Learning from Mistakes

Dr. Lewis Lipsitt, the developmental psychologist who has had the most impact on my work, passed away this past week.

I wanted to share with you a tribute I had written late last year.

I’m glad that I was offered a chance to write this tribute while he was alive. Otherwise, I would have repeated the mistake I had made more than a decade ago with another person who has had a deep impact on me, Dr. Randy Pausch.

When I think of Lew,
the first thing that happens
is that I feel.

I feel…

The kind of presence
that makes me feel
as if I’ve entered
a bubble.

A bubble of safety,
and stability.

Even with other people around,
this bubble makes me feel
as if the only participants present
are Lew
and I.

that’s not quite right.

There is one more participant.

I shall call the participant …

Lew exudes warmth
through the way he carries himself,
the way he speaks,
the way he locks eyes with you,
not to mention
his tone of voice.

it is that warmth,
which occupies the space
and around the two of us,
that creates
the bubble
of safety,
and stability.

The second thing that happens
is that I feel humbled.

by a profound remark he shared with me
on what it means
to mature.

That we mature
when what we once assumed to know
takes on more complexity and nuance,
thus changing in meaning.

Just as we can read the same novel
at different stages of our lives
only to draw out new
and different meaning.

Just as we can be with the same parents
at different stages of our lives
only to form new
and different meaning
in the relationship.

Just as most issues critical to our lives—
issues we think we know—
simply gets more complex and nuanced
as we live our lives.

Looking back,
warmth on one hand
humility on the other,
I cannot help but remember
that it was a random act of kindness,
that Lew accepted my invitation
for an interview.

An act,
which I received
as a profound form
of support.

An act,
that leaves marks
10 years
from its first impression.

An act,
that not only inspires my gratitude,
but also a strong will
and desire
to reciprocate the same act
of kindness
with my own random encounters.

Thank you, Lew,
for being a model
and a voice
ever-present in my heart
and mind.

It is with your presence
that I am richer
in heart,
and spirit.

Thank you
and I love you.

Forty Two

There was a period in my 20s, where it was as if “Human-Centered Design” was my family name.

In other words, “Human-Centered Design” was a significant part of my identity. So much so that I felt an implicit sense of responsibility on my shoulders. To the degree that I took “Human-Centered Design” as if it were as serious as the continuation of my own family’s reputation & lineage.

Although… It wasn’t like “Human-Centered Design” behaved like Darth Vader who went “I am your father~” (You know?) So one could wonder why I had felt the way I had felt.

Well, after realizing empathy with my past self, I realized that one of the most important needs I had was to feel a sense of belonging. Without a sense of belonging, I had found it difficult to withstand the pain of loneliness and confusion.

To be clear, I wasn’t aware of this back then. At the time, my conscious thought kept claiming that I was merely trying to “(positively) change the world.” Given the popularity of the phrase “change the world” in the late 90s and early 2000s, this is as cliché as it can get. But I was sincere.

At the same time, what I also see now is that I valued the experience of contribution. I felt alive when I could see that I was contributing to someone’s life. I also see that I had a need to shed the seemingly less-than-worthy identity of a “student.” I had a need to belong to a seemingly more significant and meaningful tribe. A tribe which could bestow upon me a more worthy identity. A tribe to which a number of older pioneers also belonged. Pioneers who made me feel the love and validation that I needed, but couldn’t feel in relation to my own father. All of these lay underneath my subconscious.

This isn’t to say that I think I was wrong to have felt the way I did or to have pursued “Human-Centered Design.”


In fact, I cherish and take pride in my 20s.

I did the thing that brought life into my existence. That was amazing! I also did what I believed would fulfill my unconscious needs. Did it work? Unfortunately not. But I did do my best. And that’s enough for me to cherish and take pride in my 20s.

At the same time, I do find it important to admit that I had not yet attained the requisite maturity back then to confront the eventuality of our humanity. The vulnerable existence we are, once we get to know ourselves, despite how strong and stoic we may try to come across at first. Especially since today is my 42nd birthday.

Because what we do not admit stays in our subconscious. What we do admit rises up into our conscious. And it is only at that point we can design our relationship to and interaction with them.

The need to belong and to feel like we matter is a critical component of the human condition. It is as normal as gravity. There is no shame in such admission. In fact, the earlier we admit and attempt to understand it, the more we become capable of design. The design of our thoughts and behaviors. In contrast to becoming a slave to our suppressed emotions and unfulfilled needs.

In my research, I had learned that art, despite looking like a journey of creating things, is ultimately a journey of creating relationships. Relationships from which value, meaning, language, and identity emerge. Entrepreneurship is very much the same.

On the surface, entrepreneurship may seem like a journey of mere product and service innovation. But ultimately, entrepreneurship is a journey of innovating our relationships. Relationships to our customers, investors, board members, employees, co-founders, or even our so-called “self” and our family. These are all part of the same trail we are blazing.

