Hello hello hello,
I hope the new year has been going on-track for you. Apology for the radio silence. I've been accompanying my mentor and teacher, Dr Home, for his trip in Vietnam for the last few weeks.
We had many great conversations about topics that matter to us - what does it mean to genuinely show up in this life, what is the work that truly matters, what is the purpose of a committed relationship - many of those I'd write more in the coming weeks. He has been an important influence in my life, and I'm undoubtedly grateful for that.
As we went around the city talking with different people, a seemingly non-sequitur question struck: what is it about human being that makes it so easy to feel ungrateful? Why do we take things for granted so quickly?
Here is the context. As an apprentice for Dr Home, I get to observe the "master" in action. However, I'll sometimes get bored, and the mind starts wandering: "Oh, I know this already. I can do this thing, I can also do that thing he does."
There's impatience, ingratitude and even arrogance.
I was quite shocked hearing such thoughts in my mind, which triggered another censoring voice "Oh that's bad".
What was shocking and somewhat frightening is how easy it was to have such thoughts. How tempting it is to start feeling ungrateful, that I can start know it all and can do it all by myself and forget all the people and things that have helped me!
Most people who know me can somewhat agree that I'm somewhat of a decent, good-hearted person (heehe)
and yet I have to constantly remind myself to be grateful and appreciative of things. I often joke with my dear high-achiever friends whom I admire: "I don't achieve a lot, so I have to be grateful for the little things I have".
Often when adults tell us youngster moral stories of someone who made it big and forgot all the supports they have been received, my first response used to be "I'm not going to be like them". Now I'm not so sure.
What if the people whom we condemn as arrogant or ungrateful are simply forgetful? What if someone smugly saying "I can do it all" or "I don't need you" simply means "I've temporarily forgotten how I came to be where I am today?"
This shift in perspective doesn't only invite compassion but also real possibility of genuine, deep change. What is needed then is a gentle reminder, or a practice of remembrance.
Many spiritual traditions practice noticing the breath for that reason - it's something we are deeply grateful for and yet often forget. But we don't have to just sit and observe the breath; we can learn to give exquisite attention to the external world too, from nature to man-made objects. The kind of attention that will let us discover "our place in the family of things" (Mary Oliver)
The beloved poet passed away earlier this week, and here is a none of her verse that I keep accompanying myself.
by Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy [...]
Why does this matter, you ask?
The practice of gratitude keeps us grounded of the deeper truth when the vicissitudes of life inevitably pull us away. Gratitude is what naturally arises as an living embodiment of our interconnectedness, that we are all in this together. Someone who acts out of gratitude remembers that this present moment has come from many past influences, and that whatever decision and action that this self is taking next will have reverberating impact on many others. Such action is bound to generate more gratitude.
I hope my writing is an expression of such gratitude for life, for the experiences that have come to me and now ready to be passed on.
Context: For the last two weeks days, I’ve been accompanying Dr Home, a wonderful mentor, friend and daddy figure, in his first trip back to Vietnam after 8 years. We have been meeting different people to learn about what is happening here, and I write this post to share some reflection.
Airplane take-off and leapfrog
During this trip, Dr Home asked everyone he met three questions.
The first two, “What do you love about your life and work in Vietnam?” and “What is most challenging and painful?” allowed us to learn about what is going on here as well as getting to know the person.
The third, “what questions are you sitting with in this current moment?”, could get into the heart of the leadership challenges that people face at both the personal and organizational level. Leadership here means not only as a position of power but as a capacity to influence the future.
The first response we heard was rather inspiring. How could we keep up with this rate of growth or even do better? How could we continue developing ourselves and the people around us? It’s such a good problem to have!
The need for continuous learning is never higher as the country becomes even more open to the greater world, which brings influences, standards and expectations. Organizationally, people are so hungry to learn that many companies struggle to keep up with.
Nationally, as a friend of us framed this story of modernization, Vietnam has been steadily gaining momentum in terms of growth for the last 10–15 years. In a sense, Vietnam has been ramping up like an airplane ready to take off. The question is whether such momentum is large enough to fly. Can we make the great leap forwards like the transformation that other Asian nations like Japan, Korea, China or Singapore have gone through?
What will it take to fly? Or perhaps can we “leapfrog”, to use the economic development terms? This indeed is a time of great potential as well as pressure, and the answer seems unclear.
Somehow we are not that worried though.
Even bigger houses will be built, even fancier food will be delivered to the door, even more shopping choices will be one-click available on e-commerce sites. That will certainly take a lot of work, but looking at the country’s growth trajectory and the globalizing trends, it will happen.
