30 Minutes with Michael Levitt


Dr Michael Levitt was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work he did when he was 20. He is now 67. What caught my attention was his profile on a poster I chanced upon at the library. It said he was a “free spirit”, preferred to be called “Michael” with no titles, and that he had visited Burning Man. Fascinated, I emailed him and asked if I could interview him when he came to Singapore. He agreed. It was real fun spending time with him last week. I laughed often during our time together. He is not only brilliant but really down-to-earth and funny. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

When he got news of his Nobel Prize, Michael was quoted as saying “Now I just hope to get through the day and make sure that, in the end, my life doesn’t change very much. Because I really have a wonderful life.” Wow. How many people can say that, I wondered. I asked him about this “wonderful life”. He said he really liked what he did, and had married someone who had been very different from him and really good for him. (They have been married for 45 years.) He did fun things with his family. But it was not just these external things. He had an amazing strength in gratitude…

He said: I feel I have been very lucky. I don’t think “I didn’t win this…I didn’t get this.” I think of all the bad things that haven’t happened to me. ..I didn’t slip on the floor…I didn’t drown in the pool. .. I didn’t fall in the shower. It is the same for each one of us. So many things that could have happened – and these are not unusual things – and didn’t happen. So I am grateful everyday of life.

(I was reminded of what positive psychology researcher Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky has said about gratitude being kind of a “meta-strategy” for achieving happiness.)

As Michael was co-awarded the Nobel Prize with two others, I was very interested in the relationship they had shared that had birthed such a major discovery. He said:What is so nice is I can do one thing and the other is good at something else and neither of us is actually aware of the other‘s area. Oftentimes there’s something really interesting in between. And together we can make a lot of progress with very little investment. There’s a lot of work… some is hard work. But it’s always nice sometimes to do something that is easy, that is on the edge of the two disciplines…

I thought this was such a beautiful way to describe synergy and the beauty of using one’s strengths in synch with others. As a strengths practitioner, it is a joy for me to witness clients describe this very ease that Michael alludes to, when they use their strengths.

Michael said, of one of the co-awardeees: One person was a PhD student when I came there… I came along to be his assistant. And we developed a very strong relationship. Then I came back to work with him for years later. So it was a very close relationship.

This really reminded me of the importance of building close relationships in the workplace if we want powerful synergistic collaborations. To me, the word “teamwork” doesn’t describe it enough. It is some stronger and deeper.

Michael showed a strong appreciation of people and life. He found them interesting and had a strong sense of optimism. He said: People are pretty amazing. Often we set our own limits. Limits will be set for you whether you like it or not. Also this question of being an optimist or pessimist… I think you have no idea what’s going to happen. I keep on thinking of some person whose whole life where he has lived as a pessimist. Ad then nothing happens to him. And on his deathbed, he says “What a waste.. I was pessimistic and nothing happened to me.” It just seems to be that there’s nothing to be gained from it.

I was curious about Burning Man and Michael described his experience in detail. What really struck me was this: People bring stuff to give other people. It’s not barter. They just give it to you. And what’s nice is that …they’re really open. Faces are open….

I could sense the generosity, authentic connection and openness in how fondly he spoke about it. Burning Man is an annual festival and an experiment in community, art, radical self expression and self-reliance. Here are the ten inspiring principles of Burning Man. Sounds pretty amazing!

Every year for the last few years, I have done an experiment to live as if it is my last year to live. Living with awareness of mortality has been transformational for me. And I have to admit that if I didn’t reflect mortality I wouldn’t have asked Michael for this interview. When I know I have limited time, I dare more, I want to serve more impactfully and grow more deeply. :) If you had a year to live, what would you feel drawn to do?

David Rand on Mindful Leadership

On 21 March 2013, David Rand gave a lecture on “Mindful Leadership” at the INSEAD Business School in Singapore.  He is the Executive Director of the Tenzin Gyatso Institute in New York. The Institute promotes compassion, empathy and universal responsibility through education, social action and religious harmony.  In 2012, they organised the first Compassion and Empathy conference in London attended by around 600 professionals and students.

David Rand

Here are some of my notes from the talk as well as some highlights from our lunch together two days later.

On Mindful Leadership

Mindful Leadership places emphasis on self-awareness, empathy, altruism, intentionality, being aware of the consequences of one’s actions and speech, emotional connectedness and transcending one’s ego. Without it, we are seeing a rise of ethics-related scandals, turnover and loss of talent and greater sickness in society.

Leaders are responsible for making many decisions that affect many lives. And when one is stressed or angry, David said that one sees about 10% of the picture. So emotional regulation is key to rational decision-making.  Having a mindfulness practice such as sitting in silence and counting one’s breath helps with this. Researchers have found that doing this for 20 minutes a day, thrice a week for 8 weeks will show benefits.

David said those studying brain science highlight how mindfulness and self-awareness strengthen one’s ability to empathise and reduce aggression.

