Closing Up the “Gap Year” Chapter

The Sentimental Part

I took one last look at my comfy bed, wooden floor, coffee table, and picture windows. Two suitcases, one briefcase, ticket in hand booked from Beijing to Hong Kong.

Ready?

I closed the door.

Eight months ago, I took a leap of faith and decided to take a year off from my life as a student. It was the first time that I was not one since kindergarten. Schools are fun, and having been through 10 different schools growing up, I can confidently say that I was not so afraid of switching out yet again to a new environment.

People gave me all sorts of reactions to my decision. At first, I cared a lot. My parents were vocally against it, and my closest college friends thought I was doing something terribly stupid. But I was not without support. And looking back, I must thank those that inspired me to take this step.

Eight months passed. When I now tell someone that I took a year off, I get lots of questions:

“Why did you take a gap year?”

Because I wanted to.

“What did you do?”

A lot.

“What did you learn?”

A lot more.

I wish there was a simple way to describe it all. With words. But words do a terrible job at capturing emotions and self-actualization efficiently. The most I can do is to list out my projects and achievements in a resume-like fashion as if it was an interview. But that’s not the whole story; it’s just the cover, and maybe the table of content.

It wasn’t the professional experience from Bain, the leadership experiences from GCC, the cultural experience from Beijing, the philanthropic experience from Heart2Heart, or the entrepreneurial experience from a company I founded with my buddy back at Columbia. It was living the unpackaged life, displacing the self from the support system that it has gotten so used to. It was testing assumptions, be wrong, be right, and formulating a view less breakable, a mind less shakable. It was introspection.

How often do you think to yourself, “I’m not like that,” “That’s not who I am,” “That’s not how I do things,” or, “That’s not what I want”? If you think like this pretty often, then congratulations, you seem to know yourself pretty well. For me, these lines didn’t come up often enough throughout my three years of college. True, it was important to keep an open mind, but open-mindedness is hardly self-awareness, and one doesn’t always lead to the next, because too many different experiences at one given time can sometimes confuse you and make you less aware of the self.

Exactly one year ago, I was struggling between the idea of becoming an entrepreneur and taking the traditional corporate path. I had trouble deciding if it’s better to make a thousand acquaintances or maintain a dozen close friends. I couldn’t decide if I should dive into China as early as possible before the window of opportunities closes on me, or spend more time in the US to develop myself before doing so. I sometimes relied on the judgment of others because I didn’t trust myself enough. I had a strong desire to take my path to China and reconnect my roots but I didn’t know how.

I had a lot to reconcile.

In the past eight months, I have done each of these conflicts some justice. I’ve found some valuable insights to these questions – some answered in full, some waiting to be solved.

Eight months later, I look into the mirror, and I see someone that I know better. After all, it’s me that I have to deal with for my entire life, and getting to know myself better is probably more useful than knowing anyone else.

My Advice

I made a few summaries below based on my above-mentioned experiences in China. Hopefully, if you ever decide to take a gap year, you too can discover its magical effects.

Beijing/China – The real life doesn’t give out award certificates. No one is obligated to be your friend and to spend his or her precious time with you “hanging out.” Real life is filled with individuals who are pragmatic, materialistic, and pretentious; and most people have got an agenda of some sort behind his or her actions. Useless relationships die after one meal; useful relationships rekindle even after months-long gaps. This is true whether you’re talking to entry-level employees or attending a high-profile networking cocktail watching corporate executives do their dances. (Students, fortunately, may be the only exception here.)

Beijing is a tough place to be. It focuses the many desires of China into a tip so sharp that you can sense it in the directness of how people approach you for things. Local Chinese don’t get paid very well, so in order to make it some day they must do what it takes – sometimes things that would be considered unethical in the West. Office politics are layered in matrices of personal relationships. Sentences can be delivered in ten ways but interpreted in twenty. Thinking too much is better than thinking not enough. And never trust someone that you can’t verify through another friend.

Age/淡定 – As students we honestly don’t think much about age. We are in a system called “school” which places us in the right places at the right age. But in the real world these restrictions are looser. How old are you? How old do people think you are? How old would you like to be? How old would you need to be? But really, how old can you be? Sometimes you are at the right place at the right time, but you might be at the wrong age. In the West, youth is good. Youth is energy, opportunities, and possibilities. But in China, youth is immaturity. It equates to inexperience, which to most people screams unreliability (i.e. 不靠谱).

We often think of discrimination in terms of gender, race, and other common distinctions. But age is just as key, and twice as severe in a country that has a hierarchical system by age. What I’m trying to say is this: Don’t let age limit you, but also don’t misperceive your own mental age. At what age does one find oneself exactly? Maybe one never does. But with age, you acquire a sense of 淡定. The nirvana stage of life. The moment when you have gained full control of the self.

Management Consulting – Mergers&Inquisitions posted an excellent article about PE in China a few weeks ago. I would borrow the general idea from there and say that the difference between working for MBB in developed markets vs. their emerging market offices is just huge. I was talking to a friend who is working at the McKinsey New York office and was told that he never had trouble finding market segment data about the industries that he was covering. They just email the research department and open Outlook the next morning – and voila!

Well, the bad news is, data mining is virtually the bulk of your work in China as an intern in consulting. Industry data don’t really exist because there is not a developed set of research companies that gather these data and make profits off them – asking Chinese companies to pay for data is like asking Chinese college students to pay for .mp3 music. So instead of buying it from someone, you hire cheap labour (i.e. The PTAs) and have them find the data for you via all possible methods. (I’ll leave the methods to your imagination. And you can think of the reliability of the data given those methods.)

