Book: Ego is The Enemy

It’s an amazing book. I read it this weekend and couldn’t put it down. The concept that Ryan Holiday discussed isn’t new. If you read enough self-help, chances are that you must have come across what he has to say before. Nonetheless, his writing is so good, clear and easy to digest. I took a lot of notes and below are just a few of them.

I learned about the detrimental influence of ego before. But over time, I drifted back to its claw and let it consume myself again.

I resisted silence. I succumbed to having to speak something all the time.

I based my happiness and self-esteem on the recognition, not the work itself.

I found myself lazy and complacent

I found myself in the “imaginary audience” like Ryan described.

This book is a timely and needed wake-up call. I am under no illusion that I’ll keep my ego in check from now on. I’ll need to revisit this book again in the future for sure. “Every day we must sweep”.

The performance artist Marina Abramovic puts it directly: “If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity”

When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes – but rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. Ego is self-anointed, its swagger is artifice. One is girding yourself, the other gaslighting. It’s the difference between potent and poisonous.

In fact, many valuable endeavors we undertake are painfully difficult, whether it’s coding a new startup or mastering a craft. But talking, talking is always easy.

We seem to think that silence is a sign of weakness. That being ignored is tantamount to death (and for the ego, this is true). So we talk, talk, talk as though our life depends on it. In actuality, silence is strength

If your purpose is something larger than you – to accomplish something, to prove something to yourself – then suddenly everything becomes both easier and more difficult. Easier in the sense that you know now what it is you need to do and what is important to you. The other “choices” wash away, as they aren’t really choices at all. They’re distractions. It’s about the doing, not the recognition.

Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function. The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not passion. Not naïveté.

It’d be far better if you were intimidated by what lies ahead – humbled by its magnitude and determined to see it through regardless. Leave passion for the amateurs.

We don’t like thinking that someone is better than us. Or that we have a lot left to learn. We want to be done. We want to be ready. We’re busy and overburdened. For this reason, updating your appraisal of your talents in a downward direction is one of the most difficult things to do in life – but it is almost always a component of mastery.

As the psychology David Elkind has famously researched, adolescence is marked by a phenomenon known now as the “imaginary audience”. Even as adults, we’re susceptible to this fantasy during a harmless walk down the street. We plug in some headphones and all of a sudden there’s a soundtrack. We flip up our jacket collar and consider briefly how cool we must look. We replay the successful meeting we’re heading toward in our head. The crowds part as we pass. We’re fearless warriors, on our way to the top. That’s ego.

Living clearly and presently takes courage. Don’t live in the haze of the abstract. There’s no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned, in all that is around us.

You will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail.

How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success.

In the end, the only way you can appreciate your progress is to stand on the edge of the hold you dug for yourself, look down inside it, and smile fondly at the bloody claw prints that marked your journey up the walls

He who will do anything to avoid failure will almost certainly do something worth of a failure. The only real failure is abandoning your principles. Killing what you love because you can’t bear to part from it is selfish and stupid. If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place

He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep

Book: Retail Disruptors: The Spectacular Rise and Impact of the Hard Discounters

For the past two months, I lost interest in picking up a book for some reason. Nonetheless, the streak ended today as I finished this book.

The book offers a detailed and insightful view on hard discounters which usually act as disruptors in a local retail market. The book defines hard discounters as follows:

Hard-discount retailers offer basic goods and daily necessities at the lowest possible prices, while maintaining high-quality standards. A hard-discounter store differs from discount supermarkets or hypermarkets like Asda, Kaufland, or Walmart. Hard-discount stores are typically about 8,000-15,000 square feet, less than one-tenth the size of a Walmart Supercenter, with probably lower staffing levels.

To reduce costs, hard discounters often display items on shipping pallets and in the boxes in which they arrive. The store is minimally decorated and offers a limited assortment of consumer packaged goods and perishables – typically less than 2,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs). In contrast, the average US supermarket carried 40,000 to 50,000 SKUs in 2017, while a Walmart Supercenter sells over 100,000 grocery and non-grocery items.

Here is what I learned from it

Beware of potential threats in the market. The book told stories of retailers around the world that paid the price for under-estimating hard discounters. They dismissed the arrival of hard discounters at first and when they realized the threat was real, it was already too late to stop the hard discounters.

