Read What Matters Now

I used to buy books that promised to give me loads of instant (yet permanent) wisdom. Remember the scenes in The Matrix where they mastered Jujutsu or flying a helicopter in a matter of seconds? I wanted that. As a result, my bookshelf was filled with these:

They worked. In the following ways:

  • I forgot what was written in the book the moment I finished it. (It’s not that bad; I could also wipe the fact that I wept a couple of times while reading the Ferrari Monk book off my memory. Wait, not yet.)
  • I memorized lessons, and then forget to follow through them in real life.
  • I found out that when you read books that you don’t need at the moment, they become incredibly boring.
  • I hated myself for doing all the above for two decades.

Recently, out of frustration, I switched my motto from “read what I should” from “read what I want.” No more books for the sake of acquiring instant wisdom or filling my bookshelf with impressive titles.  (If I want that, I can always go to a flea market and find a set of second-hand Encyclopedia Britannica. Is that why these books always look gracefully aged when we see them? By getting tan in the field?)

I started reading what mattered to me most at the moment, regardless of the topic. I welcomed satires, bitching from a bitch, confessions of an alcoholic writer, weird statistics, and comics. Impressiveness out, interestingness in.

And they started to stay in my head. I carry them (in my Kindle) all the time, I read whenever I have time to read, I take notes. I live through books, not just read them.

Somewhere in Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says the brain forms itself by strengthening the synaptic path well traveled. It doesn’t “add” information as we add layers on a cake. It gives wider and faster neuron highways to the most traveled information. Even when we add a Ferrari or Mercedes version of precious information to the highway, if 99% of existing information is, say, Toyota, then Toyota gets the way.

There is no room for superficial wisdom. In order to truly make some new information, new wisdom, or new technique part of who we are, we must DO them and grab a larger share of the neural passages in our brain. And the easiest way to do so is to read about topics that are on our mind at the moment – the “hot” topic.

Today’s (the decade’s) lesson: read what matters. And if it means following Lady Gaga (I don’t, fortunately), get used to it – or change what matters to you. Then the brain will digest the information.

[ Video ] Christine McVie: Got a Hold on Me

Nearly all the solo activities of Fleetwood Mac members are associated with Stevie Nicks because of her many hit songs, gossip-colored lifestyle, and charismatic stage performance; she is one of the few artists who performed better on the stage than in the studio. But the other female Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie, also got her solo fever and enjoyed modest success. Unlike Stevie Nicks who presented a very distinctive musical style in her solo activities, Christine McVie, at least in this song, maintains a tone similar to that of Fleetwood Mac. Maybe that is the reason she did not pursue a solo career too much: the group might have satisfied all her creative needs. Staple song: Little Lies (in their 80s: Christine McVie serves as the lead singer)

The Retirement Home for Japanese Salaried Workers: Their Workplace

Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata, does something few CEOs do: He conducts informal, in-depth interviews with key employees and shares the results on the company website. Titled “Iwata Asks” (Japanese / English), the interview series has been going on for several years, revealing surprisingly detailed anecdotes behind the game development scene from the usually secretive company.

The latest edition of Iwata Asks (in Japanese only, as of Apr 25th 2010) traces the history of the great-great-granddad of handheld game consoles, Game & Watch, which was created almost three decades ago. The lessons we can learn this time? How they transformed the mundane pocket calculator into a pioneering gaming console (yes, yes…), and—this entry’s topic—what happens to Japanese salaried workers after they pass their prime.

Gamewatch
The interviewees, ex-Game & Watch designers, from left to right:

  • Masao Yamamoto, New Business Promotion Department
  • Makoto Kano, President’s Office
  • Takehiro Izushi, New Business Promotion Department

(The rightmost person is Satoru Iwata, the interviewer)

What’s curious to a non-Japanese are the following:

  • They are still working in Nintendo (the lifetime employment is still working, apparently).
  • Their current positions seem out of sync with their expertise.

