Waking Up to a Meaningful Life

“I was hanging out in Nepal doing this hike. I saw this one kid over a few days who was wearing this paper-thin t-shirt. Every day he wore this same t-shirt. My first instinct was to think, ‘Oh poor kid… he only has one t-shirt.’ I quickly realized that he was one of the lucky kids in the village. He was the only one who had a t-shirt!”

“I came home to my life. I looked in my closet and there were quite literally ten lifetimes of clothes. These people were using to their clothes to their functional end. Here I was changing styles every year. I was disgusted with myself.”

* * *

Jay Baydala was a successful IT project manager for large scale software development. After thirteen years of what he deep down knew was not meaningful work, he left the industry and sold most of his worldly belongings including half of his clothes (he’s working on the rest).

That was four years ago. Today marks the opening of his dream… ChristmasFuture (christmasfuture.org), an organization dedicated to eradicating extreme poverty by redirecting a percentage of consumer spending.

I interviewed Jay to learn about his journey so that I could (perhaps selfishly) extract some of his wisdom for myself. He’d be the first to say that he’s still learning, still “figuring it out”, and that every person must find their own path. But regardless of the path, I think pioneers have many common qualities.

Here are parts of that interview and my irreverent and real take on the lessons I learned.

* * *

What led you to leave your job?

There wasn’t one moment. I enjoyed IT project management. I enjoyed working with a team. I enjoyed making things better. However along that journey, I also realized that it wasn’t enough for me that the company saved “x” millions of dollars.

I got to a point where I had to move away from this. In reality, I did not know what I was moving towards. But the moving away, clarified what I was moving towards. You had to have a faith that this [job] wasn’t it.

The “Letting Go” Lesson: Sometimes the problem is that the job, the relationship, or the situation takes up so much space that it crowds out all other possibilities.

Only when you leave it behind do you invite the answers into your life. Be prepared still! AND also have faith that you have the ability to figure it out.

How would you describe the birth of ChristmasFuture?

I realized that I didn’t want to live in a world where someone starved to death for no good reason because they didn’t get 20 cent medicine. It wasn’t right. The more I saw how much I actually had in my life compared to what I saw in the developing world… the more I wanted to engage in this issue.

The Compassion Lesson: True compassion is not just about feeling sorry or pity for someone’s suffering. It’s about feeling the suffering of the other and doing something about it.

How did you come up with ChristmasFuture?

I wanted some way to engage in changing the world. So I looked for something I wanted, and it didn’t exist. That’s part of my business training. When you’re looking for something and it doesn’t exist, there is probably someone else looking for it… which means opportunity.

This is something that I can do. I have the skills. I have the connections. I can make it happen… accompanied with some faith.

The “it’s never too late” lesson: Just because you leave your previous job behind doesn’t mean that you leave behind your abilities or your experiences. Not everything you’ve learned up until now is throwaway.

How did you get started?

My training said business plan. You have to be able to communicate your business. An effective tool is the business plan. That honestly took about a year. I ended up with a 145-page document which highlighted everything. Then I summarized it down to ten pages so that I can get the right people involved for the next level.

I had a high-level view of the pieces. But I didn’t know enough to bring that through to reality. I knew I had to learn. Part of that process is finding [what we had to learn] from the bigger picture. For example, we don’t know enough about Christmas spending through the internet. Let’s find out more information about that.

It’s an iterative process. The more you learn about one thing, the more it changes how you view other the pieces.

That’s what I’m good at. Fitting the big picture pieces together. I’m not so good about the details, but I had to do it. I had sold my stuff afterall!

The “You are the Business” Lesson: There is the “start with the big picture and work your way down” lesson.

But I think the tougher lesson is, if you want to start something new, be prepared to do some things you are good at, some things you’re not good at and many things you need to learn to be good at!

What gets you through the tough times in building ChristmasFuture?

The thirteen years of not living a meaningful life. Thirteen years of learning that other way and now feeling this and experiencing this. This is a far better way to live!

This has made every choice very easy. I’m not trying to want to or wanting to want to. I want to. I want to sell my big SUV that is polluting the atmosphere and costing me hundreds of dollars. I want to sell my house that fills up with things I don’t need. It’s clear. It hasn’t been a struggle.

