Archive for the ‘Career Advice’ Category

Carwash as a Place for Character Judgment

November 22, 2012 1 comment

Carwash as a Place for Character Judgment

By James H. Choi
Source Link washes are popular fundraising activity.  Every summer, I run into students, usually girls, holding roadside “CAR WASH” signs with a group of students washing cars somewhere in the field of view.

Every time I take up on the offer, I witness something interesting.  I see each student’s true character in full display, along with Pareto’s 20-80 Rule in action.  The rule in this case would state that 20% of workers will do 80% of the job.

The leader who organize the division of labor and resources, and a few hard working members who perform the work form the 20%.

The remaining 80% of the members do 20% of the work at a leisurely pace.  I will refer to them as 20%-ers and 80%-ers in this article.

These 80%-ers do not refuse to work, but they drag their foot in all activities except to engage in chatting.

The 20%-ers typically stay on the job until the car is spotless.  The 80%-ers are more focused on their talk, and display a high level of transcendental tolerance toward spot/stains/dirt.  Rain would do a better job than these slackers.  Would you believe me if I told you these 80%-ers are more likely to complain than 20%-ers?  Keep the question in mind and observe as you live through your life.

In a job interview, every single person claims to be a diligent worker, quick learner, and other cliche attributes.  In other words, 100% claims to be 20%.  You can say that the whole purpose of interviewing is to select the 20%-ers while avoiding the 80%-ers.  As you will discover once you rise to that decision making position, this differentiation is amazingly difficult.  You can see into many feet of water, but you cannot seen even in inch into human mind.

However, on these car washes, their defenses are down and they are displaying their true character.  Observe them while they are transparent like clear water.  And get to know who are the 20%-ers to choose as your future business partner, or employee.  And who are the 80%-er that you need to send away.

By sending away, I do not mean to physically keep distance.  They are your friends, and friendship is important.  When the time comes, recommend them highly to your competitions, the company that is threatening yours.  Hopefully, your friends will make a good living there, happily talking all day, dutifully collecting paycheck every other week, all the while dragging down their employer’s business to the ground.

As soon as the rival company goes down, show your unwavering friendship again.  Recommend your car-washing-days’ buddies highly to the next rival company.  And so on.  There are so many of them, 80%, you will never run out of highly recommendable candidates.  Certainly, you will never run out competitions.   This eternal win-win solution will keep your friendship strong and your business prosperous.

However, be aware of the other side of the same coin.  Our success in life is largely determined by the people we meet and the opportunities they give us.  Always work hard and accomplish your duties at these car washes, and in all other circumstances.  Someone may be observing how you work, and deciding your future.  Work like a 20%-er at all times.

Categories: Career Advice

Should You Learn Chinese?

November 18, 2012 3 comments

Should You Learn Chinese?

By James H. Choi
Source Link

Korean version: 중국어를 배워야 하는가? because I speak four languages and have lived in several countries, people often ask me for advice on languages.  In the 1980s, the question was, “Should I learn Japanese?”  And for a while there were some, “Should I learn Korean?” questions.  Lately the question has been, “Should I learn Chinese?” My answer is always the same: “It depends.”

More specifically, it depends on the reason for learning the language.  Of course there are many reasons to learn a language. Let’s count the ways.

First, this could be the language of your heritage — of your parents and ancestors.  In that case you don’t choose a language; the language chooses you. Go ahead and please your grand parents.

Second, you could learn a language because of your interest in a certain culture.  In that case, you know what culture interests you.  No need for my advice in this case.  Go ahead and open your mind’s window to the world.  There is no telling what might fly in.  Please note that most articles promoting “Americans should learn Chinese” are speaking at this level, for tourism and for exposure to another culture.  I am all for it, but learning a language at this level can only serve as a ice-breaker in business settings.

But the third case is what I want to explain in detail.  That’s when you want to learn a language for a calculated benefit — as an investment — with expectations of some later gain. In such cases, whether you should learn a language depends on whether it’s really going to pay off.  Here, I am talking about learning Chinese equivalent to the level where foreigners learn English to work with Americans.

