Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why I Work

Again, for want of something better to write, I shall touch on why I work.

Once I interviewed a fresh graduate and I asked her why she wanted to work. She answered, "To earn a living." I was quite unhappy with her answer. Does one crawl so low? Doesn't one work for something better. I hired her because I wanted to show her what work could really be. She couldn't write a proper sentence in English, and not to mention her spelling. "Is you free?" I gave her work, real work. She struggled and cried. I ignored her. It's really up to her whether she wanted to work or not. Was she really ready to do it to earn a living. In the end, when I left the industry, she cried. She is still in the job, doing quite well, I heard.

Now, the point I wish to make is that I work to live.

Of course, we are talking about privileged positions. I was privileged to be able to go to school and not having to work to help out the family income, like both my parents who had to. I did remember one incident when I was asked by my family on a Sunday to get one of my many uncles to come along and follow my father to earn some money for doing a job. I stayed back at my grandmother to play the guitar, I think, and had a jolly good time with my younger uncles. When I returned home, my mother was furious, asked why I didn't come back and joined my father and uncle and earned some extra money. I knew we were not rich but had never thought ourselves to be poor, living in a compared low-cost council flat with seven kids and a grandfather thrown into a one bedroom and one living room (the room I lived in with my grandfather). There was always food, whatever is available, and hunger was and still is a nice ingredient when enjoying ordinary food. The only thing I dreaded about meal times was that I had to help in the buying of vegetables (never remembered meat), cooking of rice over charcoal and then gas, the chopping of shallots, the washing of dishes, and the washing of kitchen floor. I went through all these chores with the songs in my head, and when there was time, to do a few drawings. Uncle Number Four could sometimes come around with a camera he borrowed and I would use up the whole film, and he was never angry with me. But, anywhere, my mum was so crossed with me, about my lack of concern for the family wellbeing, that she threw me out of the flat, followed by my schoolbag. I was rejected until my father came back and returned me to the family. My mother was happy because he had made some extra money. Later, I learnt that she needed the money to pay for the shool fees of her younger brothers and sisters.

I was privileged to go to the UK to study. Kids who did not got abroad to study would not have a chance to go the local universities because of limited places for us. My parents decided ever since when they were married that they did not want their kids to suffer like them, for without a proper education, we would not have a good future - which my father interpreted for me to be "working in an air-conditioned office" rather than "slogging under the hot sun." Theirs was a good team, each doing their part, and keeping to their joint vision which invariably was for their children. My father always said he graduated from the university of the world. He kept his eyes and ears and mind open, with the mind always computing the permutations of the possibilities of how to make one cent grow to a dollar and then a hundred. He played no stock market, nor as they would say among the shopkeepers themselves, jazz up the proper market. They were good honest and hardworking people, keeping their expenses one notch below their incomes however low that might be,and never spending more than subsistence no matter how high a particular income might happen to be. Sweat by sweat, my father saved enough for him to be confident enough to ask me, "Son, do you want to study in England." I said, "Yes, if it is possible." He said, "Go and apply."

It was therefore a privilege for me to study. It was also a great burden, for my father told me that every cent I spend contains his sweat. How could I make my father sweat - so much? It was RM7.80 to the pound sterling. I studied under immense duress. My father wanted me to be a doctor. My grades were not good enough. I asked him what he wanted me to study. He said, "Economy" because the Mat Salleh manager from Inchcape kept saying "It's the economy" when rent payment was slow.

So, economics as the study of scarce resources and opportunity cost is not something I had to think very hard about in order to understand its full significance. You have one or two bullets, and you better hit your targets, but before that to make sure that that's what you really wanted to do. Otherwise, it is pure waste. I study economics, philosophy and computer science in my first year, and did all the advanced theoretical economics after that in order to get value for money.

