A 25,000 mile wish

Earlier this year, I had blogged about my grandparents celebrating their 47th wedding anniversary. I find such longevity very inspiring especially in today’s age of the instant where relationships don’t seem to last anywhere as long as they used to.

A few months ago, I stumbled on the fact that Fred and Joanne Wilson would be celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary today. Regulars here know that both of them have played a big part in the evolution of this blog and in my increased understanding of this blogging ‘thing’. Fred’s school of blogging resulted in a complete revamp of the way I blogged around this time last year while Joanne was among the first to agree to interview for the ‘Real Leader’ interviews initiative that has now taken on a life of it’s own.

I’ve also been a regular on their blogs, learning lots and making many friends along the way and felt it would be really cool to do something special for their 25th anniversary. So, the initial impulse was to float an idea for a letter that would travel from regular to regular on their blog communities and include close friends along the way. This letter would be signed by each of these people and would make for a really really cool gift. As we move to an age where digital and instant is the norm, my belief that the ‘old fashioned’ ways would only become more special has never wavered.

But, this initiative would of course involve massive logistical effort and just in case the postal system failed us, we would have a video that would hopefully provide the necessary ‘voice’ over to the letter. Why video? Well, the logistics of getting the chain letter done wouldn’t be in an area of my strength so I thought I’d at least be able to execute on this with no problem.

The idea was initially received luke warm response and I wasn’t all that sure of going ahead myself as I didn’t know too many of Fred and Joanne’s friends or blog community members beyond the interaction on Disqus. Besides, I didn’t know them all that well either. We hadn’t met in person as yet. So, like any good hen would, I sat on it and kept the idea warm. (that’s how I justified sitting on it..)

It was after I interviewed Aaron on Real Leaders that I ended up re-opening the topic. When I confessed my hesitation, he replied with a nice line ‘Don’t ask for permission to do great work. I think it’s a great idea and I would be happy to help. You don’t have to be all collaborative. Just go out there and do it.’

Still, I wasn’t convinced. This period coincided with a personal spring cleaning of sorts, a ‘quiet’ period where I spent more time thinking than doing. Before I knew it, March was here and time was running out. So, in a fit of inspiration one night, I emailed everyone I knew from the AVC community and a few of Fred and Joanne’s friends wondering if they might be interested. I still remember waiting nervously for their responses…

And I clearly remember the moment the next morning when I peered into my email with half open eyes lying in bed looking at some very enthusiastic responses. That’s that then. Decision made. I had no idea how I would manage the logistics but it was time to take the plunge. Besides, a(nother) quote that I love came to mind..

‘When you are at the beginning, don’t obsess about the middle for the middle will look different when you get there.’

Everything after that went at blistering speed. Cut up a nice thick sheet of paper, write a nice wish, sign, plot an initial route, go to the post office and send. (Due thanks to the guy at the Ryman’s Stationery on Edgware Road who was very very helpful!)


This is what the letter looked like before it made it’s way to Milan on March 17th. I still remember the tension – Would it make it okay? Would I have to redo it? Would the British/Italian post fail me?

It did make it eventually. Next stop Canada where a friend, Leigh, popped up with a cool idea – send her the letter and she would round up everyone in Toronto and close by for the signing. Thus, the idea of ‘hubs’ came up. Toronto and NYC were big hubs and we needed people to get together to do this. Mark Essel raised his hand and thus became the go to for New York city. What of the rest of the US though?

Enter Wonder Woman. I had the first of many conversations with Donna around the time the letter (or as we called it, the ‘package’) was on it’s way to Milan. I clearly remember getting out of that phone call and heaving a big sigh of relief as I knew right then that Donna was the best person we’d find to take charge of getting the letter across the US.

The next 2 and a half months were a bit of a blur. Initially, we all reached out to everyone we knew – I used to try and reach out to 3-5 people a day and let them know about the idea. Many came forward to participate. A few weeks in, we had to now focus on figuring out a realistic route. We couldn’t reach everybody so we began asking for e-signatures that we could print and paste onto the note for those who were out of route. We hit a few roadblocks every now and then, no surprises there but we were all determined to see it through. None more so than Donna, of course – who took charge, tracked and ensured the letter’s travels were smooth.