I know many of you on this list are on your own journey of relational innovation. For some of you, I am also an explicit participant in your journey. So I want to take this time to tell you how proud I am of you all. Not for having achieved certain things or to have done great deeds. But for your willingness to admit what most would not dare admit. For your willingness to attempt to understand what most would not bother to understand.

Our humanity, that is.

Thank you.

I love you.

I’m proud of you.

August 19th 2019

Photo credit: Belinda Novika

Rejected Commencement Speech

I’d like to share with you something I wrote back in 2011.

I was in the 3rd year of my research into the creative process I only knew to call “making art.” I had such strong feelings about my research that I felt compelled to share some of those feelings with my fellow graduates.

Unfortunately, my speech didn’t get picked.

What I did not know at the time was that the insights I gathered in art school would end up resonating most deeply with founders and CEOs. That the struggles I experienced in what I thought of as “making art,” would prove valuable those who “build companies.”




Dear graduating class of 2011,

Let’s all take a moment to remember a few years back in time, back to your first week of classes at RISD. With that memory in mind, let me share with you a story from that week.

It was 8 o’ clock in the morning.

I was on the 2nd floor of ProvWash Foundation classroom looking around, nervous. I was surrounded by a group of freshmen students 12 years my junior. I knew them by reputation. Rumor had it that they drew amazingly realistic bicycles. I imagined their sketchbooks being filled with beautiful drawings freshly rendered just moments before coming to class. I wondered what my skills were. Just a year ago, I didn’t know how to draw. As a matter of fact, I still didn’t.

I was telling myself that the nine years I spent as a “professional” was going to help me get through this class, when the instructor gathered us at the front of the classroom to show us how to fold a piece of paper.

It looked easy.

I was feeling confident, until she turned to us and asked us to go fold our own.

“Fold our own what?” I wondered.

It was one of those tasks that could either seem completely self-explanatory, or completely… not. Anxiety struck, but I reminded myself that I had anticipated this. This was that art school “creativity” thing of which I had been forewarned.

Back at my desk, I reached for my post-it notes to sketch my ideas out. I sketched, sketched, and sketched some more in search of a design I liked. But, after a couple of hours, I ran out of ideas. Feeling anxious, I decided to skip lunch, to think of what to sketch. I brainstormed with more post-it notes, mind maps, and employed all the “professional methods” I had amassed over the years.

Time kept passing, with nary a hint of what I should fold. It was already 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I was starving. All that professional experience I was counting on seemed almost too cruel for not extending a helping hand.

In a moment of desperation, I decided to look around at what others were doing. I noticed a girl in the corner, who seemed very much focused on folding her paper. Curious to find out her vision, I left my desk for her’s. Even from afar, I could see a mountain of folded objects atop her desk.

As I moved in closer, I got excited to get a better look. But then when I finally got close enough, I noticed that none of the objects seemed particularly interesting.

“This is it?” I thought to myself, disappointed. “Why does she look so confident?” I wondered.

“Hey, what are you making?” I asked.

An answer came back.

“I don’t know.”

The answer echoed in my ears. I… don’t… know. Just three simple words.

“What are these other ones?” I asked again.

“I don’t know… I’m just trying stuff out,” she responded.

She didn’t know? How could she not know? How could her hands be moving when she didn’t know what she’s doing? How could she decide where to fold and in what direction? How could she anticipate what kind of effect a fold could have on her subsequent folds? How could she have folded a mountain of objects without knowing?

Then… it hit me like a ton of bricks. This… was youth. This… was what it meant to have a beginner’s mindset. This was what it meant to follow your heart. To be yourself. It was courage.

Never mind my lack of drawing skills. Courage was what I truly lacked. What I’ve been doing for a good chunk of my adult life was hide behind existing knowledge, formalized methods, and a fancy job title. I was a mere shadow of who I was, a bad imitation, at best, of a closed-minded, arrogant, dogmatic, adult stupefied by his own experience. I had never, in my adult life, felt like such a failure.

Even as I stand here now, after 3 hard years of graduate school, the lesson I learned in that classroom still seems highly relevant.

During the final semester, I was reminded over and over again, that the real challenge of graduate school, and, perhaps more so the world I am about to re-enter, is not to achieve success, gain recognition, or even to blow people’s minds with amazing work… Instead, it is to have the courage to not let anyone convince me that I am crazy. That just because I do not know exactly where I’m going, just because I do not have a clear vision, just because I cannot articulate what it is that I’m interested in, it does not mean that I am lost.

Do I feel confident that I will be able to do this?


As a matter of fact, this is the least confident I have ever been. But no matter the situation, I somehow feel comfortable admitting my own feelings of cowardice, imperfections, and inadequacies. Maybe this is a cheap shot at sympathy or perhaps a way of comforting myself into thinking that things can only get better from here on.

