- There is a fundamental difference in the entrepreneurial mindset versus the craftsman mindset. The entrepreneurial mindset values “act first think later”, where outcomes trump means. The craftsman mindset values “think first do later”, where the way you do things directly affects the outcome. This is the natural struggle between capital and labor, sales versus technical, and the conceptual versus the experimental. Probably, this is also the root of most human suffering.
- All good things “start” somewhere. When you first start working, you begin, like a good work of fiction, in medias res, and thrown in the midst of something. But the "truth" is that all projects are more likely built over decades, or years, of relationship-building and capital-building. This is a profoundly difficult concept for young people (and old people) to understand. Good things – products, people, institutions, ethics, profits – did not appear from thin air. We often do not see the full “temporal” picture, nor appreciate it.
In my podcast "The Wonton Boys", it's easy to make the argument that China and the United States are at an economic and cultural parity -- they are the leading powers in the world, and while one makes almost all of the world's hard manufacturing and consumable goods, the other manages the world's soft infrastructure and institutions. All is well with the world...or so it seems.
Beneath the surface, one country is dealing with growing pains, while the other is struggling with stasis. China is currently going through its own version of America's "Progressive Era" -- the Gilded Age of the past 20 years is continuing forward, with its astronomical income growth and alleviation of poverty, but the effects and "hangover" of economic growth are catching up. Megacities are pricing out the middle class, jobs and education are ultra-competitive, and inequality is staggering. These are all the effects of "hypergrowth", when a newly "prosperous" middle class has to deal with the rapid stress and worries of modern life, a la Japan in the 1970's and the 1980's. Meanwhile, America is going through its own slow transformation. The technology and financial revolutions of the 1980's and 1990's empowered a new capitalist/creative class, at the expense of the American worker. Factories are replaced by warehouses, data centers, and the hospital-industrial "care" complex. The government can no longer levy enough taxes from the wealthy, so it resorts to spending and borrowing. I imagine America as akin to turn-of-the-century Britain (Edwardian England), when England faced increased industrial competition from the U.S. and Germany, and its leadership became increasing isolationist after some uneventful foreign wars (Crimea, Boer). It's an anxious empire that feels like it has much to lose, even if the anxiety and fear is somewhat imagined, and emanating from within.
It's so interesting, then that this new mantra of "sustainable growth" has emerged in both countries, to combat the problems of hypergrowth or stasis. However, China and the U.S. enlists the culture "sustainability" for its own agenda, to solve their own unique problems. In the U.S. sustainability is almost a stand in for "freezing" and "maintaining" all that is good, in a way that looks back towards its glorious 20th century history, to simply "keep what we have". Overwhelmed by a cultural anxiety against an unknown future, potentially marred by terrorism, pandemics and climate change, sustainability becomes a way to "band-aid" around all that is unknown, a mantra that all at once feels "new", "safe", "low-tech" but also "retrospective". To be sustainable is to not change, to keep what we have, and don't try to rock the boat too much, to prepare for the worst. (Thus, a calculated, risk-free retreat from all that is new, because the Earth cannot handle it.)
In China, sustainability is a political and cultural "endpoint", demarcating where the state thinks society should ultimately, ideally develop into. It's almost like a form of positive propaganda, where sustainability is a glorious future where water is clean, the sky is blue, and cities are free of pollution. Compared to the U.S., sustainability is a form of "decelerated growth" that is forward-looking, technology-focused and optimistic. One day, the country will be technologically advanced enough that it can abandon its coal power plants and polluted streets -- and along with it, social inequality and poverty. Sustainability becomes a moving goalpost that becomes more ambitious with each passing year, towards its own idealized glorious 21st century (at least for real estate marketing purposes).
So, should "sustainable growth" be looking solely backwards, like in America, or be treated as a techno-utopian ideal, like in China? It's more productive to imagine that true "sustainable growth" requires a bit of both - some new imagination, and also some respect for what exists currently. Politically and culturally, the U.S. may already be a point where it can no longer imagine and build new infrastructure, at least in the public realm, even though it still should (at a great cost). But perhaps China can still learn and adopt some values of preservation and slowness, later in the future, as a way to achieve even higher development.
