Lifelong Learning and Lessons Learned

July 7, 2015, Singapore

“So, what do you hope to accomplish with this degree?” my fellow classmate Jakob asked, as we celebrated after our graduation ceremony earlier that day from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

The question struck me — was this second chance and effort at reinvention going to lead to a more balanced professional career, or will it be filled with as many thrills and spills as the preceding go around?

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Life can be ironic as it is forgiving as I had come full circle after two decades and double degrees from the same institutions UCLA and NUS (a BA in 1994 and an MBA in 2014 from UCLA; a Fulbright Fellow in 1995 and an MBA in 2015 from NUS), and had reached a point where I was finally finished with school, but not with learning.  In fact, I was far from done in my association with these repeat alma maters…

July 14, 2015, Da Nang, Vietnam

“It’s official! Welcome to the Executive Committee as VP!”  Wendy the president of the UCLA Anderson Alumni Network of over 30,000 Andersonite Bruins, wrote in a congratulatory email I received upon waking 14 hours ahead in the place of my birth, Da Nang, Vietnam.   I had been confirmed as vice president of the alumni network a year after graduation and having served as president of the class of 2014 UCLA-NUS Global Executive MBA for the Asia Pacific.

As I gazed outside towards the bright, rising sun as it dashed above the South China Sea, the moment seemed all the more amazing.  All this privileged education, the ability to serve in global institutions, pursue a creative passion, and yes, perhaps still have the drive and ability to accomplish something more meaningful.   What do I hope to accomplish?  How should it be defined or measured?  (maybe based on return on investment (ROI); now that I have an MBA, I probably should think that way!)

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Why was I provided such incredible opportunities, as opposed to the fisherman hauling in his catch that morning to feed his family, or the taxi driver waiting to earn a 40,000 Dong fare (about US$2), or the budding local entrepreneur who had a later start than I did as Vietnam embraced capitalism two decades after the end of the war?  Not to downplay their livelihoods, but I do feel very grateful.

Coincidentally, 1995 was when I first returned to visit the country after leaving in 1975 at the age of two as the war ended with just a small suitcase of clothes my parents had packed, though with plenty of space for a hopeful future.

Over the past two decades, I’ve returned to study, work and vacation on more than a dozen trips to Japan, Great China, Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia.   Every time, I’ve been amazed by the energy and dynamism of the region — and how increasingly interlinked it is with the America and the rest of the world, whether culturally or economically.

Given my cross-cultural upbringing and education, if I can serve as a bridge between East and West and improve commerce and understanding — then that’s a useful purpose.

July 17, 2015, Hanoi, Vietnam

Văn Miếu known as The Temple of Literature — is Vietnam’s first imperial university founded in 1070 by then King Lý Nhân Tông for the nobility and wealthy based on Confucian principles and worship of knowledge.  I first visited this historic site in 1995 along with two American classmates studying at NUS in Singapore.  Today, I thought it would be fitting to end my latest journey to Asia by paying homage to this academic mecca.  For good measure and appreciation, I brought along my latest credential earned over the past two years of hitting the books and sweating out the exams (not to mention, in sweltering humidity that day).

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For over 700 years, this esteemed institution paid utmost respects to its teachers, laureates and elite students that excelled in their tests as they strived to attain revered status as mandarins and become public leaders.  Since 2010, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is often filled with tourists as well as locals who come to pray for skill on their own exams (or usually, parents praying on behalf of their children), and all can now buy lucky amulets with encouragements like “Study” and “Intelligence” for just a dollar.

The temple’s layout is similar to the Chinese temple at Qufu in Shangdong, Confucius’ birthplace, and divided into five main courtyards, with the third containing the “Well of Heavenly Clarity” before approaching the inner sanctums.

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I came here today to reflect, whether divinely or in egalitarian spirit, upon my own lessons learned in the classroom or otherwise over the past two decades (and recognize we all have different objectives, so not proselytizing).

Here is my simple list of three:

Humility Leads to Growth:  The more I am able to learn, whether it be a new skill or from an unforeseen perspective, the more I feel humble and enlightened.  Humility often arises from an open mind and heart, which allows growth to take place.  This could come from an engaging conversation with someone we thought was too different, or experiencing the world.  Otherwise, we may become too fixed in our ways.

