Reprogramming Directive

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One girl's quest to go from audit files to Broadway

Cats Cats Cats Cats Cats!!!

Cats is undeniably one of the all-time great 20th century musicals. Having run for a record breaking 21 years in London’s West End, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s translation of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats book to stage theatre is a must-see show for any musical theatre nut worth their playbills. So I was very excited when I heard last June that Cats was coming to Sydney and promptly booked some tickets for a girls’ night out.

Fast forward 11 months and $131.50 AUD a piece later, all 5 of us were seated in Star City’s Lyric Theatre last Saturday night, looking down at a gorgeous, fantastical set:

The stage of "Cats" at Star City's Lyric Theatre

The stage of "Cats" at Star City's Lyric Theatre is a gorgeous, fantastical larger-than-life junkyard. The full moon, with wisps of cloud drifting across its face, looks down over a painted stage mural featuring a large tiger which is surrounded by a broken down car, dustbins, sewer pipes, an electric oven and other bits and pieces of people's discarded lives.

My personal philosophy is a truly great musical should be able to stand on its own. The audience should be able to understand the characters and the story with just the music, lyrics, book, stage design, costumes and performers; without the need of any accompanying souvenir programs or other explanatory aids. I was also determined to have no expectations, since my aunt had warned me strongly of how she had been quite disappointed when she watched it many years ago, due to the show not quite living up to all the hype she had heard about it.

As a result, I went into Cats knowing virtually nothing about the show, except that it was an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about cats and it’s where the theatre standard Memory comes from. Through the years I’ve briefly heard bits and pieces, like the term “Jellicle” and the Jellicle theme, but nothing in detail. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a quick reminder. I’ll bet you most people in the world will recognise this song instantaneously.

The Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals I’m acquainted with to date are works like: The Phantom of the Opera; Jesus Christ Superstar; select songs from Sunset Boulevarde, Tell Me on a Sunday, Evita, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Musicals which are all very much through-composed with beautiful melodies, brilliant counterpoint and sweeping, dramatic scores. Musicals with unforgettable songs like Memory (think the title song from The Phantom Of The Opera, Any Dream Will Do, or Don’t Cry for Me Argentina). Even the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar was quite true to strict harmony. As a result, I was quite surprised by the stylistic range of Cats.

Cats is very different from the other Lloyd Webber musicals I’ve seen to date. Being based on a T.S. Eliot collection of poems for children, it has a Seussical feel to it, full of wild imagination, and doesn’t really have a plot-focused story line. In fact, the story is almost a backdrop for character exploration, kind of like how A Chorus Line is about exploring the dancers rather than the show. Going into the musical and not knowing this bit of information made it really hard for me to understand what was going in the first half as character after character was introduced and I kept wondering when the plot would start moving forward.

Once I did figure it out, I was able to strop stressing and actually relaxed and enjoyed it. Cats is a really fun musical, full of humor and whimsy. My favourite numbers (other than Memory) have to be Mungojerrie And Rumpleteazer, a song about two mischievous cat burglars and Growltiger’s Last Stand, an old cat reliving the glory of his youth as a reknowned actor in his finest moments. And like A Chorus Line, Cats is a show where the choreography is the focus. Instead of showstopping song after showstopping song and despite being based on poetry, it’s full of wonderful instrumental music which really lets the audience concentrate on the incredible acrobatics being pulled off by the performers, sometimes while singing! Some of the cast members are literally singing while doing back flips and somersaults without their voice wavering the slightly bit. Truly. Amazing.

Musically, Cats is kind of all over the place and not the usual Lloyd Webber fare. It starts off and is interspersed with a cacophony of urban night life (complete with cars revving, screeching, sirens, etc) which seems to inevitably meld into a very distinctive Jellicle Cat theme, which appears throughout the show:

It also features songs like The Rum Tum Tugger which are very pop/rock, jazz numbers (Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer), hymns (Old Deuteronomy, The Addressing Of Cats), comedic theatrical ballads (Growltiger’s Last Stand) and light-hearted fun pieces like Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat:

The great highlight of the evening was watching Delia Hannah perform Memory as Grizabella. For that one moment in time, she made us feel Grizabella’s anguish and yearning and when she sang:

Touch me
It’s so easy to leave me
All alone with the memory
Of my days in the sun
If you touch me
You’ll understand what happiness is

Look
A new day has begun
Memory, from Cats

there was this physical, soundless, heart-stopping instant where the whole audience sat breathless as the full emotional impact of the song came crashing down on us. Absolutely. Incredible.

Overall, I had a lot of fun watching Cats. It’s not going into my list of all favourite musicals – the trifecta of Rent, Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera is hard to beat – but I definitely recommend watching it while it’s in town. It’s a great production and makes for a really fun night out!

Cats poster by yuriybrisk from Flickr.

Cats poster by yuriybrisk from Flickr.

The Aptitude/Passion Disconnect – Being Good At Something You Don’t Like

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Dream Traps - What's Stopping You?

Many people spend their lives wishing they were good at something. They look at people who are good at that something and they envy them. And because of that, it is not socially acceptable for someone to dislike something they are good at, since they will inevitably cop a backlash of “How can you say that? You’re so good at it! I would love to be as good as you are.”

There’s an overwhelming expectation or assumption that if you’re good at something (i.e. you have aptitude for it), you must enjoy it (i.e. you have a passion for your aptitude). I think this is a fundamentally flawed assumption. We can be great at things we don’t like and we can love things we’re completely hopeless at.

I have great attention to detail, an ability to understand complicated issues or concepts quickly and analyse a set of facts. This makes me very, very good at being an external auditor. But I spend most of my free time buried in a fantasy novel, going to shows, playing the piano or reading design blogs. This means my job – where 90% of the time is about whether you’ve ticked a box in a checklist or not – is a horrible fit given my passion for the creative arts.