The biggest lesson I've learned over the past two years, is that working with people is more important than working with machines, or even ideas. It is one thing to become a great individual contributor, or even a freelancer -- you can fall in love with your code and craft, and your identity becomes part of your work. You are passionate about your work, and you are clearly good at it. But relating your work to society, and putting it into effect to change and influence things on a large scale, is a whole other skill entirely.
That is if you want to extend your skills beyond your domain.
That is if you want to work with people.
That is if you have reached a limit on how much you can do on your own, and if you need a helping hand.
There is only so much one person can do in isolation, to affect change, to build big things, and to make an impact. There is only so much that one person with a well-written program, can do in isolation. But with a team, your ability to accomplish things multiply tenfold. You can make things happen much faster -- years, not decades. You can have other people challenge your ideas more quickly, so you know when you are going down the wrong path sooner. And most importantly, you can build a lasting community, and a place of endless invention and creativity. You learn that you are taking care of a team, not just an idea.
You can critically look at your vision, outside of yourself.
I think that in the previous past 3 years, I had been chasing technical skill, and hungry for technical knowledge. I do not find myself a capable professional, and there is still so much I do not know, as I continue to know more.
More recently, I think I've learned that, perhaps technical expertise is not what I excel at, or perhaps there are other foundational skills that I have not thoroughly explored. And these are skills for collaboration, and for dealing with people, clients, stakeholders:
These so-called "soft skills" are perhaps the most difficult of all. People are unpredictable, and full of emotions and ideas. Mastering such skills, I think, carry forth a lot more weight than rote knowledge -- though you certainly also ought to have a sufficiently deep foundational knowledge in a domain as well (and never lose your own vision).
All buildings start with relationship building.
Although I'm more interested in political leaders and U.S. presidents these days, I still tremendously respect the great architects of the 20th century. Wright, Kahn, Corbusier, Gehry, Ando, Koolhaas -- what separates these masters from the rest is not necessarily their form-making, or even their self-promotion. These things, I believe, we cannot really learn from. I think what we CAN learn from is their relentless dedication to pursuing, and developing, a unique vision. When it comes down to it, the reason we study these designers, or that their buildings are national or even international landmarks, is because they found extraordinary, authentic ways to express themselves through buildings. Mostly from humble, middle-class backgrounds, these "starchitects" started out doing scrappy projects -- single-family homes, a police station, their own (or their Mother's) house -- that no one really believed in at the time. It was only through intense trial-and-error, and by doing one building after another, that they found their own taste, and their own interests, that carried them to new heights of design innovation. And boy, did they fail a lot. Corbusier spent his early 20's really as a vagabond, traveling around Europe and trying his hand as a moderately successful painter. Gehry started his career designing shopping malls, before designing his controversial house addition that many of his neighbors hated (and the Simpsons parodied). Wright, after finding fame and success in his 20's and 30's, fell "out of style" and had to retreat to Taliesin with his disciples, before emerging back into the forefront of American design in his 50's and 60's. It is easy to cynically dismiss the masters as obsessive or egomaniacal, and those are probably true facts -- but what can you really learn from such negative pronouncements? A more constructive, optimistic reading of their career is that they were hardcore kung fu masters who pursued their design interest with skill and determination, rallied clients and followers behind their vision, and never let setbacks or failures keep them down. They protected their creativity, and they believed in what they had to say with their work. If Lincoln and Roosevelt are exemplars of the external self, and how to manage and deal with a changing world, then Corbusier and Ando are models of cultivating the inner self, and how to focus on principles and values, day in and day out.
On a sunny Fourth of July, I re-discovered Forest Park in St. Louis. The park, built in 1872 and then expanded for the 1904 World Exposition and Olympics, embodies the City Beautiful Movement in the late 19th century. During that time, industrial cities across America and Europe mitigated pollution and congestion by building grand public projects and parks. Today, Forest Park, which spans about 3 square miles (about twice the size of Central Park in New York), hosts most of the city's major tourist attractions, including the Art Museum, the Zoo, the Muny, and the Missouri History Museum.
My hike led me to realize that the 19th century American landscape paintings at SLAM correlated well with the various parklands and landscapes outside...
My two political heroes have always been Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt -- Lincoln, because he had lived and worked not too far from St. Louis (around Springfield and southern Illinois, in the 19th century), and Teddy, because he was born a weakling and through sheer willpower transformed himself into a courageous leader. I admired them, because to me they represented the old, mythological promise of America - the ability to rise up from your circumstances, and through thick and thin, and constant adversity and opposition, find your way to lead others and change the world. Despite almost reaching 30, I continue to have the faith and naivete, that this path is possible for me.
Growing up in Hong Kong, and surrounded by then-relative prosperity, I had a difficult time finding inspirational figures and mentors. As a small kid scared of almost everything, the most inspirational aspect of Hong Kong was its urbanism and architecture. Living amongst spectacular shopping malls, escalators, office buildings, aerial walkways, and underground subways systems was like living in a giant playground, where every new perspective brings out new discoveries and cinematic spaces. I was just a number in a vast urban machine. The city was exhilarating, and the adults, all older and stricter than me, harsh and terrifying. I did not know at the time, but the place was the perfect microcosm of globalization in the 1990's, and the city would never reach such great heights and prominence again...
In Missouri, I left the hi-tech, gilded environs of Hong Kong and found myself in an alien, sparse landscape. On the other side of the world, my family and I struggled as fresh faced immigrants, adjusting to the world of automobiles, highways, big box stores, and single-family home in the Bush-era, promised utopia of middle, conservative America. Here, the psychological map of existence was much less sectional, as in the elevators and escalators of Hong Kong, and more planometric, where the land and the grid reigned supreme. Here, I encountered individuals, not masses, and I had the growing awareness of the importance of my position in a nation, and not only my position in a city. I learned as much as I can about the English language, and American history, and I placed myself in the narrative of a country of self-made people, a country that rose from agriculture and industry to on the Moon, where I can rise and make an impact, as long as I put in the work. And, perhaps, one day I daydreamed, I can go back to the global, multi-colored city of my youth, a returning hero in my dreams.
Inevitably, even I as I migrated to New York and Boston, I encountered the harsh realities of these visions. Just as people change, the world changes along with. Confronting the issues and questions of adulthood, I found a society in stasis, and unable to address the pressing questions of the day. Hong Kong today looks much as it does from 20 years ago, yet its societal and political foundations has eroded, leaving behind a gilded facsimile, less a dynamic city and more a aggregate shopping mall. The city of dreams no longer. The Midwest has been left behind, its slow growth and perceived stability unable to compete with the rising cities of the West Coast and Texas. Long gone are the great industries of the past, and in their place an atomized, fragmented, and bifurcated landscape of a professional class and service economy workers. And all around us, and everywhere, is the comforting, escapist glow of technological gadgets, and a nausea-inducing backdrop of deteriorating ecosystems and climate change.
All time periods face their own set of insurmountable problems -- until those challenges are ultimately met. In the 1850's, Lincoln also faced a country in turmoil, though with a radically different set of challenges. America, confronting westward expansion, had to wrestle with the question of slavery in new territories. The Civil War was just around the corner. While the industrialists and abolitionists of the North debated the racist gentry of the South, speaking in lofty and moralistic terms, Lincoln was on the ground, confronting the real, pressing issues facing western settlers and frontier development. As a westerner with no formal education, he was looked down by both wealthy Northerners and landed Southerners as just a "rail splitter". All the while, Lincoln served as a champion of his local, and then regional, community, brokering conflicts and trading stories as a preeminent, albeit "small-time" prairie lawyer. As a young adult, he read all the books he could get his hands on, and ran several unsuccessful campaigns for public office before serving as a middling one-term state senator. Lincoln confronted multiple bouts of depression, and struggled with mental health throughout his life. And yet --- and yet -- he found the inner strength to keep persisting, and took all the shots he could get. His first big break came during his legendary Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, where he debated Democrat Stephen A. Douglas for the U.S. Senate. Though he lost the race, the publicity of the orations laid the foundations of his 1860 presidential run. His second big break came during the 1860 Republican Convention, where Lincoln was the "dark horse" candidate for the Republican ticket. While the other three candidates - Seward, Chase, and Bates - fought each other and polarized different factions of the party, Lincoln "swept in" as the "least polarizing" candidate, and ultimately united the party and won the primary. In my mind, Lincoln had the audacity to improve himself and lead communities, and all the while let his opponents underestimate him over and over and over again, until he finally made it as a "person who would leave a significant mark on the lives of other men." Lincoln kept punching upward to defy the odds, and that is a vision of leadership any American can rally behind.
