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Latest blog posts

Transforming values

Society is fundamentally ruled by the powerful, who maintain their power by offering others security. The powerful offer physical security, personal security, familial security, and quite often moral security that is based out of how that particular powerful group views the family and how they view the interplay between different members of the community. Opposing this “security” is more often viewed as a threat to the whole and put down immediately. The Pope was a shining example of how a leader could offer both moral authority and security, while at the same time stand out as a monstrous vehicle of power and dictatorship, “the leader of the world.” However, the United States was one of the first forces to truly challenge the papacy, and they did so through offering not only moral authority but intellectual authority through their espousal of freedom as a human right. During the beginning of the United States, scholars and thinkers were obsessed with the motivational forces that ruled over the human soul, and today, those motivational forces have evolved to values-based leadership. Leaders recognize today that people mobilize not only from the recognition of their own human rights, but from leaders who offer a living model of those values of human rights.

“Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, / but leech-like to their fainting country cling, / rise like Lions after slumber / in unvanquishable number — / shake your chains to earth like dew / which in sleep had fallen on you — / ye are many — they are few.” (Shelley, 1819) Even in the 19th century, popular culture had begun to embrace the idea that values could transform the world. Shelley’s criticism that leaders were so distanced from their followers that they were blind, unfeeling, and stupid, was a bold thing to say when rulers still felt they had divine authority on their side. The idea that followers of a divine authority actually had chains was less a statement that people needed freedom, and more a claim that people had a right to live their own lives without being chained in the dreams of a leader who was blind.

Are one set of values any better than another set? How can you make a differentiation, without making a judgment? For example, we look at modern-day Sharia bound cultures, where women are forced to wear headdresses and covers so that they are not seen in public, when in fact many of those women support that culture and when westerners criticize those cultures, the westerners are the ones who are in turn criticized for being immoral. Do leaders need to stand for the values of their followers, or do they need to reframe those values and transform those under them? Should the leaders in closed countries such as China and Saudi Arabia seek to transform their countries to become more like other countries and their values, or should they seek to solidify themselves in favor of their own people’s values?

I often struggle with knowing where my values lie in the country I live. I am an ex-patriot, and for many people I come into contact with I am the first ex-patriot (or foreigner) they have ever met. When they see me and watch me, everything I do becomes everything the other world is. If I cry or scream or smile, I begin to form their own minds about the actions of people who are not Chinese. If I cheat or steal or sin, that is added to the value system of other countries, at least in the eyes of those who are watching me, in the exact same way that I erroneously attached the ethics and values of China to Tracy, that tiny little Chinese girl in my second-grade class, or how I also erroneously attached a judgment of Iran by observing the parents of my friend whose family fled to the United States in the 80s. However, I am an image of the West, and there is nothing I can do about that. The values I espouse become the main line in inquiry for anyone I meet, unless that person is lucky enough to meet someone else and grow their judgment set. As a leader however, the values I espouse are even more important, not because it should matter to me whether or not someone has a favorable opinion of the values of people from other countries, but because that will affect my effectiveness in reaching that person and trying to help them grow.

Published: March 12, 2014 | Comments: 1

Ten myths of talent

According to Buckingham and Clifton (2001), talent is a relatively misunderstood and abused concept, especially in the workplace. In this short essay, I will explore ten myths about talent (and strength) that are emphasized in Buckingham and Clifton’s book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths,” which I have attempted to give a stronger emphasis than in presented in the book by relating several insights as popular myths modern culture has propagated about the power and paradox of talent.

Myth #1: “Self-improvement (and success) comes through cultivating and increasing abilities in a wide variety of necessary skills for the workplace according to standards of excellence in the industry.”

In our modern world, the myth of “skill gaps” and “areas of opportunity” is a widely propagated deterrent to maximizing on our greatest talents and turning those talents into strengths.  Companies and organizations encourage workers to retune their weaknesses into strengths instead of focusing their efforts on increasing the capacity of their workers’ strengths, in order to create a more balanced workforce, but in the end the only result is a rather mediocre set of employees that work not out of passion but need.

Myth #2: “Education and mentorship unlock inner potential for greatness and must be built slowly through expert advice and institutional programs.”

