Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What Quality Means for An MBA Programme?

I am forced to think what quality means for an education programme through my day-to-day activities to develop and establish a high 'quality' MBA programme. The interactions with the Academic team tells me that better quality means greater resource allocation, more people, more computers, more books for the library etc. This may be correct up to a point and reflect the realities of the programme management, where one battle you want to win is the battle for the budgets. However, I am not convinced that once the resources are sorted out, 'quality' will happen itself. On the contrary, I have started believing that quality of a programme may not be linked to resources at all, once an adequate level of resources have been allocated. The example I shall use here is that there is an optimal class size. Let's say we throw more resources and reduce our class sizes from 30 to 20: I am unlikely to believe that this will mean better quality of the programme. Same goes for underutilized computers or unread library books; while this may create a perception of quality, more resources do not necessarily mean a better programme.

The other aspect of quality we discuss a lot is about meeting the requirements of accreditation. However, I am also not convinced that ticking the boxes will itself guarantee quality; these may be measures, however appropriate, about the quality system, but these measures are not be all and end all. In fact, I shall argue that focusing too much on these measures can make you lose sight of the task of enhancing quality of the programme altogether.

So, I am back at the textbook definition of quality in a commercial context: Deliver what's written on the tin. However, while this would have been the easiest way to view quality, I have come to realize that the students come to view quality very differently. For them, it is not important what was written, but what they read into it. From my discussions with students, this was more about the MBA being worthwhile, which essentially meant that they get a decent job after they have achieved the qualification and this has, if they have been employed before, resulted in an increase of salary.

Also, the employers see the quality of the MBA programme as one demonstrated by the students' employability. This means the students are equipped with the technical and interpersonal skills necessary in a business. This is quite close to the students' perception, the crucial difference being the 'soft' knowledge, the interpersonal bit. Most students in my experience wouldn't want to waste time on these 'woolly' subjects. While the employers think they are crucial, and most criticism about the MBA programmes emanate from their lack of 'practical' skills, students' perception of quality of an MBA programme are closely connected to the 'real' content of the programme.

There was an attempt to do a Competency-based model for an MBA programme, primarily by Porter and others in the USA. However, the subject benchmark statements by Britain's QAA stick to more academic percepts of quality: Content, delivery and student experience etc.

In fact, none of these should be problematic - as all these should tie around a programme which is developed for the market requirements and delivered in a practical context. But more often than not, certain things are lost in translation between the workplace and the classroom. Like medicine, MBA is a vocational qualification, and the turf war between education and training is quite apparent in designing the MBA agenda. QAA wants MBA graduates to 'critically evaluate', the employers want them to 'practically apply' and 'think on their feet': They should be similar things, but they are not.

And, finally, there is student experience, which brings all the other things, service, promptness and all those things, in the mix. This is wooliness at its best: Universities try to fill the gap by plugging in odd visits to exotic business locations (how about going to Prague for a course in International Management, or to Bavaria for a Financial Analysis course) and by working out service level guidance which are still closely tied to their unchanging bureaucracies. For future managers, being able to fire their errant or sloppy tutors may be the only practical measure of experience, but most colleges will stop short of that and draw the line.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ted Talk: Malcolm Gladwell on Perfect Food

The E-School Approach

Nathan Furr makes a case for the E-School approach on his Forbes blog (read here) and against the traditional B-School approach. The key difference, following his argument, is seeing problems as opportunity and uncertainty as a given. While B-Schools keep talking about change, they have changed little (except becoming far too expensive) and collectively, the B-School world does not want the world to change.

However, it is changing. We all know about technology. While the technological changes are being co-opted in B-School curriculum, it is not easy to cope with its social effect: The age of transparency. In the age of Wikileaks, it is important to be transparent: Instead, the B-Schools are trying hard to tell people that they must look authentic. The statement is self-defeating, indeed. However, that shows the key problem with B-Schools: They are too disconnected from life.