The latter is the key issue here. How can a semi-retired ex-game designer promote new business? And what does a senior guy do among 20-something secretaries in the president’s office?

Well, as a Japanese who was once employed in a traditional Japanese company, I can attest: they are demoted workers spending their semi-retirement life doing easy jobs in positions or departments specifically created for them.

In a traditional Japanese company (with more than a hundred years of history, surely Nintendo belongs to that category), typically all freshmen start with equal conditions and climb up the promotional ladder one step at a time. The tipping point arrives when they reach their mid-30s. A handful of elite workers will be given important roles, and the rest will be transferred to non-critical positions, making room for the upcoming younger generations.

If this story ends here, we are not seeing anything Japanese (= peculiar). What separates Japanese companies and their overseas counterparts is that in Japan, a new position will be created for those non-elites if an existing one is not available. The company provides them non-critical jobs such as administrative tasks or organizing motivational seminars.

Thus, in the aforementioned Nintendo’s case, we are seeing new divisions with few substantial jobs (New Business Development) and harmless positions in existing divisions (President’s Office). When I was working in a Japanese company, I saw divisions called “Future Creations Department” and “Idea Generation Group” packed by middle-aged guys.

Have you ever wondered how the infamous lifetime employment system worked? This way.

What It Takes to Work in a Japanese Company: Assimilation, not Adaptation

“Can you adapt to our way?”

I was having an interview with an overseas branch of a Japanese company. The interviewers were comprised of “multinational” workers (from Japan, China, and India) but when that question came out, I thought I just turned the clock ten years back in time. A warning sign started to flash in my head: Gosh, most of them might be non-Japanese but don’t get fooled—this company is still so Japanese.

If it were a company from any other country, the question should have been “Can you adapt to a new environment?” or simply “Can you adapt?” I would have happily replied “yes” and walked the talk. The ability to adapt to a new workplace is indeed an important skill that every professional, especially an expatriate, should possess.

Except that adaptation was not the real issue. Although they used the word adapt, the Japanese company was, in fact, asking me to assimilate.  By combining one word, our, with a standard interview question, Can you adapt?, the interviewer created a detoxed version of the original raw demand: Are you willing to become us?

To be fair, the Japanese company had no malicious intent. The interviewers were simply describing how they had been running the business for decades: use known methodologies with known people. They might have welcomed foreign market, capital, and presence, but they were not willing to accept foreign ideas. Their dualism, or contradiction, was crystallized in a single question, probably unwittingly.

The (traditional) Japanese way can be very flexible in terms of depth. Thanks to a tight-knit group of workers who know each other inside out (professionally and personally), dozens of product models can be churned out each year, minutely differentiated according to local needs and market demands. Go to any Toyota dealer in any place in the world and you’ll get the idea.

But that way can be very rigid in terms of width. Uncertainty is one thing that these companies avoid at all costs, therefore non-tangible “foreignness,” including philosophy, culture, communication, and ideas, need to be “Japanified.”

Which means that the above-described Japanese way works in the short run but ultimately kills both the employer and the employees by becoming too rigid. If a worker adapts too much to a particular way of conducting business, he can no longer move to a different company or change his career direction easily.

Optimization is the ally of perfection, but the enemy of change. As a result, many talents in Japan cling to their old employer even when they are treated in a less-than glamorous way. And slowly but steadily, companies start to operate in order to protect themselves, not to grow further— which would mean change.

I had already witnessed the massacre of talent when I was working for a Japanese manufacturer. The best circuit designer in the company was “promoted” to the Quality Assurance division because he was deemed unfit for managing positions and also his expertise, analog circuitry, was no longer in large demand. And, after a flagship product failed to penetrate the market as expected, the director of R&D division was relegated to a head position of a manufacturing facility in a place where 20% of the population shared the same surname. Neither of them quit. I, a non-performing employee, did, after observing their behaviors.

