When Worlds Align: 2015 Year-End Reflections and New Year Greetings

1 January 2016, Los Angeles, California

“When Worlds Align:  2015 Year-End Reflections and New Year Greetings”

“Make sure they call you Professor Nguyen!” My friend Nhutrang said jokingly when I announced I would start teaching an International Business Management course in January 2016 at California State University in Fullerton.

My dear friends Phong and Nhutrang were hosting a holiday brunch at their home in the Washington DC area where long-time friends joined, some whom I had met during my first time in DC in 1993 when I started an internship on my 21st birthday at the Department of State.  Earlier that week, I had lunch with Ambassador Tomseth and his family, who was the Chief of Mission on my first trip abroad as an intern at the American Embassy in Vientiane, Laos in the Summer of 1994.  Over two decades later, it seems timely and appropriate for me to impart some of that knowledge gained from international and entrepreneurial pursuits to a group of millennial students and global citizens.

Sometimes and in distant lands, worlds align… as was the case on my first trip to Colombia in November to visit my long-time musical collaborator Juan and his family. Since we met in UCLA Extension’s music program in 2009, we have been writing songs together and released our last album “The Universe in Me” in 2012 (also when I closed the full-time operations of Planet LA Records).   After a three-year impasse, we are about to launch our defining effort and musical called “Lovers and Angels” about the City of Los Angeles on January 4, 2016 (click image below for a preview).

L&A-RockOpera-site

It was also an opportunity to visit my Fletcher School classmate Jeroen who is now the Belgian ambassador to Colombia. The worlds of music and international diplomacy crossed in Bogota… leaving me feeling a bit nostalgic about a diplomatic career that could have been, and the hope of a creative legacy that has yet to be.

2015 also took me to other new countries including Sweden in April following an aviation conference in Germany and a visit to manufacturing facilities in Italy, as part of my work with global sourcing company Wessco.  While in Milan, I caught up with my MBA classmate Daniele who suggested hosting a reunion in Italy next summer. I also returned to Asia in July with my mother on a trip to Japan, Singapore and Vietnam, and to attend the graduation ceremony for the dual-MBA program between UCLA Anderson and the National University of Singapore.  During that journey while in my birthplace of the beach town of Da Nang, I woke up to the news that I was appointed to serve as vice president of the UCLA Anderson alumni network for a three-year term.

DaNang-Beach2

My father wasn’t able to join us in Asia, though fortunately his health has stabilized since his major surgery.   His uncertain condition has been a constant reminder to appreciate and take every moment in stride.  In the Spring, my family traveled together to Seattle for the funeral of his brother, my uncle Ky who passed away in March.   We had a large reunion among my cousins, all of whom had children of their own – in contrast to my brother and I who have none.

As in previous years with Planet LA, I continued to facilitate synergies between artists, brands and causes by supporting partners including Whole Foods Market and their charity Whole Planet Foundation with an annual Pre-Grammy party and Summer Music Series.  The third annual party set records by raising more than $20,000 for global micro-lending programs and was attended by over a thousand industry guests.  Planet LA also showcased emerging and global artists during the SXSW festival, the Gibson Guitar showroom and with other partners.

WPF-EventFlyer-Feb5-2015

As I look back upon 2015, it was the first year in awhile where my diverse worlds came into balance, both personally and professionally.  My family was intact and distant friends still close. I was gainfully employed and could better serve my professional and creative communities, and alumni network.  For the first time in three years, I was able to write music again and will soon share this labor of artistic passion.  And, after selling my homes in DC followed by years of transitory living between family and friends, I found my own place again.

My footing has been restored after a prolonged journey defined by relocation, repositioning and reinvention.  Now, I am in a good position to share some of these lessons in a classroom and beyond.  Often times, it takes focus and perseverance to set worlds that collided back into harmony and alignment.

So thank you to my dear family, friends and believers for their unconditional support and faith in my hopes and potential.  Best wishes to all for a promising 2016!

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Summer Solstice & Birthday Celebrations

June 20, 2015, Santa Monica, California

“Maybe one of the birthday boys would like to join me for my final song,” Joseph Eid said in feigned surprised as he gestured me to join him on stage.   Moments before his set, we had quickly rehearsed a song together in the parking garage of Studio Maesto in Santa Monica.

I had reached out to him the day before as I was very impressed by his acoustic rendition of Pink’s song, “Try” and suggested we try “Try” at the joint birthday celebration I was hosting with good friends Christian and Javon which also supported an arts program for at-risk kids.

StudioMaesto-June20-Final

“It’s been years since I’ve sang in public, so bare with us…” I told the full audience of friends, family and brand partners gathered in the courtyard of the studio.

It was three summers ago at the start of the Summer Solstice on my 40th birthday when I last appeared on stage with a group of artists friends to release an album I co-wrote with my musical collaborator from Colombia, Juan Andres Lizarazo. That was for “The Universe in Me” from our band When Planets Align which we started in 2009, and was the reason for the launch of Planet LA Records, our self-made label.