The logical conclusion is obvious. A lifetime of being good at something that you don’t like and not being allowed to express the fact that you don’t like it means you end up with a lot of issues, such as disliking your job but not being able to quit, thinking there is something fundamentally wrong with you for not liking something you’re good at and so you keep on trying even though you really don’t like it and internalising all your misery and end up depressed, burning out, having a nervous breakdown or all of the above.

Depression: Affects More People Than You Think

Since I officially moved out into my own apartment in August last year, I’ve been getting a lot of junk mail. Generally, it’s the usual run of IGA catalogues, real estate agents hounding me about either selling my place or renting it out, and pizza coupons and takeaway food menus. I also got pamphlets and handy fridge magnets from Beyond Blue, an Australian organisation dedicating to providing information about depression to the general population at large. At work, I also constantly see signs notifying everyone that there’s a free counselling service available to all partners and employees.

The most recent ABS study on mental health and wellbeing in 2007 found 1 in 5 Australians suffer from mental illness each year with depression being the second most common disorder. Running the numbers, that means over 650,000 Australians suffer from depression each year.

Up until recently, I pretty much shrugged off all the facts and figures and everything being shoved in our face about depression. It wasn’t until I started talking to my friends and colleagues and listening to my parents talk about their network that I really started paying attention:

  • Most of my colleagues at senior accountant level and below are not happy at work. Accounting firms are in a high turnover industry but the recent spate of resignations at the level at which they are happening is ridiculous. Over the last 12 months there’s been more than 10 senior accountants and half of the experienced junior accountants have left in my division alone, with more contemplating their alternatives, like Matthew Caldicott who is a junior accountant in the Financial Services division and took a career break to go on MasterChef Australia 2010.
  • My managers at work appear to be generally content with staying in their jobs, even if they are getting hammered by client deadlines.
  • My partners at work love it. Probably because they get an average cash salary of $500k.
  • Most of my ex-colleagues who have left are far, far happier than before and don’t regret a thing.
  • Most of my colleagues who are still here have stayed because they like their colleagues.
  • In every single farewell speech I have ever heard and departure email I have ever read, everyone always mentions the great people they worked with – no one has ever mentioned the great work.
  • My happiest friends are not the ones with the flashiest cars, most expensive clothes or highest-paying jobs.
  • My happiest friends are the ones who are in jobs where they have both aptitude and passion, or the ones who still have no idea what they want to do but are out there doing their best to find out.
  • My unhappiest friends are those who haven’t worked out what they want and haven’t done anything about it.

A Google Trends search on depression, happiness and career shows some interesting results (out of curiosity, I threw in global financial crisis just for kicks).

Google Trends of depression, happiness, career and global financial crisis

A Google Trends search of depression, happiness, career and global financial crisis shows a close - almost 1:1 - relationship between depression and career. A huge spike in depression happens as the global financial crisis sets in while more people are looking for happiness over time.

Obsession: The Pursuit of Happiness

I don’t think anyone will find it surprising that people are obsessed with being happy. We grow up listening to fairy tales where everyone lives happily ever after. We’re brought up with the idealised Great Australian Dream of a house on a quarter-acre block, 2.5 kids and pets. We think having a stable 9-to-5 job, a house like the ones in Better Homes & Gardens magazines and more money than we know what to do with will make us happy.

A whole industry around the pursuit of happiness has developed with companies such as The Happiness Institute providing seminars, training and events based on the science of positive psychology. There’s over 1.3 million research papers on positive psychology and articles in management publications and at least 50 TED Talks on understanding what makes us happy.

What does surprise me is unhappy people can be so 矛盾 (máodùn). They’re unhappy with their lives but they refuse to acknowledge it or, worse, they acknowledge it but refuse to do anything to change their situation or, worst of all, they place their hopes in things which aren’t going to help at all, like lottery tickets or hoping their dream job will fall into their laps from out of the sky or thinking if they wish enough it will come true.

Change is difficult, I know that. I know how difficult it is to fight against your upbringing, what it feels like to contemplate leaving the certainty of a well-paying, stable job and the sense of being overwhelmed by a seemingly unreachable goal. After all, I’m probably crazy in thinking I could go from being an external auditor to writing Broadway musicals.

Repression: The Disconnect Between Aptitude and Passion

By virtue of competition and the laws of supply and demand, most of us end up in jobs where we have some degree of aptitude, but not a great deal of passion. Some of us are not so lucky and end up working dead end jobs where we don’t have any aptitude or passion just to make ends meet. Others decide they’ve had enough – only to fail horribly and/or gain internet/popular culture infamy when it becomes evident they have no aptitude for it. A small group are able to find their dream jobs, but even then, they need to work hard to stay there and some come to realise dreams are not what they seem.

A Venn diagram showing where jobs lie between aptitude and passion.

A Venn diagram showing where jobs lie between aptitude and passion.

Progression: Keep Trying New Things

千里之行始於足下。
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
—老子 Lǎozǐ, Tao Te Ching

One of the hardest things to do is to look at yourself critically and acknowledge truths you don’t like.

I don’t like the fact I’ve spent 720 hours in high school, 3 years at university and another 500 hours and $10,000 towards a career I have a lot of aptitude for but zero passion.

I don’t like being torn between wanting to pursue my dreams and the constant internal voiceover telling me music is not an acceptable career path and I should stick to something I’m good at, that’s stable and pays well.

I don’t like the idea of looking back at my life when I grow too old to dream and find that I’ve made no difference at all on the world.

The next hardest thing is doing something about it.

It’s been two years since I came back from New York. Since then, I’ve watched a few shows, started a web design business with a friend, picked up two clients at work in the music/performing arts industry, attended a Talent Development Project workshop, met Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and negotiated a flexible work arrangement to allow me some time to figure out what I want to do and I started a piano blog which I’m still not too good at updating.

It’s been exactly one month since I started my flexible work arrangement. In the last month, I closed down my old blog and started this one to keep me accountable to myself so I don’t end up doing nothing at all, watched more shows and went to the UNSW Post Graduate Expo to figure out what my options are. I’ve talked to more people about what I want to do and how to get there and feel like I’m making really slow progress, but progress nonetheless.

