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Sailing on Rough Seas: The Anchor, Rudder, and Mainsail*

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Change is a process. If this process leads us to positive development, it is growth. Otherwise it is deterioration. No matter how hard we try, there are always obstacles along the way. When we were at school, education was the change process and we were assessed by examinations as if academic success was the ultimate goal. The farther we travel, the more brilliant people we will meet along the way. They may be more gifted, more knowledgable, or even more hardworking. This experience can be both exciting and frustrating.

My high school seniors at King’s College were good examples. They knew how to prepare for public examinations, how to apply for scholarships, how to pick the best universities and the best investment banks. Somehow they had a clear vision of the future. One of my major strategies at that time was to follow their lead. I followed the spiritual journey of a senior who was eight years older than me to become a Buddhist. And at the same time, I followed the career path of some other seniors who went on to the University of Chicago and became investment bankers at Morgan Stanley—we went to the same high school, the same university, the same investment bank, and worked in the same department. As you can tell, they were the ones in the driver’s seat; I was simply trying hard to stay on the same ride. I thought that I needed to pursue the commonly agreed upon identifiers of success: education, career, money, relationships, and so on, to change who I was and become a better version of me.

Looking back, there were quite a few defining moments in my life when I made pivotal decisions: public examinations, overseas scholarship, becoming a Buddhist, admission to Chicago U, joining Morgan Stanley as an investment banker, switching from investment banking to asset management, making one of my best career decisions by leaving Morgan Stanley to join a hedge fund in Singapore just before the 2008 financial crisis, and making one of the riskiest career decisions by starting my own asset-management firm. How can we possibly make these major life-changing decision at each fork in the road? How do we cope with the stress and anxiety of choosing for the future when so many factors are, in truth, out of our control in this VUCA world—volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity?

Many of the young leaders I meet today are enthusiastic about the possibility of change. They desire change—indeed, they have been longing for change. In a world where people are driven by the pursuit of profit to make decisions based on greed, hatred, and ignorance, social change is undoubtedly critical for addressing many of the challenges we are facing: social justice, environmental protection, moral values, and so on. The young generation may share some of the same frustrations with our own generation and the generations before us, yet young leaders maintain the passion, energy, and courage to yearn for change. They can envision and feel strongly about a better future. 

Nonetheless, if we really want to understand and prepare for change, we need to let go of the known and embrace the unknown. We need to open our hearts and reinvent ourselves to deal with the new environment. Otherwise, how can we see things differently? How can we act differently and dream the impossible dream? In order to manage sustainable change in life, we need to cultivate the serenity to accept our circumstances, find the courage to change our conditions, and cultivate the wisdom to know what can and cannot be changed.** We need to know not only the “to-dos” but also the “not-to-dos.” We need to have the focus, commitment, and perseverance to let go of aspects of our past that may otherwise keep haunting us and dragging us down, yet also not become carried away by fear and greed in the future. Most importantly, we need to have the wisdom to know how to make decisions, to understand the implications and the consequences of our actions.

Some of you may ask how we can ever feel comfortable making pivotal life decisions? We might make some good decisions and some bad ones from time to time. Yet there is no need for regret because we can always learn from our experiences. The question is not how much we have earned in monetary terms, nor what titles we have achieved. The question is how much we have learned—whether we continue to build our core competencies while staying true to our core values. 

Personally my core values are to develop discipline, focus, and insight on this life journey while being kind and wise. In the process I learn from and join force with others who are disciplined, focused, and wise, while staying away from people who are ruthless, distracted, and ignorant. These abilities to continue to learn and develop oneself and others are critical core competencies. They are sustainable, durable, and transferable, able to endure the test of time, and essential to whatever we do and wherever we serve. In the new era in which technology could replace many technical and professional roles traditionally performed by people, the core values and core competencies of human beings are not easily replaceable by artificial intelligence because they are the essence of humanity.

Imagine we are sailing on rough seas. Our values are the rudder that guides us on the right heading—any small but continuous deviation could lead us completely off course. Our ability to focus is the anchor that keep us calm and grounded amid the giant waves. Our ability to move ahead is the mainsail that comprises the technology and insight to drive us forward. The mainsail must not break in adversity but must be capable of withstanding the strong gales. Without our mainsail we would be set adrift, floating from place to place wherever the waves and the currents lead us. To travel far, we must keep adjusting but maintain our heading toward our ultimate destination. 

During a recent sharing session, Jed Emerson, the pioneer of impact investing and social innovation, inspired me to reflect on the sustainable change management process. As much as we may want to invite others to join this journey toward a better society, we must be wary of the drifters who only join this movement when it is trendy, profitable, or popular. We must beware of those who may have different destinations. Jed noted that this process of social change is also one of resistance: 

There are various forms of resistance available to us and the many ways we called to place our bodies against the cogs of capitalism to challenge, to change, to redirect the forces our society has unleashed upon the world . . .

In the case of Buddhist Action, resistance could mean “the idea that we act ‘rightly,’ we act without selfish attachment to our own agendas, we act mindfully, without causing discord with speech. Our ‘right’ actions spring from compassion and from understand of the Dharma.”

From pinterest.com
From pinterest.com

From the Buddhist perspective, we should believe in the human potential to transform and to do good. It is also important not to hate those with different views, but to join forces with people with different starting points or understandings of “rightness.” Nonetheless, it is important to maintain a tension and resistance against drifters who may not have the same intention or destination—they could take the ship off course or even break the ship apart.

What we need to ask ourselves is: Do we know where we want to go? Do we think we can do it? Do we desire to be part of the change? Are we disciplined, focused, and wise enough to begin the change from ourselves by practicing all the goodness we want to see in this world—even when we are the lonesome few? It is my sincere wish that we can all find the serenity, courage, and wisdom to pursue our dreams, wishing that our dreams can contribute to a kinder and wiser society.

*This article is an adaption of an address given to the HKU Summer Institute 2018 at the High Table Dinner, St. John’s College, on 18 July 2018.

** Adapted from the Serenity Prayer by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971): 

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

See More

Sustainable Change Management: Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom
Reflections on Impact Resistance

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