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In an effort to improve my digital presence I’ve started a new blog: Brightful.ly

This blog will chronicle my time in Sri Lanka on my Fulbright.

Thanks for following!

Three weeks ago I resigned from my position as a Credit Analyst at JP Morgan Chase, to accept a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English in Sri Lanka. It was a tough decision, and I’ve had several people (whom I don’t know very well) come up to me on campus and question my decision – news spread fast on a college campus. I’ve found the biggest mental hurdle for my classmates comes down to two things, paycheck and stability.

Chase would have compensated me very well, and their credit training program is second to none. It was pretty clear to me that if I spent a few years with Chase I could network my way into private equity and make great money. Its an appealing route, and I was hesitant to rescind my contract. I was afraid that I’d burn my bridges with JP, and most other finance firms. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pay off my student loans.

I’d say my bridges are still open with JP, as they are taking me to the Yankees game tonight. As for my student loans, I’ll figure it out as I go along. I have about $80k in debt, and with the Fulbright I’ll be making (close to) nothing. At this stage in my life I can get by on a low wage, I don’t have a family to worry about.

I’m driven by learning and exploring new ideas. The Fulbright will afford me a year to live abroad and explore another culture, language, and way of life. When I lived in China for a year I was challenged in ways I could have never expected. With this foundation I know that there is so much I have let to learn, and I look forward to the challenge that awaits. I’m not quite sure where this next step will take me, and for the first time in my college career I’ve come to embrace this uncertainty.

Spindows

Several weeks back I picked up Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, its an engaging read which focuses on the ecosystems which foster innovative thought. Johnson details the slow hunch, which is a thought or idea which takes a great deal of time to evolve and build into some concrete action plan. I’ve taken up his suggestion of keeping a thought journal, and cultivating this space to allow all of the thoughts on the fringes of your mind to be recorded and distilled. Its been a great exercise thus far.

Johnson’s most striking example of a slow hunch is FBI field agent Ken Williams, and his report filed on July 10, 2001 warning of the airborne threat posed by Osama Bin Laden. For a variety of reasons this one report was not connected with other reports by field agents, and no one pieced the information together. The report alone was not enough to cause alarm, but if Ken had been connected with colleagues who found similar evidence then maybe there would have been more meaning put into his warning. This is one, albeit extreme, instance of failed communication within an organization.

Communication is a pain point for most firms. This was apparent to me during the first week I interned with a Fortune 500 firm – it took nearly the full week for me to get logged into their computer systems to start working. Clay Hebert, a former Accenture executive, is currently working on a new technology startup called Spindows. His mission with this project is to enable video speed networking across large enterprises.

Imagine Chat Roulette (minus the nudity) and Skype blended together. That is something close to what I imagine Spindows will be when its launched. I was lucky enough to see Clay speak at an Under 30 CEO Demo Pitch, and he framed Spindows as a "high-value, high-discovery" communication tool. Over the course of an hour you could meet and chat with 20-30 colleagues.Spindows utilizes tags, to facilitate discussion by pairing people with similar interests. I don’t envision few minute conversation to produce an immediate value-add for corporations, but it will surely lay the foundation for future collaboration and engagement among peers who work in the same capacity, in different geographic locations.

I believe the potential for Spindows – both in terms of impact and profit – is huge. This is clearly a pain point for large organization, and Spindows should be able to solve a great deal of their problems. Clay is an engaging speaker. His experience at Accenture lends him credibility to corporations, and his involvement in the tech scene in NYC should benefit him as he finds talent to help him execute this vision. I am excited to see this idea evolve into a real product – and if I had the resources I would love to be an investor.

Three years ago I started snowboarding. My first time out my buddy, Nick, was teaching me the basics. When we got to the mountain he took me down the mainline trail; it took me nearly 45 minutes to get down the mountain. Being thrown in over my head forced me to get the skills down, and by the end of the day I had the basics down.

Two weeks ago I went to Mt. Okemo in VT for the day. I was out with four friends, all of whom have been on skis since they were quite young. It was my first day hitting double diamonds, and the first few runs I held up the group. By the end of the day though, I was (more or less) keeping up. I have never progressed as much in one day as I did then. Being surrounded by a group of really talented skiers made me push myself like I never have before – it was the best day I’ve ever had on a mountain.