My EBA exam is happening in the next month so I don’t expect to get a whole lot done, other than going to more shows and keeping this blog updated. Loathe as I am and as much as I’ll harp on about it, I need to focus and get this done because at this point, the incremental benefits of completing my CA far outweigh the costs.

One step at a time. Get the CA done, then get back on track with figuring how to get to Broadway.

[Catching up] NYC – Jan 20, 2008: Times Square, 42nd Street and Rent

This is a repost of an old blog entry I made during my stay in New York City as an exchange student to New York University at the beginning of 2008. That single semester was the most incredible four months and has changed my life more than I could possibly imagine.

Rent is a through-composed musical by Jonathan Larson. Based on Puccini’s La Bohème opera, it took Larson seven years to write and he tragically died the night before the off-Broadway premiere. Set in the early 1990s, Rent deals with a number of controversial issues of that decade, such as homosexuality and HIV/AIDS. It is the eighth longest running Broadway show and closed shortly after my stay in New York.

I grew up listening to the soundtrack of Rent on repeat. I knew all the songs by heart – and consequentially the story – before I ever saw the stage production. Rent is arguably my favourite musical of all time (Wicked and Phantom can give it a good run for its money) because I can identify with it so strongly and it strikes so many personal chords. I am so glad that Sony decided to preserve it forever in the Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway DVD and I strongly recommend you to watch it.


Originally posted on Fri, 27 March 2009 at 08:44 while listening to “Without You” by the Original Broadway Cast, OST ‘Rent’ and feeling Reminiscent.

Now the rush of busy season is over and I’ve handed in my FIN109 EP, I’m finding more and more that I get home incredibly tired (thanks to a day of doing something I don’t enjoy), totally unable to study for FIN and instead thinking about how awesome my life was this time last year, because I was in New York.

So I figured, what the hell, it’s not like I’m doing anything else. I’m going to indulge and reminisce about how awesome New York was by writing up some waaaay overdue blog entries.

Jan 20, 2008: Times Square, 42nd Street and Rent

The words that come to mind when I think about Times Square will always have to be the immortal lyrics of “Broadway Baby” from Follies, all hopes and dreams, bright dazzling lights and marquees and music and life.

The 42nd Street Subway Station.

The 42nd Street Subway Station.

The famous Times Square skyline, with musicals splashed all over prominent billboards and constant ads flickering over the massive outdoor screens.

The famous Times Square skyline, with musicals splashed all over prominent billboards and constant ads flickering over the massive outdoor screens.

A slightly more closer up of the Times Square billboards.

A slightly more closer up of the Times Square billboards.

Buskers at Times Square!

Buskers at Times Square!

A dull gold limousine with the words "Wacky fun for the whole family!" painted across its side and some very strange gimmicky attachments.  Must be some sort of weird advertisement on wheels. Only in New York...

So where was our first stop in Times Square? Why, the M&M store of course! Apparently you can get custom M&Ms made with your name on them or whatever message you want. We walk in and we’re greeted with walls of brightly colored coordinated chocolate…

Walls of M&Ms.

Walls of M&Ms.

The M&Ms go everywhere, including the ceiling.

The M&Ms go everywhere, including the ceiling.

…and some very distinctive characters.

Green dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. You know, in case you forget that you\'re in New York City while you\'re in the middle of Times Square.

Green dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. You know, in case you forget that you're in New York City while you're in the middle of Times Square.

A very angry looking Red dressed as a high rise window cleaner with a very large pigeon.

A very angry looking Red dressed as a high rise window cleaner with a very large pigeon.

...and finally a rather more friendly looking Yellow who obliged us with a photo, being the only M&M actually situated on the ground. L-R: Amanda, me, Yellow, Dewi and Kat.

...and finally a rather more friendly looking Yellow who obliged us with a photo, being the only M&M actually situated on the ground. L-R: Amanda, me, Yellow, Dewi and Kat.

After we’d bought our front row mezzanine seats for only $54 a piece, Kat and I went to brave the hordes of crazy women mobbing the Victoria’s Secret store at Herald Square while Dewi and Amanda went in search of the best cheesecake, chocolate and pastry shops in New York City.

Herald Square, at W 34th Street and Broadway.

Herald Square, at W 34th Street and Broadway.

Victoria's Secret, Herald Square.

Victoria's Secret, Herald Square.

Australians think the Boxing Day Myers and David Jones sales are savage. They’ve got nothing on the Semi Annual Sale at Victoria’s Secret. The store was so packed there was hardly room to move, with clothing thrown over every available surface as women scrambled around in a frenzy to snatch every last bargain. The lines to go to the change rooms wound all around the second floor of the store and had a minimum wait time of 30 minutes. It was so crowded in there that Kat and I lost track of each other, which resulted in a very frantic couple of hours when Dewi, Amanda and I thought some horrible mishap might have befallen her and were unable reach her since her phone had died.

Anyway, after we grabbed some dinner, we headed out to the Nederlander Theatre at W 41st and 7th Ave. By this time it was freezing cold:

Me in front of the Nederlander Theatre, all rugged up in a fleece ear warmer/headband, wool scarf, gloves and overcoat.

Me in front of the Nederlander Theatre, all rugged up in a fleece ear warmer/headband, wool scarf, gloves and overcoat.

Amanda and Dewi with their playbills.

Amanda and Dewi with their playbills.

Me and Kat with our playbills.

Me and Kat with our playbills.

The stage design was stunning. There was this totally stark, utilitarian, industrial looking set, which was convincingly able to convey upstairs, downstairs, apartment, cafe, street, hospital, carpark and more, all in turn. Apart from moving around a few chairs and tables, there was very little moving around of major stage elements.

The stage of Rent.

The stage of Rent.

When the lights dimmed and the show started, I sat right on the edge of my seat and I didn’t move a muscle – didn’t breathe – until intermission. I don’t really have the words to describe how amazing it was. I grew up listening to the soundtrack of Rent, before I ever knew what the musical itself was about and I knew every song of the musical by heart. It was the first musical that I watched while I was in New York and it is a musical that is so intensely New York. It absolutely blew me away.

