Monthly Archives: October 2006

Is It Dead or Is It Dinner?

Welcome to the East.

Bye Bye Shanghai

My five nights in Shanghai was the longest I stayed in one city.

I’m glad I did. I met some tremendous people and had a lunch and/or dinner every day during my stay. I will summarize all that I learned from these A+ people in a later post.

Outside of meetings, I walked along the Bund, the #1 tourist spot. The Bund is a walking area along the main river which separates the Pudong part of the city from the Puxi part. Most tourism is in Puxi and that’s where my apartment was too. I did go to Pudong for one meeting in the Citigroup building but there’s not much to see there other than amazing skyscrappers, which are better seen from across the shore.

The Bund was good but not great. I don’t think it’s worth the hype. It’s certainly a beautiful skyline though.

I also wandered through Old Town and a couple gardens. People’s Square is a nice bamboo enclave from the traffic. I finally checked out the Shanghai Museum, highly recommended by my Lonely Planet guide. Good stuff. Lots of good Chinese landscape paintings, which I like, and some jade and bronze sculpture. The English audio guide is worth the investment.

Not once in Shanghai did i use public transit — taxi everywhere. It’s so cheap. To flag a cab costs about a $1.50 and it stays at that rate for the first several minutes. Plus, they’re omnipresent.

The food scene in Shanghai is solid and cosmopolitan. With locals I ate authentic Shanghai dumplings and noodles and tried as hard as I could to stay away from spicy stuff, which I don’t like. On my own I patronized Pizza Hut, which was fantastic, and the place across from my apartment at least three times. "Steak King" serves Western food and Chinese food. I often got both: some dim sum plus a steak, for example. And who knew kiwi juice could taste so good? One night I ate with Eisen’s family in their apartment, sans Eisen since he was traveling. The Mom is so nice and so Taiwanese. I love how every Chinese family has a massive rice cooker which seems bottomless.

Two of my days were punctuated by lengthy workouts at Fitness First in Plaza 66. It’s a huge facility and one time I got lucky and watched "Meet the Parents" while on the elliptical. So many great lines in that movie.

The one frustration with my apartment was the lack of breakfast. Each morning I trekked out and tried to find breakfast. (I also searched in grocery stores for cereal to stock the fridge but with no success). Until I found a hole in the wall buffet style Chinese breakfast, this caused daily morning stress. I also had to eat a LOT of food because I now know my malaria medicine only works on a really full stomach and lots of water (I take my pills in morning).

All in all, Shanghai is the business and financial center of China boasts tons of tourist infrastructure, and is relatively easy to navigate. This doesn’t mean it’s exempt from all the troubles which plague China (more on that later), but I can see why many expats choose to live and work in Shanghai. As i’ve said before, some cities are good to visit, some good to live, some both. Beijing has more slam dunk tourist attractions, Shanghai may be a better living destination.

Economics-Speak: Should Polygamy Be Legal?

You’ve gotta love the Becker-Posner Blog. Each week Gary Becker and Richard Posner, two of the most prominent and prolific public intellectuals in America, take on a random topic in life (literally, any topic) and present their analysis. Then they respond to the 50-100 comments left on each post.

This week they pondered whether polygamy should be legal. I couldn’t help chuckle at some of the following phrases, which is so full of economics-speak that it generated a new business idea: create a reality TV show where economists and lawyers come together and chit-chat in their own languages. Ratings would skyrocket once the college market devises a new drinking game: one drink for each Latin phrase said by the lawyers and one drink each time “price” is uttered by the economists.

Household goverance under polygamy is bound to be more hierarchical than in monogamous marriage, because the household is larger and the ties of affection weaker; as a result, “agency costs” are higher and so the principal (the husband, as head of the household) has to devise and implement means of supervision that would be unnecessary in a monogamous household. (An additional factor is that women in a polygamous household have a greater incentive to commit adultery since they have less frequent sex with, and affection for, their husband, so the husband has to watch them more carefully to prevent their straying.) This managerial responsibility deflects the husband from more socially productive activities….

Especially given the large disparities in wealth in the United States, legalizing polygamy would enable wealthy men to have multiple wives, even harems, which would reduce the supply of women to men of lower incomes and thus aggravate inequality. The resulting shortage of women would lead to queuing, and thus to a high age of marriage for men, which in turn would increase the demand for prostitution. Moreover, intense competition for women would lower the age of marriage for women, which would be likely to result in less investment by them in education (because household production is a substitute for market production) and therefore reduce women’s market output.

KFC and Pizza Hut as Premium Brands – And Glories of McDonald's

KFC and Pizza Hut are kicking McDonald’s ass in China.