P.S. No, I did not join the aforementioned Japanese company but I appreciated the whole interview experience and the insight I gained. I wasn’t willing to switch to a new job to narrow my career options.

[ Video ] Glenn Frey: Part of You, Part of Me

Thelma & Louise was the bet of the lifetime for Alan Ladd Jr, who was heading the production of MGM in 1991. Maybe that was the reason Glenn Frey, who had been enjoying a healthy post-Eagles career thanks to two soundtrack hits (Heat Is On / You Belong to the City), was called in. Well, the lightning did not strike the third time. The movie itself became a cultural phenomenon and a modest hit but ultimately couldn’t save MGM from financial doldrums, forcing Alan Ladd Jr. to leave his position and seek a new world, just like his dad did in the iconic movie. And Glenn Frey? Yes, we heard him again in another movie—Jerry Maguire—as an actor. Oh, and in the Eagles reunion. Staple song: The One You Love (in South-East Asia, you hear this song more often than this week’s Top 40. Glenn, if you are looking for quick cash, come to Taiwan.)

Number Equality Does Not Lead to Power Equality

In this entry I try to connect the dots regarding the glass ceiling for women, from an outsider’s (male’s) point of view.

I am reading the book Microtrends, a wonderful collection of small trends that flow under the traditional trend-radar but nevertheless are shaping the future of the U.S. and the world. The “Wordy Women” section tells us that “women are on the verge of taking over word-based professions, like journalism, law, marketing, and communications.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2005, 57 percent of news analysts, reporters, and correspondents were women. Even 57 percent of TV news anchors—that authoritative role once reserved for the likes of Walter Cronkite—are women.

This observation matches what I have witnessed in Taiwan. Almost half of my co-workers in word-oriented positions, including marketing, sales, and writing, have been female. (Let’s not talk about the situation in Japan, the third-world country of gender equality.)

And yet what I remember most vividly about what it means to be a female journalist/writer today is an article from James Chartrand. Before she (yes, it’s she) became James Chartrand, the über-writer at Copyblogger, she was a single mother with two daughters, struggling to make ends meet.

One day, I tossed out a pen name, because I didn’t want to be associated with my current business, the one that was still struggling to grow. I picked a name that sounded to me like it might convey a good business image. Like it might command respect.

Instantly, jobs became easier to get.
There was no haggling. There were compliments, there was respect. Clients hired me quickly, and when they received their work, they liked it just as quickly. There were fewer requests for revisions — often none at all.

I was applying in the same places. I was using the same methods. Even the work was the same.
In fact, everything was the same.
Except for the name.

Something feels odd. If the number of women in the word-oriented industries is equal to or outnumbering men, why did she have more success after picking a pen-name of the opposite sex? Mark J. Penn, the author of Microtrends, also admits this contradiction and offers a statistic that shows that the majority of decision-making positions in the wordy professions are still filled by men:

To be sure, that women flood the wordy professions doesn’t mean that they always dominate decision-making. In journalism and in law, particularly, women drop off somewhere between the professional schools (where they are the majority) and the corridors of power. Women are only 17 percent of law partners. They are only one-third of full-time journalists working for the mainstream media.

And sadly, my own observations agree with this statistic too. In the past five years I have seen female managers in word-oriented positions (in total, 5 or 6), maybe more than their male counterparts (4 or 5). But when it comes to executives, I have seen only one female. Mark J. Penn does not offer a reason why, and instead throws in a slightly evasive statement: “But this trend is new, so it may take a long time for it to percolate through to the top.”

Aside from the tired (but persuasive-sounding) theory of “women are biologically not programmed to be interested in power,” the only reasonable explanation so far that I have heard comes from Penelope Trunk, who says:

Forget the glass ceiling because it's about to become irrelevant. Not because women are finally going to get to the top of Fortune 500 companies in forces of more than two companies at a time. That may happen, but no one's holding their breath. The glass ceiling is going to become irrelevant because the women who are coming into the workforce now see what's above that glass and they are uninterested.

