advises people to “drink” their food, meaning that you should chew and savour your food until it becomes liquid in your mouth before swallowing.

You will enjoy whatever you drink if you sip, rather than drink.  Wait until the liquid hits your tongue and taste it.  This way, you will drink less.  Drink beer or coffee or tea or juices as though you were drinking a rare wine.  Few of us would drink a Chateau de Neuf Pape in the same way as we normally drink beer.  But once you start tasting your food and drink, you will begin naturally to seek out the better quality food and enjoy the experience more, yet find that you are eating less yet more nutritionally than before.

In this way, you can indulge in the finest chocolates or coffees or even enjoy fast food burgers and other junk foods without unsettling your body; it frees you to enjoy whatever you like.  Nothing is unhealthy, so long as whatever you eat, you actually taste…!

If you are feeling hungry…

Very often, people mistake thirst for hunger.  When you are a little dehydrated, the feeling you have is similar to hunger.  Try drinking plain water first before having anything to eat.  And then eat a water-based fruit or vegetable like an apple or carrot.  It fills you up, re-hydrates you, provides you with an ongoing supply of sugars and holds off the hunger pangs for a little while.

Some myths about diets

Your weight is not important.  On the whole, your weight bears little resemblance to how fat you are.  Muscle weighs more than fat and it burns fat.  So a heavy person with a lot of muscle is often slimmer and healthier than a lighter person with a lot of fat. 

And water is a relatively heavy substance.  One litre weighs a kilogram! You should be drinking plenty of plain water.  Coffee, alcohol, certain teas and colas (soft drinks) dehydrate you.  Get into the habit of enjoying plain water – or at least alternate between your glass of beer and a glass of water when you are out partying (or networking).

So throw away your scales.  They don’t tell you anything useful.

Calories.  Counting calories is counter productive.  You interfere with your body’s highly evolved intuitive instincts to eat what it needs, when it needs and how much.  It’s hard in Thailand, but try to stop when you feel full.  One way that might help is to go for the desserts when you’ve had enough to eat.  That provides a signal to your brain that dinner is over.  It’s hard to go back for that second (or third) helping of spicy prawns when you’ve just been savouring that deliciously dark chocolate cake with a cup of espresso.

Atkins and other fad diets. Atkins works for the wrong reasons.  A fascinating Danish study showed that people on a high protein diet felt less hungry than those on a high carbohydrate diet.  Atkins has worked for some people; but – as I mentioned previously – only in the short term.  Your body needs carbohydrates as much as it needs proteins.  Your body will get what it needs if you learn to trust in your cravings.

The principle to remember here is to aim for unrefined, unprocessed, whole foods.  Pasta, cheese, beer, wine, bread (even chocolate) are all processed foods.  It took me months to wean myself off my favourite staple: pasta in cheese sauce.  Now I enjoy it occasionally, but it doesn’t have the same appeal as it used to anymore.

If you need your pasta, start replacing it with the wholegrain varieties.  Next time order brown or red rice with your meal – you’ll be surprised how much tastier it can be.  Or if you don’t yet have a palate for the nuttier taste of brown rice, mix a little bit in with your white rice – and over time, increase the proportion of brown over white.  You could also try mixing in small quantities of wild black rice to add flavour.  Same principle applies to your bread – splash out on freshly baked wholegrain bread from Villa, Foodland or Carrefour.  Avoid the sliced packaged loaves.

If you like your cheese, then start buying smaller quantities of the more expensive varieties.  And start replacing cheese with cold-pressed olive oil, for instance, in your sandwiches or pasta dishes.  If you like pizza then develop a taste for the genuine Italian version: very thin, crispy base with oodles of vegetable toppings.  Duilio’s is one of the few genuine Italian pizza restaurants around.  Avoid Pizza Hut or The Pizza Company!

As for burgers, go for the meat and always include a side order of salad.  In general, get into the habit of always having salad with every meal and gradually increase the proportion of vegetables over time.  I used to be a big meat eater – now I tend to eat meat more as a condiment to a salad or vegetable meal.

Alcohol is a difficult one.  It’s nice to get tipsy – some like to get regularly pissed! It is one of the most concentrated, highly refined foods on the planet – which is why alcoholics can survive without eating anything at all.  One approach might be to always go for the highest quality, most expensive drinks and to savour them.  Perhaps reduce the amount of beer you drink by developing a taste for the expensive malts or spirits.  Use the replacement technique to replace a jug of beer with a glass of Scottish or Irish brandy.  And remember to alternate with glasses of water or fresh juice.

