One of the most enjoyable aspects of being Baruch’s president is the opportunity to talk with a variety of alumni and learn about their unique Baruch story. I have found many of these conversations awe-inspiring and heartwarming and found myself wishing to share them with you, our students, because it feels as though their experiences provide a window into your future.
The alumni I have spoken with are diverse as well as rich in their perspectives. Most of them come from families of limited means—some are from the boroughs of New York City, some from underserved neighborhoods, and many are immigrants or from immigrant families that had few options to attain higher education, and the majority of them worked to support themselves while attending Baruch.
I realized they share something else in common: many are original and creative thinkers who refused to accept their lot in life and took a rare approach to tackling the challenges they faced. I believe their perspective as “outsiders” allowed them to think outside the box. Or perhaps they were not raised ever knowing the box existed—providing them the opportunity to see something others could not.
Lessons from the Past
I know I won’t be able to do justice to the narratives I have heard, so I will share with you how these stories remind me of my own past.
As I reflect on my life, I recognize that it hasn’t been extraordinary, but it has been enough for me to appreciate those whose circumstances are extraordinary. I realized that the most difficult trials I’ve experienced are where I draw my inspiration and strength.
In college, I took on various odd jobs to supplement my expenses. Among my first jobs was making deliveries in the busy streets and back alleys of Taipei on a motorcycle, which is when I developed a kinship with people who made the city work—street vendors, sanitation workers, custodians, manual laborers, etc. Whenever I see a bicycle “dasher” in New York with a big storage bin on the back, it reminds me of that time in my life.
Following college, I completed a two-year mandatory service in the Taiwanese Navy, where I was assigned to a frigate—a swift-moving, refurbished U.S. World War II–era warship. As a college graduate, I had the opportunity to take an officer exam but chose not to do so because I was curious about what it felt like to start from the bottom. In making this decision, I didn’t realize I would start, quite literarily, from the bottom—in the sweltering boiler room of the ship, which was constantly over 100 degrees and permeated with a strong smell of diesel, both of which combined with the stomach-churning up-and-down motion of the violent sea. It does not help that missions in the Taiwan Strait restricted each seaman to a daily ration of one bucket of cold water, which was to be used for all aspects of personal hygiene—from brushing teeth to taking “showers.”
When our frigate went to the shipyard for a major repair, every seaman was given a specific labor assignment. Mine was to strip the paint and rust from an inner hull chamber of the lower deck. For several months, I crawled into a 5ꞌ x 5ꞌ narrow metal tunnel, laid flat and stripped every inch of paint and rust around me. That small, dark space lit with a dim work light and combined with the sound echoing from my hammer and chisel still occasionally appears in my dreams.
These experiences never felt like hardships, however, but more like layers upon layers of memories and life journeys—until I had something of more value than anything I could ever imagine. I learned that when your life is stripped down to the bare minimum, we as humans need relatively few material things to survive and can still be quite fulfilled and happy.
Do It Willingly
My father once told me, “If you are going to do something, do it willingly.” It took me years to appreciate what that meant. When going through a hardship, you can either complain and hope it ends soon or you can do it willingly—making it feel as though you chose to take the challenge on intentionally and will accomplish the task with your best effort, grace, and an appreciation that you were offered the opportunity to experience life. Either way you will cross the finish line, but you will walk away with a completely different outlook—depending on your attitude.
As I look back on my conversations with Baruch alumni over the past few months, what impressed me most were those who not only overcame adversity and achieved success, but those who chose to embrace who they are and their true passion. What seems to make it work for them is their stubborn optimism and grit, combined with an outsiders’ out-of-box creativity and fresh perspective. I realized that what they have in common is a genuine sense of gratitude for being given an opportunity, a love of what they do, and the common belief that the future holds endless possibilities. If they were poor and living with limited resources, they did not seem to notice or care—which is a mindset that I share and understand.
Your Mindset, Your Choice
We may not have complete control over our destiny, but we do have control over our mindset. With practice, we can choose to be flexible and adaptive rather than irritated and frustrated; to be appreciative rather than judgmental; to have a sense of humor rather than be worried and anxious; to be hopeful, optimistic, and resourceful rather than defensive, insecure, and self-righteous; to be creative, innovative, and insightful rather than angry, hostile, and stressed. To be grateful rather than resentful.
My younger self used to consider these words as platitudes and was rather impatient with those whom I considered to be priggish, until I realize that positive attitudes and emotions help us focus our minds on harmony, love, and creativity—the real possessions that make life worth living. The outlook we take not only helps us feel differently about ourselves, it also allows us to experience life differently—that is what I found “successful” people have in common.
Those who approach life with an optimistic outlook, and a mindset that is true to themselves, feel a sense of purpose with fulfillment and freedom, which allows them to overcome adversity and realize their potential as human beings. They are grateful for their lives, opportunities, and experiences, and they want to share and give back whenever possible. And that is what success looks like.