Don't Lose the Plot - a Lesson from Leon Comber

Leon Comber - polymath and overall great guy.  (Courtesy of Chinatownology)

Yesterday afternoon, I had an enjoyable time meeting Dr Leon Comber, honorary research fellow at the Monash Asia Institute of Monash University. 

A charming man with a wry sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye, Leon is a polymath of diverse interests and talents.  Oh, and did I mention that he is 85 years of age but looks at least two decades younger?  Leon has multiple degrees, can speak multiple languages, and possess multi-disciplinary interests in subjects as wide ranging as history, political science, intelligence, terrorism, book publishing and business. 

Formerly a major in the British Army during World War II who played a role in routing the Japanese occupiers, Leon was also previously an Assistant Commissioner in the special branch of the Malayan Police, had spent 25 years in publishing (heading Heinemann Educational Books in Asia), and was even appointed as a publishing consultant for the People's Republic of China for UNESCO. 

Last year, Leon was a visiting fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore for about four and a half months.  During that time, he managed to publish (or get accepted for publication) three academic articles in leading journals. 

That's probably better than most academics who are half his age!

But wait, there is more. 

Leon also has a total of 22 books published under his belt, some which have sold so well that they have gone into multiple reprints!  One of them is the well referenced Chinese Temples in Singapore.  He also has about 17 referenced academic articles and journals under his name (probably closer to 20 now).  

It was certainly inspirational speaking to this sprightly and energetic octogenarian who doesn't look or act like he will be retiring anytime soon.  In fact, he is about to make a trip to Singapore in two weeks time, and will be attending the launch of a book (he wrote the forward for that title).  Leon has spent so many years in Asia that he probably knows the sub-continent better than most of us.

How does he do so many things and accomplish so much?  Is there a secret to leading such a long and fulfilled life?

The key thing which I learnt from him was to be focused in what you do and to stay the straight and narrow path.  That was the main point which I seemed to pick up from him - whether intentionally or inadvertently so!  

You only have this amount of time and energy on your hands in the course of your lifetime, and you should choose to concentrate on the things which you are most passionate about. 

In other words, don't lose the plot.    

There will always be temptations to veer away or be distracted by something else which captures your fancy.  This is especially true in the writing of books or academic articles, when a thousand and one different ideas and thoughts beckon seductively.  

Be prepared to throw out most of the stuff that you have read or come across.  Interesting as they may be, they could often be irrelevant in the main narrative.  You could revisit them later if time and energy permits, but only do it after you have completed the task at hand.

I find that this nugget of wisdom rings especially true in the age of social media.  We now have so many different ways to distract us that it is getting harder to produce anything of enduring value.  With emails, blogs, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Flickr, Plurk, MSN Messenger, and a whole host of other social media channels open to us - 24 by 7 - one can choose to just stay perpetually in a social media limbo.  Forever receiving little bits of information, digesting occasional bytes of trivia, resynthesizing them, or disseminating them to our hapless followers.

Heck, even putting up a single well articulated blog post is so difficult that many have given up. After all, tapping 140 characters is far easier than a 500 word essay.  Let alone a *gasp* full-volumed and indexed book!  

The hard question to ask though is whether this will all lead towards something tangible and memorable at the end of the day.  Will it be something that you will look back in your golden years and say that "yes, it was something I have achieved which I can be proud of."

Like Leon, I want to publish books (at least one or two, if not three) in the course of my lifetime.  I also want to start something that will be indelibly marked as my own - a new school of thought, an original management insight, or maybe even an enterprise.  Something unique, special and meainingful that can add to my own personal legacy.  

Not so much for the purpose of public pride or glory (which has little value to me) but that sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and self-actualisation.    

To do that, the first lesson that I need to learn - and I would encourage the rest of you to do so too -is to stay focused and not lose the plot.  Zoom in on what you need to do to succeed.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

I certainly look forward to our next meeting and will see if I can suss out more life lessons from this most extraordinary officer and gentleman.

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