Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The "Digital Water Cooler"

I worked for multiple companies in the “corporate world” over three decades. We lived in eight cities, in three countries. North, south, east and western US, Japan and China. For work, I traveled to six continents and flew, literally, millions of miles.

When I first started traveling, to communicate you made calls from pay phones, wrote letters, sent faxes.

Back then, the world wasn’t viewed thinking about how it would look later via your IPhone camera on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or WeChat.

Colleagues were communicated with by walking to their office (or cubicle) or meeting them by chance (or plan) in break rooms. Talking was preferred. Texting wasn’t an option.

Between cities or even across oceans; jets, trains and cars traveled at the same speed they do today but life was much slower. I am a the product of a low tech era.

At work, corporate info and gossip often came through “water cooler” conversations or the “grapevine” – unstructured communication that could be random but seemed to have a common form in every place I worked or traveled around the world. Never good at being deskbound, my incessant need to move and curious nature made me a student and daily user of the grapevine.

The Water Cooler has Evolved
Whether it was having coffee with a colleague in Argentina, drinking after work with customers in Tokyo or sipping tea with the office team in Shanghai – I spent most of my career eyeball to eyeball with people. I enjoyed learning about their world, what they felt, wanted for their kids, their career or their company.

Time passed, things changed. Although my use of email started in the 80s, back then it was infrequent and always business related since it came on a mainframe terminal not a PC (younger readers you may need to “google” those arcane terms).

I was not an early adopter of technology but stayed fairly current – in China I had a Motorola Razr (think Jack Bauer in season 1 of "24") in the run-up to the IPhone but to me a phone was not my preferred way to communicate.

After moving back to the US six years ago, my only social media activity was posting pictures on Facebook. Shortly before I was booted out of the corporate world in 2012, I set up a Linked In account and then wondered why. 

Now I know.

Working for myself has been an almost totally positive experience; however early on I had a severe case of “grapevine withdrawal”. Don’t get me wrong my four legged office companions are great company and working out of a home office is the best commute imaginable but I really missed the frequent chats with colleagues and the camaraderie of an office setting. Initially, it seemed like I would just have to live with that void in my work life. Fortunately, a digital solution manifested itself.

One day in a bored moment I set up a new Linked In account because I had not used my first one in so long that I had forgotten the particulars. At first I found the site of limited value but once I starting writing posts about the lithium market, I seemed to get new connection requests every few hours. I discovered how valuable Skype video calls could be. I knew people all over the world – they became my electronic water cooler network. I could talk with people from Argentina to China face to face from my home office.

On a trip back to Shanghai – my buddy and driver, Philip introduced me to WeChat which seems to have the best functioning video chat of any app I have used.

My daughter told me multiple times I should have a Twitter account. I resisted but later decided to give it a try. I have never paid to advertise. I don’t even have a premium (paid) account on Linked In yet I have more business now than I can handle and almost every new person I deal with either says: “I follow you on Twitter” or “I read your posts on Linked In”.

I Finally Gave in and Started Tweeting
My small business is driven by what I know and by staying current in my industry. I continue to travel the world meeting with major lithium related companies face to face but since change happens so quickly; it is great to have a growing digital “water cooler” network. If a client asks me about a market rumor from China or Japan or a supplier’s production problem in South America, I can often debunk or corroborate information in minutes by accessing my network through one of various the digital platforms.

Last summer I challenged the position a Chilean regulator was taking on a matter important to the lithium industry via Twitter. Much to my surprise he responded within a few minutes. We went back and forth on Twitter. The next day I was changing planes in Zurich on my way to Shanghai, I turned on my phone and saw a Chilean Newspaper had printed our tweets and written an article about the issue. By the time I landed in Shanghai, the story had been picked up in Asia and I was getting emails about it. The next day the Chilean paper asked for an interview. I did the interview from the other side of the world. I never met the regulator or the interviewer except electronically.

The speed of physical travel across oceans may be much the same as when my career started; but news travels across global “grapevines” faster than ever – and in most cases the cost is only that of an internet connection. Even in my home office, I am never without access to a global network I could not have imagined just a few years ago.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Thing I Greatly Feared..............

I was born with what the Japanese call “Rondon Pari” which more clearly stated means “one eye points towards London and the other eye points towards Paris”. My parents did not want me to start kindergarten with the malady so one of my earliest memories is being spirited off to an eye doctor who proposed what at the time was a “cutting edge” surgical procedure – pun intended.