Alkaline-forming foods. I used to believe that this was important.  Well, it’s bunk! Your body is an extraordinary self-regulating and auto-balancing machine.  Alkaline-forming foods are those that become alkaline in your urine.  That’s all.  They in no way affect the alkalinity of your blood or of the cells in your body.  Your body will maintain the correct acidity or alkalinity required to within very tight parameters – regardless of what you eat.

Organic food, vitamin and nutrient supplements. The jury is still out on this, but there is very little ‘good’ evidence that your body can’t extract what it needs from a balanced and varied diet.  If you are ill then supplements seem to assist in the recovery process.  Some foods may help to improve your mental alertness or sexual appetite, but probably only because we may have got into habits that sap our resources.

As for organic, the argument is that we will avoid being harmed by the chemicals in fertilisers.  The truth is that little if any of these chemicals end up in our stomachs by the time the food has been prepared.  Organic food grown using nutrient-rich organic fertilisers do, however, taste a lot better.  And that is probably reason enough to go organic.  Nevertheless, some organic foods are more organic than others.  It doesn’t always follow that organic food is any tastier than food grown using chemical fertilisers.  If you can sample the food, go for taste every time, regardless of how it was grown.

Free radicals

A lot has been written and marketed about free radicals.  Much of it is bunk.  However, our modern lifestyle has exacerbated the problem.  Oxygen on its own is a highly reactive, corrosive atom.  Once combined with itself (O2) or other atoms, as in water (H2O), it becomes highly stable.  Cells in our body break up oxygen molecules during the process of generating energy for the body.  The theory is that excess oxygen atoms are released into the bloodstream, causing damage to other cells by reacting with the cell membranes. 

There are many vitamins and supplements that are supposed to help ‘mop up’ these free radicals and reduce the damage caused.  Ensuring a regular intake of vegetables in your diet does exactly the same thing.

Smoking

Smoking is something that causes a great deal of cell damage, so just give it up. 

Saying that, I have come across one notion that it is not the smoke or nicotine that causes the most damage, but the cocktail of chemicals used in growing tobacco and in the cigarette itself.  Organic tobacco smoked in a pipe is supposed to be not so harmful. 

The verdict is open on this one…

Psychology and Fashion

Diet is as much about psychology and fashion as about nutrition.  Susie Orbach wrote a book many years ago called “Fat is a Feminist Issue”.  Being fat (or big) is not necessarily a health issue.  Nowadays, the fashion is to be slim ‘n trim, but this does not necessarily make you attractive.  Different people are attracted to different things.  Men tend to worry about the size of their penises and their biceps, while woman seem to worry about the size of their breasts, bum or tummy.  I myself prefer a woman who is slim with small breasts, but I have a friend who had a slim wife whom he would hardly touch except when she was in the latter stages of pregnancy, or breast-feeding.  It’s a wonder how the poor woman got pregnant in the first place! Similarly, I had a girlfriend who left me for a fatter, softer man because she complained that I was too hard & bony.

(I’m looking forward to any interesting comments on this point.   I have some anecdotal evidence as to the various advantages and disadvantages of size.)

You will probably find it more helpful if you focus on having a healthy body rather than a fashionable figure.

Exercise

Our five million year old bodies are physiologically designed to be active.  In fact, our blood circulation depends on it.  Our hearts pump blood to the far extremities of the body, but the return path relies entirely on gravity for the blood returning from the head and muscular activity for the rest of the body.  As you move about, the muscles squeeze the blood back up towards the heart, where it is pumped through to the lungs for re-oxygenation.

Being physically active somehow develops greater efficiencies in your body.  Unfortunately, we live a chronically sedentary lifestyle.  Optimal functioning of our body (from breathing and digesting to efficient circulation and waste processing) depends on muscle activity.

There are three key tactics to exercising effectively.  The first is to do what you enjoy – for it’s own sake.  If you don’t like jogging, or weight-lifting or aerobics then don’t.  Find something that is really fun and enjoyable, whether it’s tango or salsa or horse-riding or fencing or surfing.  Even sex is a great form of exercise.  Just learn to keep going for an hour or so at a time!

I am like a beached whale after 3 minutes on a treadmill.  With some great dance music or a long track with a good rhythm, I can usually manage a 30-minute run; but I can run after a ball in soccer, hockey or squash, like a headless chicken, for nearly two hours non-stop, and not feel particularly fatigued.

