Reflections 2017


Any investor will tell you: diversification reduces risk. And this advice goes beyond our finances.

Earlier this year, I started How’s Life Podcast. Not necessarily because I wanted to be a podcast host – nor was I particularly searching for an odd and laborious hobby – but because I wanted to talk to people who led different lives to mine. Amidst the general push for students to seek like-minded people with similar interests, I felt that keeping my perspectives diverse brought its own kind of benefit.

(In other words, an anti-niche – a brand strategist’s nightmare.) 

Over the eight episodes, I met seven guests with distinctive areas of expertise: science communication, startup support, international diplomacy, lifestyle coaching, academic research, youth-led media, and criminal investigation. I asked them three categories of questions: What are their personal experiences? What can we learn from them? How do they fit into the big picture? The discussions yielded many ideas, and I found my guests’ perspectives on people (who the players are), strategy (how problems are tackled), and the future (where we’re going) of their fields to be especially valuable insights.

So, in summary of 2017’s episodes, here’s what I learnt: 

1. Science communication

In Episode 2, I speak with the CEO (Mr. Alan Brien) of Western Australia’s science center, Scitech. Science museums aim to increase our base understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology, along with their applications in new technologies, and exhibits are circulated between participating countries.

“We need a scientifically literate community to ensure that we are informed about the decisions we are asked to make, and can innovate in a global world.” 

People: Leaders from STEM (often industry experts) and non-STEM backgrounds sit on a board representing centers from around the world, such as the Asia-Pacific Network of Science and Technology Centers (ASPAC), of which Alan was President. By remaining accessible to his staff (i.e. remember people and update them!), keeping a measurable five-year plan in mind, and making decisions promptly, Alan successfully oversees Scitech’s interactive programs, which target (rural/metropolitan) students, their parents, and teachers. 

Strategy: Science is seen not as a set of facts, but a way of living. The process of making observations, understanding facts, forming decisions, and exploring alternatives is a framework that Alan applies to everything – not just science problems, but in life and business as well. From a public relations standpoint, it can be said that science museums engage the public by giving people the tools to take up their message. 

Future: In Australia, our future depends on the growth in Asia. This region is increasingly investing in science and technology education, with China planning to set up around 300 new centers. As the elitist perception of STEM begins to dissolve, the mathematics underpinning the emergent digital world (engineering, computational sciences, data management) will become more accessible to us all. 

2. Startup support

Episode 7 is about startups, in which I speak to the recently graduated founder (Mr. Mark Shelton) of Bloom. The non-profit organization provides mentoring, resources, and co-working space for young entrepreneurs.

“Entrepreneurship is about education – how to maximize your impact as well as what you can learn – which has much greater effect than just creating new businesses.” 

People: Startups that succeed are often run by people who are resilient and resourceful (i.e. play to your and others’ strengths). The first students who took up Bloom’s services already had the momentum and drive to do so; then, as more examples of successful startups arose, other members of the community took interest. To retain and grow startups in WA, the attitudes of three broad groups should be considered: angel investors (to invest specifically in startups), government (for tech development and funding past seed rounds), and the public (e.g. Mark finds that in Hangzhou, people are most proud of their country’s technology output. How does this compare to other cities?).

Strategy: To solve the modern-day dilemma – how do companies stay innovative? – we can learn from startup methodology by remaining customer-focused. This, along with making technology a core part of the business, will help keep innovation grounded in tangible outcomes. On personal (or company) branding, it may be useful to think about positioning yourself outside of direct competition with others; don’t just do the same thing better – do something different. 

Future: We are moving away from employing broadly-skilled individuals (often in the manufacturing industry) and towards those with highly specific skillsets working for multiple companies. As education policy catches up to prepare students for this new economy, startups will serve as a different way to gain knowledge. Whether you establish, intern at, work for, or supply a startup – regardless of how long it lasts – supporting entrepreneurs will prove to be a powerful vehicle for economic growth.   

3. International diplomacy

In Episode 6, I visit the former Head of Australian Diplomatic Missions (Dr. Susan Boyd). Over her thirty-year career, she has been tasked with understanding and responding to the interests of many nations, including Fiji, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Bangladesh, New York, and East Germany.

