Hindsight: QIAO HE (Chinese: Meeting of Fate)

by Robert J. Kowalczyk, Ed.D.

Robert J. Kowalczyk

At age 62, after a long career in the nonprofit world in America, I decided to take early retirement and spend my retirement years traveling around the world. As a retirement gift to myself, I spent the month of January 2003 traveling around parts of Asia (Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, and Thailand). As a special retirement treat, I booked my airline seat in business class for that long journey to Asia and my return to my home in Minneapolis.

At the end of my month’s retirement holiday, flying from Bangkok to Minneapolis, I had to change planes in Tokyo. As the flight was called, I decided not to fight the crowd trying to board and waited until final boarding. When I headed to my assigned seat I found it occupied. A flight crew member checked my ticket and the other passenger’s ticket and discovered that a computer error had in fact assigned the two of us to the same seat. Since there were no other seats available in business class, I was told to wait while a flight crew member checked to see if there was a seat available in first class. I could tell by the expression on the flight crew member’s face when she returned that she did not have good news for me. I was told first class was also full and my only option was a seat in economy class. I was offered an apology for the inconvenience and a free business class ticket for future travel. I accepted the offer and headed to my newly assigned seat.

When I made my way to my newly assigned seat, once again I found it occupied by another passenger. The other passenger checked his seat assignment and discovered that he was in the wrong seat and moved. I then settled into my seat for the long journey home. My seat mate, a Chinese man, leaned toward me and said, “I was just getting to know my seat mate, and now I have a new one.” That was the beginning of a long conversation, and a friendship, over the many hours it took to fly from Tokyo to Minneapolis. The man’s name was Dr. Xiuwen Wang. At that moment, little did I know that he would become my new boss in China.

Dr. Wang, educated in America, had lived in Ohio for the past 15 years. He recently had returned to China to serve as the principal of a newly constructed K-12 private boarding school in Yangzhou, PR China. Dr. Wang was on his way to Ohio to collect his family to return to their new home on the school campus in Yangzhou. When he told me of this wonderful new school for which he would be responsible, he did so with great passion and enthusiasm. I recognized immediately that he was a man of great vision and had a commitment to educational excellence. I discovered in our lengthy discussion on that airplane that we had a great deal in common relating to the education of children, whether they were students in America or in China. I in turn shared with Dr. Wang my past professional experiences and educational background (I have a Doctor of Education degree in Educational Psychology and Special Education). Before landing in Minneapolis, Dr. Wang had convinced me to come to Yangzhou to join his educational team of skillful school administrators and teachers, a decision I have yet to regret. So in August 2003 I packed my bags and headed to Yangzhou, PR China to serve as Dr. Wang’s assistant principal for what I thought would be for a one-year period. In addition to assisting Dr. Wang with various administrative duties, my main responsibility is to oversee a large group of international teachers of English. That one year has now grown to five… and only time will tell if there will be a sixth year.

Robert J. Kowalczyk at work

Being an American working in China, sharing my professional expertise in education, is truly a privilege. It provides me with an opportunity to know and appreciate the rich Chinese culture. I am often overwhelmed by the warmth and friendship that is extended to me by my many new Chinese friends and colleagues. Qiao He, which means “a meeting of fate,” was truly a blessing upon me, one that has changed my life forever.

Hindsight: Steve Jobs Looks Back

images1

Commencement address by Steve Jobs

CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios

delivered on June 12, 2005

I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots.

I dropped out of Reed College after the first six months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.
And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out, I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand-calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something-your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

My second story is about love and loss.

I was lucky-I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation-the Macintosh-a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down-that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the Valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me-I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful-tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything-all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure-these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma-which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called the Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand, not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of the Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. Thank you very much.

Hindsight: College Rejection Leads to Life’s Passion

My friend Kelly O’Neill is an incredible artist — her art is truly extraordinary.  Here’s her Hindsight story of how she came to realize her life’s work and passion.

“Have you always wanted to be an artist?”

This is the most common question I get at art shows or when people see my work for the first time. It’s funny, because one would think that I had dreamed about this career from childhood. It’s simply not the case.

You see, I had never met a successful artist. I grew up with the assumption that creating art was fun, and it was just something to do in your spare time, or after retirement… seriously. It didn’t stop me from loving the creative process, however. I colored with the best of them. I made art supplies out of the most random items, and it was always pure joy.

kelly-birdhouse

In middle and high school, I turned a great deal of my attention to the kitchen. I would come home, change into comfortable clothes, and go help Mom with whatever she was preparing. I didn’t care what we were making, but I wanted to be in the middle of it. Soon I began believing that I wanted to be a bread and pastry chef for a living, and my parents and I began touring culinary institutes.. I was all set! Now, just to graduate..