Talents are “recurring patterns of thought” that are identified through yearnings (childhood passions), instinct (natural actions), and satisfaction (positive emotions).  Education and mentorship may assist the transformation of talents into strengths, but each person has been designed or formed from a young age to respond in certain ways, our unique signature.  The catastrophe of modern education is that the focus on a multifarious liberal education based on societal temperaments has replaced the tutorial education of the past, and many students find themselves stuck like a broken gear in a machine they barely understand or know how to respond to and struggle through like itinerant farmers in a famine.

Myth #3: “Some people are born with the rare gene of genius; everyone else is ordinary and must accept that even with schooling and training, they may be able to get a good job but shouldn’t hope for any more.”

Talents must be reinforced with knowledge (factual and experiential) and skills (structural procedure).  Talent by itself is like a lump of clay, which when molded by hands (knowledge) into a visual piece of art (skill) transforms into a strength, which can then be focused in one’s work or career and used proficiently.  Every person in the universe has talent, just as every person in the universe has the ability to breathe.  Genius isn’t a cause but a result.

Myth #4: “A liberal education (education in a mixture of fields) guarantees and prepares students to be good stewards of an intellectual legacy, and is the most important element of showcasing intelligence and preparedness for a complex, challenging, and invigorating career.”

Our lives must be focused on our talents.  It is not enough to identify one’s own talents, but career, education, family, all these must point toward an end in which the talents we possess are of use.  While a liberal education may be exciting (much like trying out various hobbies can be invigorating) a liberal education cannot be the sole source of knowledge and skill, but must serve as a stepping stone in a direction to focus the energies of the student.

Myth #5: “Human potential is limitless; people have the capacity for brilliance in any field, as long as they follow the correct method, the right teacher, and are inspired by greatness.”

Talents are built into our biological systems, part of our unique blueprint as individuals.  Talents are not a mystical branch of the ether.  Talents are electrical impulses that jump back and forth between the canals of our brain, and as we get older we are awarded with fewer talents, while the ones that remain become stronger.  While human beings are limitless, a human being is not.  People have the capacity for brilliance, but not in everything, and while a good teacher can help them in the path to unlock their potential, people are ultimately responsible for their own progress.

Myth #6: “The trendsetters and world-changers possess a quality of rare talent that most people could never imagine of themselves; such talent comes as the result of extraordinary circumstances, forging people of incomparable mettle.”

Strengths are not born but must be built with talent, knowledge, and skill.  In most cases, the giants of the world are not any different from anyone else.  They were all children once, they all went through puberty and experienced their first kiss.  And they will all grow old, weary, and pass away into dust.  The only difference between the giants of the world and the giants of the next is knowing what they loved, and their focus on doing what they loved.

Myth #7: “Many factors contribute to a person’s profession and career, including education, age, experience, sex, as well as previous successes, failures, and relationships. These factors constitute a person’s primary currency in the realm of job value.”

Too often, we find ourselves in a position because of exterior circumstances beyond our control.  However, position must be according to strength, not any other factors, a motion easier to say than to do and often requiring sacrifice of comfort in order to find a place where we can be truly valued and feel our contributions have value.  External circumstances are hindrances, barriers, and arguments against our true value.

Myth #8: “Standards of excellence promote positive value in worker output, defined from years of experience, planning, and research; such hallmarks secure the foundation of a company or organization’s success, and help to forge a path into an uncertain future, presenting employees with a model to transform themselves toward.”

Each person has a unique collection of strengths, and so each person has to contribute in a slightly different way to be the most effective.  Companies that focus on creating a singular worker according to an ideal model will never capture the essence of effectiveness, as much as an organization that focuses on utilizing the unique strengths of each person in the beautiful way he or she was designed.  A person who is invigorated, passionate, and strong is infinitely more valuable than a person who is stretched, confused, and tired.

Myth #9: “In order to maximize a person’s potential, the wheat must be cut away from the chaff.”

Learning how our weaknesses contribute positively to our strengths will help maximize our strengths instead of managing our weakness and wasting our potential.  Weaknesses stem from fundamental value decisions, and are part of the building blocks of our strengths.  Therefore, focusing on weakness means opportunities to maximize strengths are wasted.  Trying to separate the two inevitably causes a fracture in our strengths as well; however, focusing on the strength will generally transform the weakness into an asset.  For example, a worker who is lazy but incredibly creative, by putting opportunities for the worker to practice his creativity will transform his laziness into patience.

