On a beautiful spring afternoon our team in Vancouver interviewed John at Fasken Martineau on the 29th floor meeting room in downtown Vancouver. John had a great sense of humour which we could all relate to and we remember laughing hysterically for about half of our interview session. After the interview, John took us all out for steak and wine at the famous Joey’s restaurant in downtown Vancouver. We were able to connect in so many different levels and would like to once again thank John for spending his Friday night with us.
“ In pursuit of excellence, remember to love yourself”
Why did you decide to be a lawyer? Is there a specific incident as to why you chose this path?
Up until the fourth year of University, I did not know what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I wanted to do something that would make my parents proud. If I may be completely honest with myself, that was the main motivation. It was a path that seemed respectable and not a complete waste of time, so I gave it a shot. But for law school intervening, I suspect I would have pursued something in academia. My father is an academic and my mother is a writer, so it would have been the natural default choice.
Being able to identify what you really want to do, however easy that may sound, is one of the most difficult things to do in the world. People who are able to identify their long term goals in life early have a tremendous head start. The two best examples in the world are Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. They both dropped out of university. How many of us would have the certainty and courage to drop out of an elite academic program mid-stream? Most of us do not have that kind of wisdom or focus at that stage in our lives. Jobs and Gates are geniuses not necessarily because of their IQ, but because of their ability to identify their life goals early, bring their life into focus and of course execute their vision.
What does Korea mean to you? Do you still have a strong bond to Korea?
I do (have a strong bond to Korea) because I spent half (of) my life there. I have vivid memories of my education there, as well as of work experiences. I remember my parents drilling into my head the fact that I am Korean. (That fact was) an immutable truth, whether I wanted to be or not, for better and for worse. My peer group (while I was) growing up in Toronto mostly consisted of non-Koreans. There was very little about my life outside of the home to stimulate any awareness of my identity as a Korean. But as I grew older, as I gained in experience and my ambitions developed, as my responsibilities widened and my goals came into sharper focus, as my emotional and spiritual requirements became more complex, I grew to appreciate my roots as a source of great strength. I began to identify with it, whereas in my earlier years I did my best to ignore it. I am not saying I suddenly became a Korean patriot. Appreciating your roots serves a more fundamental function. Roots are a basic pre-condition to personal prosperity. True knowledge of your roots will inform your development of a realistic sense of self which itself is an important building block to achieving one’s true potential. Take orphans as an example. Orphans are, genetically speaking, no different from those with parents. And yet, statistically, we know that the odds are generally stacked against them in terms of succeeding in life and that they are at a comparative disadvantage to the average person who grows up with even a single, loving parent. While there are many things missing in the lives of orphans that explains why orphans are at a disadvantage, critical is the fact that orphans rarely grow up with a sense or appreciation of their personal history. They are unable to tap into the storehouse of knowledge and emotional fortitude that comes with having a family, an ancestry.
We would like to hear some interesting stories about your experience in Hyundai Securities in Seoul, Korea.
It was a wonderful learning experience. It taught me sobering lessons about the workplace and my place in the world. Upon graduation from school, I naively felt I could take on the world. Working in Korea made me realize many things, including how difficult and very competitive life is. It was a constant struggle and I feared I would drown the moment I gave anything less than maximum effort, time and energy to my job. But the process of struggle is where the opportunity is to learn. That is where the growth is. Learning the language, business mannerisms and culture turned out to be tremendous personal assets. So it was a valuable educational experience for me. It was of course, challenging to say the least. I remember using dictionaries all the time. I was working in the financial sector at the time, so the vocabulary wasn’t necessarily something that even the average native Korean speaker would be familiar with. I bought at least five types of dictionaries. I learned to be a better communicator in the Korean language. What my parents used to tell me began to make more sense to me as well. Wayne Gretzky said that by the time you realize what your parents told you is true, your own kids will be telling you you’re wrong. When you are a student, there is a huge disconnect with your parents because you each occupy such different worlds, with different priorities and concerns. Once you start working, bridging the divide becomes a step easier. The experiences are now more shared. Once you get married, the connection and appreciation become stronger, although there may still not necessarily be agreement. Once you have kids, you are full circle and this is when you start bowing to your parents realizing many of the things they were trying to tell you were right all long.
