As I sit near the beach close to my home, I am contemplating the tragic deaths of those who died in a recent crowd surge in Itaewon. The latest reports have the death toll at 151 with the vast majority of those who died under the age of 30. Most were in their early 20s. Halloween in Seoul did not become the joyous occasion everyone anticipated. I can’t help but ask the eternal question- why? Why did so many young kids lose their lives while people like myself struggle forward and continue to move on one step at a time?
I think none of us will ever know the answer to the above-mentioned question. Why some people live and others die will remain unanswered- at least in our lifetime. And perhaps that’s how it should be. We don’t know the workings of the Universe, even as it relates to our lives. If so, what question should we then ask or what should we do? It is obvious we cannot control events but it is equally obvious we can control our actions toward those events.
I think all of us must be grateful for our lives and those family members and friends in them. Gratefulness is something we all should feel regardless of how a bad day we are having. After all, we are still alive! Unlike the poor families who lost their sons and daughters, our families most probably do not have to mourn. But what else? Is gratefulness enough? I think the human soul strives for more than gratefulness. It strives for a sense of worth or accomplishment. Gratefulness is part of it. But so is striving to do something worthwhile.
For those of us who retired, a sense of worth no longer comes from a job or job title. Even some who continue to work may not feel self-worth through a job. I’ve read that approximately 75 % of those who work do not like their jobs. If that’s the case, where doe one find self-worth? The answer is obvious. By following your dreams or your passion. Or, by doing something that can make a difference in someone else’s life, no matter how small. Make someone happy today.
It’s really about honoring those who came before us or died before their time. Celebrate their lives by taking action- follow your dreams and make the most of your life. After all, that was what they were trying to do. What does that entail? Well, you need to think about a number of issues and ask yourself tough questions. Many people tend to work in jobs they don’t like or take up professions they are not too excited about because it’s easier to do so than really figure out what makes them happy. Figuring out what makes you happy and taking steps to follow your dreams may not be as easy as you think. You need to ask yourself a number of questions such as:
Many people, unfortunately, go through life without thinking seriously about their dreams, aspirations, and passions. They tend to stumble through life in a zombie-like manner. To honor those who came before you or who have died before their time, I think it is incumbent on all of us to think about our lives and how to make our lives richer and more fulfilling. To honor those before you, follow your dreams.
Sitting at my desk overlooking the beach in Busan has started me thinking about my life, career, and of course the major events in my life. I can only express gratitude for all the opportunities that have come my way and am constantly amazed at how things unfold.
Last year, I retired from my current position at Lee & Ko and for all intents and purposes put up my lawyer hat. Perhaps I will do something else, whether it involves law or not who knows. But after turning 65, and looking back upon my 40-year odyssey as a lawyer, I cannot help but wonder how I ended up where I am.
Well, where am I?
Of course, physically I am in South Korea. But my work has taken me around the world. I worked for several multinationals, a major Korean university, and the second largest law firm in Korea. My career, which had its ups and downs, ended on a high note. Having authored several books, taught law at a local university in Seoul, and counseled several of the world’s largest electronic companies along the way, looking back my legal career was rather successful. Even though I did not receive stellar grades in law school, nor graduate in the top ten percent of my class (what one must do these days to work for a distinguished law firm) how did I end up having a successful career?
The Universe opened several doors, which I was willing to walk through. When I first came to Korea in the mid-1980s, many thought it was unsafe. Folks back home still thought of South Korea as a third-world country. They thought of MASH when I talked about South Korea. But, I still walked through the door!
I was willing to do anything to follow a dream. Though I started out my legal career as a public defender in Tampa, Florida I wanted to get involved in international business and international law, especially in Asia. I went so far as to prepare for the GMAT and take undergraduate courses in economics and calculus in order to prepare for getting an MBA. Though I could have applied to various MBA programs I chose Seattle as it was a dynamic city with connections to Asia. I moved to Seattle from Florida and was accepted into the University of Washington’s MBA program. Though I put my legal career on hold while studying I constantly thought of an international career in business or law. That led to applying for an in-house position with Samsung and eventually being hired by Samsung in Korea as its first full-time US lawyer. And of course, I met my wife shortly after moving to Korea.
