Keep listening

A friend of mine, who I’ll call Steven, lives in Shanghai. He may or may not be able to read this blog, depending on whether or not it’s a day when the Chinese government decides to block access to all blogs, YouTube, and foreign news media. I wonder what it must be like to get up each morning, and, as many of us casually look out the window to see what the weather might be, have to check how small the government has decided to make you that day.

Thankfully, we have skype. Steven and I chat at least once a week, using text. Neither of us has wondered whether those messages are being reviewed for future censorship by the Chinese government. Maybe we should.

Steven is an entrepreneur. He is tackling the daunting task of trying to identify a business idea, secure funding, and launch it in a country where every single interaction he has is brand new. He is so clearly a foreigner. He is learning the language, studying it each day, taking lessons with a private tutor, going to a speaking practice group of foreign-born students. It is frustrating! He says it has made him feel so humble and inadequate at times to be struggling with the kinds of words that any five-year-old in China is fluent in. It has whittled him down to the core to have to learn the basic building blocks of how to “get by” in a new language and culture.

He grew up with me in Libertyville, and frankly, he was someone I thought of as a “pretty boy” – he played tennis, had blond hair, wore pink Polo shirts, drove an Audi in high school, and just seemed to me to be on the other side of that invisible social line. He was one of the “cool” people. We really only became friends as adults, after I saw him at our tenth high school reunion and heard that he was living in San Francisco. I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s cool! He MADE it out there!” I wanted to know how he did it, what brought him there. It was that part of me longing for examples and stories of how people broke out of the known and followed a dream. All I remember him telling me that night in 2003 was that after college, he was working in Tennessee, hearing about all the cool stuff happening in Silicon Valley, and decided to pick up and move there to get in on the action. He got into a dot com, which was acquired, and rode the crest of the wave all the way to the bottom. And he looked happy, relaxed, still loving life.

One year after that conversation, I found myself living in California, having picked up and moved here to follow a dream.

A few months after I moved here, Steven left for business school in the Midwest – admittedly a move that he made because he wasn’t sure what his next step would be. B school was a way to buy time, do some networking, and hopefully figure some things out. A post-business school trip led him to China, where he met and fell in love with his now wife.

He spent a few months in San Francisco between getting engaged and getting married. It was a bit of a last hurrah for him to soak in the beauty of California before his big emigration to China. He’s an adventurer of a certain kind – he scuba dives, rock climbs, sea kayaks, mountain bikes, and flies airplanes. I do none of the above. But in the course of those few months that he was here, I found myself at Mission Cliffs rock climbing gym, at Stinson Beach in a rented wetsuit paddling into the ocean on a kayak alongside harbor seals, and at the Palo Alto Municipal airport watching planes come in at night.

In short, he reminded me to play. Get a guide, and do some things you’ve never done before and would never do alone for the first time. Feel how it feels. Learn about yourself. Then choose from your newly opened heart.

So it saddened me a little bit to read his latest skype. It was bittersweet, actually. He was giddy with excitement to tell me that he is pursuing a totally new opportunity, because of a “very excited investor” that surfaced. Steven thinks he’s found a way to double the speed of internet access in China, wants to test it, and this investor is all in. He tells me they hope to “make enough money off it before it gets shut down by the government”. Steven was feeling good because this excited investor is someone respected in the community, has lived there a long time, has a lot of money, and is still willing to pay attention enough to put “small beans” in this new test concept.

I’m happy for him, really I am. He’s been wanting to get some traction with something – anything – for quite some time. But being a foreigner, and being new to the business scene there, have made it slow and challenging.  I know this. But the Steven I know, and have gotten to know over the past several years, is the kind of romantic who does things that bring him alive. The kind of guy who really throws himself wholeheartedly into things, takes the pain, does the work, and acts with integrity. Not the kind of guy who hopes to milk something marginally legal for what he can get, until he gets caught.

But there is definitely a type of entrepreneur who would do that. A “capitalist” I suppose that would be called. Opportunistic, externally focused, chasing the windows of market demand.

This doesn’t feel like the kind of entrepreneur I’d like to be. Nor frankly does it seem to match my friend’s essence as a person. Sometimes circumstances can beat us down into thinking we have to take any validation we can get, even if it doesn’t synergize with who we really are. People who have constructed their entire lives based on this premise that “you have no choice” but to do certain things, chatter quite loudly about this way of living. They warn us, in words cloaked as wisdom, that “it’s just the way it is”. We may even feel strangely obligated to “respect” them for what they appear to have achieved in social status.

But we do have a choice.

Slowly I’m beginning to discern the difference between work that comes from following my internal guide, versus activities that are the result of reacting to the external validation we seek from others. It actually feels different to operate from each place. It is a totally different kind of “productivity”. There is a flow, versus a grind. There is effortless focus, versus constant fighting against distraction.

But to get to that place is a discipline. It is a system of actions that enables me to find that state in which I can hear my internal guide. Some small things I’m implementing in my system? I no longer read my Blackberry first thing in the morning. It sits by my bedside as my alarm, and it was my habit to turn off my alarm, and “glance” at emails before getting out of bed. Immediately I would enter the state of reactivity. But I’d been doing that habitually – without thinking – for over five years. Every day. Every few minutes, actually. I didn’t know what else to think, so I’d look at my Blackberry to see if it had any ideas for me. So many years went by this way! And now I’m a few months into this new practice. It has to be conscious. I have to tell myself, “No, don’t look at it. Just get out of bed.” And sometimes my body rebels. It wants to stay in bed, as if it doesn’t know what to do without reading email first. So I give it something else to do. I stretch, I get on my yoga mat, I write. I just allow my own thoughts to surface.

And that’s how I got to this blog post today. I’m hoping it’s a good day in China and all websites are open. Because this one’s for you, Steven. Keep listening to your internal guide.


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