Studying was not the easiest thing for me. It was really hard work, to know the meaning of every word, the meaning of every sentence, and the gist of the whole book and the purpose of the whole subject matter and how it all relates to the world we live in. I gave up studying for myself, because life is an endless cycle, of the same old stuff in new skins, and how differences from biological accidents at the skin level. Has human beings gone so shallow? I found studying easy only after I studied not for myself, that I must pass my examinations for my father not to sweat without purpose, that I must understand what is going on in this 3-dimensional illusion with time so that the noble beings, no matter how lowly, do not succumb to dispair and undue unhappiness.

I have no fear about earning a sufficient wage to feed myself and my family. My only fear is that I waste my time and energy doing mindless things which serve no purpose to anybody and sometimes not even myself. I fear being a person thinking, saying and doing things which hurt or harm oneself and others. I have no right to make the world for anyone, since it is already so tough for everyone - even for the wrongheaded and greedy and mindless, for they too suffer their own foolishness.

I work to make a contribution to the society in which I live, no matter how small the contribution may be, no matter how disturbed the society I live in may have become. I work to find meaning in life. My life is useless, I do not need it. But I will use it to serve.


Fi-sha said...

That's beautiful..

de minimis said...

Very enlightening, O Guru

hishamh said...

Wonderful post, etheorist.

walla said...

So full of insights, delivered with a personal touch.

Excuse the "i's" after this; just a midweek soliloquy.

I remember the first thing i was asked to do in my first job - to reject job applicants, some from my varsity mates.

Later i processed and made thousands of offers for youngsters to study particular courses. To think back that i might have had something to do with what they are doing today. Where can one hide?

And other jobs, likewise none using what i was trained for, only my common sense and analytical skills. Such as vetting technical papers, organizing big international industry events, writing speeches, even policy papers. Probably i still retain some insights into four local service industries - accountancy, engineering, IT and consulting.

I remember writing one big paper that later became the foundation of a national policy. It was done over a weekend. The computers then had few ram's so i had to break the paper down into parts. I started by staring at the screen for a few seconds and then just cranked out point after point with the structure from beginning to end somewhere in the back of my mind. As i recall it doesn't look different in format or content from some of the national policy papers you would find from those fora and action groups even these days.

Similarly with the speeches. I inserted policy matters into them to try and make them useful and intelligible. The ministers read them without any changes. The press reported them the next day. They became national policies the following week. And i wasn't even in the public sector.

I researched industries and companies, trends and markets, people and places, and became quite good at finding out things, even during those days when the internet wasn't so pervasive. Nowadays i challenge myself to find what i want without getting up from this chair.

Later i worked in an industry-best multinational as someone in a global intranet. A colleague from a scandinavian country posed a question about some topic that had stumped him. He later said that after he had posed the question over the network, he walked to his pantry to make a cup of coffee, came back, looked at his screen, and the answer was already there waiting for him - from Malaysia.

But i don't like to do things mechanically, although when it comes to housework, there's not much to improvise.

walla said...


I am keen on contexts and perspectives. Speed and accuracy, just the basics. Extensions beyond them into the realm of the unknown to shine a torch and illuminate something, get to the core and heart of it, yes that interests what's left of this mind.

Now i sit here with the biggest store of the best stuff anyone can imagine and the cake has become too rich to digest. Even their seven-page summaries.

I am starting to believe that all the knowledge in the world on all the subjects out there can be decomposed into a set of generic principles, axioms perhaps. A unified knowledge field theory, so to speak.

Latest topic? thermoeconomics. Probably that's thermodynamic principles applied to macroeconomic theory. But that will have to compete with Gazzaniga's Social Brain (or networks of the mind) which again has to vie for space with Markides' Game-Changing Strategies, Vilenkin's Many Worlds In One, and Peppers/Rogers Rules To Break And Laws To Follow. And so on. Perhaps Redwood's Superpower Struggles, Mahbubani's Can Asians Think?, or Kuchiki/Tsuji's Flowchart Approach To Industrial Cluster Policy. Or is it to be Haig's Brand Failure, maybe Hewitt's Death Of Capital? Or Levy's Construction Process Planning? Or Cooper's Zen Impulse? Or Hakim/ Papalois' Surgical Complications? Or Lisnek's Hidden Jury?

