11 Lessons My Dad Taught Me About Work & Life

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

Ring. Ring. Ring.

The loud annoying sound of the security intercom in my apartment reverberated through the entire living room. I woke up a little irritated. It was very early in the morning.

"Why is security calling me at this ungodly hour," I asked myself as I walked to the intercom phone.

"Yes?" I said in an irritable tone.

"Hello sir, do you have a visitor ? Ms. Kamala?"

"No," I replied and hung up.

I was still in a daze. I was partly irritated because I just had a weird dream that spooked me. This dream had woken me up with a chill running down my spine. Now this.

Just as soon as I had put the phone down, the realisation that Kamala was one of my mum's oldest friends and neighbour came to me. Something was not right. I rushed to my mobile phone. There were 5 missed calls from my mum and 4 from Kamala.

My heart sank. I prayed it wasn't what I thought. I quickly called Kamala.

"Ikhram, we've been trying to call you. Something serious has happened. Your father may be no more."

Everything around me just crumbled as I tried to focus on what she said.

It was 5 a.m. on New Year's Day when I was woken by the security intercom. My father had passed away around 4.30 a.m. in my mother's arms.

The ensuing hours and days were an emotional roller-coaster. My father meant a lot to me. He was my friend. He taught me so much.

As memories of him and the things he taught me flooded my awareness in the first few days, I parried between a deep sadness on losing him and warm gratitude for having been blessed with a father like him.

In the end I've decided to propagate some of what I learned from him to continue his legacy. In this post I've distilled the most important lessons on work and life that I learned from him.

Let's begin.

My father standing behind my uncle and I. This was taken just before a golf game in Jakarta.

#1 Mathematicians Solve the World's Problems

"I want to tell you a story," my father said to me and my younger brother. It was a Sunday morning. I was 10 years old and my father was giving us a lesson in math.

We leaned in to listen. Stories excited us!

"There was once an ancient vase that was discovered by archaeologists. This vase was broken in pieces and none of the archaeologists could put it back together. Others too tried to put it together but failed. Finally, one person was called in and he solved the problem. Do you know who he was?"

"No, who was he daddy?" Both of us asked together, curious as ever.

"A mathematician. You see, with mathematics you can solve most problems. Do you want to solve the world's problems?"

"Yes, daddy!" My brother and I responded in unison.

How true this story was, I'll never know but since then, I've paid particular attention to math.

I found that math did help me with finding solutions to problems. The property investment calculator that I created, provides amazing insights for property owners. It can give you inputs like an estimate of the optimum period you should hold on to an investment property before selling it, or how much you should spend on renovations.

Many of my insights on this blog are derived from mathematical calculations. Questions like should you buy or rent for example, has an answer rooted in math.

Business plans and strategies can benefit greatly from an understanding of math and I'm not talking about complex math. An ability to simply scrutinise numbers can be very, very valuable.

#2 Entertaining Clients Is a Waste of Time and Money

In my early days as a business executive, I learned from my employer that entertaining clients was a very important aspect of business. My boss frequently took clients for golf, karaoke, lunches, and dinners.

Entertaining clients is a big part of business development in many organisations. I learned this through observation and very soon was entertaining people for business.

My father was very skilled in business development with an impressive track record. I decided to have a conversation with him one day about entertaining clients. I thought he'd be able to give me solid tips on impressing the pants off my clients.

I was surprised by what he told me.

"All the most lucrative projects that I've secured were not because I had a big entertainment budget. You may not believe this, but I did not spend much money on entertainment to secure these contracts and projects. I built relationships.

Clients who became my friends gave me the most valuable business.

If you have to take someone out for an expensive experience to win a project, you'll not get far. Focus on making friends, Ikhram."

I realised then that client entertainment was a means for everyone, including myself, to have a good time on company budget. When I calculated all the money spent on entertainment and the ROI (this is where the math comes in handy) it was clear that the benefits were minimal.

This is when I started focusing on building friendships with far better results.

This leads me to another important lesson.

#3 Big Shots Are People Too

I used to be apprehensive about trying to network with people of high stature. It wasn't that I did not like them. I felt uncomfortable. Their mighty positions and fancy job titles scared me.

