Thursday, July 24, 2014

3 Life Lessons from a Hong Kong Summer

When I decided to move to Hong Kong, there were plenty of things about this lovely little place that had never occurred to me.  In particular, my Midwestern pea-brain did not fully comprehend that although it is part of China, Hong Kong is technically in Southeast Asia and it is a tropical climate.  I’m not sure what I expected, but oh boy was I surprised by what I got.

I may brag about the 70 degree and sunny December days, but now that it’s July, I’ve got my tail between my legs.  Don’t get me wrong, I still love Hong Kong, but after two summers here, I figured it was time to stop complaining. I’m finally ready to face the heat and the humidity with humility and see if I can find meaning in my temporary physical suffering.

Perhaps it is just my deluded desire to take the negative and turn it into something productive, but I realised that dealing with summers in Hong Kong actually has taught me a lot about life.  I thought I would share a few key lessons I’ve learned recently and what they might mean outside of the weather forecast.

1.  Just because the sky is blue doesn’t mean it’s not raining.

First of all, I mean this completely literally.  Summer in Southeast Asia is rainy season, which means no matter what colour the sky is or how many days in a row it has been raining, there are absolutely no guarantees.  The sky’s determination to secrete water is unpredictable and undeniable.  The clouds move swiftly and vindictively, so if you aren’t prepared with an umbrella at all times, you will get soaked.  The good news is, there are 7/11’s on ever single corner and every half block in between, and there’s a Circle K across the street from every 7/11, so there’s usually a solid backup plan if you get caught protection-less.

What has this really taught me?  Never take things at face value.  Always be prepared.  And if you’re not prepared, know what your options are (7/11 or Circle K?)  Just because things are going swimmingly now, doesn’t mean there isn’t a T10 typhoon waiting for you around the corner… 

2.  You don’t actually want it to be sunny.

Having lived through a lifetime of brutal winters in Chicago, Boston, and New York, I have been conditioned to believe that sunny = good.   What could be bad?  Summer sun evokes romantic images in my mind of playing in the sand on the beach, frolicking in the grass, soaking up rays with friends, laughing over picnics and bonfires and sunsets.  

Early in the erratically cloudy Hong Kong summer, I found myself resenting the rain and yearning for blue skies and sunny days.  Then, I got what I wished for and I learned my lesson:  When its 100 degrees fahrenheit and 100% humidity, you do not want it to be sunny.  A day at the beach in the HK summer sun is a recipe for skin cancer, multiple days of dehydration, and intense fatigue.  

Especially when it comes to startups, traveling, and relationships, we always have romantic notions in our mind of what the ideal experience would be like, if only the conditions were perfect.  Sometimes, we are lucky enough to get what we want, only to quickly discover the reality is far from what we had imagined.  

3.  You may think you don’t smell, but you do.  I 100% guarantee it.

I don’t care if you have never been “a sweater” or if you use investment-grade deodorant.  I don’t care if you just showered, or if you took a taxi here.  It is summer in Hong Kong, and you smell horrible.

I can say this because it is completely true for myself.  I used to be one of those people who could run for miles and barely break a sweat.  I never understood the difference between antiperspirant and deodorant, I just bought whatever had the best perfume.  Consequently, I spent one year in Hong Kong assuming that smell was not coming from me.  I spent another year thinking I was probably the only person that could smell myself.  Now, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I stink and everyone knows it.  And guess what?  You do, too.

I recently read a great post on the importance of facing your ego and acknowledging your own motivations for doing a startup (check it out here).  Besides our sometimes savoury scents, there are a lot of things about ourselves we are afraid of facing: we are selfish, we are mean, we are scared of failing, we want to be needed, we need to be valued.  The beautiful things about admitting these otherwise shameful realities is that you’re not the only one.    

Accepting your body odor, your vanity, or your selfish motivations won’t cure you of them.  It will, however, liberate you from dwelling upon them and wondering if they’re good or bad or relevant at all.  It will free your mind to move onto more productive tasks.  It will also remind you that sometimes if you want to get things done in Hong Kong during the summer, showering three times per day is just plain essential.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why education? Because I am selfish... but I'm not an asshole.