The second is to build up gradually.  My teenage daughter is currently doing 200 sit-ups a day.  I can barely manage ten! She built this up by starting – over six months ago – at 10 sit-ups a day.  Then increasing this to 20, then 30, and so on.

The last is to prepare.  Even when you have found your fun activity, it is very difficult to motivate yourself to get started if you have to spend time and effort gathering your gear and equipment together.  In the UK, this was doubly difficult for me if it was cold and dark outside.  In Thailand, the excuse might be in getting there because of the traffic. 

Nevertheless, if everything is packed and ready the night before, and you have arranged time and transportation beforehand, then it makes it that much easier to get up and go.  And it always helps if you have a buddy with whom you’ve made arrangements, as it’s far too easy to back out if you’re alone.

Another very simple exercise habit to acquire is simply to tighten your stomach slightly and clench your pelvic area slightly (like holding in your pee).  The key word is “slightly”.  If you do it whenever you think about it eventually becomes subconscious – and that small amount of muscle tension helps to tone your body in the long term.

Breathing

We need to breathe – often and deeply.  Oxygen is required not only to ensure optimal metabolism, it is also required to remove waste.  Our sedentary lifestyle is again to blame for an accumulation of waste in our bodies.  We have a remarkable mechanism for dealing with excess waste that cannot be eliminated: by wrapping it in a protective envelope of fat!

Paying attention to your breathing is beneficial in many ways.  It is calming and also helps to reflect on your life – especially if you do as part of meditation.

Walking, climbing stairs, dancing, being physically active, etc.  will improve your breathing naturally.  The correct way to breathe is to pull your diaphragm down using your belly muscles.  Let your belly expand like a balloon and keep your chest and shoulders steady.

Attending a basic meditation course or retreat can work wonders and requires very little effort.  10 minutes meditation a day is sufficient – and you can do it in the taxi, on the train or as an effective way of resting and recharging at work.

Living for Ever

It is truly remarkable how long we live nowadays.  Only 100 years ago, people didn’t live much longer than 40 years.  People now usually live well into their 80’s and the number of people who live past 100 has risen dramatically.

Much of this has to do with better nutrition on the whole and medical intervention that makes many life-threatening diseases little more than a common cold (which, incidentally, was pretty deadly over a hundred years ago).  Some remarkable research has shown that rats that are slightly underfed all their lives tend to live at least twice as long as normal.  People who slightly starve themselves report that they feel more energetic as well as look and feel ten years younger. 

Finally other research has shown that people who have an optimistic and positive outlook on life tend to live as much as 20 years longer than their cynical, complaining, malcontent contemporaries. 

So, to live a long, healthy & energetic life and (as a side effect) in an optimally slim body – enjoy being hungry, eat well (by which I mean eat predominantly unrefined, unprocessed foods and don’t forget those greens!) and smile and have a lot of fun.

And, yes, it is as simple as that!

Live long and prosper….

Summary Principles

  • Eat what you want when you want.  Favour whole, unrefined, unprocessed foods, but don’t deny yourself anything.
  • Taste!   Savour your food & drink  – make it a sensuous experience.  If you are going to eat that creamy chocolate cake then enjoy every mouthful to the max.  Eat small quantities at a time, so that you can really savour the taste.  Drink your food so that you extract every morsel of taste before swallowing.
  • Eat when you are hungry.  Stop when you are full.   If you are not sure if you are full then stop for 10 minutes or so.  You can always eat more later if you are still hungry.
  • Drink when you are thirsty.  You might be thirsty rather than hungry.  Drink plain water, not coffee, tea, colas or beer.  These don’t quench your thirst, regardless of what the ads suggest.
  • Find an activity you love to do.  Exercise only works if you enjoy it for its own sake.
  • It Takes Time.  Any habit you develop or diet you adopt is only really effective if it works for life.  Any diet that delivers results in a short time simply puts your body out of balance and you possibly see-saw to an even worse state than when you began.  Allow yourself a year to establish lifetime tastes and habits.  You should start noticing subtle changes within six months or so.
  • Managing your Time

    21 February 2007

    Effective Time Management is really about managing your mental energy. The trick is learning to empty your mind – not in the Buddhist sense, but by finding ways to unclutter your mind – so that you can focus on the task at hand.

    You will be surprised at how little time there is for ‘productive’ work. But it is amazing how much you can achieve in so little time, with a clear mind.

    Master List – your week (or month) based system

    Processing your Master List

    This is like the traditional To Do List. Write down everything that you want to do over the next month or so. Empty your mind. Keep it handy and continuously add to it. You can promptly forget everything on the list until you come to processing it.

