Ep 14: Being Average & Not Knowing What to Do In Life (ft Tai Ling Ling)

Ep 14: Being Average & Not Knowing What to Do In Life (ft Tai Ling Ling)

Ling Ling  00:00

To compare  those who are in the position of a jack of all trades to someone who is specialised, I feel really sorry for them. Because it’s basically saying to a fish, you fail at climbing a tree, when actually you’re built for swimming in the water.

Kai Xin  00:17

Hey, friends, this is Kai Xin and you’re listening to the Handful Of Leaves podcast where we bring you practical Buddha’s wisdom for a happier life. Do you feel average, average in a sense that you’re good at a bit of this and a bit of that, but not great at anything in particular? And when you look at people who  ‘made it in life’, people who have figured it all out, people who are celebrated for their expertise, does that makes you question your life? What do I really want? Am I meant to be doing what I’m doing right now? Should I be doing something else? And the more you ask these existential questions, the more stuck you feel. But what if you’re meant to be good at a little bit of everything? And what if not having a clear plan about the future is completely okay. And that’s what we’ll be exploring in this episode.

Kai Xin  01:26

Cheryl and I chat with Ling Ling, who was an engineer, a trainer who has a Master of Science in Psychology, and now back to being a student. A jack of all trades, some would call her, and she’s perfectly happy being that. It is the combination of courage and curiosity that made her walk the nonlinear path with joy. And this episode, we uncover the balance between having a plan and being spontaneous. Knowing what to do when we’re at a crossroad and the clear steps of how to get unstuck in life, you also get an inside view of how to answer this classic question from a job recruiter. Where do you see yourself in three to five years time? Stick to the end of the episode to hear all of our candid answers to the questions. Now, let’s dive right in.

Kai Xin  02:22

 It’s so good to have you Ling Ling join us on this episode. And I believe we can all learn from your very unconventional path and wonderful experience. So today, we have our co-host Cheryl and myself to ask you some tough questions that might get a little personal.

Ling Ling  02:37

Thank you so much for inviting me.

Kai Xin  02:39

Maybe you can share with the listeners. If you were to choose between planning and being spontaneous, which would you choose?

Ling Ling  02:49

Actually, I believe it’s good to be comfortable with both, to be able to plan for things, and to be spontaneous because there are times in life when you need to do the planning, and there are certain times in life when being spontaneous is far better. So to give a personal experience in 2008, which is around the Asian financial or the global financial crisis, it was after some years of working as an engineer and a technical trainer, I decided to switch careers from being an engineer to a psychologist. So in order to become a psychologist, I decided to take my first master’s programme in psychology in the UK. And this particular master’s programme is special because it is designed specifically for people from other careers who want to join psychology field, it’s called a conversion programme.

Ling Ling  03:39

The plan was that at the onset of the financial crisis, after graduation, the financial crisis would be over. And I would then be able to find work in the field of psychology after graduation because in the past, when there was a financial crisis, or there was a recession, it usually takes about a year or two years to turn around. And the programme itself was about two years ago, so I figured, okay, once I graduate, I can surely find something in psychology. But as it turns out, the 2008 financial crisis lasted much, much longer, and it didn’t work out that way. After graduating from my master’s programme, it took me more than a year to find actual work, it was so so difficult to find work in the UK at that time. And not only that, I faced discrimination, I was running out of savings, I worked odd jobs to survive. And at that time, after almost a year of trying to look for work, I really didn’t know what to do. I hit the lowest period of my life. It came to a point where I only had less than 100 pounds in my bank account. And I wasn’t too sure whether I should remain in the UK in order to continue to look for work in psychology or to return back to Malaysia (because I’m from Malaysia.)

Ling Ling  04:56

So at this lowest period of my life I was feeling so stuck. I was feeling really anxious. I didn’t know what to do. But this spontaneous idea that came to mind to go on a meditation retreat. I don’t know why meditation retreat, but I needed to go on one. And I needed to make sure that as much as possible, this could be like a really cheap retreat or a free retreat, if possible because I only had so much money in my account. But thank goodness, we had Google that time. And from Google, it brought me to a website called Goenka Vipassana, and they had like a centre in the UK called Dhammadippa, which is fantastic, because they had a 10 day silent retreat in the countryside of the UK, and it’s entirely donation based. So it’s up to me how much I want to donate at the end of the 10 days retreat, and they provide your own room, as well as food, which is fantastic. Also, with a little bit of searching and a little bit of luck, I found a bus company that was able to provide bus tickets for one pound each way- one pound to get there on one pound to return. So I thought, okay, yes, this is fated for me, I gotta go to this silent meditation retreat. And this retreat introduced me to Vipassana meditation. So Vipassana is a Pali word, meaning insight. So in translation, it’s called Insight meditation. So basically, Insight Meditation is the training of the mind to observe bodily sensations as well as the content of the mind. Because I was introduced to this meditation technique, it really changed my life totally, like, from that moment on.

Ling Ling  06:47

My life gradually became calmer, and more balanced. And even though I’ve met different challenges in life afterward, I had greater confidence to face them and overcome them. So there was that act of spontaneity, allowing the universe or the life to show you paths, so your choices, but also there was that plan of mine, you know, trying to look for work after graduation. So there are times when we need both planning and spontaneity. And you also have to remember that, when you planned plans do not rarely turned out as planned. Because as we grew up, we were taught to plan the days or years of our life. But when we are so focused on our plan, we lose our ability to be spontaneous. And when you’re spontaneous, their incomes, all the other things that are wonderful to like, seeing different connections, being creative, having more fun and having more play in your life. When we’re not spontaneous, we also cut ourselves off from serendipitous moments, all these coincidental connections, meeting random people who could be the best friends or the love of your life, or you could see things in your environment that give you quiet signs that point you down a different direction in life that could probably give you greater happiness, greater love, greater joy.

So to me, you need to be able to plan of course, because that’s how things move forward. You need to complete tasks to meet deadlines, but you also need spontaneity to be able to broaden your mind, bring more fun and creativity, and so on. I hope that answers your question.

Cheryl  08:28

Yeah, I think that definitely answers the question. And I think it’s a very nice balance also because when you’re planning you’re giving yourself direction. And when you’re being spontaneous, you’re not forcing yourself to the stuck kind of outcome that you want. You’re allowing, you know, the world to open up to you meeting new people, like you say, you know, in the beautiful word that you used serendipitously. Serendipity. Yeah. And I was just wondering like so you said after the vipassana retreat, you felt more calm and more balanced? And did you feel like you shifted your personality or worldview in the sense that you became leaning more towards spontaneity? Or are you still you know, kind of very stuck in the middle of like planning and spontaneity?

Ling Ling  09:16

It was a drastic change. It was a gradual change because what the retreat taught me is that it is a daily practice. It’s not something where you know, you take a pill, you change overnight. If you stop practising it, you lose the balance of your mind. I don’t lean towards either planning or spontaneity. I use my own life experiences, as well as gut feeling and wisdom, which is better. For example, right now I’m doing my second master’s programme. I’m studying the psychology of intercultural relations. And of course, I cannot be spontaneous in my data collection, and spontaneous when I feel like writing I actually have to sit down and come up with a plan. And how many articles do I read this week and how many notes do I need to write because otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to meet the deadline. But in between those times, because I’m doing this Master’s course, in Portugal, I would also like to explore and experience what life is like in Portugal, so I need to create or plan spontaneous moments where I can go out and understand the culture, meet different people and just experience what Portuguese life has, you know, presents itself to me. Yeah. So you can plan spontaneity, and you can be spontaneous and your plans too, like me suddenly deciding to come to Portugal to do my second master’s programme. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Kai Xin  10:44

I really liked that. I also have a personal experience, actually, all my life, I realised none of my plans go according to plan. Like, I wanted to go to university. In the end, I started a business and because of starting a business, I have more flexibility in time, then I also went on retreats, and meet really great teachers who have changed my life. And yeah, I think it’s really about keeping an open mind to have an overall sense of direction. But at the same time, don’t be too close-minded such that we lose sight of opportunities that are just right in front of us, and meeting you was serendipitous as well because it was my one and a half months trip to Amaravati, which is in the UK that I met a Thai friend, who then became your friend, and then she connected us. If I’m not spontaneous, and you are not spontaneous, we wouldn’t have this competition. So I really liked that it allow things to unfold by themselves.

Ling Ling  11:37

Precisely that is an excellent example, Kai Xin, seeing the way we both connected.

Kai Xin  11:43

Like Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots backward. And I’m also wondering, you know, in today’s society, especially when you go to interviews, people would ask, or interviewers would ask, Cheryl is a recruiter, I’m not so sure whether she asked this question, what would you do in three to five years time? And I suppose that that question has the intention of really understanding whether a person or the potential hire, the candidate has clarity in terms of their career, trajectory, etc. But some people just don’t know. Like, I could tell you five years ago, that I have a particular plan for what I wanted to do five years later, which is now. But has it happened? Not quite yet. So I’m wondering, what is your opinion on this? Did you know what you wanted to do in five to 10 years’ time? And how do you sit with the idea of not knowing?

