28 Jun 2012


During a conference in Liverpool last week, we had dinner with Dr PC. PC is a consultant who grew up in Hong Kong and worked in Liverpool in the last three decades. He is a very kind person and has given several lectures in Hong Kong previously.

When he learned that I was leaving on the next day, he asked what my plan was.

“I want to attend the appetite control symposium. Afterwards, I will catch the train to London and then go home,” I answered.

“Listen,” he said, “you must visit the International Slavery Museum before you leave.”

Thus, I sneaked away in the middle of a talk and said goodbye to the conference. By the way, a psychologist was explaining why liking food and wanting food were different. It sounded interesting.

The Museum had but one theme. For around 400 years, Europeans sent tens of millions of Africans to America to work as slaves, mostly at cotton plantations. Through networking and business skills, merchants in Liverpool quickly led the field and made the city capital of human trafficking. The Museum also illustrated at length how the slavery business destroyed the economy and development of Africa. In essence, the illustrators believed that Liverpool should take full responsibility of the damage.

A nation cannot be great until it can face its history.

21 Jun 2012


If I am a caveman or a hunter-gatherer, I would prefer immediate gain. Even if you promise to crown me king a month later, I cannot tell if I would still survive by then. With the strong force of evolution, no wonder it is so difficult for us to accept delayed gratification.

Steve Jobs asked us to consider, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”

To be sure, this is a good way to distill earthly thoughts and focus on important matters. However, while the important should stay important regardless of the context, the reverse is not true. For one thing, if I am to die tomorrow, who cares about the retirement fund? On the other hand, a person retiring at the age of 60 can hardly say that.

Therefore, it really worries me that I laughed out loud at my MPF report.

14 Jun 2012


Suppose you can not only tell that the street musician is superb but also recognize he is Joshua Bell, will you stop and listen?

If we ignore the fact that one may listen for a while and can still go to work on time, the scenario reminds me of the famous marshmallow experiment. In 1972, Walter Mischel of Stanford University conducted a study on delayed gratification. In this experiment, preschoolers were offered the choices of taking one marshmallow immediately or getting two if they agreed to wait until the investigators came back. What the children did not know was that the investigators had no plan to come back. Instead, their behavior was videotaped and the time until they took the marshmallow was recorded.

Remarkably, when the investigators followed these children up, those who could resist the temptation and choose the later but bigger reward had better school performance and higher Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores (Science 1989;244:933-8). Last year, follow-up data of these children, now in their 40s, were presented. When they came back for further psychological tests, those who took the marshmallow quickly at the age of four continued to be distracted more easily by emotion and make mistakes four decades later (PNAS 2011;108:14998-5003).

For obvious reasons, I tried the same experiment on Angelina.

To my dismay, she gobbled the candy up before I finished my instructions.

I spent more time to explain and asked, "Don’t you prefer two candies?"

"No, one is enough," she grinned.

7 Jun 2012


What can we learn from Joshua Bell’s story?

The simplistic view is how often we dwell on trivialities and miss beautiful moments.

What interests me, however, is how Bell described his experience. Before he played the first D minor chord of Chaconne, he suddenly felt nervous. “It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies.”

But Mr Bell, you played at ease before royalties and statesmen, didn’t you?

After a while, he stole a glance at the passersby. “It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah … ignoring me.”

The difference between a street performance and a show at Carnegie Hall is that in the latter case, people who come choose to do so and have already acknowledged his worth. When he disguised as a nobody, he had to gain respect by music alone, and it turned out to be very difficult.

If you are a budding musician struggling to become successful, this can also be a bitter story. So it is not how well you perform, but how good other people believe you are. Most people unfortunately cannot really distinguish good from great. Their appreciation is largely based on what others say, who in turn gain their views from yet other people. Worse still, in the current winners-take-all society, people would rather listen to a CD by a famous musician than a live (perhaps even free) performance of somebody unknown.

What can we do then? Simply, we can only do our best and accept that success may be a matter of luck. Do not let others define your worth, though this is often easier said than done. Above all, we do not need to be loved by everybody. When there is someone who loves you despite your imperfection, is it not good enough?