Laughs

Rent is one of those musicals that do the impossible and combine very serious themes and achingly sad moments and yet have parts which are just bursting with fun and energy and humour. I absolutely loved the voicemails, the “Tango Maureen”, that moment when Mark walks into “Life Support”, and the whole role of Angel. But the key moment that stood out for me was the juxtaposition of Roger’s soul searching (Adam Pascal) in “One Song Glory” which was abruptly interrupted by Mimi asking him to “Light My Candle” (Tamyra Gray). I have to say that Tamyra has been the most convincing Mimi who really took a very difficult role and made it her own.

Showstoppers

Big moments which stood out were “Rent”, the close of Act I with “La Vie Boheme” at the end of Act I, “Seasons of Love”, “Take Me or Leave Me” and “What You Own”. It probably seems very biased but again, Tamyra”s “Out Tonight” totally blew me away with how powerful and dynamic it was.

Tearjerkers

I’m the first to admit I’m a sucker for sappy moments in music/stories; books, movies, TV shows, concerts, Broadway musicals, it makes no difference. “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)”, “Goodbye Love”, the second half of “Finale” when Mimi is dying, “Your Eyes”, I cried in all of those songs. But it was “Without You” that struck the deepest chord.

I had incredibly high expectations for Rent and it surpassed all of them. It completely blew me out of the water. I. Love. Rent. No day but today.

The “I Might As Well” Trap – Confusing Sunk Costs, Incremental Costs and Opportunity Costs

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Dream Traps - What's Stopping You?

If you’re a fairly easy-going person, chances are you’ve used the phrase “Oh, I might as well” before. Once or twice usually isn’t a problem. It becomes a problem when once or twice turns into every so often which inevitably becomes every time. “I might as well” is probably one of the reasons why I’m still in audit.

We say “I might as well” for a lot of reasons, but mainly because:

  • We think it won’t take a lot of additional time or effort, OR
  • We lack direction and don’t really know what we should/want to do
  • We can’t bear the thought of throwing in the towel after spending X amount of time and Y amount of money already on something (because that would be like failing)

Most people who have studied economics would be aware of the terms “sunk costs” and “incremental costs”.

“Sunk costs” are those costs which have already been incurred and no matter what you do, you can’t change that and get your money back. In accounting and finance, when we learn about what information to include in a decision-making models, we exclude “sunk costs” since no matter what is decided, those costs cannot be recovered and therefore shouldn’t affect the decision one way or another. It’s easy to condemn bad decision making when it’s presented in textbook format but it’s very hard to acknowledge it when it comes to sunk costs in your own life. In other words, you’ve already invested time and resources into your situation, so you “might as well” go through with it to the fullest extent.

“Incremental costs” are those additional costs which you will incur in order to do XYZ. You can avoid incremental costs by deciding not to go through with XYZ as they are future costs which you haven’t committed to yet. If you’ve committed yourself to those costs and you can’t do anything about it, they become sunk costs.

Mistake #1: Failing To Consider Incremental Costs When Deciding What To Do

When I was selecting my subjects in high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I hedged my bets and took mainstream subjects which were supposed to give me a higher UAI score. Lo and behold, before I even realised it, 8 out of the 10 minimum units were taken up by 2 subjects, 1 of them maths. I don’t even like maths!

According to the Board of Studies NSW, each unit of study requires 60 hours of classroom study per year. I ended up wasting a lot of time.

That’s 18 hours of class that could have been spent on more relevant subjects that would have helped considerably and that I enjoy:

  • Drama – I could have learned about dramatic structures and techniques
  • Design & Technology – I could have learned about set design
  • Textiles – I could have learned how to design and make costumes

Or 18 hours that I could have spent on extracurricular activities like:

  • Joining a local musical society
  • Staying involved in choral activities in high school and producing the third instalment of “A Night On Broadway”
  • Trying to write a high school musical like so many great Broadway composers (side note: apparently it would help tremendously if I were also male and named “Stephen”; maybe I should change my name to “Stephanie”)

None of these were sunk costs when I was selecting subjects. They were all incremental costs that I should have thought about when I was making my decisions.

Mistake #2: Considering Sunk Costs When You Shouldn’t

I am still stuck in the “I Might As Well” trap today. You would think after coming to the realisation that I didn’t want to be in accounting I would have stopped right then and there and figured out what I could do with my life. Instead, I thought “I have a steady job so I might as well go back to work while I figure out what I want to do.” I then thought “I might as well start my CA while I’m here.”

2 years comprising of 500 hours of study and about $10,000 later (5 modules at approximately $1,200 tuition fees plus $600 in study support), I’m now in the middle of studying for my final EBA exam and my care factor is non-existent.

After every module, I would kick myself. What was I doing, continually racking up these study costs? But I couldn’t stop, not only because that would be admitting failure but because it seemed like such a waste of my undergraduate degree and my entire internship. It also seemed like a tremendous waste of the modules I had completed to date, especially after I had completed the FIN and TAX modules, since they were perceived as the “hardest” and by then I was halfway through my technical modules.

What could I have done with 500 hours and $10,000?

I continually kept thinking about the costs of my degree, my internship and the modules I had done to date. These costs would only be relevant if I am going to continue to pursue a degree in business. But the moment I decided I’m going to pursue my dreams of music, these costs became irrelevant; they were sunk costs. I would have been much better off disregarding the CA altogether.

The Root Cause: Forgetting The Opportunity Costs

We all know we should weigh the pros and cons of each decision, but most of us are pretty terrible at it since humans are naturally both loss adverse and risk adverse, “a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush” and all. Thus we always tend to choose the safe option of what we know, rather than chasing the uncertain dream. But we forget that in doing so we tend to overvalue what we have.

“I Might As Well” Is Not Good Enough

It’s really easy to just go through the motions every day, forget why we’re doing things and just go along with the flow because you “might as well”. But a day becomes a week which becomes a month and before you know it years have gone by and all you’ve done is live life by going through the motions.

