Having read the 100-Year Life book, I would like to share my story using some of the basic frameworks of the book.
I will share how I began my life with the conventional 3-stage paradigm, did something crazy in each of the stages, and achieved some results I had not expected to realize multiple possible selves.
I will also focus on how I created and treated my tangible assets as well as the three major components of intangible assets: productive, vitality and transformational assets.
I was born in Hong Kong in 1948. I am 71 years young today.
My parents were refugees from mainland China. Although both of them were fortunate enough to have had completed high school, they did not possess much skills that could enable them to make a living when they arrived in Hong Kong. Financial conditions were so bad that the whole family kept on moving from one place to another to keep expenses down. Then came divorce, which complicated matters further.
All these contributed to my holding a record in Hong Kong for having attended the largest number of primary schools: a total of nine before I reached primary 5, including two years of boarding school in Macau.
Looking back, it was a blessing in disguise: I had a very solid foundation in my early education. For the rest of my primary and secondary school education, I was over-age and I turned it into an advantage.
I could satisfy the formal curriculum requirements with minimum effort, and spent a lot of time educating myself in the spare time.
I read a lot, far more than most kids of my age. I even read Chinese classics with no assistance from anyone. I started to write and publish as well, and my articles were printed in some of the most respected newspapers and magazines, to the amazement of my friends and fellow classmates.
I also took an active part in extra-curricular activities and found myself having a special gift in setting up new organizations. During my secondary school years, I helped found over ten student organizations – a fertile ground for testing and building my leadership and startup skills.
When I finally entered the Chinese University in 1970, I was active in the nascent student movement during the first two years of my university life. I was also involved in the regional (southeast Asian) student movement which enabled me to travel to different parts of the region.
At one of the international student conferences I attended, the first major shock of life struck me. I was representing Hong Kong at the conference, and the other participant were student leaders from other parts of the world. During my interaction with them, I came to realize how
ignorant I was about the major issues impacting the world. I suddenly felt that I had to stop my student movement activities and systematically equip myself to gain a better understanding of the forces that were shaping world history.
In the remaining two years of university life, I shut myself off and concentrate on study. I had chosen social sciences as my major and my study enabled me to do what I passionately wanted to do. I even obtained a First Class Honors in sociology when I graduated in 1974.
The unexpected academic result posed a new challenge to me. Should I pursue postgraduate studies, locally or overseas, or just start working?
Having a university degree was an important productive asset. I could have begun finding a job and embarked on my employment phase. But I also saw the opportunity to gain more education aboard. Indeed, this had a special appeal at that juncture of my life. My education up to that time was colorful and diversified – which was rather exceptional among my peers – but I felt that I need more education in order to better appreciate the world’s challenges before deciding on what to do with my life.
What was missing was money. I had little tangible asset to speak of. I needed a scholarship and there were not too many available for me to apply.
I recalled that I was the recipient of an award in my senior year – Creative Writing Award – and the donor was a retired businessman who took the trouble of meeting and talking to the Awardees. I had had two meetings with him. So I wrote to him telling him about my study plan in the UK and asked him if he could assist me in any way. He replied promptly and set up a meeting with me. When I told him my plans, he immediately said that he would give me a scholarship to go to the UK.
That’s how I got the opportunity to do my MA and subsequently Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Manchester.
With three degrees under my belt, I was not sure if they were productive assets. They should be if I were to pursue an academic career; but that was not high on my career aspirations. I could not imagine that I would stay (or hide) inside an ivory tower for the rest of my life.
Then I struck on an idea: expand my productive asset to learn something that is needed in industry. I enrolled in a full-year, part-time Certificate course in Industrial Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering, University of Hong Kong and I graduated with Distinction.
This helped me to land a job in a major manufacturing company in Hong Kong, Lam Soon Group, initially as Personnel Manager and, within a year, assumed the additional title of Head of Industrial Engineering. This was my first job, after a rather long period of education.
I thought I would not have to study again soon. I was wrong.