Or perhaps this means that it matters less whether I’m confident or not. Because as I stand here, what I cannot stop thinking about is the fact that I have met fellow students and mentors here at RISD, who have demonstrated immense patience with me, who have encouraged me in ways I had never been, who have willingly spent time out of their own precious lives to engage in dialogue with me. And it is their confidence in me that gives me tremendous hope, that perhaps I am not crazy, and neither are you.

Dear graduating class of 2011, as one of my personal heroes once said.

You know very well who you are. Don’t let’em hold you down. Reach for the Stars.

Thank you.

Forty One

On Sunday, I turned 41.

I’ve been told that in “Korean age” I’m 42.

There’s something interesting about reflecting on what happened in the past after I have had a 10+year distance from it.

In my 20s, I listened to a lot of computer scientists’ inspiring lectures. They were world-famous, which gave their words that much more weight. In hindsight, it would have been one thing to learn of their views and to appreciate them for what they were (i.e. views) while quite another to be persuaded by them. For better or for worse, I leaned toward the latter.

In hindsight, there were a few critical reasons why their views had such a big impact on me.

  1. The vision they portrayed were of a revolutionary caliber with a moral framing of “saving the world.”I have a need to rebel against authority and the status quo. Their vision fulfilled that need. I could not refuse being part of the rebellion—especially if it was framed as a way to save the world.
  2. Their views also made me feel understood and accepted.Having lived my whole life as a third culture kid, I’d been looking for this feeling from mother/father figures for a long time. When I didn’t get it from my parents, I was ecstatic to get it elsewhere, even if it were from total strangers.
  3. Finally, I was under the impression that someone had the answer to life.I considered life to be a problem to be solved, and thought that if I can only find that person who has the solution to life, I’d have figured it all out. It just so happened that these computer scientists sounded so confident that I couldn’t help but assume they knew the solution to this problem called life.

All throughout my 20s, my tendency to hyper-empathize with these influential figures grew larger. As a result, I now understand my 20s as a phase of living their lives not mine. It wouldn’t be until I turn 30 that I realize how easy it is to confuse living someone else’s life with living our own.

Then at the age of 29, I received a challenge. A bewildering challenge at that. One that made no sense. An artist I met at a computer science conference challenged me to go to art school. It seemed like a crazy and irrational idea. Especially because I thought so little of art at the time. I was a man of science, engineering, and design science. Art, I thought, was fluffy, useless, bullshit. In fact, you may have noticed that I put the word “science” next to the word “design” a la Buckminster Fuller, as if to imply that the word design alone was somehow not good enough. “Why would a man of science, engineering, and design science stoop so low as to study art?” was the kind of thought I had back then. (Arrogant much?)

It took me over a year since receiving this challenge of conducting my own, *ahem* scientific, experiments and to gradually build the trust & respect necessary to empathize with artists. When I finally did, it also became clear that this was a challenge I could not refuse. I had to answer the challenge. Why? Because I realized that not answering the challenge meant continuing to live someone else’s life.

Living someone else’s life of rebellion didn’t give me a sense of comfort, but it did give me a sense of safety and that ever-so-desirable feeling that what I’m doing was “important work” that “mattered.” Yet, for better or for worse, I was no longer interested in safety or mattering. I was now interested in being honest with myself in ways I had never been. I was willing to break myself wide open to find out what the hell was inside me instead of continuing to chase after something outside of me because an influential figure had persuaded me into thinking that it was the right thing to do.

For better or for worse, that’s precisely what art and my 30s offered me. It forced me to face my deepest & darkest fears. It crushed every little belief and assumption I had developed over the years. It shook me to my core and took me places I’m both horrified and grateful to have been.

To be clear, I do not recommend this to anyone. I’ll spare you the details for now as I’m not quite ready to write about them just yet. Maybe give me another 10 years.

Above all, I say all this to set myself up to say “thank you” to all those who have stuck by my side throughout my 30s. That’s it really. Because it is through your grace that I’m still alive today both psychologically and physically. I will never forget that.

You know who you are.

May you stay beautiful, always.

with warmth and curiosity,

August 19th 2018

photo credit to Sue Langford

Micro-Innovation by Ravit, a Check-in Agent at United Airlines

I’m writing to express my gratitude to Ravit at the United check-in counter inside Tel Aviv, Israel‘s Ben Gurion Airport.

I hope Ravit gets the recognition she deserves. I can’t remember the last time I met a check-in agent so vivacious and, dare I say, fun to interact with.