    Usually at the end of each day, for each item on the list or that comes your way, decide first whether it is actionable or not.

    If it is not actionable: Is it something you might be able to use in the future? In which case, file it as maybe. If it is something that could be used as reference material then file it. Otherwise just bin it!

    If it is actionable: Do it immediately if it can be done within two minutes.

    Otherwise, if it is something that can be delegated then do so and make a note to monitor the progress. You might need to devote time for briefing and training.

    If you must do it yourself then enter the task in your calendar if applicable; otherwise do it as soon as you can – make an ordinary To Do List for these tasks.

    The Unschedule – blocking out personal & social time

    unschedule-sm.JPG

    A remarkable technique. Block out your personal and social time first and then find empty slots to squeeze in ‘productive’ work activities. A monthly ‘unschedule’ usually works best.

    You will be amazed at how little time you do have to work! The ‘work’ slots are the very focused, high energy uninterrupted sessions when you get things done.

    The rest of the time you can devote to clients, staff and colleagues, networking, relaxing, exercising, and enjoying your friends and family. It is important to make time to recharge batteries and raise energy levels through exercise.

    By the way, make sure you get enough sleep. A refreshed mind achieves more in one hour than a sleepy one can in two.

    Always set time aside at the end of the month/week/day to plan the following month/week/day. This is when you process your Master List and fill up your Unschedule.

    With these techniques, your life will be easy, yet you will achieve as much and more by working 3-5 short bursts each day with a fresh, energetic, uncluttered mind than if you slog the traditional 8-10 hours.

    Make an appointment with yourself

    This is a powerful way to manage your time and empty your mind. You can forget about the task until it pops up in your calendar. It takes a little experimentation to get it right. We tend to underestimate how long things take and pile on the tasks. Decide a realistic timescale and block out time in your calendar when you are going to do it. Don’t give yourself too much time, because you will just work slower to fill it up. But don’t reserve too little time so that you overshoot into your next ‘meeting’ with yourself. If you do then take this into account in your next planning session.

    Also break up a task into chunks so that you work in focused bursts. Long sessions become tedious and your energy wanes. Keep up the interest, the variety and the pressure.

    Educate your staff and clients

    When you are in a meeting then you are simply not available – unless it is something really really urgent. If you are in a meeting with yourself then the same rule applies! Switch phones to answer service, turn off email alerts, instruct your secretary/receptionist that you are in a meeting, don’t allow interruptions.

    You can reserve time for dealing with calls and messages, and block out ‘available’ time when people can walk in or call.

    About staff and client meetings, is it really necessary to attend these? Often your participation isn’t really required and the minutes of the meeting will suffice. If you do have to atend a meeting then use Six Thinking Hats to help focus the meeting and keep it short. And when you are on the phone with someone, prepare in advance what you want to achieve with the phone call, get to the point quickly and wrap up quickly.

    Some clients prefer a leisurely pace, so you might need to take time with them. Factor this into your planning (and pricing).

    Be organised

    To work effectively, you must know where things are. This is an important task in itself (to go in your Master List). Keep files of documents and reference material that allow you to retrieve information instantly. Time is wasted by having to look for things before you can get started.

    It often helps to prepare your desk the day before, so that everything is ready to go as soon as you sit down.

    Delegate

    Good management is being able to get work done through others. Consider it an investment in time and effort to find and train other people to do the work that frees you up to focus on your strengths. Let’s say it takes a week to train someone to do the initial follow up on sales leads. Thereafter, you have someone else doing the work that might be taking half your time, which you can now devote to serving your customers and closing deals.

    If you don’t have the staff then outsourcing or an alliance with others could be a way to focus your energies on increasing sales and revenue.

    Most companies believe that they can’t afford to outsource work or take on new staff. If you calculate how much you are losing in lost sales and lost opportunities then you probably can’t afford not to.

    Just Get Started

    Sometimes, you may not be in the mood or the task seems too big. In this case, just spend 10 minutes getting started. Lots of focused 10-minute effort adds up to many hours of productivity. And, often, once you get started it is hard to stop!

    Time to Reflect

    Is what you are currently doing getting you to where you want to go? Are you becoming the person you want to be? What do you want your business to attain? Give yourself time periodically (a holiday retreat?) to think about what you want out of life and how you could possibly achieve it.

    It’s a great way to reward yourself for all your good work!

    Bibliography
    The Now Habit – Neil Fiore
    Getting Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play – Mark Foster
    Getting Things Done – David Allen
    What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School – Mark McCormack