Near Yellow Mountain

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Escaping the "Bubble"

My ex-pat days are long behind me but their impact on my life remains.

Fortunately, unlike many “former expats”, I don’t have to rely on my memory of the time abroad because I return to Japan and China multiple times each year. I see the constant change in the Middle Kingdom and marvel at how slowly things change in the Land of the Rising Sun. I find both situations comforting and, from my perspective, as they should be.

My first trip to Asia was 23 years ago. Since that time I have spent almost the same amount time in Asia as I have in the US. I am writing this after a five-mile stroll through the quiet backstreets of Tokyo beginning at 5:30am and finishing at a coffee shop where the idea to write a blog post seized me.

Room with a View - 33 floors above Tokyo
Despite my strong Irish catholic origins, I have always appreciated the Confucian belief system that drives much of the behavior on this side of the world. I am more comfortable in the major cities of Asia than most big cities in the US. Moderate language skills certainly help when traveling in Japan and China but truth be told one can easily survive in most cities in Asia with only English fluency.

Few Americans truly appreciate how easy the Japanese have made getting around even for those who can’t speak a single word of the local language. It is easy to create an ex-pat bubble and have what amounts to an ersatz overseas experience. Not getting out of your comfort zone and embracing the culture is probably the biggest mistake most ex-pats living in Japan make.

Although I did a pretty good job of avoiding the “ex-pat” bubble trap when I lived in Japan and China, in recent years I fell into the trap of never pushing out my comfort zone on business trips – staying at the same hotels, eating in the same restaurants, taking the same running routes, etc.

Fortunately, when I lived in Japan I was not working a big company office with a large number of expats and bilingual staff. I had to set up an office and also worked in a joint venture company office where I was the only non-Japanese person. Unlike many of my peers, I went of my way to have a local experience – to the extent a foreigner in Japan can.

Tokyo is a Great City for Walking
My trip this week presented an unusual opportunity to move out of my self-created business trip rut. I was asked by a client to fly to Japan for a single meeting that had the potential to morph into additional dialog – or not. I decided to book myself for three days in Tokyo. Trips from North Carolina to Japan with just an overnight in-country actually are two nights sleeping on a plane and one night in a hotel. As the years go by I have lost my enthusiasm for Trans-Pacific “day trips”.

So I had three nights and the better part of four days on the ground in Tokyo and the unusual situation of mostly free time. Over those days I met socially with multiple local friends, stayed in a hotel I had never stayed in and walked over 120,000 steps (or approximately 50 miles/80km) in and around Tokyo. I purposely rode subway lines I had never been on, entered small suburban restaurants where non-Japanese don’t normally go and certainly not without a local friend. I speak Japanese well enough to go where foreigners don’t normally appear. It was refreshing to get outside my comfort zone in my “second home”.

Just Point to it - You don't have to Speak Japanese to Order Food in Tokyo
Walking for hours at time was great. Despite a population far greater than any American city there is a lot of green space in Tokyo. Surprisingly, in the early morning hours, I could walk for several minutes without seeing another soul. There is a peacefulness in Tokyo I never feel in NY, Shanghai or LA.

Best of all, thoughts of work left me. I thought about the time my family lived in Japan – learning how to get by in a very foreign world, my first feeble attempts at speaking the language, the joy of learning how to relate to people with a completely different world view.

My brief sojourn was more vacation than business (please don’t tell the client picking up the tab) but it was also a great reminder of how much my life has been enriched by spending more than a decade on the other side of the world. That said, it is important to take time to really see and experience  what is around you.  It is easy to take world travel for granted after so many years. Hopefully last week is a reminder that will stay with me for awhile. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Continuing Education

Time flies. It is an unrelenting truth. It doesn’t seem or feel like so long ago I was the youngest player on the varsity football and basketball teams or later the least senior person in business meetings. Fortunately, I will always be the youngest of six siblings but at meetings these days I am more often than not one of the oldest people in the room.

During my career I have covered the age continuum – back in the day working with and having people more than twice my age report to me and in the last decade plus, especially when I lived in China, working with people half my age. I never thought too much about it until a few weeks ago……

I was sitting in a small conference room in Bueno Aires. Across the table from me was a young lady that my millennial daughters would consider a “kid”. I was meeting with her to learn about podcasting. An American college junior on a semester abroad who through a series of chance meetings became my “podcast mentor”.  My first business related experience with a “Gen Zer”. If this young lady is representative of Gen Z, I think we are in good hands but as always I digress.

Among the lessons I learned living in Asia for over a decade was to accept help and lessons from any and all demographics. That bit of wisdom is serving me well now. I started cohosting a podcast several months ago with an American living in Argentina. In addition to studying abroad, “Miss Gen Z” is an intern working in my cohost’s company. Although the podcast has gotten good reviews and quickly built a solid following, our newly minted podcast mentor spent the better part of three hours discussing “potential improvement areas” – also known as telling us we were doing just about everything wrong.