I’ve heard that God shuts doors and opens windows. I’ve always thought that was a pretty cheesy concept, but my senior year I got to experience it first-hand. It turns out that they don’t allow 17-year olds into culinary school. It’s something about sharp knives and hot stovetops I’m sure… I got this jolt of reality as I neared graduation. It seemed clear that I would have to put off becoming a chef at least for a time. Not to be discouraged, I began looking for a way to amuse myself for a year, and decided on attending “regular” college. A school I wasn’t even interested in attending offered me a full scholarship. This scared me into trying for a full scholarship where I actually wanted to attend (Union University), so that I didn’t feel pressured to just go to the one with the full-ride. I had only a week to get the ACT score I needed to even be considered for a full scholarship there, and it turns out they had a final residual test I could take ASAP.

Through a string of events and circumstances I can only attribute to God’s direction on my life, I ended up receiving one of the few full scholarships Union offered that year. (I’m happy to share the full story if you ask).

I chose to major in art and LOVED IT. During an assignment in Drawing II, I had to draw 40 faces in a week. This is what sparked my now decade-long art career. People came through the studio and saw what I was doing, and asked if I would draw their kid or themselves or whoever, because after all, I had to draw people anyway – why draw strangers from magazines? I realized I was pretty good at drawing. The following summer, my Dad encouraged me to start a business, and I did. I started my drawings out at $50 apiece in those days, and upon graduation I launched my full-time career.

Looking back, it was never about food. It was about creating. I realize that now, and had I known that a young person could be a successful artist, I might have dreamed of it as a child. My parents saw the love I had for it at age four. I was 18 before my eyes were opened.

As a sidenote, I discovered (a few years after my culinary school dreams were “temporarily” dashed) that I had some endocrine issues that would require that I limit my intake of sweets and processed flour. Do I think it’s a coincidence that God steered me away from a career path that would have either left me sick or seriously frustrated? Not in the least 😉

Hindsight: The Two Week Delay

passport

(Note from Karen: This is a true story but my friends asked if I would change their names to protect their privacy. I was happy to comply.)

Eric walked into the kitchen as his young wife, Annie, was preparing dinner. The air was fragrant with the aroma of spaghetti sauce and garlic bread. After a long day at work, he was happy to see her and walked over to envelop her in a big bear hug. She was pregnant with their first child and was finally feeling better and interested in food again.

Yet, he seemed distracted when she offered him a taste of the sauce.

“Did the mail come yet?” he wondered out loud.

Annie recognized the anxious look on his face. “Yes, but your passport wasn’t in it.”

Eric looked at the calendar on the fridge. It was May 14 and he only had two weeks before their big trip (this was in the late 80’s when getting a passport wasn’t as complicated as it is post 9/11). He had applied for his passport in what he thought was plenty of time. He had expected to get his passport back last week, and it was getting alarmingly close to when they were supposed to leave.

They were expecting their first baby and for the last few months they had been planning a trip to Europe as a “last hurrah” before the big event. They were going to London, Belgium, Switzerland and then back through Paris, hitting the highlights of each city. And since Annie hadn’t been to Europe before, she was especially excited. Romance, adventure – it was to be their dream vacation, particularly since their honeymoon trip had turned out to be a nightmare due to a bureaucratic “red tape” fiasco.

Eric and Annie had gotten married in the Annie’s hometown in Canada. Eric was from the Seattle area, and they planned to live in the U.S. after their wedding. After the ceremony, they said goodbye to family and friends and drove to Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were catching a plane to Hawaii. As a start to their new life together, Eric had planned a romantic honeymoon trip to the Hawaiian Islands. All looked promising. That is, until they got to the U.S./Canadian customs at the airport.

That’s when they were told that Annie’s “paperwork” wasn’t right. The U.S. Customs Service determined that her citizenship documents weren’t correct. Annie was refused entry into the U.S.

They were upset and confused. Before their ceremony they had been told that once they were married Annie would be allowed into the U.S. with no problem. Unfortunately, the U.S. immigration didn’t see it that way. They had to cancel their trip.

At the immigration office, her honeymoon plans ruined, Annie fell into Eric’s arms and cried and cried. They begged, pleaded, and tried to reason with the border patrol to let them fly to Hawaii. But the curmudgeon guards, as unmovable as marble statues, wouldn’t be budged. Rules were rules. There was nothing more they could do.

After many phone calls to rearrange plans, Eric and Annie were finally able to drive to an old trailer on property that Eric’s family owned and camp there for their honeymoon with sleeping bags, an old hibachi grill and no hot water. They made the best of it. They were young and in love. But it wasn’t exactly the honeymoon they had dreamed and hoped for!