“Your happiness is connected to mine”, David reminded us, and leaders who think in this way will make different decisions.

Mindfulness helps to address a wandering mind.  David cited a Harvard study which found that people spend about 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing. This mind-wandering makes people unhappy.

One member of the audience said that leaders have to learn so many skills, and said people have a limited bandwith so adding mindfulness, self-awareness, empathy and compassion to that was stretching that bandwith. I found this interesting, I see these as life-skills, not only leadership skills. They help you have good relationships with your family, friends, community etc. Also, I see these as foundational leadership skills, not “extras”. This is the core, the roots, the anchor. And mindful leadership sounded very akin to servant leadership which I am a proponent of.

Over lunch, David and I chatted about …

Mobile phone addiction (people driving or walking while looking at their phones)

David said: “It’s wonderful to stay connected to friends and family but it’s symptomatic of another distraction. It’s easy to be more distracted than focussed. Distractions keep us from being present.”

What effects mindfulness has had on his life

“Healthier relationships, seeing oneself and others differently”


David was open to picking a Virtues Reflection card from the deck I brought. He picked Awe. And so I asked what brings him awe. He said: “I am in awe of how it is easy to lose sight of how awesome life is.” :)

The Institute’s Work 

Videos of the Compassion and Empathy Conference are available online. Check out resources for youth. 

Professor Richard Layard on the Government's role in increasing happiness and reducing misery

In April 2012, the Institute organised “Happiness and Sustainability” a dialogue between Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General and Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Dasho Karma Ura, President of the Center for Bhutan Studies.  (Under the leadership of Bhutan, sixty-eight countries co-sponsored a UN resolution titled “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development,” and on April 2 the Royal Government of Bhutan convened a high-level meeting at the UN on “Happiness and Well-Being.”)

"Happiness and Sustainability" dialogue at Rubin Museum. Photo Credit: Michael Palma

The Institute has plans to run the Compassionate Decision-Making and Leadership  conference in 2014. 

You can support the Institute. 


For more information on mindfulness,  see

Walking a labyrinth


The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

Center for Mindfulness at UC San Diego



Ratan Tata

On 6 March 2013, I heard Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritues of the Tata Group, speak at the Singapore Management University.

The Tata Group of Companies is known for being a socially responsible corporate citizen with exacting ethical standards. He is the Tata Code of Conduct. In 2012, Tata Steel was listed as one of the world’s most ethical companies by Ethisphere in 2012 and 2013.

Importance of Values such as Empathy and Integrity

Mr Tata stressed the importance of integrity in their work, and certain values that are part of their DNA. For example they would not work with companies which are involved in trade in arms or landmines.

One student asked what three of his lessons were from his University days. He said the lessons he learnt were learned in more casual, off-hand circumstances. One of these was the value of empathy, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. He said this has helped him in his relationship building. He said what he does much stand public scrutiny. And that there are some things he wouldn’t do even if it meant “losing out”.

He spoke of how it’s important to do what is right so one can sleep at night.

He said the Tata values and Integrity are their “most precious things… and should be guarded.”

On Leadership

Mr Tata said: “You have to lead by example not by exception”.  He said not to expect others to have standards that the leader does not set through his own bhevaiours.

When asked what three traits a 21st centure leader must have, he said

  • a leader must be his own person
  • a leader must be honest in what he is trying to achieve and stand up to criticism
  • a leader must be ready for everything eh does ot be subject to public scrutiny and abide by what he believes himself.

On Philanthropy

Tata was one of the companies that helped in the rebuilding after the Gujarat Earthquake after the media and others had left.

After the shootings in the Taj Hotel, Tata helped employees and their families and also created a Trust that the public could contribute to to help those who were outside the hotel but also affected by it.

Tata staff also tend to respond by themselves when disasters strike and raise money etc which the company then matches.

He said one of the challenges Tata faces is finding NGOs/organisations to support and monitoring use of money.

On his early years when he had to work as a frontline manual worker

Because of these years he said he has compassion for workers who work at that level.

On happiness

He enjoys the affection of his dogs who give him alot. He said we have forgotten how to do simple things like this.




Resources on Education

I had to unlearn many things I learned in school. And spend lots of time learning things in adulthood that I was never taught in school.

Why is it that we don’t teach the most important life-skills in school? How could we start doing that? How can we look after our teachers’ wellbeing better? They are playing such an important role in our children’s lives. How can we educate the whole person, and not just the mind of our young people? 

These questions have brought me to discover people, organisations, ideas and resources that I share here.

Here are some things I think education could play an important role in developing in us:

– to be compassionate, forgiving and empathetic even when others do not reciprocate

– to cultivate inner wisdom and be guided by the greater good

– to be a seeker for Truth in a world that may not reward it

– to develop a contemplative practice

– to learn to resolve and grow through conflicts peacefully

– to be aware that our lives will end and hence how to live consciously

– to discover our Calling and find true joy in work

– to date consciously and develop a joyful life-long relationship with our life partner

– to use relationships to grow

The Inner Life of a Teacher 

We need our teachers to be well and happy if we want out students to be well and happy.