The “Surviving Through Tough Times” Lesson: When you are on purpose with what you want to do, it becomes easier to do what needs to be done, learn from the challenges, and change your behaviour.

What happens when no one knows the answer?

You mean what happens when no one knows the answer or knows where to look for the answer? First is panic [laugh].

Then it comes down to trying some things in a controlled setting, looking for examples of similar things, similar industries, similar patterns that could transfer. Then you try those theories out like in a lab… without hurting anyone.

You also have to be transparent. We don’t know. We’re learning. The answers aren’t within the four walls of your organization. Open it up to learn from everyone.

The Pioneering Lesson: In the frontier, you can’t only rely on what has been done before because no one has done it before! Get over the panic. Open yourself to what life has to offer and use inquiry and testing to find a way through.

What has been your process of waking up?

I’ve been on a journey. Part of living this awake life is realizing what is most important. Thinking, “I don’t need the expensive new pair of jeans.” You wake up first and go down that path. Then you want to do something about it and participate. Then after going down that path you realize the complexity of the things that you are doing.

You move from doing something that makes you feel good to doing something that does good. ChristmasFuture is about doing good. It’s not just a water well. It’s about how you move people out of that situation. It’s about how you empower people to live a life where they have some choice and freedom.

The Waking Up Lesson: Waking up is a continuous process of seeing what needs to be done and doing something about it.

Ultimately it is a choice. Like in the Matrix, you can wake up, hate what you see, take the blue pill and go back into the Matrix where you will find safety and even success. Or you can decide to live the real life where what you do is meaningful and worthwhile.

What would you like for society to wake up to?

I would like for all of us to understand how much we have. Not just in our head, but in our heart to experience the feeling of knowing that we’ve got a lot. That’s part of it. And part of it is realizing the connectedness of all lives. It’s not us and them. It’s not, “Let them starve to death” or “It doesn’t effect me”. We’re all connected and we’re all responsible.

I use to say, “It doesn’t matter.” I drove a big sports utility vehicle. Every time someone criticized me, I’d think, “I make a lot of money. I can afford it. Why can’t I?” That was my attitude.

NO! It’s not okay. Every choice I make affects everyone else. That’s why I’ve tattooed “WE” to my forearm. There is no “just” affecting me even if I create the illusion that it doesn’t. The “WE” reminds me. Keeps me alert. What are you choosing today?

The Connection Lesson: We are part of a larger community and that is one step to waking up. See “Have you thanked humanity lately?”

What does it mean to be fully alive and human?

It’s being on that journey towards who you are and realizing and joining that connection with everything around you. It’s not about you. Yes, you are writing a story of your life, but if you think it’s all about you, you’re going to miss it. It’s about everything and your connection to it.

The Life Lesson: Life is not about you. You are about life.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.

When did you last embrace failure?

If it has been awhile, it might be worth trying it out. In order to be masterful or grow as a person or even raise children, failing is as critical as success.

Sure, failing is full of negative connotations: “you failed this test”, “you are a failure”, “failure is not an option”. What is failure really? It is simply not getting the expected results. In this light, then failure presents an opportunity for deeper understanding.

Here are some ways you can take advantage of failure.

I. Learning happens at the edge

Think of what it was like to learn to ride a bike. You got on it. You fell and scraped your knees. You learn. You try again. Eventually with a little help, encouragement, and practice you’re riding easily and naturally. It is in that moment of risking injury where that great leap of learning is possible.

But so often we are satisfied with just being good enough at something. For some things, it makes sense to leave it at “good enough”. Unfortunately, when all of life is just “good enough”, we lose our ability to grow.

Real learning requires challenge. Real learning happens at the edge of our ability. And thus real learning happens at the point where we might fail!

For example, we can drive decently, cook well enough (some of us), write reasonably… but what would it take to become better at it? Try driving in the crowded streets of Taiwan or cook a five-course meal for a party, or write and publish a book. Likewise, a big life requires a big challenge.

The point is not to arrive at greatness. The point is to live greatly through a never-ending push to the edge.

