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Month: January 2013

How do I get over my bad habit of procrastinating?

How do I get over my bad habit of procrastinating?

Answer by Oliver Emberton:

I'll answer your question, but first I need to explain all of human civilisation in 2 minutes with the aid of a cartoon snake.

Humans like to think we're a clever lot. Yet those magnificent, mighty brains that allow us to split the atom and touch the moon are the same stupid brains that can't start an assignment until the day before it's due.

We evolved from primitive creatures, but we never quite shed ourselves of their legacy. You know the clever, rational part of your brain you think of as your human consciousness? Let's call him Albert. He lives in your brain alongside an impulsive baby reptile called Rex:

(Rex is your basal ganglia, but that's not very catchy so I'm sticking with Rex).

Rex evolved millions of years ago – unsurprisingly enough, in the brains of reptiles – and his instincts guide and motivate you to this day. Hunger. Fear. Love. Lust. Rex's thoughts are primitive and without language.

Here's the bit you're not going to like. Rex makes the final call on all your decisions. Every. Single. One.

We like to think of Albert as "our true self" – the conscious part of your brain. He's the talking, reasoning part. When we decide to go to the gym or write that term paper, Albert made that decision.

Rex does listen to Albert. Like a child, he will do a lot of what he's told, as long as he wants to. But if Rex prefers to crash on the sofa to watch Survivor and eat Cheetos, that's what you're going to do.

The incredible ascension of mankind that surrounds us is largely possible because we've developed systems to nurture our reptilian brains, to subdue, soothe and subvert them.

Much of this this system we call "civilisation". Widely available food and shelter take care of a lot. So does a system of law, and justice. Mandatory education. Entertainment. Monogamy. All of it calms Rex down for long enough for Albert to do something useful – like discover penicillin, or invent Cheetos.

Now let's look at your procrastination.

You're making a decision with your conscious mind and wondering why you're not carrying it out. The truth is the real decision maker – Rex – is not nearly so mature.

Imagine you had to constantly convince a young child to do what you wanted.  For simple actions, asserting your authority might be enough. "It's time for dinner". But if that child doesn't want to do something, it won't listen. You need to cajole it:

  • Forget logic. Once you've decided to do something, logic and rationale won't help you. Your inner reptile can be placated, scared and excited. But it doesn't speak with language and cannot be reasoned with.
  • Comfort matters. If you're hungry, tired or depressed your baby reptile will rebel. Fail to take care of yourself, and he'll wail and scream and refuse to do a damn thing you say. That's what he's for. Eat, sleep and make time for fun.
  • Nurture discipline. Build a routine of positive and negative reinforcement. If you want a child to eat their vegetables, don't give them dessert first. Reward yourself for successes, and set up assured punishments for your failure. Classic examples include committing to a public goal, or working in a team – social pressure can influence Rex. 
  • Incite emotion. Your reptile brain responds to emotion. That is its language. So get yourself pumped, or terrified. Motivational talks, movies and articles can work, for a while. I use dramatic music (one of my favourite playlists is called "Music to Conquer Worlds By"). Picture the bliss associated with getting something done, or the horrors of failing. Make your imagination vivid enough that it shakes you. We use similar tricks on children for a reason: "brush your teeth or they'll fall out".
  • Force a start. The most important thing you can do is start. Much of Rex's instincts are to avoid change, and once you begin something those instincts start to tip into your favour. With enough time, you can even convince Rex to love doing the things he hated. There's a reason we force kids to go to school or to try piano lessons.
  • Bias your environment. Rex is short sighted and not terribly bright. If he sees a Facebook icon, he'll want it. It's like showing a child the start of a cool TV program immediately before bedtime. Design your environment to be free from such distractions: sign out of instant messenger, turn off notifications, turn off email. Have separate places for work and fun, and ideally separate computers (or at least accounts).

Once you know what to look for, you'll start to recognise the patterns and control them.

There's an impulsive baby reptile in your brain, and unfortunately he has the steering wheel. If you can be a good parent to him he'll mostly do what you say, and serve you well. Just remember who's in charge.