“People respond very well when you want to know about their culture. This is important for writing policies, which should not be based on anything other than knowledge and research.”  

People: Embassy representatives are first and foremost adaptable. By empathizing deeply with others’ points of view, it is often possible to see yourself reflected in them, and feel at home wherever you go. It is worth noting that empathy doesn’t have to be a product of agreement, and neither does congruent policy have to be a prerequisite for alliance. A simple way Sue examines differences between cultures is to find out what people laugh at – this reveals what we find ridiculous. 

Strategy: Negotiation is paramount. It can exploit two desired outcomes that seem at odds, or reverse one undesired outcome that seems inevitable – this is the case for diplomats who have to consider resignation if they do not wish to carry out the government’s instructions. Although there is no magic formula for negotiation, Sue finds that during a posting, her effectiveness within the host country is accelerated by networking, accessing media contacts, and making an effort to learn the native language – a technique that could very well apply to understanding a new industry.

Future: Canada is considered to be a relatively robust model of multiculturalism. The lessons it offers in listening to underrepresented voices in the community, as well as building a regime of trust (i.e. assume trustworthiness until disproven), are ones that translate directly into guiding our future workplace. Outlooks for women in male-dominated fields are also changing; when Sue joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, she used assertive tactics to establish herself as ‘one of the men’. Times have since changed, and we are increasingly seeing women being valued as women.  

4. Lifestyle coaching

Episode 1 takes place over Skype, as I talk to a hypnotherapist (Mr. Dave Berman) embarking on his world tour. One key aspect of his coaching is unconditional laughter, which refers to laughing on purpose without humor, to break cycles of stress.

“We connect better with people when we laugh. To reduce stress and anxiety, it is important to mobilize our internal resources, and get comfortable being a little bit ridiculous.” 

People: Coaches offering alternative health therapies, such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) or mindfulness, receive training from establishments in their specialty, e.g. California’s Hypnosis Practice Training Institute. The advent of video calls has expanded client networks rapidly, with remote consultation picking up across several other personal-service professions – although greater barriers are naturally faced in fields with complex regulation, e.g. surgery. Despite this, the benefits of face-to-face interaction are endorsed by many coaches like Dave, who encourage the setup of intimate coaching groups to maximize learning through mirror neuron activity.

Strategy: Many mental roadblocks stem from having misaligned intentions and actions/outcomes. In a world where stress and mental health issues represent a leading portion of global burden of disease, the conflicts we face are increasingly internal ones. Therapies can help to resolve this by manipulating the two-way influence of physiology and psychology. This involves identifying the desired outcome (e.g. psychological – feeling relaxed) and leading action with its counterpart (e.g. physiological – laughing).

Future: The corporate sector is taking a rising interest in the health and lifestyle of its employees. More investments are being made in health programs, in-house health services, and coaching sessions, as well as the incorporation of personal lifestyle into brand values. As the breadth and depth of non-medicated therapy grows, we will be able to mold ourselves a new set of instincts to deal with a new type of world.

5. Academic research

n Episodes 4 & 5, I speak with an astrophysicist (Dr. Danail Obreschkow) at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR). His current work is largely a continuation of his doctoral dissertation, The Cosmic Evolution of Atomic and Molecular Hydrogen in Galaxies.

“Research exists because people want answers. Most big theories emerge from scaffolding that you build first and deconstruct later, using tools that form a legacy from all the discoveries you didn’t expect.” 

People: Researchers in academia deal with fewer deadlines, more open-ended questions, and theory-based problems (compared to industry R&D). They have access to a collective database of publications, and are constantly sharing ideas with others around the world over email. Attending an acclaimed university has clear advantages for academics: at Oxford University, Danail had access to leading experts in specialist topics all down one hallway (!). Being a researcher also requires curiosity and flexible thinking. When dealing with space, familiar concepts like ‘up’ and ‘down’ no longer make sense (the only reference is yourself), and a million years is suddenly a short amount of time.