Bluntly put, it’s always advantageous to speak the language of a country that’s richer than yours.  By “your country,” I mean the country that is currently feeding you, whether you were born there or not.  In this regard, English is unquestionably the most dominant language of the world.  The double-punch of the British empire and the decades of American economic supremacy add to the unquestionable place of the English language at the top.  English is indeed the closest to a lingua franca Earth has ever seen.  Most Americans know this and correctly don’t bother learning any foreign languages.  It is not that Americans are dumb.  It is that Americans don’t have to.  Anything worth reading eventually shows up in English.

American economic dominance has been questioned only twice in my memory.  Once was in 1980s by the Japanese.  Back then, the Japanese was perceived as a real threat, and Japanese classes in college campuses were overflowing.  Literally, introductory Japanese classes had standing room only.  The “Japanese threat” turned out to be transient.  Now we are having a déjà vu moment with China, which is on its way to become the highest-GDP nation on Earth.  These Chinese language classes are filling up.  And we hear the same ominous warning we heard in the 1980s all over again: “This time, it’s different.”

So should you learn Chinese with the expectation that you would gain something for your investment of learning the language?

Let me share with you an exchange I had with my cousin when I found out he was learning Japanese.  I offered him a piece of unsolicited advice.

“Cousin, although I am fluent in Japanese, I don’t find much use in it,” I said.  “Even when I am on business trips to Japan, I end up speaking in English with them without any detrimental effect.”

My cousin replied to me, “That’s because you’re coming from the United States. I’m coming from Korea.  I cannot speak to them in English even if they are fluent in it.  My situation is completely different from yours.”

In the business world of languages, there is a pecking order.  Thus whether you should speak Chinese depends on where your economy’s pecking order is relative to China’s economy.  If you are American, and you work in American economy, don’t learn Chinese.

It may seem odd I would advise against learning a language, considering that I speak four fluently, but I’m advising against it because I know something that most people don’t realize: the the cost of learning a language well.  Indeed, the question is not whether you should learn Chinese, or not.  The question is whether to master Chinese or become an MBA/MD/PhD/JD instead.  Yes, it takes that much work to master Chinese.  Chinese is no Spanish.  It will take English speakers five to ten times more effort to reach a comparable level.  Please see my note on Chinese characters at the bottom.

Even if you miraculously mastered Chinese while getting your MBA/MD/PhD/JD at the same time, (which means you paid the price in some other aspects because we all have 24 hours a day) the Chinese language may not be as useful to you because of the asymmetry of demands.

As an American, no matter what country’s language you study, you will find your counterpart in that country whose English almost rivals yours and his native language infinitely superior.  That’s why, no matter how much you studied the country’s language, you will end up using English in any high-powered, high-level business or academic meeting because their English is far better than your command of their language.  All you will get to say is some ice-breaking greetings, which can be learned in one afternoon.  And, at the end of the day, whether you broke ice or not will make little difference.  What will matter is how expertly you conducted your meeting (in English) with a firm competence in the area of discussion.  At that point, you will wonder what all those years of studying was for, as I have felt in many meetings in Japan, Brazil and Korea.  In those countries, I did use/mix local languages to conduct business meetings, and I received an instant honorary-insider status which entitled me to hear endless anecdotes about culturally-insensitive fat-ugly-Americans who were clueless to anything local, including the language.  But I could have accomplished the same work using English, minus the chance to hear those stories.  In China, I only used English because I never learned Chinese beyond ice-breaking pleasantries.  Even though I was not considered good enough to be told “ugly American” stories, I accomplished my mission there nonetheless, all the while fighting a nagging suspicion that I am not told any stories because I am one of those “ugly American” this time.

Now look around you.  Did you consider your competition within: the Chinese-Americans friends who are already bilingual, on top of being math/science wizards?   What are your chances of out-Chinese-ing them?

Lastly, consider this scene I witness routinely.  In any math competitions in the United States, the winners seem to be overwhelmingly students of Chinese heritage.  In International-scale competitions such as HMMT or IRML, where teams from China also compete, the question is not:

“Who will be the winners?”

but rather:

“Will the winners be Chinese students, or Chinese-American students?”

It almost seems being somehow hyphenated to “Chinese” is what it takes to win.  But in that Chinese-dominated scene, I want to bring your attention to the people who are not there: countless Chinese and Chinese-American students who didn’t even make it onto the teams, missing their first crucial step in moving up their career ladder.  Why were they left out?

They weren’t lacking in Chinese-speaking skills — they were lacking in math.

In summary, learn Chinese if it is free.  But, while at it, don’t forget to pick up a few MBA/PhD/MD degrees for the same price.  You will find the latter more valuable.


I have no regrets for having learned languages, and I have no intention of trading them for an MBA degree even if I could.  That’s because I didn’t study them as an investment.  I learned them either because I had to, or because I wanted to: never because I expected to have any financial gain.  At this stage in my life, I have no desire to learn another language.  It would only result in a dilettante dabbling that will provoke some patient smiles from polite people at best.  Instead, I enjoy discovering more depth and beauty in languages that I already know, which does not even bring polite smiles from patient people because I do it on my own.

And that’s how I want to keep it.

Footnote: how difficult is it to learn Chinese characters?

The Chinese script is the most inefficient writing system there is.  Essentially, each word is its own separate drawing.  I have learned to write 1000~2000 Chinese as a learner of Korean and Japanese, and I tell you it is hard.  Every time you learn a new Chinese word, it’s not an assembly of phonemes, such as alphabet letters.  It is a drawing.   Knowing the sound of the word doesn’t help you any, because you have to remember 10 or 20 or 30 strokes that are involved in painting it.  Of course these drawings contain many clues for deciphering their meanings, such as pronunciation keys that help you infer the meaning from similarities of one drawing with those of another whose meaning you do know.  But even reading a word based on the similarities of its shape with that of another word, you can never conclude the word’s full meaning by way of this inductive reasoning.

Learning the Chinese writing system is so hard that the Korean education system dropped it.  This is significant because 40 percent of Korean words come from the Chinese language.   Just as we speak in English many words containing Latin roots, many Korean words root themselves in Chinese.  In fact, all Korean last names, and nearly every Korean first name is written in Chinese characters (but they are read in Korean pronunciation).  Entire pre-modern era Korean history such as Jo Seon Shil Rok is written in pure Chinese as well.  Despite this deep cultural connections, the Chinese characters were nonetheless dropped from the Korean education system because it was too much work to learn.

Categories: Global Perspective

Your Lunch Partner Will Change Your Life

May 17, 2012 1 comment

Next time you’re standing with a tray in hand, don’t look for your friends.  You meet them enough anyway.  Look for your superior: the higher the better.

Your Lunch Partner Will Change Your Life

By James H. Choi
Source Link

Let’s imagine a situation:

You pick your food from the cafeteria, pivot, and scan the horizon for a place to sit.  You see a few people you know, and you see a few seats available across from those you don’t know.  Of all people to sit across from, who will you pick?

Our natural instinct is to pick the people we know.  They seem familiar, and we will feel safe.  But if you want to advance your career, whether academic or professional, in high school or at an office, you have to choose the one who ranks highest.  If you find a teacher sitting in the cafeteria, go and sit next to him.  If you find a higher-ranking classman, go and sit by her.  Same goes if you find your boss or boss’ boss, sit by that person.  You might feel uncomfortable, but you’re not at school to feel comfortable.  (If that were the case, sitting on your couch at home would feel much more comfortable!)  You might feel awkward, you might not know what to talk about — that’s natural.  But don’t worry.  These people are professionals and will know how to guide you.   Just by being with them you will gain insight from what they have to say; you don’t have to prepare any special questions or topics.
Once I had a chance to see a professional politician walk into a meeting and work the room.  He was an ex-secretary of state of Illinois, and it was amazing how he could just walk into a room without knowing anyone and start shaking hands with strangers.  I was in the same room, and my reaction was to stay quiet and try not to cause trouble for anyone, but his natural reaction was to get to know everybody and let everyone see who he was.  He did it with such grace and aplomb that he didn’t seem forced.  (If someone told me to do that, I would have been mortified; my insecurity would have shown in my attitude, and people would have been annoyed at my attitude.)  But this politician did it with such grace, others had no choice but to be equally graceful and rejoice that he had chosen to shake their hands.  I was equally mesmerized, instantly happy that I was able to meet him in person, and I shook his hand gladly.  And that experience changed me.  It still does not come naturally for me, but after having seen it in action, I know how to “work the room” if I must.