Ling Ling  12:35

The easy answer is I don’t really know, we cannot predict the future. And I think recruiters deep down, they also know this, but they ask it anyway, just to get a sense of whether this person has their own challenge, has like a career planning and stuff. But I also want to hear from Cheryl.

Cheryl  12:55

No, so the fun thing is, I will usually reject people who give me a perfect answer on what exactly they’re gonna do in five years because that shows that they could be very stuck, and they are not open to adapting to different challenges or different situations. So it’s actually a trick question. You need to have, you know, like, the kind of direction but also you need to have the humility to say that you don’t know and, and you are open to it, but people who are very structured, and this is exactly what I’m gonna do, and I’m like, okay, bye.

Kai Xin  13:22

So I’m quite curious here, like, what would be an acceptable answer? Because if people just say, I don’t know, it can come across as you don’t have your life sorted out.

Cheryl  13:33

I think it’s the way they answer. Sorry, this question is for Ling Ling but just I’m just stealing the spotlight here.

Ling Ling  13:39

I’m curious to find out what the thoughts of a recruiter so if I apply for a job, and I get that, I get that question, and I know how to answer it.

Cheryl  13:49

Yeah, it’s how you answer the I don’t know, right? Because I don’t know could be I don’t know. And I don’t care that that is a huge red flag that this person doesn’t have the kind of zest for learning or self-improvement. But if it’s I don’t know, but I’ve done things, you know, I’ve had the courage to try different things, then that is definitely an acceptable answer, because who gets things right all the time, and companies can’t succeed when they only hire people who have done things the way they have done it before. There will not be innovation and creativity and challenging the industry to be to the next level.

Kai Xin  14:22

I really like what you say about the courage to try new things and Lingling, I know you’ve tried a lot of new things over many years, and your plans keep changing, right? Could you share with us how you have such courage to try new things or when you’re stuck, you don’t know what to do next? What’s your guiding question or philosophy?

Ling Ling  14:41

Actually, every time my career changes, they are done for many different reasons. So sometimes it’s because okay, this particular career path is not working out for me. I don’t feel joy, going to the office feels like a drag and I could feel my sense of emotional and mental well-being, decreasing. So I know I need to do something. So that one was not so much out of courage, it was more out of necessity. For example, just like everyone else, I was told, from a young age you must get a good degree, you get a good job, then you get a big house, you find someone to marry and have kids. Now, I’ve been told this all of us, we’ve been told this, right? So at a young age, of course, I don’t know what to do. And I was persuaded to do electronics engineering as my bachelor’s degree. I did, I chose that degree because I was really good at mathematics and actually enjoyed mathematics. But maths and engineering are different things, as I found out for my degree, so when I did the job, it, it was okay. But it wasn’t something that gave me joy. It wasn’t something that gave me excitement, it became like a daily routine. And I could slowly feel like if I continued on this daily routine of being on this hamster wheel, a part of me slowly like dying. Maybe that’s too much of a word, but it just feels like I couldn’t be myself anymore.

And then, fortunately, within the department, I was working in engineering, they had after a year as an engineer, they opened three different vacancies. So two of them were manager positions, and one was a training position, an engineering trainer position. At that time, I was still young in my career, I wasn’t so interested in becoming a manager. And I know based on what was being told, I should be a manager, because that should give me more money. But I wasn’t interested, My heart told me yes, training seemed a lot more interesting, I’ll be more excited to do that, compared to being a manager and I followed my gut, I followed my heart I followed where I believe, can give me greater joy. I applied for it, I got it.

It changed my career from being an engineer to one step closer to being a training and development professional. At that time, it was called training and development, it wasn’t yet called learning and development. So through that work, I met so many different people, I had the opportunity to travel internationally to learn from different experts and bring that knowledge back to Malaysia, (I was based in Malaysia at that time,) and train other engineers on all these wonderful things that I’ve learned, all the programmes that I’ve created for them and such. So as I was in that particular role, I did, of course, self-examination and self-reflecting, on why is it this particular job, give me so much joy and excitement as compared to an engineering job, right.

After some reflection, I realised like, I find a lot of excitement and joy, and creativity, when I get to meet people, I get to understand their perspectives, and I get to learn from them. And also to see how their mind works, to see how they behave. So all of that pointed toward psychology. After three years plus of working in this particular role as an engineering trainer, then the financial crisis hit and I thought, “Okay, this will be a fantastic time to switch careers.” It was courage, but it was also out of necessity. And it also felt, right.

Kai Xin  18:19

Yeah. And you turn inwards in order to find what exactly is their motivation. Or it’s not just joy and excitement, but it’s really about connection. It’s about meeting people and learning things. And that is something that you can find anywhere, which I believe is not just our training and development, right? You travel a lot. I believe that’s what makes you travel because you can meet people, also, am I right to assume then?

Ling Ling  18:44

Yeah, so I travel a lot in my life. In my entire life. I lived in eight different countries, Portugal is my country number seven. The other country I lived in was Serbia for a few months last year. And because of this opportunity to live in different cultures, I enjoy learning about different cultures and how people can live very differently, still survive, still find love and happiness, and joy.

Kai Xin  19:11

 And now you’re pivoted into cultural intelligence as your study.

Ling Ling  19:17

That’s one of the things that I’m studying. That’s one of the things I’m also training. I’m a cultural intelligence facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre in the US. What I’m studying is called the psychology of intercultural relations. So I study the cultural values and cultures of different groups of people. But what I also study is how different groups of people interact with each other, different ethnicities, different generations different, just different social groups. And when they interact with each other, what comes out of it. So, it points toward issues that we face now, and that we see in the world in terms of racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination, and prejudice, as a going-to-be psychologist. What is it that I can learn from these experiences? And what is it that I can do to help create a more equitable and inclusive world in our society?

Cheryl  20:14

I really love how you use your experiences and all this knowledge, sort of like you absorb all this and it informs your worldview, and you’re just so curious to learn a little bit more and more. And although I think you’re a little bit hesitant to use the word courage, I feel that courage is an underlying theme that is really driving the way you move. Because speaking from experience, I also understand the complete narrative, right, you know, get the right like finance lawyer doctor kind of degree, and these are the only right degrees you could do. So I was pressured to take accounting as my degree. And all my friends who knew me, like knew my personality, they’re like, Cheryl, you’re going down the wrong path! What are you doing? And at that time, I was very stubborn. I was like, No, I love accounting. It was the only course in my life that made me cry every single day.

I couldn’t get it and I hated it and was just like, What am I doing here? Yeah, so then I switch out also, after that, to psychology as well. And I think from experiences, really courage, because it’s something where everyone around you is not doing, it seems like you’re almost like a failure, right? You know, everyone’s continuing with whatever degree chasing whatever managerial role they’re doing. Whereas you’re kind of like taking a step back and starting from scratch and doing something else. So, you know, in these kinds of situations seems like almost everyone is against you, right? How do you still like, or what do you use to help you make decisions going forward? And how do you still like, convince yourself that, okay, this is the right way to, you know, you turn and go with something else?

Ling Ling  21:49

It can be really hard when your, especially your loved ones don’t support your work. But the thought process that I go through and make this decision is asking myself this question, what is the alternative? And is the alternative better than the possibility of the option that’s presented in front of me or not? So the alternative would be always likely staying on the same path, which I’ve already tried, and I already know that no matter what I do, in my control, maybe it couldn’t be any better because I’ve tried everything that I could, right? And then there there are these other options that are presented in front of me? And then I think to myself, will these options be worse or better than where I am now?

Cheryl  21:49

 But you can never know for sure.

Ling Ling  21:52

No, you never know for sure. So you can come up with different pros and cons lists, you could talk to a whole bunch of people, you can talk to those who have been in their careers and such. But the truth is, we’re all emotional beings. We make decisions based on our emotions, no matter how much we try to patch it up or cushion it with facts and pros and cons list and whatever not. So I remember watching this movie, I think it’s called the Second Best Marigold Exotic Hotel or something like that. And there’s a particular scene in the movie, Maggie Smith, a British actress was in a taxi and was complaining to the taxi driver, right. And she was in a conundrum, she couldn’t figure out what to decide. So the taxi driver says, flip a coin, have the coin decide for you? And then she was like, why flip a coin? And he says, Well, you will already know the answer before the coin lands. So if you’re really truly honest with yourself, you actually know the answer already. And you know, if you go against your true answer within yourself, you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to live your life to self actualise. And if you do not know the answer and if you’re not very sure whether to trust your inner answer, it’s also okay. It’s fine. Just stay where you are. You don’t have to make a decision. And when the right pieces or the right information or the right time falls into place, you will know with great certainty Yes, this I need to go. I need to do this. Otherwise, the alternative will be I’m going to spend 20-30 years thinking what if what if, what if, what if what if, and that is just as painful as trying and failing.  Or even more.

