We’re pretty excited about this podcast we recently recorded about How Culture Affects Your Productivity. We cover a lot of topics from different working styles and environments around the world, to why the USA still rocks and why China hasn’t quite made it yet.
Hope you all enjoy it!
- Aaron and Thanh
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Transcript of How Culture Affects Your Productivity
Aaron: Hey you’re listening to a podcast from Asian Efficiency. My name is Aaron.
Thanh: Hey this is Thanh.
Aaron: And today we want to talk to you about how culture affects your productivity. So this is actually a podcast that we’ve wanted to do for a while, and it’s based on a lot of discussions that Thanh and I have had, both between ourselves, and our readers, our customers and a lot of our friends. You know, it’s interesting how much society, and how our upbringing shapes our ability to work, our ability to be productive, and well, pretty much all of our inherent skills are shaped by you know, what we learn when we’re younger. And a big part of that is the culture that we grew up in or the culture that we live in. So, to start us off, Thanh and I are going to talk very briefly about our own backgrounds, so you can kind of get the sense of here we’re coming from, and then, we’re going to talk about cultural norms, uh, in different places around the world that we’ve been, that we’ve worked in, and then the rest of this podcast is going to be about different environmental factors and about some of the big concepts when it comes to culture and productivity, like, you know, a collective working environment, individualistic cultures, and this idea of self-development and why it’s really important to your productivity. So Thanh, let’s hear a bit about yourself.
Thanh: Sure. So, for those who are listening, I look Asian, but I’m actually Dutch. So I actually have a Dutch passport and I speak Dutch, which is kind of weird for an Asian-looking guy, but uh, my parents are from Vietnam and I grew up in the Netherlands, so we moved there when I was really young, you know, a couple of months old really. And, I spent most of my life there, grew up there, went to high school, and after that I went to college in the US, here in LA, did that for a while, and then, you know, really got to learn what the US is all about, and after college I started working for a couple of years, and then I left the US again, did some traveling around the world, especially around Asia, and that really gave me a different perspective on life and how people around the world go about doing this. So a lot of that is really a reflection of my experiences and the different countries I’ve lived in. So, for example, I lived in Hungary, which is a country in Eastern Europe. A very poor country, but uh, I had an amazing time when I lived there for a year, you know, I lived in Thailand for a while and other parts of Asia, so, all these different countries have different cultures, different ways of doing things, and just living there gave me sort of a perspective of how people view life and how they attack problems, how they do things. And it’s very different from what I’ve seen in the rest of the world, so I’m going to share a bit about that a little bit later, but before we get into that, it’s probably a good idea that Aaron you uh, share some of your background.
Aaron: Yeah, so like Thanh, I obviously look Asian. I was actually born in Sydney and I grew up there. My parents were first-generation immigrants; they actually migrated twice, once from China to Thailand and once from Thailand to Australia. So I guess my cultural background is a very weird mix of Confucianism, Buddhism, my mum is Catholic, and uh, my mother’s family is very matriarchal – all the women have the power in the family, which is quite interesting. Then of course, when I went to school, I grew up with Australian values of mateship, of the idea of you know, Australia being this harsh land with an outback and people having to be tough to make it in that world, even though you know if you go to Australia nowadays it’s completely not like that. It’s a very modern society and a lot of these values actually create a lot of problems within Australian society. So, I’ve spent time living overseas, especially in the US – I spent a few years there, and the culture is obviously very different, even from a western country like Australia, and I also spent a lot of time traveling around Europe and Asia and I met a lot of people who I call digital nomads, so this is a sub-culture in and of itself, where you have people from all around the world, I guess you can call them expats, who work remotely, work online, work from their laptops, and they have their own very unique way of doing things and their own way of seeing the world, which I’ll get into in this podcast.
So right now I’m in Asia, where you know, I’ve kind of sat down and put all this together, and been like OK, so, you know, where you live, where you grew up, who you associate with, has a huge impact on your ability to do work and be productive. And, it changes what you do and the results of what you do quite a bit. So, with that, let’s get into the meat of this podcast, and talk a bit about cultural norms.
Culture is one of those things that affects the way we work because it exerts a social pressure on us to act in certain ways when we’re at work. As an example, here in Thailand, when you go to work, it in expected that you make friends, and become best buddies with the people that you work with in order to get things done. You know, so say you need someone to pull a report from an IT system at work, right, so it’s not enough that they’re job position on that their job responsibilities involve pulling reports for people, but they actually have to like you, in order for them to pull that report for you. Which is very odd if you think about it, especially coming from a Western frame, you know, like I’ve worked in big companies in Australia, and it’s kind of like if you need something, you write the person an email, or you go to their desk, or you call them up and you’re like “hey, I kind of need this to do this” and they’re like “I’m busy right now, but can I get it to you by close of business?” and you’re like “sure, thanks mate” and that’s the end of it right? In Thailand, you can ask them, and they’ll be like “oh, you know, yeah I’ll try” and then maybe a week later, they still haven’t gotten to you, but their best friend in the marketing department can ask them and then they’ll drop everything and do it for them straight away. Which, you know, not to bash on their culture, is just seems to be a very inefficient way of working, when the entire team has to be, well, best buddies and very, very good friends for it to operate.
Now, every country has a different working culture, so as a contrast to Thailand, another place I’ve spent a lot of time is Hong Kong. Now Hong Kong is interesting in that it’s actually a very efficient city, and that people are extremely responsible for what they do, right? If they’re supposed to do something, they’ll do it. They may not be the most enthusiastic about it, but they will get it done if they need to.
Another couple of countries I want to mention are Japan, which is known for being very efficient, very organized, and also very rigid in terms of working culture. So if something is specified as someone’s job, they’ll get it done, absolutely no problem, but they’ll get it done to 100% specification, and they typically won’t be very much variation, and as a result, I guess it’s become a bit of stereotype that the Japanese lack in the creativity department when it comes to innovative ideas and that kind of stuff.