They’re everywhere. And locals tell me the food is excellent and they’re positioned as premium brands.

I’m a big fan of Western fast food chains in China and other Eastern countries. The whole line about McDonald’s ruining local cuisine or culture is such horseshit.

McDonald’s and its ilk give the locals choice. If the locals didn’t like the food, they wouldn’t eat there and McDonald’s wouldn’t be there. So a Chinese person wants a break from noodles? Big deal — give him a burger! It doesn’t make the noodles any less real. So a Parisan doesn’t want to sit in a cafe for two hours for lunch? Big deal — give her something fast! (McDonald’s in Paris, btw, is one of their biggest success stories.)

People who sit at home in the States and say McDonald’s in all these countries takes something away from the local feel haven’t traveled. I never eat McDonald’s at home — I think it’s vile. But abroad I eat there all the time. It’s a nice break from the local fare. And I’m damn glad I have that choice.

Quotes from "Man's Search for Meaning"

I just read Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning and loved it. I strongly recommend this inspiring book of which there are more than 12 million copies in print worldwide.

For those who haven’t yet read it, it is Frankl’s account of surviving a Nazi concentration camp. His survival experience — which is gripping and shocking — provides the jumping off point for his life philosophy of “finding meaning”. He argues that the primary human drive is not pleasure but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. Here are two of my favorite excerpts from the book, emphases mine:

Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his wall to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostatis,” i.e. a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him. What man needs is not homeostasis but what I call “non-dynamics,” i.e. the existential dynamics in a polar field of tension where one pole is represented by a meaning that is to be fulfilled and the other pole by the man who has to fulfill it.

And then to the question, What is the meaning of my life?

The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment…As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. in a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible….

This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” It seems that there is nothing which would stimulate a man’s sense of responsiblness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended. Such a precept confronts him with life’s finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.

Overstaffed China

Everywhere in China there have been too many employees.

There’s probably two dozen security guards outside this apartment complex I’m staying in.

Each restaurant has way too many wait-staff.

At the Shanghai museum there were three security guards for each room.

There are as many taxi cabs as in New York City plus tons of bicycles and some cars. My understanding is the government flooded the market with taxi drivers to curb some unemployment, but they really overdid it since I haven’t had to wait more than 25 seconds of a taxi.

The overstaffing problem affects business culture too: instead of focusing on productivity or quality of each employee, you just hire more people since labor is so cheap. The Chinese solution to problems is often, “throw more bodies at it.” The American approach is, “Let’s re-engineer our business processes to optimize our business.” 🙂

Step 1: Respect It. Step 2: Demolish It (If Necessary)

Isn’t everything in life a balancing act?

One balancing act that’s come alive in my travels is that of respecting an idea versus advocating for its demolition.

All ideas should be respected. If someone puts forth an idea, it should be respected on the grounds that a thinking human being produced it. Even if I totally disagree with someone’s point of view, I try to preface my response with, "I think I understand your idea and I appreciate you articulating it to me and can see how it could be compelling."

I would argue that most negotiations (in life or business) leave the rational world (and enter an entrenched game of ego and emotion) when one side feels like the other side doesn’t appreciate or respect the other side’s POV.

3M has famously integrated this notion of respecting all ideas into their corporate culture. During group brainstorming meetings, any idea put on the table has to be followed by a supportive remark. If I say, "We should open a store in Canada" the next person to speak must in some way positively support this idea, so that no new creative burst dies on the first try. I think these next-person-to-speak supporters are called "idea angels".

Not all ideas deserve to live — an idea angel just breathes on flickering embers, it doesn’t guarantee a fire. I’ve said before that some ideas are better than others and bad ideas deserve to be demolished.

I’m in Asia right now…Some foreign governments and foreign cultures subscribe to ideas I disagree with. The best thing a citizen diplomat from another country can do is respect the idea and express an appreciation for its resonance in the foreign culture. Sometimes, that’s all you can/should do. Other times, and hopefully most of the time, you can advocate for your conception of a better idea. But this is step two.

I want to emphasize that you can and should engage in active debate when traveling. I don’t believe in the idea that "if your mouth is open your ears are closed." For me, when I’m exploring different cultures, I want to understand and respect how it operates, and then present the way my culture operates, and really dig in to explore the differences. I’ve found that foreigners like hearing and debating different approaches to government, markets, cuisine, and so forth, assuming it’s done in a respectful and not condescending manner.

It’s amazing how far R-E-S-P-E-C-T will get you! (Yes, that’s your cue to start singing the song…)

Switching Languages Mid Sentence

I observed something really interesting involving language the other day in Shanghai. My friend was speaking with his friend in Hong Kong and he spoke sometimes in Cantonese, sometimes Mandarin, sometimes English.

