Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Till All Are One !" - The Mechanics of Synergy.

It was a perfect storm for my personal finances this week.

First SMU decides to bring forward payment for my next semester of fees. The the markets had a series of sudden bearish moves while I lacked the funds the exploit this weakness. Then two things happened: My condominium TOP-ed and I have to write a couple of checks and  my weekend car battery failed and we have to get AA to help us out next week.

Still, I spend so little money as a student these days, I've yet to touch my capital yet. Hope this can be sustained for 1 more year, after which all my fees would be settled.

Anyway, my class just had a mid-term exam. The value of the exam was not high but I think almost all of us put in more effort than what the score meant to our final results. I think this mid-term is a true test of our capabilities because it forces a student to consider trade-offs: Already on FB many classmates are complaining that focusing on a subject meant sacrificing others. This is a greater dilemma faced by all citizens : You have one life, do you study or play, start a family or work, invest or travel ?

Which leads me to consider the almost overused concept of synergy.

Synergy is the 6th Habit in Stephen Covey's 7 habits of Highly successful people. It is exemplified in the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It has a darker purpose in the business world, after an M&A exercise, to synergize operations between two entities, it is quite normal to make a many employees redundant through a restructuring exercise,

I have two insights I picked up from Law School on the idea of Synergy.

The first insight is that if we see four subjects as four separate subjects, we are likely to be stretched. I think unlike engineering and finance school, legal subjects are a lot more similar to each other and concepts drawn from a topic can be used to reinforce another subject. Somehow I noticed that many contract cases can also be sued in tort.  Our analytic and writing module probably applies to all other content driven modules like Contract and Criminal law. If we can actively apply and re-use some concepts across subjects, we can, in effect, study for multiple subjects while explicitly preparing for one. This can be one possible way out of our predicament.

The second insight concerns my active strategy which I think is working well so far in school.

Synergy requires very active and strategic time allocation. I noticed that students today have not changed for the past 15 years during my NUS days. The main method to cope with a stressful work-load is to live one day at a time. We're eminently human and will use out our time-slot for something which brings pleasure instead of pain. We also do not have a strategic use of our time to actively meet multiple objectives with one action.

My strategy so far might fly in the face of common sense. When an assignment "spawns", I rush it within 48 hours once I am sufficiently confident that all the material has been taught. No excuses, and it applies on individual and group assignments. Between leisure and work, I always choose work.

I realized that there are a couple of benefits, as I'm done with assignments 48 hours after they spawn, sometimes I can lift material from a previous assignment and cut and paste case references into my later assignments, returned assignments are used to remove mistakes from my submitted drafts to ensure that mistakes do note repeat itself, More interestingly, as the assignments cover the same material as the classes, doing the assignments early also prepare me for mid-term, throughout the term break I integrated assignment writing into test preparation. I can safely say that my rote learning load was halved since I was made intimately familiar with cases which I wrote about before.

So in summary, this is an exercise to cut into the root of what Synergy really means. It has confused the heck out of me since I read Steven Covey in the early 90s.

One possible idea is that all subjects are one. Investing is Life and Money is Happiness. Compounding your wealth can bring confidence and can help in school or at work because confidence always makes you a more magnetic personality.

The other approach is that time is the fuel which drives synergy and allows synthesis to take place. I think a person who learns about dividend investing at age 20 is better off than someone who picks up this skill at age 40.

Could it be possible that Time, managed well, also compounds itself like other asset classes ?


  1. Hi Chris,

    I feel that these days, there's just too much specialisation and compartmentalisation. Most of us can do more with synergy.

    Great people of a few hundred years ago (Da Vinci, Ben Franklin) were able to do well in a few diverse areas and I am pretty sure they made use of synergy to excel.

    For eg, spending time writing a personal finance blog consistently means that I would take less time writing an essay on a different subject.

    And I definitely do believe that time used well would compound to help us lead a "better' life.

  2. There are other fields of work that can share the same broad notion: system thinking, systems engineering, etc. In the end, there is a "one-ness". Discrete things start to appear inter-connected.

  3. Of course, we live in the real world. Specialisation within one domain pays the bills while the pay-offs for synergy remain hidden until a tipping point occurs.

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