A country that Thanh and I visited while we were both here, was Singapore. And I guess they’ve been popping up on everyone’s radar very recently. Now, a very very interesting thing about Singapore, and something I actually have a lot of respect for, is everyone in the country, has this overriding belief that as a people, as Singaporeans, and as a country, they can do anything. And, this belief rises almost to the level of arrogance, if it wasn’t so impressive. So, we have a friend who runs a very successful social media agency in Singapore. And we were talking about, hey, you know, when your company gets acquired, what are you going to do? And he’s like, well, I’m going to get into the financial sphere, into the uh, financial industry. And I was like, well, do you have a background in finance, in banking? He’s like, no, I just need to learn a few things, these are the things I need to know and then it’s really easy, and then I can just do it. Now, that kind of belief in one’s own ability and skills and the ability to acquire resources is extremely, extremely good for productivity and for your ability to work, right? You know, if you think about we all have these ideas of like oh, do we know enough, are we smart enough to do something. In Singapore, you know, most people I’ve met there have, they just think, you know, if I need to do something I’ll just learn it, if I don’t know it, I can learn it, if I need to find someone, I can you know, just network with them, talk to them and we can do it. It’s like almost a matter of fact thing for them.
So Thanh, do you want to talk a bit about America and Europe?
Thanh: Sure. So, I think that’s very different from what you just said, although in the US there’s sort of a culture of like… maybe it’s more of a subculture, but there’s always stuff that can be done, it’s just a matter of trying to figure out how. Especially because the innovation here is so ridiculously good. People are always doing research, you know and stuff, so, there’s not really a barrier of like, can it not be done, it’s always, people always ask how can it be done, how can be do it faster? That’s not to say that it’s always the case in every single part of the country, you know, when it comes to like infrastructure, I mean, some of the infrastructure in the US is not the greatest, which definitely hampers your productivity, take for example public transport in LA, that just, is just horrible, even though all the technology is there to make it really efficient.
But in general, the technology here is just really good and the culture here is more of a “hero story”, like people really value career success and individual glory. That’s why like the culture here has this sort of temperature where people celebrate career advancement. So if you… the typical American story is starting from the bottom and making it to the top, right, especially if you’re an immigrant. And people refer to that as the American Dream. And that sort of mindset is all over the country. So, it’s very focused on the individual, and you see this in sports as well. Basketball for example, is very focused on the individual superstars. In American football it’s all about the quarterback. So there’s always like, there’s always this focus on this one individual who rises to the top and people celebrate that.
Now that’s very different from say the Netherlands, where I grew up, where it’s almost weird if you stand out. Like people over there want to blend in. They don’t want to stand out. Everything has to be a team effort. And people don’t really celebrate heroes, they celebrate team effort. So it’s a very different culture in that aspect, you know, individualism is not really celebrated… they don’t find it strange, but the mantra over there is “don’t be crazy, act like everyone else”. You know, that’s the culture there. So, if you do something really well as an individual, that’s great, but people don’t celebrate it as much as a team effort. So all the Olympic sports, all the stuff that the Dutch are good at, are usually team sports, like football or soccer, hockey – it’s all team sports. So yeah, it’s like different from the US. And that’s not to say that one culture is necessarily better than another, it’s that they’re a very different mindset of going about things. Especially when you’re traveling, if you’re going to one of these countries that we just talked about, it’s just something that you want to be aware of.
Aaron: Yeah, and the result of that is that growing up in a different culture or living in a different culture for a while affects the way you start to see things. One thing that I’ve noticed here in Asia is this idea of superficiality. I’ll give you an example. So, in Asia, say you show up at the bank, wearing a t-shirt and shorts and flip-flops. People will just look at you weird, and be like what are you doing here? You obviously have no money, you obviously have no business in a bank, please leave. Now, the same person can walk in 5 minutes later wearing a business suit and a tie, and the branch manager will come out and greet them and ask them if there’s any way that they can get more of their business. Now, in a business context, I don’t know about people listening, but I just find that kind of silly, you know, you can’t judge people based on their immediate appearance, or you don’t know anything about them in a business context right? In a personal context and in terms of first impressions and networking and stuff, sure, you know, we need to do it because it’s a huge timesaver for us right? We look at someone and we kind of shape up and size up who they are and what they’re about and then we form an impression of them. But in a business context where you’re supposed to respect all your customers and treat them well, it’s very very silly to have a culture that can’t see beyond the superficial appearance. And you know, there’s an obvious carry-on from that, which is that a lot of people then waste a lot of time in generating all these smokescreen appearances rather than actually getting real work done and delivering real value to their customers and business partners.
Now in America, you know the stereotype of Americans around the world is that it’s an extremely superficial culture, where consumerism is rampant, where it’s all about image, about you know, being the I guess the Wall St thing is being the “big swinging dick”, being top of your game, being celebrity, being the superstar right? This is completely, not true. Americans, by far and large, work very very hard and in certain pockets, especially around the San Francisco area, America is probably the most innovative culture on the planet today. Now of course, if you go to certain parts of maybe Southern California, other places around the US, yeah, sure, you can find superficiality and you can even find superficiality to the point where it affects people’s ability to work, but by and far, most things actually work in America quite well, as compared to you know, certain parts of Asia that I’ve been to where it just goes to the point of silliness how much people base things entirely on appearance.
As an interesting aside, it’s worth noting that American presidents tend to be superstars and celebrities, and you know, that goes back to what Thanh said before about individual high-achieving cultures, and then uh, if you look at Asia, if you take a look at like the premier of China, right, he could be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you know, dressed in a very plain suit and nobody really knows who he is, he’s not a superstar, he’s not promoted the way that the US president is as an institution. So, even at the level of government, culture seeps through obviously and affects how a country is run, and can’t help but to affect how businesses and how we as professionals, you know, go about our work.