Kai Xin  24:21

Personally, I find it helpful to then balance the spontaneous as well as the certainty part here because sometimes when everyone around you are trying to dissuade you from following your heart, if you don’t have a very convincing reason, you wouldn’t be able to deny the adults with much conviction and it wouldn’t be very persuasive. Right? So then we waver. So I guess that’s where planning becomes important because it’s not just all about following our heart and you know, living a carefree life, we want to care we want to plan and it has to be practical. So you know we have to feed ourselves financially, be stable, etc. Not just quit my job because I don’t like et cetera, and live in this very distorted worldview, and I know perhaps a lot of times people are doubtful about our decision to switch path, especially in the Asian context, once you enter maybe secondary school and you choose your specialisation, pretty much your path is set. And it seems like you know, a little bit of everything, but you’re not good at one thing. And when people ask me, “So what do you specialise in? Or what’s your trade? Oh, I’m not sure I’m kind of a little bit good at everything. And I think that’s where it can impair our confidence as well. So I’m going to move into the next theme. And both of you can chime in on what your thoughts are. Do you feel that it is actually okay to be a Jack of all trades? Or do you feel that it’s better to master one domain and be the subject matter expert?

Ling Ling  25:53

Actually, I think it’s really unfair to pit jack of all trades with specialisation to make such comparison because I think you’re really comparing a Durian to a rambutan. I mean, some people like rambutan, some people like durian, right? Because a specialisation requires a specific set of skills, a specific set of knowledge, it’s the same with Jack of all trades, because they have the ability to see connections in different areas. And those connections, bring out creativity bring out innovation, and they require the ability to be flexible and adaptable in different situations. So I think to compare them both is really unfair, and those who are in the position of a jack of all trades, and being compared to a specialisation, I feel really sorry for them. Because it’s basically saying to a fish, you know, you fail, at like climbing a tree, when actually you’re built for swimming in the water. So if you’re a jack of all trades, and you’re being told, okay, you’re not so good enough in this, be confident in your own skills and your own experience to say yes, I’m not good enough in this one specific area.

But I’m good enough to know, that this specific area can connect to other areas, which can bring out something a lot more beautiful, or something more creative, or something more innovative, whatever that is. So an example could be let me think, okay, currently, I’m in academia. And I’m surrounded by people who are really, really fantastic in their research, they’re very detailed in the way that they review journals. And they look at that data and analysis and come up with wonderful findings. But they don’t have the skills, or they don’t have the experiences to share this knowledge in public. So public speaking is something that they’re not particularly experienced in. Whereas like, I’ve also been connected with public speakers, and they’re really great and telling stories and sharing inspiration. But behind those stories, there’s like, where’s the data? Where’s the science? So you can like, I have a little bit of both, I do public speaking, because I’ve been a trainer and a facilitator all this life, but now my interest is moving towards research because I wanted to make sure whatever I share with the world has a scientific basis behind it. So, you can tell me, yes, I’m not the best public speaker, I’m not the best researcher. But with these two skills, I can do something that a pure researcher cannot do, or a pure public speaker cannot do. So it’s not fair, I think to make that comparison.

Cheryl  28:25

Yeah. And I think it’s also really about the self-awareness of knowing what you can bring to the table, what strengths you have, or what weaknesses you have, and really owning that in a sense of, okay, I know I’m really good in my data analytics, and you know, wherever you go, or whatever space you go into, really add value in there, instead of trying to constantly like, look out, oh, I suck at like, public speaking, I shouldn’t be here and like, stuff like that. And I think my perspective comes from in school, I was really into sports, and I was very curious about all sorts of sports, I would play badminton then and after that switch, and then pick up squash, and now there’s, like, volleyball, and then I’ll kind of be just like meh in everything. I was like, I want to try the next new sport out there. And I always compare like, wow they’re so good at basketball! How do they do it? So it always came from a place of inferiority and competition, like within myself, but then I think as time evolved, and as I grew, I realised, it is really about valuing the curiosity that I have for learning new things and going through the rigour of picking up things from scratch, instead of just deepening myself in just one area. So yeah, I think this question can be looked at from different perspectives also, in terms of valuing what you have.

Kai Xin  29:34

Yeah, and I know sometimes it can seem that we are fickle-minded. If we keep trying out new things people wouldn’t see us as curious people would just like make up your mind, what do you want to do? And Jack of all trades has a very bad reputation. But there are more research studies that show actually having general knowledge can give you an added advantage because I mean, especially in the career space As right things are moving so quickly. In the past, let’s say if both of you were stuck in engineering and accounting, it might be completely obsolete in the next 20 years. So if you don’t have the soft skills, you don’t have skills like psychology, asking the questions for the facilitation, probably connecting the dots will be a little bit challenging. Cheryl I know, as a recruiter, probably you’ve also seen trends, right, that technical role now also has to understand some non-tech stuff and possess some of these skill sets. So I really like how both of you brought in the point that it’s not really about either, or, it’s really, what can you offer and constantly evolve, that’s, again, where the spontaneity comes into the picture rather than being so stuck in our old ways. And I’m also thinking from this aspect, there must be a skill that is timeless or that can kind of allow us to evolve. What do you think that skill is that everyone should possess, regardless of profession?

Ling Ling  31:01

Cheryl, would you like to go first?

Cheryl  31:05

Sure, I would also love to hear Kai Xin’s thoughts on this as well. I think this is, yeah, this is a very interesting question, right? Because I think when you ask this question about the one skill that can help us evolve- It’s a very tricky question because the way humans have evolved has helped us to optimise for survival, but not for happiness. So if we are talking about the one skill that everyone should learn, for evolution, would be for survival, then I think we are social creatures, creatures that need emotional connection, learning to get to know people learning to be resourceful. And connecting with as many people as possible, I think, is very important, because there’s no person who could go into the world alone and survive it, I think. But if I’m thinking about the skill that one shouldn’t have to optimise for happiness, it should be learning to be compassionate and like be skillful and emotionally self-regulating, think that’s the one skill that can help people to go through the ups and downs and uncertainties that life can bring to us. Curious to hear your thoughts.

Ling Ling  32:08

Actually, it’s really, really hard to pick that one skill. The one thing that came really strongly into my mind is mindfulness. And I know this comes from my own meditation practice. But I see how mindfulness has changed my life in many ways. And it can also help in whatever profession you’re in, not just in your life in your profession. Because there are so many benefits. And there are a lot of studies about mindfulness. It can help you reduce stress, bring clarity to your mind, it could help balance your emotions. And we need all of this in the workplace. So when you practice mindfulness, you have clarity of mind. So when you make decisions, you know that the decision you make is not clouded by your own emotions, of fear of anger, of jealousy, or envy, you know, you’re doing it out of clarity of your mind, and in consideration of what’s going on in the environment, what’s going on with other people, and so on. If you practice mindfulness, and you’re working on a task, be it a work task or a daily task. With that clarity of mind and clarity of motion, you can put your focus on the task, to make sure that there are fewer errors and that every action you take is more intentional. And you know, those intentions come from either a place of goodness, sincerity, of compassion or out of ignorance. When you’re mindful, you are very, very clear on why you do what you do. That’s one.

Also, with mindfulness, when it comes to social connections, you become a lot more present with the other person, you acknowledge them, and you’re more open to their perspective to understand what their thoughts are, what their feelings are, in doing so you build a greater connection with the other person, build a better relationship, and encourage, you know, greater compassion for each other. So I think the overall skill, one must have is mindfulness.

Kai Xin 34:47

I really like both perspectives, because you can have one without the other, you can be really resourceful and survive on the planet. But if it is, without compassion is without mindfulness, then what for it will just be such a tough and chaotic life. For me, what came to mind was reflection and critical thinking, I can make up my mind which one is more, but it’s worth the, with the concept of constantly looking beyond the surface and to also taking on the thought that our life is filled with hypotheses. It’s like doing research, right? We shouldn’t go out there just to prove ourselves right. But we should prove ourselves wrong, and take on healthy challenges so that we can constantly improve and evolve. And that’s where, again, the theme of this episode. I think it’s daring to be spontaneous. to go a different path, I think that’s where we see new possibilities, we find new solutions, rather than what is presented in front of us or to us. Yeah, so I think it requires a lot of contemplation and critical thinking, to see what’s beyond.

Cheryl  35:16

I do see a connection between what everyone says, I think it’s packaged in different words, and different probably techniques as well. But I think it all leads to one thing, which is basically increasing the connection to oneself. Right?