So here is my guesstimation on what is going on, deduced from my own observations and these stories. Because younger generations are less interested in climbing the ladder, the old folks (men) who should have been pushed to retirement some time ago can still afford to cling to their positions, and are filtering out the non-traditional workforce, including females, probably subconsciously. Any other explanations?

[ Video ] Don Henley: Talking to the Moon

Don Henley and Glenn Frey were the two Eagles who remained famousbeyond the 1970s. (We can argue that Joe Walsh had the highest ambition by trying to become the President of the United States.) Don Henley’s first solo album, I Can’t Stand Still (1982), was a little-known effort backed by his friends, including J.D. Souther and Bob Seger. Just as his old peer Glenn Frey built his solo resume on a niche (soundtrack hits), Don Henley made himself famous with adult ballads such as Boys of Summer and The End of the Innocence. Talking to the Moon was never released as a single, but we can clearly hear the dots that lead to his later hits. Staple song: Boys of Summer (again, literal version. I cannot seem to finish an introduction without inserting at least one mockery.) P.S. Youtube deleted the original video due to “copyright infringement” so I am putting up the Live version. If there are more guns in the US than the number of people who live there, someone please grab the redundant guns and shoot the lawyers.

Why Google Failed to Create Twitter: Because Google is Too Good at Being Google

Shel Israel says Twitter has gone through a wormhole (a much better phrase than breakthrough which ought to be included in every buzzword bingo). Twitter now owns a proprietary tweeting platform, holds developer conferences, and claims its archive should be part of the U.S. Library of Congress. The last item means that when U.S. scholars and policy makers need reference materials on the cultural impact of the strategic alliance between North America and Asia, they can look upon my tweets such as: A Taiwanese singer is covering Bette Midler’s From a Distance. He picked a bad song (good choice) and made it worse (even better).

But the biggest, least surprising yet most ironic part of Twitter’s selling out breakthrough wormthrough is that Google is going to add zillions of tweets to their ever-expanding search base.

The world's largest search company has announced it will make the Twitter archives searchable online and apparently has exclusive rights for now. There will be a six-month time lag before you can do this so searches will be historic rather than for finding out who became mayor of your local pizza joint yesterday.

It is big news, no doubt—considering how rare it is to hear positive news when Google singles out an organization. And it’s no news too, no doubt—considering making everything searchable is Google’s mission.

But why does it sound so ironic? Because Twitter established itself as the king of social media, a position Google failed to achieve not once but twice, with Wave and Buzz. I know, both Wave and Buzz are alive, but nobody believes that Twitter or the other king of social media, FaceBook, will be ousted by them. What Google really wanted was to NOT announce anything about making social media searchable, because everybody—in Google’s wet dream—knows that Wave and Buzz store all records.

The reason Wave and Buzz failed to attract users is obvious. Nobody, even Google employees, couldn’t describe their usage in the context of existing communication tools. What problem do these services fix? What desire do they fill? We still don’t know. (On a totally different subject which might become a separate blog entry, I think Apple’s iPad might fall into the same pitfall.)

Twitter, on the other hand, did fill our desire—one we didn’t know existed: Talk.

It’s not talk with, something that requires a partner. It’s not talk to, something that requires an audience. Just talk. Talk about interesting stuff, our private life, anything.

Unlike blog platforms which force us to “rationalize” our thinking through writing, Twitter allows us to just speak our raw thoughts. Most of our little speeches fade away in 3 seconds among the streams of tweets with hardly any attention paid to them, just like a single character in the green stream of letters in The Matrix. That’s fine. In fact, fading away is exactly what makes tweets special. Tweeting is essentially intellectual excretion. Get these thoughts out…there, I feel much better.