It was quite a sight. Every 2-3 days, we would have a new picture of the letter with an additional signature (this was our back up system in case the postal system lost the letter) and the last few signatures came through while I was off the grid. This is the last photo I have of the package.


Concurrently, I got to work on the video. Collecting short videos from everyone meant giving them atleast 6 ‘FINAL deadlines’. :-) Eventually, they all came through and I vividly remember putting them together on Prezi late in the night before I left on vacation. As with videos like this, it was a painful process and after many hours of editing, recording, re-recording, I sent Mark and Donna a link with the following note  –

Guys, the video is done and is on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKRV7_DXbDQ

I saw it before uploading and it looked fine. It’s taken many many many hours.. and I’m glad to see the end of it. So, unless there’s some massive glaring error, I will choose to ignore all feedback – I hope that’s okay! :-)

Would appreciate if you guys could look at it and give me a thumbs up if all is well.

Thanks – a very sleepy.. Rohan

It’s a hilarious note when I look back now and I couldn’t help but laugh when I received an email from Donna week later saying – ‘I’ve sent the letter to NYC and as much as this has been a labor of love, I’m glad to see it go!’. I could totally relate.

I could go on and on with the many stories from the experience of putting this gift together. Today, however, this little journey comes to an end. There are many things that come to mind as I write this.

Firstly, it’s amazing how a little side project can be a source of great joy. On a rough count, Mark, Donna and I exchanged in excess of 300 emails getting this project together and it was difficult at times since each of us went through difficult periods at work but we stuck to it and had tons of fun.

Secondly, in many ways, this project/initiative was special significance for me. My year seems to have mirrored it’s progress. The first two months were quiet and spent in thought, the next two involved action but had many road blocks and gradually, things have been coming together in the past two months. Coincidence? :-)

Thirdly, we are well and truly in an age where the internet is a place to build relationships. All of this was done to celebrate the anniversary of 2 people we had gotten to know online. And probably most amazingly, while I speak of Donna and Mark like they are lifelong friends, I’ve known them for less than a year and of course, we have never met.

We live in a truly amazing time.

Finally, our biggest concern from the start of the project was if this would be ‘okay’ as a gift to Fred and Joanne. We would be putting in a lot of effort – would they appreciate it? All these questions dogged the early days. Some chose not to take part as a result and I remember us wondering if we were right going ahead with this.

Over time, though, such thoughts disappeared and we have barely been able to wait for ‘d-day’ as we’ve seen things progress. So many ‘very excited and I will miss this’ emails have been flying around as we’ve been inching closer to the finish line.

For me personally, a key moment was meeting Fred and Joanne in person when they were in London last month. I spent a wonderful hour in conversation with them and I remember walking out nodding to myself and saying – ‘Worth every ounce of effort!’

So, that said, I will wrap up this very long post. Today is their day and they should be looking at the note and the video any time now. The letter (fittingly) travelled in excess of 25,000 miles and was filled one signature at a time. The video was a similar story, but different all the same. I’d never have thought this was possible and that this would be this much fun.

Thanks Fred and Joanne, for all the inspiration. And Happy 25th Anniversary!

photo 1

PS: I chanced on Donna’s tweet as I was about to hit the publish button. As I wrote a large part of this on flight, I thought I’d add it to the post.

‘To truly give a gift is to relinquish any hold on the recipient. That is true giving.’

Message received, Donna. Time to start the day.

Catching up with Backlog

I am finally back after what’s been an exciting couple of weeks. As I’ve mentioned here, the first week involved a road trip around the UK followed by a trek to the Himalayas. Since returning from the trek on Sunday morning, I am still in transit in a way and will be back in London for normal life starting tomorrow morning. As a result, there are many fun posts coming soon.. to a blog near you. :-)

I’ve been spending the past couple of days catching up with backlog – emails, overdue catch ups and discussions with framily. I find breaks like this very helpful in taking a step back, reflecting and taking stock. It’s probably less philosophical than I make it sound but it’s nice to finally get a few days to break out of the normal routine that can take over your life.

I’ve grown to be pretty organized in the past couple of years and excessive backlog can stress me out when I’m back. A couple of habits have made it easier over time..