For more posts like this, follow my board: Leading a better life

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Here Is How A Rumoured £1m Engagement Proposal Looks Like

Here Is How A Rumoured £1m Engagement Proposal Looks Like

Often we see wedding videos of how a couple comes together. Often we watch videos on how guys proposed to their girlfriends. They are mostly creative, engaged friends and relatives to aid them in their pursuit of love and happiness. 

Now here is a crazy video of one engagement. Backed by studded violin, harp, laser show, fireworks and parachutists presenting jewellery among others highlights, Low Taek Jho allegedly tried to win the heart of mandopop star, Elva Hsiao. The cost? An alleged £1m. The end result? It wasn’t pretty according to the description in the Facebook video:

However, the outrageous extravagance was reportedly not enough to move Hsiao’s heart.

Apple Daily says it understands that Hsiao (right), 33, rejected the proposal and only saw Low, 31, as a “little brother”.

If this is true, burned badly, he was. Burned. Moral of the story: money can buy you anything but love.

Complete description of the Facebook video after the break…

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I want to become an entrepreneur, where do I start?

I want to become an entrepreneur, where do I start?

Answer by Oliver Emberton:

Let’s make you an entrepreneur in 5 minutes. (I like a challenge).

You don’t need qualifications, money, a planet-sized-brain or even a particularly good idea. All an entrepreneur ever does is create something that consistently makes money.

Think of a company as amachine you design and build. Here’s McDonalds:

Your ‘machine’ always has certain parts. It sells something to someone, and re-invests some of that to help make more sales in future. What’s left over is profit for the owners. Here’s Google:

If you can design, build, own and care for such a machine, you can become very rich indeed. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but most of the barriers that you think will stop you won’t. Interested?

Let’s talk about you

Are you young, poor, unqualified – a student, or hating your job? Maybe a touch rebellious? Perfect. You have no bad habits, and will work until your fingernails fall out and your eyeballs roll onto the desk. The world awaits you.

Older, wiser, bit of money saved, experienced with a stable job? Maybe a mortgage and kids? Your job is much harder. It can be done, but it might feel like you’re trying to dance backwards through quicksand.

The most important qualities of a good entrepreneur are energy and determination. It doesn’t hurt to be persuasive, but this can be learned. I started as a shy uber-nerd aged 21; I soon learned how to sell when it was the only way to feed myself.

Enough preamble. Let’s make you a bajillion dollars:

The idea

Please forget all of the terrible deluded nonsense you’ve heard about the value of ideas. Ideas are cheap, fleeting things; by itself a business idea is worth less than a half-eaten sandwich. At least you can eat the sandwich.

You do need an idea of course. But understand that even the most successful companies were not founded on wild or brilliant ideas. Starbucks chose the brazen path of selling coffee in Seattle. Facebook built a better MySpace. Google built a better Yahoo search. Microsoft copied Apple – who copied Xerox.

Original ideas are overrated. What isn’t overrated is timing. Google chose the perfect time to build a better search engine – good luck trying to do that now *cough* Bing *cough*. What you want, therefore, is an astute awareness of a need that is currently underrepresented in the market. You want to spot a product or service that can go places – original or not. It’s usually easier to refine an existing idea that isn’t fully realised than to create a wholly original one.

People fear setting up a business wherever there’s competition, but competition can be a good thing. The best place to setup a new restaurant is right next to another successful restaurant; they’ve kindly done the hard work for you of building an audience. Many a good business has ridden to success on the coattails of another – it is usually better to have some rivals over none. You just need to become 10% better.

I personally recommend trying to deliver something that you and your friends would buy in a heartbeat. You’ll know more about your field, you’ll understand your customers, and you’ll be passionate about what you do. If you can make your company about a why – not a what – you’ll inspire yourself and those around you. And to survive the next step, you need a fair sprinkle of inspiration:

Starting

Starting a company is a bit like parenting; everyone assumes you know what you’re doing, but babies and companies don’t come with instruction manuals. You stumble through it, learning as you go.