While my trip to Israel had been inspiring, I was tired nonetheless. I could not wait to get back home. Until I encountered Ravit, my energy was low. I was also grumpy that I could not check in at the kiosk just because I wanted to check a bag. From the first interaction, Ravit joked with me in a tone so playful and warm that I could not help, but laugh along. Her presence was like an oasis to an otherwise dried-up state of mind. So much so that I was grateful that I did not check in at the kiosk. I felt restored and refreshed after our interaction. I cannot tell you how much I appreciated that.

Facing people as an agent at the check-in counter while being true to a personality so vivacious and playful is not an easy thing to do. Especially when everyone else in the airport seems so serious and stern (This is not a criticism. I know it is well warranted given how serious the security situation is in Israel). Not only that, but given the kinds of struggles many people experience at the airport, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has experienced people who respond to her energy in negative ways. All this means it would have been much safer for Ravit to express no emotions and instead focus on getting her task done. But no, Ravit was willing to be vulnerable enough to be herself and treat me as a human being, not merely a task to be completed.

Thank you Ravit for your willingness to bring brightness and positivity to a world that is often biased toward darkness and negativity. I consider your actions a good example of the kind of micro-innovation I hope to see more in the world. May you continue to bring joy to the lives of people with whom you come in contact.



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Micro-Innovation by Erica, a Flight Attendant at American Airlines

I’d like to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation to Erica Bird (maybe Erika Byrd: pictured below), a flight attendant on this morning’s American Airlines flight AA3611.

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From the get go she was very considerate.
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I have a backpack that turned out to be ever so slightly big for the overhead cabin. Putting it under my seat meant I would be squeezed. I wondered if I should go back to gate check it. The first thing she asked was whether I had a connecting flight. She showed consideration for my time constraints! (It can take a while to retrieve gate checked bags) Most would have just told me to go ahead and gate check it. I would have been fine with that, but the fact that she showed consideration was meaningful to me.

She then asked me to hold on to my bag for a bit. I soon realized that she was considering the possibility that I may be able to stow it under the seat next to me in case nobody showed up. I did eventually luck out because nobody sat next to me! The co-creation that happened between her and I was very valuable to me. What a beautiful example of a micro-innovation!
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What blew me away the most was when she later came by with her cart to give out snacks and beverages. She said “Hello Mr. Lim.” I was taken aback for a second. I’ve never had a flight attendant greet me by my name on a coach flight (par for the course when I fly business, yes.) It turns out she learns every passenger’s last name beforehand! I don’t know if I just haven’t flown American in a long time or if Erica is unique. Regardless, I appreciated her efforts so much.
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In my mind, it’s these small things one does to show respect and consideration for another human being in a business context that sets apart one employee or a brand from another. I do not wish to take them for granted.
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I hope Erica gets the recognition she deserves.
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Thank you, Erica!

UPDATE: Thank you American Airlines!

The Irony of Care

I thought I was empathizing.

I wasn’t.

It was nearly 20 years ago.

I had a dear friend who was suffering from bipolar depression.

At the time, I had recently graduated from college with a degree in computer science. I prided myself in being an excellent problem solver. So I was determined… to solve my friend’s problem.

So What did I do? Well, I started by reading books, articles, papers, you name it, I read them all.

After gaining enough understanding of the theory of depression, I went to a local support group looking for some practical advice.

What I learned there was that the best way to help my friend was to try and empathize with her.

What this meant was that the next time my friend got depressed, I was to sit down with her and listen to her carefully. Once I could understand how she’s feeling and why, I was to express this understanding back to her. According to the people at the support group, if my understanding was correct, my friend will feel understood and that’ll make her feel better.

I was surprised.

It sounded too easy to be true.

But then I tried.

The whole time I was trying to empathize with her, she kept yelling, screaming, and bawling. Telling me that I did not understand.

What was I supposed to do? I kept changing what I said, over and over and over again, hoping… that I would eventually get through to her.

But I couldn’t.

Nearly half an hour went by and I was just sitting there with all my energy drained, exhausted and unable to figure out what I was missing.

But then… something occurred to me.

I suddenly remembered that, earlier in the day, I had said something to her, which, in hindsight, was hurtful.

So I told her that.

And like magic, she stopped yelling and screaming, as she sat there sobbing… while I finally… empathized with her.

What I realize now is that everything I’d been telling her up to that point was framed in such a way that it was all. her. fault, and I had nothing to do with it.

This was not because I had malicious intent. In fact, I had great intentions. I cared for her well-being. I wanted to help. This is the very definition of compassion!

Yet, in hindsight, I learned that despite best intentions, compassion actually lead me to frame the situation as a problem to be solved. And in doing so, 3 things happened to my mindset. 3 things… that lead me to unintentionally do more harm than good.

Now, what do I mean by this?

Distancing to Divide

First of all, I played the role of a problem solver. In doing so, I subconsciously distanced myself from my friend, to the point where I felt sufficiently divided from her.