Just look at the vibrant, dynamic Ho Chi Minh City. Shopping malls and apartment buildings will not stop appearing. The young and eager people will not stop finding a way to learn the knowledge and skills they need. There is no doubt that if you want to see changes happening in a relatively short time, this is a place to be in.
A leapfrog is indeed needed. The question is what kind.
Interesting enough, an airplane take off is quite different from a leapfrog.
The airplane accelerates linearly from zero to a critical speed where it starts opening its wings that provide the uplifting force. Voila, a flying machine bird. On the other hand, the frog will slightly bend backwards to provide the coiling needed just before the leap. Voila, an organically leaping frog.
What’s the analogical equivalent of the frog bending backwards for us humans who want to leap forwards? The answer, surprisingly, is found in people who are now temporarily lost.
In times of uncertainty, one needs a vision.
This brings us to the second question that are on the mind of many people we met, particularly those who are going through a transitional phase: “What’s next?” It’s no longer a question of sustaining growth but a breakthrough one.
We hear it mostly from serial entrepreneurs to high-performing executives, often in their mid-30s or 40. It seems like the cliche mid-life crisis is happening sooner. Suddenly, more people seem to be re-evaluating who they are and what they really want.
What surprised me was that only some were burned out or disillusioned by the career paths they are in. Most feel rather positive. They have put a lot in their work, achieved a lot and even reached mastery of their respective fields. Now they are simply either tired or bored. Starting and selling another company doesn’t feel as exciting anymore, so is managing another large-scale project.
Not being sure of what’s next is not just a personal challenge but organizational and even national one. We heard several influential people mentioning the importance of having a clear vision. Some mentioned companies and corporations who are doing well because they have a big, clear and compelling vision of who they want to become in the national or even global stage. Meanwhile, some people said that the government is lacking in strategic vision for Vietnam’s role internationally.
In times of uncertainty, many people value a clear answer. It is the reason why leadership literature glorifies vision. A clear vision can bring people very far.
At first, when we look to another country, especially in a more developed one, we desire to be like them. For example, many people who have the privilege to live overseas come back to Vietnam and wonder “We can be like them too. Our people are talented, our resources abundant, we don’t see why we can’t!” These people set their vision on an inspirational external benchmark, and they put in the hard work to push the needle. Whether or not they succeed, the country moves forward. Vietnam can and is even becoming more efficient like Singapore or more industrially advanced like Japan or Korea.
Vietnam’s desire to be an equal is written in President Ho Chi Minh’s letter to students 70 years ago, one that I memorized as a primary school student.
“Whether Vietnam can reach the glorious stage and become a shoulder-to-shoulder equal to other great nations in all the five continents, that will depend on your study effort.”
“Dân tộc Việt Nam có bước tới đài vinh quang để sánh vai với các cường quốc năm châu được hay không, chính là nhờ một phần ở công học tập của các em”
However, while it’s useful to have role-model for inspiration and direction, it’s not to be confused with the end goal. The nature of the catch-up game of development is such that once we become like someone we aspired to be, they are already someone else. It’s an ever moving goal post.
Many leaders understand this irony and go a step further. From the beginning, they set out an even more ambitious vision: to be the best in the region or even the world. I’m excited that this is what many Vietnamese leaders are aiming for, and many talent are working hard to make this happen. Perhaps soon enough we will top the world for our cars, teas or rice, our natural habitats, our skilled workforce etc…
Read the full post here on Medium.
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Quotes I'm contemplating this week
"Good experience in the past is souvenir. Good experience in the future is dream.
Have them, but don't forget about the present."
Brother Chan Huy, from a Dharma talk I attended. It was a good reminder.
"When the beard (or hair) is black, heed the reasoning, but ignore the conclusion. When the beard is gray, consider both reasoning and conclusion. When the beard is white, skip the reasoning, but mind the conclusion." - Nassim Taleb from his latest book, Skin in the Game
Something to quote when you are young and no one believes in what you say ;-)
"Compassion begins with the acceptance that everyone is already doing their best." - Anonymous
Dr Home told me this quote as we were meeting with people who seem stuck in their life even though they have had considerable achievements. I found this assuring.
"It's not what you have but how you hold it. If you cannot imagine giving something away then it possesses you." - Anonymous.
A powerful reminder to look at my relationship with life, with time, with knowledge, resources.
2019 so far has felt like this balloon... which makes my housemate's cat very curious.