Something else from Asia, that I guess should be explained, is this idea of saving face. Now, you know, it’s probably received enough attention in the West that most people listening to this are aware of what it is. Basically, it’s the idea that you shouldn’t have to suffer embarrassment at the hands of other people or yourself in public. So, you know, I grew up in a Western country and I’m sure Thanh’s experiences are quite similar, most people who grew up in the West or Anglo-sphere, don’t really care right? You mess up, you say sorry, you know, no one’s really going to give you a hard time about it, there’s no real guilt or shame or anything about. You know, it can be a little bit of an embarrassment, but by the part you can live and see another day right? In Asia, and especially in collective cultures, they can’t do this. The idea of being seen to have done something wrong or done something bad, or not be smart enough, or whatever it is, is SO BAD, that people will do really silly things to try to get out of it. The obvious example, is people who just abdicate responsibility, right? They’ll just be like “ah, it wasn’t my responsibility, uh, Sarah over there was responsible for it”, and then they’ll just throw it off to someone else. And as we all know, personal responsibility and the ability to take responsibility is pretty much the bedrock of productivity. If you are not responsible, you can’t be productive, because you don’t take ownership of what it is you’re doing.
So by far and large, this whole exercise of saving face, I personally think it’s quite silly. I can see why people do it, because you know, it helps you fit into a collective culture, but they need to start to realize that there is a line somewhere where it stops them from doing what they need to do. I’ll give you a non-work example. So, in Asia when you catch a cab, they will usually quote you a different price right, they want to turn off the meter, charge you like 5 times your fare and essentially scam you. Now, if you call them out on it, hey let’s just switch on the meter, I know it’s going to cost around this much, I’ll give you this much, the taxi drivers won’t go for it, because going for it, would be them admitting that they tried to cheat you and that would make them a bad person in their eyes and they “lose face”, so what they’ll do is usually scream at you to get the f*ck out of their cab. I’ll have to edit that. And then they drive around for 30 minutes with no customer. Which is kind of silly, right? They’re obviously not making money for those 30 minutes when they could have made a standard fare with you in the cab.
So, related to this idea of saving face, is a very unique part of Asian culture, which is the idea of cheating the system. So in Asian, it is actually seen as a sign of intelligence to “get one up” over other people by gaming the system, by being a little bit corrupt, by taking a little money under the table. So they don’t really want to do things properly. Anyone who does that, who tries to be a straight-shooter, you know, which we’re all encouraged to be in the West, Asian people by and large, see that as a sign of stupidity, right? Well, why aren’t you on the take as well? Why aren’t you getting in on this? You know, it’s done here, it’s perfectly normal, everyone’s doing it, why aren’t you? And this can be anything from accepting bribes, from giving bribes, to using personal connections for personal or political gain, and or, just cutting corners to bring down costs to put more money in your own pocket, right?
Now, if you live in Asia and you do business here you kind of have to just get used to this and that it’s part of doing business. God knows how many bottles of whiskey I have bought for various people just to make things go smoother here, but, our opinion is this, you know, especially if you’re coming from a Western frame, it’s like yeah, shortcuts are great. If you know how to grease the wheels, that’s good, but the line needs to be drawn somewhere where what you do starts delivering suboptimal quality and starts creating problems for other people. And you know, if you get caught, don’t try to cover it up, just be like “oh I thought it was acceptable, blah blah blah”, and you know the funny thing is in Asia, I’ve been in various situations where people have like, put money under the table to government officials, and the government official will just politely decline and be like “thank you very much for your offer, but it’s OK, I can just do it, you don’t have to give me the extra money under the table”. It’s actually quite funny to see. It’s so normal here that it’s part of the accepted culture.
Thanh: Now that’s very different though from what it’s like in the West. I mean, if you compare that to sort of the US, there’s this sort of culture that…
Aaron: Yeah, it’s bureaucratic in the US. Like it’s ordered in America and you could never walk into a store and bribe someone right? Not to say that it doesn’t have its own set of problems, I guess it’s just different.
Thanh: Well it’s different but also here, and here I mean the US, it’s sort of like, there are no shortcuts even though people are looking for shortcuts. It’s just that you have to put in the time, work really hard, and you’ll get what you want to get.
Aaron: Hmmm that’s a really good point.
Thanh: Whereas in Asia, it’s like “hmmm you know, how can I cheat the system to get what I need?” So that’s very different. And of course here, if you get caught bribing people, then you’re in big trouble. But you know, in Asia, my impression is like, that’s less of a problem. So I mean, it’s just a different way of getting things done. Like you said, if you’re coming from a Western frame and you go there, and it really frustrates you to get stuff done there because of that, you just have to accept it as it is and play the game like that, or you know, fix the problem at its root cause which is very very different, and not something you really want to go after anyways.
Aaron: Yeah, it’s definitely not the best use of your time either to try to change other people here.
Thanh: Yeah exactly.
Aaron: Here being Asia, yeah. Just you know, just learn to work with the system.
Thanh: Yeah so like I said with the US it’s like you know, put in the time, work really hard, and you know, you’ll get rewarded eventually. So, you know, it’s just different.
Aaron: Yeah, related to that is the American drive for success. What I’ll say about it is if you’ve never been to the US, you owe it yourself to go there at least once and to go spend some time around the people who are building great companies, who are developing their visions for changing the world, and to get that reference experience. It’s a very very powerful experience. I have never ever seen anything like it, and I don’t think anything like it exists on Earth. Just the sheer amount of willpower that people have to really do things.