II. Masters seek failure

I had a “martial arts” instructor who is a master of his field. Sparring with him was a lesson in helplessness. However, what made him a master was his ability to learn exponentially greater than any student or teacher I know. What separates him from the crowd?

Asides from his dedication and hard work to his craft, he also had the ability to seek failure. He would often purposefully and intentionally puts himself in situations which challenged his abilities. He might spar using only his right jab with a student or he might work with professional fighters in other fields. World-class athletes must find ways to challenge themselves to continue their growth.

Studies into the nature of expertise show that taking on progressively more difficult challenges is what separates an “expert-learner” from a average learner (see Surpassing Ourselves).

If you want to be masterful, then find the nearest edge, push it back, and learn from it.

III. Children should be praised for pushing at the edge

Exploring the edge sounds good in principle, but failing is not well accepted by our culture.

In studying the performance gap in math between students in the U.S. and students in Japan, Stevenson and Stigler watched a Japanese boy struggle with drawing a 3-D cube on the blackboard for forty-five minutes. The boy made repeated mistakes much to the anxiety and discomfort of the researchers. The boy, however, was oblivious to this. Eventually he succeeded to the applause of the class (see Mistakes Were Made).

The researchers determined that American culture was far more likely to see math ability as innate rather than the result of hard work and learning through making mistakes. Later research showed that children who are praised for their efforts rather than their innate ability were far more likely to see mistakes and criticism as useful information.

It is hard to appear stupid, or face embarrassment in front of our peers, or let ourselves down, but those fears get in the way of reaching towards mastery.

IV. Give your failures a hug

Loving your failures can be difficult, but consider the injustice of not owning them, of not seeing them. Then consider what new powers or abilities you can develop by seeking out new challenges. So take a moment now, and thank all the times you learned from a broken relationship or a business idea that flopped or a design that failed. They deserve a hug.

Questions to reflect upon:

  1. In what area of your life would you like to develop more capability?
  2. What is the “edge” of your capability in that area?
  3. What learning is possible if you stretch yourself beyond your capability in that area?
  4. Will you embrace the learning?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in significant life challenges.

Finding Heart in the Workplace

I remember wondering then as I do now, “Who do I want to be when I grow up?” A thousand years ago, this was a simple question. We do what our parents did. But today, there is a greater possibility of choice and nowhere is the struggle of making this choice more evident than in the workplace.

When I use to work at a telecommunications company, I found great pleasure, on most days, working with others to design and test complex systems. I also had the freedom to pursue my own community projects or coaching initiatives. On other days, however, I questioned whether I was making any difference. I felt instinctively that my contributions were insignificant in the machinery of the corporation.

Later I realized that all around me I saw family, friends, and clients who were also searching for meaning or fulfillment in what they did. Some found it. Some gave up. Others are still looking. According to research (The Art of Happiness at Work by Howard C. Cutler), it does not seem that any one particular occupation has the monopoly on fulfillment.

What is the source of this searching?

A Disappointed Dream

From here, I delve into speculations. Perhaps it starts with a disappointed dream. Our childhood dreams are often surprised by the weight of reality. We hoped to change the world, but find ourselves stuck in an office job. We wanted to become an inventor, but we end up maintaining other people’s inventions. We desire for the job we imagined it would be rather than what it actually is.

Another possibility is that there is also a growing uneasiness with the impact of the corporations that we work for. Certainly the creative power of a company is unrivaled. Consider that the building of a single cellphone tower involves the coordination of thousands of designers, manufacturers, managers, accountants, and a million lines of code that no one person understands. Many can do what one cannot.

Nevertheless, corporations are a recent invention as a legal entity. We are still trying to understand its role. What if the disconnect is between the corporate life purpose and the individual life purpose? A hundred thousand years ago we started a fire in a little cave and today it burns so hotly it may end up consuming the globe. We are haunted by the question, “What if what we do has no meaning? What if what we do is making things worse?”

The Intersection of Dreams and Reality

Fortunately, the intersection of dreams and reality is a place of great possibility. Should we choose to, the workplace can be that place.

This is my long route around to considering the question of finding “heart” in the workplace. When I talk about heart, I mean it in the Old English definition which refers not just to our feelings, but also all of our faculties, our intellect, and our intuition. Finding heart in the workplace refers then to finding an integration of our “self” as an individual as well as our “self” as a humanity within our role in the economy.