Why did I do this? Because I was there to help her. Not the other way around. I was concerned for her wellbeing. Not mine. After all, my friend was the one with the problem, not I.

How can a problem solver possibly be a part of the problem? How can the helper be the one being helped? They can’t. It makes perfect sense for us to be divided.

But of course, in the end, I realized that I was, in fact, a part of the problem. My distancing blinded me to this.

Elevating to Judge

Second of all, in treating my friend as someone with a problem, I subconsciously elevated myself above her, to the point where I considered myself to have the superior authority to judge. Judge not only her problem as bad, but also my understanding of the problem as right.

Why? Well… Because I spent months studying depression. I may not have been the world’s expert, but I was surely a better judge than she was!

But of course, in the end, I realized that I was not a good judge at all. She was feeling the way she was, not because of depression, but because of something hurtful I had said. That’s not something I knew enough to claim authority. In other words, I didn’t know enough to elevate myself above her and judge.

So she was not wrong to reject my understanding. In fact, if anybody was wrong, it was me. I was wrong.

Focusing to Hold on

Finally, I held onto my distance and judgment. Not only that, but I also held on to a solution I had come up with even before entering the conversation.

Guess what solution I had imagined for my friend?

She. just had. to. cheer. up!

What a beautifully simple solution, right?

I held on to this solution, because I also held on to the judgment that my understanding of her was right.

But of course, in the end, I not only realized that my solution was wrong, but that the actual solution was completely new and unexpected. Yet, it was also so very obvious, simple, and even logical in hindsight. So much so that I could not understand why I hadn’t thought of in the first place. So what I had to do was actually let go of my judgment and solution, not hold on to them.

Empathizing and Not Empathizing

In the popular media, there is significant misunderstanding around what it means to empathize. Most confuse it with feeling what other people are feeling (That’s called emotional contagion.). Many people, like I did, also confuse techniques like active listening as being analogous to empathizing. It isn’t.

Empathizing isn’t something we do, it’s something that happens. It is an event and an experience, when we enter a state of feeling as if we’re connected or at one with an “other.” Reflecting on my mindset at the time, I now clearly see that I was entering a state that made it harder for myself to empathize with my friend. I thought I was empathizing, but I clearly wasn’t.

This isn’t to say that there’s nothing we can do. There are plenty of things we can do. Listening actively is one of them. It’s just that merely listening actively is not always enough.

Looking back, something that greatly surprised me was that once I empathized with her she thanked me.

Why was this surprising?

Because it was not what I thought was worthy of her gratitude.

It took me a significant amount of reflection before I became aware of the fact that my compassion was tied to my own need to make a contribution to her life. Reflection also helped me become aware of a belief I had, which was that to contribute to her life I had to problem solve.

Since I was unaware of how my own needs and beliefs were tied to this, I was so surprised that she didn’t appreciate this. In fact, after several trials, I started to feel indignant of how ungrateful she was of my efforts to help her. Why? Because she was not appreciating what I thought she should appreciate.

In hindsight, I am now more surprised that what I called “caring” meant little more than trying to persuade her. I wanted to get her appreciate what I appreciated. I was trying to manipulate her! Seen this way, I realized that the way I was expressing my compassion and contribution got in the way… of actually contributing to her life.

Such… is what I call the “irony of care.”

Now, let me be clear.

I do not wish to criticize the problem solving mindset.

A problem solving mindset is most certainly appropriate when faced with a problem like so:

1 + 1 = ___


  1. You cannot influence the problem, which means you cannot be a part of the problem. Thus, it makes no difference that you divide yourself from the problem.
  2. There’s no ambiguity around what is right/wrong or good/bad. Thus, assuming to have the authority to judge does not imply superiority.
  3. There is only one solution. Feel free to hold on to it.

Problem solve away if these conditions are met. It is only when these conditions are not met that you need an alternative mindset.

Now that I’m in my 40s, it’s been almost 20 years since the time of the incident with my friend. Yet, I still find this event to be a gift that keeps on giving.

In my work, I frequently work with CEOs who have no choice but to frame employee growth and engagement as a problem to be solved. I also work with employees who have no choice but to frame executive leadership as a problem to be solved. They both inevitably find out that problem solving is ill-suited for the situation. How do they find out? Usually, when the employees don’t grow much or leave and the executives start to burn-out or become even more agitated.

I recently gave a keynote at Cleveland Clinics’s Patient-Experience Summit, where I learned that doctors had framed patient-care as a problem to be solved. The patients, of course, had framed these doctors’ approach to care as a problem to be solved. As a result, not only were patients not getting any better and leaving to other hospitals, but the doctors were burning out as well. They had both learned that problem solving is ill-suited for the situation.

