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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