Once you know where you are, the world shrinks to the size of a map; when you don't know where you are, that's when you experience the vastness of the world.

When I was a student at MIT, I managed to get into a talk by the famous Rem Koolhaas because they let students in first, even as the queue snaked around the building.

My fellow architecture enthusiast James was also at this 

Little did we expect Koolhaas to be one of the most boring speakers ever.  Right next to Zaha Hadid.  Great architects make great speakers not.  Didn't help that his slides were not working.

So my sleep debt caught up on me and I was struggling not to nod off since I fought to get in there.  I can only vaguely remember Koolhaas droning on about the megacity of Lagos, Nigeria.

Years later, my friend James told me that was the fateful evening when he designed the (now patented, award-winning) Paperclip Armrest.  Because he was fighting over the armrest with our other, burly, friend.  While I was sleeping.

When we think about "definite", like how an architect is definitely famous or a talk is definitely boring, our world reduces to certainties.  But when we let ourselves go - that's when our ideas fly.

The best thing is when you don’t even know how you did it

I’ve been very tempted to set a list of rules for my team to follow. The temptation is especially strong in our frenetic startup environment where we move fast while trying not to break so many things.

But should I?

To find my answer, I went for a run. Running is extremely boring. So boring that my mind always unlocks an answer for me after.

I realised that there is no point in setting rules. People just end up breaking them. And smart people would soon find them tiresome. Things also change so quickly that I have no time to update this hypothetical rulebook.

The answer: Habits always trump rules. 

A rule: I tell myself that I must wake up to run on Saturday mornings.
A habit: Every Saturday at 7am, I go for a 8km run with my friend.

The idea is to help my team form habits, so that one day they can do things well, rule-free and effortlessly - did it when they don’t even know how they did it.

By the way, the habit of running every Saturday at 7am for 8km with my friend is a real example.  And I don't know anymore how I do it.

Losing sight of the problem - a Product Manager's problem as we move towards the solution

Because a Product Manager’s impact is ill-defined, we end up being judged for the products we ship. And by extension we start thinking that Product Managers should be evaluated by the solutions we propose.

But that’s missing the point.

Thoroughly understanding and defining the problem we’re trying to solve is far more important than producing a good solution.  Rather than prescribe our solution, we should articulate the problem extremely clearly, then rally our larger teams to synthesize the solution together, iteratively.  After all, Product Managers are Jack of all trades, not the Master of one.

I see this daily because I manage a team of PMs in a rapidly growing company. Short turnarounds and each PM going deeper into a feature group becomes our excuses for losing sight of the wider problems. It is so tempting to parade a quick solution instead of saying that we don’t know yet and we’re still exploring the problem space.

So it is incredibly helpful to always ask yourself as if it is Day 1 - what exactly is this problem we’re solving here?  If we can’t agree on the problem, we’ll never agree on the solution.

Yoga is saving my life (Hello from the other side)

Until six months ago, I stood firmly on the other side of the divide, believing that yoga is not for guys - and therefore definitely not for me. I resisted using the common defence mechanism that yoga is at the same time too light a workout and too serious about stretching.

Even now, practising yoga as a guy continues to be a conversation killer. When someone asks if I went to the gym, my reply that I just finished a yoga class typically invites silence or a polite but contorted smile. And once, a female colleague responded with "I prefer to take part in macho sports."

I'm glad I got past worrying about what others think. Try this as a guy: walk into a class full of ladies wearing tights, receive their curious glances, then proceed to be the most inflexible person in class. In the case of inexperienced instructors, add a situation where the teacher gets surprised by someone as stiff as you.

I'm glad I realised the secret to getting good - dropping the competitive mindset against others but pushing my own limits while being comfortable in my own skin.

I was twelve when I first received the advice that "loving what you do is more important than doing what you love." Back then, I dismissed that suggestion as coming from someone who is old and cynical. I thought I should only pursue what I love, and skip what I don't. Now I see it as important for me to not avoid doing what I don't love yet. 

With yoga, the initial dislike of the discomfort gave way to a maturity in dealing with the discomfort. Everything else in life - work, personal relationships - might benefit from the same. Slowly but surely, I got better. A pose I thought I couldn't deal with has recently become effortless.

It brings to mind the idea that "it is easy for you but it is hard for me." A lot of times we defensively dismiss someone's effortless ability as something we cannot achieve. But maybe it is because we never worked for it.