I grief for our young. Because i guess if we are to climb up the value chain our hardwired innovative processes must be embedded in some soft template made of overlapping disciplines which may not appear to connect with one another. Just a thought.

Some lessons i picked up along the way.

Family, friends and ideals. Only these remain in the end. Things come and go. Just enough should be the norm. A greater tragedy than not having something is to have it.

Lately the velocity of change has been gaining tempo; man proposes, but it is disposed too often in the opposite direction to end in a leveling effect that brings one back to the original starting point, perhaps with a changed perspective. As if a message is asking to be read.

Simplify, and, now.

I think ninety percent of the things people do in the office are worthless, and can be simplified or stopped without much loss impact on enterprises. Being a quiet person by nature (unless in the presence of engaging company), that includes talking, for me anyway.

Life is short. How much do we remember of our past save the kindnesses of others? Every day we read our own life story in a fresh chapter. The punctuations and syntax are the same. Only the storyline waxes and wanes like eddies in a water pool, seeming to move and yet appearing stationery when seen from higher up. When the day ends, it looks like the chapter was what we had read last week. A mystery novel that is turning out to be some chant.

walla said...


Sometimes when there is enough rest, the first fresh hour of the quiet morning brings new insights. A notebook is useful to capture them, for they have a tendency to vanish very quickly, like temporary serendipities from caring propinquities. Like random access memories planted by the eternals.

(i have lost over ninety nine percent of the words i knew before; at least that's my guess).

Sometimes we can assign circumstantial evidence to prophetic design.

My biggest grief in this life is not to be able to discharge my responsibilities to those who have supported me, and those who are supporting me. This wanting to be useful but not being able to do so is what is keeping more creative free-float from taking its natural course. But somehow it is guilt that one tends to forget quickly; tomorrow another day, they say.

These days i walk to the bookshop, sit down and just stare at the photos of those big books on places. My favorites lately are thai and balinesque architecture. I like light, water, trees, leaves, shade, wood, some combination which creates a cozy artistic atmosphere in the mind. Maybe to compensate for the ten hours at the screen waiting for the worldwide web to refresh itself. It's getting extremely jaded. There are no surprises anymore.

I once stood on a hill looking at something which is about three thousand years old, thinking to myself here i am only soon to go in an instant and the thing which i am looking at now will have other visitors three thousand years hence; to what extent does a human life change anything before her or him?

Perpetual innocence is a cure for the dross of not being surprised, thus unexcitable and immovable. But it is also a price for pain. But then again pain to what gain? Yet the ability to calculate things out is one of life's big bug-bearing burdens. Analysis to paralysis, probably followed by thrombosis.

The best gift is to be happy when working and to work on happy things. Until time is forgotten in the chase of solutions, in the achievement of ambitions, in the satisfaction of some inner desire to make changes. Work should be like a hobby. Unfortunately the real world is constructed for work to be full-time, not pastime.

Considering Asians started with so little, what they have achieved in past and present generations may be considered remarkable but for the sacrifice of many, the unlearned for the learned, the old for the young, the brave for the timid, the quiet for the voluble. In a way, we can only live on if we live more for others.

My father came from such a poor family he fainted from lack of food on the day he was to take one of his exam papers. Yet he set himself to save up to give us a good education and to buy us books to read. In turn we try to do the same for those after us who will hopefully do for those after them. Each an individual making economic sacrifices out of some hope for the betterment of those around in a chain that is all what life gives. In that sense, nobility is not defined by birth or title or wealth but by the deeds of simple folks making ends meet.

Hazrul D. Nizam said...

Nice one, etheorist.

de minimis said...

Walla, you are a scary brainiac! It is obvious that your father's hungry childhood did not damage the genetic makeup that led to your presence in the now. We are all enriched by your presence.

etheorist said...

Thank you very much for your generous responses. I am glad you find it pleasing. You must really like the emotional revelation, rather than the cold cold logic.

de minimis, hishamh and walla are strong supporters. I know Fi-sha says nice things about me too. Thank you also Nasrul D. Nizam.

I only pray that with this encouragement, I do not end up stripping fully.