During my second years in management position, I was keenly aware of a major gap in my education. At company-wide management meetings, I always found myself in an uncomfortable situation; many of the jargons that other managers used were completely beyond me. I came to realize that although I had had quite a few degrees I had not studied business management as such. If I were to stay in the business sector this would be a handicap for me. I did not think that I could advance much further without a proper management education. The obvious answer was an MBA. But could I get one?
I decided to go to Cranfield School of Management, UK, which offered a 12-month intensive MBA program. It was 1981.
The course was great. But I did something extra during that intensive course. I wrote a book entitled Marks & Spencer: Anatomy of Britain’s Most Efficiently Managed Company which was subsequently published by the Pergamon Press, Oxford, in 1985.
The book was translated into Chinese and Russian languages and were published in Hong Kong and Moscow respectively.
This turned out to be a productive asset as well in my subsequent business and consultancy career.
In terms of the conventional 3-stage life, my education phase was rather long. But it was punctuated with a working phase of five years before another degree to boost up my productive asset.
On my return to Hong Kong I joined the Shui On Group, which was one of the largest companies in the territories with over 4,000 staff. I began as Senior Manager – Human Resources and subsequently took up six other posts before I left the Group ten years later as the General Manager of Shui On Investment Ltd.
It was a dream job for me. I worked hard, learned a tremendous lot, and contributed to making the company one of the best managed companies in Hong Kong. That in itself added value to my productive asset.
The greatest thing about it was that the company believed in developing everyone in the organization. I benefited from limitless opportunities of formal and informal training, including exposure to a series of world-class management consultants the company engaged with to make it stronger and more competitive.
But the latter was a paradox. Although the consultants were big names in the field and charged extraordinarily high fees, none of them produced any positive results. That set me thinking: why were they not effective in serving us Chinese companies in Hong Kong? It turned out that they lacked the sensitivity to local management culture. The upshot was that I thought I could do it better than they could.
That’s why I ventured to set up my management consulting firm in 1992, K K Tse & Associates, and became the first generation of local Chinese management consultants. I even had to train all my professional staff as I could not find them anywhere else. I did well and soon established myself as a leading consulting firm in town.
It was during this time that I managed to purchase my own apartment, which was a big deal in Hong Kong. The purchase became the greatest tangible asset I possessed. Thanks to the booming property market in Hong Kong, it subsequently increased its value by more than 20 times. So much for accumulating tangible assets.
Then came my decision of early retirement.
I was making a decent living as a management consultant. But I did not find much satisfaction in my work. Yes, I had a special gift in helping my clients improve their operations and make more money. But I was wondering if that was something I should spend the rest of life. I had no answer at that time. But it didn’t stop me from making the decision to call it a day. I de-registered the company and encouraged my staff to join my clients or set up companies of their own. I started early retirement at the age of 52, to the astonishment of my friends and associates.
Let me count my assets at this juncture.
I had a nice piece of property which was still appreciating in value with each year past. I had some modest savings which included investments in a mutual fund and some local stocks and gold. The combined worth was not particularly impressive but at that moment I reckon it would be enough for me and my wife (no children, fortunately or unfortunately) to enjoy a comfortable life without ever working for a living again. In fact, we lived relatively a simple life, which made things simpler.
But with hindsight, it was a miscalculation. We had no idea how long we will live. The assumption (never explicit anyway) was that we will live to around 70 years. In any case, we made the decision to retire.
What about intangible assets? As far as productive asset was concerned, it did not occur to us that we needed any as we were supposed to retire. As for transformational asset, it had not crossed our mind that we needed any ‘transformation’ as such.
We did reasonably well in terms of vitality asset. I used to play tennis every week for some decades and continued to do so. I started to learn to play golf now that I had more time. We travelled a lot around the world. In fact, during the first few years of our retirement, we spent close to half of our time outside Hong Kong. New Zealand was our favorite destination as it was quiet and peaceful over there. We went there twice a year, each time for about a month.
At the age of 60, my wife and I both learnt to drive a boat and acquired the skipper’s license. Subsequently we bought a 39-foot boat in New Zealand, and stayed on it every time we went there. We could drive our boat to far away waters and could stay on board all by ourselves for weeks. It was relaxing, refreshing, and rejuvenating on the boat. The fish we caught on the way was enough to feed us the whole trip. The boat adventures kept us mentally and physically fit.