Now they were planning to take a trip to Europe and history looked destined to repeat itself. Could it be possible that lightening was about to strike twice?

Given their past issues, Eric applied for their passports in what he thought was plenty of time and expected to get them with a couple of weeks to spare.  Annie had gotten her Canadian passport right away, but Eric’s U.S. passport still hadn’t arrived.

With only two weeks left until they were supposed to leave, Eric was getting anxious and irritated. Their tickets were non-refundable and, if they had to cancel their travel plans once again, they wouldn’t be able to reschedule the trip easily because of Annie’s pregnancy.

What was taking so long? He had allowed at least a two-week “margin” so they wouldn’t be in this position. The passport office was usually pretty quick to issue passports and there was no telling what the problem was.

They had saved and pinched pennies to be able to afford this trip as the tickets were not cheap. Things were not looking hopeful, and Eric knew that Annie would be devastated if this trip fell apart like their honeymoon. Worst of all, once again, there was absolutely nothing he could do.

They were down to the wire when, finally, he got a phone call from Annie.

“Your passport came! We can go!” She was so excited, her voice jumped up an octave, and she practically sang with joy.

Eric heaved a huge sigh of relief. “That’s great, honey. I was really starting to get worried! I don’t know why it took so long but I’m just glad it’s finally here.”

They went on their trip, had a great time, and didn’t give the late passport another thought… until ten years later.

Eric’s parents, Jim and Grace, had been married almost 60 years and loved to travel. They had been all over the world, from Japan to Africa.  They loved venturing off to new places, just the two of them, and always enjoyed their time together. Even though Jim’s health was failing, he didn’t let that stop them from exploring new and different places. He had had a minor heart attack a few years back, and he valued every new trip with renewed vigor.

He was writing his autobiography and family history when he discovered that a close relative had, to his surprise, walked through the Panama Canal to get to the West Coast. He and Grace decided they would take a cruise that would partially retrace the steps of their family member. They had not been through the Panama Canal before so this seemed a great reason to embark on yet another adventure.

It was April, and as usual, the Seattle weather was rainy so it seemed a Caribbean cruise was in order. They left from Florida and sailed to a handful of islands in the heart of the Caribbean.

They had a lovely stateroom overlooking the water and Jim and Grace were quite content. The aqua blue of the Caribbean waters was soothing and the temperature was in the upper 70’s with just moderate humidity, making the weather perfect.

The ship passed through the locks of the Panama Canal and, as an engineer, Jim was impressed with the sheer magnitude of what it took to create a pass-through between the two continents.

They then sailed up the coast of Costa Rica.

Late Saturday night, he took Grace by the hand and said, “Let’s hit the midnight buffet, Momma. There’s Japanese food and lots of sushi!”  Japanese food was his favorite and they had a lovely dinner, even though Grace noted that once he got there, he didn’t seem very hungry. But he seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself, nonetheless.

The next morning was Sunday and they got up early to get ready for the church service that was held aboard ship.

As Grace was getting ready to leave, Jim said, “You go on without me. I think I’ll stay and take a little nap. I didn’t sleep well last night.”

Thinking he just needed to rest, Grace went on without him. When she got back to their room after the service, Jim was in obvious pain.

“We need to call the doctor now,” she insisted. He reluctantly agreed.

The ship’s doctor knew immediately that he was having another heart attack. He decided to rush Jim to the closest hospital in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Grace sat alone in the waiting room. Periodically, they would give her updates on his condition. It didn’t look good. At one point, they told her they had lost him but were able to revive him. Then right after that, he went into kidney failure. She knew his condition was growing more and more serious.

That afternoon her husband of nearly 60 years slipped peacefully away.

Grace called her four children to tell them their father had died. Just saying the words sapped her of whatever strength she had left. On top of everything else, she was alone in a foreign country, grieving, and needed help getting her husband’s body back to the U.S. for a funeral. Losing her love of six decades was traumatic enough; having to deal with the maze of paperwork and logistics by herself felt like more than she could possibly bear.

She needed help desperately but she was in Costa Rica. She wanted her children with her and needed her children with her. Her oldest son couldn’t come. He checked his passport and it had expired. Her two daughters didn’t have passports. That’s when her youngest son, Eric, checked his passport. It had exactly two weeks left before it expired.

He was able to immediately fly to Costa Rica to help his mother and bring his father back home.

That’s when Eric remembered the two-week delay when he had applied for his passport, ten years before.

At the time, what seemed like an irritating and frustrating bureaucratic processing delay, now seemed like a precious gift.

In hindsight, Eric could see God’s hand at work.