- James Tam
In a recent talk given to a group of secondary students
I speculated the reasons behind ‘wealth don’t last three generations’,
explained why ‘discovering oneself’ is specious romanticism
and shared personal experience in ‘capturing opportunities’
GOOD MORNING everyone. And thank you to Mr. Noble for the opportunity to speak to you about opportunity today.
I understand that you range from Year 7 to 13. This is a rather big gap at your age. Year Sevens were the oldest at primary school just a few months ago; they are now babies again. Year Thirteens are the giants today. Enjoy while it lasts. You’ll be freshmen by next summer at university, while senior university students graduate to become juniors.
What is opportunity?
Depending on which year you’re in, opportunity may mean very different things because the meaning of opportunity changes with time, age, and circumstances. Change is the essence of everything. Without change, there’ll be no time. Without change, there’ll actually be no life. Without time and life, what’s the point of having great opportunities, right?
Change is the precursor of opportunities; but opportunities only be realised through goals or visions. Without a goal, or aspiration, you won’t be able to tell what’s an opportunity, and what isn’t.
For example, let’s say a world famous painter is taking up five students from Hong Kong next summer for private training. If your goal is to become a painter one day, that would be a fantastic opportunity. You’ll try your hardest to be one of the chosen five. Otherwise, if painting is not your goal, or you don’t have any goal at all, his offer will mean nothing.
How do we set goals, then?
Again, it depends. Starting from secondary school, nothing’s straight forward in this world anymore, especially when you get it from me.
First of all, how you set your goal depends on CIRCUMSTANCES — mainly your social, cultural, and personal circumstances.
Imagine someone born into an isolated jungle tribe. He would not aspire to become a chartered accountant. And no matter how keen you are, and how hard you try, you will not become the president of Iceland; making that your lifetime ambition would be pointless because you will never be given the opportunity. Opportunities depend on goals, which scope is limited by circumstances.
And in our globalised community, circumstances are changing faster and faster, becoming more complex than ever.
It doesn’t feel that long ago when I was your age. Everyone was kind of poor and many kids ran around the streets of Hong Kong barefooted. Aberdeen was a fishing village. No one could have imagined a school like the Han Academy to make its home here.
Life was tougher, but perhaps happier and easier for children because goal setting was straight forward. Young people knew what they wanted, or were told what they should want in life. We wanted a better life. We wanted more things. We worked hard to get a good job, to make more money, buy a flat, get married, raise kids, get a car one day, and live on happily ever after. Together, through struggling to realise our specified dreams, we generated a bit of wealth for the community. We were the first generation, at most second.
You’re now the second, or third generation of this wealth. Making money sounds a bit old-fashioned, even irrelevant. The issue of making a better living may have never even crossed your mind.
Wealth don’t last three generations?
Do you know the saying wealth don’t last three generations? It’s not just a saying. It’s science. It’s statistics, based on human nature. WEALTH here is of course metaphorical. It means more than money, but includes our spirit, focus, stamina and so on. And three generations can be one for the really dumb, a few more than three for the wise and lucky, but that’s about it.
Why is that the case?
Ironically, because of your parents’ hard-earned success, you no longer enjoy the clear and simple TARGET of making a better living. Without a clear and simple target, identifying opportunities becomes more complicated and abstract. Eventually, kids a few generations down may lose direction completely. Having no goals, therefore seeing no opportunities, they feel frustrated. Pressing the reset button one day without thinking would be a matter of time. That’s why wealth don’t last three generations.
You may say: ‘Ah, without the mundane distraction of making a living, I can focus on finding myself and do whatever I enjoy most, and make the world a better place!’
Well, that sounds cool. But always be careful with anything that sounds cool.
The big question here is: what is yourself?
Our ‘true-self’ could be just dog food
Let’s say you focus on self-discovery by doing only things you enjoy. What if you then discover yourself to be someone who hates all activities except lying on the sofa swiping the phone all day, getting fed by daddy and mummy whenever you stomach growls? If you dig deep enough, you might also discover yourself to be just an animal belonging to the species Homo sapiens, for without the social and cultural constraints and refinement of the community, that’s what our ‘true self’ is.
You’re sitting there quietly and I’m standing here behaving reasonably well, trying to make sense, not because this is natural human behaviour. It’s because together, we humans have created, maintained and evolved civilisations to take us away from our ‘original selves’. Why? In order to survive much better collectively and eat at the top end of the food chain as if by birthright. A lone person, full of himself, can hardly compete with dogs in the beautiful nature. His ‘true self’ could be just organic dog food.
So, please be careful when you go about trying to ‘find yourself’!
That’s why I said earlier that goal setting hinges also on social and cultural circumstances. Society is not always reasonable, I know, but it provides a well-tested framework to discourage us from finding that our true self is an animal, or a couch potato, which is not a plant.
