Whose Advice?

Matt | Decision Making | Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Often at key times in my life I have been offered advice from people who meant well, who tried to help, but gave bad advice.

When people give advice, listen and thank them for caring enough to give you advice, but make sure that you decide for yourself if it is useful.  I believe most people who give advice should not.  Most of the advice they give is not only not helpful, but actually harmful. Many times it is our loved ones, family members or close friends, who give us advice on topics they have no idea about, yet that does not stop them from spouting their thoughts.

For example, before my wife and I started our Permanent Residency process, we felt lost and confused. While gathering information about the process we told our loved ones what was happening.  And they gave us their advice.  Although, they had never gone through this process, they still confidently threw out their words of wisdom, “pay for a lawyer and they’ll do it for you.”  My colleagues at work, who also had no experience in the process, gave the same advice in the same confident tone.  Then, I actually spoke to someone who had gone through the PR process, who was a lawyer, and he said, “do it yourself. You’ll save money and do a better job of it.”

Another time I got advice about helping me decide where to teach English.  Before I went to China, but after I had already signed a contract, another friend offered help.  “Why China? Why not Japan or Korea?”  Although he had never been to China and had never lived abroad, he gave this advice.  “Why don’t you walk around China Town in Toronto for a while before you decide if you want to live there for a year?”  I thought to myself that this was probably good advice, although I had already committed to my contract, so I walked around China Town.  It terrified me.  The smells and the sights during that hot summer were overwhelming.  The rotten vegetables outside the grocery store were overpowering.  The smell of garbage was too much.  Had I made a horrible decision?  Could I go through with it?  Then I went.  I got on the plane and landed in Beijing, China.  I travelled around China.  I learned that it is much different from the Toronto China Town.  Fortunately for me.  While my friend’s advice was in a good place, trying to protect me, it wasn’t sound because he had never been to where I wanted to go.

The best advice I can give is to go ask someone who has done what you want to do.  There is (almost) always someone who has done what you want to do and they are most likely willing to talk about how they did it.  Ask them for advice.  Listen.  Take notes.

For all others who give advice, but have not done what you want to do, keep in mind that they likely do not know what they are talking about. But remember that their intentions are in the right place. Listen.  Thank them.  But think and decide for yourself.

Best of luck.

Lessons from Chinese Lessons

Matt | Decision Making,Learning Chinese | Monday, May 11th, 2009

Having lived in China for almost four years I have had a lot of amazing experiences and have made a lot mistakes.  You’d think that I have also learned a lot from each of these mistakes.  Unfortunately I don’t always.  But one area that really sticks in my mind has to do with learning Chinese because that was a personal goal for me in going to China.

Learning Chinese has taught me a lot.  I have made and continue to make mistakes when it comes to learning Chinese such as,

  1. Language exchange is not a good way for me to learn a language, but it is a great way to practice fluency and to learn how people really use it. (usually we’d end up speaking mostly English because it was easier and I was afraid of making mistakes)
  2. You need to speak the language to learn the language (sorry for all us shy people out there who are afraid of making mistakes)
  3. Getting a Chinese girlfriend who can speak English does NOT guarantee your Chinese will improve (see #2)

But the main lesson I took from studying Chinese was

If you want to do anything start NOW.  Today.  This instant!

When I first started learning Chinese I didn’t really know where to start so I kept putting it off.  I waited and wasted months and months.  For awhile I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back for a second or third year and I kept thinking, “What’s the point of learning it if I’m going to leave in a few months?”  But looking back this is something I regret because I ended up staying almost four years and I think I could have made more progress if I only had kept starting. Enjoy every second you can and keep working towards your goals.

Another friend of mine is a retired teacher from Canada.  She and her husband have been living in China for about seven years.  Every year they struggle with deciding if they’ll return to China after the summer break.  Every Fall when they return they always think about studying Chinese, but talk themselves out of it saying this will probably be their last year.  Seven years later all they can say is a few words with broken tones to order their favourite Chinese dishes.  Now I’m sure if they had realized at the start they’d be in China for this long they’d have committed to learning the language.  But it’s funny how time flows like water in a river never to be seen again.

