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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Hitting the Re-Start Button in L.A. and Singapore

Singapore-2013-Front 4 June 2013, Singapore

“… Déjà vu, nearly twenty years later as I have returned as a student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

And, coincidentally it is also linked to UCLA Anderson School’s MBA program — so it’s time (again) to learn and re-learn in two familiar settings and institutions.

I didn’t think I’d have to hit the restart button at the age of 40 — but life is full of irony and wonder, surprises at every turn of fate and circular path… MDN”

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23 June 2013, Los Angeles, California

A year ago, I celebrated my 40th birthday on a glorious Saturday evening while enjoying performances by many artists my label has showcased since 2009, surrounded by family and friends from my creative and diplomatic worlds.  Though, the celebration was tinged by uncertainty after a challenging and ultimately, impoverished three years as an passionate entrepreneur.  My former business partner and I were about to close the offices of Planet LA Records on June 30, 2012.  Nevertheless, the foundation of what we had built among our artists and brand partners would continue and strengthen (and later manifest into wonderful collaborations this year during Grammy week and the annual SXSW festival).

My birthday wish a year ago was for a fresh start, a re-start — as I knew the course I was following at the time was unsustainable, and heading in the wrong direction.  Too much risk was taken while navigating unchartered waters of the music industry’s rocky business models.  Like a ship that had veered off course, I had to re-gain control of the wayward enterprise and my own destiny.  At that pivotal juncture, I decided it was time to re-invent and re-invest in my skills through new academic and professional pursuits.

For the rest of the year, I re-connected with my professional network about career options while considering leading M.B.A. programs.  I interviewed for positions that would have taken me to Africa or Asia, and also applied to graduate programs back East, in Madrid and Singapore.  There was a diminishing possibility that I would stay in L.A. beyond last year.  In any event, I was confident I would still be able to turn the ship around and away from the undertow…

“Peach blossoms during Lunar New Year… the orchid from last year has re-bloomed with eight yellow stems,” my mother pointed out while I helped her in the garden this Spring.

“These are auspicious signs!”PeachBlossom she insisted.

For the past three years, I kept saying I would help her re-plant and fertilize the flowers, trees and succulents — however, I was entirely driven on launching my start-up business, and didn’t stop to do so, or re-gain my footing… until this season.

By April, after sowing many seeds last year — some fantastic options appeared.  Last month, I accepted an offer to work with MNET/CJ E&M, an Asian entertainment conglomerate to support their brand partnerships.  Weeks later, I embarked on a flight to Singapore to begin my Executive M.B.A. with the UCLA Anderson School of Management and its partner program, the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.  Coincidentally enough, I attended both academic institutions in the mid-1990s — and two decades later, have hit the re-start button.  This time around, the settings may be familiar, but the situations are decidedly better.

Spore-City1There is a Buddhist expression in Sanskrit known as “Saṃsāra” or the “cycle of existence” and how one may be caught in a vicious pattern due to ignorance, anxiety and dissatisfaction.

Buddhist philosophies encourage individuals to recognize and attempt to break free from Saṃsāra and suffering in order to reach enlightenment.  This is not necessarily religious dogma, but does provide useful guidance in life — whether to learn from past mistakes, achieve a heightened awareness of the present, or gain greater focus for the future.

I tend to get a bit self-reflective on days like this — and grateful that I can look back upon the year with much satisfaction, more knowledge and higher hopes that I am on a better path.

Nevertheless, there is still much distance left at sea on this exciting journey… and before I will reach the stability of land and more promising territory.

Today, it has been a happier birthday!

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Déjà Vu in Singapore and Los Angeles: Re-Learning and Renewed Opportunities

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17 December 2000, Singapore

“…  yet another déjà vu along the Equator — and another return to the self-proclaimed Switzerland of Asia.  Since my last trip over two years ago — the city has become more affordable owing to both the strength of the dollar and my own rising income.

And, new additions — malls, of course — and the first child of my friends Ron and Annemie — Otis!

Now, as he ran barefoot in the grass while gurgling his first phrases of Dutch and English — he will soon grow, and quickly.

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As the Millenium marches on — we are all bound to evolve… MDN”

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March 21, 2013, Los Angeles, California

We like entrepreneurs.  They add a lot to the peer learning of the program.”  One of the professors in the interview committee said over a speakerphone from Singapore.