To judge any of these as good/bad or right/wrong misses the point. This is merely what happens naturally when we individually do not have the freedom to choose an alternative mindset to problem solving in the relationship that is giving rise to the problem solving mindset. It is also a natural byproduct of an environment that doesn’t make it any easier for people to empathize with each other.

Learning to choose an alternative mindset or designing an environment that makes it easier for people to empathize with each other is a difficult challenge. Perhaps a way to get us started is to ask ourselves and each other the following question and to answer it in an honest way.

Why do we believe the problem solving mindset is appropriate to our situation?”

• • •

Photo credit to Nicdalic

Dear Mother,

There has been seven instances when you almost died.


It started with the Korean war.

The war broke out on June 25th 1950. On January 4th 1951, citizens of Seoul made a retreat to Busan. You took part in that retreat as a recently-born infant.

There was an unspoken rule for taking babies on this retreat. If the baby made too much noise, she was to be abandoned. Why? Because it would give away their position to the North Korean army. Kind of a difficult request for an infant, I think.

Well somehow… somehow… you didn’t make much noise.

You lived.

Having never gone through a war, it’s impossible to imagine what it must have been like. From what you shared, there was little food to go around. Your mother and her 3 children were mostly starving. So much so that she had difficulty breastfeeding you.

You eventually became so skinny that your limbs started to curl out of malnourishment. Given war time difficulties, the hospital couldn’t give much help. Your parents did their best to feed you what was available. Unfortunately, you didn’t show any sign of improvement.

The mere sight of you must have been too much for your parents to bear. They also had two other children to feed with a fourth one on the way. As difficult as it must have been for them, they eventually made the decision to give up on you. So one night, you were left outside in the cold with the expectation that you would die before sunrise.


You didn’t.

You didn’t die.

You. Just. Wouldn’t. Die.

Your parents were surprised. They took you back. They kept feeding you. You didn’t get much better, though. You grew up as a very skinny child.

You lived.

When you were a 5th grade student. A motor cycle hit you. You flung in the air before falling to the ground.

You lived.

When you were in college, you ran into a fortune teller. The fortune teller took one look at you and said, “Tsk… Tsk… You will die at the age of 38.” As much as you were mortified by such random and cruel expression of premonition, these few words would eventually return to haunt you.

It started with an acute pain you felt in your lower abdomen. You were 38. Our family was living in Cairo, Egypt.

When you got to the hospital, you were diagnosed with a chronic case of appendicitis. The kind where slow and acute symptoms of pain occur over time instead of rushing in all at once.

You were told you needed an operation right away. As much as you understood the urgency, you refused. As a foreigner, you felt more comfortable waiting until you were back in Korea before receiving an operation.


Imagine you were your son. (That would be me.) How would you be feeling at this point? Worried, perhaps. Imagine yourself accompanying you on a flight to Korea. What would you be doing with you? Cuddling up next to you to comfort you throughout the flight, perhaps.

Not me.

Apparently, I was mesmerized by the view outside the airplane window. As we got close to our layover in Singapore, I must’ve noticed that there were fireworks happening on an island nearby. I’ve been told that I asked you if we could go see it. You said “yes.”

We went out, hopped on a cab, went over to the cable car dock, took the cable car, crossed over to the island, watched the fireworks, took the cable car back, hopped on a cab, and returned to the airport.

Things a son will make their chronic-appendicitis-patient-mother go through to watch some goddamn fireworks.

We eventually arrived at a hospital in Seoul. The doctor opened you up. He said you were lucky. Your appendix had already ruptured in various places. He said you could have died had you waited one more day. Well, you didn’t.

You lived.

But, it wasn’t over.

Later that year, you developed a severe case of hemorrhage. By then, our whole family had returned to Seoul for good. You were still 38.

The hemorrhage was so severe that you were bleeding out into a bucket. Turns out, it was a delayed effect of too much use of force during my child birth.

You lived.

At the age of 52, you went through craniotomy for aneurysm. You had to write a will. The risk of death was too high.

You lived.

At the age of 56, you had uterine cancer, and went through hysterectomy.

You lived.

There are many things you have helped me learn to appreciate.

One of them is the grace of luck.

You often talk about the critical role of technology in your life. For example, many of your illnesses could not have been helped a generation prior. The technology just wasn’t there. There is much to be grateful for when you recognize this coincidence.

The other is the value of “living as we are born.” (My rough translation of a Korean phrase: 생긴대로 살자).

“Living as we are born” isn’t to eschew change or development. After all, we are born with a natural ability to change and develop. In fact, the phrase is not meant to be taken literally at face value. You use the phrase to merely point to what you have learned from living through multiple near-death experiences.

As an outside observer, it’s easy to feel inspired by someone who has lived through several near-death experiences. At the same time, what I know is that the person who has gone through them live with physical and emotional scars that never disappear. The moment we notice these scars, we are instantly reminded of our past wounds without prior warning.