1. Make ‘post break’ lists. My ‘post trek’ list had been created long before I left on holiday. Every time a small idea popped into my head, it went straight into the ‘post trek’ list. This includes ideas for work, side projects etc. And I still continue to populate it as I have returned with a few additional ideas.

This weekend will be prioritization and action time.

2. Give email some dedicated time. I am active on email and being involved on a few projects implies a fair bit of email flow. So, I like giving it a bit of dedicated time so I can get my inbox back to inbox zero.

3. Accept the fact that backlog does exist. This might sound flaky but I find this fact to be crucial. Sometimes, I have to remind myself to go easy after getting back from a break as it’s tempting to burn the midnight oil and plough through all backlog. It’s generally not so smart.

Accepting and acknowledging this makes it easier as we all have different sorts of backlog to catch up on and have our own unique styles. A crazy push isn’t always really helpful. After all, it’s not a battle, it’s a war.. Life beckons!

Drue James, Guitar Teacher and Musician: Interview 20 – Real Leader Interviews

As regulars here know, I have been learning guitar for about 5 months and was even thrown on stage (;-)) by my very trusting guitar teacher.

Having had a wonderful experience learning the guitar, it was great fun interviewing Drue, my guitar guru. As you will agree after watching the video/reading the transcript, Drue has some cool insights on learning, performance, ‘talent’ and what makes a great student.

About Drue:
Drue James is a guitar teacher in London who has taught over 300 students over the past 8 years.

Drue James on Youtube
Drue James Website

Rohan: Could you introduce yourself?

Drue: I have been teaching guitar for the last eight years. It was not always my full time job. It has been so for the last four years! I am 28. I live in South London. I guess I am more of a teacher than a musician!

Rohan: When did you first realize that teaching guitar was what you would be doing for a living?

Drue: I had friends who were always musical, unlike me. I liked singing the most. It is more of my first instrument. I started learning guitar pretty late, around 14. I have been singing for longer than I have been playing guitar, actually. I decided to pick up the guitar so I could support my voice and learn a few chords. Well, the real reason is because I wanted to get noticed and to find a girlfriend!

I started teaching by accident. I was a musician and I was writing songs. I worked at a bar where you can just turn up and play. The show went really well! After that someone came up to me and asked if I had thought about teaching guitar. I slowly got my mind around that. I put up my ad and a dad seemed really interested. So I taught his teenage girl and walked out thinking ‘Did I just get paid to do that?’ I really enjoy my work now. And that’s the story!

Rohan: What is the profile of your average student?

Drue: That’s a tough question to answer. Well, I could say they fall into two categories. There are the children whose parents want the child to learn a new skill. These kids are usually starting at about 8 years. I have tried teaching younger kids. I do not think it’s for me. Some people tend to think it’s only for boys but I have taught equal number of girls and boys.

For adults generally between 20-30 is the age they start. My oldest beginner is 52 years! So you learn that it is never too late to start! It’s usually people who are creative, the ones who really enjoy music and the ones who enjoy the talent of taking up something new! And then there are people who want to turn to a musical career.

Rohan: Is there such a thing as musical talent?

Drue: I think there is musical passion! That’s what I’ll say. I think you can love something so much that you want to play. Jimmy Hendrix when he first started playing guitar was rubbish. Its not like they picked up the guitar and they started gushing out good music.

However, there was something they loved about it. There was something that awakened them when they played. I suppose you could call that the talent. I personally love to call it passion. The will to want to practice, to move forward and to want to get better drives them. They are happiest when they are playing. I think that’s how I would sum it up!

Rohan: For a kid who just starts out, what kind of role do the parents play in the journey?

Drue: I have certain students who are just very good at it. They have the talent for it. When they start at about 8 years, for the next 6 months they would encourage the kid to practice. Eventually the child would start practicing without the parents. The parents would be more and more supportive mentally. I think the ideal role that the parents are playing would be to assist the child and not push.

Rohan: What is your experience with the older group? What about their motivation levels?

Drue: When you are an adult I think it’s harder. It’s not like a kid who comes back from school at three, finishes homework and has a couple of hours to work on this. I think otherwise the same rules apply. If you enjoy it enough, you are going to find time to play and practice.

The longest adults stick around with me is about two years. Adults learn the basic core skills and follow their own independent path. Of course if they want to specialize, they have to channel all their practice towards that.

