Wow, talk about a big surprise. Today I gave a presentation on career development in an American context to the students of Incheon Foreign Language High School in Incheon, Korea. I’d prepared for the presentation for about a week and thought I would receive a cordial welcome from the 150 students who came to hear my presentation. Instead, I felt like a musician at a rock concert. I usually feel like an average Joe (no offense to all the guys named Joe out there). I had a blast basking in 1 hour and 20 minutes of fame. You can’t help but feel special and uplifted by that. The students’ enthusiastic reaction to my visit was completely unexpected. I arrived to a banner strung across the school’s entrance announcing my presentation. After visiting for 15 minutes with the school’s principal, I went to the auditorium and was met by thunderous applause and whistling. (Whistling by students in Korea–who ever heard of such a thing?) Somewhere in heaven, I’m sure Andy Warhol smiled, bemused.
Much to my chagrin, I sent an earlier version of the PowerPoint presentation I’d prepared for my speech, so the multimedia component lacked some pizzazz. I had to ad lib and talk about some of the changes I’d made from the previous version. I worked the crowd, giving them many personalized examples to pique their interest. These students are some of the best in Korea, and I surmised that most are hoping to attend Korea’s top universities or elite schools overseas. I told them about the story of Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard University to found Microsoft with two friends (Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer). I counter-weighted that example with the example of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google who graduated from Stanford University and lined up funding for Google from Stanford. I also used the example of my wife, an alumna of a similar foreign language school in Shanghai. After she graduated, she went to the U.S. and eventually became vice president of a small bank in Washington State. I used these examples to show how career development in the U.S. is an individualized endeavor and that there’s no single way to have a successful career. I wanted the students to know that in the U.S. they don’t need to go to Harvard or Stanford to be successful. I wanted to impress on them that success is a state of mind, that success in the American context is whatever the person considers to be success.
The students asked many excellent questions, particularly about studying in the U.S. The way they responded to my presentation made it obvious that most knew English well. They humored me with "ooh’s and ah’s" whenever I used my meager Korean. The tone of the presentation was lighthearted and informative. The highlight was when I did something completely unexpected and sang a few verses from the Beatles’ song, "Yesterday." During the question and answer session, the students’ microphone abruptly went silently, and to kill time I decided to sing for them. My interpreter, a veteran in the profession, said afterward that she had never heard anyone sing during a speech. Because Koreans are crazy for noraebang (karaoke) and pride themselves on being able to sing, I thought I would entertain them with a little serenading. I also did it to show that Americans are just little bit different. An American, moreso than a Korean, would have the gumption to sing during a speech. I’m positive that they will never forget the time when an American official showed up in a suit and started singing during a speech. After my presentation ended, I transformed myself into politician and marched down the center aisle to shake students’ hands. I felt like a prize fighter after a successful match. I could tell from their faces that most enjoyed my presentation. I just hope that through all the entertaining and frivolity they heard my core message–that career development is up to them, and that they need to realize that there are many ways to find the "American Dream." I think they were listening.