[VIEWPOINT]Fill your glass to the 70% mark

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[VIEWPOINT]Fill your glass to the 70% mark

A television drama called "Sangdo" ("The Way of a Merchant"), depicts the eventful life of a trader with China who became a wealthy man during the Joseon Dynasty era. The writer of the novel on which the drama is based emphasizes a "merchant's morality" that seeks to benefit the world rather than just his profit-minded business skills. It is easy, perhaps, to pretend to be a man of virtue after becoming rich, but getting rich is difficult. The part of the novel that most resonated with me was the philosophy suggested by the description of a goblet named "Be aware not to fill it full." In the novel, the merchant cherished the goblet more than the woman he loved. If the goblet was filled to the brim, the liquor disappears, but the contents behave normally when the goblet is only 70 percent full.

Life is a process full of choices, and because the future is always uncertain, making decisions is agonizing and disruptive. Though people listen closely to success stories of others and seek the secrets of heaven from fortunetellers, it is difficult to imitate success just by copying other people. Even when someone follows the same plan as a successful person, the plan is the secret of success if it works but the same plan is used as an excuse if he fails. That's life in a nutshell.

People who want everything done precisely and perfectly do not enjoy adventure, because adventure involves too many things to prepare. These perfectionists have the weakness of eliminating from their lives the chance of learning from mistakes. They avoid challenges because of their fear of failure, not because of their desire for success.

At the other extreme, people who embrace adventure avidly are highly likely to fail in the long run. Because they seek bigger adventures as time passes, they are likely to lose all their previous gains if they fail even once. Most gamblers end up broke.

Though frequent or serious failures are undesirable, we have to make some mistakes in order to get the knowledge and courage to take on larger challenges, just like minor illnesses teach us to avoid major diseases.

How can we avoid both the pitfalls of perfectionists and the silliness of adventurers? What can be a mind-set that makes people confident to take chances and believe in the prospects of success despite the prospect or the actuality of failure?

I believe that taking "70 percent chances" could be one of the solutions. Son Jeong-ui (Masayoshi Son, a Korean-Japanese and now CEO of Softbank) once said in an interview that he usually starts a new business when there is more than a 70-percent chance of success. The goblet in the novel Sangdo echoes that same theme.

Actually, I learned the "70 percent philosophy" for the first time when I was a penurious foreign student in the United States. I bought a 10-year-old car with money I earned with difficulty, and I felt very affectionate about my first car. I took it in to be repaired at the slightest hint of a problem. A Chinese technician at the garage always said, usually with a painful expression on his face whenever he saw me, "70 percent O.K., O.K.?" Although his English was broken, I knew what he meant: "Look, stupid, as long as this lemon can move, there is no reason to fix it perfectly. Just 70 percent is enough."

I still live by his philosophy. That is why I emphasize, when writing about economic policy, the wisdom of settling for the second best alternative sometimes rather than stubbornly seeking the best solution to a problem.

Reform requires a sense of adventure, but reform strategy requires modesty. Rather than seeking a perfect ending from the start, a superior strategy would be to consider 70 percent a success. There is a right path in the world, although it is not easy to find. Trying to stay at least near the right path, rather than trying to stay on it always, may be a better way to govern morality, family, country and even the world.

Looking back on the past 365 days, I filled my glass not to the brim but full enough to bid farewell to the bygone year. But something nagged at me. Other people who absorbed the same "70 percent philosophy" have written best-sellers and created Internet kingdoms. What about me?

Another year has passed for ordinary people like me, although there is a seed of hope in the 365 days to come.


The writer is a professor of economics at Ewha Womans University.

by Chon Chu-song

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