Inner Work and The Life of a Teacher – video

Centre for Courage and Renewal  programmes for teachers

Centre for Courage and Renewal – articles on teaching

Teaching and Leading

The Courage to Teach

Teacher-Student Stories

Storycorps – stories of students and their teachers

Educating the Whole Person

We are physical, mental, emotional and spiritual beings. And need to grow on all thee levels.

Spirituality in Schools

Steiner Education

What is Steiner Education video

The Gift of Learning video

Quaker Education is not just for Quakers. Very valuable whole person education which cultivates inner wisdom.

Strengths-based Education – video

Research on strengths-based work with children

Nonviolent Communication in Education

Greater Good Science Centre Education-related Articles

I interviewed the Danish Ambassador to Singapore on why she thinks Denmark tops many happiness surveys. Part of her response includes info on their education system.

People in Education

Parker Palmer’s work – See Centre for Courage and Renewal


Storycubes – Creativity and story-telling game



Online games that do good

Games for Change

Half the Sky facebook game


World Peace Game

Transformation Game I am certified to run. For those over 16.


Movies that can be used to teach.


Picture Books are delightful ways of getting across meaningful messages.


Buy or download at http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/learn-as-you-go/higher-education


Higher Education – 12 Things you Might Not Have Learned in a Classroom

More Posters

Free Fablevision resources


Card Decks to inspire conversations and meaningful connection

The Virtues Cards are available from Bookaburra, Forum The Shopping Mall. They also have a children’s version.  They also have an educator’s guide and other materials for educators.

Worldview Literacy Cards

Inner Vision Deck

The Fetzer Institute Love and Forgiveness Cards


Fablevision has tons of creative products on helping young people reach their true potential. I believe some can be used with adults who are young at heart. :)


Why are the Danes so Happy?

Ambassador Basse and I (Photo copyright: Joy Works.)

As I was doing research for my debate on Channel News Asia on happiness, Denmark kept popping up as the world’s happiest country in various surveys. I got curious. What was happening there?

So I wrote to the Danish Ambassador in Singapore, Berit Basse, and asked if I could meet her. I’m very grateful she kindly agreed.

Education Is the Key

Ambassador Basse said that the most important ingredient to Danish happiness was education in her opinion. They focus on education as children can influence their parents. Also, children are easier to teach than adults!


Children in Denmark learn how to learn. They are given time to play. They are not pressured into memorising things. (Photo credit: http://www.copenhagenmediacenter.com; Photographer: Ty Stange)

So in kindergarten and schools, children:

  • Do more project work
  • Take responsibility for their own learning
  • Learn to learn
  • Are given more time for play
  • Are nurtured to become independent thinking responsible citizens learning democratic rules
  • Learn consensus-based decision-making as well as when to go with decisions that are made by powers-that-be
  • Are encouraged to do community work
  • Are taught healthy living and especially the importance of sports/exercise
  • Are taught to be environment-friendly
  • Are exposed to teachings from various religions
  • Are not pressured into learning things by heart.

Photo credit: http://www.copenhagenmediacenter.com; Photographer: WoCo)
Cherished Values

These are some of the cherished values in Denmark:

  • The  golden rule – treat others as you want to be treated
  • Respect for others
  • Initiative to identify problems and do something about it
  • Openness to new ideas
  • Truth

Ambassador Basse said that relationships are very important to the Danish – family, work, community. And I could see that by promoting the golden rule and respect for each other, they were building a nation of people who knew how to treat each other well.

Why are the Danes happy at work?

Some secrets to workplace happiness for the Danes: Positive relationships, Autonomy and often, Having chosen Work they authentically want to do. ( Photo credit: http://www.copenhagenmediacenter.com; Photographer: Tuala Hjarnø)
  • People generally enjoy a 37 hour work week and excellent family friendly policies
  • They are encouraged to have influence and control over their own work.
  • Good relationships with colleagues are a major reason why the people enjoy work
  • Although they may not use the term “workplace happiness”, they do put a lot of focus on job satisfaction surveys.
  • They have flex security.

She also said, “It’s fashionable to prioritise family”.

Denmark provides free education, free healthcare, subsidised childcare and elderlycare and students are given an allowance.

I am inspired by Denmark for all it does for its people. Yet I don’t want us outside Denmark to feel that happiness is not within our reach because our countries may not have similar systems.

The Inner Life

Happiness researcher, Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book, “The How of Happiness” says that our happiness is determined 50% by genes, 10% by life circumstances and 40% by intentional activity (our thoughts, behaviours, choices). She says it’s best to target the 40% since that’s where we can have the greatest impact. And this is what I was interested in the most when it came to Denmark too.

