I’m sure you all know the section of the bookstore where all the self-help books are. There are thousands of them and they are popular. Some offer real professional help in very specific areas like accounting design and, of course, everything to do with computers, apps, coding and so on, and I’m sure they are very useful. I even bought Accounting for Dummies a few years ago and it seemed to fit the bill very well, but the biggest sellers are not these but the ‘how to improve yourself’ section.
This genre started, would you believe, over 100 years ago with Steven Smiles excellently titled book Self Help then progressed though How to Live on 24 hours a Day in 1908, Think and grow Rich (1973) and the very famous “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff in 1997. But a very smart gentleman called Chris Taylor realised that basically all the books were giving the same advice just with slightly different perspectives. Not really a surprise but perhaps a disappointment.
He said, after analysing all the books I’ve ever heard of in this field, that there are only 11 simple rules to follow and led us through them very convincingly.
That set me to thinking: if these rules apply to people could they also apply to cities? Well, here is my answer in this soapbox where I take you through the first five rules and see how they might apply to the city of Jakarta. We will return to the other six next time.
It’s a fun exercise, if not 100% accurate, but then again, whoever became a millionaire from self-help books? Oh, I know… the authors!
1. Take One Small Step
This is how all the self-help books begin: don’t try to do too much, you will fail, be discouraged and give up. How true. Jakarta’s huge, seemingly insurmountable problems: traffic, pollution, water, waste, flooding, urban planning, transportation, drugs, crime, etc. definitely need this approach. Take flooding, for example. We have had mega projects undertaken so often: the West Flood Canal, riverbank clearance of slums etc. but no end is in sight. This may be best broken down into achievable pieces. The same with traffic: just look at small areas, solve the flow patterns there and perhaps when they are all done, *shazam*, Jakarta will work. Okay, a good start?
2. Change Your Mental Map
I think this is closely related to Rule #1, because I’m guessing that in their heart of hearts, the City Fathers don’t really believe that they can solve Jakarta’s problems. They take office, they look at the reports of their predecessors (if such things exist?), and go “well, that didn’t work, so what the hell can I do?” The problem with most governments, whether local or national, is that they have rule books, here called Undang-Undang (has a certain ring to it doesn’t it?), and that following the rule book, which have already produced failures, you are condemned to failure yourself.
I remember joining one brainstorming session in a ‘Mid Term Planning Committee for Tourism’ committee where the government members of the committee brought out their rule books on the first session. I asked, “what are they?” They answered, “these are the guidelines for our planning.”
I said, “put them away we need to start from scratch!”
“No!” they said, “we have to follow the rules”
“No,” I said, “the rules will condemn us to repeating past failures. We need fresh, bold, innovative ideas.”
“Not possible.” they said, “the best we can do is adapt.”
“That,” I said “is like trying to win a Formula One Grand Prix with a much repaired Kijang!”
They threw me off the committee.
Tourism remained in the same dire straits for the next ten years. Oh, and is still there today, in my opinion. We need to believe we can change and make sure that the framework in which we work allows us to do it. Former Governor Ahok didn’t let the old rules get in his way and he changed Jakarta’s way of doing things visibly in just a few (too) short years.
3. Struggle is Good. Scary is Good.
This doesn’t sound very positive but it is—really! We need a big bold reminder that we have to keep things on track, because without constant and deliberate planning and implementation, everything gradually falls apart. “Everything tends to chaos” was how one scientist put it when asked to explain Entropy or The Second Law of Thermodynamics. A simpler way to look at it is Murphy’s Law which states “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” so once you have understood these principles, what do you do? Plan, plan, plan. Overcome the negative by sheer positive action.
When we are subject to adversity, we are at our best: the struggles for independence, the first years of family life adversity, the launch of a start-up. This is when we excel, when we come together to achieve more than we could by ourselves. But sometimes we need a scare. As my friend Eammon, an ex-fireman says “It takes a good fire to remind people to be safe” (as long as there are no casualties, of course ). When you see a house on fire, you go home and check your wiring, make sure you have fire extinguishers, etc. things you haven’t done in years.
4. Instant Judgement is Bad
You would think this is obvious, but it is astonishing how often we see pronouncements both positive and negative that should just have wanted for more information before making them public. The expression here is Setengah Matang, or as we say in English, “half-baked”. Here we have had Covid-19 cure claims aired on TV and viral on the social media, we have pronouncements of ‘guilty’ by the public on public figures found doing the wrong thing, and, of course, the reverse is also true.
Instant judgements are bad when we don’t know enough about a situation (and haven’t bothered to learn (see Rule #3 above) and when we are dealing only with emotions, not logic. The city’s illogical judgements are many but I will only give you one quick example: the removal of the overhead bridges before and after the Hotel Indonesia roundabout on Jalan Sudirman and Jalan Thamrin ‘to improve the visibility of the statue’ was one idiotic argument. The other was to prioritise pedestrians over motor vehicles. At the busiest intersection in the world? Are you really totally mad? This was one decision that needed real research and discussion and just didn’t get it.
5. Remember the End of Your Life
In human terms this makes sense. We think about our final days and who we want to speak to our death bed. We don’t call our investment advisors, bankers or senior executives, we call our friends, our family, our loved ones and we remember the good times. So, how does this apply to a city? Well, I think we need to apply the same rules: What is it you want to remember about Jakarta? The beautiful walks through parks (London, Paris), the charming historical streets to wander down (Rome, Singapore, Kyoto), the amazing museums (London, NY, Amsterdam, Paris) the café culture (Melbourne, San Francisco) the arts (London, New York, Edinburgh).
If we don’t have those things all we will remember are the work-related things, which are not all that life should offer: the two hour journey to and from work, the crowded office, the messy warung for lunch, the busy mall at the weekends. If Jakarta cannot offer the valuable things in life then we are condemned to only remember those we have experienced, leaving the next generation poorer in mind, body and spirit.
So what do you think? Do these first five rules make sense? If so, come back next time and I will finish up the remaining six and hope we can all learn these Self-Help principles and make life better for all who live here.
The question is: will creating Self-Help Rules for cities make me a billionaire? Sadly, I think not.