Not many people know that I am North Korean. Sort of.
My father was born in North Korea. The same day that he arrived to the world, his family had to flee to the South in order to escape the communists. The journey had to be taken on foot during the cover of night; naturally, it was extremely dangerous and risky. Capture could have meant death, or perhaps a life in a North Korean gulag.
At one point in the journey his family had to cross a river via a small boat. His mother was told that no noise could be made during the crossing. She was instructed to immediately drown her infant (my Dad) if he started to cry.
Miraculously, my Dad slept through the river crossing and his family made it to the South intact.
Fast forward many years later: my Dad survived childhood in post-war South Korea; went to medical school; served as a doctor during the Vietnam War; met my mom; was granted fast-track US citizenship; settled in Michigan; had my sister; had me.
When I think about the circumstances of how I came to be created on Earth, it’s staggering to consider all of the little things that happened before my arrival that allowed me to arrive. The fact that I was born is due to luck. It’s even more unbelievable that I was able to grow up in the United States with caring parents, resources, and an awesome support structure to pursue whatever opportunity I wanted.
I often take for granted the fact that I won the lottery of life already from my very first day on the planet. It hit me hard recently during my travels, when my wife and I visited a Jakarta slum.
The slum, as to be expected, was quite depressing. There was limited access to clean water, no schools, and very little prospect for upward mobility for the people. Indonesia to my surprise still has a caste system that makes it nearly impossible for the poor to rise out of poverty.
During our slum tour, my wife and I met a cute little girl (pictured at the top of this post) who followed us around everywhere. Statistically, she would only survive until her early 50s and would live her entire life within the poor ghetto of Jakarta. But on the day I met her, she was all smiles and full of gratitude to practice English with some Westerners.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this sweet little girl lately. How is it fair that I was born with the privileges that I had and she was born with barely anything? I’ll never know. But I do know that I would not have been able to accomplish what I’ve been able to accomplish to date by being born in her situation.
One of the things that bothers me about where I live, Silicon Valley, is the hubris that some founders have about their success. Many credit their skills or intelligence as the primary driver of their success. Some go as far to claim they were just “born with it”, as if gifted by God with talent.
Skill matters. Being smart matters too. But let’s get real: these things only matter on the margin when it comes to the greater view of success in life. The vast majority of things that contribute to our success are out of our control.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate our successes. Let’s congratulate each other for the hard work and job well done when we push a big release, IPO, or get acquired.
But let’s also put our egos in check and remember that it was mainly luck that got us to where we are today.