I just got back from spending a week in Shanghai, China, and without realizing or expecting it, I am suddenly seeing the world in a very different way. Strange because I lived in China for over three years, and have returned multiple times. This experience, though, was fundamentally different than the others.
I arrived on a Sunday night, jetlagged, choking on my unpracticed Chinese words, and living in a typical Chinese style business hotel. Everyday I would wake up, walk to the subway, and head to the company's office out in the sticks of Pudong. I was in China to help a successful mobile app company create their US launch strategy, present it to the Board, and come up with their product roll-out plan. An interesting project, no doubt, but the most interesting part for me was ...
I was basically reliving the old life I had lived in China three years ago. The job was different, but the offices were strikingly close to one another. My daily schedule was remarkably the same. I met up with the same old friends in the evenings, and went to the same restaurants, bars and foot massage parlors. Same food, same smelly water, same breathtaking sunrise over the river, same frustrations, same sound pollution, same shockingly kind and friendly strangers, same momentum, same camaraderie with other foreigners, same interesting, adventurous friends, same feeling that the impossible is simply not so. Same same same.
By the end of the week, I was speaking Chinese once again as I had years ago. I had grown comfortable with the food again. I'd even sunk back into the old habit of walking around the office park's garden area on my own at ~3pm, automatically launching my thoughts into planning elaborate escape routes back to America. I'd suddenly remember that this time was different, no need to devise escape routes, I was leaving on Saturday.
At the end of this bizarre week or reminiscing, something crucial happened. During the board meeting, as I was presenting the 24 month financials on the product rollout in the US, one of the board members asked, "So, I see that you have headcount in the US for a few people. Surely these can't be Chinese people. Who are they going to be?" The CEO of the company jumped in, answering in speedy, slurred Chinese, hoping I wouldn't understand. "We will hire her, she will head up our office in Silicon Valley."
Rather than feel flattered, I suddenly felt worried. I have finally left the workplace to be out on my own. I've really done this, and I'm doing just fine on my own. Slowly but surely I'm gathering more projects, and seeing the success from the previous consulting projects. I love the flexibility. I thoroughly enjoy the travel and the new people. Oddly, I left the office that evening feeling disoriented and concerned that I might be the US general manager of a company that makes feature phone video chat applications, devoting my life to random encounters over Wifi, 3G and cellular networks. Why would I accept that job? It's scary to be out on your own.
As I swam along with the sea of people in the subway that evening, I observed everyone around me. Each was ending a long week of work or school or retirement, heading home to their boxy apartments in the enormous city of 20 million, playing games on their phones, chatting with their friends, trendsetting with various gadgets and hair 'dos. I then truly realized something dramatic: most of us will live and die and be forgotten.
It is macabre, but it's true. Despite our best efforts, we might be forgotten. The best chance we have is making sure that we devote ourselves to something truly meaningful.
Most companies will start and end and be forgotten as well. Most things, and concepts and activities will have the same fate. Here I was, back in Shanghai, the only person reminiscing my own life and the things that I did in China at one time. It's time to start examining the time spent on what, and making sure that the most effort goes to the most good.