"Rondon - Pari" days circa 1962
I still recall trying to negotiate with the anesthesiologist. I didn’t like the idea of “going under” as it was termed. I was five and JFK had not yet faced down Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

After surgery, I spent a few days in the hospital. When they let me go home, I had to lie on the couch all day every day for a few weeks with eye patches on. It was summer and I could hear the sounds of my elder siblings playing outside. My reprieve from the eye patches lasted about five minutes twice a day when the blinders came off so I could do my “eye exercises”. 

The experience did not endear me to things of a medical nature.

When I was in kindergarten, my health conscious mother decided it would be a good idea for me and my siblings to be tested for allergies. In two tests of 50 toxins each, I proved to be allergic to, as the doctor would say with a smiling face, “just about everything”. This revelation ushered in six years of monthly trips to a clinic for an allergy shot. It seemed a very bad trade – a smiling middle aged lady stuck a needle in my arm and I got a piece of candy as a reward. My grandmother who lived around the corner was happy to dispense an Eskimo Pie, six-ounce Coke or a Heath Bar if I just showed up at her house.

My attitude towards going to the doctor morphed from bad to worse.

At age eleven I had my first positive health care experience. Mom signed me up for a summer camp that required a doctor sign off that I was in good health. She sent me, health form in hand, to a local doctor – an elderly German man that worked out of an office in his house. The house looked like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. I made the trek with mild trepidation on foot alone (this was small town America back in the day), his wife greeted me at the door and after a short wait I was ushered into his office. We looked each other over and he finally said. “how do you feel”? I smiled and sensing a potential victory responded, “I feel great”. After a moment of consideration, he asked for my form and signed it without laying a hand on me. This was a doctor I could live with. A few years later, the same doctor performed my high school football physical. It was slightly more rigorous.

Despite many minor sports injuries from high school on, I managed to stay away from serious medical interaction for years. I don't recommend my practice of having only the physicals required by employers or countries granting me a work visa but that was my philosophy for a few decades which saw me get only five physicals from 1977 to 2012. Of course the work visa physical I had in China where I saw about 20 doctors in 3 hours should probably count as more than one. The same person who never missed a six-month dental check-up or yearly eye exam could not face the dreaded annual physical.

I play golf with a group that includes many retirees who seem to go to the doctor about as often as I go to the airport. Rather than the standard on course banter about whether Tiger Woods is coming back or what’s going on in the NFL, NBA, etc; this crew talks about their new knees, hips, or latest procedure, etc. Since I am only a few years younger than many in this group about a year ago I decided maybe it was time to make my peace with the health care system and then procrastinated my way through 9 months of telling myself – "I am going to get that physical this month". Finally, I did what many in my position would do – I asked my wife to take care of it for me. By the end of the day my appointment was set for later the same month.

As the appointment date drew near, a couple of days after Thanksgiving, I tried to talk myself out of going but then just decided to suck it up. On the appointed day I sat in the waiting room with a certain “digital dread” – the digit being the doctor’s index finger not an app on my IPhone. It turned out the doctor was from my neighborhood and a very reasonable guy.  I wasn’t going to get “digitized” (aka “have a prostate exam”) unless my blood work showed a high PSA number – I was warming to brave new medical world already. The other elephant in the room was the tennis ball sized hernia I had been carrying around for a couple of years. Ultimately, I got a pass on prostate exam but not on the hernia. My new doc suggested I get the “tennis ball” dealt with before it became a “grapefruit”. Of course I knew this was coming but I also knew I was actually going to go through with it which was new ground for me.

Long story short – a couple of days after Christmas, I met with a surgeon who looked at my hernia and said “as hernias go that is a big one”. He also said he recommended that I have “regular” rather than laparoscopic surgery which meant a standard surgical incision, general anesthesia, and a longer rehab – none of which was particularly appealing. On the upside, he said the odds of long term success were much better with normal surgery.

So last week for the first time since JFK was President of the United States, I went to the hospital for surgery. The thing I greatly feared had truly come upon me. I signed multiple forms acknowledging the various things that could result in my departure from "the land of the living" in the ensuing few hours,  had my vitals taken – was proud of the fact that my pulse was below 55 (despite being fearful) as multiple IVs were stuck in my arm. I yucked it up with the five different people required to ask me my name, date of birth and what procedure was being done before they allowed the “knock out” juice to flow into my veins. 

putting on a happy face before surgery
I woke up three hours later with my intestine back where it is supposed to be and what is likely to be an impressive surgical scar. Of course what I had just gone through was relatively trivial by the standards of many of my older golfing buddies but it was a big deal to me because of the fear factor built up over decades. Fifty-five years and ten US Presidents later, it was probably time to outgrow my childhood medical baggage.  