In the 1890's, Teddy Roosevelt also faced a country undergoing dramatic change. Industrial cities had swelled and expanded in great numbers, with a record number of European immigrants seeking jobs and opportunities in factories. Meanwhile, the successful industrialists and robber barons expanded corporate power unchecked, retreating to their extravagant East Coast and Californian estates (much like the Silicon Valley and Wall Street titans of today). In this increasing unequal America arrives Theodore Roosevelt. Coming from a long line of Dutch "Roosevelts" that settled in New York City early on, Teddy belonged to the "old money" class of America - while he lived comfortably and went to privileged schools, he was by no means a Rockefeller or a Carnegie. Initially, T.R. was a shy, sickly child who was homeschooled, and even in Harvard he was an uninspiring and lackluster student. However, his family encouraged him to improve himself through strenuous physical activity. Veering off from a career in science or business, which was "expected" of him from his social status, he fell into "less respectable" politics via the New York Republican Association, a "rough and tumble place" where he networked with officials, business leaders, and union folks. He even served a brief stint as New York City Police Commissioner, where he strolled the city, engaged ordinary people, and worked in futility to reform the corrupt department. Through these experiences of liaising with the public as a local official, Teddy found a way to merge his lofty, idealistic education at Harvard and Columbia with the hard-nosed reality of working society. His keen ability to relate to both the working and businesses classes inevitably helped him push through progressive reforms in the pro-business Republican Party, as well as settle labor strikes and riots as President. At a time when labor and capital presented opposing factions that could "break" the country, T.R. served as a unique middlemen who could broker the peace, and move the country forward as a powerful global force. He proved that leadership may be less about the powerful oppressing the weak, and more about seeing a problem across multiple lenses to break through a previously impossible impasse...
These stories and lessons drive my actions today, and solidify my belief that young Americans can and will succeed in transforming the country. I am tired of waiting for someone else to handle these problems, to push for changes in my industry, in government laws, and in my cities. I am tired of relying on our tech titans and venture capitalists to deliver us yet another world-changing gadget, and to further ossify society and decimate public investments. I am tired of an us versus them mentality between capital and labor, and between the professional and the working class. I am tired of being depressed about the future, and just waiting for the next global Chinese-U.S. Cold War, or climate catastrophe, to strike us. Most of all, I am sick and tired by the mentality that I cannot change these things, as an Asian American male with no inherited wealth, or a super fancy degree or salary --- that as a "designer" I am only expected to make things look nicer, or solve some minor technical problem in your program, your building, or your website. I am not so intelligent, or so wealthy, or so extraverted, but I can do so much more than you think. And I will learn. And I will show you how I can make change, not tomorrow, not later, but right now.
Tim Burton, Big Fish (2003)
There's a scene in the Tim Burton movie "Big Fish" (2003) that has stayed with me for a long time. Edward Bloom, our main protagonist, has returned to the small town of Spectre for his work as a traveling salesman. The town, which had so captivated him earlier in his life, with its country charms and idyllic ways, has now seemed to have fallen into disrepair. The narrator's tagline was:
When I first watched the film, I found this idea to be so profound. I love the concept that places are never the same as you left it, and that as we grow and change, so do the places around us; it may not be that physical places change in reality, but that our perception has grown and evolved. Our subjective understanding of places is so powerful, that entire towns and cities transform before our eyes...