The idea of E-School, hence, is important, and I would tend to agree that all Business Education must go that way. Everyone is an entrepreneur, as Nathan Furr suggests, as long as you are trying to solve problems. Most people do, though it is possible to spot people who are crushed under the problems thrown at them. Or, too egocentric to even try. The key to solving problems, indeed, is to accept that problems are inevitable, but all problems are solvable, as long as one is ready to be flexible and ready to go beyond, if necessary, conventional wisdom. The solutions to all problems in the world isn't written down in Bible, Koran or Gita, neither they have been fully covered by management models by Gurus of today. That way, what is needed can simply be called a scientific mindset, in the sense it used to be in the age of romantic science: Where one wanted to change the world (and not just get a patent) and believed that nothing should be taken for a given.

I shall add one more thing: We don't need general degrees in business administration anymore. MBA is gone, dead, a relic of another age. We need accountants, marketers, HR experts, but they should do functional studies, like an M Sc or a Professional Diploma. What we need at the General Business level is an MBE, which should come after one or the other functional studies have been completed: This is not the kind of MBE that the Queen will give, but the kind of qualification all Business Leaders of tomorrow will need. Master of Business Entrepreneurship, I shall label this, will be about teaching values and discussing opportunities, exploring businesses and people, and applying functional knowledge to the broader context of solving world's problems and indeed changing it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Preparing to Teach

I have taken on teaching responsibilities starting this week. I wish I didn't, as the preparation for this has now been added to my already crazy schedule; but, then, I wanted to teach. This is the first reason I took on my current job. From the small amount of teaching I have done over the last year, I know I enjoy teaching too: It gives me the excuse to prepare, and learn more myself through conversations with students.

However, this week's teaching commitment is slightly different from what I have done so far. I am supposed to do a 'tutorial' as opposed to a lecture. Personally, I am not sure what the tutorials are supposed to achieve. We are teaching for an MBA, and the stated purpose of the tutorial is to ready the students for examinations. While I know this may be necessary for some of our students, who clearly find writing nuanced essays a challenging task, the idea of preparing for the examinations run counter to my belief what MBA should be about. I am trying to push forward an agenda of an MBA which allows the students critical thinking and engagement with 'conventional business wisdom'; preparing them to write examination questions in the right way, to me, is surrendering to that conventional wisdom all over again.

Some colleagues argued that it does not have to be so. I can indeed talk about opposing ideas and cite literature of different kind. I guess this is exactly what I am going to do, but I am mindful of the risks: This is not an one-to-one affair answering the students' individual queries, but something delivered in a lecture theater with more than 40 students present. I am struggling to see how the tutorial can be different from the lecture. My preparation activities, which I am doing now, is to negotiate the point.

This is what I am trying then: I shall focus my tutorial on critical engagement with a topic of importance. Mindful of the examination preparation requirement, I shall keep it to a topic which is most likely to be covered in the assessment. However, I am trying not to lecture, but structure the session in terms of three activities - one solely individual, one group activity and another individual and then group activity. My plans are to break down my available three hours into three 50 minute segments, each started by a small 'context' lecture done by me, followed on by the activities. In the end, I wish to give them a selection of literature and pointers, and a question from the past papers to write and submit on Moodle, which I shall give feedback on.

The topic I have chosen to cover is something I have done before: International Business Culture. This is rooted on the same Hall/ Hofstede kind of material, though I shall refer to Pankaj Ghemawat and other business writers extensively. I am also using a quiz - a mix of questions on politics, culture and history of different countries - which is not exactly relevant to what I am trying to teach, but indicates the need for a global mindset and hopefully this will set the context for discussions.

Despite the trouble of preparation, then, I am looking forward to this session on Thursday. I do this every week thereafter - one day a week to teach. This will make quite a difference in my lifestyle and would possibly ground me for a while. However, my plans to travel to India looks quite distant still and these teaching commitments will last only 8 weeks, freeing me up mid-August again.