My career had its ups and downs, but I am eternally grateful for everything I have experienced, accomplished and have been given in my life. I’ve done more than I set out to do. So here are my suggestions:
So, what about your dreams and aspirations? Are you ready to walk through the door when it opens? Are you ready to take action, push yourself and prepare for opportunities that will come your way? Yes, opportunities will come. You just have to be ready to grab them.
My life as an ex-pat started in 1986 when I moved to Seoul, Korea. Hired by Samsung to work as a lawyer for the Samsung Group companies (the only foreign lawyer at the time) , I found myself in one of the world’s largest cities working for a dynamic, growing group of companies (we call them “Chaebols” in Korean) that would soon become known around the world for electronics and semiconductors amongst other things. Moving to Korea from the US was indeed a shock as I did not speak Korean at that time. I made the move as the job I was offered sounded quite fascinating as was the chance to live abroad in Asia. It was time for adventure.
From a career standpoint moving to Seoul to work for Samsung proved to be one of the most important decisions I ever made. I was exposed to a wide variety of international legal issues and problems, more than I ever could have experienced in the US. From a personal standpoint, my life also changed for the better as I made a host of international friends (Korean and ex-pats) and of course met my wonderful wife-who worked for Samsung at the time. As it turned out, taking the risk of working for a company I had little knowledge about in a country I had never been to before was the best career choice I could have ever made. I think taking risks is the best thing you can do when it comes to your career. In fact, moving overseas to another country can not only enhance your career but help you re-invent yourself.
Looking back on my life as an ex-pat in Korea, here are a few things I learned and experience
When moving from the US to Korea, one may not be prepared for the housing that is available. Samsung provided my housing as per the employment agreement, but it was certainly not what I expected. The apartment or condo (in Korea most people live in apartment complexes and not stand-alone houses) was small. The heating system was old and the kitchen was almost nonexistent. In fact, when I first moved into my apartment there was no heat. They forgot to turn the heat on before I moved in. I made do, bought a heater for the apartment, cooked simple dishes for myself, and learned to live comfortably in a small space. Once I learned to live comfortably, I realized I could probably live anywhere- at least in Asia. But many Americans would have trouble living in that kind of space. When you move to a new country you really need to have an open mind when looking at housing.
Making friends in a foreign country is important. Fortunately for me, there was an ex-pat living in my complex who I made friends with and who gave me invaluable advice for living in Seoul. As Samsung’s main English teacher at the time, his friendship would lead to my becoming friends with his friends leading to an expansion of connections in Seoul that would enhance my life in Korea. I not only learned about Korean culture from him and his friends but picked up a little Korean and started my lifelong love affair with Korea and its people. It’s important to make friends as soon as you can when you move to a foreign country to help provide a support group. I learned a great deal about Korean culture, food, and life in general from a few close ex-pat friends as well as Samsung colleagues.
3. Professional Life
Back in the 1980s, professional business life in Korea was quite dynamic. The various Chambers (such as the American Chamber of Commerce) were quite active leading to a chance to attend numerous meetings with ex-pat businessmen and businesswomen from all over the world. The multinational companies, financial institutions, and organizations were all present so it was rather easy to meet the Country Manager or CFO, etc. of a multinational just walking down the street. Lunch and breakfast meetings with other ex-pats, especially businessmen became quite common. I was not only able to get to know my Samsung colleagues (most of whom were Korean lawyers, paralegals, and general managers) but US and European ex-pats as well. If you are working abroad as an ex-pat, immersing yourself in the business community is very important for obvious networking reasons. Don’t just stay in your office or cubicle. Make friends, socialize and travel around the country. I joined the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) which sponsored trips around Korea and offered lectures on Korean history and culture.
Though I never did become fluent in Korean (I am still studying Korean to this day) I learned enough to get around Seoul. Ordering food at a restaurant can be a daunting task but once you learn a few words not quite so difficult. Trying to learn Korean really opened my eyes to the importance of language. I think it is important for any ex-pat, regardless of where you live, to learn a little of the local language. I admit I am envious of the Korean and Japanese businessmen I have met who are fluent in 3 or 4 languages. As soon as you land in your new country you should try and learn a little of the language. It really helps.