When I was researching Denmark on the internet, I started noticing something…the descriptions I read of the Danes  had quite a lot of overlap with what Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky lists as some of the top ways of becoming happier. So I printed out Dr Lyubomirsky’s list and discussed it with Ambassador Basse.

Of course this is not scientific at all; just impressions from what I believe was an honest conversation. My guess seemed to be fairly accurate from what the Ambassador said. Ambassador Basse said that the Danish generally:

–        Avoid social comparison

–        Are kind.  About 43 per cent of Danes do volunteer work, such as helping out in cultural activities, social, health and school events.

–        Nurture social relationships. This is very important to the Danes. They entertain at home a lot too. Good friends are important to them.

The Danes take time to nurture relationships. (Photo credit: http://www.copenhagenmediacenter.com; Photographer: Ty Stange)

–        Especially at the workplace, stress prevention and coping is a big priority.

–        They are committed to authentic goals. There’ a lot of focusing on what someone sincerely wants to do in life instead of doing something that is expected of them by others.

–        There’s a big focus on taking care of one’s health, also by the employer.

Exercise and Sports are highly encouraged in Denmark. (Photo Credit: http://www.copenhagenmediacenter.com/; Photographer - Christian Alsing)

–        They have a word, “pyt” which kind of means “nevermind”. She said that may come closest to forgiveness (which Dr Lyubomirsky says is one key way of increasing happiness.)

–        They take time to savor life’s joys. They play sports and value play.

To see all of Dr Lyubomirsky’s 12 steps, please click here.

I asked Ambassador Basse where all this came from. She said:  firstly, it’s probably in their roots – they had co-ops in agriculture. Secondly, over the years different governments had made fairly friendly labour market policies.  Thirdly, the childhood is considered a period of life in its own right.

As a Government, Amabassador Basse said that they do know that happier people are more  productive – and this is good for the nation.

Absolutely! This is what I’ve been educating people about. There are business benefits to happiness at work. Happiness is good for the country. Research shows that happier people are healthier, have better relationships, resolve conflicts better, have better marriages, are more productive and higher performing. One study showed that happier doctors made the right diagnosis faster!

What was lovely was experiencing some of the happiness traits we had been talking about from Ambassador Basse itself. She was open to meeting me, had spent time reflecting on the questions I had posed her, had even asked her children about their thoughts on it. And she was kind enough to give me an article she thought would be helpful to me. She also displayed curiosity in understanding more about Singapore.

Huge gratitude to Ambassador Basse for her time and thoughts.

Related Resources

And The Happiest Place on Earth is…. (kindly shared by Ambassdaor Basse; she appreciated the humour with which it was written)

Copenhagen really is wonderful, for so many reasons

Sharmi Albrechtsen – writer who investigates happiness in Denmark.

Happiness is now on the UN agenda. Read “Defining a New Economic Paradigm”.

Steiner Education didn’t come up during our conversation. But I’ve heard many positive things about Steiner education and would like to list it as a resource.  In Singapore, we have the Waldorf Steiner Education Association. Also learn about Quaker education.

The Golden Rule – a wonderful picture book on the rule that unites all major faith traditions.


This interview was conducted in Singapore on 25 October 2012 by Vadivu Govind, Director of Joy Works, joyworks.sg. Joy Works specialises in enabling workplace happiness. Vadivu blogs at happiness.sg. She can be contacted at vadivu[at]joyworks.sg.


Remembering the Heart of Medicine*

I deeply appreciate doctors and nurses who have been very kind and gone out of the way to help those I know and myself.

Some time ago, I brought an injured migrant worker to Alexandra Hospital and witnessed extraordinary care from the physician who attended to him. I sent Mr Foo Hee Jug, the CEO of the hospital a thank you note, and a book (Kitchen Table Wisdom By Dr Rachel Remen) to share with the staff.  He responded positively and had shared my letter with his staff.

Another doctor accompanied my father to another specialists’ clinic just to make sure he was fine.

At the same time, my family and I have also experienced challenges with the medical system.

A few years ago, a doctor told my mother,“Your brother is wiping out the blood from the blood bank! And the nurses are being overworked!”  My mum’s brother died. And what made the pain worse for her was the lack of humanity she had experienced through the way the doctor had communicated with her.

When my grandma had a heart attack, my mum was asking the doctor some questions.  He exclaimed to her: “Why are you fretting?!” 

Once when I visited my mum in hospital, her doctor didn’t even look me in the eye. I was the only other person in the room.

Somewhere along the way, I think some in healthcare get disconnected from the heart of medicine, which is healing. Healing is not just physical. We experience healing when someone makes a heart-to-heart connection with us.

Yet this means those in healthcare also need healing and compassion themselves.  I can empathise with how difficult it may be to be kind when they are stressed and overworked.

The role of leaders in healthcare is very important. While serving patients, they also need to look at the wellbeing of their staff – which will ultimately affect patients.