In June 2012, we released our last album just as we were closing the office of Planet LA as my former business partner Ben and I struggled to find a sustainable business model to support emerging and global artists.  Since then, Planet LA has evolved into a marketing entity focused on brand relationships with Gibson Guitar, Whole Foods Market and its charitable arm Whole Planet Foundation, among a diverse mix of partners from City National Bank, Teas’ Tea, Original Penguin and Uber.

“When there is desire, there is gonna be a flame

Where there is a flame, someone’s bound to get burned…

I joined Joseph in the chorus of “Try” as most of the audience had never seen me perform live. Though, there were several steadfast friends including co-birthday boys Christian Rodrigo a talented actor from Spain and Javon Frazier a marketing guru previously at Marvel/Disney – who were there on that pivotal evening three years ago, when I wasn’t sure what I was “trying” to accomplish in the creative space or going to do from there.

Birthday2015-1Back then, artist friends Rebecca Sullivan and Nadine Ellman had also performed as they did three years later – and continued to stay engaged as Planet LA survived and evolved with a different focus after closing its label operations.

“But just because it burns, doesn’t mean you’re gonna die

You’ve gotta get up, and try try try…”

I sang the chorus several times with Joseph and percussionist Lucas, as the beat drove on, amplifying the professional and personal implications of the song.

Later that evening, as a surprise to our guests – several artists and our long-time producer Cartier Cutsinger and I announced a new project called “Lovers and Angels” a rock opera about L.A. Our composer Juan had returned to L.A. earlier in the year after a three-year absence to work on the project, just as I was getting settled again in a new place after years of being transient and “trying” to regain my sense of direction and balance.

The first song called “Summer Came Too Soon” is sung by Connie Lim, a talented solo artist. Juan wrote the catchy melody while I wrote the nostalgic lyrics, which is the trademark of our musical chemistry. I actually finished the song on February 14 upon writing to Juan’s melody, so decided it would be about love, of course.

We arranged for two dancers to interpret the song as part of the sneak-peek premiere. They swayed, and swept around the dance floor rhythmically in step with the opening verses:

“When Mercury is in retrograde, it’s time to appreciate and contemplate

As Venus glows, the moon slowly fades, the stars can guide the will of fate

When plump green jade begins to bloom, my luck accelerates maybe too soon

As seasons turn, perceptions can undo, as spring gushed forth, I met you…

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Then parted with the closing stanza:

Summer Solstice left me high and dry, like the receding Lunar tides

You came and went like constellations foretold

I learned from loss, you touched my soul…”

Here’s a preview:

 

I’ve always appreciated having a birthday at the start of the Summer Solstice, partly because of my fondness for the warm season and more so, for the bountiful possibilities of the longest day into night.

For me, life has always been about being able to savor every moment and realizing the potential of what actions may bring. Whether through professional ambition, creative drive or personal passion, I have been rewarded and humbled in my pursuits as “trying” in life or love can be wonderful, challenging and usually unpredictable.

But, “trying” and getting burned or learning from loss is often better than the “not trying” and missing out on the wonder of life’s upstarts, fits and flukes… whether on a long summer night celebrating birthdays and surprises, or throughout our impermanent and mercurial time on earth.

Birthday2015-3

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First-Class Encounters with Hillary and Zac, and a Renewed Perspective on Travel and Life

19 May 2008, Zurich to Geneva, Switzerland

“… Over 50+ trips in the past dozen years, since I first came in 1996 to visit my aunt in Lausanne, then returned to work in Geneva in 1997, then again and again over the years — and today, to interview with Zurich, a Swiss but very global insurance company headquartered in Zurich.

Yes, this little ‘red brick’ in the middle of the map versus the black block I added to mark ‘L.A.’ — have been inextricably linked.

No doubt, my fate is intertwined with these two dots, pulling me back and forth over time, distance and destinies… MDN”

October 5, 2012, Los Angeles, California

Two items appeared today that reminded me of my jet-set days, current crossroads and past encounters with celebrated personalities Zac Efron and Hillary Clinton.

In today’s Los Angeles Times, I read about the release of “The Paperboy” directed by Lee Daniels and based on the Peter Dexter novel, which stars Zac Efron along with Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and others.  Several years ago, while living bicoastal and commuting on one of the United flights between LAX to DC, I sat in the second row of the first class cabin behind someone who obviously was a celebrity.  He sported a hoodie and sunglasses as he approached his seat in the first row, right side and next to the window.  While on the flight, I glanced briefly in the reflection of the window to my right and noticed he was reading a script called “The Paperboy.”  I didn’t recognize the script or the actor, though remember thinking he looked like Zac Efron, Jake Gyllenhaal or one of the handsome young Hollywood A-listers.  As I got off the plane, I overhead the flight attendants say it was Zac Efron, and it’s good to see the movie has since been released and Efron’s star remains on the rise.