I look back at my life for the past two years and I can count up the total number of meaningful things I’ve done that really mattered to me on a “this is my reason for living” level on my two hands. Assuming each meaningful thing takes an average of 1 day, that’s at least 355 days out of the year on which I am not doing a single, meaningful thing.

That’s a pretty miserable way to live life. It’s not life at all, it’s a waste of a life. I think Jonathan Larson summed it up best in these lines:

One Song Glory

From the pretty boy front Man
Who wasted opportunity

Every time I hear Adam Pascal sing those words I get a chill.

Some people might be lucky enough or focused enough or self aware enough to be doing meaningful things every single day of their lives.

Another Day

There is no future
There is no past
I live this moment as my last
There’s only us
There’s only this
Forget regret
Or life is yours to miss
No other road
No other way
No day but today

The rest of us are generally too afraid or too complacent. We lose sight of the big picture and get stuck worrying about these sunk costs. Or we get caught up and forget to consider incremental costs. And so we end up with a really big bill in opportunity costs.

I don’t want to keep putting off living life to “another day”. There’s “no day but today“.

Andre Rieu’s “Romantic Night in Vienna”

This is a repost of an old blog entry I made after my friend and I went to see Andre Rieu during his tour of Australia in the spring/summer of 2008. While he may not be to everyone’s tastes, I admire him for his showmanship and his ability to make a living doing what he loves. I mean, who else gets to tour the world playing a priceless violin with a life-sized replica of a Viennese castle?


Originally posted on Sat, 29 November 2008 at 05:12 while listening to “Bolero” by Ravel, performed by Andre Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra and feeling envious.

I love Andre Rieu. Benny and I went to see him in concert last night at ANZ Stadium and it was awesome. Sadly, I found out very late that cameras, photos and videos were actually permitted and all I had on hand was my crappy phone. There were literally hordes of people descending on ANZ Stadium to see Andre in concert.

The hordes of people descending on ANZ Stadium to see Andre in concert.

The hordes of people descending on ANZ Stadium to see Andre in concert.

The first thing you notice as you walk into the stadium is the giant life size replica of the Schonbrunn Palace. My crappy phone just doesn’t do it justice. This is only a tiny part of the set:

A very tiny portion of the life sized replica of the castle.

A very tiny portion of the life sized replica of the castle.

You also notice the massive FOUNTAIN:

Me, with the fountain, with my eyes closed in the photo as usual.

Me, with the fountain, with my eyes closed in the photo as usual.

This fountain was unbelievable. A fountain. I kid you not, he had a fountain travel around with him. Not just one, but TWO (there was one on either side of the stage)! These twin fountains were synchronised with the music, kind of like a mini travel-sized pair of Bellagio fountains.

And then there was the massive stage.

The stage.

The stage.

Yup, that’s a replica of a Viennese ballroom, complete with golden chandeliers AND uniformed footmen/doormen (whom you can’t see in this photo), behind the wrought iron railings and street lamp. Not to mention a pair of ice rinks either side of the stage:

The ice rink on the side of the stage.

The ice rink on the side of the stage.

I really can’t do this justice, so here are two photos from the official Andre Rieu website showing the most incredible set I have ever seen (not the Sydney concert):

The Andre Rieu "A Romantic Night in Vienna" set (source: www.andrerieu.com).

The Andre Rieu "A Romantic Night in Vienna" set (source: www.andrerieu.com).

Dancers in the replica of the Viennese ballroom in the Schonbrunn Palace, under the golden chandeliers. If you look hard, you can see the uniformed footmen/doormen. (source: www.andrerieu.com).

Dancers in the replica of the Viennese ballroom in the Schonbrunn Palace, under the golden chandeliers. If you look hard, you can see the uniformed footmen/doormen. (source: www.andrerieu.com).

This is where Benny and I were sitting, in section B2, row X, seats 4 and 5. These tickets retailed for $269 each from Ticketek, but we scored them for a sweet $200 a-piece from eBay.

Me and Benny, from our seats in section B2, row X, seats 4 and 5.

Me and Benny, from our seats in section B2, row X, seats 4 and 5.

I’ll be honest, I’d been really worried when first we had some communication issues and taking a bit longer to collect our tickets than I expected, and that I was really, really hoping that the tickets wouldn’t be ruled invalid. Even so, these Category 2 tickets only landed us seats this close far away and angled away from the stage. There were a LOT of people there:

The concert starting as the orchestra make their way on stage.

The concert starting as the orchestra make their way on stage.

Given the distance of our seats made all the performers appear about the size of Tom Thumb to us, most of the time we spent watching the show on one of four massive screens mounted in the wall of the castle:

One of the four massive screens mounted in the castle wall.

One of the four massive screens mounted in the castle wall.

The Johann Strauss Orchestra and Choir was dressed to the nines in finery no less extravagant and impressive than that of the entire set:

The orchestra, dressed in their best finery.

The orchestra, dressed in their best finery.

The orchestra, standing by for the maestro.

The orchestra, standing by for the maestro.

This is seriously like no other classical concert I’ve ever been to. It had champion figure skaters:

A figure skating pair, during "My Heart Will Go On".

…a golden carriage drawn by six white horses…

The Princess Sisi, pulling up to the palace.

The Princess Sisi, pulling up to the palace.

…dancers from the Vienna State Opera Ballet and 80 Vienna Debutantes…

The ballroom dancers are onscreen, with ice skating dancers on the rink.

The ballroom dancers are onscreen, with ice skating dancers on the rink.

…great showmanship throughout the entire concert. Andre and all his performers make wisecracks and jokes the whole night, pulling some well-practiced gags. This is a memorable moment where Béla Mavrák, one of the Platinum Tenors, comes onstage singing away happily, bearing an enormous pot of what is presumably goulash for – according to Andre and the orchestra – the umpteenth meal in a month.

Andre, I have a surprise for you…..I made goulash for you and entire orchestra!

Bela Mavrak, a large pot of hot steaming goulash and Andre Rieu.

