“Oh my god, I know what you’re going to ask about, ahhhh, don't do it!” she said, laughing and squirming in her seat.
Her big, distinctively beautiful eyes widened and then looked downward and slightly to the side in her playful embarrassment.
“You texted me that you’re excited you recently met someone you really like and –“
“Oh my god, stop!”
“And you thought he’s new, and kind, and bright – who is it?”
“Is it me?!”
“Yes! Ah this is so embarrassing!”
She was impossibly beautiful, and I felt like a king sitting across from her, getting to see her as much as I wanted. I was enjoying her new look – modern going-out clothes – after having only previously seen her for weeks in 1930s style long dress and 1930s hair. We had met on the movie set of “The White Countess,” set in the 30s, when I saw her smoking in the scene and went and told her that that’s bad.
I continued, “But you said, ‘He’s ambitious and knows what he wants in life.’ Why do you say that? I don’t have any idea what I want or what I’m doing with my life!”
I was just out of college, having graduated with a degree in Theater Studies. The only other guy getting a theater degree also double majored in something actually employable. Everyone looked at me with a kind of pity and befuddlement like I was a self-destructive homeless person, and asked, “What are you going to do after school?”
My parents, who had spent a fortune putting me through Yale, only to have me do very badly and end up graduating with the most ungodly degree in the Asian parents’ lexicon, needed a whole new word for their level of disappointment. Especially when they met all my star-studded classmates going off to McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, law school, and med school. What I was going to do after school was go live with my parents – and that was in ’04, before the Financial Crisis made going home somewhat normal.
So there I was, a total disappointment to everyone around me, to my parents, and to my past, high-achieving self.
And to ruin my little romantic story, I asked her to pay for dinner, because I had only enough cash to get a taxi back home. It’s all I had after trying to save up by skipping a couple meals a day. I had only gotten a soup, and I’d hoped she’d order something cheap as well.
That was the last time I saw her. I was too ashamed of making her pay for dinner to re-connect with her afterwards.
I wondered about her many years later, after I had returned to Shanghai. I was Managing Director at our PE/VC fund, went to fashion shows, was invited to black tie openings and galas, hung with the cool kids who ran the cool clubs and parties, and vacationed by paragliding and scuba diving off white sand beaches. Mostly, I wondered if I had finally become the person she once thought I was, smart, ambitious, successful, cruising with the top down in life’s fast lane. I also kept wishing I could buy her dinner.
But I can’t think so much about that now, because now would be a bad time for her to see me again, because I’m about to graduate with my second useless degree in “theater,” and again not knowing what I really want in life, and again being broke!
But this time I don’t leave school ashamed and with head bowed. I’m proud of my MBA, my “second useless degree in theater,” as I am now proud of my first one. That one launched me into a journey through show business in China, working in New York and training as a dancer there, and then being part of the business scene during Shanghai’s new golden age, and on to my greatest adventure yet: Booth.
Of course, I say “useless degree” sarcastically, mocking the idea that MBAs don’t learn anything real in school. The degree is largely as “useless” as my BA in Theater Studies, which is to say, not useless at all.
Business school makes us smarter, better people by teaching us to see information passing through the nebulous cloud of life, and then organize it, interpret it, and if we choose, improve the world with it. This is the gift of having an active mind, and with it we experience the fullness of life on Earth. The “usefulness” of the degree is that it is the start of a new, incredible adventure.
I leave Booth, recognizing new sides of myself: That I have the ability to excel in intellectual, conceptual learning, something I had failed in and thought I would never be good at. I now have confidence that I have scaled those mountains and can climb more.
So my new adventure began with these 2 years at Booth. May it be more colorful than the last. Come, Destiny, give me the stuff of life, the desperately hopeful looks at an empty wallet, the triumphant rooftop champagne toasts, the self-loathing and regrets of not being good enough, the serene stares into sunsets over the ocean, the hungry walks through the city in the rain while trying to keep dry the desperately written manuscript in pocket, the defeat, the gratefulness, the victory, the hope, the love, and whatever adventure begins after that.
“Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
- Helen Keller
Thank you, classmates, friends, professors, advisors, supporters, and of course family.