So when I returned to Canada I had a few goals to get set up and doing the things I wanted to be doing.  I didn’t wait to get an apartment in the area I really wanted to be in.  I found a great place near a beautiful park so I can run in the mornings before work.  I got a job in place I (think) I want to work.  But at least I’m working and this will help me achieve my financial goals.  This weekend I went out and bought all the furniture I need.  This week I’m going to sign up for a Toastmasters club here in Toronto as this is something I really enjoy.   And I’m going to find a hockey team or a skating skills program as that is what I want to work on this summer.

Enjoy all the time you have.  Do whatever you think you want to do now.  If you’re thinking of what’s the point of signing up for a three month course when you might leave in three months, sign up!  At least you’ll have learned three months more than you would otherwise. If that is your goal, keep starting.

Don’t waste the time you have.   We don’t know how much time we get.  All we know is what we can do with the minutes we have in front of our faces.

A New Chapter

Matt | Decision Making | Thursday, March 26th, 2009

It has been a struggle to write lately.

It’s not because I haven’t experienced anything in China worth writing about.  It’s not that I haven’t had the time to write.  It’s not that I have lost the passion to write.  Actually, it’s because I haven’t felt like I deserved to write about China.

A few weeks ago I made a decision that will end one chapter of my life.  I decided to return to Canada.  I decided to stop teaching English in China.  I decided to leave China.

So this put me in an awkward position.  Should I continue to write about living and working and dreaming of China when I was planning and preparing and priming to return to Canada?  My heart said no.  So I stopped.

But, here I am again, softly typing on my keyboard.  I have decided to write again because I believe I have some things that I still want to write about.  And I want to improve my writing skills.  Yesterday I finished reading the best book I have read on writing called, On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. In reading this book, I realized that if I want to improve my writing skills then I would have to write (an rewrite) more.  So I will continue down this path.

As for ending one chapter of my life.  I have always thought that ones’ life is like a book with many interesting chapters and characters who enter and exit at different stages to help us learn something.  Like a good book the purpose is not to get to the end quickly, but instead to enjoy every page, every twist, every experience.  I love books.  I love great characters.  I love how some characters quickly enter a story and then leave, but still leave their impression on the reader and the story.  I also love how certain characters stay with the protagonist through the closing of one chapter and the start of the next.  Some stay throughout the great book.  So while this chapter is closing for me, another one is beginning with a lot of pure white pages ready to be filled.

Decision Making 101

Matt | Decision Making | Saturday, January 17th, 2009

I was cleaning out some drawers and came across a sheet that I had used to help me decide if I should come to China or not back in 2004.  Looking back at this note I learned some interesting things about how I make decisions.

First, here is my original, unedited, 2004 list.


  • Get to live in another country for a year (original plan was to teach in China for one year and to decide on Teachers College after that)
  • Get to experience teaching without paying for Teachers College
  • Opportunity to travel through SE Asia (Thailand) afterwards
  • You are young with no dependents, good time to go
  • You are TESOL certified (I got certified during my not-sure stage to convince myself to do this!)
  • Have resources, friends who are doing this (I had a friend who was teaching English in Japan)
  • Great adventure to experience a new culture – a once in a lifetime experience
  • Take 1 year to step back and evaluate where you want to go in life
  • Get international experience – having China/Mandarin on any resume would look good
  • Make a big decision – a conscious choice – take control of your life


  • Far away from friends and family
  • Have to put career on hold (was working in a good corporate job back in Toronto)
  • Have to put accounting designation on hold
  • Could be dangerous in China
  • Have to store/sell a lot of material possessions
  • Never taught before might not be any good
  • Fear of failing myself, family, friends and co-workers

From dusting-off and rereading this list I was a little surprised to learn that

  1. All of my fears (cons) did not come true. Some of the big cons I solved during my “planning” stage – getting a leave of absence; volunteering to get some teaching experience before I left.  The only thing that came true in a sense was that I did have to spend time away from my friends and family, but that was okay and not as tough as I thought it might be.
  2. All or most of my pros were logical, positive and did come true.