Bela Mavrak, a large pot of hot steaming goulash and Andre Rieu.

I, of course, couldn’t resist getting closer to the stage during the intermission to check out the piano. Too far away to tell who the maker was, but my fingers were definitely itching to play it.

The gorgeous piano!

The gorgeous piano!

Me with the piano. Nope, couldn't resist!

Me with the piano. Nope, couldn't resist!

The evening was marred only by the fact that it had been pouring in the late afternoon and consequently all the seats and plastic floorboards protecting the grass of the stadium were wet; and that the stadium is under a direct flight path. Nothing quite like sitting enraptured by divine sounding music only to be rudely shaken out of it by the roar of a 747 flying overhead.

All in all, a fantastic show, with some truly great performances of classics like Ravel’s Bolero, mixed with contemporary pop ballads like “My Heart Will Go On”, musicals (“Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from Phantom) the Australian national anthem and a bunch of classic Australian songs: “Waltzing Matilda”, “Botany Bay” and a medley including themes from “Bananas in Pajamas”, “Home Among the Gum Trees” and “Neighbours”.

Andre Rieu, the maestro himself.

Andre Rieu, the maestro himself.

I love Andre Rieu. It’s a good thing he doesn’t tour here all that often, otherwise I’m pretty sure I’d go broke. As it is, I’m strictly forbidding myself any more theatre events until next year.

And once again, as always, back to studying for CA. *sigh*

The Phaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaantom of the Opera is heerrrrre!!

This is a repost of an old blog entry I made during my stay in New York City as an exchange student to New York University at the beginning of 2008. That single semester was the most incredible four months and has changed my life more than I could possibly imagine.

The Phantom of the Opera is a through-composed stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the great masters of twentieth century musical theatre, written for the one and only Sarah Brightman (his then-wife). It is one of the longest-running musicals in history, opening in the West End in 1986 and is still showing as of the date of writing this post. Phantom is one of the earliest musicals I was introduced to; I fell in love with it the first time I heard the music at age of 10 at a New Year’s Eve party held by a family friend.

I saw the 2004 film (also produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber) before I ever saw the stage musical and I loved it. This is my review of the stage production on Broadway.


Originally posted on Thu, 28 February 2008 at 01:59 while listening to “The Phantom of the Opera”, OST ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and feeling in love.

I love New York.

So I finished up my Corporate Finance case study and sat my Futures & Options mid-term and wondered what I was going to do with a whole evening of lovely free time. Then it hit me. Times Square is only a stone’s throw away. I ate an early dinner, scribbled down the addresses of about four different shows and headed out.

I originally meant to see something else, like Chicago or A Chorus Line, but Phantom was the closest theatre to the subway station and I couldn’t just walk past. I thought it would be less packed on a Wednesday night but incredibly the line of people wound all around the foyer, out the door and onto the sidewalk. I have loved Phantom for so long that I couldn’t resist. Didn’t get my beloved front and dead center mezzanine seats as I did for Rent, but I did get front and center rear mezzanine for $36 USD and it was pretty decent.

Looking up at the signage of the Phantom mask, outside the Majestic Theatre on 245 West 44th Street, New York.

The Phantom of the Opera, showing at the Majestic Theatre, 245 West 44th Street.

I got there at about 7:20 PM or so and there was already a huge line of people queuing up and people trying to sell souvenir programs for $10 each (I love Phantom, but not enough to pay $10 for a program). Doors opened at 7:30 PM sharp and I walked into this absolutely gorgeous theatre, all ornate woodwork with gold leaf, plush carpets and velvet, and chandeliers everywhere. Sadly my camera chose this moment to die so all subsequent pictures are from my phone.

Me in the Majestic Theatre.

Me in the Majestic Theatre.

The ceiling of the theatre.

The ceiling of the theatre.

The stage at the very beginning (prologue/auction scene).

The stage at the very beginning (prologue/auction scene).

The stage at the very end, with red velvet curtains drawn shut.

The stage at the very end.

The sets were absolutely fantastic and I wish I had photos. The whole sequence of “Little Lotte/The Mirror” into “I Remember…Stranger Than You Dreamt It” was done brilliantly, with Phantom leading Christine through a trapdoor in the stage then down a tilting walkway from side to side to make it seem like they descended into the bowels of the opera house. Then the lake scene, just wow, there was a lot of dry ice for mist on the lake and the boat and candles gliding around. Other memorable sets were the giant staircase for “Masquerade” which was so lavish and wonderfully done and the roof of the opera house for “All I Ask Of You”, oh and the “Hannibal” scene with the giant elephant!

They made really good use of stage space the whole time, there was a walkway on top of the stage where the Phantom cut down the chandelier, and it was connected to the gargoyle where he hid and did “All I Ask Of You (Reprise)”.

There’s a bunch of miscellaneous comments I had on other stuff about the staging. Costuming and lighting was great for the whole show. There was quite of bit of pyrotechnics used: explosions to signify the flashback in time at the beginning, when the Phantom appears/disappears, then Phantom throwing fireballs in the graveyard scene during “Wandering Child” and there was a point where there were massive gouts of flame going up on stage (I think during Don Juan Triumphant?). Totally. Awesome.

Musically I was so impressed by Howard McGillin. He makes a brilliant Phantom and his voice is so wonderfully expressive. If it were possible to fall in love with a voice, I would be so in love right now. He conveyed such depths of emotion in his singing and then he acted the part of a genius caught between sociopathic violence and a pitiful yearning for unrequited love so perfectly. *swoon* Loved him. Jennifer Hope Wills did pull off a great Christine, but I think my rather subdued praise is due to listening to Sarah Brightman on repeat.