Then a turning point that changed my life surfaced in New Zealand.
I happened to come cross New Zealand’s most famous social entrepreneur, Vivien Hutchison. I could not recall how I came to know him (yes, he was a guy). But meeting him enabled me to come into contact a new horizon – social entrepreneurship, which was unknown to me before. Suddenly I came to experience (literally) a famous Chinese saying that all Chinese children learnt in primary schools: “Looking at the sky from the bottom of a well.”
I was by any standards highly educated, worked for large companies, had travelled four continents of the world, and yet I had not heard of social entrepreneurs before. How apt to say that I had been sitting at the bottom of a well!
From that point onward, I began studying the social entrepreneurship phenomenon worldwide. I read books, surfed the net, sought out people who were knowledgeable about this field and eventually went around the world to meet with social entrepreneurs who bothered to talk me.
I came to know Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, which was by far the earliest, largest and most reputable organization promoting social entrepreneurship worldwide. I became the first Hong Kong member of Ashoka Support Network.
I also helped found the Hong Kong Social Entrepreneurship Forum in 2008 and became the Founding Chair. Our mission was to ‘create and sustain a civic movement of social entrepreneurship.’
Through the Ashoka network, we invited a number of Ashoka Fellows to come to Hong Kong to share their experience.
One of the first Ashoka Fellows we invited to Hong Kong was Andreas Heinecke, the founder of Dialogue in the Dark, a legendary social enterprise based in Hamburg, Germany. I teamed up with another retired businessman, Patrick Cheung, and bought Dialogue in the Dark to Hong Kong in 2009. Since then it had become one of the most successful and influential social enterprises in this part of the world.
I went on to set up five more social enterprises in Hong Kong, two of which became the first two Certified B Corps in Hong Kong. From June 2007, I started editing a bi-weekly e-newsletter, Social Entrepreneurs Newsletter, which is now (April, 2019) in its 190th issue. I authored, co-authored, co-edited over 15 books (in Chinese) on the subject of social entrepreneurship, many of which had a wide circulation in Taiwan and mainland China.
In 2003, I founded with ten friends Education for Good CIC Ltd., a social enterprise providing social entrepreneurship education – the first of its kind in this part of the world. It has since become a thought leader in social entrepreneur development, offering a range of programs in design thinking, lean startup and social innovation.
Two of the flagship programs were: Certified Entrepreneurial Manager Program and Social Entrepreneurs Incubator Program.
With hindsight, these programs were actually ‘Transformational Assets’ development programs. The participants were mainly mid-career business executives and professionals with 10 to 20 years of working experience. They did not find fulfillment in their jobs and were looking for opportunities to transition to other careers. They had heard about social entrepreneurship and wanted to know more about it. Our programs facilitated them to widen their career horizon and prepared them to venture into the social sector.
In 2016, I had the fortune of meeting in person Prof. Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh’ Grameen Bank when he visited Hong Kong. He was the first social entrepreneur to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (2006). He was my role model but the meeting led me to rethink the meaning of role model.
I finally came up with this definition: “A role model is someone who inspires you so much that you want to exceed his achievements.”
I told Prof. Yunus that he was my role model as well as my definition. Although he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and I did not think that I had the slightest chance of having that honor, it did not mean that I could not exceed his achievements. I thought to myself: if I continue to do what I was doing and one day if someone from the Greater China region directly or indirectly influenced by me received the Nobel Peace Prize, I would have exceeded Prof. Yunus’ achievements.
In 2017, I was named by the National Geographical magazine (Chinese edition) as the Adventurer of the Year, in recognition of my work since retirement.
Looking back, the first ten years of my ‘retirement’ witnessed a major transformation of my life. Instead of quietly retiring to a leisurely life, I started the social entrepreneurship movement in Hong Kong. Through my own entrepreneurship I demonstrated that social enterprises could do good and do well at the same time.