Ling Ling  35:28

I think it all boils back to ourselves, right? We must be aware of who we are, what we are and how we operate in the world. And who we are also impacts the people around us and the environment, too. So it’s the interaction between the environment and the self, we can see what’s outside in the world, but if we don’t know what’s happening on the inside, how do you know whether what you do has an impact or not? Or whether it impacts people in ways that are not so great. So it’s that interaction of the inner and outer.

Kai Xin  35:57

Like a feedback loop? Yeah, I know, some philosophers would say our worldview is shaped because of our social interaction. So yeah, that’s beautiful. So to wrap up the episode, as we’re coming to the end, for listeners who maybe are at a crossroads, and if they feel stuck, they’re not so sure whether they should move forward with an unconventional path, or what to do if they don’t know want to do, do you have some advice in how they can get unstuck and lean into curiosity?

Ling Ling  36:29

So if you’re stuck, it’s okay to be stuck. Because it’s a normal experience. Everyone goes through it. In some time of their life, we make decisions all the time. And the level of stuckness can be different, different times if I could use that word stuck in this. So you do what you can do, like based on Kai Xin’s question much earlier about what if everyone’s persuading you to do something else, and but your heart says, oh, I need to do this, there are some practical things you can do. So some of the practical things you can do is come up with a contingency plan. If what you decided doesn’t work, what is the alternative, you can also come up with an exit plan? If you face something that’s really entirely unexpected, how you’re going to exit it with minimal damage? That’s another thing you can do.

You can also think of listing out why is this path really important to you, and share it with your loved ones, because they come from a place of fear. And they worry that if you take a path that is unknown, that is untested, that you will face challenges or difficulties, and they will have to be involved too. So if you show why this is really, really important to you, then perhaps you can persuade them to support you. So that’s another way of of doing this. But if you’ve not reached that level of persuading your loved one, for me, it’s like it’s okay to be stuck. That’s fine. When the time is right, the answer will appear.

Cheryl  38:05

I mean, there’s a perfect answer already. I just wanted to maybe just add on a little bit, not a completely new point here. But I think really leaning on the theme of not sure, or like uncertainty where you know, you think that you’re feeling like this is the worst job in its worst situation. But you never know what happens, right? Moving could be better, not moving could also be better. So really just allowing that gap and space of uncertainty because life is very gray. And I think our world view for good or for worse is always very black and white. But if we are able to start, you know, leaning into the grayness of it and finding the beauty there just allowing it to unfold, and evolve.

Kai Xin  38:47

Well. I do agree, quite similar sentiments. I think it’s the perception around uncertainty and not sure- it comes with fear most times, and I find it personally helpful to get out of my head. Because a lot of times when I feel stuck I’m using not sure in a negative way. What if I do this? Or what if I didn’t do that? And then I’ll come up with 10,000 different reasons why I should and shouldn’t do and I’m like, Oh no, I’m stuck. So which one! Then weighing the pros and cons just makes it worse. So I find getting out of my head to just do one thing can help me feel like I’m progressing, and that in itself makes me feel I’m less stuck. And then slowly I pick up momentum, I get more clarity speaking with people who can be a sounding board, offering different perspectives. And once I consolidate all my data, I feel like okay, I have a contingency plan. I have this set-out, I have both certainty and uncertainty then I would take that bold step. And then whatever comes along the way I’ll just take it with grace.

Ling Ling  39:47

Sorry. I wanted to add something based on what you shared because it reminded me of a Buddhist philosophy that’s been drilled into me over and over again, which is that everything is impermanent. So even though you have this emotional sense of certainty, yes, this is the path I’m on, or yes, this is the path that I don’t want to take, or whatever. It’s based on the information and data that we have at this point in time. We cannot predict the future we didn’t. Two years ago, we didn’t know COVID will happen and all of our plans changed. There are things in the environment and things in the universe that will happen beyond your control, and it will make you consider other things. So everything is not permanent. And your need for certainty and security comes from our deep-seated emotions for survival, for being secure, for being safe. So it taps onto what Cheryl shared earlier that it’s okay to be uncertain. It’s just part of how we are built as human beings. But also know that life is uncertain anyway, it’s great anyway, we cannot predict anything. So it’s also okay. Do what you need to do. Talk to people, and make plans.

Cheryl  41:02

Yeah, I really, I really love your sharing today Ling Ling because I feel that you have a very balanced worldview that is both very harmonious with, you know,  just the openness to the outcomes that come to you, but also not leaning to the extreme of like, you know, just letting go of everything, and just let’s see, whatever happened. You still have that pragmatism, and, the practicality of planning, you know, being very rational about things, which I feel is a very beautiful and harmonious way to view the world and its uncertainty. So I really enjoy this episode. And I hope like, by the end of our podcasts, our listeners, also, you know, along with us in this conversation, feel at least comfortable that they don’t have to know 100% of what they do in life, and have a little bit of the clear steps from the insights that you share on how to feel less unstuck or the stuckedness as you used,  and to be able to find that balance in certainty and uncertainty as well. So yeah, thank you very much for joining us in this episode.

Ling Ling  42:02

Thank you so much, both of you for inviting me onto your show. It’s been so much fun speaking to both of you.

Kai Xin  42:08

Thank you once again for tuning in. If you know of someone who could benefit from the perspective shot in this episode, do hit the share button. Let them know that it’s okay to not have everything figured out in life. Have a general plan, but also allow space to let the unexpected unfold. You can also join our telegram channel and share your perspectives about this topic. In the next episode, we will be learning about how to cultivate a mindset of abundance to get what we want in life. Till then, may you meet with the causes and conditions to fulfill all your meaningful aspirations. And may you stay happy and wise.

About Ling Ling

Ling is a seasoned learning and development professional, a former electronics engineer, and is transitioning into cultural psychology. Ling’s career spans a variety of areas including manufacturing, travel, humanitarianism, and education. Since 2005, she has facilitated and delivered programs in 21 countries across four continents. Eventually, she founded Culture Spark Global, a learning and development company focused on developing intercultural skills for an inclusive and equitable world.

Originally from Malaysia, Ling lived in Australia, Canada, the USA, Singapore, the UK, and Serbia and currently resides in Portugal.

Ling has an MSc in Psychology from the University of Hertfordshire, UK, and currently pursuing an MPsy in Intercultural Relations in Portugal. She is a member of the British Psychology Society, International Association of Cross-Cultural Psychology, and International Council of Psychologists.

Previously, she hosted a popular podcast called Leaders of Learning. Currently, she writes on her personal blog Miss Elle Tea about anything and everything that tickles her curiosity.

Daily, she learns Ashtanga yoga and practices Vipassana.

Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Special thanks to our sponsors for this podcast: 

Alvin Chan, Tan Jia Yee, Siau Yan Chen, Tan Key Seng, Ven You Guang.

Ep11 Surviving Toxic Workplaces (Ft Datuk Charlie)

Ep11 Surviving Toxic Workplaces (Ft Datuk Charlie)

Kai Xin  00:01

Hey friends, this is Kai Xin, and you’re listening to the Handful of Leaves podcast where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life.

In our highly competitive society, workplace politics and backstabbing can be rampant in some organizations. Some might do anything to climb to the top of the corporate ladder. Even if you may want to be part of the dog-eat-dog world, even if you purely just want to do your job well, inevitably there will be jealous colleagues who see you as a threat and start making things hard for you.

Is there a way to play this game well without losing our virtue and sanity? The answer is yes. In this episode, my co-host, Cheryl, speaks with Datuk Charlie to learn how. Datuk Charlie was the former director and group CEO of numerous listed companies in Malaysia with over 40 years of experience. He also played a pivotal role in founding several Buddhist organisations.

In this interview, Datuk Charlie shares instances in his career when colleagues gang up to bring him down, and how he turned a hostile colleague who sabotaged his work into one of his best friends today.

Datuk Charlie helped us see that we have the power to ease workplace toxicity, and how to find the balance between enduring the toxic workplace and escaping from it.

Cheryl 01:49

Thank you so much for joining us on our Handful Of Leaves episode. Today, we’re excited to talk about a topic that’s high on everybody’s mind. Stress and burnout are something that a lot of people at least in Singapore are facing, and I can’t wait to dig into your knowledge and experiences on the topic. But before that, I was just curious, what made you so inspired to share the Dhamma?

Datuk Charlie Chia 02:14

Well, I was actually more of a ritual Taoist knowing very little about Buddhism, I was introduced to the Buddhist Centre in Malacca. I was from Malacca. And there is this temple called Seck Kia Eenh Temple in Malacca, where the Baba and the Nyonya will meet most of the time for cultural activities. Then, of course, we have the chief Reverend, which is K. Sri Dhammananda, who used to travel to Malacca to deliver talks. And I was sort of very captivated by the logical and scientific explanations of the Buddhist teachings. And being a science student, myself, I was baffled, somehow the Buddhist teachings have covered all the aspects from A to Z, without any doubts over the authenticity and the workings of science. So I was keen, I started learning, reading, and attending whatever retreat and talks that I can attend, and it continued to make sense.