Several years ago, I was tentatively toying with the idea of leaving my job on Wall Street and someone forwarded me a job description for something called an ‘Education Program Producer’ at a young, venture-backed, NYC-based tech start up.  Not only did it not make sense (at the time, education + tech start up = oxymoron), I almost immediately deleted it mostly because I never saw myself working in education.  

Sure, I believed in education and I valued education, but I most certainly didn’t want to work in education.  The word conjured up images of slow-moving organisations, underpaid teachers, inefficient practices, endless paperwork, cruel bullies, and overly demanding parents.  Being a teacher requires being patient and kind, two virtues that were not exactly valued in my then current line of work on the trading floor. As someone who had come to love the fast-paced, no bullshit attitude of the finance world, education is the last place I saw myself going. 

I’m glad I didn’t let my obnoxiously judgmental attitude get the best of me and gave that job description a second glance because my experience at that NYC-based education start up changed my life forever.  Now, several years later and halfway across the world, I find myself doing everything I can to be involved in education.  I brought an education company to Asia, I joined a seed fund because they were involved in education, I am making investments in early stage education companies, and now look - I’m even writing about education.  

Since my obsession can, at times, feel out of character for an efficiency focused, mildly foul-mouthed, impatient individual like myself, I recently started asking, why the hell do I care so much about education anyway?  I mean, sure, if you ask someone if they care about education and they say “No,” they’re either ignorant, full of shit, or a psychopath.  But believe me when I say, I really fucking care about it.  True education is all about asking why, so I decided I would dig a little deeper and try to figure out what about it resonates so much for me.  

The word “education” itself comes with a myriad of connotations, but what I seek to do here is to minimise the emotional implications and figure out logically why it is so relevant and powerful.  Here’s what I came up with.  Three reasons: it is personal, it is sustainable, and it is scalable.  Hear me out.

1. Education is personal.

“It is personal.  That’s what an education does.  It makes the world personal.” - Cormac McCarthy
Everyone has either had an education, or not.  Formal or informal, public or private, too much or not enough, your education has had an undeniable impact on where you are today.  For these reasons, everyone cares about education, everyone has an opinion on education, and everyone knows how important it is.  When you ask someone what their education was like, they will tell you with words but more than anything, you will see it in their eyes and feel it in their heart.  Engaging with individuals on this level is powerful and incredibly energising.  The connections I have made with people when discussing this topic have moved me to my core.   
Education is personal for me, too.  I may be selfish in my desire to change the world and not waste any time doing it, but I’m not an asshole.  I am infinitely grateful for all the opportunities I have been given, and I believe everyone deserves not only the opportunity to get what they want out of life, but also the privilege of being able to figure out what that is.   
 2.  Education is sustainable.

Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  - Proverb
I care about the world I live in, mostly because I have to live in it for my entire life (unless space travel takes off, but that's a different topic).  I want the world to be a better place, because then I get to live in a better place.       
I also value my own time.  Call me crazy but I’d much rather teach someone to fish and then move on with my life, than have people bugging me every day to give them fish.  
The beauty of education is that it never goes away.  Its presence, or lack thereof, impacts an individual's every thought, word, action not just now but forever.   
 3.  Education is scalable.

“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day.  Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.  Teach him how to learn, and he’ll own a chain of seafood restaurants.”  - Someone on the internet
Creating a sustainable solution is great, but sharing it with as many people as possible is even better.  Education is the most scalable solution to any problem simply because it empowers the individual.  This means its impact is not just lifelong, it can be worldwide.  
It’s very simple math, actually.  If I teach three people to fish, they each teach another three people, who teach another three people, who teach another three people, now 121 people know how to fish.  Definitely a lot more people will be eating fish than if I had just spent all day catching fish myself. And, selfishly, I don’t have to spend all day on a fishing boat.  Win, win.

The word “education” is socially, emotionally, politically loaded.  It means different things to different people and is undoubtedly scary and dangerous to try to tackle.  I don’t intend this post to make light of the weight of education, but instead to look at it from a practical standpoint and understand why it is a good place to focus one’s efforts.  Whether you’re a teacher, a student, an investor, or a business person, it’s hard to deny that education is the most efficient way to change the world.  And for what it’s worth, it sure is a hell of a lot of fun, too.