Purpose/Meaning of Life – I would be megalomaniac if I think that I can somehow explain the meaning of life. But the general idea here is to find it. Something. Anything. The problem with most college grads is that once one has reached the college level (or grad school for that matter – once one has finished one’s education), one is lost. One gets a job. One meets a boy/girl. One marries, has kids, and realizes it’s too late to change careers because the opportunity costs are too high.

So we all know how serious it is to take the right step right now. Without going any deeper and making this whole post about the meaning of life altogether, I want to say that whatever you do, do it for a virtuous purpose. Virtuous is the keyword here. Money, fame, bottles-and-models, are not virtuous purposes. Honor (not fame), pride (not ego), and the well-beings of others (family, friends, even strangers) are.

The Resume Version

Below, I decided to list out the milestones of this past eight months, with pictures and videos, to demonstrate that, no, I did not just waste time in China to 混. I did many things that I would’ve never been able to do without spending those eight months in Beijing. (The external photos are all linked to Picasa, so feel free to contact me if you cannot get access.)

So really, what did I do?

– October 2010 – Tsinghua University – Enrolled in an adult education program about Chinese capital markets and how SMEs can capture these opportunities.

– October 2010 – Began working at Bain & Co. as a Part-Time Assistant.

– November 2010 – Finished settling down in Beijing and began helping out GCC China Affairs Division. Arranged a series of meetings with potential partners/sponsors for GCC in Beijing (GCC website).

Meeting with 徐小平 in Beijing
Hosting meeting for GCC China Affairs Division

– December 2010 – Embarked on the fourth trip to Guizhou, China, on behalf of Heart2Heart Society, filming a short documentary denoting the society’s success story in donating to Guizhou (10min video):


优酷版本 if YouTube inaccessible:http://player.youku.com/player.php/sid/XMjc2MTI5MjEy/v.swf

– January 2011 – Helped secure a $10,000 sponsorship from American Airlines to GCC

– January 2011 – Invited as a delegate to the RENET Inaugural Sanya Conference (link)

Attending RENET Sanya Inaugural Conference

– January 2011 – Invited to attend the Sina Weibo Night (link)

Sina Weibo Night with Jack Ma
Sina Weibo Night with Zhiqiang Ren (任志强)

– March 2011 – Spoke and presented at GCC’s Third Annual Conference and Convention in New York City (photos).

Attending GCC's 3rd Annual New York Convention (formerly "GCC Day")

– April 2011 – Initiated and spearheaded a joint delegation between GCC and the MBA class of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. The two-week delegation visited Baidu, Lenovo, Innovation Works, SAP, Monitor Group, KPMG, Freshfields, Da Cheng Law Offices, Jun He Law Offices, Huiyuan Juice, Tudou.com, and the Wall Street Journal (Photos: corporate visits, cocktail).

Hosting the GCC-CKGSB Cocktail at the Beijing Raffles Hotel with the GCC Alumni Association
Led the GCC-CKGSB MBA Class Delegation to 14 Corporate Visits (photo taken at Baidu)

– April 2011 – Invited to attend the Phoenix Television 15th Year Anniversary (linkvideo)

Attending Phoenix TV 15th Year Anniversary Award Ceremony - Photo with Lord Wei, youngest Life Peer in the British House of Lords at age 33
Award Ceremony

– April 2011 – Visited the Guang Ai Orphanage in Beijing with RENET Beijing Chapter (link)

Visiting Guang Ai Orphanage with RENET

– April 2011 – Visiting Fudan University in Shanghai. Helped to coordinate the then-upcoming GCC-Harvard Conference in partnership with ASES of Fudan University.

Visiting Shanghai - Meeting with Fudan University ASES Representatives 张小雨 and 金山. ASES was a strategic partner of GCC-Harvard for a conference in May 2011

– May 2011 – Attended Heart2Heart’s Fifth Annual Fundraising Banquet. This year’s banquet committee invited JJ Lin (林俊杰) as the event’s special guest performer. The event attracted over 300 audience members and raised over $100,000CAD for charitable causes (website, photos).

Speaking at Heart2Heart's Fifth Annual Fundraising Banquet with Co-Founder Marco Chen
JJ Lin (林俊杰) auctioning off an autographed guitar to raise money for Heart2Heart

– May 2011 – Attended Columbia University’s Commencement.

Attending Columbia University Commencement for the Class of 2011

– June 2011 – Attending the first annual GCC-Carnegie conference in Beijing. The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center is the earliest Western think-tank with an office in the PRC. Chenggang Rui (芮成钢, third from left), a well-known CCTV anchor, was invited as a keynote speaker along with GCC Senior Advisor John Holden (fourth from the left) (photos).

Speaking at the GCC-Carnegie Conference on US-China Trust

The Here and Now

So I’m off the plane, checked in a hotel, and ready to start the 10 weeks on my dream internship. I launched my gap year leaving this place exactly ten months ago. Same office, same hotel, same taxis, same routes, same elevators, and many of the same people.

But this time, it’s a different me.

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6 thoughts on “Closing Up the “Gap Year” Chapter

  1. Great post David, it does sound like you matured a lot. I agree on your point about doing things for virtuous purposes; often it is too easy for graduates fall into the choice of what is easy, what is most accepted socially, without truly stopping and reflecting truly why they are doing it. To start straight away on the “easy” path is to then to follow a vapid life of just jumping through the “right” hoops as trained to do- as you mentioned, job, money, models-and-bottles, marriage, kids, train the kids to follow the same path etc… Of course, not that there is anything wrong with that, but only as long as one has fully thought it out, and is fully self-aware of the motivations behind doing so.

    Anyway, welcome back, although I know you will be going places.

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