The teachings were practical, without dogma or superstitions, and yet, they contributed toward self-development. Because of that, I felt that it was good to help to spread the Dhamma because there was this slogan at that time that said “Know Dhamma, and make Dhamma known.” And so we became missioners from then onwards.

Cheryl 03:34

Lovely. So you have known Dhamma, even before you started your career, how many years have you been in the workforce?

Datuk Charlie Chia 03:42

Well, I have been in the workforce for almost 40 years. I am already 67 this year. And I’ve already retired for about three to four years, although currently, I’m still practising as a legal professional in my law firm.

Cheryl 03:56

Was there any specific teaching that helped you view your career or guide you in your career?

Datuk Charlie Chia 04:06

Well, I think the Buddha’s teachings have actually introduced quite a good set of values and ethics. Whenever we are in the corporate sector, we must be seen to be ethical, and we must be seen, be honest, and creditworthy, because at the end of the day, in business, we are talking about credit worthiness, that if people trust you, and people believe in you, then you can sell better your ideas can also be used and introduced.

So somehow or other because of our precepts, we tend to be more honest to ourselves and honest to others. Secondly, is that I think the Noble Eightfold Path has also provided us with self-discipline, to train ourselves in the right thinking and moving in the right direction.

Let me give a simple example. When we talk about right action- if you’re going to do some actions, it must benefit both yourself and others. Because there are some actions that benefit others but don’t benefit yourself, that is not right. Then any actions that benefit yourself and don’t benefit others also are not right. Of course, any action that doesn’t benefit yourself and others are one, you have to keep away from it. So, all the actions that we do, must be seen in such a way that will be a win-win situation, or both parties must benefit as a result. So when you have that kind of ethics and maxim, then each decision and each action is not just to benefit yourself, but also to benefit everybody else, especially your clients, your associates, and those people who work very closely with you. At the same time, it’s also applicable to boss and subordinates relationship.

In a working relationship in companies and corporates, the staff must believe in their leaders. And they must actually be inspired by the leaders and they will actually more of go to lengths in order to achieve the targets and objectives. So if you are a leader who can say basically, you all don’t work for me, but you work with me, and thus you become an inspiration, and that you are willing to go to the ground, in order to bear all the difficulties and problems and come up with solutions together. And at the end of the day, when there are results, you share the glamour of it, you share the rewards of it and acknowledge that it is everybody’s contributions, rather than you yourself take all the honour and praise. So once the staff or the subordinate sees that you are in that direction, they believe in you, and they follow you.

Throughout my corporate life, I have had staff who follow me from company to company, they always believed that they have far to go if they were to be with a leader of their choice.

Cheryl 06:54

Are you able to maybe share with us a specific example of how you managed to bring a win-win kind of scenario?

Datuk Charlie Chia 07:02

You see, I was in the property development industry for many, many years. Although I started as a quantity surveyor, eventually, I ventured into real estate and properties, and then finally, of course, I ended up in a legal profession. So when I wanted to sell a product, especially a house or an apartment, where we design the apartment, we don’t design according to our tastes, our rates. Sometimes, you know, it may be suitable for you, but may not be suitable for others.

So at the end of the day, you should actually design with them in your mind. And that this will benefit them, will give them more advantages in their movements. And this will then give them that luxury of life. Then when that happens, you introduce the product to them and get them inspired and enthusiastic and excited. Subsequently, once they actually bought the property, you don’t leave them hanging, you must continue to provide the services, customer service, and also after sales, which is also a very important factor. At the end of the day, you must be there to make sure that they enjoy the process from the beginning right up to the end.

A lot of us after we sell our products, at the end of the day is you are left to fend for yourself, which is actually not creditworthy. And if you have a good purchaser or good customer, they are your customer for life, and not only their customer for life, they are also your introducer for life. So you will get referrals and business over and over again. Isn’t that a better option? So always with that in mind that it is a win-win. In every action you do, you find that your business will grow.

Cheryl 08:43

I think this is a very great example of thinking about the long term rather than short-term conveniences. From your experiences, have you ever been in a toxic workplace before?

Datuk Charlie Chia 08:55

Many times I have, because usually when I joined a new company, I’ve been sort of like parachuted into a new company, and that’s the time when you face a lot of flak. The reason is that there were people from the rank and file ready to fill your position, but somehow the management or the board decides to actually pull someone from outside and then eventually parachute in. And thus then you start to run as a leader, instead of coming from the rank and file, then you will get sabotaged, you will get a lot of staff who might not be happy. At the end of the day, they will try all sorts of ways in order to get you out. But the most important thing is that you have to win your friends. I have always succeeded in doing that.

I remember when I was in the first property company when I started to join this first property company after construction company and I was placed at the general manager level. And there was this particular finance manager who was actually aiming for that post. So when I came in, he was very antagonistic. He sabotaged every proposal I make, he sort of put in a lot of cold water. And I had a tough time. And I decided that you know, the Buddha says that when you are in this type of position, you mustn’t overcome it with a lot of hatefulness and anger. The Dhammapada says hatred is not overcome by hatred, by love alone is hatred ceased. So I decided to put it to a test. I say, Okay, I’m going to be nice to him, I’m going to be pleasant to him, I’m going to love him.

At the same time every morning when I meet him along the corridors or at the doors, I will then greet him, “Good Morning.” Of course, no answer, initially, he will just refuse to acknowledge me, and he’ll walk past you as if you are a ghost. And I keep on trying because I believe in the Buddha’s teaching, I say it will work one day. Sure enough, after a number of months, then when I say good morning, I can hear a grunt. And the grunt was, “hmph.” I thought that was good that there was a response. Let me try further and better. And sure enough, I kept on going. “Good morning, how are you? I hope your day will be good.” And then eventually, one fine day, the response came back and he says, “Good morning.” Well, that was great, a sort of improvement and breakthrough, the Cold War is over.

And then subsequently, as the conversation now started properly, from good morning, and how are you, and he says, “Yeah, I’m fine.” And then eventually, one fine morning, I say, “Would you like to join me for breakfast?” and he says, okay, then he started to join me for breakfast. And then breakfast turned to lunch, and lunch turned into dinners when we work late. We either buy ourselves our packed dinners, or we go out for dinners. Wow, and that was actually the breakthrough that we have. And true enough, we became such good friends, that even until today, (I remember that was back in 1991), this person is now one of my best friends. He will call me, to check in on me. And eventually, I’m doing his legal work now. All his legal is being done by me. From a very toxic environment, it has actually flourished, and we work together very much.

There was another one more situation when I was again, sort of talent hunted, and then eventually was placed as Chie Operations Officer. Somehow I was supposed to work with this group of people who were actually on the way out because the new management didn’t like this group of people. When I came in, they were all out trying to also get me out. So a toxic situation again, and I then decided that I do the same thing. And eventually, you will find that these two guys, who were one of the senior COO and one of the senior CFO, and are now great friends, and we meet every once in a while for our dinners. So there can be a lot of situations when the Buddhist teachings, especially the Dhammapada if you read the Dhammapada very well, you’ll find that it has so many values and gems, that when you apply it, it solves a lot of our working problems.

Cheryl 13:23

It is very challenging the situations that you shared, and the people are just hostile, the people that just really dislike you from the start. And when you say you apply loving kindness, you try to be friendly and smile at the person, was there any point where you felt so tired and you wanted to just give up?

Datuk Charlie Chia 13:42

There is another maxim in the Buddha’s teachings: have patience, tolerance, and understanding. These are actually the three great virtues it hangs in my room, patience, tolerance, and understanding, and actually have helped to solve a lot of issues like this. Have patience, because when there is no patience, we tend to leave things halfway and we give up, we are not tolerant, of the difficulties that we faced. And then subsequently, of course, when you have the right understanding of the Buddha’s teaching, that by the power of all the metta that you have, somehow or rather it will happen your way.

I’ll give a simple example. They always say believe in the power of karma. There are many people who have done a lot of good deeds in their life, but they have not been bestowed with all the good results and good fortunes, then, some of them will just utter and to say, I’ve done so many good things in my life, yet I never enjoy any of these fruits. But the idea is that the conditions are not conducive. You see, karma is like a seed of potential. When you plant a seed, the soil must be good, the air must be good. The nutrients must be good, the shade must be good. The oxygen must be there. But if you don’t have all these nutrients and conditions which are conducive to the arising of the seed, it will never germinate, you will remain a seed hibernating all the while.