Thanh: Yeah, it’s something in the air that really causes that. Every time I come back to the US you know, from vacation or wherever, I can just feel that drive like everywhere. LA is strange in that most people who live here are not from here, they’re all from different cities, from different part of the world, because they want to make it in Hollywood, they want to become famous and work their tails off to really be successful. Yeah, it’s just like, you don’t see this anywhere else, so if you’ve never been to Los Angeles or San Francisco, and been around other very successful people, you should definitely try that out and see how that affects your productivity. Because I will bet money on it, you’ll be instantly more productive.
Aaron: Yeah as a contrast to that, there are certain parts of the world where there’s this idea of indolence, which is the concept of not really needing to do anything at all. So there are certain cultures in the world, where they really believe that the world or the government, or a big company or someone, will provide everything they need for them. And you can see this in countries that have either a lot of natural resources, or that have very strong social security networks, right? It almost breeds something of a uh, a culture of laziness. So if you happen to be from a place where this is true, for example I’m from Australia, we have a great social security network, we have free public healthcare. The government will, you know, step in and give you housing and give you all sorts of stuff, right? The problem is it creates almost like a false security in you, you kind of like “oh it’s OK, I don’t really have to do much, I can just sit around and surf all day and collect my check at the end of the week and that’ll be that”. If you want to be productive, if you want to get your work done, if you want to do good things, you cannot let this be part of your cultural makeup. You need to recognize this for what it is, which is laziness, and you to shed it as quickly as possible.
OK, so one other cultural thing that we’ve seen around the world is this idea of luck and fortune, contrasted with the idea of action. So Thanh just mentioned in America, it pretty much comes down to knowing what you want, doing stuff towards it, and, you get it. In America you know, yeah there is a certain degree of red tape, but you can pretty much still do what you want, and you can really make it in America unlike other places around the world. The opportunity is there right, there’s nothing stopping you. Now, in Asia, it’s pretty interesting, because people don’t really understand hard work in that context. They don’t see the link between doing stuff, and then getting results delivered. They see the link between doing stuff, letting fortune or luck intervene somewhere in the process and then getting stuff.
So, again, with taxi drivers, some interesting conversations I’ve had with taxi drivers here, you know, they complain, they say “oh you know, so-and-so who drives that taxi, he makes about 5 times what I do every day”. I ask “well what does he do?”. “Oh well yeah he has a bunch of like foreigners who are his regular clients, and who call him when they’re in town and he just drives them around all day”, which is a flat rate, right? And then the taxi driver says “I’m just not lucky, I don’t know how to meet these people, you know, I just wasn’t meant to be rich. I just wasn’t meant to make money driving a taxi”. And I’m like “well, why don’t you go to a bookstore and pick up a language CD on how to learn English, or French, or German, or Russian, and you know while you’re sitting there waiting for your next fare, just listen to the CD? And that way, you know, when a foreigner steps into your cab you can explain to them that you have a service on offer for a flat rate as well, so you can make more money”. And to them, this is a completely foreign idea, it’s like, um, they’ve never heard of this before. They don’t know that they can do stuff to better their own position or their own job, or their work. You know, that’s just a simple example of like the role that luck and fortune plays in the way that people work in Asia. And it goes back to that idea of shortcuts and cheating the system. The way that I would sum up a lot of Asian culture is that they look for the lottery ticket, the winning lottery ticket in everything that they do, right. They look for the loopholes, the way to “hack the system” and usually not in a very honest way either, right. And usually in the way that doesn’t involve them actually doing anything, or putting any real effort in.
We’re here telling you, luck is one of those things that you work hard, and you put in the time and you be productive, and you do what you’re supposed to be doing and it’ll come along, right. I don’t remember exactly which Eastern philosophy it is, but there is the idea that there are 2 types of luck. There is you know, heavenly luck which is the luck that God or the world at large or our collective consciousness gives you, it’s like a random stroke of good stuff that happens to you, and then there is the luck that you make yourself, which comes from basically doing stuff, and then looking for opportunities and then when you spot them, you go for them. That is the luck that we can control, that is the luck that makes you more productive, because you’ll be doing stuff and you’ll be taking advantage of things that you’ve created for yourself. And I guess as a cultural trait that’s the kind of luck that you want to have. Do you want to add anything to that Thanh?
Thanh: Yeah, I think it’s so true because in Asia it’s like they try to win the lottery ticket and everything else gets blamed on someone else. So if someone else is successful, it’s because they’re lucky. It’s not because you know, they really worked hard for it. And it’s sort of that victim mentality that they have that they don’t really believe that they can do it, you either have it or you don’t, you’re in that situation or you’re not, and you know, if you’re listening to this, this might sound really crazy to you already, but a lot of people around the world, they don’t understand that you can put yourself in a good situations if you work on it. So, just by improving yourself, learning new skills and focusing on growing to be your best self, a lot of that will translate into good things, right, as long as you put in the time and really work for it. A lot of people just don’t understand that, and I’d say 90% of people or so are like that. So, the fact that you’re listening to this, you probably get it, and that’s why this concept that Aaron just talked about will probably be absurd to you, but that’s like how the majority of people live, you know, and it’s unfortunate but that’s just the way it is.
Aaron: Yeah, I mean just to cap off this section I want to mention a couple of things. To expand on what you just said about the victim mentality you remember when we were in Portland recently we saw a lot of young homeless people, like a lot of young couples and people on the street, and a couple of our friends, Marc and Angel, made the observation that they’re not there because they have to be, they’re there by choice, to prove a point to prove a point to society or their parents, or the government, or whoever the man or the institution happens to be and that’s just silly right, you’re just victimizing yourself for no real reason, trying to shift blame and responsibility to other people when really you can make the most of your life and do the right thing. That’s something to be aware of I guess, if for whatever reason that’s crept into the makeup of your culture and how you think, it’s not good. You know, obviously if you’re listening to this it’s probably also a very foreign idea to you, but just be aware that those sort of people do exist and they do try to spread their message to other people and it’s not a very productive one.