“Hello” and “Goodbye” were in English.

Blah blah blah blah

“Is everything ok?”

Blah blah blah

“Ok, keep me posted”

“Bye”

I asked my friend why “Is everything ok?” was said in English and not Chinese. At first he said he didn’t know, he just switches based on whatever phrase comes to mind when he’s talking to a multi-lingual person. Then, after a bit of thought, he said, “We don’t have a good phrase for ‘Is everything ok?’ in Chinese. In English, you can say it casually and not offend or sound intimidating. It’s a nice phrase. So I used it.”

What a luxury! I did that with Spanish, too, when I was using it more. When taking notes in class, if there was a Spanish equivalent that was shorter I’d use it instead of English (e.g. “entre” instead of “between” or “sin” instead of “without”).

Family Style Eating – Pros and Cons

In Chinese restaurants all food is served family-style (dishes in the middle that each person takes from).

In general, I am not a fan of family style set-ups because it turns the meal into a collective exercise of eating instead of individual responsibility of a plate. I prefer to know that one plate is mine and I can eat it. In a family style set-up, you’re constantly gauging how much you are eating versus others. You also have to serve little bits of food onto your own plate before eating. Finally, every time there is one last dumpling or one last piece of bread, it sits for there 10 minutes, no one wanting to take the last piece.

At dinner tonight I did reap a benefit of family style, as will be the case when you are dining with small eaters (if you’re hungry) or big eaters (if you’re not hungry). If you don’t worry about perception, you can dominate a family style set up by consuming much more food than you would have if you had just a single plate. A family style setup avoids one of my great agonies when eating with other people at a restaurant. I finish my plate. They nibble at their plate. Still half a plate of food. Waiter comes by. “Are you done?” “Yes”. Waiter takes plate. I think to myself: Would it have been rude to have asked if I could have finished plate of food? Would it have hurt the person to at least offer it to me? ‘Why yes, Joe, I’d love to finish off your burrito. Not only that, I’d love to wash it down with that full glass of water you haven’t touched.’

Given the high cost of failure of the meal, I’d rather not leave it to chance, no matter how compelling the small-eater-family-style set-up can be. Stick with individual plates. If you’re dining with me and choose the restaurant, please don’t pick a family style place, and please don’t choose a do-it-yourself speciality place, either (unless it’s Swiss fondue!).

Life Entrepreneurs In the Music Studio or On the Baseball Field

I talk about life entrepreneurship a lot on this blog. This is the idea that anyone can be an entrepreneur and think like an entrepreneur, even if you’re not starting new businesses or involved in high technology.

It’s enormously gratifying to meet readers of this blog who have nothing to do with business or technology, but embrace the spirit of entrepreneurship in their own line of work. It tells me me that the ideas I discuss here have diverse resonance. For instance, I got an email this week about a book recommendation from a 30-something baseball coach who’s a regular reader of this blog.

Today, I met a blog reader here in Shanghai, Eisen, who’s putting me up for the week in a spare apartment of his (yes, the generosity continues in ways that blow my mind). He’s been reading my blog for several months and reached out to me when he heard I was coming to the Far East.

Eisen is a Singaporean 40-something who’s dominating the Shanghai post-audio music production scene. He produces jingles. He plays live each week on a TV show (think the band that plays along with Jay Leno and David Letterman). His team of ten also records and edits local artists in their studios. He’s had amazing professional success in this niche. Very cool.

And I can’t remember the last time I blogged about music.

Baseball coaches, music producers, software entrepreneurs, college students, teachers, retired restaurant owners, journalists… What all of us life entrepreneurs have in common is a shared journey toward engaging this mystifying and too-brief life in ways that offer meaning and happiness.

The seriousness of this quest for knowledge and mission to change comes hand in hand with a sheepish acknowledgment of our own fallibility, a sense that the moment we take ourselves or our knowledge too seriously is the moment we’re ignored. Life entrepreneurs aren’t philosophers in an ivory tower; they’re out there doing, and laughing at their own failures. I laughed a lot with Eisen at dinner.

All this has nothing to do with me or my blog and everything to do with the power of average people with unusual passion. It’s super inspiring to know these people are spread across the world, across all industries (not just Silicon Valley) and backgrounds, reading and meeting and changing things. People like Eisen in Shanghai.

These people are true life entrepreneurs — incorporating the best of the entrepreneurial worldview into their work, kicking butt, and laughing heartily along the way. I’m honored some of them read my blog.