We may have done a lot of good deeds in our life, and sowed a lot of good seeds, but as long as our mind is not positive, our mind is not at peace, and our mind is not calm and happy. If we are desperate, and we keep on grumbling, and say, “You see, I’ve not been able to get results,” then, of course, results won’t come your way. Positiveness will attract positive events. So we always say do good, get good, do bad, you get bad. But at the same time, I think we must believe in the power of karma, because karma is actually a natural law, and all the workings of nature, especially when you contribute things, when you do a lot of good things, when you do a lot of efforts towards a direction, believe in the natural laws, that eventually nature will then take its form, and it will bestow upon us.

Cheryl 16:01

I really love what you share because when we are put into hostile situations it is something that we cannot control. But when you look into practising patience, practising kindness and understanding these are things within our power, and we are able to then control, and at least plant the seeds of goodness, and with right understanding, as you say, you know, when the conditions are ripe, the fruits are born on its own. At the same time, I also hear from a lot of my friends who are in toxic work environments, that it takes a toll on their mental health. So how do we balance you know, the patience, let’s say, always being kind, and always being nice to other people, but at the same time, it eats us from the inside. So how do we balance that?

Datuk Charlie Chia 16:43

Put it this way, the moment that matters the most is actually the present, or the now. What happened in the past you can’t control. And what is going to happen in the future is beyond your means at the moment. But what matters most is, what are you doing about it now? Because what you do now justify your past, and also prepares you for your future. Do something about it. If you believe that you want to enjoy good results, ask yourself, “What can I do now?” And of course, at this present moment, because you expect good results you expect, say for example, like a student, you want to score 10 distinctions, thinking aloud and say, I hope to score 10 distinctions and have a lot of worries about the future and says, Do you think I can get it or not? And whether I will be able to achieve it. You will never achieve it.

But what are you doing about it now is to actually put your effort and your energies into trying to work it out at this present moment which matters most. Because of what you contribute today, you will bear its fruits in the future. What you do today and contribute today, owes its origin to your previous contributions. That means you must have actually built it up from your past. And then you “Jia you” (go for it) in this present moment, and it will bear your results in the future. Living in the present moment is actually a very strong philosophy.

In fact, Eckhart Tolle who is actually a German, who thought about this and wrote in a book called The Power of Now, is actually very, very synchronised with our Buddhist teachings, in the sense that the Buddha says live in the present, do not worry about your past, and do not speculate about your future for it’s yet to come. What you do now will be the most important. So have you put in your best effort? Have you tried your best? Have you given all your energy to trying to make it work? If you have done something at this moment, don’t worry. Eventually, it will happen. The common maxim is: don’t worry, be happy. It is important to realise this, that living in the present moment, leaving here and now is where your happiness is. If you are happy today, your conditions are right. I believe you all have heard or met with venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, he actually believes very strongly in the present moment, his teachings are actually going around this main point where here and now is the wonderful moment. If you can live this wonderful moment, well, you will live your future well, too. And you will also appreciate your past.

Cheryl 19:23

How do we draw the line between saying, Okay, this is unacceptable, I should walk away and leave and find a better environment for myself? So is it an act of cowardice? Or is it an act of courage to walk away from a toxic environment?

Datuk Charlie Chia 19:41

Actually, it’s an act of wisdom. The reason is because by grasping by holding, it’s actually not going to give you a lot of relief. But if you’re able to let it go, like in Mandarin, we say, “fang kai放开” and “fang xia放下,” and if you’re able to slowly let it go, you maintain a good peace of mind. And when the mind is focused and peaceful, that is where you make the right decisions. We get agitated, we get angry and frustrated, and we get disturbed, it is because we cannot let go of an object which is disturbing us, and cannot move forward from there. So, it is good that we say, “Okay, let me just put down all these difficulties, and see how I can work within this capacity of the mine.”

Now, remember, all of us are not built to be Superman, we have our limited capacity. And because we don’t realise that limited capability, we always aim for the sky. Sometimes, you can ask someone to really study hard, but the best that one could put in is only five distinctions, or five A’s, and he cannot achieve the 10 A’s, does he get very unhappy over it? Water in the vase is half empty, or half full depending on how you perceive whether it is negative, or whether it’s positive. Why do you want to dwell on the negative when you can be on the positive?

A positive mind is always a good condition to actually develop and germinate all your good seeds which are sown in your past your efforts that you have contributed in the past, they actually bear fruit and surface and arise to take over and give you what you expect. Expectations always give us a lot of failures. Iif you expect high, you fall very high, or fall very deep. So it is important to manage our expectations by being able to renounce, to let go of the ability to manage that expectation, so then we won’t be so unhappy as a result. So if your mind is not unhappy, if your mind is not in desperation, you will always have a good mind, a positive mind, happy mind, and we believe you will lead yourself to better environments. And that’s what we have been training ourselves.

The act of renunciation, the act of actually giving, letting go is actually wisdom by itself. People look at it as a weakness. Sometimes when we retreat, they treat it as a weakness, but the retreat could be a strength for you to actually recuperate, to come forward stronger. So don’t look at all the negativities as weakness. It could be just a retreat for the surge forward later.

Cheryl 19:23

I love how you tie retreating into an act of wisdom. And I would add, an act of courage as well. And I think this ties in very nicely into our next theme, especially when you were mentioning about how we should be very wise in terms of how we manage our expectations. So in the context of where we are today in 2022, COVID is still not over although the world is slowly coming back to normalcy. There’s so much going on this the economic pressures from the war, the inflation and there are just so many things that can make a person feel very destabilised and very, very stressed. So, what are some action steps or methods that one can take to manage their expectations to attenuate their stressors in life?

Datuk Charlie Chia 25:03

Well, the path to enlightenment is to understand three characteristics of phenomena. And that is anicca, anatta and dukkha. These are three characteristics that governs all phenomena. Impermanence, change, and there is no permanent entity or permanent phenomena, which does not change at all. Never happened. And if you’re attached to something where you don’t want to change, but it change, then you are going to be unsatisfied and disappointed (Dukkha). And actually enlightenment is, when you begin to see all phenomena in these three characteristics, your mind is at peace, your mind is free from suffering. So, this is the art of managing changes. COVID, pandemic, wars and changes in the environment that we are living in. These are part and parcel of the impermanent sea of phenomena. Accept it. As long as you cannot accept change, that is where the tension is, that’s where the stress is. That’s just where you get disappointed all the time. But if you can accept change as part and parcel of nature, and you manage it, you manage it in the sense that you you are able to then adjust yourself. Understanding why it change and then move together with it and synchronise with it or living in harmony with it, you will be free from all the repercussions.

Now, pandemic or COVID-19 actually gives us a lot of lesson. We learn to respect nature. Because we have tampered with nature, we have disturbed the forces of nature. And the Buddha actually, for 45, long, many years of ministry has taught us about these laws of nature, our natural laws. And he says that, don’t go against the law of nature. The moment you tamper and disturb laws of nature, be prepared for the consequences, and the punishment of nature. I think in other religions also taught the same thing, go and live in harmony with the laws of God, and you’ll be free from the punishment of God.

When we understand the laws of nature, especially in the Buddhist teaching, is called the Five Niyamas, or the five cosmic laws. Therefore, when a pandemic happens, this is part of the natural laws, which adjusts itself when it is disturbed by our human intervention, our human habits, and destruction, then the forces of nature will then rearrange, and then try to take effect upon us. You get more tsunamis, tension, the pandemic, or the viruses going haywire. Respect nature now. From now onwards, try to live in harmony with it, don’t destroy nature, take care of nature, eat naturally, exercise naturally. Do you know that now, we are doing a lot of unnatural things. Even when we have to talk to each other, we also use a finger, and then in front of the other person, you are still texting, instead of talking and communicating. So there are many unnatural things that we do, we have to actually return back to nature. And that’s what the Buddha’s teaching is, we have to return to the balance state of nature, and that is called Nirvana, or nibbana. Right? So, understand nature by virtue of these lessons that we learned through the pandemic, through the wars that is happening. And then we say, okay, if we don’t want these things to happen, we ourselves have to take the lead in observing the laws of nature, and try to pacify ourselves in this direction. And that is where we, as one person, it comes two person, to person becomes many, many becomes millions, millions becomes the world. And if we can change the world by what we do inside, we change the whole world outside. Because you can never change the world from outside, you have to change the world from inside.

The path to enlightenment is not looking at outside is looking inside. And understanding the nature of our physical form, Mind and Matter, and understanding anicca, anatta and dukkha within, then you will make yourself understand the rest. And if you are happy yourself, you will see the whole world as a happy world. If you’re unhappy yourself, because you see everything is negative, everything is unhappy. So be happy, be positive, and be at peace.

Cheryl 28:12

Just now you mentioned the five Niyamas. Could you maybe share a little bit more for our listeners?

Datuk Charlie Chia 28:17

The five niyamas talks about the five natural orders. First order is the germinal order, which is called the Bija Niyama. And the germinal order says that if you plant a mango seed, you get a mango tree. You plant a durian seed, you get a durian tree, you cannot plant a mango seed and expect a durian to come out. Because this doesn’t follow the laws of nature. But of course, through human ingenuity, you can tamper with you, you can actually create a mango that smells different. But you are tampering. That’s why you have genetic modification, you have cloning and you have all the reproduction processes that you tamper with it. The moment you do that, be careful of the repercussions. And the consequences.