Another Update on My Life

Another weekend, but I have never had a quiet weekend when I have nothing to do. This time, I have to do two bits of coursework to be turned in next week, and also prepare for a class I am scheduled to take on Thursday. So, I would be busy. But, hopefully, once I am done with these two bits of work, my MA almost complete (except the dissertation), I can focus on other things in life. May be. I feel this deep urge to change things and move forward.

About a year back, I wanted to live in a steady state: Stay home, and have a predictable life - that's what I opted for. I got what I wanted in good measure, and now it is boring. I seem to have come a full circle and life must now change again.

I shall, indeed, look back at the past year with satisfaction. I have achieved a lot. I have put in real efforts at work and changed things significantly. I have learned a lot. I have met interesting people, at work and outside, who would probably now remain friends all my life. In a way, this was an exceptionally productive, happy period in my life.

But like all good things, this must evolve or otherwise, this will end. I have started feeling the burden of standing still now. Change isn't any longer fast enough. There are days when I am deeply frustrated, losing my way in the face of entrenched vested interests: On other days, I am worried, as forces outside our control threaten to destroy whatever we were building. But, in any event, not moving forward is going back - and I am deeply fearful of a roll-back.

So, like I do every Saturday morning, I am thinking about my priorities. This time with a little more worry, a deep sense of urgency, with that fear that creeps behind one's mind when one seems to be lost. This isn't insecurity, but my essential process of living. I never want my life to dumb down and be completely predictable: I have got myself into this situation in the first place by trying out living on the edge. However, feeling on the edge is essential part of this living, because if I am not worried, I shall not change - and keep changing is the way to live.

I sometimes think of myself as a tightrope walker. Always holding things in balance, always mindful, but full of thrill in every cautious step I take. But there is one difference: I can afford mistakes and often make a lot of them. Unlike tightrope walking, there isn't a set goal that I am walking towards. May be this is more like walking inside a maze, without the pressure of having to reach anywhere in particular, but having to make the right choice every time I am at a crossroad. And, indeed, this is a choice: I can fold tents and go home and retire in a provincial life, living on the modest inheritance I may have. Or, at least, I would like to think that way.

So, thinking about all this, here is an agenda I came up this morning.

First, I realized that I couldn't live a leisurely life anytime before I am dead. So, if I was expecting to achieve an 'academic lifestyle', which meant working sparsely, I should give that up altogether. There is a certain sense of pride in hard work, and I must reconcile with the fact that this is what I would have to put in all my life. Like my grandfather in a way, who worked every day of his life till the morning he died at the age of 91. He never thought about the possibility of a leisurely retirement. Despite the fact this life is full of disappointment, sweat, tears and missing out on lot of things, this is heroic too, in a modern sense. I have been sneered at, by some friends of my childhood, because I worked hard to 'make money'; but I didn't make money. I worked hard for the sheer charm of working hard: For the sense of belonging, living, that this gives me.

I have also been told that this is dumb, as one would not think about working hard if one knew good things in life. Like driving cart bikes perhaps, or playing golf. My ignorance about that aspect of goodness of life have to be admitted. If I ever take a break, perhaps, I shall not go golfing: I intend to travel. That's hard work too; I can vouch for that after walking 10 miles or more every day of my seven day travel to Rome and Florence last week.


Friday, June 24, 2011

On Greek Debts

The Greeks are at it again. It is not their fault: They, like everyone else, believed in the system they lived inside. But, if one cares to look, we have irreversibly reached the age of sovereign bankruptcies. This isn't new: This used to be common for princely states. But, succumbing to the same historical disease is mightily embarrassing for modern states, and for those economists who claimed to have seen the end of history.

The world we live in, shall we now admit, isn't sustainable. What we are witnessing are not minor blimps, but the death pangs of an aged system which has been on life support for a long time. We are living with hope that an unlimited supply of oxygen, in this case, bail-out money, will keep us going. But we are very very close to bankrupting everyone.