Yeah, the last thing I wanted to mention in this section on cultural norms, is this idea of role models. So, Asia, where I live, is a very religious part of the world, and I’m talking all the way from Islam in the Middle East stretching through to Buddhism and all its variants. The interesting thing about this, is you can take one religion, like Buddhism, and each country’s interpretation of it is going to be completely different. And they emphasize different aspects of the religion. So Buddhism in say India, China and Southeast Asia are all completely different, right?
So Buddhism in China is a strain of Buddhism call Mahayana Buddhism, or something like that, and it focuses on the individual, it focuses on ancestor worship, on um, following certain values in your life and doing stuff, right? Buddhism here in Thailand, is called Theravada Buddhism, and it is a communal-based Buddhism centered around temples and monks. And so, people go pray at temple, they you know, give alms at temple to get karma, and they look to someone else as a source of their salvation rather than try to improve themselves as a human being. You’ll notice that this is the same Buddhism that exists around the world, but it’s just that the interpretation here is so different. You know, that’s how powerful culture is – it shapes religions. The run-on effect of that is those religions in turn, shape the country’s culture and the way that people see things. So this idea of looking to an external source or an external authority for your luck, fortune and ability to work, really comes in places like Thailand where everything from religion to government, everything, people look to other people for blame. Contrast that with the Chinese who are obviously are doing very well in the world right now, and I think a big part of that, apart from their population size and certain other factors, is their main religion, if you can call it that, is very much based around Confucianism, traditional Chinese values and based around the variant of Buddhism that is really about the self, as opposed to the community.
Another interesting thing about this, is the different interpretations of a religion, or a culture, these set the standards of behavior for what is acceptable it society, right? The problem is that most people don’t work just within their own society, but most people at their jobs have to deal with people overseas, or deal with foreigners, or deal with expats nowadays. So, you are going to come across people who don’t share your values at work, and something has to give on one side. I guess the classic example is that anyone who’s ever done business with the Chinese, right, the way that they look at the world, the way that they think it works is SO different from the West. I was in New Zealand last year, and there were a bunch of very noisy Chinese tourists there, who expected people there to speak Mandarin. They’re like, we’re one of the most powerful countries on Earth, everyone in China speaks Mandarin, why don’t you? And, it’s just uh, it’s just interesting to see, that’s such a degree of self-sabotage right. As we all know, English will get you by almost anywhere in the world, Russian in large parts of the world, um obviously Arabic and Spanish in other parts. Chinese – by and large, is very much confined to China and various Chinatowns around the world, and overseas Chinese communities, but this uh, expectation that they’ve grown up with, that China is the world, then going out into the world at large and realizing is not true, creates a huge inefficiency in their ability to do business and their ability to relate to other people around the world. And I guess the takeaway from this is if we have anything like this ourselves, we need to be aware of it and spot it and to address it right.
Aaron: OK, and so we’re back. Ironically while we were recording the first half of this podcast, the power in my condominium actually cut out, so there you go – Asia is not actually all that efficient in real life.
Aaron: Yeah, so where we left off we were talking about cultural norms, so you know, how superficial a culture is and how that affects people’s productivity, why in Asia they like to cut corners and why America really still is the most innovative culture in the world. So moving on from that we want to talk about something a little different, what we call “external factors”. These are things in the environment, so they’re things that you really don’t control as a person, it’s something that through whatever circumstance just happens to be part of a country’s makeup.
To start it off, one really interesting measure of how productive a country is, is actually the number of public holidays that they have, and government policies around how employees and businesses can operate on public holidays. So as a couple of examples, here in Thailand we have a LOT of public holidays. In fact, I would say that we have at least 2 public holidays every single month, if not more. And this is not even counting the longer holidays like Thai New Year or over the Christmas period. Contrast this with a country like Singapore which I believe has less than 10 public holidays throughout the entire year. Most of those being stuff like New Year, Chinese New Year and Christmas.
Something else that we’ve found interesting is the idea of the presence of seasons. So I grew up in Australia where we have 4 seasons. I’m used to the idea that the weather it gets hot, it gets cold. Something that one of my friends told me, is that any country that has seasons has a population that knows how to do long-term planning, because you know, if you have an upcoming winter, you need to prepare for it. You need to stock your grain, stock your food supplies, you know, you need to project your future needs over that cold period of time. Now, if you’re from a country where there are no seasons – again, I’m going to pick on Thailand here, things seem to be more last minute. In Thailand, there’s actually a saying in Thai that if you want to eat something, you just go to a tree or the land and pick it up and you can eat. There’s no real need about having to stockpile food or having to prepare for you know, a long winter or a particularly bad winter, on crops that don’t yield.
Related to that, is the idea of how easy it is to survive in terms of very basic survival needs. So if you take a country like Singapore that has absolutely no natural resources, everything that they’ve done, they really have to do based on their own ingenuity and their own ability to produce. Which I guess, is part of the reason that they have that belief that they can do anything and everything. A country that’s similar to that is Japan, you know the only real natural resource that Japan has is fish right, the rest of their country is pretty mountainous and horrible for farming in general. Contrast that with say the USA, where you have a ton of grazing land or Europe where agriculture was quite well-developed, and you can see that the mindsets that emerge as a result of natural resources or seasons, affects how people actually work and go about their lives.
Thanh: Hmmm, that’s very interesting.
Aaron: Yeah, it actually makes a lot of sense if you think about it. I don’t think that a lot of people realize that the history of agriculture in their country plays such a huge parts in how the current population goes about doing things right?
