The Power of Language

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Many of my favorite quotes are from this wise man. And it certainly resonates with me as someone who believes in the power of language.

It started with a curiosity to learn more about my heritage when I took a Chinese class the summer before college. While I spoke Cantonese at home, I felt it was my responsibility to learn Mandarin as a Chinese American. It was a response to face a burning itch to learn more about my identity as a first generation.

And this puzzling identity crisis thing exacerbated itself during a taxi ride one summer abroad in Shanghai. I was there to study Chinese, and it was my first time abroad solo. The taxi driver was taking me from the Pudong airport to East China university, where I would be studying. He was kindly chatting about the weather and the developments in Shanghai (I could understand), but I was mute because I couldn't respond (or rather, I was too shy).

 

"Do you speak Chinese?"

 

A little bit, I responded. I explained to him I was a first-generation Chinese American, and I was in Shanghai for the summer to learn Chinese.

 

"I don't believe it. Your hair. Your eyes. The color of your skin. But you don't speak Chinese...therefore, you must be Korean or Japanese."

 

I felt embarrassed. I'm not sure I ever fit the stereotypical American persona, and I wasn't Chinese. From that point on, I made it an effort to master the Chinese language. In fact, I spent more time studying Chinese than my core Economics and Accounting classes. It was that important to me.

But it makes sense. If you speak someone's language, the wall comes tumbling down and you are One. And that's why even with the advancements in voice translation services, you're still speaking to someone's head with that Google Translator. It doesn't feel real (at least not yet). If you truly want to understand someone and get close, you must speak his or her own language. 

And that's why I'm currently trying to learn Spanish. Why? Because I want to speak to the hearts of 400 million native Spanish speakers around the world. 

Time and Regret...Lessons from Mr. Roper

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"Look at me! I'm 59 now and 30 years just passed by...Don't you ever have any regrets!"

 

I was shocked. Mr. Roper, who had been cracking jokes in the barbershop for the past hour, suddenly just broke down in front of me. I'll never forget those sorrowful eyes staring straight into mine...tears of regret.

I was staying in an Airbnb in Queens (NYC), which was conveniently located next to a barbershop and where some of the Airbnb guests hung out at night. What a magical place. You could smell the history of Queens and NYC envelop you the moment you walked. A flashback in time from the antiquated black-and-white photos to the chairs that stood the test of time. Mr. Roper was a storyteller who captivated us with his life stories in the 1960s...from the social movements that brewed to the crack era...it was the type of stories one could only imagine, especially being seated in a 100-year old family-run barbershop.

....but then it turned somber. Mr. Roper suddenly grabbed me by the arm and looked me in the eye with the most remorseful look...

 

"Time, man! Time just passes! Look at me! I'm 59 now and 30 years just passed. Look at ya'll. Still so young...but this is what you should be doing! Traveling...don't you ever have any regrets!"

 

Dead silence. While many of his stories were jovial in nature, Mr. Roper did express many regrets (that I won't go into). We continued listening, comforting, and thanking him for his hospitality and when the night was over, Mr. Roper gave me a firm good-bye handshake...

 

"I'm so glad ya'll came. Don't you ever forget about the time."

 

And that was good-bye. But it's a lesson and a stare I'll never forget. Thanks for the lesson, Mr. Roper...I won't forget about the time.

What is school for?

What is school for in the modern day? It's a question posed by Seth Godin's TED Talk on education accompanied by his 139-minute Medium article as well as a topic of conversation from time to time over a late night glass of wine...

It's true. The American education system hasn't changed much in the past century, yet society as a whole has evolved immensely from the industrial revolution to the digital era we all know today. You know that infamous multiple choice test? It was actually invented during World War I as the easy and efficient way to keep the mass production of students moving forward - yet, it's still a big part of our school system today.

We were taught and trained to be obedient factory workers at the turn of the 20th century, and it worked...at that time. However, can the same rote memorization techniques have a place in the future of education? In a world dominated by machines?

That's a big question. But if I were to re-design my own education with what I know now about the "real world," these are some of the classes I'd think would be extremely beneficial:


Personal Finance

Time and time again, you hear about the pitiful American savings rate of 4%. I really don't understand the logic especially growing up in a traditional Chinese family that saves up to 50% on average. Living below your means is one thing and being aware of your actual spending is another. But many of us enter the real world with no real knowledge of how to handle money. Your gross salary does not equate what's deposited in your bank account. Yes, there are taxes other than sales tax. Did you know you actually lose money if you leave it in your checking account (with inflation)? Again, I'm all for experiences but not if I go broke acquiring them.

It's a fairy tale for us up until we graduate from college (for those who do), and then we hit the real world. Some times mommy and daddy won't be there. Oh crap, where did this interest payment from my "stable" federal student loans come from? Personal finance isn't rocket science. Some basic math and common sense (don't spend more than you have) can go a long way in the real world. It ought to be a mandatory education requirement.

 

Professional Skills

This will vary from profession to profession but most of us will agree that experience is King. Who knew mastering Microsoft Excel would lead to 70% of my success in both my consulting and finance jobs? But never did I take a Microsoft Excel class (nor was I informed) during my Business Economics program at UCLA. There are countless professional and technical skills that I wished I was taught before hitting the real world. For example, if I was hoping to start my career off in Public Accounting, it would've been invaluable to take a beginning to intermediate class in Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint, and Interviewing 101.