To understand what might be, and how we can get out of the mess, it may be a good idea to turn to, yes, Greeks. More specifically, to this ancient Greek statesman, Solon (638 - 558 BC). Solon, a worldly wise trader, who could be called the first global salesman with some justification, took to a career in politics and introduced many reforms in ancient Athens, which may have led to the 'Golden Age' in Athens later. He was one of the first statesmen in the world to see the advantage of foreign investment: His code allowed foreign tradesmen to settle in Athens and gain citizenship provided they brought family with them. He helped introduce standard weights and measures, which improved the competitiveness of Athenian commerce. However, Solon will be remembered for one thing he did above all, for reforming the Athenian 'constitution', which was created a century earlier by Draco (hence, Draconian). Solon changed all of Draco's laws except for those on homicide, and of particular import to our discussion was what he did for debts.

This was a time when most Athenians were in debt. Under Draco's laws, if a person was in debt, it could be held against him as a person and he could be sold to slavery. Solon changed all that. Known as Seisachtheia, or shaking of the burdens, Solon's reforms meant that the debts could no longer be held against the person and the debtor would no longer fall to slavery. On top of this, Solon actually cancelled all debts!

This was extraordinary, because any economic system functions on the basis of the debtor-creditor relationship. Solon rightly recognized that this had become unsustainable: Debtors lent to people who couldn't clearly pay back and were then buying their persons, entangling the economy even further. One must also note that Solon did another extraordinary thing after his reforms were implemented: He left. He surrendered his extraordinary authority and went away. His deal with Athenians were that these laws could not be repealed for 10 years (some said 100 years) and since he was away, Athenians could not persuade him to change this any more.

In a way, Solon dismantled an economic and legal system, which became unsustainable, and paved the way to an Athenian golden age. His actions, in modern terms, would mean allowing everyone to go bankrupt, as if to push a reboot button on the economy. Indeed, that's exactly what our leaders are trying to avoid: They are trying to save banks, so that the savings of the 'hardworking' people could be saved. Indeed, most money in these banks come from people who have never worked a day in life, or gotten the money by stealing, killing or swindling someone, but that's besides the point. Indeed, most banks are too big to fail, meaning that if they were to fail, they would take down the faith in the current political system with them.

It is, therefore, acceptable to save banks but dismantle the society. The British government is finding cash to save banks but can't find the money to pay for education and healthcare of its citizens, the premises they could build the post-war society on. It is the erosion of another kind who no one wants to see anymore: By trying to preserve a system which is clearly not fit for purpose, they are driving all of us to the opposite direction of Solonian reforms, to a dark age, when we may have money and the banks, but not much else.

I did write some time ago that the recession of 2008 was to be an unfinished business, leading to much greater global economic catastrophe in a matter of time (Read here). We seem to be arriving at the end time now. This isn't a celebration, because there is nothing to celebrate. It is a time to observe, with regrets perhaps, that individuals, so intelligent individually, never seem to learn a lesson collectively.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Negotiating Change

Over the last 12 months, I have been doing some interesting work to bring change into a well-established organization. Indeed, the change that I was tasked to bring in was absolutely essential: The marketplace was changing rapidly and the company needed to move accordingly. I bore the title of 'Head of Strategy and Planning' for a while, as the key task was to interpret the change outside and formulate the change inside. At the end of 12 months, my job is still incomplete, but I have a perspective of the job: I look back with satisfaction with what we have achieved collectively, but also realize the task was full of surprises. In summary, I shall treat these 12 months as my life on the crust of change, a deeply satisfying experience if it is ever over.