An ideal student is one who plays what they like, reads a bit of music, goes back to their motivation and finds the encouragement to pursue this talent. My work with adults is around 25%. Choosing the music that they like and they can relate to, is most important. Even if I don’t personally like the music its their passion that matters! It’s really tough to catch on in the first year. So I do my best to make it work!

Rohan: In students that make the maximum progress, what are the most common traits that you see?

Drue: With a person who sets a goal – saying I will learn this much by this day or at this point in time, I see more progress. I have noticed this attitude matters a lot. It also goes back to talent and passion. Being able to play a song they like, being able to learn a difficult technique are some evidence of interest! Organizational skills are a big thing – being able to say that I have 20 minutes and so I will practice during that time is good stuff! Time management is important – sticking to their practice regime regularly. Determination and visioning help a lot. Seeing yourself playing what you want to play does wonders to your performance!

It’s not over night, what happens. The people who respect that it’s a skill and the improvement comes only in small steps are usually good. People who jump and want to do the tough things straight away are ones who easily give up.

Rohan: Its two very different ways of approach, am I right? The adults would be more free but the kids would be more respectful and sincere I would think..

Drue: You would be surprised actually. The difference is that for an adult they know what they want to learn. It’s easier to plan towards it. It’s easier for the kids to take up the theoretical things I would think. It needs to be fun and engaging. I would have a lot of energy and need to make everything more fun for them! Its slightly more academic with kids. It’s more artistic and expressive in the adults. I guess the difference is that you are freer with the adult.

Rohan: What have been the biggest learnings in the journey so far?

Drue: When you meet the kid for the first time I think you need to make a character assessment. That has nothing to do with the talent level. You are going to be seeing this child every week. How are we going to get on? If the student doesn’t respect the teacher and if they aren’t friendly, then it’s going to be hard for both of us to get along.

Academically I do not have any qualifications to teach. I am sitting for my grade 8 exams soon and that would mean something! What helps is learning with the student. You need to be one step ahead of them. And proper communication will help that step reach the person. I have been taught by a lot of people who are not qualified but are great musicians. Having a paper from a college is not going to add any credibility to the teacher as the time and effort in getting ready to coach the student would.

When I started teaching I would take 2 hours to plan an hours lesson. Over the last 7-8 years I have developed materials to learn. Regardless of whether I like it or not I have had to learn songs and be able to play them before I can teach it.

Different students like to learn through different ways. Some like to read something, some see it and some hear it. One song does not fit all bills. One person would like death metal and one other would hate it.

Rohan: What happens when people don’t practice? You can only shape the path for them right?

Drue: Lessons can get very boring because you have to get past something to learn something new. It becomes boring for both the teacher and the student. I meet them and ask ‘How has your week been?’ They have very high expectations for themselves and so they would say they had done some practice but not as much as they liked. I hear that so often! I would ask how much that was. They would say an hour a day. And I would say ‘ That’s too much! What are you doing that much for?’ They think they need to spend that much time but its not really necessary.

With some people, some mistakes are repeated continuously. That’s when you know they are not going to be guitarists. Generally 80% of the people who learn do not go on to become guitarists. But there is always 2/10 that do. It’s just the way it is! That’s what I want to learn from all this. How I can make those people want to learn forever!

Rohan: Who have been some of the most influential people in your life? As musicians, mentors or just people..

Drue: The first one would be my closest friend Dave. He is a lot better at guitar than me. I would watch him play! I have been in bands with him for 8 years now. I would always and still do tell him that I want to learn some technique. He is a very bad teacher because of his lack of patience. We write songs together.

Second person would be a group – Radiohead. I love their music and it always gives me the tingles. It motivates me to play and I think everything about them is good! They have shown me what it is like for 5 people on a band to sound like.

Rohan: There are people who are out there learning things. Not so much about guitar but people who are learning in general! What would be your advice to these people?

Drue: I think you should never stop learning. Even a master is always a student. He is and should be continuously learning. I think there is always something to learn. I think writing down your goals is extremely important! If it’s written down and you see them everyday, you will be motivated to go get it. I did not believe it myself before trying! I don’t keep it in my wallet; I put it in a folder. Even if I am not looking at it then, its always there reminding me of what I want.