Being apart of a great team makes me want to excel. I’ve found this to be the case in every class, team, or office I’ve worked in. Surrounding yourself with exceptional people elevates your expectations.

Jianshui was once known for its role in the tea and horse trade, it was a major city along the route between Vietnam, the Dai kingdom of Xishuangbanna and the edge of the Chinese empire. The town has a wonderful Confucius temple and classical garden. It is a great place to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

The Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, is the most important holiday in China. It lasts 15 days, and it commences on the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar. This is a time of family reunions; for many migrant workers this is the only time of the year that they see their parents, spouse, and child (in many of the places I’ve traveled the children are raised by the grandparents as the parents work in urban centers and send money home). It is common for families to make dumplings (饺子), and for older family member to give their offspring gifts, especially red envelopes with cash. For the new year families put red couplets on their doorways to welcome the benevolent spirits, while firecrackers are set off to ward off the malevolent ones.

2011 is the year of the rabbit (兔). There are twelve animal signs in the Chinese zodiac, and it is common to ask someone their sign here – especially when matchmaking. The story for the order of the animals involves a fight among these twelve animals, and it was decided that a race would settle the dispute. The ox was the lead in the race, but the rat was riding on his back and jumped off to win the race at the last minute. Therefore the rat is the first year of the cycle while the ox is the second. And as the pig finished the race last, it is the capstone for the rotation.

Jianshui was awash with venders selling fireworks for the holiday; sticks of dynamite a foot long, rolls of firecrackers three feet in diameter, and bottle rockets galore. As the night set in we took to the streets, the sound of firecrackers saturated the night. It sounded as if a war was underway, people would drive by and throw fireworks out of their cars onto the streets. The police eventually came to us and told us to go to our hotel as midnight approached, as they wanted to ensure that no foreigners were harmed. As I made my way back to the hotel other students were outside, and a patrol car was sitting a few meters down the road – to make sure we were safe.

As midnight struck and the New Year was ushered in, a deafening roar overtook the city. A plume of smoke hung over the city, it was an amazing experience. I was unable to sleep well that night, as the fireworks were unending.

Of course, as The Beijing Center explicitly forbade the use of fireworks none of the students partook in that aspect of the holiday. They have good cause to issue such a commandment, as every year the emergency rooms of Chinese hospitals become overwhelmed with injuries resulting from shoddy fireworks…

Day 4 pictures

Yunnan Day 4

Day 4

Today we traveled to a Hani (哈尼) village, and we arrived a bit late due to fog so thick that you couldn’t see more than ten feet ahead of you. The village we stayed in was home to 347 families, about 1500 people. The average per person income is about 1500 rmb ($230usd), and we paid them 40rmb per person for the night – or about two weeks salary per person. We are the only group of foreigners to stay with the village all year, but we were also there during the only time that many of the younger people come home from the cities (where they are migrant workers). I felt bad interrupting this family reunion, but our host family really appreciated the extra income.

We got to our host family, and were immediately offered cigarettes; my host father became upset when I tried to decline. During the course of lunch he gave me about five cigarettes, and made sure that I smoked all of them. Lunch was a simple meal of pork, rice, potatoes, moss, and a spicy dipping sauce. There was also a bag of mono-sodium glutamate (味精), this is very common throughout China – which may explain their stomach cancer problem.

After lunch we went for a three hour hike through the terraced rice fields. It was an amazing sight, and I cannot imagine the amount of of coordination and labor that had to go into constructing these. The early dynastic governments required usually three weeks a year of labor from every man to construct dikes, irrigation, and dams. Its important to keep in mind that China is a river culture, and a strong government was essential to control the rivers and prevent flooding.

At night we returned home and sat with our host family in the smoke filled kitchen, warming ourselves with the fire and a cup of tea – enjoying the conversation. I asked our host mother how old she was, and I was surprised by how long it took her to remember. This woman spends most of her day tending to the farm animals and cooking meals while her son works the fields. My host dad asked me to give him an American name, and we came up with Robert. I wrote it out pronouncing each letter "R-O-B-E-R-T", and he wrote a few characters next to it to help him remember the pronunciation.

These were some of the warmest individuals I have ever met. I am continually amazed by the generosity of the poor, during out entire stay our host family was offering us food, drink, and cigarettes (and they purchased one of the pricier 10rmb a pack brands). Despite their poverty they made sure that I, the well off American, was always comfortable and well feed. It was a great experience.