Google does not get that point. For Google, every piece of information must be (1) searchable and (2) a means to an end. In Google’s eyes, we do everything with a purpose, and even non-purpose is a type of purpose, therefore it must also be organized and referenced. Google never gets rid of ideas; it always stores them. Eternal storing might work for computers, but not for humans.

I admire Google because it serves the role nobody wants to take: the ultimate librarian. And the problem is that Google has become too good at doing its job. We rely on our librarians to learn about communication, but do we rely on them as communicators?

My Online Technical Communication Program Experience

This post is a quick shout-out for the graduate school program I have been enrolled, MSPTC (Master of Professional and Technical Communication) from  the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). If you are interested in taking a higher education in technical communication (= a fancier version of the phrase technical writing, not unlike executive administrator vs. secretary).

Two years after stumbling into technical writing, I decided to turn it into my lifetime career. I  had fallen in love with the surprisingly rich and rewarding work of organizing and mapping technical information. One thing bothered me, though: the lack of formal education.

I had acquired all my technical writing skills on the job, from collaboration with engineers to document formatting to graphic layout. I had enough skills to execute the tasks at hand, but would I be able to rely entirely on my own initiative to keep acquiring and expanding the expertise required in the ever-changing world of technology? I doubted I could, and moreover, I wanted to explore my skills beyond my hands-on experience.

It was time to take formal educational training. I searched for a night school in my neighborhood—Taipei, Taiwan—and found nothing, not even a course offered in Chinese. Then a quick Google search yielded a surprisingly rich selection of U.S.-based programs, including a MSPTC (Master of Professional and Technical Communication) from  the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).

MSPTC at NJIT stood out from other distance learning programs in two aspects. First, it offered the best mixture of writing and technology. Some universities modified their existing English writing degrees into a Technical Communication program, relying on proven English writing materials and not adding enough curricula on the technology aspect of technical communication.

Second, NJIT offers a two-tier system: a graduate certificate and a master’s degree. Students can enroll in the Technical Communication Essentials graduate certificate program, which includes four essential technical communication courses, and then if they want to explore more, they can step up to the master’s degree, carrying the credits they have already earned.

I started as a graduate certificate student and this year I have taken the leap and joined the master’s degree. So far, mostly, I have been taking one course per semester. It is a slow pace, but has three benefits. First, it works well with my daytime work; there is only so much I can do after my office hours. Second, I have less financial burden thanks to NJIT’s per-semester paying scheme. Third and most importantly, I have been spending ample time on each course and applying what I have learned to my work, and vice versa. 

What about the distance between me and the university? So far, I have encountered no problems. Although Taiwan and the US have almost twelve hours of time difference, most of the course works are done asynchronously. Synchronous events such as online chats usually take place in the evening (in the US), early morning in Taiwan (which provides me with a good incentive to get out of bed earlier).

I am more than satisfied with the learning and networking experience I have acquired so far. At this pace, I might graduate from the course at 2012, a full five years after enrolling in the program. The long time is worth it; the purpose of this learning is not to quickly tuck an “M.S.” into my resume but to slowly absorb knowledge and grow as a professional.

P.S. Sounds too pretty? Yes, I haven't talked about the negative aspects of that program. If you do want to know because you are seriously considering NJIT, please send me a message at isaokato (at) gmail.com. I will describe the untold stories, although my conclusion stays the same: go for it.

[ Video ] Jefferson Airplane: Planes

The end of the 80s had a revival boom of supergroups. No, I am not talking about the stars of yesteryear having their 35th Japanese tour.. That happens all the time. The Jefferson Airplane seriously tried to get on the frontline again with its original members and original songs. It’s a timeless tactic to win the hearts of past and current fans (Fast & Furious): new model, original parts. The difference is, of course, that it works way much better in movies than in rock.When Starship was at its height with “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” Grace Slick, later joining the Jefferson Airplane reunion, declared “I know damn well how fast a relationship can fall apart.” Maybe she did not know that damn well. Staple song: Somebody to Love