If you are learning something, write down the little steps that you need to take. Because these little steps are really the best way to achieve it!

Drue plays a lovely minute from the song Mad World by Gary Jules! Do listen!

Thank you Drue for a very humble and frank interview! Your thoughts on learning are most encouraging..!

Dhanya, EB and yours truly..

On Cues and the 10 Commandments

This week’s book learning is from ‘Predictably Irrational’ by Dan Ariely –

2 groups of people were sent to take a test where they were told they could copy without leaving a trace of having done so and with no chance of their dishonesty being detected.

Group 1 were sent straight in while Group 2 were first asked to write as many of the ‘Ten Commandments’ they could remember in a 2 minute exercise before being sent in to take their test.

Any guesses on which team was less dishonest?

The second, by a long shot! This is among a series of experiments conducted by researchers like Dan Ariely that revealed the power of cues. Just recalling the Ten Commandments made people honest!

This story really got me thinking about the power of cues and reminders. A simple example – I’d written about Attention a couple of months ago. Following that, I changed my wallpaper on my work laptop from my default framily (i.e. friends+family), values wallpaper to a quote I like lots

‘Doing one thing at a time is how one zen master defined the essence of zen’

And funnily enough, I found myself testing out various tools to improve my attention. The momentum was clearly building. I never looked at the wallpaper but I knew it was there.

I am just beginning to pay attention to cues and reminders as their influence is unquestionable. I’m still working out how to apply them more in my life.

Here’s to taking a good look at the cues around us this week!

Movies of the Year So Far

I am not much of a movie watcher. Sometimes, I have phases when I spend 2-3 weekends catching up on some movies I’ve been wanting to watch for a long time. That happens roughly once a year though.

Almost all my movie watching happens on flights where there is practically nothing else to do. And the rest happens when I am back in Singapore and find myself popping into the theatre (or cinema, as the blessed Brits would call it) ever so often.

With that background, a few movies of the year so far.

Sherlock Holmes II. I really liked Sherlock Holmes I. I absolutely loved Sherlock Holmes II. I watched the movie twice and both times, I came out with the feeling that there wasn’t a single scene wasted. The cast was brilliant, the plot was great and the way humour and action dovetailed made for a really enjoyable experience. Favourite movie of the year so far!

Hugo. I don’t like 3D movies but I did find myself wondering what this movie would have looked like on a large movie screen because, if there was one word I would use to describe the cinematography, it would be ‘magnificent’.

A friend used the word ‘sincere’ when describing the movie. I couldn’t have said it better. It was wonderfully sincere and a great cast didn’t hurt.

We Bought A Zoo. Loved this. I am a sucker for this sort of a movie. Tough life changing set back faced, crazy challenge taken up, difficulty after difficulty and finally, some success.

Matt Damon did a great job playing an often dazed widower who is faced with managing his unruly teenage son and has just bought a zoo with the money he had in an attempt to escape urban life. The challenges are many and it makes for a fascinating tale, adapted from the real life story of Benjamin Mee in Dorset, England.

The Descendants. I didn’t like it as much as the hype around it, I must admit. Then again, hype tends to do that to you, doesn’t it? I did go in with very high expectations. All in all, George Clooney was very impressive playing a helpless dad unable to manage his two daughters following the paralysis and eventual death of his wife. There are many complications to the tale and is a compelling watch.

Puss in Boots. Wonderful entertainer. Story of a renegade cat who ends up redeeming himself falling in love along the way. Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek never sounded better.

Tintin. Not up on the list and that’s saying something. The technology used to make this movie is evidently mindblowing as the characters look life like. That said, the story line differed quite a bit from the original story line and when it comes to Tintin, I prefer the original any day.

Ides of March. George Clooney makes some top class movies. This is a story around 2 Democratic candidates contesting the primary in Ohio and the inside story of the team behind one of the candidates (Clooney).

He has a fantastic cast working with him and this is again one of those movies that makes a deep impression. And the hype behind Ryan Gosling is not unfounded. He can act.

50/50. I recognize this is not a movie that released this year but i just saw it last week. It was a very nice movie revolving around a young man dealing with the fact that he is diagnosed with cancer and that his chances of survival are 50/50. A really sweet movie.

That’s the round up from my side. What are some of the best movies you’ve watched of late?