"Pops, how do you do it," I remember asking my dad one day while we were having a drink together.

He had met hundreds of business leaders and very important people. I was sure he'd be able to tell me how he was so comfortable doing it.

He leaned back on his chair, looked straight at me and said, "You have to remember that big shots are people too. They need friends, they enjoy good company and they have similar wants and needs as everybody else.

When you look at positions, status and titles you can get intimidated. But when you look at the person behind all these, you'll find a human being. Someone, you can be yourself with and be of value to.

I've never feared picking up the phone to call any stranger's office because I was calling another human being. Not the CEO or director of a conglomerate.

Focus on the person... on the human being in front of you, Ikhram."

I saw this in action once when my father was working on a coal project in Turkey. He wanted to bring in a Malaysian power producer to the project. He cold called the office of the CEO, spoke to the CEO's secretary, and within a week we were sitting at the CEO's office with his vice-president.

My father pulled this off all the time. He connected with human beings. Not positions and job titles. As a result, he also treated people from all walks of life equally. I never saw him distinguish between people because of their status.

This is key to business development.

#4 The Devil Is in the Details

"Ikhram, I'll be in Kuala Lumpur in 4 days time. I need about 3 hours of your time in the evening to help me prepare a presentation."

I would cringe at these calls.

Between 2013 to 2015, he would enlist my help to prepare presentation slides. At the time, he was the country manager for an Oil & Gas company and based in Jakarta.

I cringed because I liked to do things fast. My father would go over his slides ten times and make changes until he was satisfied that all the details were covered. He needed my help because his knowledge of MS PowerPoint was limited.

This attention to detail was one reason he was the Managing Director of a multi-national Oil & Gas company at 39.

Like all average people, I cringed when I had to help him with his slides because going through details was time consuming. It required effort, attention, and focus. It consumed energy. This is the playing field of achievers.

I picked this up later and the initial irritation I had about my father's obsession with details turned to admiration.

A successful close friend once told me, "assumption is the mother of all fuckups." This is 100% true. Assumptions are made by people who are lazy to go into details. The smallest assumption can go wrong and thwart the best laid plans.

That's why successful people take care of the details.

#5 Do It Now

Procrastination is one of the world's biggest evils.

I'm not exaggerating.

Procrastination causes hundreds of problems from lost income to lost lives. Productivity suffers.

A distinguishing trait of the most successful people I've met is their natural aversiveness towards procrastinating.

My father never put off something he could do now for tomorrow. It irritated me when I was younger because he expected the same of me. I was literally forced to do things now.

Unfortunately, I preferred procrastinating until I met my mentor who taught me the value of time. I was able to absorb his lessons on time because of the precedence my father had set.

Every one should have this as their motto: do it now!

#6 Have a Sense of Humour

"...and I'll stop here. Because a speech should be like a mini-skirt. It should be short enough to attract attention but long enough to cover the subject." My father ended a speech to a small crowd that broke up in laughter and applause.

He was always the life of the party with his jokes. People loved having him around.

Injecting humour into every one of his presentations and talks was as important to him as the subject matter.

And it worked like a charm.

When people enjoy being in your company, you're going to be able to open a lot of doors. Clients will be happy to engage you. Bosses will be happy to promote you. Friends will be happy to help you. It's a virtuous cycle of prosperity.

#7 Never Keep a Grudge

In early 1999, an old classmate of my father's appeared. My father had not seen him for many, many years. This man was a watchmaker. A few short years ago he had built a fortune manufacturing watches and exporting it to foreign markets.

But 1997 was not a good year for Asia in the face of the financial crisis. This man's fortune took a turn for the worst.

My father was quite happy to rekindle his relationship with this friend. After a few months, he told my father that he needed some money to start a new manufacturing facility somewhere in China or Hong Kong. He wanted my father to help him with the money. My father obliged.

After receiving the money, his friend disappeared.

I was upset. But my father didn't hold a grudge. He just moved on with his great sense of humour.

There were many incidents like this but he never kept a grudge. He was open to mending any relationship if the other party wanted to.

He understood and accepted that relationships are not smooth sailing journeys but bumpy rides with storms and sunshine. He also understood his own propensity for mistakes and was therefore always ready to forgive.