Starting in January 2009, as I began working for myself — I straddled the worlds of policy and entertainment between D.C. and L.A. — as an international trade consultant commuting frequently between coasts and abroad, and as an artistic entrepreneur pursuing my passion and with greats hopes of launching a creative career.  In fact, I remember having to shave for each trip to D.C., carrying my suit bag which was a souvenir from the stately Hotel Prince de Galles in Paris, along with talking points for visits to the U.S. Congress and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, legal meetings and diplomatic functions.  On my return flights to L.A., I would break out the ripped jeans, Garage Band software, iPod playlists and The Hollywood Reporter weeklies, which was more appropriate attire and briefing material for visits to Sunset Strip concert venues and Billboard Film/TV conferences.

Coincidentally, my United Airlines lifetime mileage was nearing 800,000 by 2010 (790,615 to be exact) — and as a long-standing Star Alliance and United 1K elite member, I felt I could continue the streak of jet-set travel and creative vision — and ultimately, keep the left and right sides of my brain engaged and in balance.  This proved to be a greater challenge than I ever planned for or dreamed of.

Also today in perhaps what is another sign, I received belatedly the September 2012 copy of Condé Nast Traveler featuring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the cover while on an official visit to New Delhi.  It is the first copy I have received since I let the subscription lapse at the end of 2010.  Perhaps, I should consider the cover story as an encouraging omen of favorable winds ahead.

I have admired, and on several occasions crossed paths with Secretary/Senator/First Lady Hillary Clinton — briefly while she was with President Clinton at the APEC Ministerial Conference in Jakarta in 1994 and the WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva in 1998, more recently as a campaign supporter during her run in the presidential primary in 2008, and up-close as I took a picture for someone with her during the Vital Voices gala at the Kennedy Center in D.C. in 2005.

Since I was an intern at the U.S. State Department in D.C. and at the American Embassy in Vientiane Laos from 1993-1994, a global career had been my focus and Condé Nast Traveler was my monthly bible.  I would eagerly await the exotic and practical tips, and annual rankings of global properties, airlines and attractions.  I would base my bucket list on these listings each year, from stays at the magical Four Seasons Sayan in Bali and the St. Regis Grand in Rome; recharging at premium airport lounges after connecting flights from Frankfurt or to Singapore; and lofty views from the statue of the Cristo Redentor in Rio, Temple of Heaven in Beijing and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo… check, check, check… and cut!

2011 also marked the first year since 1994 in which I didn’t take a trip abroad.  I was moving too far “right brain” in creative yet local pursuits, and not making enough ground “left brain” in logical reasoning and structure.  No more Condé Nast Travelers, no passport stamps, and a blunted perspective brought on by too much risk taking and passionate ambitions.  By the summer of 2012 (coincidentally as I turned 40), things came to a head as my business partner and I closed the offices of Planet L.A. Records and have changed its operations.  Personally, I realized it was time to regain control of my direction, destiny… and perspective.

“I think where there has been more travel, there is greater understanding,” Secretary Clinton tells Kevin Doyle in the Condé Nast Traveler cover article.

Clinton elaborates:  “There may not be agreement — we may still believe that the political system of another country is wrong or the way women are treated is not acceptable — but we get closer to seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes, and I really believe that’s the essential step not only for diplomats and other government officials but for business people and for American citizens, because it helps us get perspective.”

Exactly!  “perspective.”

Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine writes:

One of the most surprising (and pleasurable) ways of cultivating an outsider perspective is through travel, getting away from the places we spend most of our time… [and]  According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows the traveler with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier for him or her to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings.”

Perspective is critical — whether for a diplomat, entrepreneur, artist or outsider — to be more thoughtful, creative and effective.   Perspective is a skill that must be constantly sharpened — whether through travel, cultural exposure or open mindedness to the world around us.

In hindsight, I was losing track of the global perspective I had worked so hard to gain over a decade — which hit an impasse last year with no meaningful travel.  As a recent outsider to the entertainment industry, my unique perspective has been the greatest talent I can offer along with a passion to succeed.  Indeed, these two elements (e.g., left or right brain, business or art, Hillary or Zac) are intertwined and can be complementary — just as I used to travel often between L.A. and D.C., Switzerland and the world, and between mind and space.

Thus, restoring that balance is essential.  Momentum is moving in this direction as I will soon travel to D.C. and elsewhere for important meetings that will set a new career course and educational path.  Nevertheless, entrepreneurship and artistic endeavors can still coexist, and perhaps be more focused by renewed perspective.

The Condé Nast Traveler article mentions that Secretary Clinton has traveled more than 800,000 miles to over 100 countries since 2008, the most traveled American foreign emissary in U.S. history.  800,000 — the figure immediately reminded me of my United lifetime mileage balance, and how that figure has stalled recently, and why that must soon change if I am to stay true to my professional ability, creative nature and worldly perspective.

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