5. Family Life
Though the current trend in Korea is for workers to seek a work-life balance (which is different from the US) when I worked in Korea, working 6 days a week was common. Sunday was the day one could spend with their family. Women primarily were housewives and took care of the family, household expenses, and children’s education. As Korea deemed education very important (and indeed education lifted Korea out of poverty) Korean mothers made certain their children studied very hard. The term “tiger mom” comes to mind. One thing I learned after my children were born was the fact my wife knowingly and willingly put up with my “career at Samsung” and the long hours it involved. She never complained. She expected me to put in long hours as she took care of the house and the children. Things may be changing now but I think it bears repeating that when you move overseas, you will find that though people really want basically the same thing, culture will certainly color the concepts of family and work. And if you marry, the odds are there will be some cultural differences you and your spouse will have to get used to. Be flexible and open-minded.
6. Career and Retirement
As an ex-pat in Korea, I have found that after retiring there are few really pressing needs. There is no longer an office to go to or a deadline to meet. In fact, I am at a coffee shop overlooking one of my favorite beaches sipping an ice tea. Time, therefore, takes on a different meaning than for many people caught up in the daily rat race. But in fact, it should serve to remind you that long-term interests, issues, risks, and plans are more important than short-term gratification, issues, and interests. Things tend to unfold gradually not instantly. It may take a while to see 5 years or 10 years down the road but that is more important in the long run than thinking about what today or tomorrow will bring. So, if you move to another country, whether Korea or elsewhere you should still develop a long-term plan. Ask yourself the tough questions- Why have you moved abroad? What is your 3 or 5-year plan? What are your long-term goals? Some people move without a plan or thinking it through which can lead to disaster down the road. So, when moving abroad whether for retirement or for a job, or even to just re-invent yourself, develop a long-term plan.
In conclusion, I’ve found living in Korea as an ex-pat to be very rewarding from a career and personal standpoint. I highly recommend moving to another country for a variety of reasons- you will definitely find such a move will take you out of your comfort zone and will expand your horizons. Remember, wherever you go, there will be cultural differences. So keep an open mind and go with the flow. In essence, don’t sweat the small stuff.
I remember when I first arrived in Korea in 1986. I was a young lawyer, the first foreign lawyer to work in-house for Samsung. It was an exciting time as Korea and Samsung were rapidly changing. Samsung was expanding rapidly and Korea was in the midst of the “Miracle on the Han”. It seemed that we were creating companies left and right. The Samsung group was expanding and I was a part of it. A little cement and water and we had a new company! Growth was everywhere. Not only growth but change as well. I really didn’t think about it but Korean society was changing too. In fact, I realize now that change is constant, even in retirement.
The fact that there is change even in retirement was brought home to me recently. When I first came to Korea in 1986 I went mountain climbing with my Samsung colleagues. We climbed Mt. Sorak..ie Soraksan. Upon climbing up one of the peaks I discovered an old lady who had climbed up with a bucket of magkeoli ( Korean rice wine) to sell to thirsty climbers. I was amazed she had made it to the top to sell magkeoli but later found this to be a common occurrence in Korea. If I recall correctly, the old lady had on high heels too. I would later joke to my friends that once I retired I was going to sell magkeoli on Soraksan. Recently, I made it back to Soraksan and to the top of one of the peaks. I expected to see an old lady selling magkeoli…but no. No one was selling alcohol at all. Why? Selling alcohol had been banned. Things have changed.
Obviously, not only people but companies and organizations have to realize that change is everywhere and must plan for it. They have to be ready to handle the usual legal and risk issues that they normally face as well as those issues and liabilities caused by the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as supply chain issues. Change means of course that the normal areas of risk whether legal, operational, geo-political or financial will all of course have to be dealt with. Therefore, a company’s crisis management plan must consider pandemics such as Covid. But also, the normal everyday areas of risk that can and will result in loss of business must be addressed as well.