As a young person, you might not have that kind of caliber, but I think those who rise high display this, beginning perhaps during high school or college.  If you don’t have it, you don’t have to doom yourself to the bottom rung the rest of your life, but you have to work at it, just as you’re working on your knowledge and experience.  Work on your attitude, which could be even more important than your knowledge.  Sharpen your social skills.  Next time you’re standing with a tray in hand, don’t look for your friends.  You meet them enough anyway.  Look for your superior: the higher the better.

Categories: Career Advice

Email Etiquette

Email Etiquette

By James H. Choi
Source Link

Dear Sabio Students,

You might raise your eyebrows at the suggestion of me teaching you how to write an email.  But many students lack etiquette.  They are not rude, just clueless, and etiquetteless.  As you apply to colleges, you will need it.

You’ll be selling yourself.  The schools will decide to buy the most professionally behaving students.  Show them how organized and polite you are in any emails you send them, and repeat this for the teachers you expect to recommend you to leave an imprint of “professionalism” in the reader’s mind. here is your etiquette breakdown for email:

  1. Use a subject line to highlight the email’s content.  Too many times I get emails stating the senders’ names in the subject.  I can see your name quite well in the “From” field.  I don’t need you to repeat it.  Besides, what you’re writing is not about you; it only concerns you.  What you have to realize is that those who receive a lot of emails have to sift through them all to find a single one.  When you write only your name redundantly in the subject line, you frustrate your reader, who neither cares nor learns anything about your name in the subject line.  If you are asking for a favor, such as “Please help me get admitted to a college,” make this clear in the subject line.  Because if you make the recipient unclear what all your emails are about, you’re less likely to get any favors done for you.
  2. Don’t send an email with your name in non-readable script, and expect to be treated favorably.  That is, if you come from a country where the script is not the Roman alphabet, which English (and French, Spanish, Portuguese, and so on) uses to write, then make sure your name shows up in this Roman alphabet as well.  Roman type is the script franca of the world.  Any computer in the world defaults to showing the script franca, so anyone you are writing will be able to at least make out some sounds to your name — no matter how weird it seems to them.  If you have two sets of friends with mutually exclusive scripts, then use both scripts:  one script  first then put the other scripts in parentheses, or vice versa.  Never send an email knowing the receiver cannot even read your name.  That’s rude.
  3. If you get an email with a “CC” (i.e. “carbon copy”), that’s because a third person needed to see this email.  For instance, a teacher might send a student an email saying he or she needs to turn in an essay right away and also CC the student’s parents so the parents know about the situation.  Whenever you reply to an email with someone in the CC field, give it a thought if it’s proper to reply to the whole group so that the CC-ed person is not left wondering if you replied or not.  You can reply to everyone by hitting “reply all,” which takes some effort to remember.  But you should.  If a counselor emails you to inform you that you’re late submitting an application, the faster all people — counselor, parents, principal, university officers — who have been CC-ed know you’ve replied, the more beneficial that will be to your application.
  4. But, at the same time, be aware of everyone copied on an email.  Because this could involve politics.  There may be cases when you don’t want to announce your reply to everyone on the list.  In that case, don’t use “Reply All.” But the main point is, you must pay attention to the people in CC field and make a conscious decision.
  5. Speaking of politics.  If you want other people except for the recipient to know that you sent an email, then put those other people’s email address on the BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) field.  The recipient won’t know and don’t have a way to Reply All to those hidden people.  This is what you would do when you want to prove to your parents that you emailed your school counselor.  You put the counselor’s email in the To field, and then your parents in the BCC field.  If you want your parents to also see the reply, then you put them in the CC field.  If your counselor knows how to use email, he/she will “Reply All.” If not, you will have to forward the reply to your parents.
  6. don’t use in4mal abbreviations when ur riting formally.  If you’re in a superior position, of course you can get away with anything.  The boss of a company, for instance, can make a typo in an email.  But if you’re not the boss or superior person in an email, then using these abbreviations invites the superior person to judge you.  You should use the most polite language you know, double-check your spelling, check your grammar, and certainly don’t abbreviate anything.
  7. Keep copies of all correspondence.  When you reply to an email, all past correspondence is automatically shown at the bottom.  This can get long, and looks really ugly and messy.   But leave it there.  This provides a record of the flow of the conversation.  If someone forgets what transpired between you and her, she’ll be able to look at the whole conversation right there instead of having to search through dozens of emails — all of which list your name as the subject.
  8. Edit your subject line as you reply back and forth. Here’s an example of one set of email replies:
  1. Student’s original subject line: “Feb. 29 Homework: Lesson 5, Questions 49 – 79, Odds Only.”
  2. Teacher’s edited subject line: “Feb. 29 Homework, Redo #71-79.”
  3. Student’s new subject line: “Feb. 29 Homework, #71-79 Revised”
  4. Teacher’s final subject line: “Feb. 29 Homework Total Grade”

