Listen long enough and a person can surprise you. Though, It is the most interesting people that take no time at all to wrap you in wonder.
There often may be the unfortunate intention of imagining all people to be the same. Writers are intrusive, teachers are bossy and athletes are moronic. Operating on these pointless generalizations is unproductive for one main reason: thinking you already know everything about a person may cause you to miss their finer points.
A few weeks ago, I broke my own rule before meeting Angela Lee, a busy attorney who used to work in New York City and now is a partner of a sizeable firm in Dongguan. Leading up to the interview, I expected a fast-talking, loudmouth and mentally prepared myself.
Waiting in a white-walled meeting room, I was soon joined by a soft-spoken woman who gently sat down and placed her iPhone 4s on the table. I made a comment about the vintage handset.
“Yeah, you know it’s the last phone Steve Jobs made and I don’t want to get a new one, but I can’t update it anymore, so it’s time. I like a speech he gave at a graduation ceremony where he described the challenges of his life and found it very inspirational. I always play the video in my classes and hope that one or two students will learn something from it,” Angela said.
“I keep humble because the other employees are very young and I was young before, too. After 10 or 15 years, I’ve gotten to where I am today. So, maybe after 10 or 20 years these younger workers will even be higher than me,” she explained.
With all the internationally famous Chinese entrepreneurs, I was somewhat shocked at her admiration for a notably arrogant, but subjectively brilliant, CEO a world away.
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied. “What people see on TV or read in the newspaper greatly affects how they act. It’s important that people see good ways to act in these things.” It makes sense, and with information becoming uncontrollably free, it’s potentially more important now than ever to revere heroes, not villains.
One of only four partners at her office, she’s not of great age, so I assumed work defined her life.
“Before we got married, my husband told me, ‘don’t bring the work home.’ Now, things have changed, and he supports me so much at home because my focus is so much on my job.” I asked her how long could she go on like this.
“It’s just temporary,” she returned.
I’ve always been amazed by the individuals who only stop working to sleep. Napoleon ran on three to four hours of sleep per night; Beethoven sunk his head in a bucket of cold water whenever he felt drowsy. People like this seem immortal.
“Many times, I have wanted to give up, but not right now. Responsibility keeps me going because I want to help people. Only if I stay strong can I really help people. I can’t say it’s such a big personal success when I win a case and help my client. Really, it’s my job and it’s my duty to do my best. This isn’t my success, I’m just doing the best I can,” she clarified.
Completely detangling the lifelong perception I’ve held of people in her position, I had little to say. I was confused how, despite her achievements and merit, she practically shrugged it all off.
“I keep humble because the other employees are very young and I was young before, too. After 10 or 15 years, I’ve gotten to where I am today. So, maybe after 10 or 20 years, these younger workers will even be higher than me,” she explained.
We laughed and talked about the myth of the American dream, among other things. I asked what frustrates her.
“When people don’t follow the rules. If all members of any society—government, workers and people—all follow the rules, I like it very much. If everyone would just do this, then everything would be in order. Work is easier, communication is better and solving problems is faster.”
Maybe instead of trying to teach manners and law to others, we should just clone a few million Angelas, instead. I’m convinced.