Myth #10: “Natural capacity and genius are shown at their highest in the image of the Renaissance Man, a person of flexible modus operandi who can seamlessly move from field to field in a quickly changing modern society, and who can understand a wide berth of disciplines and apply those across boundaries.”

You can’t and shouldn’t try to be the Everything in terms of strengths.  Focus on core strengths, and your effectiveness will be far greater, even if you are massively talented.  Leonardo da Vinci, while a great man, is celebrated far more for his art than his engineering, even though engineering was for many years his career and how he earned his keep.  We have faded notebooks of his engineering designs, but The Last Supper as evidence of his art.  There is a noticeable difference.  His art consumed him; had he not been a painter, we probably would never have known about his mechanical designs or his scientific theories.

Talents are a rare gift that each person born onto this earth possess, but which are left to despair to dry in the sun and wither away.  Only by possessing those talents and transforming them into strengths through careful study and critical praxis, and then pointing ourselves like an arrow in the right direction, will those strengths hit their mark.  The beauty of strengths is that unlike an arrow, they are a force of growth and beauty, and immediately upon hitting their mark, if watered will grow into a beautiful tree and bear fruit for everyone around us.

Published: March 10, 2014 | Comments: 0

Intercultural immersion: synthesis

There are certain moments of sublime clarity I remember from my childhood. Sitting at home at the dinner table, the wax from two red candles burning between a baked turkey and a Chinese rice dish, and the prayers of my mother before the meal asking that God would watch over not only my brother and I during the school vacation, but also the Chinese family that lived with us as they were adapting to life in the United States. I remember visiting my friend from Iran and eating dinner with his family, studying the golden-framed paintings all over the house and trying to understand why a family would place so many sculptures in so many places. I remember a missionary from Thailand coming through the front door of our home, handing me a ball woven of hard bark, and telling me that this ball was a soccer ball for the village children where they worked, and every time I kicked that ball I saw myself in dusty fields with other kids, sharing together in sore, reddened feet and the abounding laughter of enlightened joy my peers could never experience in their insular lives. These experienced were profoundly formed by my experience growing up in a family where foreign cultural values were embraced alongside the basic American values of expressed democracy, Christian service, and the manifest destiny of spreading the love of our faith to the corners of the Earth. There is both a sanctity and a blindness to manifest destiny though. Historically a masonic concept, over time manifest destiny has come to mean more than spreading a democratic faith to the far side of the dusty world, but has transformed into an American ethic that provides both our salvation as a nation as well as the seeds of our destruction as a people devoid of weakness and riddled with ethnocentric attitudes in the vain quest to bring light to the huddled masses of shades outside our borders.

When I graduated from university, I had that same fire to reach the world for truth (perhaps I still do, albeit in a different way). Freshly christened with two shining degrees (and an online certificate) I took a plane to China, eager to embrace my destiny as an educated neophyte granted the wisdom only $200,000 could have bestowed. I believed in the fundamental goodness of the learning process, in the transformative power of Christian light to reach across national boundaries and yank people into a more pure outlook and even in the prospect that English could transfer that same manifest destiny from myself to my students. I had traveled to over sixteen different countries and been given a unique perspective on the world that most people would be envious of, and came from a cornbread American family that had the blessings of both urban and farmer philosophy, along with the revelatory message of Christ for the world. However, as Elmer (2006) and Lewis (1996) both stipulate in their respective volumes, I carried my culture on my metaphorical back, with the intent to teach rather than learn, to bestow rather than grow, and to perform rather than reform. The most striking difference between Elmer’s servant model and the model I took abroad was that Elmer’s servant serves through lowering his face to the ground and submitting, while in my first couple of years in China I was a paragon of virtue who expected the natives to submit to my knowledge and grow into a new paradigm. In a word, I was a monster, albeit a gentle beast who preferred to embrace before consuming.

When I began to teach at the Chinese university, inwardly my desire was to serve the students. At the beginning and end of each class, I queried the students as to what they wanted to learn, as the administration “had no expectations” (outwardly, in any case) and my singular desire was to both communicate the love of Christ through my actions of intensely desiring to help the students perform their language abilities beyond even my highest expectations. I desired to serve, and still today I carry that same dream, although Elmer (2006) has taught me that to truly serve, I must carry no attitudes of greater-than but instead always approach foreign culture as a less-than, and Lewis (1996) has taught me that regardless of appearances, the people I am interfacing with have grown up in a reality so far beyond my understanding that I could well be on another planet trying to convince the natives that green was red. In order to really reach the other side of the gorge, I have to first give up my image of what I think the other side must look like, close my eyes, and once I reach the other side of the bridge, carry no expectations except for my own necessity to listen to the sounds and take in the colors.