Utu Niyama talks about cycles and seasons. That you have the seasons that occurs round and round every time. You get the moon circulating around the Earth every 28 days. You get the earth going around the sun every 365 days. And you’ll get what we call the seasons that comes with winter, then you have spring, summer, and autumn and then goes back to winter and then it goes round and round. The whole universe runs in cycles.

Third is the law of action and reaction, which is karma. It’s a natural law, you give an action, a force of action there will be an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, if you sow good seeds, you will reap good fruit. You sow bad seeds you reap bad fruit. This is natural law.

The fourth one is the law of Citta Niyama, which is the law of the behaviour of the mind. Psychology students like you or graduates would know about how the mind works and in Buddhist teaching, we are basically learning how the mind works and how to control it, how to cultivate it, and how to improve on it.

Last, it’s Dhamma Niyama, is a miracle. When we talk about miracles, it happens when the conditions are conducive and right. These things will happen. It is a natural event. That’s why the Buddha never believe in the supernatural. Anything that miraculously happens, he says is a natural event because the conditions are now right. That’s why it happens. All these are what we call the Panca Niyamas, which is the five cosmic orders that governs the whole energy of the universe.

Cheryl 28:27

Thank you so much for sharing. And I think it links back to what we talked about at the start as well, where you know, when you’re putting in good seeds, making sure that you have the patience and understanding to wait for it to ripen as it should.

Datuk Charlie Chia 30:50

See, that’s why I have a very, very cool favourite topic. I call it karmic management.

Cheryl 30:54

Wow. Karmic management!

Datuk Charlie Chia 30:57

You actually can manage your karma, because your seeds of karma is waiting for the right conditions. So are you providing the right conditions? Are you keeping your mind happy, positive, calm, and peaceful, these are conditions for your good karma. But if you are desperate, angry, frustrated, or fearful, these are conditions for your back karmic seeds. And when they arise, it creates more desperation, it creates more anger, then the conditions become better for some more bad seeds to arise. You can manage because in the Buddha’s teaching, we say, destiny is in your hands, you can manage it.

Cheryl 31:34

I love that. We talk always about time management, now we need to talk about karmic management as well. All right, so I think you know, we will go on to just one last question here. For all the busy young people with so much going on, you know, limited time limited energy, and, more importantly, limited mental space as well. So, how can we practically prioritise our well-being? Is there any, you know actionable steps that our listeners can take here?

Datuk Charlie Chia 25:03

Well, the Buddha has certain occasions in the sutras mentioned that we should always prioritise by doing one step at a time. In other words, there may be many chores, they may be in any assignments, find out which one is more important. Focus your mind and do it. Don’t get all over the place. Focus the mind, concentrate, solve this event first. And then eventually, then you move to the next, and you’ll find that everything will come into place. The reason why we are not able to complete our assignments is when we start to panic, when we start to become confused, and when we start to be desperate. But when your mind is very alert, very calm, and peaceful, you tend to make right decisions.

Now, we always say that when you negotiate with the Japanese, the Japanese will always retreat to a room first, they will ask for a few moments, they will retreat a room, and they will sit there and they will then sort of go into mindfulness, they will calm down their mind. And when their mind is calm and peaceful, they will walking into the negotiation room, they will become good negotiators because they are able to actually see the steps one by one, and not muddled up and able to make the right decisions at the right moments. But if you go in, and when you are caught with some critical moments, then you panic, then your decisions are going to haywire. So a lot of times, we have to watch out for the capacity of our mind, take one step at a time, and be able to do your best.

When you have that opportunity, focus, do your best and if it can’t give you the capacity and the results, so be it. Manage your expectations. If your expectations is too high, you will tend to not be able to touch it. But aim for the expectations in their hierarchy or in their tiers. Take care of the bottom ones. It is like going to exam hall, tackling the easy question first. ln a list of questions, where some are tough, some are easy, go for the easy questions. And then when you have more time, and now you go to your difficult question. A lot of people went into the difficult questions, then they couldn’t solve it. They panic and they blacked out and even the easy questions also can’t be answered. So which is a better technique?

Kai Xin 34:42

And that’s a wrap for this episode. I really liked how practical This interview was, and that it’s not so much about going on either end of the spectrum, but it’s to know our capacity. When can we be a little bit more patient and practice loving kindness towards colleagues that might not be so kind towards us? And when should we just leave because it’s no longer beneficial to our mental well-being? I also really appreciate how Datuk Charlie mentioned about karma, that if we diligently plant the seeds and sow the right conditions, then it’s just a matter of time that the seats would germinate, that we will see the fruits of our good deeds. At the end of the day, we have the power to choose and I hope all of you listening will choose the path of kindness, the path of compassion when it comes to a really difficult situation at work. If you’ve benefited from this episode, do share it with a friend and leave us a five-star review because it really helps us with the algorithm to reach more people. Till the next episode, may you stay happy and wise!

“Giving the feeling of home to the homeless”: How this 25-year-old is giving during the pandemic

“Giving the feeling of home to the homeless”: How this 25-year-old is giving during the pandemic

If you were past the quarter-life mark of life, how would you measure yourself?

Would it be how much peers earn? Or how shiok their Instagram stories depict their lives to be?

Annabel probably ‘measures’ herself differently, or maybe not at all.

When you speak to Annabel, you won’t guess that this soft-spoken lady is running “The Heart Matters“, a Ground-Up Movement (GUM) to help the homeless and less privileged.

Setting it up in the middle of the pandemic & lockdown.

“Find a vocation, not a job”

“Find a vocation, not a job”, Annabel shared, when asked about her motivations.

Find a cause that resonates with you and do it well. Annabel mentioned that while having a job is great, finding a vocation beyond work can lift our hearts. Maybe that is a panacea to Singapore’s most unhappy workforce award.

At 25, Annabel has many ventures under her belt. She started a salad bar, partnered with social organisations (Rainbow Centre), became a Financial Planner, started a Yong Tau Foo coffee shop store, and kicked off different charity initiatives. 

Each of these ‘jobs’ taught her different lessons in her budding career. I learnt from her experiences that life is less linear and more fulfilling if we are open to changes that lie ahead of us. 

In addition, it is okay to call it a day when the journey is done, which she did for her different career endeavours. For example, she closed her salad bar social enterprise after 2 years.

Currently, Annabel is taking a gap period between her last career venture and the next career step.

How did she get started on this vocation journey especially when others are busy chionging (Singlish for rushing) for promotions and new jobs?

“You want the long or short story ah?” She casually asks.

I enthusiastically opted for the latter.

Bingo games 

Annabel started her social work journey at 10 years old. She was attending Dhamma classes at Buddhist Fellowship and started following a Buddhist Senior to The Singapore Cheshire Home (home for the seriously disabled).

From organising & playing Bingo games to helping the residents with their food, Annabel grew a strong connection to the home. Fifteen years have passed since and she still regularly volunteers there.

“Why?” I quizzed.

“施比受更有福 (To give is more joyous than to receive). As much as we think they are beneficiaries we are giving to…we are the beneficiaries of giving as well. We receive lessons & joy” she replied with a smile.

Annabel during one of the regular meal distributions at Singapore Cheshire Home

Circuit Break and Career Break

When Circuit Breaker (Singapore’s Lockdown) came, springing into action was second nature for Annabel. While at her previous job, she saw appeals for food from a nearby care centre. 

She was both actively fulfilling the requests and coping with her day job. It was a struggle to juggle both, she shared. 

With businesses shutdown and social organisations locking down, some elderly saw their livelihoods and social support evaporate – their situation was dire. The problem became compounded when she heard that other social organisations were struggling with logistics & manpower restrictions. 

People who couldn’t be reached and were unable to buy their food were in trouble – they were starving. Seeing the plight of her fellow residents spiralling downwards, she took a pivotal career decision.

She decided to quit her job.

Care packs given to underprivileged families during Circuit Breaker

This would enable her to provide greater support to charity organisations & rough sleepers. Her selfless nature gave her the strength to put her career on temporary hold. To place the needs of others at the forefront when times are hard was inspiring to me. 

We often cheer friends on with promotions and career achievements, especially those at Annabel’s age. Instead, Annabel is a contrarian in this and many aspects.

Circuit Breaker was a period of great uncertainty and fear for organisations and volunteers. Organisations were uncertain if they could still operate under the rules and also if their funding would tie them over this economic hardship. Volunteers were uncertain on how the virus would impact the beneficiaries (who tend to be vulnerable) and themselves. 

However, Annabel placed her fears aside and navigated the unknown by arranging logistics delivery for the rough sleepers and other social organisations.