My dream is that all people find meaning in their lives that releases their potential in the noblest and wisest way possible. I do not believe this because it is my job… it is everyone’s job! I believe it because we have no other way of preserving the incredible beauty that we see around us… our children, our landscape, and even our clever technologies. Our collective effort is needed. Our collective heart is needed.

Who we are going to be when we grow up is of utmost importance because when when we step into the workplace, it is as if we check ourselves at the door and say that we are now a different person. In David Whyte’s book, The Heart Aroused, he says, “By leaving the magnificence of the world outside the door, we also leave any desire to really live in the world.” One of my roles as a life coach is to help people fling open the door to the magnificence of the world outside and therefore re-discover their own magnificence.

This is much harder than it sounds. Creating true value and meaning takes patience, persistence, awareness, and courage. In the workplace, that could mean retraining for a different job, challenging the existing culture, recreating relationships, or even leaving the workplace behind. Reaching towards fulfillment involves stepping outside where we are comfortable. Whyte comments, “Most of the actual prisons we inhabit we have chosen and furnished ourselves.”

Stepping Outside

I took a step outside when I saw Romeo Dallaire in person and wept tears of frustration hearing how hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda while I remained ignorant in high school. It did not take me long to run back inside so that I could continue to ignore the harsh lessons that a genocide might teach. But eventually I could not ignore it. I had no choice but to ask myself, “How do I align my job with more meaning?”

I am not saying that I have the answer. I am only trying to help people be conscious of their higher selves and to act on it in their workplace. Thus rather than let the past or current circumstances drive our actions, we choose to live by what is most important and needed.

A business is meant to serve the community, to provide a service or a product. To forget that is to forget its connection to its own heart. If heart is to be brought back into the workplace, then there may be some hard questions that have to be asked. Every company has to remember that it is part of a larger world. If there are not people who tell the tales of the outside world, then the company will find itself more and more disconnected.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.

The Training Grind

In the Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee said “Training is one of the most neglected phases in athletics. Too much time is given to the development of skill and too little to the development of the individual for participation.” What does a martial artist turned movie star have to say about our life pursuits? It turns out a lot… for people who seek to perform at a high level.

It is easy to recognize well-trained elite athletes. These athletes move with a grace and ease that unfortunately belies the incredible amount of coaching and training behind it. Consequently, we underestimate the effort required to tackle a new life project. Somehow we expect that changing careers or overcoming years of self-defeating chatter can be done instantly.

The gap between who we want to be and who we are is often the “training grind”. In boxing, it’s spending hours in the gym skipping rope, running, hitting the heavy bag. In a career change, it’s spending hours reading books, taking courses, researching for new positions. The attribute of being able to patiently and persistently do what it takes despite how tough it feels is a key characteristic of any individual seeking success.

More critical than doing the training is the way in which training is done. In badminton, I spent ten years practicing with an improper grip which severely limited my ability to generate power in my shots. As one of my instructors quipped, “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Every person needs a means of checking, verifying, and improving their training.

Athletics training is more easily understood because it is visible and concrete. But its concepts are as readily applicable to training the way in which we think or feel. For example, one client wanted to develop greater compassion. The training in this case was practicing it with people in day to day life. Checking the training involved reflecting on the client’s behaviour and finding out the impact of actions taken.

In addition to doing training and being aware of how training is done, progression is another key aspect of training. Elite athletes are continuously pushing the limits of their ability. By constantly operating at the edge of their competency, they learn to develop ever greater abilities. Likewise, we must be willing to risk failing by tackling larger and larger challenges. The reward is an ever increasing ability to shape our lives and choose our future.

Although training seems difficult or tedious, in the long-run it is enormously satisfying. Runners talk about a runner’s high. The seasoned learner sees each moment as another opportunity to think and act better than before. Training becomes a way of life. As Bruce Lee said, “Training deals not with an object, but with the human spirit and human emotions. It takes intellect and judgment to handle such delicate qualities as these.”

Chris Hsiung BSc. ACC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is an internationally certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges