4 min read

Breakfast Notes #46 (George Yeo, Fragility, Brackets)

Breakfast Notes #46 (George Yeo, Fragility, Brackets)
Photo by Alvaro Reyes / Unsplash

Good morning friends.

Here is what I want to share this week.

  • Working Wednesday Reads 5. Every Wednesday, I take a 45-minute bus ride to the office. I share with you links worth your time. This week, it's different. Check out a book I want to recommend.
  • Millennials and FIRE. I wrote an op-ed piece that CNA published on the lessons (and perils) of a Financial.Independence.Retire Early.
  • Quote of the Week. Yudhistira in the Indian epic, Mahābhārata - 'Every day countless people die and yet those who remain, live as if they were immortals.'

Here is the 46th serving of the Breakfast Notes.

15 Lessons I Learnt From George Yeo

George Yeo, Woon Tai Ho and Myself

I first met the former Foreign minister, George Yeo, when I had just graduated with my Master's Degree at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. I had just tuned into his President Speaker Series at Yale-NUS College (my alma mater).

After a delicious serving of Hainanese Chicken Rice, I was roped into one of the most life-changing projects of my life. (It was also on this day that I lost my Airpods Pro, a loss that paled in comparison to what I gained that day)

Thankfully, I was absurdly blessed to have the opportunity to volunteer for George Yeo in the past year to help him put together his series of books entitled - Musings. I have had the good fortune to listen to his musings as a reaction to events that play out in real-time. A man known for his incisive intellect and kind heart, he contributed greatly to the development of Singapore. The legacy left behind by his 23 years of public service in Singapore will be something future generations will study.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have this kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not many people will get to listen to him up close and personal. The best thing to do would be to grab a copy of his first book, Musings (Series One) and extract the insights he has spent the last year laboriously putting together.

However, I can afford to do the next best thing for you: to give you a list of the most important lessons I have learnt from him. Hopefully, this blesses you.

You can check out the lessons I learned in this article.

Visualization Of The Day

John Martin was born in northern England in 1789 and became a painter during his teenage years. Martin's self-stated passion was to create "sublime" art.

Here are three of my favourite paintings that illustrate the scale, awe and attention to detail.

Seventh Plague of Egypt
Belshazzar's Feast
Great Day Of His Wrath

Fragility

I have been thinking about the concept of fragility in the past week.

Fragility describes something that easily breaks in the face of a stressor. In other words, in our day to day - it has an appearance of strength. But when chaos breaks out, it is completely damaged.

In his book, Antifragility, Nassim Taleb advocates for the pursuit of anti-fragility.

But where do we start?

We need first to get good at spotting the fragile. Here are a few that I have spotted,

  • Manufacturing. Taiwan accounts for over 60% of the production of semiconductor manufacturing. This means most of the world's digital infrastructure relies excessively on Taiwan. Imagine if a hot war broke out; what would happen to the price of computing?
  • Incompetent governments. During peacetime, they hide behind a booming economy when trade and capital flow freely. Governments fail, central bank defaults and riots break out. When a pandemic, recession and war hits - the house of cards falls.
  • Securities Market in 07. Securities are fungible and tradable financial instruments used to raise capital in the stock markets. The basis of sub-prime mortgage crisis was that people traded bonds tied to mortgage loans' performance. No one cares on a normal trading day because who would assume that people could not pay their mortgages? Then their assumptions are proven wrong, and the market crashes.

What has been common across all three is that they are all difficult to spot on a normal day (which makes fragility hard to detect in the first place.)

Bracket Your Comments

The late famous American journalist William Zinsser wrote in his book, On Writing Well, how he instructed his students,

"My reason for bracketing the students' superfluous words, instead of crossing them out, was to avoid violating their sacred prose. I wanted to leave the sentence intact for them to analyze. I was saying, "I may be wrong, but I think this can be deleted and the meaning won't be affected. But you decide. Read the sentence without the bracketed material and see if it works."

I like how he treated the work of his students as sacred. This is how we ought to treat the work of ourselves, peers, subordinates and superiors.

When we produce a piece of work, we ought to pour our soul into it. In the same way, we ought to see the work others do in the same light.

This will compel us to be generous with our encouragement, soften our critiques, and dignify our work.

We may not be teachers but can afford to thank our colleagues for their hard work, insert an occasional emoji (🙂) and elaborate on our questions.

Thank you for reading this, and truly, may the sun shine upon your face,

Keith