Take a path of your own

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Take a path of your own


If you are a foreign correspondent in Korea, it seems that the only thing people want to talk to you about these days is North Korea. People back home, as well as friends in Seoul, ask me how dangerous I think the situation is. To which I can only say, “I have absolutely no idea.” Other international media sometimes call me for interviews, so at that point I have to work out how to make “I have absolutely no idea” last for the duration of a five-minute discussion.

I had just one non-North Korea-related interview recently. It was for a domestic broadcaster, and for some reason, they wanted to know what advice I would give to young people about life. I don’t honestly believe I’m qualified to do that, and also I’ve no doubt that my mother would want to shout at the screen, “Don’t listen to him! He lives so far from home, and why the heck doesn’t he hurry up and get married?” (I think she may have been Korean in a past life).

But I had to give an answer, so for some reason, I blurted out, “Study Finnish.” I have a good friend from Finland, who lives in Korea; a few days before the recording he told me that he believes there are only around 10 or 20 people in the world who speak both Finnish and Korean fluently. The Finns speak amazing English (probably better than a lot of Brits and Americans do!), but it is always an advantage to be able speak to someone in their own language. I’m sure that anyone with an engaging personality who can speak the languages of two quite small but important countries would be able to develop what investors like to call a “wide moat.”

The older I get, the more I believe in the importance of differentiating yourself, through an unusual skill or specialization that most people would not think of developing. The reason I was able to work as a journalist wasn’t that I am a scoop-finder extraordinaire with a novel perspective on every issue (I’m too lazy for that). It was simply that nobody else in our paper’s orbit knew anything about Korea.

The whole world seems to be paying attention to Korea now, but back then, everyone in the West wanted to be the “China guy” or the “Japan guy.” It was an amazing stroke of luck that I came here for the 2002 World Cup and fell in love with the place. The time to have been a China guy was 30 years ago; if I’d chosen to be a China guy, I’ve no idea what I’d be doing now.

Last year, I met a mid-20-something Korean man who had, for some reason, decided to spend a lot of time in Libya. After all the political turmoil started, he found himself in demand as a commentator, filmmaker and writer, despite still being very young. He made quite a name for himself. He basically jumped the queue by knowing about something that others didn’t.

But when I look at my old friends, I feel that their idea of success is pushing them in an essentially uniform direction. Rather than differentiating, they are standardizing. I see it especially with people I used to work with, when I was an equity trader back in 2005. Most of them have recently taken MBAs, or are taking them now. They also have undergraduate degrees in economics or business, high English test scores, and professional qualifications like the CFA.

This is a path that people believe will lead them to the top in the financial industry. But is such a popular route that it becomes very difficult to stand out. Huge effort is expended upon developing extremely impressive but identical “specs,” to the detriment of learning unusual but useful skills, or simply trying out new fields altogether. And ultimately, there will only be a limited number of big-money jobs, so most people on the path will end up disappointed.

The MBA route is such an accepted one that few really question whether it will work for them, or whether the return on investment is worth it. In the case of Korea, this is an especially important question. On a not unrelated note, I recently saw a McKinsey study on Korea that claimed “the net present value of lifetime earnings for a student who attends college .?.?. now trails that of students who go directly from high school to employment.”

Just before the financial crisis hit, I went home to do the MBA-and-banking thing too. It didn’t occur to me at the time that, as just one of many thousands of similarly qualified people hoping to board the same (derailed) London gravy train after graduation, I might struggle to earn a salary fat enough to justify those horrific tuition fees and the sacrifice of two years out of my life.

As it turns out, I didn’t. When the path to “success” is narrow and overcrowded, you are unlikely to get very far. And the journey will be unpleasant. I’ll always appreciate my luck in realizing that fact, and eventually finding a different way.

* The author is the Seoul correspondent for The Economist.

by Daniel Tudor
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