For most of the past decade, I prided myself on always going to new places, conquering new lands, and meeting new people. I should never return, or retrace my steps, because that means I have failed and retreated. Yes, I still believe this sentiment to be partly true (backtracking can seem like failure), but now I have a more nuanced understanding --- whenever you return to a place, it is never the same as when you left it, because YOU have changed. While personal growth may be externalized, when you move to a new city, get a new job, or enter a new relationship, a lot can still happen internally. During the pandemic, when most of the world had to stay in quarantine, there weren't many "external" markers of growth that we can hold on to. But that hardly means that we did not grow and change internally. Time still moves forward, and we pick up new skills and meet new people, perhaps only less enjoyably through Zoom.
As hard to admit as it is, I have "returned" to certain cities more often than others, and each time life has "hit different". Hong Kong in 2008, was very different than Hong Kong in 2015, or even Hong Kong in 2018. My summer as a high school student in Chicago in 2010, compares very differently to my first internship at a corporate office there, in 2014. Each time, I treasure and cherish all the things I loved and enjoyed from my previous trips, and I augment them to the current reality. (A internship in a hometown abroad, cannot compare to a childhood visit, when you can finally get drinks at LKF.) I can only hope that this time, "returning" to Boston in 2021, would be a different story than the Boston of 2016, and perhaps, I can tie up some missing pieces, complete unfinished business, and follow through lost dreams/aspirations, before moving on to the next great adventure, and all the adventures following. Because this time, I intend not only to seek and learn, but to build something (whatever that may mean, or be).
In my personal history, 2020 would be marked as a critical turning point, a important respite from the endless slog of work that defines working life. What are we working towards? In corporate America, there seems to always been this undefined market chasm, between talent and resources. Smart, hard-working people don't get recognized. Likewise, there are people out there with money and resources, but no way to channel them into productive, meaningful investments. This disconnect becomes all the more uncomfortable, because it proves that markets aren't always free, and institutions don't always protect people. To me, the most obvious "case-in-point" example of market waste are the endless reams of reports, assessments, and case studies that are created by experts, and then cast away. (Perhaps, this truly is the work of most major consultant groups.) In the vast, sprawling capitalist machine, middlemen and brokers across diverse sectors have to chase down deals, negotiate the details, and spin up infinite paper trails to find the most optimal, or efficient, way to spend money and resources. All of these plans, reports, and "collateral" serve as persuasive arguments, whether to invest here or there, or to convince governments, to accept this proposal or that. The more abstract you get, or perhaps, the closer you become to the source of capital (banks, hedge funds, and developers, who are probably last), rather than the physical object or commodity itself, the better you are financially rewarded (and likewise, disconnected from reality).
Perhaps, in the long run, these endless reports, assessments, and case studies are not examples of market waste, but rather examples of how markets are run super efficiently, and how specialization has been able to produce the most capital for the least number of capitalists. Yet, I cannot simply fathom just how many "drafts" and "preliminary reports" are created, in the grand scheme of things, how many languishing papers sit in abandoned filing cabinets, and how many blank Google docs are stored in anonymous data centers in Iowa. I cannot fathom just how many so-called experts, graduate students, and educated people are employed to do endless busy work, to find the best ways to do this or that, only to have their efforts be piloted and then abandoned. I read in a famous novel once, this line "All that is golden evaporates into air", and I believe in just that, about all of this lost and empty work. (Perhaps only architects care about this history, and it should just be abandoned).
Sometimes I wonder, short of a violent proletariat revolution, whether all of these people can band together, and simply make things happen more quickly, and more efficiently, than their employers (and thus, create a super startup, or more likely, just a rival firm). Oh, the tragedy of specialization...
So again, what are we working towards? I believe that, out of all of this doom and gloom, about the great tragedy of the working class, is leadership. Leadership is not a commodity that can be bought and sold; it has all too little to do with your technical competence, or the class you were born in. Leadership is something that most people profess to have, yet only a few actually have it -- for it takes experience, confidence, courage. Leadership, like design, is the glue that can bind the chasm between talent and resources. Employed properly, it is the tide that can genuinely effect change, end the meandering cycle of paperwork, and lift people and communities. This notion of building people, and not designs or systems, can shift the perspective away from capital allocation to capital building. And so, in doing so, all that is golden does not evaporate away, but stays grounded, and actually grows exponentially.