Dear Mentors, Colleagues, and Friends,
Happy 2018! Last year, I left Beijing and completed my first year at Columbia Business School. Below are three anecdotes about my year that I hope you find enjoyable.
I had a clear purpose in China: through multinational businesses and nonprofits, to build ties between China, the U.S., and the rest of the world. I was the American guy who spoke Mandarin. I volunteered for nonprofits to build intercultural ties. I built many strong groups of friends. But, I also dreamed of becoming proficient in computer science concepts and developing myself as a multinational business manager. Business school is giving me the opportunity to do both. It's really a dream come true.
It's also incredibly hard. I'm not the best at anything here. In fact, I'm barely mediocre in most classes, as well as programming in Python and selling myself during job interviews--two disciplines I had wanted to master by now. Flora and I aren’t living in the same hemisphere. I miss seeing real life impact from my work and can hardly stand solving class assignments that already have answers. Not to mention how I'm putting us into a ton of debt to become a small fish in a big pond. At times I asked myself, did I make the right choice coming to school?
I choose to be inspired rather than discouraged. First, whenever we start learning something, we're always bad at it and probably can't make real-life applications right away. We get better by the knowing where we fall short and using that awareness to improve. That's exactly what I wanted and exactly what I'm getting. Second, I am surrounded by brilliant software developers and business builders, people who truly excel at the skills I want to learn. If I'm always trying my best and not worrying about the various fish or pond sizes around me, each day is exciting and filled with opportunity.
When I first arrived at school, I was uncertain about fitting in. Thinking I needed to prove myself as a serious leader, I wore a suit to class every day, sat in the front row, and decided not to drink for the first semester. In fact, most of my classmates and professors are down-to-earth, friendly, and certainly don't want to talk about work all the time. The warmth and diversity of my cluster (the group of 70 students who take all first semester classes together) shifted my expectations.
Instead of proving myself, I was quickly giving the impression that I was too serious. Luckily, everyone has a chance to show other sides of their personalities through a tradition called CBS Matters. During these events, each student gives a talk about what's important in his or her life.
To start my talk, I decided to share my love of hip-hop. The beautiful poetry and rhythms that emerged in the 1980s from mashing records together and speaking over the beats are an incredible testament to American creativity. I spoke about my connection with the music and dove into a two-minute rap of Eric B. & Rakim's classic song "Microphone Fiend". It shocked just about everyone, but broke some critical ice. After my CBS Matters presentation, I stopped wearing suits and started building much deeper friendships with my classmates.
2017 taught me to be more aware that everyone has many different sides and that it's just as important to show mine. Doing so reveals passions that are almost always shared by others or at least serve as great conversation starters. I'll never be the most gregarious person in a crowd, but I'm learning to be a bit more relaxed and open when I first meet people.
But what should I devote myself to after graduating? An analogy I've been thinking about a lot this year goes like this: If the history of homo sapiens was condensed into a 500-page book, you wouldn't even see agriculture or cities until page 450. By page 499, people are still writing letters to communicate over long distances. Turn to page 500 to see the human population has exploded to 7 billion and the internet exists. Our lives encompass only the most recent sentences of that page.
What will happen when page 501 is written? Can we avoid the great filters of nuclear war and using up the Earth's resources? Can we rethink old institutions considering modern human needs and capabilities? We're setting the stage for page 501 today. Each of us only plays a small part in the Human Colossus, but it's still a part. I think the answers to these questions will hinge on today's cutting-edge technologies, how they're being developed and how they'll be used. By understanding some of these technologies and striving to give more people insight into their workings, I hope to have some small role in pointing page 501 in a positive direction.
I'll never be an engineer, but knowing the computational logic of, for instance, a blockchain or a neural network are critical even for non-technical folks. Such technologies are the foundation of products and social systems that will drive the 21st Century. So, I'm spending a lot of time learning computer science. I just finished classes on data analytics in python and agile software development. I constantly ask myself, 'Instead of reading another blog post or news article about the latest Bitcoin drama, why not use that same time to study how the underlying technology works?' There are so many free resources (I recommend DataCamp and MIT OpenCourseware to start). We don't have to be geniuses, it just takes a few hours of serious reading. I've been working at it and hope to apply what I’m learning directly to my work over the next few years.
2018 will be another transformative year. I still have five months of amazing classes ahead. Flora and I will finally reunite after graduation. My job search in America and Asia is already underway, and I hope to have an exciting update for you soon.
May you have an amazing year filled with joy and blessings.