I am not known for patience or humility so having someone on the cusp of being three generations my junior reading me the “podcast screw-up riot act” would seem problematic.
Fortunately, in this case, I was able to check my ego and take my lumps (and a lot of notes).

My most recent “mentor” experience got me thinking about past mentors.

Twenty-three years ago I showed up in Japan yet another “clueless American”. I, like most people experiencing Japan for the first time, was impressed by the obvious positive aspects of the culture (civility, helpfulness, strong work ethic, attention to detail, etc).

I began making bi-monthly trips to the Land of Rising Sun. Fortunately, one senior person in the company I did business with (Murai san) watched me try to learn what was beneath the surface of the culture. Gradually he seemed to take an interest in helping me learn how to succeed rather than finding my weak points to exploit in negotiations.

In the 1990’s there was almost no English signage in Osaka making it tough for foreigners to get around. Almost all new western visitors required “handlers” to get to and from meetings if any travel complexity was involved. On visit four or five, I told my Japanese hosts I no longer needed help getting to the office and started ordering things myself in “pidgin” Japanese at dinner. I also started speaking to the caddies when we played golf. My pitiful but determined efforts earned me respect and provided an unceasing stream of laughter on the part of my hosts. I made every conceivable language mistake imaginable but over time I was also understood – well, most of the time.

Besides the obvious benefit of earning my independence when visiting Japan, I also gained a mentor almost three decades my senior. Murai san became my first of multiple mentors I would have over the years in Japan. In general Japanese culture is much, much more subtle than western cultures. It is very difficult for Japanese to tell naturally overconfident Americans when they are wrong, full of sh**, or otherwise off base. Fortunately for me, Murai san and later, after I moved to Japan, my Japanese sensei (teacher) were kind enough to be brutally honest with me when circumstances dictated. Learning Japanese is complicated by the fact that foreigners speaking unintelligible Japanese are always told they are “jouzu” aka skillful. Fortunately, I had multiple mentors more than willing to correct me on a constant basis.

When I moved to China my two most significant mentors were my driver Philip and my assistant Sabrina. Readers of my blog are no strangers to these two. To this day I am not certain if I (or my family) would have had the successful experience we did if we had not crossed paths with Philip and Sabrina.

 Mentors are great when things are going well and they are helping you learn or navigate the vagaries of culture or business life but they are even more important when you are in crisis mode. Fortunately, when my corporate life came to a screeching halt in 2012, a former boss one journey around the zodiac younger than I was there to help me make a quick and successful transition to my reincarnation as an independent. He understood me as well as the situation and was kind enough to share his experience and wisdom. Thanks Jon.

If you are lucky, as I have been, your most important mentor will be your children’s other parent. My wife has been my mentor since she was my girlfriend. When we first started dating, I was a socially inept 24-year-old who needed adult supervision to get through customer dinners back in my days in the fire extinguisher business. Her mostly subtle guidance got me through graduate school. After we got married, we began a peripatetic life where no move was made without her counsel. When I was being bullied by my company into moving from Japan to China and essentially told the company to “kiss my hindquarters” more than once it was my better half that guided me to “look at the big picture” rather than making a sub-optimal decision out of stubbornness.

I wanted to stay in Japan or go home. I was angry that the proposed move to China was driven by corporate tax minimization and that my family would be forced to move to a much tougher environment so the company could save what amounted to a “rounding error” in the grand scheme of things. The company tried to play hard ball with me which is rarely a good idea. Left to my own devices I would have refused to lose the “game of corporate chicken” and moved home to a very uncertain future while my daughters were in their teens.

My bride, along with the well placed tears of my daughters at a family meeting, convinced me to put my entrenched ego aside and “just say yes”. So, we moved to China. Had I not listened to my better half, the groundwork for what I am doing today would not have been laid.

I love the saying that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. Ok, so it is a concept not an exact algorithm but likely there is a potential mentor in that five if you are careful about who you spend your time with.

My oldest mentor is 66 years older than my youngest. Take help where you find it. If you are fortunate enough to find capable people sincerely trying to help you, do yourself a favor and listen.

When I start writing a blog post I usually have an outline in mind, this one went in a different direction than I had intended but that is the beauty of blogs. Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Finding my Numbers

About a decade ago on a trip to the US while I was living in Shanghai I bought a book called “The Number” which was advertised as “the top personal finance book of the year”. I didn’t care that much about the financial advice but was interested in the “life style” angle of thinking through how I would spend the time remaining in the “3rd and 4th quarters" of my life. I knew my time as an ex-pat was in the final chapter and was confident I had become one of the many expats that “can’t go home” again. At least from a work perspective.

