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why the world needs more gumption

- My Own Gumption Story

Liu Yan

· gumption,compassion,courage,calm,collaboration

This is a talk I gave at Campus Party Singapore, click the above picture to get the full slides.

During most of my school time, being social and hanging out with friends was not valued in my family and society. I was always a good student with high marks, I spent most of my leisure time reading books and communicate to the world through writing. The only thing my family concerned about is that I need to balance my time between reading irrelevant books and my main business - the study. Teachers tend to believe students with high academic achievement would make a good leader so they kept on granting me with all kinds of responsibility and ranks: the class monitor, the class representative, even the “three stripes badge” - the highest rank of Young Pioneer hierarchy. I had no idea how to deal with all these honour except for merely following the top-down order from the teachers.

When I entered the high school, my Chinese teacher was very impressed about my writing skills, he asked whether I would like to join the school literature society. After one semester, I was elected as the chair person of the literature society and be in charge of the school newspaper. I was alike a fish jumped from a pond to ocean, I swam freely and excitedly side by side with a dozen of other students who were just as passionate as I was about the world of literatures and writing. We met once a week to discuss our favourite books and the topics we could write about. There was no shortage of essays and stories from the members of the literature society for the newspaper.

As the head of the team, I attended every session and contributed the most of the articles, read and edit all the essays and made the selection for the monthly newspaper, not only that, I also volunteered to co-design the newspaper layout, to manually drew and carved the content on blue wax paper to produce template for the oil printing, to oil print the newspaper with the roller one by one, and to distribute the newspaper class to class, door to door at school. Often I stayed with my peers at the printing office till midnight to finish the printing production or secretly edited other’s articles and carved the template during class. My lower arms and most of my fingers are constantly covered with the cloud of blue ink from the blue wax paper. But it was a fun work! I was on fire! When I heard from students from other classes even teachers talking about the newspaper, the radio and the articles I wrote, I found myself in the zone, I was connected to the passion and purpose in life.

But the good scene did not last long: when I entered into the second year of my high school, I found my team disappearing one by one at the weekly meet up, mostly stopped by their parents, I had a hard time to dedicate the newspaper work, so I ended up being the one who conduct most of the writing, the editing, the drawing, the layout, the carving, the printing and the newspaper distribution; I had no time to sleep, I ended up napping during the class. Although I was still extremely passionate about the newspaper work and strongly resisted my mother’s pressure to quit, I was exhausted, I felt like a moth flying into the flame. Until one day, I was called by my Chinese teacher in his office, he told me that my mother was in his office the entire day and refused to leave until he promised to cease my duty at literature society and school newspaper. So he had no choice but agreeing to my mother. So I was out of “job”. My heart was broken, I bursted into tears, I wept and wept and wept. After a long time, I stood up and was ready to leave, my teacher opened both his palms and gave me one piece of advice, which I still hold in my memory dearly, “Learn to play piano with all your ten fingers.”

Learn to play piano with all my ten fingers? clearly he did not ask me to pursue a music career, but to learn how to work with others and move others to act. As a young person, I knew very well how to concentrate, work hard and spend 10,000 flying hours by myself to achieve my personal goals, but how do I lead and move others to achieve something? I was never taught in my life how to do that!

Later in my early career, I found myself repeat the same pattern again and again. When I am given task to lead a team, I often worked the hardest, I was always the last person leaving the office, I worked during weekends and nights, I was proud to be a high achiever, I looked down upon coworkers who could not keep up and considered them as a coward or a loser. One evening someone in my team came to ask me whether she could go home early to care for her sick daughter, I refused cold-heartedly and asked her back : “Where is your daughter’s father?”

Being a non-stop work-alcoholic and indifferent has a price to pay: at the age of 25, I was diagnosed with asthma; and my first pregnancy had to be ceased earlier than planned because of my burnout and unstable blood pressure; finally I was kicked out of the company by my equally cold-hearted boss right after I gave birth to my first child, reason? “Women with babies are too much trouble, they would never be able to work as hard.”

Being a mother taught me many things. When a little life entirely depend on you, your life is no longer about yourself. At the early time of my motherhood, I often found myself juggle between spending time with my son, keeping my house clean, finishing my work, following a course, reading a very thick book, visiting doctor, running for another 20 minutes and breathing… sometimes it went quite well, I cheered for myself secretly for a minute and added another kilo of work on the top of the pile; often it failed, I would find someone and something to blame, or beat myself up mentally. Until one day, a friend asked me: “Do you enjoy being a super woman?” At that moment, I felt like a lightening struck into my non-stop treadmill in darkness, I shook my head and admitted, “No, actually I don’t”.

Gradually but surely, I started to ask myself big questions, “Why do I exist?” “What is the most important thing in my life?” “What do I want to be remembered by my children and loved ones?” I am aspired to be one of role models for my children, not a role model of a super hero, but a role model of being able to have the courage to face all the negative emotion and dark thoughts in my mind, lean on others for my vulnerability, help others to learn, to dream, to dare and to thrive.

Change does not come easy. In order to change my behaviours, I need to understand my own thoughts and emotions, in order to understand my thoughts and emotions, I need to understand my mental model and hidden beliefs. We all have mental model and hidden beliefs. They happen automatically and are triggered by our brain to make quick assessments and judgments of people and situations influenced by our cultural environment, background and personal experiences. Let me tell you a story…

A horse suddenly came galloping quickly down the road. It seemed as though the man had an important mission. Another man who was riding the road, shouted, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse replied, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”

The horse symbolises our thoughts, judgements, assumptions, unconscious biases and fears. It shows how our thoughts and emotion are automatic and habitual and aren't controlled by conscious intention.