Based on your credentials and our discussion today, we intend to grant you admission,” another professor added.  “Congratulations, you will receive a confirmation shortly.  We hope to see you when the program starts in May in Singapore!”

As the call with the UCLA-NUS (University of California, Los Angeles and National University of Singapore) Executive MBA committee ended, it felt like déjà vu — though not in a circular and redundant sense, but rather as if being lifted up a spiral path, which would finally allow me to move upward and forward after a challenging three years as an entrepreneur.

Over two decades ago, I began my university education at UCLA and graduated in 1994, then went on to do a Fulbright Fellowship at the National University of Singapore from 1994-1995 before my graduate studies.  I find it rather coincidental these two institutions have linked their renown MBA programs, and that I would be returning to both soon, for a second round of training.

In fact, the start of Spring had been particularly eventful, and earlier the same day I was offered a job with a global media company I had been interviewing with over the past month.  I had more meetings with their executive team, who told me they were ready to welcome me on board starting May 1.

After an incredibly difficult year in 2012, in which I had to reassess my career and life ambitions (coincidentally upon turning 40) — I actively took steps towards re-learning and re-focusing.

Last year, my business partner and I closed the offices of our start-up Planet LA Records in June 2012 (a week after I turned 40; something about that milestone…).  I then applied for new positions and with MBA programs in L.A., as well as the Midwest, East Coast and options abroad — which might have taken me back to Asia or Europe, where I had lived and spent much time in my previous profession.

Many who I encountered were often intrigued or perplexed by my background and transition from a decade-long career in international trade and at global law firms in Washington D.C. and Geneva, Switzerland — to working with musical artists and events in L.A. and cultural hubs like Austin, Texas.

“Why Music?” was a common question I was asked by interviewers.

Music icons and independents alike in the industry would find that a challenging question in the digital age.  As I have learned firsthand, it is extremely tough to be profitable, or even sustainable in pursuit of a musical career.  Many artists and their supporters do it out of passion and to establish a creative legacy, and not because of any predictable or financial returns.

So, how did I answer this question?  And what does my future look like in 2013 and beyond?  At least, according to my Facebook post today about the pending career and academic changes, 111 friends “like” the news and are curious to find out.

… The answer is, as expressed in the postcard I wrote above from Singapore in 2000:  “We are all bound to evolve.”

As I or we age, grow from pitfalls and progress, learn and re-learn from classrooms and life lessons, and take second chances and seize new opportunities — we must constantly evolve in our perspectives and through our actions.

For instance, a week ago, my team from Planet LA and I returned from Austin, Texas after our fourth consecutive year of showcasing artists during the annual SXSW festival (a leading music and branded-entertainment event).  On the first trip in 2010 after Planet LA started, we brought on tour three bands from L.A. and showcased them at local venues and a suburban Whole Foods Market cafe I reached out to weeks prior, and with no sponsors involved.  On the second trip in 2011, we showcased a dozen artists in front of the same Whole Foods Market and had two in-kind partners offering free snack bars and drinks.  While in town, we saw the posh Gibson tour bus pass by and had joked how cool it would be to go on tour with the bus someday.  A year ago in 2012, we partnered with a collective group to showcase over three dozen artists (including now well-known bands The Lumineers and Imagine Dragons) at the Whole Foods global headquarters in downtown Austin with dozens of brand partners and sponsors.  This year, our showcase with the Whole Planet Foundation on March 10, 2013 attracted a record-breaking, capacity crowd on the main rooftop plaza as we featured leading artists and sponsors in support of Whole Planet’s annual prosperity campaign.  Also this year, our brand partners at Gibson Guitar reserved their national touring bus for the event which was parked next to the Whole Foods Market the entire day.

We are all bound to evolve.

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Honestly, I don’t know whether that means I have figured out the answer to: “Why Music?”

Given the challenges and despite the progress, perhaps the time is near to suspend Planet LA after three years, and hope that its innovative business model will transform and live on in a renewed capacity.   I do know that I have gained valuable skills and brand networks that I intend to leverage in a new position soon.   Moreover, I recognize that I have additional and critical tools left to gather and sharpen in my toolbox, and must go back to school.

Interestingly enough, it may well be déjà vu academically and professionally — as I prepare to return to the classrooms of two familiar institutions with UCLA near home and NUS in Singapore, and reinforce my abilities to lead in a global setting and creative environment.

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