“Things popped up and we adapted to it. Good, bad, who knows? If things went according to plan, would I be where I am today?” Annabel replied when asked about navigating uncertainty.

She didn’t need to have all the answers to start moving, she just moved when there was a call for help.

This was how The Heart Matters (THM) was born.

A hidden growing problem

THM became a daily hotline for appeals from both organisations (e.g. Children’s home) and underprivileged families. As THM’s founder, Annabel is always ‘on call’. If needed, she is on the frontlines 7 days a week.

On a typical week, Annabel works day and night. Annabel organises the delivery of supplies and gifts to Non-Profit organisations & families during the day. At night, she conducts ‘night walks’ to spot and engage with rough sleepers. 

Rough sleepers seem like a rare occurrence in Singapore due to a lack of awareness. In fact, it is a growing issue.

A 2019 NUS report found that rough sleepers in Singapore numbered ~1,050. Meanwhile, the government reported that calls for home shelter during the pandemic increased – these are startling numbers and the statistics may not cover all rough sleepers.

Annabel is determined to support rough sleepers despite the growing demand for shelter. Whenever possible, she tries to give them a semblance of home. 

With 1 in 4 rough sleepers eating one meal or less daily, Annabel’s work is a great boon to these individuals going through a hard time.

“你来了 (You are here) ”

“你来了 (you are here)” is the start of one of the many stories that keep her going through the pandemic.

A rough sleeping uncle, who has severe memory loss, does not remember much of their interactions but greets Annabel with a wide smile and a ’你来了‘ whenever she brings him food. He repeatedly expresses his gratitude towards individuals with good hearts. Such smiles can warm the most chilly of nights.

Another rough-sleeping uncle’s concern for resources was also evident when Annabel packed him extra food & chilli on some nights.

Annabel interacting with a rough sleeper on her night walkabouts

“No need for 好料 (good food), one veg and one egg can already” Annabel recalled his comments.

It’s remarkable how individuals with so little give so much thought to others. No wonder Annabel said that while we may give materially, we receive spiritually. 

“It is not how much you give”

As a former Buddhist youth leader, THM brings many Dhamma lessons to Annabel.

Intention matters

“When we give, we do not expect something in return. In the field of social work, some people put themselves out there for their name and fame. While some are doing it for others. Hard and heart work are needed to truly help others”, she shared.

“It is not how much you give, but your intention that matters.” Annabel recalls her colourful interactions with organisations and volunteers. 

She challenged her volunteers to think deeper if they are doing it for the clout or the beneficiary. It truly can make or break a ground-up movement. Once ego and optics come into play, a GUM can be pulled into many directions, away from the direction of the beneficiaries.

Changes are inevitable

Recognising impermanence in her day to day operations is another Dhamma lesson she has glimpsed as a founder. The Buddha’s universal truth of change that we all cannot run away from is a strong feature in Annabel’s work.

“There are days that we have plans to give food to 10 people, but wet weather can make the rough sleepers move away. It can be disheartening to not find them. But I recognise that conditions were not right and that not everything goes our way”, she reflected. 

A beneficiary receiving a care pack

Not finding them also means that the rough sleepers may go through another day without food – hard truths that Annabel has to accept in ever-shifting changes on the frontline.

However, being more accepting of change enables her to move past disappointment quickly and adjust to shifting conditions.

Saying No.

In addition, she emphasises that compassion has to be paired with wisdom in her line of work. At times, the beneficiary organisation would reach out with uncompromising requests from THM. 

When organisations are unwilling to negotiate for a smaller gift (due to THM’s limited resources), Annabel has to apply wisdom and say ‘no’.

Saying no is difficult but necessary in ensuring that THM resources remain available to many other beneficiaries. These are moments where she balances compassion and wisdom; both necessities in walking the path of Dhamma.

The next chapter?

What’s next for Annabel and THM? She shrugs and declines to give a concrete plan/path ahead.

Having already walked an unconventional path of embarking on many initiatives, I guess that she is wise to not answer with certainty. As the sea of life always changes, we merely adjust our sail to brave the journey.

She is actively looking at options in her career and reflecting on what to do next. What I do know is that she is very joyful and fulfilled in what she is currently doing.

So how does Annabel ‘measure’ herself against others? 

That is probably an irrelevant question for someone who sees little separation between herself and others.  Rather, Annabel sees herself in others. When it comes to the wisdom of the heart, we can see the interdependence we have on one another.

Inspired? Follow their Instagram!

#WW:💸Does letting go mean I can’t be rich?

#WW:💸Does letting go mean I can’t be rich?

Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.

Is it ‘unwholesome’ to be materially rich? Especially from all the ang bao we have just received? As this month wraps on Chinese New Year, we reflect on the nature of wealth and how we use/earn our money. We tap on the late Venerable Sheng Yen’s wisdom on Buddhism & Money.

1. What is our relationship with money like?

2. Don’t rely on motivation

What is our relationship with money like?

person using laptop computer holding card

What’s going on here

The late Venerable Sheng Yen, a famous Taiwanese monk, shares about money and how Buddhists should approach it. Earning money and greed cannot be treated as the same thing.

Why we like it

Venerable Sheng Yen shares his answers to different questions regarding money like ‘If I donate away ill-gotten gains, is it bad Kamma?’ ‘What if I lie as a salesman to get more sales? Is that right?’

We love it for how practical Venerable’s advice is in terms of needing money in this world but also using and obtaining it correctly. While the video is definitely dated in terms of format, we found it as a refreshing break away from the current era’s formatting.

“Greed and earning money should be treated as two separate thing. Greed means to consider one’s own benefits and gratification. “

Wise Steps

Evaluate how you feel about money. Does it always make you feel fearful or greedy that it is not enough or are you not thinking about it at all? Managing our relationship with money ensures that we don’t fall into extremes of overspending or underspending (miser mindset).

Watch it here (subtitles in English!) or below

Check out our film review of his biopic here

Don’t rely on motivation

person holding phone displaying stop complaining text screengrab

What’s going on here

Liz and Mollie, Instagram Artists, share a really impactful image on consistency & motivation. Motivation is lumpy in helping you reach the goal. It tends to follow the action. Conversely, consistency is the system you can rely on to reach your final outcome. Which will you choose?

Why we like it

We often think that we ‘need’ that motivation, however, motivation is transient. We want to lose weight today but end up eating Bak Kwa in the next moment. Consistency requires us to lean in on small but increment changes to get us to the final goal

” I rarely want to work out, so I’ll tell myself, “Just do it for 5 minutes and then you can quit.” Once I’ve gotten going, I feel good, and it’s easy to keep going.”

Wise Steps

Trying to get a new habit in? Make it atomic. Make it easy to do & do it consistently until you are ready for next step in shaping the habit.

Enjoy the post!

We also wrote about giving up on resolutions here!

P.S. We found making our habits more consistent after reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits.

#WW: 🥺My husband’s cheating led me to the Dhamma

#WW: 🥺My husband’s cheating led me to the Dhamma

Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.

2 stories for you today!

The week of love is coming up! We take a creative (maybe contrarian) spin this week on sharing a broken love can lead to the Dhamma and how to love our work.

1. How my husband’s affair led me to the Dhamma

2. How to love your work

How my husband’s affair led me to the Dhamma

broken blue ceramic plate

What’s going on here

Venerable Pema Chodron, a famous Tibetan Nun & author of “When Things Fall Apart“, shares how she became a Buddhist! How something really dark in her life transformed her into a Dhamma practitioner.

Why we like it

We can sometimes think of monastics as people who led comfortable lives and decided to renounce all worldly possessions. However, some come to the Dhamma and monastic life from a deeply traumatic experience. This shows the humanising part of Sangha and an eye-opener to how she dealt with the pain when she was enjoying the heights of her career and life.

“What i was feeling (anger & negativity) was a key to something rather than an obstacle to something.”

Wise Steps

When things fall apart, where do we turn to? Do we allow ourselves to feel the pain or numb it away?

Watch it here or below

How to love your work

white desk lamp beside green plant

What’s going on here

School of Life (SOL) makes a video on how we can have a better relationship with our work. The five mins video touches on aspirations and finding meaning in our work. Loving your work, SOL argues, doesn’t start with your work.

Why we like it

With 1 in 4 Singaporeans planning to resign within the next few months, this matter more than ever. This video is easy to digest and makes us think deeper about what we want. It challenges us to drop the expectations of comparison with others’ lives.

” Work cannot fix the deficit of love. We should enjoy work on its own terms”

Wise Steps

Are you in a slump? Maybe it is time to slow down and acknowledge where you feel unsatisfied about your work-life. Asking yourself much needed questions about work and career can spark new insights!

Enjoy the video here or below!

Want to dive deeper and get something tangible? Check out School of Life’s Gratitude cards or Confidence flashcards

Help us spread more goodness to the world