At the time you’re writing the emails, doing so might seem tedious, but the value of editing your subject lines will become evident if you have to go back through your emails two years later — your organization skill will shine through.  Always imagine what you’d be looking for if you had to find this email two years from now; make that the subject.

As you run larger organizations interacting with more people, this kind of information management skill will determine the amount of information you can handle, thus how high you can rise.  Those who are working with you will see your effectiveness as well, and they will trust you with more information in turn.  In the information economy, the one who manages information better wins.

Where to store your important data?

Where to store your important data?

By James H. Choi
Source Link

During the Industrial Revolution, factories were required to own private generators because they could not trust utility companies to provide them with enough or reliable electricity to operate.  The same sentiment was true in the early days of Internet: Everybody wanted to hold his or her own documents in private computers.  Companies wanted to hold mail servers inside their systems.  It was unthinkable anyone would upload financial data to the Internet so that tax-reporting companies to carry out tax services online.  In fact, it was unthinkable to use credit cards online.

The sentiment has changed.  We don’t think twice about outsourcing our email servers online, paying with credit cards, and uploading personal and high-security information.  I don’t know what the long-term repercussions of this trend will be.

But if you have important documents today, such as college-application essays, you must store these online — not just on your local hard drive because there are only two types of hard drives: One that failed, and one that will fail.

Your hard drive will lose all data at the most inconvenient time.  For example, it will breakdown minutes before you submit your college-application essays.  Would you like to rewrite the whole thing again?   No, so don’t trust your hard drive.  Trust the hard drives online.  These backed up your data in more than one drive, so even if one hard drive fails, you won’t even notice.  Even if online storage company suffers a catastrophic failure, such as the whole building being destroyed, your data will come back soon because they store it on several locations. can upload all your important data to online hard drives several ways.  First, try Dropbox.  It’s easy and free for up to 2GB.  What’s best about Dropbox is that you don’t have to change any of your habits.  Once you install this software, any file you save into a specified folder is saved online in the Dropbox hard drive automatically.  You can access the same file from several computers, or even access them from your smartphone and from other computers at anywhere.

A second option is to work online, such as on Google Docs.  It is also free.   The downside is that they have less features, and they tend to slow down when the data/files get too big.

Some of these services are not free.  For example, Dropbox charges $9.99/month for 50GB of online storage.  Here’s a way to decide a fair price: Suppose you lost all your data today.  How much would you pay to bring back the data you lost?  You should be willing to pay 1/100 this amount every month to have your data backed up online.

Some large data, such as photo or video files, are too expensive to store online.  For these, buy two external hard drives.  The inconvenient part is that it’s hard to synchronize (automatically have an exact copy) small changes you make every minute while editing or working on the document.  So put any files you’re working on into your Dropbox folder.  And when you’re done working on the project and ready to archive it, just pull it out of Dropbox and put it onto your external hard drives.  Two drives with identical contents, one at home and one at another location to guard against a catastrophic loss — such as fire or flood — at one location.  This frees up your Dropbox space for more changing files.

External hard drives cost a lot, but think about what it would feel like to lose every document, video, photo, and audio file you have ever created.  What would you pay to get these back?  Considering this, the price of external storage is pretty cheap.   By the way, it may make you feel better to know that these drives used to cost ten times as much only a few years back.

Managing your information is a critically important skill in this information age.  And designing your life in such a way that you will never have to waste time looking for, or recovering lost files would automatically boost your productivity far ahead of your accident-prone, fate-blaming peers.

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