I just finished A Thousand Pieces of Gold by Adeline Yen Mah. It tells the story of the first few emperors of China and the Chinese proverbs those stories spawned. The book was fantastic, both informative and engaging. But its tales of history were framed with the author’s twisted and sad reflections on her family life. Despite loving the book, those family stories made me dislike the author.
Mah gives an account of the duplicitous actions of her step mother, her oldest sister, and her older brother. She explains that everyone schemed against her. And in presenting her own sad tale in the backdrop of Chinese history, she asserts that life is a series of machinations and betrayal. I emphatically disagree. In fact, I think the people that imagine enemies and ulterior motives are the very ones that create a toxic atmosphere.
The real question I am today asking myself is if our future is better by acknowledging the games people play and becoming better at them. Or are these games self-defeating? Would our lives and ambitions be more fulfilled if we spoke directly and honestly and assumed others were doing the same? Certainly our lives would be simpler if this were true.
When I was young I had a lisp. As a child a lisp is not a serious problem. But as I entered puberty it became a liability. I remember my mom sending me to speech therapists with no success. Then one day I met a therapist that worked at my high school. In 30 seconds she showed me something that instantly corrected my lisp. With that new knowledge I went home and practiced my new speech. I never again lisped.
What she did that no other therapist had tried was use a model to demonstrate to me correct speech. She removed from her bookshelf a molded plastic design of the mouth and tongue. The model was human-sized and bisected vertically. When held from one side it looked like a head. When held from the other side the viewer could peer into the mouth and see positions of the teeth, tongue, and lower jaw. She showed me where a tongue was supposed to be placed when making a proper ‘s’. I could replicate that. I could finally speak normally. I was 15 years old.
I think of how simple the solution was and how strange that it was untried by therapists before. Each person’s cognitive style is different. Previous therapists had given me drills and worked on my psyche and described things in ways that I obviously did not understand. And one person came in with a different approach. A spacial model that resonated with my unique kinesthetic style. And it worked.
This story occurred to me on my way home from Chinese class on Tuesday. We had our first listening quiz and I scored 20%. I know I have one of the best vocabularies among my classmates. And I know my pronunciation is among the best in the class. People see that and they assume I am being falsely modest when I say I do not understand people when they speak Chinese. But Tuesday’s 20% grade shows that my problem is not an inflated sense of modesty.
One of my previous Chinese teachers told me of his own cognitive challenges. He has studied English for 20 years and by any judgment would be called fluent. Yet he shared with me that he only understands about 20% of television news programming. Something about the pace of speech combined with use of unfamiliar political or geographical terms disrupts his understanding. Like me, he hears one word he does not understand and focuses on it. As we focus on that mysterious word, searching in our memory for its definition, we miss entire sentences and lose track of the content. We have a cognitive style that struggles with real time information sprinkled with undefined components.
I see that great linguists listen with soft ears. They are able to hear sentences, casually dismiss the portions they do not understand, and infer the speaker’s meaning. I guess my hard hears–my sharp listening–is a detriment in language study. It is greatly impeding my studies.
So on this past Tuesday afternoon, taking the train home from my morning classes, I remembered my youthful struggles with speech and how a single person instantly corrected my impediment and changed my life forever. Is there an analog for a listening impediment? Is there a person that could explain better to me this idea of soft listening? That could help my reason incorporate unfamiliarity while extracting meaning? I hope so. I have a life to find this person and receive that single lesson.
A couple months ago I found this article on the benefits of studying a second language. Sometimes it helps motivate me when my classes are frustrating. A few highlights from the article:
In summarizing many of my previous observations and rants, I will offer a few reasons of my own on the benefits of studying a second language:
Just over six months ago my sabbatical began. This mid-life professional break saw me leave EMC with great trepidation and uncertainty. I knew this break would be enjoyed but at a great opportunity cost. But I also knew it could change me in wonderful ways. So from my sabbatical’s start I was committed not to waste the opportunity.
In early June I started sharing with my friends and family the personal goals for this year-long break. I wanted to formulate a rough development plan that would prove to myself that a “break” from work could be as productive as employment. Its been six months since that plan was conceived. So it is appropriate now to give myself a half-year report card.
Below are my sabbatical projects, a grade, and commentary.
Personal development: write one blog a week. Execution: A-. Effort: A-. Except for a weekend or two break I have dedicated some time each week to personal reflection. I have committed to developing my writing by sharing the observations of that period.
Chinese studies: learn to read, write, and speak. Execution: B-. Effort: A+. Learning Mandarin has been complex, to say the least. My reading comprehension has soared. I struggle mightily with listening comprehension. But my commitment has been strong. I am surely studying more than most of my classmates.
Big data consultancy: meetings, website, blogging, and network building. Execution: C+. Effort: B+. I have presented half a dozen times to business and academic audiences. My professional blog‘s audience has grown steadily. I have been invited to join research groups and industry events based on my work. But building a reputation takes time. And a consultancy/advisory business would take many more months’ worth of reputation than I originally anticipated.
Exercise. Execution: B. Effort: B. I now attend yoga about three times a week. I hit the gym one time a week. I run about 10km a week. Not a bad regimen.
Open Data volunteer work. Execution: B. Effort: B. I have not been as involved with the Open Data Hong Kong group’s administrative activities as I might have originally liked. But I have made great strides in building a team of researchers that use ODHK’s data.