I'm thankful that I've more or less made yoga a ritual for myself now, practising at least every other day.  It has given me calm and focus in a job that requires me to be composed and to have a clear mind.  More importantly, it keeps me sane and fresh despite being desk bound for too many hours.

Two random sentences from my instructors come to mind:

  • “If you can’t do it slow, you can’t do it fast."
    My instructor was trying to tell me that I wouldn't be able to launch into a crow pose or headstand quickly if I cannot manage to do it extremely slowly. It really reminded me that the path to being really good at something involves lots of relentless practice, persistence and being honest to myself.

  • “Loud noises don’t scare you when you’re relaxed."
    Something had collapsed in the room when our eyes were closed in meditation. Yet no one had any significant reaction. It makes me realise that the way to navigate tough options in life and work is to be relaxed about it.  It doesn't mean you don't care or you are not invested in the outcomes.  It simply means you're able to create a better outcome.

I never thought I’d write a love letter to yoga, and the old me might have been surprised at the new me. But I'm glad to say that yoga is saving my life.  And yes - hello from the other side.

An ugly cafe makes good coffee

The tablecloth was plastic, and so were the chairs. In fact, the chairs are the type of stools you would find at street food stalls - red, blue and generally ugly. The menu board for coffee was sparse.

The cake display was the opposite. Perfectly shaped macarons and artfully composed Mont Blancs were lined next to classic tarts and pots of crème brûlée. And once I picked my cake (Alhambra Torte - 70% chocolate, hazelnut cake soaked with coffee-rum syrup and filled with chocolate ganache), an extensive coffee menu appeared. But again, the look of the menu - home-printed sheets of flimsy paper in an equally shoddy plastic file - didn't seem so promising.

In the end, I spent my afternoon at the siphon-brewed coffee cafe listening to three owners/employees share their views. Here's what I learned:

  1. Give coffee time. Coffee is an agricultural product. We tend to forget this because unlike say wine, coffee is regarded as a grab-and-go beverage. The regret is that certain coffee flavours only open up after the coffee cools.
  2. Give black coffee a chance. We associate black coffee with being bitter and sour, and so we hide those tastes in milk and sugar. But with the right preparation, black coffee can delicious without sugar and milk.
  3. Don't impose your own views. The cafe specialises in siphon-brewed coffee, but willingly serves espressos, lattes and cappuccinos when customers order them. The last thing they want is to forcefully exert their views.
  4. Put yourself in the shoes of the customers. Even within black coffee, they are mindful that everyone comes in with certain preconceptions. Out of the profile of bitterness, sweetness, aroma and sourness, beginners always shun bitter and sour. The cafe staff start by finding a bean which the customer would be comfortable with, then slowly bring them on a journey of discovery.
  5. Defaults are powerful. They understand that default behaviours are powerful. Customers come in used to milky Starbucks. Customers seek out fresh spots, new trends. An unchanging, black coffee cafe like theirs can come across as boring, so they take efforts to explain their philosophy. 
  6. Handmade = unique. How can Paris support so many bakeries and patisseries? Because something handmade is unique. Each bakery and patisserie can find their own niche and supporters. 
  7. Open a cafe to express yourself, not to make money. They realised that many young people take short-cuts like franchising, copying existing concepts or resort to pointless frills (selfie printed on your coffee) to try to make a quick buck. Yet the sustainable way to run a cafe business is to express what makes your special. In that way you cultivate regulars, and regulars are the people who keep your business going after the opening buzz wears off.
  8. Don't worry. In their years of running the cafe, they've been through tough times, but they thought of times of slow business as time when they had time to improve themselves. When 2 of 10 customers criticised their cakes, instead of a knee-jerk reaction to suit their taste (and potentially losing the other 8 customers), they thought long and hard whether they should even change their recipe.
  9. Locals don't appreciate them yet. They say most Penang residents, unlike the more global-minded people from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, still think of their cafe as an oddball, asking them why they don't bother with their decor.
  10. An ugly cafe makes good coffee. They replied that if the decor is the selling point, they would be distracted into obsessing with the upkeep of their furniture. Instead, they want themselves, and their customers, to always focus on the coffee and the cakes. No sandwiches, no Eggs Benedict.

Sou Fujimoto TOTO Lecture - 3 life lessons from an architecture superstar you might not have heard of

Sou Fujimoto is a young architect born in Hokkaido, based in Tokyo, famous for his 2013 Serpentine Pavilion and permeable private houses and currently working on competition projects his firm won in Paris, Budapest, Taichung, among other locations.