This is not easy. Not easy at a all.

What you have learned from these experiences is that life is fragile and precious. So you do not wish to waste time shaming yourself in comparison to others who were born to a different set of circumstances. You also do not wish to waste time living up to somebody else’s expectations on how your life should be.

You say you’re lucky to have repeatedly faced your own mortality. You say you may have otherwise learned these lessons too late. Although, you are quick to add that learning these lessons was only the beginning. The beginning of a life-long practice.

Thank you, mother, for living the way you were born.

Photo credit to an unknown photographer

Empathy is a Means to an End

There is an important difference between empathy and empathizing.

Let’s start from where we left off in part 1.

In part 1 of this series, I defined empathy as follows:

Empathy is a word invented to explain what makes it possible for us to move from not feeling connected or at one with an “other” to feeling so. The feeling may last a brief moment or a prolonged duration of time and the “other” may be either a piece of artwork or another person.

Please stay tuned, as this definition will continue to evolve as the series unfolds.

To be clear, I did not define the word to claim authority over it. “Then why did you do it?” You may ask.

First of all, I did it to reduce misunderstandings. In Chinese, the word for “name(名)” is made of two characters 夕 and 口. The top character depicts the moon(夕) and connotes “darkness.” The lower character depicts a mouth(口) and means “to make a sound.” Here’s one interpretation of the word. When it gets dark outside, you have to say your name out loud so others can know who you are. The implication being that when it’s bright outside and we can see each other, a name is no longer needed. I felt the same way about defining empathy. Given that I’m in the dark on how you define the word “empathy,”[1] I wanted to say mine out loud so you know what I am talking about.

More importantly, I wanted to make a distinction between an experience and a means to the experience. I wanted to distinguish between empathizing,which is experiencing connection or oneness with an “other,” and empathy, which is a means to having such an experience.

Why make such a distinction?” You may ask.

We can know for ourselves when we are experiencing a sense of connection or oneness with an “other.” We can also know when we are not. In other words, an experience is something for which we can acquire empirical evidence. At the same time, such empirical evidence says nothing about what made such an experience possible. Empathy fills this gap by standing in as the what. Of course, a word isn’t the real means for having such an experience. It is a label for the means for having such an experience. So what we have in addition to empathy is many hypotheses.

For example, you may have had trouble experiencing connection or oneness with someone who said or did something that, to you, seemed stupid. But after you understood their situation, their needs, and the thought process they used to navigate their situation and fulfill their needs, you may have been able to experience connection or oneness with them. Based on this observation, you may come up with a hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to see things from that other person’s perspective.” This is one hypothesis often associated with empathy.

On the other hand, you may have also had an experience where you felt connected or at one with someone, yet you did not see anything from their perspective. Instead, it was something about the way they listened to you that helped you feel connected or at one with them. Based on this observation, you may come up with another hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to be listened to by them in a particular way.” This is another hypothesis often associated with empathy.

How about another one? You may have taken a mime class, where you felt connected or at one with another person while mirroring their behavior. Here, there was no seeing from their perspective or even being listened to in a particular way. Based on this observation, you may come up with yet another hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to mimic their behavior.” This is also a hypothesis often associated with empathy.

The point I want to make is that the list goes on.

In fact, I invite you to come up with as many hypotheses as you’d like. I also invite you to test them in different situations and discuss your findings with others doing the same thing. You may learn that there are different ways to hypothesize about the observations you’ve made.

This is why I find the distinction between empathy and empathizing valuable.

With the distinction between empathy and empathizing in place, we no longer have to take other people’s opinion on what empathy is as the gospel. We can think and decide for ourselves through experiments.

That’s not all.

Using the distinction as a common framework, we can also work together to accumulate a body of knowledge on what makes it possible for each of us to go from not feeling connected or at one with an “other” to feeling so.

Do you not find that valuable?

I hope you’ll join me in building this body of knowledge.


• • •


[1] Batson, Daniel. “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related But Distinct Phenomena.” In The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Edited by Jean Decety and William John Ickes. Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 2009. 3–15. 4.

Original article from Huffington Post / Photo credit to Christopher Michel

The Resentment Threshold

There are no perfect leaders, only real ones.

That might as well have been the name of the latest Dove campaign. Except, it wasn’t. It was called “There are no perfect moms, only real ones.”

Here it is.

There are no perfect moms, only real ones / Dove

As I watched it, I was reminded of all the Founders/CEOs with whom I’ve worked and continue to work. I was inspired enough to make the following remix of the transcript for them.

Although I use the words “CEO” and “Founder” in the remix, the same script can apply to middle managers or anyone who feels personal responsibility for the well-being of other humans.

Leader 1: Everybody has ideas on what it means to be a “good leader.” And most people feel like they have a license to tell you (laughs) what they think it means to be a “good leader.”