Thanh: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, the argument you made about the seasons makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Like if there’s no need to plan ahead because the food is always to be there because the sun is always going to be there, I can see how that sort of facilities doing things last minute, because you don’t have to plan.
Aaron: Well, you just don’t need to worry about it.
Thanh: Yeah, exactly. It makes sense.
Aaron: Which you know, is a good thing right, for people living there. But then when you take those people and throw them out into the world, where planning is an essential skill, especially for work, that creates problems.
Thanh: Now going back to the holiday thing, one thing I want to bring up as well is the idea of like how many holidays people get. Or paid time off as they call it in the US. So, like here in the US, it’s sort of accepted that you can only take up to 14 days off throughout the year. And if you get sick or something, then that goes against your paid time off, what they call PTO right. So every year you have 14 days to take time off. And if you get sick, you take 1 day off that. And that will be paid time off, so you actually get paid when you’re sick. But if you’re sick over 14 days, you don’t get paid, right. Now if you compare that to for example the Netherlands where I grew up, I think people over there have like 30 days paid time off. And it’s quite normal in the summer to be gone for like a whole month, or for like 3 weeks. Like here in the US, I kind of get the impression that if you’re gone in the US if you’re gone for more than 10 days, there’s going to be someone waiting to take over your job by the time you get back.
Aaron: Oh yeah.
Thanh: Yeah that’s kind of weird to me, but…
Aaron: Yeah, that would definitely change people’s mindsets as to how hard they need to work and stuff like that.
Thanh: Yeah, like in the Netherlands it’s… the culture’s like “do your thing, the government will help you out if you don’t make it”. Uh, here is the US it’s sort of like “hey man if you’re fired, you don’t have a job, that’s your problem, you’re pretty much on your own”. Which in a way is a good thing, because it stimulates you to work hard and always do your best, because there’s nothing to rely on when things go sour, but yeah it’s just something to be aware of I think.
Aaron: Hmm, that’s interesting. Yeah I guess related to that we have a note on what’s called working culture in different countries. So Thanh’s talked about paid time off and how that changes how you think about how you approach your work. You know, something interesting that I learnt very recently when I came here to Asia, is that people here see it as completely normal to keep working until you die. I know that sounds kind of morbid, but in Western countries like in Australia, when you turn 55 or 60, you start thinking about retirement at 65 right? You say I’m going to stop working, I’m going to cash in my, we call in superannuation, I guess in America they call it their 401k, you know, their retirement plan, their social security that kind of stuff, and you know, just retire, read books, write, you know do all the things you wanted to do when you were younger but didn’t because you were working.
Thanh: Which is totally strange when you think about it, but yeah…
Aaron: Yeah it’s pretty bizarre yeah…
Thanh: That’s a podcast for another time.
Aaron: Yeah. In Asia they actually believe that if you stop working, you die.
Aaron: So, people here, there work until they’re in their 70s and 80s. They believe that it keeps you mentally sharp, it keeps you focused and after being here for a while, I tend to agree with them. If you just sit around and do nothing all day you’re not being productive, you’re not doing what you were put here on Earth to actually do, which if you link it all together, it’s some variation of helping other people or bettering humanity or even helping just yourself. If you stop doing that, well, you know it gets really boring and your brain switches off, your body switches off and you just work less. So in the Western world we have this really big thing about “oh I’m going to work for X number of years and make so much money, then I’m going to retire and life the good life” right? But we all know successful entrepreneurs who after selling their companies for millions of dollars then come back and say what’s next – let’s do something else. Because they recognize as well yeah, it’s nice to take breaks, it’s nice to take some time off, but there is something about work and doing productive things that I would say is essential to living healthy and living a good life.
Thanh: Yeah my grandma is like that. Like she’s in Vietnam and she’s, I think somewhere in her 70s, and she still does random jobs because otherwise she told me, she’s super-bored. She doesn’t want to hang out with like old people at home doing nothing. Like, she walks a lot, she’s old, she walks a lot, she takes the bus, like she does a lot of things, and man, her memory is amazing for an old woman like that. I’m like, woah. You know, compare that to a of other elderly people I see who don’t do anything after 65 you know, I think it’s actually the way to go to be active in that sense. A lot of people you know they go into retirement houses and communities and you know, enjoy a good time, and that’s totally fine, but I get the impression that they’re very bored a lot of the times. Especially if you don’t have anything interesting going on in your life besides bingo and playing checkers with other people.
Aaron: Yeah, I mean I guess to bring it back to people of working age who aren’t elderly yet, get used to idea that you’re going to keep working. Whether it’s for money, or for something you love, or for something else. It doesn’t end – it’s an ongoing journey right up to the point where you can’t do it anymore, you know, when you die.
Thanh: Yeah, just make sure you do something you actually like to do, like if you do something that you absolutely hate, then I can see how retirement is actually very pleasant, and that’s sort of the impression that I get in the US, it’s like people really don’t like their jobs. Most people, like we’ve been to this conference, and you know, I’ve seen so many people and I’ve talked to so many people who just hate their jobs and would love to do something else. But they’re sort of stuck, and they have to do this until retirement and then they’re sort of “free”, but like Aaron just said earlier, we know people who have sold successful companies and took time off, but then couldn’t sit still because it gets really boring after a while. That time might be 6 months, 1 year, but it’s definitely not 20 years if you’re planning to retire for that long.
Aaron: Yeah, definitely.