Some other things that I learned were:

  • Writing out your problem in a logical way (pros/cons list) is a good way for me to see most of the big issues at the time.
  • Decisions are always emotional too. Often we try to wrap logic around our true desires so include your “gut feel” somewhere in your decision making process.  I really wanted to come to China at that point in my life even though I was scared.  My “gut” was telling me to go.  I’m glad I did.
  • Just do it.  After you plan it out, think about it once or twice, it’s best to act and to learn from that decision.  This is something I struggle with as I want to always make the right choice, and I will delay acting sometimes for years, to get more sure that I won’t make the wrong choice.
  • Review your list later to learn something about how you make decisions or to simply have a laugh at the things your former self was scared whitless about that now you can hardly remember why it was such a big deal.

Overall, I wish you a much easier time in making your big decisions.

    The Road not Taken

    Matt | Decision Making | Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

    Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

    And sorry I could not travel both

    And be one traveler, long as I stood

    And looked down one as far as I could

    To where it bent in the undergrowth;


    Then took the other, as just as fair

    And having perhaps the better claim,

    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

    Though as for that, the passing there

    Had worn them really about the same,


    And both that morning equally lay

    In leaves no step had trodden black

    Oh, I kept the first for another day!

    Yet knowing how way leads to way,

    I doubted if I should ever come back.


    I shall be telling this with a sigh

    Somewhere ages and ages hence:

    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

    I took the one less traveled by,

    And that has made all the difference.

    Recently, I went back to my old neighbourhood in Toronto, High Park, and took some pictures.  The one above reminded me of my favourite poem, The Road not Taken.  This poem helped me a few times when making decisions, like when I made my first decision to come to China 3 years ago, as well as recently when I decided to apply for Teacher’s College.  Follow your heart and choose your own path.  I hope I will always have the courage to do this.

    Just Do It

    admin | Decision Making | Friday, September 26th, 2008

    It is only when you take control of your own life that you feel alive.”

    Ma Jian from his book Red Dust

    Recently, I’ve been agonizing over making a decision: to return to my old life as a financial guy or to move forward as a teacher.  I recently was able to make this decision and I learned a few things along the way that I’d like to share.

    If you read my bio on how I decided to come to China you could probably guess that I have a tough time making decisions: it took me two years to decide to leave my cushy Finance job in Toronto, tell my folks and friends I was giving it all up to be an English Teacher in China.  Over those two years, I agonized over my decision; looked at it over and over; let the decision completely consume my life.  Then finally, I couldn’t stand it any more, and I decided.

    After I decided, it was terrifying, but also exhilarating.  And I felt lighter, like a rush of energy was released when I finally decided and committed to the decision.  I truly felt like I understand Ma Jian’s amazing quote.  Then all that was required was following it through, one step at a time.

    This time, I was beginning my normal process of agonizing over the decision, when I spoke with a friend, who also had to make a bigger, life-changing decision.  I asked him what process he uses to make his decisions and this what he said.

    1. Decide on how you want to make the decision – have some rules you’d like to follow through the decision.  His were: 1) Be honest with yourself, 2) Keep a sense of humour, and 3) Have integrity.  I thought those were solid, so I tried to use them too.  I really liked this approach to have some criteria to help make the decision.  I also really liked his idea to keep a sense of humour.  That gets you through just about anything with the right perspective.
    2. Realize that the decision is going to be both logical and emotional and probably more emotional.  Most decisions are emotional, but we rationalize it later.  This is where being truly honest with yourself, with what you want is so important.  I find most of the time, I know what I should do deep inside my belly, only I don’t do it.
    3. Plan for the turbulence. After a decision is made, there will be times of second-guessing and doubt afterwards.  So if you can plan for this ahead of time, you’ll likely be able to follow through with your decision better.  For me, I had 3 things to keep me focused: 1) tell my old company no; 2) look into schools back in Canada, and 3) tell my parents.  I did or started the first two and will do the third this weekend.

    Another thing that I think helped me with this decision was to follow Confucius’ advice: think about it twice, the decide; two times is enough. I did this by using the old, pros and cons list, weighing what I’d probably gain or lose with each decision.  Also, by putting the time limit on the decision limited my agonizing period.

    The most important thing I did this time, was asking for help from a friend.  I asked my girlfriend to help me make this decision.  I felt it was a biggie, and by talking it through with her really helped me realize what I wanted and how to be honest with myself.  For big decisions, talking it through with a friend who can tell you things clearly and honestly can help you understand the problem better.

    Hopefully, some of these learnings could help you if you’re stuck in making a decision in the future, I know they helped me.

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