Leader 2: I’m a first time CEO and I’m just figuring it out as I go. Often times people who lead other companies, people who call themselves leadership consultants, people who used to lead companies, they all want you to do it their way. But I have to be that person that stands the ground.

Leader 3: What we do here is unconventional. Because our team is made up of people from significantly different nationalities using their second language to communicate with each other. I would say they have such a different set of challenges. They’re facing something unique.

Leader 4: We’re both our team’s CEO. You get people that are like “What do you mean you’re both CEOs?” We’re like “Yup. (laughs) We’re gonna be co-CEOs.”

Leader 5: I live to be the best version of myself, and I can be. Part of that is being a CEO. But I live to dance. I can do my art and not be any less of a CEO.

Leader 6: I found my startup without a co-founder. I’m happy where I am. I get to make business decisions on my own.

Leader 7: There are so many ways to be a leader. I don’t think I can be the leader that I want to be without climbing being in my life. It keeps me who I am and allows me to be a really good leader to my team.

Leader 4: There’s no one right way to do it all.

Leader 1: You are the only expert of your own team and organization.

Leader 2: Believe in yourself. Believe in your ability as a human being. What you can do is what you can do.

Leader 3: Do what fits your organization. And trust yourself.

This commercial struck a chord with me because I’ve found that feeling personal responsibility for the well-being of others to be one of the most anxiety-inducing experiences ever. For many Founders/CEOs, the pressure to make payroll each month is stressful enough. It goes without saying how much stress is involved in parenthood.

A common byproduct of feeling a sense of personal responsibility for the well-being of others is feeling like we should do things for them. (An instinct often fueled by compassion.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or bad about doing things for others. In fact, one could argue that it is one of most noble things we could do. What I find interesting is that there are times when we cross the threshold of “doing things for others” and unknowingly enter into the realm of “expecting things from others.”

Let me take my parents as an example.

My father’s interest lies primarily in playing sports. My mother loves playing sports, too. At the same time, her primary interest lies in history and archeology, especially around the topic of musical performance. Given this difference in interests, my mother has spent her entire marriage looking for a solution to a seemingly simple challenge.

“How can I get my husband to be interested in the things I’m interested?”

She tried to get him to watch historical period dramas on TV. She tried to teach him how to sing. She tried to take him to different historical landmarks around the world. She tried to get him to read history books.

All. Failed.

Then recently, my mother came to the following realization:

I need to stop doing so much for my husband.”

When asked “What do you mean?” she said she has always wanted her husband to change because she personally felt responsible for his well-being. When probed further, she said she wanted him to change for his own good. In other words, she considered her efforts to change him as doing him a favor. So when she saw that he was unwilling to change, she associated his behavior with a lack of appreciation for the effort she was putting in to doing him a favor. This naturally lead her to feel resentment. Well… she no longer wanted to feel resentment. Thus, the need to stop doing so much for her husband.

My mother also came to accept that my father is happy staying interested in sports and sports only. As much as he may come to value acquiring other interests in the future, he did not find it sufficiently valuable now. For now, what he valued more greatly was to feel accepted and appreciated for the way he was. (Can you spot the Gordian Knot?)

I remember doing the same thing when I was an employee. As an employee, I did my best to provide value to my employer. Not only did I do this, but I did my best to do them well. Very well, in fact. Although, after a certain threshold of “well,” I started to feel resentment. Why? Because I was not appreciated or acknowledged for doing these things well.

What’s obvious in hindsight is that the things I did extra well were things I valued greatly, not things my employer valued greatly. Since my employer did not value those things enough, it was no wonder the employer was not spontaneously inspired to appreciate them. In fact, my employer was probably frustrated with me for not doing the things he valued instead.

I do not wish to judge people’s lack of appreciation for certain things as good/bad or right/wrong. What I want to highlight is that when we feel personally responsible for someone or even some thing, it’s easy to forget that there is a threshold at which we stop doing things for them and start expecting things from them. When those expectations are not met, it’s quite natural for us to feel resentment.

I’ve come to call this the “resentment threshold.”

Being a leader can often feel like a thankless job. When we lead well, people often take it for granted. When we make a mistake, people sometimes criticize us until they can see us fall to our knees. Yet we show up to work each and every day, because there’s something tugging at us. There’s someone or something we feel personally responsible for. At the same time, it’s worth noting that this same personal care can also blind us as we cross the resentment threshold.

If you’re willing, I’d like to invite you to practice noticing yourself crossing the resentment threshold. Not to judge the crossing as bad or wrong. Rather, to stay with it for a while and to be curious enough to notice it repeatedly. If it helps, you may also ask yourself the following question.

What lessons are my crossing the resentment threshold challenging me to learn?”

 • • •

Photo credit to Mark Bonica