“What if the personal struggle we are going through are the best learning components of personal mastery? What if all the judgements, cynicism and fears are the necessary ingredients to build our mental muscles to be more resilient?”

Visualization is a powerful tool to help us to suspend judgment since our minds are accessible to us at all times. Let's think back to the run-away horse galloping down the street at top speed. Now, see if you can pull in the reigns and bring the horse slowly to a stand still. When I experience certain strong emotion or thoughts, I pay attention to them, observe them, I can even say to them, “I see you, doubts! I see you, anger! I see you, fear!” This gives me some head space to reflect on the connection between them and my hidden beliefs, then I won’t be hi-jacked by these emotions or thoughts, I could make a deliberate choice whether to act upon them or not.

For example, I started to notice my negative reactions to my children’s failure has a lot to do with my hidden belief of success, love and life. If I believe success is measured by how much I gain, love means responsibility, life is about working hard and pursuing more and more money, status and praises from others, my children’s failure would mean they are not working hard and irresponsible, or worse, I might believe I am a bad parent because I don’t work hard and responsible enough to support them. But if I adapt a new mental model: success is measured by how much I give, love means believing everyone is lovable and has a gift to give to the world, life is about building more and more inner strength, wisdom and compassion, I would see my children’s failure as a present from life, a necessary mean to make them wiser, more resilient and more compassionate towards others who fails and the best way for me to show them my trust and unconditional love.

Let me tell you a story from Scott Peck’s book, The different drum.

A monastery had fallen upon hard times and there were only few monks left. Desperate, the abbot sought the advice of a rabbi who occasionally visited the hut nearby. The rabbi listened and commiserated with the monk on the loss of spirit. On leaving, the rabbi said ‘I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.’ On returning, the abbot conveyed the rabbi’s words to the monks. As they pondered the significance of his words, they began to consider that the Messiah might be one of them and began to treat each other with extraordinary respect. People sensed the change and slowly came back to visit, and soon the monastery was thriving again.

Our mental model shapes the way that we see, think, feel and act in the world and also shapes the way other people perceive and treat us. This story is a great example of reframing how we can learn to see each other in order to appreciate each person’s highest potential.

Developing our ability to bond with our children, lead an organisation or drive systematic change in the society can’t exist without curiosity: a genuine interest, openness and desire to learn and care about other people and groups in the world. Given that we have a natural tendency to be attracted to people and groups that are ‘similar’ to us, finding commonalities and positive attributes to develop like-ability is important, so look for the underlying intent and larger purpose, look for what is the best in a person and treat them as if they were a gift. And give your team appreciation and positive feedback as everyone wants to be valued and respected.

If there are people who resist us or even go against us, we can learn to reframe them as our teachers who just try to test us and we have something to learn from them or the situation, we discover things that surprise us. For this reason, we can thank them for their efforts.

Often, we are so occupied with the work we do, that we forget to think about what others are doing and how they could help us meet our goals through faster, cheaper, better and even easier means. If we can share knowledge, tools, resources etc., we can help each other do our jobs better and in turn, save time, be more effective and impact a greater number of people.

My friend Mr. Toilet Jack Sim mobilise and leverage on the good willed government, corporate, journalist partners and even celebrity’s support to provide a scaling solution for sanitation problem around the world. To quote Jack’s wisdom:

“Recognize others and appreciate what they are doing and help them where you can. If you help them, they will help you. That behaviour and collective effect is what allows you to move beyond a zero sum game approach to multiplier effect whereby the benefits are multiplied exponentially as more actors join and contribute to common goals.”

In 2016, together with Jack Sim and Haiyen Pham, I cofounded School of Gumption. School of Gumption is conceived with a vision of empowering individuals to collectively design sustainable solutions for their desired future through deep personal mastery and navigating complexities of the 21st century, supported by a learning community and a culture that encourage making changes and taking risks.

More than ever before, we are living in a highly interconnected world where access to knowledge, people and resources become much more available thank the advancement of technology. This abundance of access and opportunities allow us to learn what we want to learn, be what we want to be and create a better future as long as we have the gumption to dream and take action. We ask three big questions:


1, What if we have all the inner compassion and wisdom to overcome all the challenges in our organisations and within ourselves?

2, What if the most complexity problem we are facing are the biggest entrepreneurial opportunities in the world?

3, What if there is enough abundant resources in the world to help us to solve all the problems in the world?

We focus on the most complex global challenge of our exponential time; We develop gumption and skills to co-create impactful solution; We build an eco-system to unlock human potential and harness technology for an inclusive and sustainable future. However, the kind of linear, analytical and sequential learning is no longer sufficient for our learners to thrive in the worlds where these skills are increasingly taken over by machines and algorithms. Real problem solving and critical thinking are mostly non-linear by nature, which requires a lot of curiosity to ask new questions and inquire deeply into the problem, the calm and compassion to engage and hold the space for generative dialogue is key in every effective communication, courage to try out unconventional approach, commitment to re-iterate the solution development process and stay on course despite challenges and collaboration to leads to the cross-pollination of ideas and solution evolvement.

I believe when we are determined to find the answer for a question, the universe will get together to help us. After nearly 30 years’ my life, I believe I found the answer to my teacher’s quest: “How to learn to play piano with ten fingers?”

If I put a boundary on it as ‘my’ project, I will never, ever succeed at having a big impact. If we truly wish to pursue our passion and make an impact to the world, we lead by acting as a facilitator or a host by offering the space, opportunity, and trust for all stakeholders to find their own solution, provide feedback loops for the process to guarantee transparency, trust, and safety. These can happen both offline and online, so everyone can join in, follow, and witness the progress. In this way, a movement begins.

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