The most important thing about culture and civilisation is values, not technology, and definitely not entertainment. Even if daddy and mummy don’t mind you being an animal or potato, society — both friends and competitors — will pressure you to get up, set a target, and seek opportunities.
How to find opportunities?
Assuming you’ve now set a goal, feeling ambitious and hopeful, how would you go about finding opportunities?
Well, the good news is: you won’t need to. Opportunities will come to you. Just be prepared, wait, and get lucky.
Do you know the saying luck is when opportunity meets preparation? I don’t agree with it 100% — I rarely agree with anything 100% — but there’s a lot of truth in this one.
How do you prepare yourself? Do what you’re doing: go to school. Schools are the most tested way societies prepare the next generation to maintain what have been achieved, to face and make changes, and to identify and capture opportunities.
Remember the example I gave just now about someone born into an isolated jungle? He has very few options when it comes to goal setting — farming, hunting, learning to be a wizard, and not much else. He has much less opportunities than you do. Living in a city like Hong Kong, attending a school like this, offers you a significantly wider exposure. The more you see, the more options you’ll have in setting goals, and the more opportunities you’ll have.
It doesn’t mean you’ll have an easier life than Jungle Boy though, sorry. It could be quite the opposite because you’re fortunate enough to have too many options.
You are being prepared to face an even bigger world through bilingual training. The globalised world won’t change no matter what some people say, offering more possibilities and opportunities than ever. To understand and capture these opportunities requires communication — language.
Because of China’s rapid development and population base, Chinese will naturally become more important. And English will remain the most common international language in the foreseeable future. Knowing Chinese and English well, you lucky ones will be able to communicate with most of the world, widen your exposure, and discover more opportunities than the average person on this planet.
I want to say one word about English. I once wrote in my blog suggesting that English should be the world Putonghua (English under the New World Order). Why? Because it already is. Trying to reinvent the wheel is not very smart, and may take a hundred years. The world needs better communication NOW. Would making English the world Putonghua give native speakers an advantage? Certainly not. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Native English speakers will have less drive to learn a foreign language, and a second language widens the exposure, broadens the mind, and gives us more opportunities. This is perhaps an ironic legacy of the colonial era.
Learn to follow opportunities
Let’s come back to our main topic: opportunity. You’ve now set your goal, and know what opportunities are relevant to you. But life is full of surprises. When opportunity shows up to meet your preparation, you’ll need to be flexible, and follow the flow.
I had also learned from experience that missing an opportunity could itself be an opportunity.
In English, missing an opportunity is sometimes expressed as ‘missing the bus’. Capturing opportunities is indeed like taking the bus.
First of all, we need to know where we want to go — that’s our goal. Then we look for the right bus. Some lucky people find their buses right away, plonk onto the last seats, and get to exactly where they plan on going in no time. They drive me crazy.
Others, like me, get a bit lost or distracted on the way to the bus stop, and miss the bus. Opportunities don’t wait, you see.
The first time I missed my bus, I panicked and kicked myself. Then another bus showed up. Instead of going to Tuen Mun as I had planned, however, this one was going to Yuen Long. What the heck, I thought, and got on anyway.
Sometimes, I ended up finding a shuttle bus in Yuen Long going to Tuen Mun. Hey, I eventually reached my destination anyway, and got to see Yuen Long on the way. When I arrived at Tuen Mun, I was able to tell those who successfully got on the Tuen Mun bus right away fascinating stories about Yuen Long which they could only imagine.
Sometimes, I ended up loving Yuen Long, and settled there, enjoying my stay, smiling eight hours a day. Don’t forget, my original wish to go to Tuen Mun was based on fantasy and other influences anyway. I had never been there before! Okay, I couldn’t know what I had missed, but what I had missed could have turned out to be a nightmare too!
When young, I once wanted to be a doctor because my mother told me doctors could make a good living without a boss. I missed the bus and ended up being an engineer. Looking back, I’ve enjoyed my engineering career tremendously and, knowing myself better now, I would have been a miserable doctor— maybe even a dangerous one, because of my personality.
So, if you missed your bus, stay calm, and wait for the next one. Sometimes you have to let go of your original plan and hop on the next bus, for life is short even for young people, and it takes an adventurous spirit to seize the most exciting opportunities. Allow your preparation and gut feelings to help you decide. There are two things I like to remind my daughters. The first is ‘life is magic’. The second is ‘you could ruin your live if too reckless, but miss it altogether if too careful.’
To sum up, in order to recognise and capture opportunities, you must first set a goal, and prepare yourselves as best you can. Then, be prepared to follow opportunities when necessary — not just capture. Let opportunities show you the magic of life in ways you had not imagined. You may never get on the bus you originally planned to, but you may enjoy the ride even more, and end up in a better place if you’re well prepared.
Be brave, be prepared, and have fun. Thank you.
Original speech given at Han Academy,
Hong Kong, 4 Nov 2022