“You can feel a constant, gentle breeze,” marvelled Fujimoto-san at how the architects managed to regulate natural ventilation at The Star, where he addressed an audience of 3,000 at a lecture organised by TOTO, the leading bathroom brand from Japan.

His architecture lessons are best learned directly from him - conveniently he has a new book out titled simply "Sou Fujimoto Architecture Works 1995-2015."

But what struck me listening to Fujimoto-san was how articulate he was, even in English. When I was at MIT in 2007, I had the luck to listen to famous architects and designers including Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Cecil Balmond (Arup), Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson. Possibly with the exception of Eliasson, almost no one else was that gifted in speech. I had thought along the lines of “God is fair”, since he had already blessed them with the talents of expression and execution in architecture.

So here are three life lessons I learned this evening:

1. Be your own spokesperson and salesperson
Sou Fujimoto not only knows how to design, he understands how to communicate his designs in words. His stage performance (including constant remarks with the word “Amazing!”) reminded me of the ultimate speaker of our times - Steve Jobs. He made a few deliberate half-joking comments of “I’m looking for a client in Singapore. You can just send me an email.”  You have to be willing and able to be your own spokesperson and salesperson. Your method might differ, but this should never be a job beneath you.

2. Be endlessly positive
On his failed “Souk Mirage” project, he humorously lamented that he had proposed such an audacious design because he thought “anything is possible in the Middle East.” He also poked fun at his own “public toilet” project in Japan (it got so popular it required porta-loos to service the crowds). His positive energy was infectious and made him very likeable. And never underestimate the importance of likability.

3. Recognise that money matters
A lot of criticism directed at starchitects is about how they are obsessed about form making and creating the next spectacle while not caring about the commercial outcome. Fujimoto-san specifically discussed how he was grateful at how well the Montpellier residences he designed is almost sold-out. Some might think of their architecture (or their profession / work) as art. Again, making sure your works succeed commercially should never be beneath you.

Image copyright:
1) Serpentine Gallery (c) Iwan Baan
2) Souk Mirage (c) Sou Fujimoto Architects

Read my other posts about career tips or head over to check out my project on architecture-focused walking tours in Singapore.

How successful will you be in your 50s? Lessons from talking to MIT alumni.

How successful will you be in your 50s? When you’re younger, you might look to older alumni from your university to glimpse into your future.

When I was a Masters student at MIT, I worked at the call centre appealing to alumni for scholarship donations. I had the chance to learn about how past students were doing in their 30s, 40s, 50s and into their retirement years.

The first sad realisation is that lonely retirees are just looking for anyone to chat with while non-retirees cannot wait to hang up on you, implying a lifelong rush that abruptly flips into a long sigh of boredom.

The second sad thing is to hear the anger in the voices of people who have trouble finding new jobs after getting fired. Part of the unhappiness stems from assuming that an MIT degree assures a comfortable and smooth career path.

The third story is how I discovered the wisdom age brings. We live in a world obsessed with youth and staying young. We are more excited to listen to teenagers explain Snapchat than to hear the elderly share about history. But people significantly older than us can teach us a lot too.

There is always anxiety looking forward, wondering what our lives would bring. Indeed a degree from a famous university isn’t an ‘iron rice bowl’ or a destiny.

What I have learned so far is to
1) cultivate joy within and outside of what I do of work
2) continue learning even when it is painful to start from square one
3) be thankful for older mentors

And as Roosevelt said “comparison is the thief of joy.” Graduating from the same university does not mean you will lead similar lives.

This post was inspired by the healthy discussion on Hacker News about MIT alumni in their 50s.


Startup pantry (or How much can each employee eat?)

One difference between working for a big company and at your own startup is the direction in which resources flow. Employees pinch from a big company but donate to a startup. In a corporate environment, you probably would not feel guilty printing a personal document in the office. At your startup, you might be bringing snacks from home to feed your team.

We might explain it away as a function of how much financial damage your actions create relative to the budget. I’d rather frame it as how much you feel you are spending your own money versus spending other people’s money.

But not all startups are cash-poor. Startups can generally be split into two camps: venture-backed (sells equity to receive funding from institutional investors) versus bootstrapped (keeps costs low and reinvests profits). The exaggerated stereotype is that startups with institutional funding (other people’s money) splurge on perks from designer furniture to extravagant pantries while the self-funding startups are perpetually on a “frugal mode."

The truth is more nuanced. Regardless of whose money you’re spending, someone has to justify those dollars draining into the Nespresso capsules. No one wants to be bankrolling the next tech-Titanic.