It’s at the start where you’re most likely to fail. Your aim is to build that magical money-making machine, but you probably don’t have all the parts and the ones that you need may cost more than you have. Your idea is probably at least half wrong too, but you won’t know which half yet. All of this is normal.

A big part of starting a company is convincing people to believe in you before they probably should. When Steve Jobs founded Apple, he had no money and no customers; what he did next is the hallmark of a great entrepreneur. First he convinced a local computer store to order his non-existent Apple computers, with payment on delivery. He then convinced a parts supplier to sell him the components he needed to build them – using the order he just obtained as proof he would be able to pay them back. Jobs and a small team worked in their garage to build the first computers, delivered them on time and made a tidy profit. Apple was born from nothing.

Most new entrepreneurs play a few gambits early on like this. If it sounds scary, that’s because it is. I once had to pay staff salaries on my heavily burdened credit cards when an early order fell through. You fake it until you make it.

While doing all this you need to juggle between making the perfect company (idealist) and paying your bills (realist) – an absence of either will eventually kill you. I believe it’s one reason why realist / idealist partnerships are so common in business.

Do not scale prematurely. Don’t try to be a big company early on – just aim to be one. Be slow to spend and to hire at first. Don’t waste time writing mission statements and policy documents. You’re small, nimble and on a mission. Make and sell things. There’ll be time for a HR department later.

Don’t be surprised if you change your company entirely. It’s a rare business that survives first contact with its customers. Try to avoid doing this more than once though, it doesn’t pay well.

Survive long enough, reinvest your meagre successes and compound them. Eventually, you can move on to:

Extracting yourself

This is the step most small businesses never accomplish.

Up until now, your magical business machine almost certainly contains one irreplaceable part: you. If your background is accounts, you’re probably the head accountant. If you’re a programmer, you’re probably the best coder. Whatever you do, chances are you’ll feel essential and somewhat overworked.

Here’s the hard part: you need to make yourself redundant. If you dropped dead tomorrow, your business should carry on working just fine. All of your time needs to be spent working on your business, not for your business. The alternative is you’re basically self-employed with assistants.

Some businesses can’t escape this trap. If you’re a brilliant copywriter – say – you’ll struggle. It’s because what makes you a great company is you, and unless you can bottle up you into a business model, you can’t grow.

McDonalds built a business that works even if they hire almost entirely minimum wage workers. Their process makes it work: every burger is efficient and nearly indistinct, and nothing is left to chance. Their brand is so strong people line up worldwide to eat there. Your business may be radically different, but it should be similarly robust.

If you accomplish this, you now own something that is self-sustaining. You should be able to pull a good salary even if you never go into work. Your time is now free to tweak your business endlessly into something better. Now to conquer the world, all you need to do is:

Scale

The final step is a bit like playing Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. Each question you get right doubles your money, or you’re going home.

Do not make the naive mistake of assuming a big company is like a small one but bigger. Oh, nevermind. That’s like telling your kids to listen to you, really, drinking doesn’t make you cool. You’ll learn the hard way.

As a company grows the rules and your culture change completely. You may even find yourself disliking the company you created (many founders feel conflicted like this, eventually). If you’ve made it this far, you have many options: hire help, sell, or double-down and see where the ride takes you.

Remember no businesses can grow indefinitely. Most industries are more efficient at different sizes – it’s easy to be a two-man plumbing company, but near impossible to build a 1,000 man plumbing corporation. Know the limits of yours well in advance. Software is an example of an industry that scales exceedingly well, which is why it creates so many young billionaires.

And finally

It’s never been easier to start a company. You can create a killer product in your student dorm without even registering any paperwork – that was enough for Facebook.

I think entrepreneurship is a form of enlightened gambling. Skill and tenacity are big factors, but luck plays a big part. However, as long as you can keep picking yourself up when you get knocked down, try different things and keep learning, the odds are in your favour. You just have to dare to chance them.