Giving is Rewarding:  I have found that offering my time, knowledge or resources to support others or a cause is a wonderful and fulfilling investment, especially when it’s done with no return expected.  Generosity is rewarding in itself as well as to society.

Opportunity Offers Great Potential:  Perhaps being an immigrant, I have had an engrained sense of not taking opportunities for granted.  In approaching each new idea, partnership or innovation — I instinctively think of whether it is possible to attain the synergistic 1+1 = 3, which should make something that is not ideal better.  Opportunities can be remarkable if we achieve their greatest potential.

With these lessons learned and latest credentials earned… I still have much left to accomplish whether as a business leader, a humble servant or in lifelong learning.

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A Good Fortune in New Orleans and 2014 Year-End Greetings

French Quarter, New Orleans, 19 November 2014

New Orleans 2014

“… Long life, much travel and creativity… you have found your balance — except for love.  That will come later as you make money again… and be less analytical!”  Gina the Gypsy told me as she closed my palms, after a brief reading in Jackson Square.

I’ve traveled here several times before — with a love, to witness marriage in this historic square — and on the verge of a new career at a crossroads. 

Now, here on behalf of a new job — I’m starting to regain my footing again.”

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December 26, 2014, Southern California

In 2008 on my previous trip to New Orleans, I met with a potential employer from Switzerland which would have kept me in a global career – but instead, pursued a passion and started working for myself the following year.  A global financial crisis hit, and I managed to survive out West, barely, in support of creative artists.

Just as I was about to catch a flight back to L.A., I walked passed Gina in Jackson Square, who casually insisted that I could benefit from a quick reading at a reasonable price:

“Your family is overcoming cancer, and some other ailments that will pass. And you, you have a strong aura. Long life, much travel and creativity… you have found your balance…” she explained.  That sums up the year.

Tokyo Dinner 2014Hawaii Dinner 2014

Paris Dinner 2014February began with a trip to Tokyo en route to an MBA session in India.  In April, I returned to Geneva and Paris which brought back fond memories while en route to a conference in Hamburg. The studies continued in Singapore in May, followed by a visit to Vietnam for a conference and to visit family and friends, and a layover in Hawaii.  It was nice to reconnect with distant and longtime friends, after recent years of being more grounded in L.A.

The studies concluded at the end of summer with my graduation from the UCLA Anderson-National University of Singapore global executive MBA program (“GEMBA”). My event organization skills came in handy as I was recruited to help with the GEMBA program’s 10th anniversary celebration, and also was elected class president and party planner in chief by my peers.

Anderson Graduation 2014Fortunately, my family and father in particular were able to attend the graduation. He had been fighting pancreatic cancer since last year, and was strong enough to overcome a serious surgical procedure and chemotherapy treatments.

In recent months, I returned to the corporate world in a marketing role supporting a global sourcing company. The new role drew from my creative network as I helped re-brand the company with American Idol finalist Pia Toscano and the talented Jared Lee. Meanwhile, I continued to support brand partners and causes at an annual Grammy week event, during the SXSW festival and in a summer music series at Whole Foods Market locations to benefit the Whole Planet Foundation.

GEMBA Celebration Pia Jared

The year ended with a celebration involving my MBA alumni friends, creative artists and brand partners. Corporate types mingled with musical composers, in a spectacular private home and studio in Malibu on a perfect December day.

Studio Malibu Holiday 2014Being an entrepreneur, then returning to school taught me one thing: how to throw good parties!  On a more serious note, it allowed me to connect the dots by leveraging networks and opportunities in ways that made sense and offered value to those involved. Memorable experiences can be precious products.

“You are now in a good place… Love will come later as you make money again… and be less analytical!” Gina said as she finished our brief but surprisingly prescient session, then collected $20.

In what seemed like years of being lost at sea, followed by steadfast determination to right the ship… I feel I am on the right path. 2014 was a good year. The years ahead should be even better with a more sturdy vessel, newfound navigation skills and a stronger sense of direction – to realize personal and professional goals.  In any event and notwithstanding the detours, the journey looks more promising than ever.

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