This enhanced his unique perspective on relationship-building.

#8 Pursue What You Love

It's 1992, I'm in the car with my father, mum and siblings on the way to Kuala Lumpur from Penang. We just celebrated Eid Holidays in Penang, my father's hometown.

"Daddy, tell us how you met mummy," my little sister asked.

What followed was a 3-hour account of my father and mother's love story. My father had a gift for storytelling and this was his greatest story.

He met my mother in 1975 in India. My mother came from a conservative Hindu-Brahmin family. My father was from a conservative Indian-Muslim family. For the uninitiated, a love relationship between a muslim boy and a Brahmin girl at the time was the equivalent of Donald Trump marrying the Grand Ayatollah of Iran's daughter.

But my father fell in love with this beautiful lady and pursued her. He pursued her in the face of vehement opposition from his father and my mum's father. He was taken back to Malaysia, his passport locked away in my grandfather's safe.

Against impossible odds, he returned to India and married my mother.

To write this story in its entirety would constitute an epic romance novel, so I'll have to leave the details to your imagination. Suffice to say that my siblings and I were greatly inspired by his courage in pursuing what he loved.

This was not limited to his wife only. He had the same tenacity in other areas of his life. Naturally, he encouraged me to do what I loved even if it wasn't necessarily aligned to what he wanted for me.

#9 Delayed Gratification Is Good Medicine

"Daddy, I need a bicycle lock."

I was 7 years old.

I had seen someone else with a bicycle lock and the idea of being able to lock my bicycle with a 3-digit password that only I knew was immensely appealing to me. I wanted a lock too, and I wanted it now.

"Ok, we'll get it on Sunday," my father replied.

I was not happy. Sunday was a couple of days away. I wanted my lock now.

"Daddy, can we please buy it today," I said, determined to have my way.

"No. You have to be patient."

That was the end of the matter. I could not convince him of the urgency with which I needed a bicycle lock. A bicycle lock may not seem much for a grown adult, but for a child, the simplest objects can become extremely desirable. I was quite obsessed with this lock.

But I had no choice. I had to wait a few days for it.

And so I waited.

On Sunday morning, I got ready, had my breakfast and ran to my dad who was at the porch mending something.

"Daddy, daddy, can we go now to get my bicycle lock?"

"Yes, we can but we'll go in one hour."

It was 9 a.m. at the time. I was dismayed. I had waited a few days and now he was asking me to wait another hour. I couldn't wait longer. I wanted the object of my desire now!

"Can we go now, daddy?" I pleaded.

"You must learn patience, boy. If you're patient, I promise I'll get you the bicycle lock in 1 hour."

My father said this affectionately and I did not argue. I went back into the house and occupied myself. I found myself looking a lot at the clock. One hour for a child in my position was an eternity. When the long hand of the clock finally touched 12 and it was 10 a.m, I ran to my father in the porch and reminded him that it was time to get my bicycle lock,

He congratulated me for being patient, stopped what he was doing, and drove me to a bicycle shop to buy the lock.

I never forgot this experience. The lesson my father tried to imprint on me stuck. Through my younger days, he did this often. I did not always get what I wanted immediately. I'd have to get good grades or achieve something before he'd buy me what I wanted.

As I grew older, I joined the majority of people who seek instant gratification but it was not difficult for me to practice delayed gratification once I understood the significance of it.

Recently I was fortunate enough to read one of the best books ever written on understanding the self - The Road Less Travelled by Scott M. Peck. He says this about delayed gratification:

Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.

My father's lesson with the bicycle lock primed me for this lesson when I was really ready in adult life.

#10 All Problems Have a Solution

We used to go to Cameron Highlands often when I was a young boy. Many school holidays were spent at the The Strawberry Park Resort.

My siblings and I loved these trips. There were 2 horses at the resort whom we spent a lot of time with, there were plenty of adventurous trails to catch, and there was a video games room. Back then, coin-operated video game machines were a young boy’s dream.

On one semester break, we spent nearly a week at The Strawberry Park Resort. I was supposed to finish a lot of homework before we went on this holiday but I didn't. I got carried away with the holiday excitement and put away all my homework for later (an example of not delaying gratification).