I think the key lesson that I learned being on the coalface of change is that it is messier than the textbooks and theories make it sound. Most of my frustrations - and I must admit that I had a fair share - came from anchoring my expectations too much into what I read. For example, I kept expecting people to be rational, and only learned along the way that they are not. And, it took some reflection to accept that this is not necessarily a bad thing: In fact, what seemed dysfunctional at first appeared to me as a deeply social organization to me with perspective, just the kind of business I usually talk about, where people care about each other. While what I have been doing meant dismantling part of this social infrastructure and replacing it with a more rational business model, and I shall reason we had to do it to remain competitive, I felt a sense of regret having to do it in the first place. However, the lesson I learned from this is that while we should see business as a social organization, the big problem with that model is - as in society - you would invariably end up getting some free-loaders and some self-interested individuals who tend to abuse such environment and corrupt this with cronyism and other sub-optimal practices. So, any business based on social bonding must start with a set of well-defined values, like a family run by a benevolent autocrat (I grew up in one; I know). One must strive to maintain the values, and only by keeping these values intact, and judgements fair, one can preserve the social core of the business. In that light, I have guided my efforts to build a 'coalition of the willing', a team of capable and independent individuals who are committed to a somewhat similar vision. This, in my mind, is the first step to build a socially connected business, based on values and common goals, rather than privileges and hand-outs.

There were other interesting dilemmas to negotiate as well. The two key issues were education versus training debate, and whether one can reconcile the 'profit motive' with slightly longer term business model of education. These indeed provided me the landscape for intellectual exploration, just as the kind I adore. Having come from training, I started with the discipline and employability as the core objectives for everything, only to discover, only serendipitously, the value of education in answering the various 'why' questions in our lives. This came with the rather strange realization that despite the talk, what most British universities are interested in is narrow skills training, because they have themselves given up the cause of education at a time when market rules everything. My conversations with university administrators also unveiled an interesting point - that universities usually blame the students for such a drift. Students are no longer interested in education, they would say, and that they, as institutions, are powerless to change the agenda in 'student as consumer' age. To my mind, this is sheer laziness: I only need to look at the businesses of internet services and software where innovation transformed consumer preferences. Universities have one advantage - students come to them to learn - but by surrendering their thinking to bureaucratic oversight, the universities are no longer interested to innovate, and to inform students' choices. This made me reach a counter-intuitive conclusion: That privately owned businesses may have a greater chance of driving teaching innovation and changing students' choices than publicly funded universities. This is an untested assumption, but I am willing to risk it and make it the central premise of all the change I am working towards.

The other question of reconciling profit motive with longer term nature of education was a relatively easier one. It is possible to see the output of an educational institution in terms of customer equity, over and beyond the simple bottom line. If one can align the nature of investment - to those of a legacy kind rather than market-driven equity - it is possible to build great educational institutions with profit motive. Indeed, the choices I faced were more stark: The immediate choice of fresh investment always came from venture capitalists trying to capitalize on the high-growth HE sector, which is currently highly fragmented in Britain. Their business models are usually based on combining several small businesses on a PLATFORM, and then sell it on to a more long term investor. For me, such ownership transition is an essential part of reforming the business: A painful transition period perhaps, but leading to a more sustainable future.

So, in summary, interesting times, and I am just about getting started now.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Educating For Wisdom

Steven Schwartz, the VC of Macquarie University, Sydney, wrote a well-argued piece in Times Higher Education, on the need to 'educate' students rather than just train (read his article here). He is clearly right. As the universities abandon their responsibility to educate, the world has become a more dangerous place, full of engineers, doctors, lawyers, managers and statesmen who lack moral judgement of any kind. Besides, this failure, at the same time when an university degree is absolutely essential to get anywhere in life, subverts our ability to make rational choices: What a waste of time and energy it is to spend so many years collectively studying something that gives a formula which is already outdated and does not prepare us for any change in circumstances?

The reason I think Professor Schwartz is right on the money is partly because the lessons I have learned dealing with universities over last few years. My impression is that for most universities, quality control is a tick-box exercise and student experience is a wooly name for all that can't be, and shouldn't be, defined. And, besides, I have been complaining about the employability bias for some time: Higher Education, if it is any higher than training, must provide its participants with a perspective, a bird's eye view of the world around them, not just how to walk the road. Instead, most university education today is about finishing the coursework and write a few pre-determined answers, and getting a job somehow. I am not surprised that a recent survey found that the graduate expectations about salaries, and the salaries they end up getting, are widely divergent: They ought to be.

