Saturday, 7 November 2015

Professor Michael Sandel and Yahoo! Jerry Yang.

Today’s paper showcased two noble men. One is a professor and the other a technology honcho. They spoke about things that money cannot buy. One gave a lecture in NUS’s Cultural Center and the other gave an interview about his life and success at Yahoo!

Professor Michael Sandel started the ball rolling when he said, “Today, there are very few things that money can’t buy. The greater the tendency to put a price on everything, the greater the risk that market thinking will erode or crowd out non-market values (that have) to do with community, family civil life. We need to have a public debate about where market values serve the public and where they do not.”

Next comes Jerry Yang. He spoke about his humble beginnings before he became the CEO of Yahoo! He took that name Yahoo! because he wanted to laugh at himself. “Yahoo” refers to someone who is “uncivilized and rude.” He recalled this quote: “Sit loosely in the saddle of life.” Mm…as an aside, maybe the issue with us is that we take ourselves too seriously and see every fall from the saddle of life as a personal failure (a personal indictment) instead of a lesson to be learned (where we swiftly hop back onto our saddle to continue our journey of discovery).

When Jerry (at 10 years old), his mother and brother came to America (from Taiwan), he admitted that he knew only one English word “shoe”. Over the years, he worked hard, aced an advanced English placement class, got his Bachelor and Masters from Stanford University, founded Yahoo! and became its CEO from 2007 to 2009. He attributed his success to what money cannot buy, that is, his mother’s support, hard work, and perseverance.

Lesson? Three simple ones.

1) Indeed, there are few things that money cannot buy. No doubt money talks. But at times, where it really matters, it remains mute, reserved and silent. What speaks louder (than money) when the rubber meets the road is to “stick to your guns” – as Jerry Yang puts it. “When I told my Mom that I was stepping out of my Ph.D. to start a company and basically sell “Internet advertising” for a living, she wasn’t too keen on the idea, but she supported me.” Now that is one “non-market value” that money cannot even hope to buy. It is the love, faith and trust of a loved one or two.

I guess the opposite of wealth is not poverty, it is the misguided belief that when you have money, everything will somehow fix itself, turn out good, and you will make it big. There is no greater poverty of thought than that mindset.

2) Professor Sandel was quizzed yesterday about monetary motivation. He doubted the benefits of paying children to get good grades or read more, which is akin to putting a price on curiosity, inspiration and education.

However, one member of the audience claimed that it works in Singapore. It reports that “one father pays his three-year-old and 18-month-old to read storybooks – and that it can be argued that a good salary and job are the “payment” for working hard in the school system.”

This was the good Professor’s rejoinder – not in a form of an answer – but one that opens up the horizon for more critical reflection: “Prof Sandel then brought up an American experiment where schoolchildren were paid $2 for each book they read. This had the pupils picking up more books, but also choosing shorter ones to read. This could indicate the failure of the experimental aim, which was to develop a love for reading. I question whether all values can be translated without loss into a single uniform value of money.”

I guess there are many reasons for success. The worse ones are those that sacrifice long term growth for short term gains (or those that miss the forest for the trees).


3) Jerry Yang urges his listeners to be curious. “Don’t ever lose your enthusiasm and sense of wonder. Never stop learning.” This is a good lesson in life. We will do well to germinate it in our heart when adversity (self-doubts and discouragement) comes a knocking.

I guess what makes “non-market values” priceless is that it is not subject to the overriding economic principle of scarcity. You can’t put a price on mother’s love, her faith and trust in you, or a persevering spirit, or the compelling desire to learn from one’s mistakes and failure and to move forward in life. They simply exist in abundance (when tapped upon) and to put a price tag on them would just screw up the entire supply and demand system of pricing.

And what makes them truly beyond money (or pricing) is that these values account for the most enduring impact of one’s success in life. Nothing ever last if it is motivated by what is external to us like money, fame and power. It is that which is within us, the intangibles, the unseen faith and hope, and the unwavering, unconditional love, that makes the greatest difference in our life. Cheerz.

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