I was worried throughout the trip about my unfinished homework but I kept suppressing this worry within the recesses of my mind hoping that the problem would just go away. But problems don't just go away. They have to be dealt with.

On the 2nd last morning of our trip in Cameron Highlands, I decided to try and complete my homework. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my homework with me. Panic set in.

We were returning to Kuala Lumpur on Sunday and school commenced on Monday. I could not finish all my homework on Sunday evening. There was too much to finish in a few hours. I was in Standard 5 (11 years old) and had a very strict teacher. He was going to punish me. I started to cry. This had suddenly become a huge problem.

I realised I could not solve this problem and went to my father.

"Daddy, I have a big problem. I messed up and I know you're going to be unhappy. But please don't scold me."

My father looked at my face and I think he knew how troubled I was.

He replied gently, "Any problem can be solved, Ikhram. Don't worry, now, tell me what's your problem."

I explained that I had not finished my homework and that I couldn't do it in a few hours when we got back to Kuala Lumpur. I told him I was terrified to go to school for fear of the repercussions. I expected my father to scold me with a lecture.

But his answer surprised me.

"Ikhram, how long will it take you to finish all this pending homework?"

"I think I will need 3 days, daddy." I was usually back home from school by 2 p.m and I'd have other activities like swimming classes and playtime. So I figured I had 2 hours everyday to do this homework.

"You'll do it in 2 days. You'll have to cut down on play time over the next 2 days and focus on finishing your home work. Can you do that?"

Playtime was important to me but I was pretty sure my father was giving me an instruction and not an option.

"Yes, I can do that," I replied sheepishly.

"Alright then. Now we have to explain this to your teacher. I will come to your school tomorrow and speak to your teacher. Everything will be alright. Don't worry, boy."

Those words were like a warm blanket on a cold night. The way he said it was so reassuring that I did not worry at all after that.

On Monday, as promised, my father took some time off his work and came to my school at 10 a.m, just before the periods when I would have to submit my homework. He knocked on my classroom door and asked my teacher if he could have a word. They spoke very jovially.

I never found out what my father told my teacher but after less than 5 minutes, my father left. My teacher called me to his table and told me very kindly that he understood I had not done my homework. He was giving me 2 days to finish it. He also told me that he liked my father.

This incident impressed upon me that problems can be solved. No matter how big they seem, there's always a solution. These problems must be confronted. They cannot be swept away. Deadlines can be re-negotiated. Mistakes can be corrected. Any situation can be re-framed. Being calm and ready to communicate effectively is vital.

My father never took a problem to heart. He never brought work problems to the home. In fact, we never saw him worried. Ever.

#11 People Are the Most Important Resource

Perhaps, my father's greatest strength was his ability to connect with people, develop meaningful relationships, and sustain a genuine interest in their happiness.

A significant amount of his time was spent on people. He was always meeting people, strengthening and extending his network of relationships. He knew how to delegate but most importantly, he understood that he was not capable of doing everything.

He knew precisely, who was capable of what and leveraged their strengths. At the same time, he was more than happy to allow people to leverage his strengths. He developed a symbiotic ecosystem with people.

This allowed him to deliver results.

He was not skilled with Microsoft PowerPoint but he delivered good presentations. He rarely ever dealt with the government sector but could move mountains where he needed to in this sector. When he relocated to Jakarta for work, he built a vast network very quickly. I was amazed at the things he could do there.

My siblings and I love A.R Rahman's music. In 1994, my father arranged for us to meet him at his house in India. At the time, A.R Rahman was the biggest music star in India. My father even organised time for us with Rajinikanth, South India's most popular actor and my youngest brother's hero. We were frequently surprised at the people he knew.

Likewise whenever my father could be of service to people he would jump at the opportunity. He would tirelessly traverse the bazaars of India to find an item a friend wanted. He would never forget to visit a particular shop in Melbourne to buy the chocolates a friend's wife loved.

Guests at our house were very important people. They were treated with great respect.

My father taught me that "no man is an island unto himself."

As I reconcile with the fact that he is no longer with me, I cherish the lessons he taught me. The value of these lessons have naturally become more important to me now. They're reminders of an icon I called "pops." I hope they serve great benefit to you.

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