Speaking of America, one thing I really noticed when I was living there was they have this culture of workaholism. So, you know if I remember correctly most Americans start work pretty early, like 8am or 9am, and then work through to like 6pm or 7pm, if not later in the evening. I guess I’m talking about office workers here, but uh, it really amazed me because in Australia it’s very much a in-at-9am-sharp-out-by-5pm, go-to-the-pub and have drinks and watch the game thing, every single day. Does being a workaholic make you more productive? I would say it does. But you do need to temper it. Henry Ford ran a bunch of productivity experiments, and I think they worked out that the maximum, optimum number of work hours a week was about 40 hours before people started making mistakes, and other data that we’ve seen, the argument would be that if you’re a knowledge worker, which most office people are nowadays, 35 hours is about the right if you think about it. So that’s working about 9am-5pm maybe with an hour off for lunch 5 days a week. There’s no real… yeah ok there may be a need to pull all-nighters and push things through, and obviously if you work in high-pressure companies, say an investment bank or a consulting firm, you know they expect you to put in the late hours, but in terms of your health, in terms of the output that you create, you know, 35-45 hours a week is pretty much where you want to be. So, definitely love your work, definitely go at it hard when you’re doing it, but remember to take time off as well, and obviously, the culture of the company or the country that you’re in will have a big impact on that.
OK, the last environment factor we want to talk about is this idea of the importance of the English language and information access. So, something really interesting about this, is I just read an article lately saying that the number of Internet users in China now tops out at about 650 million, which is double the number in the US, and I think it’s more than the US plus the next 2 or 3 countries put together. So all these people are online speaking Chinese, typing in Chinese, but from what we’ve been a seen, and it may be a case that a lot of these Chinese-speaking Internet users haven’t made their way and we just haven’t run into that many of them yet, but from what Thanh hand I have seen, one of the biggest unspoken factors in productivity, is access to the English-language Internet. And by that, I mean to blogs, to articles, to forums, to books, to Amazon, to anything that’s written in English because, you know, I hate to say it, but all the really great ideas online are written in English.
Aaron: That’s where they all start, that’s where all the innovation starts, and a big part of that was that America was, for a long time, had the largest online presence. They have huge Internet penetration. Countries like Australia and the UK also have massive Internet penetration, and you know, all the good stuff was written in English. All the stuff that told you to work 35 hours a week, that told you how to be productive, how to set up your morning rituals, how to manage your tasks – that was all written in English first. Now, what we’re seeing, is a lot of this English language stuff is being translated into native tongues right, so a lot of our stuff gets translated into Mandarin and Russian all the time. Which I guess is good, because people will become more productive and everyone will do better as a whole. What’s really interesting, is in countries where English isn’t a priority, or where it isn’t taken seriously as something that people should learn, these countries suffer from a huge lack of ideas entering their collective consciousness, and as a result, they have lower productivity standards, their work just isn’t as fluid, and they just don’t produce as much as other countries. You can, you know, you can read Lee Kuan Yew’s biography and you can see why they made English one of the de-facto languages in Singapore, because they realized the importance that America and the UK and you know, the English-speaking parts of Europe would be producing this great stuff, and if they wanted in on it, they would have to speak English as well.
As a contrast, a couple of countries in Asia, so I live in Thailand – English is no longer a priority here. They’re actually quite proud of their culture and their language, which they have the right to be, but you know, the result of that is that they suffer – they don’t get new ideas in from the rest of the world because there just aren’t enough people here who speak fluent English, who can read and write it and translate it into Thai. There’s like a lag time of 4-5 years before all the big ideas from the rest of the world come into here. Now, the exception to this, would be countries like Japan, who have always had a huge scientific and progressive brain trust. You know, there are a lot of great universities in Japan and they have their whole chunk of the Internet that is entirely in Japanese that has great ideas, and they have enough people translating and bringing in ideas from the US and the rest of the world, that they don’t suffer this problem the way that a country like Thailand does.
So let’s talk a bit about collective and individualistic cultures. Do you want to kick us off Thanh?
Thanh: Uh sure. So, this whole idea is about how people view you, and sort of how you conduct yourself. So, earlier in the podcast I talked about how in the Netherlands it’s sort of a collective culture where nobody really stands out and everyone has to sort of fit in. So if there’s a project that’s going on, there’s not one person that’s going to take all the credit. In the US, there’s this notion that there’s always this one superstar. Like you see this in sports a lot. But you also see this is the work culture, like there’s always this on person that is you know, is sort of the A-player and wants to get all the credit for it. So, you can translate this into sort of the culture in the country. So like I said, in the Netherlands you have that, in Asia it’s mostly a collective thing, I think former Soviet Union as well, whereas in the US, or mostly in Anglo-Saxon countries, it’s more of an individualistic approach to that. So, it’s… I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily good or bad either approach, it’s just something you have to sort of live with and deal with on a daily basis.
Aaron: Yeah, I think when we talked about this we came to the conclusion that in general, people who want to be individual superstars tend to get the job done better and faster, if a little messier, and that collective cultures tend to work better than individuals, obviously, but only if everyone really gets along really well. Which I guess to someone who grew up in an Anglo-sphere country that’s a bit ask, but in Asia they seem to do it just fine. I guess the productivity takeaway from this is be aware which one you prefer, and within that framework be the most productive person you can be, and try to work with other productive people, and that will just make your work results, you know, unstoppable.
Thanh: Yeah, especially if you’re traveling to different places, you should pretty much pick this up as soon as possible so that there’s no conflict going on.