My dog-eared copy

During my eleven years overseas a series of well-crafted ex-pat agreements enabled me to save north of 80% of my income. I wasn’t worried about survival when the axe inevitably fell but I was concerned about keeping my life interesting. On evening walks with our then puppy Yuki, I circled the gated community we called home amazed that I actually had lived the better part of a decade in two Asian countries. My 25-year-old self could never have contemplated that possibility. Nor could I have imagined that my older daughter would ten years later have written one of the “top personal finance books” of the year. After all that was the year I encouraged both my kids to put some of their savings I held for them in stocks. My younger daughter said “buy China Mobile and SQM”. A year later she had doubled her money. My budding financial guru responded pithily: “Dad I am too busy to think about stocks; I will just leave my money with you or in the proverbial mattress”. I digress but my point:  life is full of surprises.

Regular readers of my blog already know that I became repatriation statistic within two years of returning to the US. My twenty-one months as a “dead man walking” before the curtain came down on my corporate career was one of the most difficult periods of my adult life. In a vain attempt to cling to ex-pat life I made many trips back to Asia that were not absolutely necessary from a business perspective but were mainly to escape my unhappy circumstances back at HQ. I liked to think of those trips as “mental health weeks”.

Despite not feeling I needed the investment counsel in the book “The Number” I actually did calculate my personal “number” as it became more and more obvious a “career change” was imminent. I still had one daughter in a very expensive college and was only in my middle 50s so if my family history was any indication, I was likely to have another 30+ years on the planet.

I had made only one decision about life after I left my long time employer – I would never be an employee again. I hoped my knowledge of the lithium markets and time in Asia would enable me to eke out enough income to pay the bills. I was not confident.

Looking back to the future income/savings assumptions I used when I crafted my “number” is a great illustration of how we put limits on ourselves. The spreadsheet is almost laughable now but the fear I felt at the time was no joke.

So when I was told on 9/12/2012 that I was being cast to the curb at the end of the month, I spent several uncomfortable days contemplating my “number” and running budget scenarios based on my severance package and extremely conservative assumptions about what I could make working for myself.

I was very fortunate that customers from Asia came to town the week I got fired. Of course it was embarrassing to tell them I was on my way out the door but sharing my story with them while playing golf led to further discussion of what I would do in the future and ultimately my first consulting offer. That agreement which has been renewed five times at a annual “signing” ceremony dinner in Japan is financially the smallest agreement I have had but was critical in helping me believe I was going to be fine. Within 60 days my new client had arranged a meeting with a major Japanese company that led to my second contract at 4X the compensation of my first agreement. Within another 90 days I signed three additional agreements with companies in China and Australia.

My departure from corporate life could not have happened at a better time. Lithium was at the beginning of a boom period. Because of my ex-pat years, I was uniquely positioned to benefit from the sudden growth in lithium demand.

I was very thankful so many friends I had made over the years came to my aid but during the first couple of years working for myself, I spent a lot of time thinking that “this can’t last”. Fortunately, I was wrong – the past five years have been among the most interesting, fulfilling and profitable of my work life.

I plan to continue to ride the lithium wave for the foreseeable future. The current challenge I have now is a classic first world problem. Recently I have spent too much time working and too little time doing other things like spending time with my wife, hiking, playing golf and skiing. I had to go back and read “The Number” again to get perspective on how to split time between work and play in the future. What originally attracted me to the book was the combination of dialog on “Second Acts”  and lifestyle/balance after your first career was over.

As the child of depression era parents I grew up with a constant worry of the proverbial “wolf at the door”.  I found myself working to work instead of working to live. I wouldn’t make a very good millennial…..

This week I was approached by a major global company – you would all recognize the name. They wanted to have a conference call to discuss retaining me to help them decide their lithium strategy. It was five of them from three different countries and just me. They grilled me about my company, Global Lithium, wanted to know about my organization, services I provide and “success stories”. I laughed said, “well you guys found me, my organization is small, in fact my two partners Yuki and Fiona can’t talk and have four legs.” After a pregnant pause they changed gears and focused on what they wanted me to do for them. As they talked I started having a “corporate flashback” – too many people involved their project, a lot of MBA speak and obvious politics among the participants. What I like to call the “corporate buzzwords and BS” syndrome. A few years ago I would never have walked away from a potentially lucrative opportunity (read: "large number") with a big name but now I am finally realizing it is ok to “just say no”.

Based on timing, luck, having good friends and some hard work, my financial “number” is no longer an issue. How to spend time over the “number” of days I have left on the planet is the next frontier. Being a slow learner, I leave for Japan tomorrow, come home for three days and then depart for Argentina. Yes, it is work but it is also enjoyable so the temptation to work too much is hard to manage. Yesterday I decided to take the better part of a month “off” – working only a couple days a week from mid-March to mid-April and hopefully lowering my golf handicap and getting in a couple ski days.

Time will tell if that works out.