How do you see the Korean community in Canada? How can it improve itself?
I think it’s in a transition period. Our community in Canada is approaching what I would call an inflection point, a critical watershed. We are getting to the point where we either get to the next level or stagnate and fail. There is no middle ground. Treading water and observing the status quo will mean the same thing as failure for the community. We don’t have the long history of immigration as the Chinese or the Japanese in Canada do; but in terms of numbers and of our shared economic resources, we are at the stage where we can actually achieve great things if we choose to. It is no longer appropriate for us to claim racism, economic hardship or language barriers are hindering our progress in this country. I’m not saying such obstacles do not exist, I’m not naïve, but I’m just saying there is no excuse for us not to do better. I’ll give you an example. Up until a few years ago, there were just a handful of professionals in Canada of Korean heritage, I mean lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, etc. Things have changed. We’re seeing progress being made. There are now more of us, with bigger ambitions, a meaningful stake in this society and a stronger will to excel. We have to encourage that.
The problem is that it is never easy negotiating that inflection point. I don’t have all the answers, but, at the risk of some controversy, I would like to see a little more ruthlessness in the way Koreans pursue excellence and success. The successful communities in Canada have all employed this mind-set in one form or another. The issue with our community is that we have a bevy of convenient excuses which we like to rely on to explain away why we have not, and perhaps cannot, do better. We like to share our miseries, collectively bemoaning the injustices and the hard breaks we as Koreans have experienced in Canada. It seems at times the only thing more popular is the joy we feel at the misfortune befallen on members of our own community. Schadenfreude is a favorite Korean community past time. Standing out too much is not a good thing in the Korean community. If one does exceptionally well, that person will have as many detractors as supporters. This is extremely unfortunate. How are we to succeed as a community if we take such delight in ripping down those of us who dare to lofty heights? We should not be making martyrs out of trailblazers from our own community. It is far better to expend our energies making sure the environment is fertile for more of us to join in on the success. We need to stop thinking like victims and start believing we are winners.
Analogous attitudes also exist for example in the African American community in the United States. Bill Cosby got into hot water a number of years ago because he expressed his dismay at the utter lack of respect for the English language that he saw in young African Americans. “Ghetto speak” was becoming acceptable in the community. It somehow showed that the person was “keeping it real”. Conversely, speaking proper English meant you were somehow a turncoat, that you had lost touch with your ghetto roots. Excelling in school was a source of embarrassment in your peer group. Cosby, an educated man with a Ph.D, was beside himself. He asked how we could expect others to treat the black community and its members with any respect when we can’t even put together a proper sentence? Instead of being a rallying cry, Cosby was accused of being insensitive and out of touch with his own community. He was dismissed in many black community circles as an example of a brother who had lost touch with his roots because success had gone to his head. But really all he was doing was telling his community that it was about time they stopped blaming history for their plight and started focusing on ways to improve their lot, starting with demanding higher standards from young blacks. Cosby understood that the psychology of misery and victimhood would only further breed mediocrity in the community. He wanted to raise the bar because he believed his community was capable of reaching it.
I see parallels in our community. But really what excuses do we have now? I see none worth dwelling on too long. We certainly can’t say we are poor or lack education. We are ready to be excellent.
What does it mean to have a vision?
Dumb question, but suffice it to say for something to be a true vision, it has to be sustainable over the long term, it must give you the reason for being.
What is one characteristic you believe that every leader must have?