It’s not easy but we need to find a way. Because the cost is too high when those who are healers hurt us instead. We are already in a vulnerable state when we are not well; we need extra care at those times.
This has inspired me to compile some resources for the medical profession. Please share this post with anyone in healthcare.

Events in the US

The Healer’s Art and Power of Nursing Faculty Development Training.

Integrity in Health Care: The Courage to Lead in a Changing Landscape 

Movies /Videos

Soul Biographies series on Healthcare Transformation

Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care 

Video of the late Dr Richard Teo speaking of how his cancer has changed his view on success and happiness. It’s rare for us to here of such real life testimonies in Singapore. Please watch. Then connect to the resources and thoughts I’ve shared on using death awareness to live well.

Dr Rachel Naomi Remen speaking to women doctors

Dr Rachel Naomi Remen’s campaign to “rediscover the practice of medicine as a spiritual endeavor”. – 7 minutes.

Dr Rachel Naomi Remen on Generous Listening in healthcare

Listen to a podcast of a patient and a special doctor. 

Radio Show with Dr Rachel Naomi Remen

Dr Marty Makary’s trailer on his book “Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care”

8 films Medical Students Should See

The Cinema in the Teaching of Ethics: Palliative Care and Bioethics


The Heart Of Medicine – physician-only wellbeing site

Dr Rachel Naomi Remen is both a physician and patient who has Crohn’s disease.

The Institute for the Study of Health and Illness provides “education and support programs for health professionals who practice a medicine of service, human connection and compassionate healing”.

Commonweal is a nonprofit health and environmental research. Check out their programme, “Health Care Without Harm”

Center for Courage and Renewal has a special healthcare programme.

Whole Health Medicine Institute has a physician training programme.

University of Minnesota: Centre for Spirituality & Healing

Sustaining Compassion in Health Care

Key in “doctors” into the search engine of http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/ for various articles.

Key in “healthcare” into the search engine of http://noetic.org  for various articles and audio recordings.

Appreciative Medicine by Dr Tel Franklin

Benefits of Labyrinths in Healthcare Settings. See my interview with a labyrinth facilitator in Singapore.

Poems by Doctors and Nurses


Empathy, the Real Measure of a Doctor by Singapore-based Dr Jeremy Lim

A Vision to Heal Healthcare by Dr Lissa Rankin

Blog by Paul Levy, former CEO of a Boston Hospital on patient-driven care (many links)

Articles by Theresa Brown, RN and author of “Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between”


Healers on Healing by Richard Carlson, Benjamin Shield, Bruce Joy

Mind Over Medicine by Dr Lissa Rankin

Humanizing Health Care – Creating Cultures of Compassion in Health Care with Nonviolent Communication
by Melanie Sears, RN, MBA

Kitchen Table Wisdom – Stories that Heal by Dr Rachel Naomi Remen –

The Wheel of Life by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross – Memoir of an expert in death and dying. The book has examples of how she transformed healthcare systems through how much dignity and compassion she showed patients.

Love, Medicine and Miracles – Lessons learned about self-healing from a surgeon’s experience with exceptional patients by Dr Bernie S. Siegel

Deep Medicine – Harnessing the source of your healing Power by Dr William B.Stewart

Scrubs: The Nurses’ Guide to Good Living


Code Happy App for Nurses

My hope is also that the medical system is better integrated with alternative healthcare systems. There’s alot that natural and holistic methods of healing can do. Cooperation between the allopathic and alternative healthcare systems would benefit patients alot.

If I can be of support to help healthcare be more healing for patients, as well as healthcare staff,  please contact me at vadivu[at]joyworks.sg. It’s an issue close to my heart. I am looking for kindred spirits to connect with on this issue.

*”The title of this post is borrowed from an online community Dr Rachel Naomi Remen has started for doctors.

Matthieu Ricard – For Leaders

Matthieu Ricard is a monk, photographer and best-selling author of “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” and “Why Meditate?” among other books. He is the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. He is dubbed as the happiest person in the world by popular media but do read about how he feels about this on his blog

In this part of the interview I did with him on 13 September 2012 in Singapore, I assumed the role of a wealthy leader and posed some thoughts such a leader may have to Ricard. Here is the other part of the interview. ~ Vadivu

There are different definitions of happiness. Could you describe what it feels like to be truly happy?

Inner peace. Inner peace comes with inner freedom. What is inner freedom? It’s not just to do what comes to your head. That would be being a slave of your thoughts. Inner freedom is to be free from constantly ruminating over the past or constantly anticipating the future with lots of grasping, hopes and fears, expectations and doubts. It is to be able to remain in the present moment without being disturbed by craving, anger, jealousy and so forth. So it is a state of freedom from such mental toxins. Hatred is toxic to happiness. Craving is toxic to happiness. Arrogance is toxic to happiness.

