Seeds of Values for an Economic Harvest
I think what grabs me right off the bat is that no matter how far we spread our wings and fly from the nesting place of our origins, we still carry with us those essential elements and values of our formative years. I remember visiting China and asking my girlfriend how many people lived in her hometown. She almost apologized and said that her city was not very big, and only had a population of 8 Million people! After picking my jaw up off the ground, I laughed and told her that my hometown growing up had around 18,000 people. She teased me and said I must have grown up in a village.
Small Town". Even though while growing up my hometown was in the suburbs of a moderately sized city, I would spend my summers visiting my grandparents in rural central Oregon nearby the town of Maupin where the state road sign announced the town's population at just over 400. Summertime always equaled wheat harvest time and I idolized the farmers who toiled in the fields to bring in the bushels of grain by the truck load from sun up to sunset. When these lean, chiseled, and earth-wise men would invite me to join them on their combine, swather, or grain truck, I’d jump at the chance to spend those hot dusty days with them. I found all of these men to be the strong silent types. They led with their actions, not their words, and they garnered respect from within the community because they were pillars of that very same community, as opposed to measuring their worth by the sheer number of dollar signs in their bank account. Looking back now, I feel honored that my first heroes were not billionaires, rock stars, or celebrities but rather instead the gentleman farmer.
Asia’s economic roots, like the US, are based upon the foundation of an agrarian society. Over the last eight years I’ve born witness to the extreme transition of many of these populations from agriculture to urban domains. As the former President of China, Deng Xiaoping, famously said to unofficially welcome capitalistic aspects into both the economic and social fabrics of China, “To become rich is glorious”. Those words echoed like a starting pistol in a 100 meter track & field sprint, as 1.3 Billion people set off to find their own glory for themselves and their families. China gets all the attention, due to its massive population, but other nations such as India, Vietnam, and Indonesia, aspire to join not only the Asian economic tigers of Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore but also their mature market counterparts in the West. The rate of progress and economic growth is palpable each time I visit these places. I feel so excited to experience this time in our economic and social history on-the-ground with my own eyes. Yet I worry that the perceived success of others becomes a dangerous distraction back on home shores.
Americans often get criticized for being insular and inwardly focused on themselves. It is hard on one hand to have a global perspective and yet at the same time focused on constructing solutions to the problem sets that exist at home. I’m here to say, like it or not, Americans must do both. Economic growth is not a zero sum game; meaning that if someone else is “winning” then we must be “losing”. Recent opinion polls in the US have Americans voicing their common perception that China is economically stronger than the US and that we are losing valuable manufacturing jobs to them at an alarming rate. This shows a disconnect with facts that show that the US economy is 8 times larger than that of China and that our manufacturing, at the high end of the value chain, still dwarfs that of any other industrialized nation. So why the disconnect of perception with reality? Is it envy, lack of understanding, or a clouded vision of where the US needs to go next? I’d say it is a combination of all of these.
First off, competition is a fantastic thing. I live in Korea, and absolutely nothing gets Korean business more fired up and focused then when they have a chance to stick it to neighboring Japan (economically of course). A strong Japan makes for a strong Korea. I am here to say that a strong China, or any other emerging market nation, will bring out the strength and pent-up capabilities of the US. That doesn’t mean the US can be blinded by historical accomplishments of the past, but what it does mean is that there is inherent value in focusing in on our strengths which include our higher education system, access to venture capital, protection for intellectual property, and yes even our often forgotten sense of pulling together as a common union. These factors must combine finally with our own “secret sauce”, and I am here to tell you what that is after eight years of living in Asia. The one thing, above all else, that America has as an advantage over many other nations is this: We Are Not Afraid to Fail.
There is a paralyzing fear of failure across the general population in Asia. Although entrepreneurs buck this trend in any country, the vast majority are socially bound to keep their heads down and avoid risk at all costs. This attitude is instilled from the short evolution of economic success amongst Asian nations and how short a period of time they have journeyed from poverty to prosperity within just one or two generations. My co-workers’ parents grew up with extreme poverty and even hunger. When this economic memory is so near the surface of one’s recollection, it causes people to be cautious and worried that despair could be right around the corner. Minimizing risk therefore takes precedence over betting the company (or your personal savings) on new ideas.
Americans on the other hand, for better or worse, have a horrible short-term memory. When things are good, we forget the lessons learned when things were bad. Conversely, when things are bad, we often forget the competencies that laid the foundations for success and that challenges are merely temporary conditions of our collective psyche. Our resilience comes when we finally remember that a great America never lets past failures encumber its creativity or dreams. Unlike the rest of the world, we celebrate and even embrace risk. We love the modern entrepreneur’s motto of “It’s ok to fail but do so quickly”. What I have observed is that our core strength relative to other nations, and the one that will lead us onwards to greater growth and innovation, is our unabashed belief that failure is a natural and inherent progression towards achieving eventual success.
To return home to the ideals of the Gentleman Farmer could illuminate the path to get us back on-track. He knows that working alongside Mother Nature always presents risks and unknowns, yet he never waivers or turns away in his belief that to get to a bumper crop there will be droughts along the way. He celebrates, rather than dwells upon, the success of a neighbor. He works hard, gets creative, and leverages the tools at his disposal. Most of all, he lets actions speak louder than his words.
The sun’s coming up upon a new economic day. From what I have witnessed and observed over the last 8 years, it’s time to wake up and recall the rush of adrenaline when we stare risk in the eye, feel the inspiring warmth of creativity fall across our face, go get our boots on, and grab our tool box as we head out for those bountiful fields of opportunity. It’s now harvest time once again!