In fact, the employability issue has subverted the agenda for higher education in a lot of ways. I love quoting Dr Jason Davies of UCL, a classicist who taught me Higher Education policy, who keeps saying that abolition of polytechnics in Britain was actually the abolition of universities. The more I see this identity crisis of Higher Education, the more I know he is absolutely right.

Interestingly, while I think this bias needs to be corrected, I am also a believer of For Profit Higher Education (that's what I do for a living). I am very conscious that For-Profit HE is based on the concept of 'pay-off', how soon the students could get back the money spent, and this is closely linked to employability. In real life, I also know that no student would ever want to buy a general education curricula, and all For-Profit colleges may actually promote 'Placement Support' as a key part of their proposition. But I still believe that For Profit sector has a better chance of tackling the 'education deficit' than the public sector, and here is why.

First, because student experience isn't a theoretical, nice-to-have concept in For Profit: It should be everything for serious institutions. Education is not about choice, as Paul Krugman argued a few weeks ago on the New York Times: It is the job of the educator to tell the students what they should be asking for. So, being a passive player in the education process and just providing the service isn't enough to create a student experience, and many For Profit colleges, as they compete with the state sector, are aware about this. Because of their challenger status, they would need to make the process of education, not just its end, worthwhile: In fact, enriching the education itself is their only chance of achieving a successful end.

Second, because Quality isn't a tickbox exercise but a competitive weapon for the For Profit colleges. I am also aware that many institutions fall short, but this is mostly because the sector is controlled by bureaucrats who take a limited view of the quality. This is exactly why so much of regulation has actually resulted in such poor quality of education and graduates it produces. Most of my efforts to transform the business programmes we offer meet with resistance from the accrediting universities, and the overarching message is - don't try to do more than what's needed. Even if what's prescribed does not meet the learning goals.. be safe, don't try anything new. This will not happen in a truly competitive market for higher education. And, I am not just a free-market champion here: We have the example of schools (though this is a slightly different market) where, with less regulation, private provision has proved to be quite successful in raising quality.

I do think professional private sector providers can go beyond immediate employability and introduce elements that enable judgement into education again. I believe that we haven't seen true extent of what private education can do yet: The industry is only just picking up and are still dominated by ex-tuition providers, people who came from training background and were not particularly keen on innovation. But the retreat of the public sector is now making the market bigger and attractive to new players. So, all set for the next wave - this time, perhaps the big publishers and web content producers would bite the bait. This will mean a slightly different bias, like content as education kind of bias, which is different from the current problem of training as education. But, finally, I shall guess, a pure education industry would emerge, on the backs of entrepreneurs who would look at the industry as their patch and will enter into this without the baggage of another industry, just as software did in the late Seventies. Education is the killer app for the next fifty years, and such interventions are imminent. That will be, I am hopeful, Higher Education's tipping point, when the game will change and existing public provisions will look utterly out of depth, not just because the new, professional education companies will offer better employability, but better education.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Professional And Personal Identities

I have come across a number of people who are struggling to keep their professional and personal identities separate on social media. The challenges are common: Have two twitter accounts or one? Have read so many stories, few with happy endings but a lot more lot less pleasant, of people mixing up their twitter accounts and sending wrong messages to wrong people. On a more involved scale, getting one's work colleagues on Facebook, and the recent case of one of the jurors contacting one of the defendants, is something fraught with danger. However, another side of the story is that it is incredibly difficult to keep the two separate, and often, an honest effort smacks of dishonesty and manipulative behaviour.

The point, indeed, is that this is all about an individual person and it is best to be as open and honest to the world as possible. However, it is equally true to that the world in this case is a suffocating place governed by hypocracy and political correctness, and absolutely no sense of humour. We often expect the our public selves to be as boring and bland as possible, without any sense of humour, sexual urge or political opinions. It is almost impossible to be true to yourself unless you don't really have to care, which is impossible if you are in public service in some way. This should only be possible if you are a small entrepreneur, or an artist or a writer, but then too, plain-speaking is often problematic.