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Thoughts on Milestones and the Passage of Time

I love the last few days of December. Christmas has never stressed me out which probably indicates who does the heavy “Advent lifting” in our house. The kids come home, caloric and workout concerns are suspended. Prohibitions against binge watching series on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime are ignored.

Spending time with my daughters is great especially since, at this stage in life, I learn more from them than they do from me. Maybe that was always the case but it is not the point of this installment.

It is enjoyable to talk to both of my kids about their future plans and how they plan to get there. I take pride that each one has identified what they want to focus on in life. It took me quite a bit longer.

I have always been an early riser; however, neither my progeny nor my better half fits that description. It is in the morning quiet hours spent with just the company of my faithful dogs (well, normally, at least one of them) that I reflect on the waning moments of the current year and consider the prospect of the upcoming trip around the sun.

In 2017, I will mark the passing of another milestone birthday and experience my 還暦 (kanreki) which means I will have made a complete revolution (5X the 12-year Zodiac) around the lunar calendar. Please don’t tell anyone. The concept of kanreki is that since you have completed the lunar calendar journey you return to the beginning… or childhood. In Japan, for many people, kanreki marks the end of a life of gainful employment and stepping aside to make room the younger generation. As much as I love Japan, I am “passing” on the retirement aspect of kanreki but I am hoping for the party (hint, hint).

It takes five circuits of the Zodiac to make the lunar "trip"

As the youngest child in a big family it takes some getting used to being the “old guy” now in many settings. Seems like it was just yesterday that I had a dual role as freshman class president and the 125 lb. starting varsity QB playing behind a line of seniors that averaged about double my weight.

Although my hair color may tell a different story, I feel like I am just getting the hang of trying and learning new things. This year I focused on learning the benefits of Wim Hof breathing and ice baths ( I also tried to diversify my workout portfolio doing some things my 30-year-old self would never have considered. My marathoning days are long past not because I couldn’t make it 26.2 miles but after going the distance more than 25 times – there are more interesting ways to spend my exercise time. Running a few miles seems like enough these days.

I was fortunate that my very brief forced early retirement at 55 turned out to be more of a work style transition than anything else. My 350,000 frequent flyer miles this year put me on the doorstep of 5 million lifetime miles so when I say “my life is flying by” there is a literal and figurative aspect to the statement.

I am not a fan of the word retirement. Four years ago when I found myself suddenly forced into a “brief” period of not working; I knew we could survive economically with a modest pension and a nest egg built based on a lifetime of living below our income. My larger concern was - not finding something interesting to do with my time and being relegated to the purgatory of boredom at a relatively young age.

I need not have worried. It is amazing what good friends, business contacts, reading the right things, reflecting on your situation, journaling and listening to the stories of people smarter than you are via quality podcasts can do for your brain. Take those factors and add a dash of Legal Zoom – suddenly you have a global business. My tiny company has clients on five continents but doesn’t even have a website. Linked-In, Twitter, We-Chat and Skype are the global communication tools.

Last week I signed the legal documents to start my LLC’s pension plan and 401K. Four years ago I was worried about ennui and planning to live life primarily off my savings. The reality is that with a (lot of) help from my friends I am now turning down more opportunities than I accept.

The best part of being free from the shackles of working for a big company is that I can spend the majority of my time focusing on creating value for clients rather than “managing up” which is what I was often told was the key to success at my former employer. Since I have been working for myself, I have been blessed to work with dozens of interesting people around the world who I learn from on a daily basis. Yes, I have many friends that have rich, full lives working in the corporate world but once I was out; I knew I would not return. Although I realized many years ago that I would rather be working for myself, I didn’t have the courage to jump off the big company band wagon. Fortunately, the big company decided to “double nickel” me (a term I just learned last week flying home from Chile).

Twenty years ago the technology did not exist for me to reach a global market on a daily basis from a converted bedroom in my home. Even as I began the new business I wasn’t smart enough to use more than email and the phone initially to make contacts. My “twentysomething” daughters had to guide me into the world of social media. A year after I started my business, it was my wife who pointed out a glaring “miss” in my business. After listening to her and making one change - something that takes less than 20 days a year of my time earned me more in 2016 than my previous corporate salary. It isn't just books and podcasts I continue to learn from.

I am extremely fortunate the business I spent my career learning is now in a boom period but even when boom ultimately busts I am confident that as long as I keep learning and looking ahead, good things will happen.

I play golf regularly with a group of retired corporate types. I am frequently asked when I will “finally” retire. “Hopefully never” is my standard reply. If what you do everyday is fun, why should you quit?

Yes, my kanreki, is less than 3 months away but it seems more of a beginning than an end.