Entrepreneurial ambitions. Execution: C. Effort: C. Certainly for the first three months the idea of starting a business was only a shadow of a dream in my head. Now my energies are focused and I have a shot to create something successful. I was rudderless for the first four months but feel I am on track now.
Bonus project: big data community. Execution: A. Effort: A. I wanted to develop a network of people interested in big data analytics in Hong Kong. The work I was doing to build Information Incognita’s readership unexpectedly produced a group of students from three different Hong Kong schools that want to learn about big data. I started a Google+ community dedicated to Hong Kong Big Data. It today has 111 members and will have its first meeting next week.
I initially planned for this sabbatical to last about a year. That timeline was defined primarily by the one-year diploma curriculum at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Chinese Language School. But the one-year limit is heavily influenced by my dwindling finances.
With about half a year left, I have a few more things I want to accomplish:
I rarely drank coffee because I did saw no point and did not particularly enjoy the taste. I sleep well most nights and almost never feel tired. Not never, of course. I have certainly stayed out past proper bedtime on occasion and felt drowsy in the day’s quiet lulls. But 19 out of 20 days I never felt sluggish until before lying in bed. And I saw no point developing a coffee addiction if it could be avoided.
But my Chinese studies have introduced a kind of mental fatigue I had never before known. Even during my insanely busy periods at EMC–ten or more days of 12-14 hours of work a piece–my mental fatigue did not compromise my work. It was tiring, for sure. But not the kind of tiring that impacted my focus. But language study is different. One iota of sleep less than I need and I catch my mind wandering in the first hour of class. I wrangle it back into the room only minutes later to find it has again escaped. But coffee fixes this.
Friday was one of my worst days at Chinese class. Bad days are common for me. Some days I feel I cannot keep up with the teacher. Some days I struggle to speak in response to questions. Some days I want to quit. Friday was one of them.
Struggling in class unfamiliar to me. I was always a good student. But the feeling of failing is a utterly foreign. And most days in this rediscovery of student life I feel that way.
In some of my many musings on dimensions of intelligence I recognize the vast differences in people’s abilities to pick up new skills. Athletes with kinesthetic intelligence quickly master a new sport. Creative savants can piece together fascinating art with unplanned materials. And historically those gifted with language have been the first of their culture to cross geographic divides into foreign lands. Imagine the first European linguists using their genius to decode the strange tongues in North America with zero context or reference.
In language there is surely a continuum of capabilities defined not just by experience but an innate intelligence. It spans from the genius Europeans that first spoke with southern Africans and native Americans to the dullards that cannot imitate or comprehend a strange uttering. I am not so pessimistic as to sort myself completely at the simpleton’s side of this range. But in a class full of people interested in learning a new language, I know I am one of the closest to it.
I really want to try my hand at running my own company. Perhaps a dozen times in the last 20 years I have realized an idea that could drive a successful business. In the past few months of this sabbatical almost half as many ideas presented themselves in discussions with friends or alone on my patio with a beer in my hand. But I have not (yet) brought these ideas to fruition. I am stranded on the wrong side of a chasm between people that work for someone else and people that are self-employed. I am a worker bee.
Thinking about starting a business I have had time to reflect on the relative merits of business ownership versus corporate employment. On this subject my friend Stuart recommended to me Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad’s CASHFLOW Quandrant at my sabbatical’s start. Kiyosaki’s book separates income earners into four quadrants: those that work for someone else, those that own and run a business, those that own a business someone else runs for them, and those that invest. These last two he recommends for high return with minimum effort. But success in them requires some experience business fundamentals. That experience usually comes from running the business.
People want to run a business because of the perceived freedom. And most people would agree that being your own boss could provide a type of freedom that working for a large company never will. However, Kiyosaki points out that the specific goal should be financial freedom. Indeed, people that own and run a business are just as likely as employees to be a slave to long hours an short deadlines. So, before charging into a business to develop myself personally and professionally, it is worth considering the relative merits of being a large company’s employee versus a small business owner.
Recently I have spent a lot of time working with students. I am advising students at two different schools as they work on their final year projects. Thinking about their futures–the blank canvas of their career before them–has given me cause to think about my first 15 years working for big business. I have much to be proud of. And quite a few mistakes to regret.
But my mistakes do not haunt me any more. I turned them into something precious that I hope betters me and improves my decision making.
We all have core values that guide our daily activities and influence our personal development. My values are precious to me. Some of them were born like gems from the intense pressure and heat caused by colossal failures. Others are expelled like a pearl wrenched from an irritation not unlike sand in a clam’s maw. My professional errors have made me a better coworker. Its a shame I had to learn these lessons the hard way.
So, here’s to the class of 2014 and all those just recently added to the workforce. And should this blog last another fifteen years, I offer this record to myself at age 54. What would you add to the list?
Three weeks ago I flew to the states for a brief visit with friends and a prospective employer. On the flight next to me sat an Asian man of my parents’ age. He appeared to be in his early 70s and was enjoying a rich life in retirement. He had just returned from a cruise on the Danube and was in Hong Kong visiting his daughter’s family. Apparently these two trips interrupted a busy golf schedule near his home in San Francisco.
We talked aimlessly and without substance for a period. Then I stumbled upon a topic of deep interest to both of us. I asked him, “If you could go back in time and offer a younger version of yourself advice, what would that advice be?” He said, “I would tell myself that control is an illusion.”