I am no lover of political correctness but I do love mixing up my personal and public persona and usually keep this blog as a very public diary, linked to Linkedin and open to my business contacts. Some of the posts are clearly risque, and while I indulge on essays at times, my more personal posts draw more comments and earn me friends. Indeed, they bring awkward moments too, particularly when I see someone at work picking up precisely the bits I didn't want them to see. But this far outweighs the benefits that I derived from deeper bonds with people I wouldn't otherwise not know well. In fact, I have found, while people talk about 'shallow' relationships in the age of Internet, honest blogging may help repair this shallowness to some extent. Besides, connections between coworkers, which has almost always been shallow (except for a few corporations which actively worked to promote it) can, I would believe, improve with social media intervention of this kind.

I think the key point is that we live in a more transparent time and adapting to such transparency should be central to how we communicate and conduct our lives. Trying to cling on to an outmoded concept of privacy, and the walls between private and professional lives, are no longer viable. It has been some time we knew Chester Bernard's dictum that while companies pay their employees to perform certain tasks, it is the whole person who comes to work: Indeed, it is time to we stop fearing transparency and start being the whole person we are supposed to be.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Recalibrating Myself

I am in Rome, my first real break - not counting the almost depressing and lonely Christmases I spent over last few years - since December 2005. I needed the time away, to think over what I am doing now and what I want to do, and wandering around on the streets of Rome is proving to be a good way to do this. Besides, it is helpful that I am not too rushed - I am not with a touring party or doing a hop-on hop-off city tour - but can take my time sitting in a Bistro or take an afternoon off at the hotel (which I did today, a break from the midday sun).

One thing I know about Rome is that I did not come prepared. If I contrast this visit to my visit to Paris, I knew what I wanted to see. I read Da Vinci Code just as I visited the city, and despite its flawed history and even geography, it told me the stories of the place and prepared my mind for it. I also knew what I missed: For years, I have been looking into books of Cartier Bresson but could not make it to the Museum. I didn't go to Versailles and also couldn't make it to Museum of Rodin, keeping it for another time. In Rome, however, it is far more overwhelming - not just that I simply don't know what I missed, every church around the street corner seemed to have a story inside (or buried under, as I discovered in San Clemente), I also didn't know what to see in Vatican Museum, within the endless arrays of Raphael and other artists and artifacts. At this time, I am bracing myself for a similar experience at Florence's Uffizi Gallery, as my knowledge of Renaissance art is all but minimal.

I love this wandering around, the exploration, knowing stories about dead people and their ideas, see these grand historical narratives played out, dead and gone. I see the Roman ruins as a message that every empire must wither, the Saint Peters Square as how religion sustains power, and Italy as a narrative where nationalism, religion and feudal power fused together to create a perfect recipe which will bring in Mussolini (and Berlusconi as his illustrated successor).

But such experience also tells me what I like and what I should be doing. I have lived an artificial life for far too long, pretending to be something else other than myself. Italy also magnifies my midlife crisis, that I have been chasing dreams mostly without preparation, and that most such efforts are meaningless. What I am doing now, despite the strength of the idea is perhaps unachievable, and this is because it is standing on a shaky foundation. One does not change the world by talking about it, and it is time I get the message.

When I return to England next week, therefore, I must work to recalibrate myself and do things which matter. My promise to myself is that I shall stop pretending altogether and do things which I really really want to do. I shall surely rejuvenate my online learning project, which I put in back-burner for a year now and come out of the self-imposed hibernation that I lived in for last one year. Indeed, I felt I was close to bring together the business school I dreamed about only last week: But, only days later, I may be as far as I ever was. This is indeed because I have only been working passively, advising others but not doing much myself actively, and it is always difficult to achieve a personal dream by being so dependent. I am almost at a moment when I must be honest with myself and do things what I want to do, rather than pretending to be happy and maintaining the status quo as I have been doing for a while.

It does not matter that this means upsetting my life all over again. If Rome gives me a lesson, it is that contentment is death. The decline starts with status quo, and I am not yet ready to give up and get old yet. So, indeed, I am looking for some interesting times ahead.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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