Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Building a nation of workhorses and racehorses

Business Times - 25 Oct 2006

We have to believe in ourselves as precious racehorses where personal health is concerned


WORKHORSES are usually kept to do hard manual work in the open fields and are not necessarily well taken care of. These animals are usually taken for granted and their owners will pay special heed to their needs only when they are sick.

Racehorses, on the other hand are considered prize possessions by their owners who spare no expense in ensuring the health and general well-being of their precious animals. These horses benefit from the best of a well-planned diet supplemented by vitamins, exercise and grooming to ensure that they will perform at their optimum when put on the race tracks.

This is because the opportunity costs of a racehorse being unhealthy or sickly are immense. To stretch the analogy, should we live our lives as racehorses or workhorses? It depends.

In health matters, we need to take care of ourselves with as much care and thought as though we are precious racehorses. We cannot afford to take our health for granted, but must constantly be mindful that our health is our wealth.

In today's developed societies where the majority of us work in sedentary jobs, there is a tendency to forget that we need to regularly exercise to keep fit. Too frequently, work, family and other commitments take precedence over our time meant for exercise and recreation.

We often wait till we feel sick before we make a trip to the doctors who then prescribe some medication along, with the good old advice to take proper sleep, rest and exercise (which we may neglect to follow up on).

When we reach the stage where the ailment becomes major enough for long term treatment, drugs or surgery, we have already reached a critical point in the health management cycle. At this point, when we have been diagnosed with a serious illness and then choose to make radical changes to our sedentary lifestyle, it may be already be a case of 'too little, too late'.

In America last year, it is estimated that nearly US$2 trillion was spent on healthcare - and virtually all that money was spent on treating disease. Despite this massive expenditure on treatment, more Americans are sicker than ever before with diseases that are largely preventable: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and depression, to name a few of the more common ailments.

Financial resources are strained when medical treatment is required for major illnesses, and the results are often temporary or somewhat patchwork in effect. It does not make economic sense that so much monetary resources are channelled towards medical treatment rather than on preventive treatment.

A conscious effort at preventive healthcare is a much more practical and cheaper alternative to that of treating illness which could have been prevented or avoided. Hence, we have to believe in ourselves as precious racehorses where personal health is concerned.

We need to set aside personal resources of time, effort and discipline for health. Key areas of focus for physical and mental well-being are through diet and exercise.

I would like to focus on the exercise portion in this article. There are of course, an infinite number of options in terms of types of exercise to stay healthy. Here, I shall describe - taiji & qigong, as I have been a recent practitioner and convert. Taiji & qigong practitioners treat the body as a network of energy systems.

When these systems are working properly, the body can harness, store, distribute and utilise the energy for our daily activities. Practising qigong allows one to restore and maintain these energy systems in good working condition through its set of relaxed mind-body coordinated movements, breathing exercises and meditation.

Regular practice ensures that we maintain our health and hopefully, age gracefully. Qigong, when practised for health and healing benefits, has helped many who had been fighting sickness and poor health.

In the US, the late taiji & qigong grandmaster Jou Tsung Hwa was diagnosed with an enlarged heart and prolapsed stomach at the age of 47. He was introduced to taiji & qigong at that age and managed to consistently practice, excel and discover some important secrets of the art which he shared generously in his books.

National treasures

At 74, he looked like someone in his 40s or 50s. In China, these grandmasters would have been considered by some as national treasures. Because qigong and taiji often conjure up images of elderly and wizened practitioners, not many fit and healthy young enthusiasts choose to learn these forms of general exercise which have been practised for thousand of years in China.

It is often only when Heaven starts knocking hard at the door, do we start to look for quick cures and remedies. Qigong or taiji, however, requires years of practice to build up resistance and generate good health benefits.

Practised regularly over a period of time, it will go a long way in reversing early stage ailments, like in the case of the late grandmaster Jou Tsung Hwa. In Taiwan, some qigong masters play a visible economic role when well-to-do entrepreneurs require their services at business functions.

Once, one of my business associates was in Taiwan and developed a bad headache before an important meeting. The CEO of the Taiwanese company motioned to his qigong master to help this associate clear off the blockage that caused the headache.

The headache subsided and my business associate was able to continue the negotiations unhindered.

Racehorses may be handsome to look at on and off the racetracks. However, these horses can only perform at top speed over a short distance. Their competitive spirit and physique may not however, be geared for the long haul.

In education and work, we need to groom workhorses who are flexible and adaptable, unlike their more pampered racing cousins. Workhorses are hardy animals, accustomed to work in rain or shine, and flexible in adapting to ever changing climatic and economic circumstances.

Students need to inculcate a 'workhorse' attitude which will enable them to rough it out in the increasingly competitive workplace.

On the other hand, if children are brought up like royal racehorses, and start behaving like little CEOs, this would translate to a poor finish at the races when they are placed in the working world. These 'royal' individuals would soon enough be put out to pasture. My alma mater's motto, 'Serve to Lead', is, I think the right way to holistically educate our children, i.e. they must learn to serve first, and serve well.

They must be put through the fire, otherwise no 'special steel' leaders will emerge who can rough it out over the long haul, let alone lead like racehorses.

A good value system that Western fast food chains have brought into Singapore is the 'clean up after yourself' philosophy which allows the premises to be clean and pleasant at all times.

The practice of throwing away remnants or clearing your tray after you are done with eating, is a good one which we should perhaps adopt in our hawker centres.

Our philosophy and attitude in a particular environment makes all the difference in whether we adopt a 'royal racehorse' stance where 'menial' work is left to others or a 'workhorse' orientation where we buckle down and do things for ourselves (and others), whether it be in school or at work.

To sum up, although it may sound contrary, in health, we do want to be as healthy and competitive as racehorses, whereas in work we need to be as hardworking and adaptable as workhorses.

Whether at the personal, company or national level, this special combination of qualities will hopefully enable one to excel right to the finishing line.

(The writer is a mechanical engineer by training, and a business consultant by profession, with CEO Search & Services)

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