Contrary to what people might think, this is not a dull state. It is not that if you got rid of all those afflictive emotions , life becomes boring and colorless. Not at all. This is the most vivid, luminous, aware state of peace and out of that comes loving kindness and compassion.

In short, it is inner peace from disturbing thoughts linked with some understanding of reality (wisdom) and it is pervaded with love and compassion. All that together – that’s genuine happiness.

As you can see, it is very different from looking for an endless succession  of pleasurable experiences. Those are recipes for exhaustion. That’s what people try to do. Another one….another one…another one….then they collapse out of exhaustion. And also that doesn’t bring happiness.

I’m at that point of exhaustion…I have a very stressful and hectic lifestyle. What are some daily practices that you can recommend for me?

Even if you have a very hectic lifestyle, you probably find time to go to a very nice gym in the early morning and exert yourself on a bicycle or treadmill because you are convinced that it’s good for your health and that you will lose less hair, get rid of your tummy and look good and young.

Imagine that for 30 minutes a day you learn how to deal better with your mind and emotions and that this will change the quality of the 23 hours and thirty minutes left in your day.

You can become familiar with your own mind and learn through simple methods of mind-training how to distinguish between thoughts and emotions that  undermine your wellbeing and those that nurture it. You can learn how to cultivate inner joy and inner peace. This mind training will diminish your stress and bring you more serenity and above all will give you the inner resources to deal with the ups and downs of life.

Because however powerful you might be, your control of the world is very limited, temporary and illusory…there are ups and downs in the stock market or you may lose your job. You think you are the boss and the next day, everybody throws you out so if you put all your hopes and fears on that and you think that if you don’t have that, you cannot be happy, it’s like hoping to win the lottery.

If you look at the inner conditions of your mind, no matter what, you can keep your serenity, strength of mind and confidence. Because it’s in your mind. Nobody can take that away from you. Nobody. So if you cultivate that, then you know it’s like a cat. If you throw a cat in the air, it will fall back on its four legs. You know that no matter what happens, you will have the inner resources to deal with that.

When you are feeling vulnerable or insecure, and the insecurity causes you to withdraw into yourself, you could become self-centred or arrogant. If you know that you have the resources to deal with the world, then you don’t have to be insecure. You don’t just depend on your image, what people think of you, your rank, your position as a CEO…With inner confidence, you are open to others because you’re not occupied with “me, me, me” all the time. Inner strength naturally opens you to kindness, benevolence, so then you’re ready for really constructive activity in the word and not just ceaselessly and mainly promoting self-interest.

My Thoughts. 

But you know, as a leader, my main responsibility is to bring profit to my shareholders, not to look at things like compassion or the happiness of my employees. That’s their personal matter.

That’s a recipe for making a hell of your whole company. Nobody would be happy. Some people would fear you. Some people would hate you.

Well, as long as they get the work done…

And then what? At the end of the day?

I met someone in Hong Kong some years ago…He said “Well, you know, when I started, I wanted to have a million US dollars, now I have five after fifteen years…and I wasted fifteen years of my life.”

[Nobel Laureate] Muhammad Yunus also said in the Davos Economic Forum that if the whole purpose of  your enterprise and life is to make profit, and is totally devoid of the human dimension, you’re drying up your life.

This is a recipe for sorrow, selfishness, and misery. And when things go wrong and your enterprise doesn’t do well financially, since there’s no human dimension, then everybody would run away.

However, if there is, in your enterprise, a sense of community, a sense of sharing human values, and if on top of that, you have a social component so that you dedicate some of your effort, resources, skills to benefit some sector of society, and the CEO and everyone is participating, then in rough times, your company will do better .

It’s like travelling somewhere on a bumpy road. If the destination is somewhere people really to go to, and there’s purpose and meaning beyond profit, they don’t mind the bumpy road. If it’s just to take you round and round for no reason, they don’t like bumpy roads.

My thoughts. 

How about my competitors? How can I show compassion to my competitors? Because if they do well, it means I can’t do well.

Healthy competition is an emulation to do well. First of all, there should be no competition within the enterprise. That’s a recipe for self-destruction. Competition between enterprises is healthy because it pushes you to bring out the best of yourself. So you can want to do something of quality and to always do better, but not at the cost of harassing your employees and not at the cost of doing dirty tricks.

Don’t think, “If I don’t do dirty tricks and if I don’t push too hard, I would be a loser.”

Because over time, relationships are based on trust. If everyone distrusts each other, again, we poison the situation and things become dysfunctional.

It’s like if you thought you were a good tennis player and you saw someone extraordinary. You could say, “Wow! I have so much more to learn! I can improve myself. This guy really knows what he’s doing”. So then you improve yourself but constantly trying to kick others in the leg…that’s in the end, a lose-lose situation.

There are some people in my life – very few of them – who have spoken the truth to be about my weaknesses. But it was very uncomfortable and I asked them to leave.

