[Seoul Lounge] Lessons from my Peace Corps daysBy my naturally contrarian nature, I have mixed feelings about having once been a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea. For example, I try to focus on being an international business development consultant, but every so often when a newspaper or magazine discovers I served in Korea during the 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer, too often the reporter wishes to focus on my past rather than what I’m doing 30 or more years later.
Frankly speaking, I want to use the reporter as much as the reporter wishes to use me. The reporter often wants a human interest story, and I want some free publicity for my business. Usually, what is printed does nothing for my business. But free publicity is still free publicity, so I play along. But all of this ends up making me a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to talking about the Peace Corps.
Unlike most Peace Corps volunteers who later go on to work in some kind of government work such as at the State Department, in education or at a nongovernmental organization, a minority of us pursue careers in commerce. We usually start working for large companies, but in time at least half of us become entrepreneurs. By choice or fate, sooner or later, many of us find our way back to Korea.
Back in Korea, we have a chance to become reacquainted (that is, humbled) by the Korean language while trying to apply to business what we learned in the countryside three decades ago. Of course, Korea has changed incredibly since when we were so young. But fortunately, culture changes a lot slower than politics and economics. So, in spite of our language deficiencies, we do bring value to the marketplace, and in fact, some of the lessons we learned in the Peace Corps often serve us well today.
For example, most people really don’t understand what the Peace Corps is essentially all about. Most folks think the organization is a way for the U.S. government to provide some kind of cheap foreign aid using young people. While there is some truth in that, in fact it is the smaller part of the mission.
Too often, I had to listen to mini lectures on the “Three Goals of Peace Corps” from my director. More than once, I really wanted to scream as I was forced to listen to that mantra yet one more time. But constant reminding of those goals was important, since only one goal dealt with knowledge transfer. The other two goals centered on common Americans being exposed to another country and common people outside of America becoming familiar with common Americans. In other words, the Peace Corps considers its most important mission to be building international human relations.
And building personal relations is ultimately the bedrock for any successful business person. In Korea, personal relations are taken more seriously than in the West, but as a business person anywhere, it is critical to know how to develop and maintain personal relations.
In the Peace Corps, we were taught the importance of trying to build goodwill in our towns and villages. In many ways, as we stumbled through our experiences, the countryside Koreans taught us how to get along with people who were stranger to us than anyone we would regularly meet in our own country. Only decades later did I appreciate what great business training I had received from my co-teachers, the ajumma at my residence and the grandma at my tavern.
We also learned about the importance of nunchi, or quick wit, in dealing with friends and strangers - a skill I have found critical in dealing with Koreans - and it was my big advantage in the U.S. when I was surrounded by many people without nunchi.
But perhaps the most important lesson I learned from the Peace Corps was an inner sense of humility, since as a Peace Corps volunteer, it was obvious I knew much less about life than I had once thought. And that insight, even 36 years later, serves me well in many facets of life, including never overestimating my understanding of my customers and business associates. Reminding oneself one never has the full picture keeps one mindful and curious at work, at home and at play.
And this sense of curiosity has recently introduced me to a new Korean word, janmeori - or petty tricks - an idea of which I was long aware, but it often takes a single word to crystallize understanding. In other words, I’m still learning, and I still find Korea a great place to keep a young mind and heart in spite of my ageing appearances.
*The writer is the president of Soft Landing Consulting in Seoul.
By Tom Coyner