But no thanks to tech companies like Google and Facebook, who wield stories about their ridiculous pantries as recruiting weapons (how many different types of dairy-free milk does your pantry have?), tech startups are also under pressure to also stock up. There are even startups focused on managing pantries.

So is it Google-does-it-so-it-must-be-right?

When I had the chance to meet Royston Tay, the CEO of Zopim, one of the most successful tech startups to emerge from Singapore (and bootstrapped - to boot), I asked for his opinion on pantries. His reply included the brilliant line of “How much can each employee eat?”

I readily understand the benefits - the conversations around the ‘water cooler’, the productivity boosts from the caffeine fix, sugar rush and time saved from queuing at Starbucks, not to mention being motivated and happier and delivering more of those emotions to users.  I guess I just never did the calculations of the costs.  And I imagine you don’t need cold-pressed juices, chia-seed flecked kale chips and vegan chilli-chocolate chip cookies.  16 mini-bags of Want Want Senbei costs only $2.05 on RedMart.

1) I met Royston in July 2014. I need to get my post out a little faster.
2) I assume Royston’s comment was not a discriminatory statement against people who are always hungry (that’s me).
3) Not all big companies spend on pantries. I worked at Singapore Airlines, where the luxury on board your flights does not translate to fancy offices. The company believes spending heartily on customers (rather than employees) helps it stay profitable. I have also visited startups dethroning Google.

Image by Adam Foster (paperpariah) on Flickr.

Control mindset vs Influence mindset

On paper, my educational degrees are in Economics and Revenue Management. Yet I was only one or two credits away from also being a Psychology major. Rather than gain the extra qualification with the mandated coursework, I decided to select other courses that would challenge me to grow more.

But if I were to sum up my education from institutions, work and life, I’d describe it as understanding human behaviour. So, in one word - psychology.

Many confuse ‘psychology’ with ‘psychiatry’ (the applied, physician variation) or even worse - perceive psychology as the dark art of controlling others’ mindsets.

Over the years, one of the most important differences I have learned is to hold the mindset of 'influence' rather than the mindset of ‘control.’

With a control mindset, we attempt to dictate the outcome by directing others. When they do not abide with our instructions, both parties become emotional. Our emotions make us lose sight of our goal. In the chaos, the results deviate from our desires.

When we are in an influence mindset, we recognise that whether and how others can be persuaded is the path to the outcome we want. We take logical steps to uncover how they think and calmly navigate towards our goal.

The control mindset is common. It damages our everyday relationships at work and with friends and family.

For example, your Mom is riding shotgun as a passenger in the car your Dad is driving, and she tries to specify how he should drive. Your boss mandates a process contrary to your opinions. Or a mobile app you don’t quite like directs you to rate it five stars.

This ties in with how we typically evaluate situations from our own perspectives, inside-out, rather than outside-in. Even when it involves others making decisions for themselves (the most critical time to think from their angle).

The next time you are annoyed with someone, pause to see if it is because you wish to exert control. Loosen your grip. Walk in their footsteps and you will end up leading the way.


Fabian has spoken to hundreds on topics spanning entrepreneurship, community-building, product management, design, pricing and travel. With insights into the psychology behind engaging users and the evolution of live experiences, he provokes discussions around the role you and your organisation play in the future of online-offline interaction.


Developing tech products and building a community around it:

  • Jan 2015 Trending SG, Speaker - 9 tips for event marketing, event spaces and event tools
  • Dec 2014 Across the Border, Speaker - Communities across borders
  • Nov 2014 Google GDays Georgetown Penang, Speaker - Community: at the heart of technology
  • Apr 2014 MIT Technology that Matters, Speaker - Growing Startups Across Geographies
  • Mar 2014 Hackers and Painters, Speaker - Dogfooding: a Product Manager’s best friend

The stories behind starting architecture walks in Singapore:

  • Mar 2015 PechaKucha Night Singapore x Singapore Design Week Speaker
  • Jan 2015 Idea Nation 聚意堂, Speaker - Magical spaces in Singapore 新加坡的奇幻建筑之旅
  • Nov 2014 TEDxYouth@Singapore, Speaker - Travel without leaving home
  • Oct 2014 Archifest: Crowded powered by PechaKucha, Speaker - The art of noticing


  • Feb 2011 Blink Blank, Speaker - The Price is Right: Ticket Pricing and Human Behavior from the Airlines’ Perspective
  • Oct 2010 Barcamp 6 Singapore, 7 things I learned from having a beer (and my 90 beer caps collection)