The kindest person is the one who brings to the surface your weaknesses and hidden faults because it gives you a wonderful opportunity to improve.

Let’s look at what a very kind teacher in sport or music would look like. The kindest teacher cares so much for you that he will point out every defect of your play so that you can improve it…If you really want to play the piano well, and you had a teacher who, no matter what you do, just says,  “That’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice”, then you’ll never progress. If praise is unjustified, you wouldn’t feel good about that because you know you don’t have those qualities. So maybe temporarily it flatters your narcissism. But ultimately it doesn’t feel comfortable.

This is provided the feedback is not given in a demeaning way to put you down and the person has a good intention. This is the best way to improve so you are missing a big opportunity by not accepting such truthful feedback.

My thoughts. 

I am afraid of death…I try not to think about it.

You should think about it but not in a morbid way and get depressed.

Imagine that you have one month to live. It’s not very nice but would you want to distract yourself  for the last month or make it the most extraordinary month of your life? You can spend time with your dear ones, enjoy looking at flowers, the sky, meditating…

Death is certain but the time it comes is uncertain. It is the best way to make sure that you fully appreciate every moment of life.

Sometimes you’re bored and just sitting there. Hey if that were the last day of your life, it wouldn’t be boring. Even 10 boring minutes would look so extraordinary….I can just look outside and think that this day is so precious instead of having time just go by, colourless and boring.

Thinking about your death gives extraordinary quality to every moment of your life.

How do I have a peaceful death?

Prepare yourself so that you have no regrets. Think now. The things that you do… like trying to kick off your competitors, and making one more million dollars. Is this going to bring you a peaceful death? Are you really going to be happy when you die?

Now imagine that you spend quality time with your family and think, “I have accumulated some wealth but I use it in such wonderful, compassionate ways. I’ve contributed to society. Then when the last moment comes, I can rejoice in that and think “Ah, that was well done!””

But if you just have this big bank account, no one sees a coffin going out with a coffer. ..you’re not going to take it with you for sure….

My thoughts. 

(On his blog, Matthieu writes: Recently, I met an elder person who was expressing her sadness that many of her friends where so attached to their money, even as death was coming near. She concluded: “What is the point? One has never seen a safe on a coffin. Thanks to him for giving me permission to publish these cartoons by Gabs here.)



Interview conducted by: Vadivu Govind, Director, Joy Works (joyworks.sg) on 13 Sept 2012, Poh Ming Tse Temple, Singapore. (Deep gratitude to Matthieu Ricard for the gift of his time.) 

See the other part of this interview.

If you’d like to re-publish this interview or excerpts of it, please write to me at vadivu[at]joyworks.sg.

Related: My Interview with Kit Miller, Director of the Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence

(This blog isn’t tied to any specific religion. It has a multi-faith approach and promotes inter-faith harmony.)

On happiness at work

But you know, as a leader, my main responsibility is to bring profit to my shareholders, not to look at things like compassion or the happiness of my employees. That’s their personal matter.

– There’s extensive research to show that happier employees benefit their organisation. 

– Progressive leaders care about the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit. Leaders have a powerful opportunity to positively affect many lives so if you look at the welfare of all your stakeholders, and not just your shareholders, you are working to build a more progressive and sustainable business. It requires a long-term mentality because in the short term, it may cost more to make some changes. Have a look at this example. 

– I also believe there’s no such thing as “personal matter”. Our lives are all interconnected. Here’s an illustration. Life may not be as direct as this of course.

Consider one of your employees who has been treated well at work and is happily driving home. He is present and mindful and driving safely.  He passes your son or daughter on the road, who’s also driving. He gives way, and is kind.

If, however, he’s been overworked, stressed and under-appreciated at work, he may drive home feeling stressed, upset and distracted or even taking yet another work call on his cellphone.  If he’s on the road and your son or daughter is also driving, he’s more likely to be a danger to the safety of your child.

At the end of your life, what is the legacy you want to have left behind? On your deathbed, what matters most, according to people who have worked with dying people, is how much love you have given and received, and how much service you have rendered.

(This is part of an interview I did with Matthieu Ricard. These are my thoughts to the questions I posed to him. Please click here for his responses. )

Eulogy of Malcolm Forbes

Thanks to Cyrus H.Copeland for kindly giving me permission to re-publish the eulogy for billionaire Malcolm Forbes by his son, Steve Forbes, which was published in “A Wonderful Life: 50 Eulogies to Lift the Spirit”. Here are some excerpts of it.

My grandfather wrote in the first issue of Forbes: “Business was originated to produce happiness, not to pile up millions.” By that criterion, my father was truly a rich man. As he once wrote, “I’ll be the saddest one at my funeral.”

What made his happiness so precious and unique, so contagious and convincing, was that he knew all too well the hurts and disappointments of life….