Tim Martin Gleason as Raoul was…good but compared to Phantom and Christine, he just kind of paled beside them. His diction wasn’t as clean and crisp and his delivery didn’t pull on the heartstrings enough. He seemed to sing at two extremes a lot – he’s either “yelling” in a dynamically flat way or a very nice softer, more expressive sound. I wish he had more gradations in his performance, like the other two leads (the ranges in their voices are unbelievable). He’s supposed to be the understudy for Phantom; I’m not sure that would work out so good, just because his Raoul didn’t really grab me. Patricia Phillips did Carlotta very well too, but I kept thinking about Minnie Driver’s version in the film and felt it was a bit too similar and Minnie Driver’s version was stronger.

Final comments on musicality before I sleep – orchestra was really, really good. And diction overall was fantastic. You could hear every single consonant being clipped off and it was done so strongly and cleanly that it would echo a little around the theatre. Except for Gleason. He was kind of slack on a lot of his diction. Blah, and now this is ending on a down note. Well, when all is said and done, it was still a great show and I still loved it. But on an overall basis, I’d have to say Rent left a stronger impression on me. Soooo…I will blog about Rent (which I saw like a month ago)…soon!

The Chinese Tradition Trap – Failure Is Not An Option

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Dream Traps - What's Stopping You?

It’s taken for granted that at least once in your life, you will do a whole lot of soul searching and wonder “Who am I and what am I doing here?” Sometimes this crisis happens very late in life (the “mid-life crisis”), sometimes people are really pro-active and start asking as soon as they can talk. These days, it’s often happening to people in their twenties or what’s been termed a “quarter-life crisis“.

I first heard this term about a year ago from a colleague as her twenty-fifth birthday was approaching and she started questioning whether she was in the right career. Myself, I started questioning where I was going back in 2007, after I had finished my Ernst & Young internship and during the final year of my Bachelor of Commerce degree. I was 20. Either I got to an early start or my colleague is going to have a much longer life!

At the time, my colleague and I commiserated, discussed our options and gave each other a few suggestions on what we could do about our situation.

One year later, my colleague has taken full advantage of the opportunities which opened up to her and she is now working in the Ernst & Young London office, in a completely different capacity (i.e. not an audit senior).

One year later, I’m still here, working as an audit senior in the Ernst & Young Sydney Office.

We both had comparable motivations, education and skill set and opportunities. Why was she able to change her situation so completely in a year and why am I still here, one year later?

Chinese Tradition in Ancient Times

Disclaimer: This is a purely anecdotal account based on my own upbringing and the upbringing of my family and friends and not intended to be held as a historically or statistically accurate statement of fact.

Ancient China was a scholastic meritocracy, where education was the ticket to a better social position. By studying hard, you were more likely to pass the Imperial Examinations, which meant you could gain a position at court, even if you were born into a poor peasant family, bringing honour to your family. That is why to this day, Chinese people believe white collar jobs are better than blue collar jobs and see only four generally acceptable career paths: doctor, lawyer, accountant/business person and teacher. That is also why Chinese people believe jobs at big prestigious companies or governments are better than jobs at small- and mid-sized businesses.

Chinese culture also has a very deep rooted respect for elders. Your elders have lived longer than you; they have more life experienced because they’ve “crossed more bridges than you’ve walked along roads” and “eaten more salt than you’ve eaten rice” and so they are wiser and more knowledgeable. You do not disrespect or dishonour your elders or your family. You do not disobey your parents.

Chinese Tradition in Modern Day Society (20th/21st Century)

While there are no more Imperial Examinations, in Hong Kong and China, the university entrance exams have taken over instead. Getting into a good university can make a huge difference.

As a result, many Chinese parents demand academic perfection. Chinese kids are brought up very differently to their peers.

  • They are sent off to intensive after school coaching classes very early on, as early as primary school.
  • They don’t have play-dates with other kids; they go to piano or violin lessons or go home and do extra homework.
  • Because of physical build, Chinese kids generally play sports like badminton, table tennis or gymnastics, rather than track, field, football, or cricket.
  • Chinese kids don’t take non-traditional subjects or subjects which don’t to either one of the allowable career paths or a white collar job.

Failure is not an option. Admitting defeat by quitting is not an option. Also, the definition of “failing” is not the same as the school’s definition or the standard definition of below 50%. “Failing” in modern Chinese culture is a flexible term which can refer to any or all of the following:

  • Not equalling or bettering your previous result in that subject
  • Getting a lower mark than your friend, or your parents’ friends’ son/daughter/niece/nephew
  • Not being at or near the top of your class/grade

I am very lucky and blessed to have Chinese parents who don’t adhere blindly to Chinese Tradition. They never sent me to coaching class after coaching class; they never told me I couldn’t do subjects like Drama; they supported me when I wanted to do an insane array of extracurricular activities; and most of all, they never demanded more than me giving everything my best effort.

I’ll illustrate with a flashback to a Year 11 Parent/Teacher Night. I was taking Extension I Mathematics with the intent to take Extension II Mathematics in my final year. I had never failed anything before my life but on my last class exam, I got 4 out of 32.

Completely. Unacceptable. By any standards, let alone Chinese Tradition. My parents weren’t furious, they were only concerned. But even with my awesome parents, I was still affected by this Chinese Tradition mentality. Failure. Unacceptable.

I’ll never forget sitting in front of my maths teacher (hands clenched in my lap, face burning with embarrassment and trying to hold back tears) as she told my parents that I was better off dropping out of Extension Mathematics altogether and just stick with plain Advanced Mathematics. I did not like maths. It was not my favourite subject. Being Chinese and failing at maths (well, failing at anything, but particularly failing at maths) is like dishonour. I felt I had to prove my teacher wrong and prove it to the world. So I never dropped that class. I refused to “quit”, took Extension II Mathematics and got a great result in my HSC exams.

Escaping The Chinese Tradition Trap

The Chinese Tradition Trap is rooted in an unwillingness to “admit defeat” because “failure is unacceptable”.

While companies use internship programs to screen candidates for permanent positions, it’s also a way to see what a particular career path is like. Probation periods also work along similar lines. Usually by the time you’ve been in an industry for anywhere between three to six months, you have a good idea of whether you like being there. At any point in time I could have decided that auditing and accounting is not for me. Many of my peers did – only 5 of my intake of 13 interns still remain at Ernst & Young; the rest figured out the internship wasn’t what they wanted and made their moves.

Similarly, going through high school, there was a huge perception that you had to get your subject choices right so you could get into the right degree for the right job; and if you didn’t get all of that right, that was it. Having gone through university now, I know that’s not true. You can change your subjects, your majors, your university, even your degree. You can choose alternative pathways like vocational education, summer school and short courses or pursue further studies after your undergraduate degree with graduate diplomas and masters degrees. There are an incredible number of ways to get to where you want to go.

My colleague had a very different upbringing so I don’t think she ever got stuck in the Chinese Tradition Trap. She was able to view her options objectively and consider them on their individual merits without automatically associating one of them with failure. As a result, she didn’t hold back and she was able to fully pursue the opportunities that came her way.

But for me, quitting the internship, changing degrees, majors or even subjects was unthinkable. On some level of my mind, I equated that with admitting failure, and it was unacceptable to fail. Thus, I never seriously took up any of the opportunities that came my way.

Not for a minute did I consider that the true failure was being unable to say to myself “This is not for me” and spending a lifetime doing something I don’t like.

“What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?”

It’s a question we get asked a lot as little kids, perhaps in kindergarten or even pre-school, not just by our friends, classmates or teachers but family, parents and the world at large. Answers vary from the “ordinary” (“I’m going to be a teacher/nurse/business person!”) to the exotic (“I’m going to be a firefighter/pilot/famous!”) and to the fantastic (“I’m going to be an explorer!”).

Some of us grow up to be exactly who we wanted to be. For those lucky few, I congratulate them in their achievements, their single-mindedness and ability to stay focused on their goals. Some of us grow up not knowing who we want to be, but find ourselves falling into our dream career along the way. I congratulate them too.

Most of us grow up to be something other than who we wanted to be. Maybe it was because of pressure from family and friends. Maybe we lost sight of the goal. Maybe we thought we weren’t good enough. Maybe we let the opportunities slip by.

We grew up, forgot how to dream and now we ask little children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and we chuckle at the answers. Sometimes in affection, sometimes in amusement; oftentimes in part-disbelief and part-condescension.

For me, it was fear.

Ever since I can remember, I grew up living and breathing music. I loitered outside the door when my aunt gave piano lessons on the weekends in her Hong Kong apartment, sneaking peeks through the keyhole and then climbed up on the stool and tried to mimic her students between lessons. There’s a baby photo of me with one of those telephone keyboard hybrid toys, smiling as I dial away on the keys. After we moved to Sydney, I remember not wanting to eat dinner because I wanted to finish learning the “A Dozen A Day” piano exercises I started two hours before, a timeframe in which my parents thought I would surely tire of the activity and happily come to the table for food.

I went to class singing songs in my head – if it was a music class, it became either singing or playing songs aloud – and between classes there was more music with choir practice, auditions for school productions, chamber choir rehearsal, vocal ensemble rehearsals, piano lessons, piano competitions – the list goes on and on. I collected a bunch of trophies and certificates from eisteddfods and exams; performed in the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Town Hall; held various roles in various school productions; I even went on a month-long tour of Italy with school, singing in St Mark’s Venice Cathedral.

It all stopped in Year 11. After I had gotten my L.Mus.A and finished my music HSC two years early, it came to a critical point where I had to make a call. Would I continue to pursue my music dream? Or would I look somewhere else?

I decided to look somewhere else. Despite dreaming – for years – of studying music in New York, I decided to play it safe. I studied “traditional” subjects, like English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Software Design and Development. I stopped all my extracurricular music activities – I turned down being Choral Captain, quit the vocal ensemble, the chamber choir, and the choir – and focused on academic studies. I applied for and got paid accounting internship offers with both Ernst & Young and KPMG, a great UAI and got into the prestigious University of New South Wales, arguably one of the best in the southern hemisphere for studying a Bachelor of Commerce with a double major in Accounting and Finance.

This world of numbers, rules, regulations, accounting and auditing standards and legislation is as far away from music as you can get.

Sometimes I run into people I got to know in the piano competition circuits around Sydney, like Van Anh Nguyen, who stuck with their dream of music and brought it to life. She’s established her own entertainment agency, a music school and found a way to make it all work. I really admire her courage.

When a little kid tells us “I’m going to be an explorer!” we don’t tell them that we already know everything there is to know about the world (we don’t), we don’t tell them there are no more lands to explore (there are, unless you’re living The Truman Show) and we don’t tell them this isn’t a practical career. We tell them “That’s wonderful!” and to study history and geography, join the boy scouts/girl guides/brownies/Duke of Edinburgh/Outward Bound programs and give them books about famous explorers or exotic places.

It’s not until that kid grows up (and in today’s society, that sort of happens around about the middle of high school, when you get your first chance to pick your elective subjects) that we start crushing their dreams. If it’s our son or daughter, we’ll smile a worried or an exasperated kind of smile and timidly question “But honey, don’t you think you should try something more practical? How would you pay the bills? What about accounting? There’s always jobs in accounting and they pay well.” If it’s our friend, we treat it as a big joke and laugh it off – or worse, dismiss it completely. “Oh come on, you don’t really want to do that, you’d have to give up XYZ then!”

Why do we do discourage and obstruct each other as we get older? Is it because we’re resentful that we didn’t stick to our dreams? If so, why do we take it out on other people instead of doing something about it ourselves?

When we see someone do something as remarkable as actually achieving their goals, we talk about how amazing it is, treat them as a one-of-a-kind individual who had the luck of the universe on their side and we write it off as something beyond our ability to accomplish. And we go back to our daily lives and forget all about it, though some of us might secretly wish that person was us.

I don’t think those people are one-of-a-kind people. I think we can all be who we want to be. And I think the key lies in those around us and ourselves in believing we can be who we want to be.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I don’t want to be an external auditor anymore.

I’m 23 years old today and I’m going to turn 24 this August. I think I still have plenty of time left to grow up. And when I grow up, I want to write Broadway musicals.