“Self-love”, which is distinguishable from “self-esteem”. This is a crucial distinction. It ties back to knowledge of the self and the pursuit of excellence. There is an interesting experiment that was conducted by the US military in the hopes of discovering what made successful people successful. The experimenters identified a group of successful men and women using objective criteria and peer recommendations. They compared this group with another control group selected randomly and asked both groups of people, ‘What are the most important things in your life?’ and asked that the respondents rank them in priority one to three. The researchers studied the responses and two things immediately jumped out. First was the degree of seriousness the successful group took the question compared to the control group. The first person to list all three items from the successful group took well over 40 minutes! Many of them took over an hour to write down all three answers, even as the room was emptying. The second point was even more amazing. While the 2nd and 3rd most important things listed were basically all over the map for both groups of people, every one of the successful group of people listed “myself” as the most important thing in his/her life. No exceptions. Now these were all people who were loved and respected by their family and peers, so their answer could not be the result of warped narcissism. What the researchers concluded was that the answer was instead an expression of mature self-love. Self-love implies care, knowledge and responsibility of and for the self. Only when you love yourself can you truly love others. And without this quality, this ability to love others, one cannot be a true leader in my opinion. Leaders may seem self-centered and self-absorbed, but it is only because they understand that unless they themselves are excellent, they cannot meaningfully do much for anybody else. Notice though that self-love is different from self-esteem. There is a difference between insisting that we regard ourselves as important, which is self-love, and requiring that we always feel good about ourselves, even in the face of clear evidence that something is not right and that corrections need to be made, which is the hallmark of those with a strong sense of self-esteem.
Leadership is not an entitlement; it is an obligation in all of us. Everybody has a responsibility to be a leader. If you’re not a leader, or if you’re not thinking and acting like a leader, or at least trying to be one, you’re essentially abdicating your right to have a say in society, you’re just (going) along for the ride. But make no mistake, being a passive observer in life is a particularly harmful lifestyle, not just to the practitioner, but to everyone around them. To paraphrase Einstein, "evil things happen because good people let them happen. But you can only make a difference if you are active and have nurtured and positioned yourself to have a say in the first place."
Where do you see yourself in the long run? Do you have a vision for yourself?
You are probably asking me the question at the wrong point in my life because I am heading into an inflection point myself. I’m less certain today about where I will be in say 10 years, but I do know that it will not be a life of ease and convenience since I know anything worth achieving will be difficult.
I should mention that, I think it is quite natural to seek material gratification. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It would be a bad thing however for that to be the overriding motivation at age 60. There is a time and place for everything and some of the baser motivations are what actually drive young people to excellence, so in that regard those motivations are useful. At some point though, you should want more, and I don’t mean materialistically. You start to reflect on your place in the universe and yes even about death. Steve Jobs gave a great commencement speech to the graduating class of Stanford in 2005. That speech is now the stuff of legend and I would encourage people to check it out. He touches on some interesting themes and one of them is death. Death, as he puts it, is the ultimate change agent. It crystallizes those things in life that are important and washes away those elements that are not. Nothing focuses our attention like the prospect of our own demise. It is with the recognition of our mortality that we develop those life goals that should drive us. Don’t get me wrong - I don’t think it is natural or desirable for young people to obsess over death. I just wanted to illustrate the importance of focusing on what you want to do in life early, developing a plan and just going for it. None of us have time to lose.
Do you have any final advice for inspiring potentials?
Be ambitious, be excellent, mediocrity is not an option, push yourself, grow in the process, and pursue everything with discipline and perseverance. Nothing comes easily or automatically to anyone. And remember to love yourself so that you can love others meaningfully.
About John C.H. Kim
- Immigrated from Korea at the age of six
- BA in History from UBC
- LLB from Osgoode Hall law School (York University)
- Former Vice President at Hyundai Securities in Seoul, Korea
- Currently a corporate and energy lawyer at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, with 700 lawyers and offices all over the world, one of Canada’s largest and most distinguished law firms.
- Member and a former executive of the International Association of Korean Lawyers
- Director and Executive Member of the Canada Korea Business Association
- Director of SUCCESS Foundation, British Columbia’s largest non-profit social services organization.
Interview Date : May. 14, 2010
Interviewers: Chris Heebum Lee, Stella Chun, Steve Ha
Photographer: Brian Hansol Kang
Editors: Chris Heebum Lee, Susan Soojin Hwang
The views expressed in the interviews are not necessarily reflective of JoinTheLeaders' opinion.