Benefits of offering a limited assortment of SKUs. I am usually overwhelmed by a plethora of choices at restaurants or supermarkets. As the book says, to shoppers who are under time pressure or who intend to buy rather than browse, a better shopping experience is to be offered streamlined options or a limited range of choices. Plus, retailers who sell a limited assortment, especially private labels, can negotiate a better economic deal with suppliers due to economies of scale. A better deal will help the margin of hard discounters. Additionally, a limited assortment of goods means smaller stores – lower rent, saved costs on logistics and staff.

Go-to-market strategy. Hard discounters tend to enter a new country through a specific market first. Get the foot in, the logistics and operations in and then expand. Also, each go-to-market strategy varies from one country to another due to a host of factors such as household income per capita, economic growth, shopping preferences. Blindly adapting a blanket strategy to different markets may lead to failures.

The book offers a comprehensive view on different aspects of hard discounters and retail in general. It confirmed my belief that a competing strategy can be made up of so many factors that are intertwined together, including to not limited to:

  • The size of assortments
  • Whether a retailer carries more private labels or national labels
  • How man perishable items a retailer carries
  • Whether it has a good brand name
  • Whether it has economies of scale
  • Whether the shopping preferences of local shoppers are a good fit
  • How much a retailer spends on marketing, promotions and discounts; and for how long it can sustain the effort.
  • A retailer’s culture

After penetrating a market, whether a retailer can survive the competition depends on the retailer’s ability to carve out a niche in the market where it can be competitive, using a combination of the above factors or more.

A few notable stats

  • Private labels account for somewhere between 70-90% of hard discounters’ assortment
  • In 2017, middle-class shoppers in the UK account for 60% of shoppers at Aldi and Lidl
  • In Germany, hard discounters accounted for three out of every ten euros spent on grocery purchases or 60 billion euros in 2017
  • Aldi entered Australia in 2001, and by 2017, had cost conventional retailers like Woolworths and Coles AU $16 billion in lost annual revenues
  • Trader Joe’s offers around 3,500 different items, Lidl between 1,500 and 2,000 while Aldi carries between 1,200 and 1,400 products
  • In Germany, Lidle was the largest advertiser among grocery retailers in 2017 (almost 280 million euros) and the sixth-largest advertiser in the country ahead of McDonald’s, Daimler, Unilever and Samsung
  • Trader Joe’s sales per square foot is $1,633, twice that of Aldi and Lidl, four times that of a Walmart supercenter and 8 times that of Dollar General
  • In Australia, 26% of Aldi shoppers were from high-income families in 2006. The figure shot up to 50% in 2014
  • For the average US grocery retailer, a loss of 1% in sales leads to a loss of 17% in operating profit

Book: Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening

This book is an honest account of the life of the author, a Saudi activist – Manal Al-Sharif. The first chapters of the book tell the story of how she was thrown in jail for driving in Saudi Arabia. The following sections detail her life from childhood up to the time of her imprisonment. The last legs of the books are about her release from detention and life as an activist. I was a little bit impatient to read about her growing up as I wanted to know how she would fare after her incarceration. Nonetheless, it was mind-blowing to read about the horrifying treatments of women in Saudi Arabia through Manal’s struggle through education, marriage, career and life. Kudos to the author for being honest about her time as an extremist and how she transitioned from that period of her time to being a leading voice for gender equality and other causes in the country.

Some interesting details and quotes from the book:

The system says that no one can be arrested for a minor crime between the hours of sunset and sunrise

In Saudi society, a woman needs her official guardian (usually her father or husband) or a mahram – a close male family relative whom she cannot marry, such as a father, brother, uncle or even a son – to accompany her on any official business.

Even a woman in labor will not be admitted into a hospital without her guardian or at least a mahram. Police cannot enter a home during a robbery, and firefighters are forbidden from entering a home during a fire or medical emergency if a woman is inside but does not have a mahram present.

In my world, physical activity – running, jumping, climbing – was forbidden to girls because we might lose our virginity. The only games we were permitted to play involved nothing more than singing songs and holding hands.

At that time, there were no personal computers for typing my story, no home printers to print it. Since all the riyals I’d saved from my pocket money during the year went to buy books, I didn’t have the money for a new notebook, so I started tearing out the empty pages from the notebooks I had used at school the previous year. I carefully cut out the subject and date line at the top of each page. I drafted each chapter in pencil until I was satisfied and then carefully wrote over the words in blue pen. And because I loved drawing, I began to create cartoons of the people and events in my story. My greatest moment of pride was when I set down my pen after writing “The End”.

While the traditional niqab left a slit for the eyes, we were now supposed to lower our head scarves to block out this opening entirely. It was hard to get used to it on my journey to and from school. The full face covering made me almost blind, and I stumbled every day on the steps of our building. One time when I fell, our neighbors’ sons watched and laughed.

As teenagers, we also heard extensive preaching on the requirement to obey one’s husband. This, we were informed, would serve as one way that a woman could guarantee her entry to paradise. Preachers stressed the necessity of women gaining their husbands’ permission for everything, whether visiting family, cutting their hair or even performing voluntary religious fasting. They emphasized the need for women’s complete subordination to their husband in all facets of life. As one Saudi sheikh said during a lecture, “If your husband has an injury filled with pus, and you lick this pus from his wound, this is still less than what he can rightfully expect”

A young man could talk on the phone with a girl for months without even knowing what she looked like.

I couldn’t believe this was happening in Saudi Arabia. If a girl in Mecca was found to be conducting a romantic relationship – even if it consisted only of phone calls and messages – she would face severe beatings from the men in her family, not to mention very likely risk a lifelong confinement inside her home

And he said the words “You are divorced”. Under Islamic law, uttering those words is all that is required for a man to divorce his wife

In 2007, when I got divorced, the policy was for children to reside largely with the mother until they turned seven. At age seven, a girl would then be taken to her father’s house to live. A boy, however, would be asked if he wished to remain with his mother; the choice was his. Once he became a teenager, that boy would often become his mother’s male guardian. He would have the final say over whether she could work or go out, or must stay in. If a woman remarries, she immediately loses all custody of her children….A man, however, can remarry at will or even take a second wife, with no impact on his claim to his children.

The rain begins with a single drop

Public library’s browser extension and e-book borrowing

Reading is awesome, but it can be fairly expensive if you buy every book you want to read. This post is about one trick I found to borrow e-books from the public library in Omaha, Nebraska, saving me a lot of money, while maintaining this rewarding habit. I suspect that the same should be similar to public libraries across the US.

I am a big fan of the public library in Omaha. There are tons of books to borrow for free. The normal process is that you go to the library’s website, log in, type in the book of your choice, place a hold, if the book is available of course, and pick it up later at your chosen branch.

I can’t recall the exact moment, but some time last year, I added their browser extension to Chrome. The extension allows me to see the availability of books right on the website where I am visiting without navigating to the library’s website itself. It’s convenient and in some cases, saved me a few bucks from buying books that otherwise are free to borrow at the library.

How the extension looks on Amazon

On the right hand side of the screenshot is how the extension looks. Immediately, I know that there are 3 available hard-copies of the book at the library and no e-book or audiobook up for grabs at the moment. One click and it takes me to the library’s website.

It’s even more convenient if you can borrow the e-books, especially when the weather outside is nasty. The process is pretty simple. Simply go to the library’s website, look for the book and place a hold on the e-book. A couple of options will appear as follows:

The “read in browser” option is quite self-explanatory. If you pick the “pick a format to download” option, there are usually Kindle or Adobe Epub format. As I own a Kindle, I go with the former. Once the option is picked, the window will appear like this:

Click on “Download Kindle” and you will be redirected to Amazon website:

Click on “Get Library Book”, open your Kindle, turn on Wifi-connection and you’ll get access to the book. To return the borrowed books, it has to be done in Amazon, according to Amazon website:

If you can support authors and pay for every book, by all means. If you read a lot and want to save money, public libraries can be a tremendous help. Don’t feel bad about free reading. Part of our taxes goes to the management and maintenance of public libraries. If you are not able to increase your income to build your net worth, it’s easier to lower expenses. This is one of the tricks I knew to limit the damages to my bank account while still enriching my knowledge and soul.

Book: The Kite Runner

This is my second book by Khaled Hosseini after the wonderful A Thousand Splendid Suns and it didn’t disappoint. The Kite Runner is an account of the life of Amir, the son of a merchant in Kabul Afghanistan. The book covers his life from Afghanistan to America and back to his hometown after a few decades to deal with his unresolved matters from the past. Saying more than that will be equal to the act of spoiling and disservice to the book and future readers, so I stop here. But the book is another gut-wrenching and moving work by Khaled Hosseini.

Tired of business and self-help books, I had decided to pick up novels to stir things up. Well, after the two emotionally charging novels by Hosseini, I think I am ready to go back to the mundane books for now.

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.” 

“There is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. When you kill a man, you steal a life… you steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness… there is no act more wretched than stealing.” 

“And that’s the thing about people who mean everything they say. They think everyone else does too.” 

“For you, a thousand times over”

Book: A thousand splendid suns

The book is a captivating and breathtaking story with the violent events in Afghanistan from the 1970s to 2000s in the background. The two main stories surround two female characters: Mariam and Laila. The author walks us through the injustice that the two protagonists had to suffer. The first 25% of the book was about Mariam, followed by the section on Laila and later their life together, which accounts for half of the book.

As a Vietnamese, I almost have to apply for a visa to every country that I want to travel to. It means a great deal of paperwork, time and money involved. Sometimes, it frustrates the hell out of me as I look with envy to many of my friends from the US, Canada and EU whose nationalities allow them to travel almost everywhere the very next day with little trouble. However, I felt tremendously grateful for the life I have whenever I read books on North Korea or books like this one. They really make me look at things from a perspective. Somewhere around the world, the life I am leading is a luxury to many and something I should cherish.

It’s horrifying and unthinkable to know that women in some countries in the world are treated so badly, in the way that the two characters were in the book. For all the scientific advancements we have had, we still have much on this front to solve. I hope that one day, women everywhere will be liberated and given as much freedom as men are and have always been.

If you are looking for a great page-turner, I highly recommend this. Below are a few beautiful passages I appreciate a great deal

“And the past held only this wisdom: that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice, hope, a treacherous illusion. And whenever those twin poisonous flowers began to sprout in the parched land of that field, Mariam uprooted them. She uprooted them and ditched them before they took hold.”

“Miriam wished for so much in those final moments. Yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world, the harami child of a lowly villager, an unintended thing, a pitiable, regrettable accident. A weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving it as a friend, a companion, a guardian. A mother. A person of consequence at last. No. It was not so bad, Miriam thought, that she should die this way. Not so bad. This was a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate belongings.

“She would never leave her mark on Mammy’s heart the way her brothers had, because Mammy’s heart was like a pallid beach where Laila’s footprints would forever wash away beneath the waves of sorrow that swelled and crashed, swelled and crashed. ”

“Marriage can wait. Education cannot…Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.” 

She sat on the chair instead, hands limp in her lap, eyes staring at nothing, and let her mind fly on. She let it fly on until it found the place, the good and safe place, where the barley fields were green, where the water ran clear and the cottonwood seeds danced by the thousands in the air; where Babi was reading a book beneath an acacia and Tariq was napping with his hands laced across his chest, and where she could dip her feet in the stream and dream good dreams beneath the watchful gaze of gods of ancient, sun-bleached rock.”

Book: The Alice Network

Looking for a good book to read, I came across a list prepared on the gothamgal website. A fan of stories with the two World Wars as a theme since you can be entertained and learn some historical lessons at the same time, I picked out this book and it didn’t disappoint

The book is a two parter. It starts with a quest by an American teenager named Charlotte St Claire, to find her lost cousin in France after World War II while being pregnant. Her limited leads, fate and audacity to defy her mother in order to find out the truth led her to meet Eve Gartner, a retired British spy with a score to settle from her eventful past. As the journey to help Charlotte locate her lost cousin progressed, it turned from a search mission to a vengeance one.

If you are a fan of feminism and looking for a good, not too intense, story taking place in the background of post World War II, you may want to give it a try.

We are not flowers to be plucked and shielded, Captain. We are flowers who flourish in evil.