Aaron: Yeah. Let’s talk about self-development and its presence in different countries. So, as surprising as it will be to everyone listening to this, there are a lot of people in the world who don’t know about self-development, also called self-help, personal development, personal growth and you know, all that kind of good stuff. I’ve had conversations with people here in Thailand, in the Philippines, in Hong Kong, in Japan, and you know I tell them, they ask “what do you do?”, well, I work for a company called Asian Efficiency, we teach people systems and productivity. And a lot of the time, they say “oh, that’s kind of cool, what’s that about?” And then I tell them and they’re like “oh yeah, we do that too, we just don’t call it that”. So the interesting thing is that, and I think this heavily relates to the presence of English in a particular country, is, a lot of people use you know, what we term productivity hacks, systems and the things that help you manage your tasks, your time, but they don’t think about them that way. They just think about them as, “this is just something my former boss told me to do, I’m just going to do it this way”. Where this becomes a bit of a problem is a lot of these people have trouble thinking in terms of abstract concepts, which is you know, if you’re going to build an effective say email management system, you need to be able to conceptualize it on paper or visually first, before you can implement it in real life, and you know, abstract thinking skills… you know, one of the things that self-development gives you, is this ability to think in abstract terms, because you’re talking about concepts like growth, like processes, you know, things that don’t have a physical form that you can hold on to.
Now if you’re listening to this, you are probably aware of self-development and you are probably on a quest to be the best person that you can be in terms of skills and abilities and life right. And I just want to say that that’s a really really good mindset, if not one of the best mindsets you can have. There is a huge difference in terms of ability to do stuff between people who aspire to be better and better, and people who just kind of take things the way they are.
Thanh: Yeah, I think people sort of understand this concept are kind of in the like, I don’t know, maybe the top 5% or top 10% of people in the world. Like I think the majority of people just don’t understand this concept that you can actually be a better person. You can actually improve yourself. You don’t have to rely on luck or good fortune to be in a place where you want to be, you can actually work towards that. And a lot of people just don’t understand this concept, and like as Aaron said if you’re listening to this then you are in that sort of top 5% or 10% of people who get it, and we just want to help you get there faster.
Aaron: OK, so Thanh asked me to not actually talk about this but I’m going to talk about it anyway. It’s something called “immigrant work ethic”. So, from our backstories, you can tell that Thanh and I are both second-generation Asians growing up in different countries, so it may not be politically correct to say, but where a country’s migrants come from, has a huge impact on that country’s ability to grow and be productive. So the question it comes down to, is do these migrants come in and see it as an opportunity to make a better life for themselves, there’s that self-improvement mindset again, or do they see it as a way to come in and take advantage of a country’s welfare systems and other people’s generosity?
So in Australia, despite all the issues that we have had with you know, racial riots and infighting and that kind of stuff, in general migrants are pretty good. The model minority are Indians and Asians, who come in, get insane test scores all through school and go on to become doctors and lawyers, right. They move there, they work hard, or their parents work hard, the children of migrants usually end up performing really well and contributing a lot to society. I’ve been told by a lot of European friends that it’s not quite that way in Europe, where there are a lot of immigrants who come in and end up living off welfare and generally causing problems in countries. And really the only difference there is do the people come in do they see it as an opportunity for a fresh start and the ability to do better? Or do they see it as way to just abuse a welfare system that’s set up to take care of a country’s inhabitants?
Thanh do you want to talk a bit about transcending and overcoming culture?
Thanh: Ah yeah. So all of this aside, you know, we’ve talked about a lot of different things today, and some of the stuff we’ve never actually written about before, or even talked about before. But what we sort of want to end it up, or close with, is sort of the idea of awareness. You know, not everything you learn is always the best, and as you grew up and you grew up in a certain culture, you know, you adapt certain values, you learn certain values, you learn certain mindsets, and as a result of that, it doesn’t mean you’re the best version that you can be, because of that. Because each culture as we’ve said is different, has different positives, different negatives, but if you travel around a little bit you’ll get to see all these different ways of living and mindsets that people have, and what we’re trying to really instill in you is all the things that we’ve seen and sort of mash that together and give you ideas of how you can implement this.
So, the first thing you have to be aware of is yes, you can change, and yes you can learn all these things and like we’ve mentioned before if you understand the concept of persona development or personal growth, or you’re just listening to this, you already understand that alright, so you’re already open for change, you just have to sort of be aware of what you want to change and add sort of to your life and grow in that aspect. So you basically have to sort of put a spotlight on that and sort of focus on that. So, the first step to any change is always awareness. And then once you sort of know what you want to do, then it’s just repetition, just doing it over and over and over again. So as an example, if you know that you’re generally a lazy person, but you don’t want to be, the first step is, being aware of that and acknowledging that. “You know what, I’m lazy, maybe it’s because of the culture here, you don’t have to be a star performer, you can just sit on your behind and not do that much and still get stuff done”, but if you’re someone who wants to change and sort of develop yourself in that aspect, the first step is be aware that you are lazy, and acknowledge that, and then set up sort of a game plan for how you are going to change that. And then it’s just repeating that process over and over and over again. So if you’re lazy, then the first step that you can do is always take action regardless, whether it’s a small step or like a big step, always try to take action so that you don’t put yourself in a state where you don’t take action or you’re just procrastinating. So you can apply this in different areas whether that’s at school or at work, you just have to sort of figure out what your plan is and focus on that constantly all the time.
Aaron: Yeah, just to add to that, because we’re talking about culture and different countries around the world in this podcast, one thing I want to add is spend some time learning about different cultures and how they work, and then take the best aspects of those things and integrate them, you know, apply them for yourself. So for example, from Japan, a really popular concept is kaizen, which is the idea of constantly and always improving your business systems. And by business systems, I mean your life, right. So from Singapore you can take that belief that anything is possible and that all you really need to do to do anything is to work out how to do and it and then go ahead and do it, and no one can really stop you right. And of course earlier we talked about America, where if you haven’t visited yet, you owe it to yourself to go there at least once, and to just soak in the energy and the raw drive that the people there have to make their lives and the world a better place.
So that’s all we had unless you’ve got anything else Thanh?
Thanh: No, that was a good podcast.
Aaron: Yeah it was really good.
So this has been a podcast from Asian Efficiency. I’m Aaron.
Thanh: And I’m Thanh. And thanks for listening.
Aaron: Yeah, and thanks for listening.