Strategy: Simplify issues until they are a set of principles. Sometimes, the factors influencing an issue can obscure the fundamental forces at play; by thinking outside of these factors – how would bubbles behave if gravity did not exist? – we can look at the situation in a new light. The present in astrophysics is modelled from the past, often by identifying patterns across a single snapshot. To allow people to understand these models, it is vital to illustrate continuity between old and new concepts.

Future: It is likely that we move off carbon-based fuels within our lifetimes, or find a way to close the carbon cycle (i.e. re-extract CO2 from the atmosphere to reuse as energy). As our youngest generations grow up in the wake of new space-inspired research, more solutions to resource crises will be found in asteroids or on Mars, even if colonization is questionable (Danail says this won’t fix overpopulation). Still, the role of researchers won’t just be about finding the technical answers; half the work will be justifying research to taxpayers – the overlooked drivers behind the growth of new discoveries.

6. Youth-led media

Episode 3 explores arts & media with the CEO (Ms. Tricia Ray) of Colosoul Group Inc. The not-for-profit runs several publications, events, and services related to the creative industries. 

“Let the young people take charge and make mistakes. This will build them up into competent leaders, and prepare them for employment in the creative industries.” 

People: Unemployed students form a body of demand that has not yet been connected with its supply. That is, the desire for experience – given that creative employers hire graduates with the best portfolios – is a huge incentive for students to run youth-led initiatives. Particularly within arts and media, these initiatives are often a good indicator of the values, attitudes, and circumstances of the demographic that created them. For those that guide and supervise youth projects, like Tricia, it is critical to instill motivation in young people, encouraging them to finish what they start without getting discouraged by setbacks.  

Strategy: Money may not always be the currency of choice – especially if the need for something else is greater. For instance, a mentorship system may be more valuable to certain students than a wage system; this model can be used to sustainably run a not-for-profit institution. A bottom-up structure of influence may get more projects off the ground more quickly. Spreading your vision can be done effectively through events, which have a large referral-based reach.

Future: Employment rates (and perception thereof) for arts and media graduates needs an upsurge. Facilitating youth-led creative initiatives will accelerate this, giving both students and the public the chance to gain confidence in their work. Moreover, projects led by young people will prove valuable to other charities and causes that they support, as growing trends towards social responsibility guide the inception of these future organizations.    

7. Criminal investigation

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In Episode 8, I meet up with a forensic entomologist (Dr. Paola Magni). Together with a colleague from Boston University, she developed the app SmartInsects to help increase the efficiency of her work in crime scene investigation.

“If you don’t find answers, the case will soon be closed. Collaboration is extremely pivotal – everyone has to do their own piece of the puzzle.”    

People: The process of solving a criminal case is a multidisciplinary one, involving all sorts of specialists from police/doctors (initial examination), to forensic scientists (laboratory analytics), to lawyers (court presentation). Since all this work is governed by a limited pool of resources, agency problems can arise as groups vie to show the worth of their work relative to expenditure. Much like the insect that appears to wipe out evidence, but keeps crucial information inside it, the cases that CSI experts close leave their traces in people’s ways of thinking: Paola says it has kept her alert and attentive to detail in everyday life.

Strategy: The crux of the investigation is figuring out what has changed, and why. This means analyzing the usual environment and its effects, then determining whether the observed and the expected match. Protocols are extremely important here. It is just as much about how you reach your conclusion as it is about the conclusion itself; by recording stepwise all the thinking and actions you take, people can check, replicate, or even draw new findings from your work.

Future: Information flow is essential in fields with high practical impact. Whether it be access to instant case details whilst on the job, or a long-term database of research and publications back at the office, developments in communication efficiency will go a long way in improving overall case efficiency. New technologies will furthermore allow forensic scientists to analyze samples without destroying them (hyperspectral imaging), or undertake simulated CSI training with police and pathologists (virtual reality) – giving way to a newer, smarter era of protecting against threats to security.

What ideas resonate most with you? To keep up-to-date with new guests and stories, check out www.howslifepodcast.org

Disclaimer: Some of these views are my own interpretations/extrapolations, and may not necessarily represent the views of my guests or their associated organizations.


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