So, even in retirement, I have noticed changes around me. Customs change. Even laws, rules, and regulations governing our lives change. Cities and neighborhoods change as well. Whether you are working or retired, you cannot count on your life to be static as usual. Life is really never as usual. There really is no same old same old. Everything around us changes, maybe slowly and maybe slightly, but it changes. You may be too caught up in work or in life to notice the subtle changes around you. But change is everywhere if you look. Are you ready for change?
I am currently looking out of my living room window at the Pacific Ocean. I always enjoy the view, especially in the morning. Having a cup of coffee while looking at the ocean is very refreshing and is a moment I look forward to every day. And of course, walking on the beach is nice too. However, I recently fell and fractured my foot. No walking for me for 4 weeks…urgh! Balance is important.
I returned from my trip to the States 4 weeks ago. I spent 3 weeks in the US visiting kids, grandkids, and family. The main impetus for the trip was my grandson Mile’s 1st birthday. Anyone who knows anything about Korean families understands how important the 1st birthday is in Korean culture. Obviously, my wife and I had to travel to the US for his birthday. The birthday celebration went very well with the customary pictures and the traditional Korean celebration.
Being retired gives me the flexibility of course to make my schedule. It's easier to book trips to the US or elsewhere (as countries open up from Covid) than it was when I was working. My wife, however, still works and therefore is not as flexible as I am. Owning her own business helps, but she still has to worry about back office details all the time. So, its not like we are both retired, however, we are not tied down to jobs like many people are. We are flexible enough to travel when we want to. So when you retire I think you need to realize that balance is important. You need to balance your retirement plans with your spouse’s plans.
While in the US we visited several cities including New York, New Orleans, and Chicago. Bourbon Street in New Orleans was in full swing. The clubs were open, restaurants were packed (we had to make reservations or stand in line) and people were enjoying themselves---maybe too much. In NYC and Chicago restaurants were open and businesses were starting to re-open again. In Korea, we no longer have to wear masks, worry about quarantine, or be concerned about eating inside a restaurant.
I am hoping to enjoy more of Korea as soon as I get back on my feet so to speak. I still have to wait a few weeks.
A note about the Korean medical system. It’s fantastic! After I injured my foot I went to the emergency room of a local hospital. They immediately x-rayed me, put a cast on my foot, and then the doctor met with me and my wife about my injury. And of course, I was given medicine. All for less than $100. There was a follow-up a week later with more x-rays, a meeting with the doctor before and after the x-rays, and a new cast which cost a similar sum. What got me about the medical services besides the very cheap cost was the speed the services were given. There really was no waiting to see a doctor and no waiting (maybe 15-20 minutes) for the x-rays. I sincerely doubt I could have gotten this kind of attention in the US without a long wait, etc. Now I need to work on my balance.
I am relaxing on the patio of my apartment overlooking the beach. The surfers are out as the waves are rather large for this time of year. Perhaps it is because of a storm in nearby Japan. Anyway, the surf is up and everyone appears to be having a good time.
Though I am relaxing, I’ve been contacted by friends in the legal industry looking to fill in-house positions. I haven’t been that active in the in-house world as of late. But because of old contacts, I do hear things. You would think I would have a list of potential candidates to recommend but of course not really. How many colleagues and acquaintances have stayed in touch with me. Not many. The reason is of course simple, out of sight out of mind.
Once you retire you are no longer seen in the business world. You are no longer seen at seminars or even on the street. Colleagues stop calling. This is natural. It actually takes a little getting used to, as almost everyone who retires drops out of the workforce. Once they do, those still in the workforce stop thinking about them.
What those still working forget, is that their colleagues or friends who have retired still maintain some of their connections. And on occasion, like the situation I currently find myself in, we are asked to provide recommendations if we can. Do I know of potential candidates to fill a senior position?
What I find rather amusing or even perplexing is that a number of colleagues and even those I have mentored over the years have stopped staying in touch once I have retired. Perhaps they figure I am not too interested in their careers anymore. Some of course have stayed in touch and are now benefiting from what contacts I still have. I think people should understand that just because you retire does not mean the connections you have built up over a lifetime goes away automatically. I still hear things.
So for those still working who have mentors or colleagues that have retired I recommend the following: