How to become a world-class expert in fish (or anything else)

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A worker feeding tilapia at a growth section of Trapia's farm on Tasik Temenggor

A worker feeding tilapia at a growth section of Trapia’s farm on Tasik Temenggor

By Alvin Ung

When I met up with Lai Sead Ping, a director at Trapia Malaysia, these were the topics he discussed in our first five minutes: the pros and cons of frozen fish products; the biochemical changes and stress in transporting tilapia; the strengths of Norway’s laws governing aquaculture; and the oxygen levels of Tasik Temenggor.

These are the typical conversation topics at the dinner table for industrial fish farmers, I suppose. But during our interview I was somewhat taken aback when Lai told me that just six years ago he knew nothing about fish farming. He never went fishing as a kid. He worked as a civil engineer and contractor. And yet he was able to switch career in midlife, accelerate learning in a new field, and even attain world-class expertise a relatively short time.

How do we become world-class experts in a new field? Is that even possible? And to what extent can we create conditions for personal success – and to what extent do these conditions lie beyond on our control?

To answer these questions from Lai’s perspective, it helps to go back to the year 1996.

Since 1996, GenoMar had been conducting research and breeding salmon and tilapia fry for farms around the world. In 2007, the Norwegian officials began asking themselves: “where is the best place to grow the tilapia on a commercial scale?”  They considered countries such as Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia.

A scientist from Singapore asked Lai to bring the GenoMar executives to visit several bodies of water in Malaysia, and to meet the fisheries department. Lai obliged. In the space of two weeks, Lai brought the then-GenoMar CEO to visit Tasik Bera, Tasik Temenggor and other freshwater dams in Perak, Pahang and Johor. Divers collected water samples to study oxygen levels, temperature and possible pathogens. It was an intense period which ended with the two of them holidaying in Pulau Tioman.

But two weeks later, the group CEO from Norway told Lai that Malaysia – and Tasik Temenggor – had been selected as the ideal spot to commercialize their research on tilapia. And then came the bombshell: they wanted Lai to be their local partner, and to work full-time for them in setting up the operations from end-to-end.

“I was so surprised,” said Lai, who knew nothing about fish back then. “Never did I think that I was going to go into aquaculture. When I brought the Norwegians around Malaysia, it was like helping a friend.”

Therein lies lesson number one for gaining world-class expertise: Be a giver. It’s a paradox that in order to gain something truly worthwhile, you have to give with no preconditions. Lai sacrificed his time to help a few strangers from Norway. That sparked off a friendship which became a partnership that would change Lai’s life. “People who are indiscriminately helpful to basically anyone who asks can get ahead by accumulating a wider network over time. What goes around comes around,” says Adam Grant, the youngest-tenured professor at Wharton, and the author of Give and Take.

“When you talk to a person you can trust, you open your mind to the person one hundred percent,” Lai said. “You will not process things with suspicion or fear. You become very open. And that will save a lot of your energy and time.”

On the following day after being approached by the Norwegians, Lai told his partner in their construction company: “I want to be a fish farmer. I’m going to stop being an engineer.” The partner of the firm, which was generating RM 20-30 million in annual turnover, agreed to buy over Lai’s majority stake.

“Weren’t you afraid?” I asked.

“No,” Lai said. During the road trip with the GenoMar CEO, he felt assured that the Trapia venture would enjoy strong support from the fishery department, the commitment of a reputable Norwegian company, as well as emotional support from his family who lived in Seremban – and who had to pay the price of Lai’s absence as he lived in Perak most of the time). He added: “I took it on because I saw it as a challenge to learn more.”

As I heard Lai narrate the challenges of starting up Trapia, it became clear to me that anyone who wants to gain expertise in any field must have a supportive community. That’s the second principle for gaining world-class expertise. In Lai’s case, the support came his family, the fisheries department, and even his former business partner who bought up his stake in the company. They gave him the confidence to go for it.

The third principle of gaining expertise is that you need great partnerships built on trust. What accelerated Lai’s learning was the collaboration with GenoMar. For the next few years, GenoMar executives coached Lai on the intricate aspects of fish farming. Lai said: “Working with the Norwegians has been a good experience. They’re transparent. In meetings, we always go straight to the problem, or to the person with the problem, and we solve it immediately and as fast as possible. These meetings can be tough. But after the meeting, we’re back to normal in our relationships.”

While all the three principles above are crucial for gaining expertise, perhaps it’s the fourth principle that governs everything: you have to have an extraordinary capacity for hard work and resilience, and then to do the work with good cheer.

For the next three years, Lai logged 300,000 kilometers on his car, as he shuttled between the farm in northern Perak, the management office in Ipoh, the processing plant in Parit Buntar, the fishery department in Putrajaya, and his home in Seremban. When Lai went to service his car, the mechanic asked Lai: “Are you a taxi driver?”

“I was very happy during those three years,” Lai said, as he recollected doing work that would have cause others to pack up and leave. For example, I drove exactly one thousand kilometers as I visited Trapia’s facilities on a two-day road trip. I cannot imagine repeating this three hundred times. “We need to do things step by step. For that we need patience and commitment. There are no short cuts in life. For me, a person’s attitude is much more important than the knowledge he has,” Lai said.

In countless studies coordinated by expert performance guru Anders Ericsson, what’s clear is that the biggest factor for gaining world-class expertise lies in our control: effort. We can become an expert in anything by working really, really hard. The beautiful thing is anyone can do this.

However to become truly world-class depends on two other factors that can lie beyond our control: finding support from loved ones, and working with great partners. Lai had these things. That’s how he became so good so quickly. All is not lost for the rest of us, though. When we give and bless others without expectation, we will a person who automatically attracts supportive friends and partners who will go the extra for us. And as they say: what goes around comes around.

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