Strange, though. I grew up in California, near San Francisco, a city that once upon a time was 90% Chinese. Asian culture is almost second nature to most people in California, but it is also different. Over the last hundred years, political upheavals, wars, famines, deaths, and the passing of generations have altered the landscape of culture, to the point where I wonder sometimes if two or three generations ago the culture was even relatively the same. Lin Yutang, a Chinese scholar who wrote in the early 1900s during the first Republic of China, writes about Chinese culture in his book “My Country, My People,” and while many of his descriptions seem apt, they are also off-putting, bridging culture with words but separated by time. Lewis (1996) remarks about Chinese culture, expressing the power of taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism over people’s lives (Loc 9199), philosophies which are barely even recognized among today’s Chinese youth (due to Mao Zedong’s policy of using the volumes of Confucius from people’s homes as kindling during the Cultural Revolution); culture transforms over time and eventually fades, replaced by the shared experienced and trauma of a people (Loc 10068).

Many times I feel like Joseph, the Hebraic hero who found himself sold as a slave to a rich landowner in Egypt, and years later became the second highest-member of Pharoah’s court. Elmer (2006) provides a wonderful illustration of Joseph, encapsulating his cross-cultural work into a model: acceptance, trust, openness, and serving (Loc 1965). The divide is wide, but with perseverance, patience, and humility the divide can be crossed, even when culture changes faster than one might hope and the cross-cultural worker finds himself struggling against the tides of an ever-changing sea.

As a cross-cultural worker in China and an educator, I often find myself existing in the China Hand paradox. A China hand (Zhongguo Tong) is a foreigner who has lived in China so long, that many people (even Chinese people) are quick to acknowledge their vast experiences and wisdom of even Chinese culture; having lived in China for almost ten years, I most qualify for this illustrious title and the respect it engenders, even though my cultural awareness still lacks. How can I become a servant in a culture that desires to elevate me? I am reminded of Christ washing the feet of his disciples, kneeling down and wiping away the grime of dust, touching broken toenails, cleansing wounds and blisters, pushing the dirt-covered sweat from gnarled hair, perhaps even removing pebbles and rocks from between the toes. In a society of cleanliness and purity such as Israel, for a man of honor (a king, even) to step down and wash his servants’ feet must have been considered abominable, a breaking of custom and culture, much like what cross-cultural workers feel when they make the initial breach into an alien land and witness people doing things they had never even considered as proper behavior. My dream is to be like Christ, to be a servant first, and to truly respect the Chinese culture in a way that only Jesus could. To be a servant means to serve my family first, breaking out of the American perception of the man of the house and moving towards the Christ-like habit of serving others first without the expectation that my humility will engender my greatness, but rather humility for humility – a state of mind, and a pattern of living.

Published: March 7, 2014 | Comments: 0

Intercultural immersion: an evaluation of personal variances

In my analysis of Elmer (2006) and Lewis (1996), I looked at the basic philosophy the two men brought to the conversation of cross-cultural work, focusing on the need for understanding a culture beyond just book knowledge, but having an intimate awareness – an empathy – of how that culture operates on a worldview level. In this second paper, I will discuss how these perspectives transform my own life as an educator and a cross-cultural worker, by discussing pertinent issues from both books, as well as illustrate some problematic issues that have occurred as a result of my transplant into Chinese culture. Most importantly, however, I will discuss the power that I wield as a cross-cultural worker, in not only shaping others around me but being transformed intimately by the collection of new ideas foreign cultures introduce.

Before I came to work overseas, I had several academic degrees: two bachelor degrees (one in English and another in Biblical studies), as well as two certifications (one for teaching English as a foreign language and one for international business). I also had studied the Chinese language extensively before coming to China for my professional career. I was not only highly qualified, but motivated to pass on that knowledge to others. However, one stipulation Elmer makes is that education in different countries carries different expectations (2006, Loc 879). In the United States (where I earned my degrees), certain expectations are held for both students and teachers: academic originality, reflected critical thought patterns, and willingness to participate in opinionated discussions. However, in China those three aspects of education do not actually exist, as students in high school are encouraged to emulate rather than create, elaborate rather than criticize, and listen rather than speak. Such basic principles built into a system that for a thousand years operated and evolved independently of other cultural educational systems provided a stark challenge as an educator, and still I struggle with today. I continue to struggle inwardly in putting aside my philosophy of education, in the hopes of helping the process of transformation inside my fundamentally different students.