For more posts like this, follow this board: Leading a better life

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Websites maintenance

Websites maintenance

Cherlynn’s website was hacked on Boxer’s Day. She messaged me while I was about to pack up and leave school for dinner with a friend, saying that she could not access her WordPress backend as usual. I went into overdrive and access to her cPanel directly. I did not have the site checked out until I saw this:

Screen Shot 2012-12-26 at 8.56.59 PM

The user_email had been changed. I had it replaced with an email under my control and reset the password through the WordPress system instead of changing the user_pass directly in phpMyAdmin. When I logged into the site, the first thing I noticed was this:

Screen Shot 2012-12-26 at 9.00.53 PM

 

I immediately took down the site and had the index.php file replaced with a maintenance message. I was hungry and so was my friend.

Moving on, I had no idea how they did it. The only sign was that it was hacked about 6 hours earlier. The only file I could detect a change was index.php in the active theme folder. There was no raw logs for me to see. It was my fault since I didn’t have it enabled when I helped her setup the site years ago. So I did what I could: I replaced the core files if there were any unwanted changes, and I had old, obsolete, unmaintained plugins removed or replaced, unless I had seen the codes and understand what the codes are doing.

This sparked me to doing maintenance on my site too.

Screen Shot 2013-01-02 at 3.11.20 PM

It was running terribly slow. I had too much bloat in the system. The only saving grace was that this site is hosted on local soil, fast enough, but slow nonetheless. I ended up removing competing plugins, cleaning up database, and implementing cache, CloudFlare. It also indirectly sparked me to hack the Facebook plugin.

Screen Shot 2013-01-02 at 2.54.17 PM

If I was lazy or missed a step, there would not be a featured image to display in the og:image tag. This hack would allow a user to specify an image to use. Still a work-in-progress since I have yet to test out the hack. After the test, a pull request will be made to the git and hopefully, my name would be on the contributors list. Heh.

And oh, I don’t like it how the plugin gets the full size of the featured image and list it in og:image. It should at least be gracefully degraded from thumbnail size if the thumbnail size is not at least 200x200px. Preferences, I guess.

As we usher in 2013…

As we usher in 2013…

Let me look back at 2012.

2012 had been a hectic year, as was with 2011. As usual, I overloaded myself with modules, assignments and side projects. As usual, my 2012 New Year resolutions were not kept. I did not lose weight. My grades were maintained than improved.

What was different between 2011 and 2012 are the friends I made and the friends I kept. They were and forever always are a great bunch of people to work and enjoy with. I gained a great group of friends or two.

Forged by our common times together struggling over the planning and steering of our CCA, SMU Assurance and Advisory Team and despite of our vast differences (I wondered how the earlier executive committee placed us together), we managed to our best abilities and deliver as much as possible. Additionally, grabbing the opportunity at Accenture’s Skill of Succeed competition with new-found friends was a good idea indeed. I picked up plenty and learned a lot from Accenture and my friends. We got 1st runner up eventually.

Through my non-curricular activities, I made more friends through Quora; I reconnected with friends from ping.sg and Youth Olympic Games days; I relived the joy of casual PC gaming through friends from Hackerspace SG.  I learned how to have fun, and be fun once more.

Through my academic studies, I made friends whom I don’t mind sharing my thoughts aloud and being silly in front of them. Without them, I guess opening up and accepting old wounds would not be possible. 2012 was also the year I had my first In-Camp Training. It was refreshing from the usual hustle and bustle I had for the past 2-3 years, and I now understand why the NSMen I interacted during my active days welcomed ICTs.

31st December 2012 also marks the end of my heightened state of committing oneself endlessly to projects, executive committees and other random stuff. I guessed I have kept myself busy all these while, ever since JC, when I became very distracted from studies. The sole goal of keeping myself from thinking too much is no longer there. Time does heal scars, no matter how deep they are. 5 years. 5 years is more than enough. I was probably made aware to this fact much earlier, just that I was in denial. Until now.

2013 should be the time for me to take a slower pace and really discover myself once more. I can afford this indulgence, since I had overloaded myself for too long, leaving too little modules for myself for the next two years. Enough of hustling, it is time to reap what I sowed and tie up loose ends. 

Welcome to 2013.

P.S. The Mayans were right. It was the end of the world for me, in a good way.  😉