In 2017, the board of directors of the Hong Kong Social Entrepreneurship Forum decided to change its focus from social entrepreneurship to B Corps, as we felt that it was time to turn our attention to mainstream businesses and accelerate their transformation as a force for good.
In 2018, we were appointed by B Lab Global as the B Market Builder for Hong Kong and I served as one of the two Conveners. Promoting B Corps is now on our agenda. As of February 2019, there are seven Certified B Corps in Hong Kong. We have a long way to go.
Let me take stock of my assets again: April 2019.
In terms of tangible assets, I was fortunate – to say the least. My total tangible assets have remained more or less the same since my retirement in 2000. This is impressive as it took into account all the living expenses and travels during this period. This has to do with two major factors, namely, a) the continued appreciation of property value, and b) prudent investment in a mutual fund and a small number of local stocks.
In terms of intangible assets, there have been more dramatic changes.
For productive assets, I continued to acquire new skills and expertise that became bases for creating new streams of income. The most important skill I mastered and put to good use was Lean Startup. It was a methodology popularized by Eric Ries which represented a watershed of the startup world. Another productive asset I picked up recently was Growth Mindset with which I am also building a new business.
My vitality assets kept on appreciating. I am as fit as ever. My latest medical checkup shocked the doctor who examined my results. It was close to perfect – for my age. I continue to play golf and tennis regularly. Indeed, I felt blessed every time I was on the court.
My social network keeps on expanding – to the point that I am consciously looking for quality rather than quantity.
I have never hosted any birthday parties in my life. But I made an exception last year when I turned 70. I threw a birthday party I was very proud of. I invited about 150 guests; around 100 eventually turned up.
My transformational asset had also been transformed beyond recognition. I had been ‘rewired’. Indeed, my transformation has been so profound that I am now starting a new initiative to assist others to transform themselves.
I am starting with a group of friends a movement that we called ReWirement, to replace the outdated notion of Retirement.
Let me sum up my life story up to this juncture.
I started with a conventional 3-stage life pattern. My education phase had been rather long as I had seized opportunities to do postgraduate studies against all odds. I held three degrees by the age of 30.
Then I started the employment phase. But not for long as I felt the need to acquire a formal management training after I had decided to stay in the business world.
Then came a tough decision to make: whether or not to stop work and go abroad for an MBA. This was a transition challenge and here the so-called ‘transformational asset’ came in.
Like most transitions, it required planning, strategizing, prioritizing, and in most cases, investing as well. Above all, it required the courage to make the plunge.
Financially it was a difficult situation for me. When I first did my postgraduate studies in the UK, I had a scholarship to pay my tuition and living expenses. I still remember that the tuition fee was £250 per year. By the time I did the MBA course it had risen to £4,000, thanks to Mrs. Thatcher’s unfriendly policy towards overseas students.
At that time, I had worked only for five years with limited savings. I had to decide whether or not to resign from my post (and hence no income) and invest in an MBA by paying for the tuition fees, travel and living expenses.
Looking back, I did not know where I found the courage to take the plunge. But I did. I reckon this was my first transformative asset. Later in life, there were many more opportunities to make use of this asset.
The MBA I gained was indeed a productive asset.
Having found a great employer and worked there for ten years further expanded my productive assets. I learnt a lot from the vast training opportunities available there. All these enabled me to set up my own consultancy company in 1992.
In short, I studied up to 30 years of age. Worked for around 20 years. Then I started my early ‘retirement’ at 52.
It turned out that ‘retirement’ only meant ‘not working for a living’.
After I discovered social entrepreneurship, I was re-born again. I worked on multiple projects, some unpaid and some with income, invested in selected ventures, and started mentoring and coaching other people. The so-called retirement phase had been completely transformed.
I also acquired new skills and approaches, continuously expanding my productive skills. I paid equal attention to my vitality assets. One example was my insistence of having overseas holidays twice a year regardless of how many projects I was undertaking.
Twenty years into my ‘retirement’, I saw the opportunity to redefine this phase of life. That’s why I came up with the idea of ReWirement. I would like to use my personal example to inspire and empower more people to Rewire themselves.