Launch yourself on every wave

By Professor Houmin Yan
© AFP/Gregory

This is the speech delivered by Dean Houmin Yan at the College of Business Graduation Ceremony in November 2016.

Whenever I travel there's always a Kindle or a good old-fashioned book in my bag. And as I left on a recent, rather long trip to Chile, I carried two — both recommended by friends: "How Daren is made?" and "Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It" by the American humourist and writer, Daniel Klein. These books enlightened my long journey.

I duly arrived in Chile, a country with a tumultuous recent history, where some forty years ago the world had been turned upside down. The democratically elected Socialist President Allende was violently overthrown by General Pinochet. With open backing from leading western nations, the General was to rule the country into the 1990s.

It made me reflect on the ups and downs of life, even in times of peace. In my own lifetime education has changed enormously. When I started out in my academic career, the narrative of life progression seemed clear. Education was for the beginning part of your life. Work — a career if you were fortunate — was the well-earned result. Business schools trained future business leaders. But even then, back in the 1980s, agencies such as The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) were preparing us for something rather different — the idea of Life Long Learning.

Stuff happens!

Nowadays, the old narrative has been turned on its head. Business schools the world-over are engaged not only in educating future elites, but in working with those in positions of power at the zenith of their careers. So, today I am speaking to you, an audience composed of PhD graduates, MBA, EMBA and DBA graduates. You are at different stages of your life and careers, but you have all found common cause and interest — thankfully — in your partnership with us here at the College of Business.

To go back to Daniel Klein's book, it is interesting to note that the philosophers he mentions do not presume an ordered life experience. We don't always get to set the terms of debate. Stuff happens! And it is how we respond to these events that is the making of us.

World turned upside down

I am reminded of events more dramatic than those that we contend with in contemporary education. People in China who grew up in the 1950s and 60s went through a stage of life when the world was literally turned upside down. Some of our present-day leaders have lived in the caves, in the countryside and without the dignity of professional labels that secure status in the eyes of their peers and the world.

A generation came through a turbulent youth — as workers, peasants and students, began their training and education, worked in institutions such as state-owned enterprises, only finally to enter the modern age as independent business people in the age of mass consumerism. This generation faced trials and tribulations the like of which we can only distantly imagine.

Carpe diem

Dipping further into Klein's book I came across an epigram by Henry David Thoreau, American essayist, poet, philosopher and historian, which seems to resonate. In Walden first published in 1854, Thoreau details his experiences over some two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond. In his diary, Thoreau wrote:

"You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment."

As a call to "seize the moment", you can't get much better than this.

The world has been riding on a great wave. Since the end of World War II, and especially since the mid-1990s we have sailed on a rising tide of globalization. Swapping trade and services has been good for consumers worldwide. And it also makes it easier for countries to coordinate in other ways, like doing research together. Most importantly, our global supply chains have helped the world powers enjoy decades of peace.

Half-steam ahead

Now the container ships leaving Hong Kong are high in the water, half empty, and steam slowly out of port. Trade is no longer rising. Also, we can add government policy to the slowdown. Look at Brexit. It can be interpreted as a cry from the lost industrial heartland of the United Kingdom. And voters in the recent United States election were also in no doubt. Jobs have disappeared. The rust belt is real. Globalization has not worked for them. And so, the President-elect of the United States signals that he is stepping back from open trade.

Shared future?

How can we work with these new protectionist tendencies? Schools of Business have a leadership role to play in this discussion. We cannot simply replay the old uncritical mantra of globalization. At the same time, a cycle of retaliatory trade barriers reversing productivity gains is not the way forward. We all need to continue looking forward and outwards.

Making best use of this challenging moment is our collective privilege and opportunity. The College of Business is proud and delighted to work equally with the current industry elite and the leaders of tomorrow. Together we can launch ourselves into a shared future.