He was no stranger to physical pain. A machine gunner during World War II, he was seriously wounded and spent almost a year recovering in various military hospitals. When he talked about this, which was rare, it was with jocular anecdotes about various ways he tried to scratch his back when in a cast. …

Nor was he a stranger to adversity and setbacks, personal and professional. His divorce from Mother after thirty-nine years of marriage almost shattered him…. 

He was also no stranger to the underside of human nature. No one who served in combat as he did could escape it. There were numerous times when his trust in others was no reciprocated. 

Yet for all this, which so often sours so many of us as we get older, he never lost his almost childlike capacity to wonder, to be curious, to dream, and to do. His buoyant, infectious spirit of openness, of genersoity, of let’s-try-it was always with him. 

He was incapable of ill will of or pining for what might have been. Grudges and grievances were never a part of this man’s makeup. He genuinely believed that things turned out for the best…. 

He never hoarded his power like a miser. He took delight in delegating authority to those he felt had earned it. To him, that was smart business – their success meant more success for the company.

He loved people. People sensed this and were quickly at ease with him. He never tried to make himself look bigger by making others feel smaller. …

No matter what he did, no matter how impressive the achivements in business, ballooning, writing, motorcycling, entertaining, and collecting, we knew that as long as he lived, the best was always yet to come. Now he is gone. But in a larger, truer sense, death has not triumphed, and if he follow, as he did, the better angels of our nature, it never will.


What would you like for those left behind – friend, family, employees, colleagues – to say about you when you have gone?


When Leaders Fall…

We have been rocked by scandals involving people in leadership positions in Singapore.

Here are some of the recent cases:

  • The ex-director of the Singapore Civil Defence Force  allegedly obtained sexual favours from high-ranking women from companies involved in securing contracts with the SCDF.
  • Others in leadership positions, including a school principal, having sex with an underaged sex worker. 

Although these individuals have allegedly/committed crimes and been involved in acts which look extreme, I hope we don’t just stop, point our fingers at them, shake our heads and “tse tse”.

1. Let’s use these cases as a call for us to live in greater integrity ourselves

All of us have some level of incongruence between our inner compass (comprising virtues that are important to us) and our actions.  It’s human. We are not perfect. These cases just serve to remind us to narrow the gap as much as we can in our own lives….And also to take a closer look at our inner compass. Are we clear of what it comprises?

Where could you bring greater integrity into your life?

How do you stay in touch with your inner compass?

2. Let’s create spaces in workplaces where we give attention to who we are, and not only what we do.

It was particularly disturbing to read in The Straits Times on 8 June 2012 that “In the IT and technology industry, it is not unheard of for sales people to pull out all the stops when trying to win projects, said those in the industry.”

We speak of character development for children in school. I think we need to also look at character development in the workplace. We are role-models for our children and we ourselves need reminders to live with greater integrity and wisdom.

What could we do?

  • Reflect on what virtues we strive to live by in our workplace.
  • Reflect on what legacy we want to leave not just when we die but every day. Are we leaving a positive impact on others? Can we be at peace with ourselves?
  • Communicate with our colleagues that the process matters, not just the destination. How do we land that contract? That matters.
  • Use time during meetings to discuss these issues. We could use the SCDF ex-director case to start important conversations at the office on integrity.
  • Use tools such as The Virtues Cards at work to remind people of virtues to incorporate into their work
  • Encourage people to have a mid-day break of silence where they reflect on what virtues they have lived out that morning and what they haven’t, then set intentions for the next half of the day to amplify what’s working and make amends or correct any mistakes.
  • Screen inspiring and thought-provoking movies for employees, and facilitate a discussion later.  (You need a licence from the Motion Picture Licencing Company (Singapore) Pte. Ltd if screening movies outside your home.)
  • Are your leaders role-modelling wisdom, compassion, integrity and other key virtues? Start there first.

What else could we do to bring character development into our workplaces? Any ideas? 

Which policies and systems at your workplace make it easier or difficult for employees to live out certain virtues? How could you create spaces for employees to discuss such important issues? (Cards are by The Virtues Project International.)


3. Let’s remember where integrity inspires us.

When we see leaders act out of integrity, it could lead to disillusionment, and cynicism. Let us not forget that these very people may practise integrity and other virtues in other ways, in other spheres of their lives.

We are not heros and villians. We all have light and shadow within us.  

Let us remember other examples where we have witnessed people living in integrity with their highest values.

For example, when a motorcyclist had his leg severed on the Pan Island Expressway recently, a few Singaporeans came to his help. When a lorry carrying foreign workers met with an accident at the East Coast Parkway recently, nearby residents came to help with their first-aid kits.

We very well could have seen the bystander-effect effect (where people may not come forward to help because they think someone else will) but we didn’t. We saw people living out kindness, resourcefulness and initiative. Let’s celebrate that!

Where, recently, have you witnessed or practised integrity? Celebrate it! (Card by The Virtues Project International)
Let’s use cases such as these sex scandals to grow as individuals and as a nation.