Even if, however, an educator such as myself can grasp the invisible lines of cultural variants, the problem arises of actually understanding why. Elmer (2006) uses the example of learning not only from but learning with the target culture (Loc 1143). Empathy (learning with) functions separately from sympathy (learning from): while sympathy is an acknowledgment of a different experience from the perspective of oneself, empathy is an insertion of oneself into a different perspective; cross-cultural work requires empathy, because while sympathy will allow the cross-cultural worker to react more positively to situational problems, empathy allows the worker to transform a basic ethic to a new worldview, while retaining elements of the old. Elmer gives the example of Isaiah 28:33-39, in which God’s care for even the most common of workers (a wheat farmer) is so specific that the Lord of Creation steps down from his throne to instruct the farmer in the most basic of work, from planting barley to grinding the grain. The model of the wheat farmer is the model for the cross-cultural worker, who in working with others (who operate from a totally different outlook) must take the care to truly understand them to the detail that God takes with the common farmer.

Book knowledge and empathy can take the cross-cultural worker into the living room of another culture, but they cannot change the worker’s insecurities about stepping into a world that disagrees with his or her outlook. Lewis (1996) mentions that one of the most dangerous areas for cross-cultural workers exist in black holes, mental blocks that exist inside a mind that prohibit analysis of other cultures because of the isolation the worker received while living in his or her particular geographical home. “They wallow in powerful, all-encompassing ‘cultural black holes,’ core beliefs of such gravity that they cannot be questioned” (Loc 1859). Take the simple example of spitting: according to ancient Chinese philosophy, public spitting is similar to the practice of blowing one’s nose in the United States, a healthy activity that promotes flow in the body. On an empathic level, I can understand spitting on a public street because the pollution in China is so dangerous that walking outside for a few hours results in preparing a new wash (given how dirty the white shirt becomes), and so even thinking about the grime that is breathed in through the lungs on a daily basis is bewildering. However, I still cannot bring myself to spit on a public street, because of the barriers formed in my mind during the first and second grade of elementary school, when students who spit on the ground were sent to the principal’s office for a time-out; a cultural black hole, so strong as to induce a physical response of repulsion and a mental judgment when I see someone spitting on the sidewalk in China. The process for closing black holes is awareness – understanding how and why a worker responds a certain way, and then slowly working through a strategy of deconstruction and re-construction; identification is paramount, and after identification, the real work begins.

Just like Lewis (1996) and Elmer (2006), I suffer from stereotypical viewpoints. When Lewis describes Americans and Australians, not only is he crass but offensive (Loc 1749), and his description of the Austrians’ only national accomplishment being their obsession with paper recycling is meant in good humor but comes off like a stand-up insult (Loc 4144). Elmer’s encouragement to make “two or three local friends” (Loc 1359) is as insipid as it is ignorant (try twenty or thirty for real perspective), but regardless of these glaring holes in reasoning, all cross-cultural workers suffer from these problems, regardless of the worker being an American in China (such as myself) or a Chinese national or immigrant working in the United States. To deny these manifestations is to deny reality; that even the most educated, kindest soul carries baggage that they he or she never asked for, but is part of the basic building blocks of the intellect and must be trained accordingly.

Elmer’s call to model Christ (2006, Loc 1606) helps in this regard, as well as his recognition of the mystery that surrounds other cultures (Loc 1929) being a powerful and destructive force if not accepted willingly as God’s grace. Lewis (1996) explains that the power of history and the collective unconscious which exists within people groups is a force that all cross-cultural workers must not only be aware of, but submit themselves to, because the legacy of a people dramatically shapes “thoughts, attitudes, actions, values, plans, an a unique mindset” (Loc 10068) that most are unaware of, even if they have been educated in their own worldview. For myself, I must constantly be vigilant against generalizations, be continually humble in identifying my lack of understanding regarding foreign points-of-view, and live my life in constant prayer that God shapes me so that I am a force of healing rather than a force of fire when I interact with people who are most likely unaware of why there is friction but intensely aware that there is friction.

Published: March 5, 2014 | Comments: 0