 

Communication and Presentation

Growing up, no one tells you that raising your hand in class would help you out in your career. The only times most of us did were when my grade depended on it. Nor did we do much team work. However, upon entering the real world, I soon realized communication was key. 

When I took a job with Universal Pictures in their Strategic Planning group, little did I know that I'd actually have to speak up in meetings and present to crowds of 50+. I was scared beyond belief of public speaking. It was that moment where I had to force myself to take a Toastmasters class (one of the best decisions I've ever made!) to learn how to communicate with confidence. I'm still working on that...but I believe it'd be beneficial for students to confront these fears in the classroom before the real world.

 

How to Write (Effectively)

Who knew the importance of a well-written email? "Good morning, take care, and thank you!" Not only in the business sense but the power of a well-written letter can spark wonders. Besides email, the power of the written word cannot be stressed enough. Empathy. Yes, learning how to write effectively teaches you empathy as well because you start placing yourself on the other end of the spectrum - what would that person think when he/she reads this?

 

Creativity and Innovation

In an age of automation and technology, educators and leaders alike believe creativity and innovation are some of the most important traits for future success. I remembered once upon a time being a sugar-addicted, can't-stop-won't-stop kid that doodled magic kingdoms and fire-breathing elephants in his middle school notebook. But I don't know what happened...I guess I grew up to structure. But schools like Stanford's d.school are hoping to bring the kid back into the adult by restoring one's creative confidence.

 

Empathy

Especially in an extremely divided world, empathy is a skill that can be taught...and it's better taught while young. The media has this power of distorting perspectives to the extreme. Traveling for me has been one of the most transformative forms of education in instilling a greater sense of empathy and curiosity of the world. It started with studying abroad in college, but it taught me how to be more empathetic and continue exploring. How do we instill a sense of empathy for future generations?

 

Teamwork and Leadership

The value of teamwork cannot be more instrumental in business and life success. I wish it was taught earlier in school through team projects instead of multiple choice exams. At the same time, many students form leadership skills through clubs, teams, and organizations that prove to be invaluable later in life. I think more emphasis on teamwork and leadership in classes would have been extremely helpful in preparation for the real world.

 

Productivity

This would be a really cool elective. 80/20 rule? Pomodoro technique? Writing down the most important tasks in the morning? Use a password manager?

There are more than enough productivity hacks in the world and while some work and some don't, it's important to learn what works for you. Learning productivity hacks has saved me a lot of time and mental energy. Practical. 


If I had the chance to revisit college (or high school), these are some of the classes and skills I would've loved to learn. The world continues to evolve, and it's never been more important to learn how to deal with a future run by machines and human emotions. Just my 2 cents.

A Look into Minimalism...

The concept of minimalism has taken front stage over the past few years, driven primarily by popular media through The Minimalists and the likes of bad boy phenomena James Altucher and other big media names such as Tim Ferriss. The simple concept of minimalism : less is more.

I was compelled to write something after watching the Minimalism documentary on Netflix that brought upon moments of self-reflection over the past several years. While the term has been overused and misunderstood given its appreciation in popularity, I guess I was a minimalist without ever knowing the term - traversing the foreign lands with nothing but a 40L backpack. And it kept getting lighter and lighter as the journey went on. The simple life. And I loved it.

It was a stark contrast to the glitz and glam of the Hollywood life I was accustomed to seeing once upon a time. But that's what brings a smile to my face. To go from Fast & Furious screenings with celebrity appearances to hitchhiking on the roads of Palestine. It was amazing.

However, the term has received a lot of crap as well, used solely for those fortunate enough to go off the grid with several backup plans. It depends on how one uses the term. Similarly to how one could say he or she is a world traveler by spending a mere 1 or 2 days in each country - it depends on the context. But the principles behind minimalism is nothing new. Rather, I experienced a different kind of minimalism growing up, one called "financial minimalism." As the son of immigrant parents who never had an education, we had to learn to get by with bare the minimums. Of course, as a kid, you compare yourself to the "haves," but you eventually get by with your hand-me-downs. There's no money for a new pair of $100 Nikes. $20 No-names from Target will do. And Lunchables? Eww, stuck again with mom's "asian" homemade rice plate (although I do now realize that it was a luxury!). Call it frugal, cheap, or minimalist, but most immigrant families I know exhibit these principles in some manner but extremely different from this westernized definition because walk into a Chinese family's home, and you'll see stacks of useless storage containing anything and everything - far from "minimalist."

But somewhere down the line, you "grow up." And you believe that success equates to a nice car. A nice house. And the next "nice something." That should equate to a life of happiness and fulfillment. And then you curiously ponder why the self-help industry is a $15 billion industry. 

Then one may start to question life...when you stumble upon "unfortunate" ones with tattered clothes and a missing shoe but with the biggest smiles on their faces. And who could forget the aspiring monks I met from Laos to India who gave me lessons in simplicity? At the end of it all, I found my confirmation : less is indeed more.

Minimalism isn't new. It's as simple as decluttering your room and getting rid of anything that doesn't "spark joy," according to Marie Kondo. And it does shed a light on the question of what one truly needs to be so-called "successful" in life. I agree in the principles of minimalism, but I don't need to declare myself a minimalist.