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  • Writer's pictureJohn Kim

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. It’s been the hardest year of my life, and I had very little headspace for meeting people, let alone maintaining an online presence. I shut down all social media accounts and haven’t posted for the full twelve months. But I thought it apt to come out of the shadows and share about my father as my family remembers his life today.

They say that patience is a virtue. While he embodied many, I’d say that patience is the virtue that best encapsulates my father’s life. It’s something I struggle with every day as a venture capitalist. In my former job as a derivatives trader, I literally had real-time feedback about my results. Like a raging addict hoping for that next hit of dopamine, I’d often click on the “compute PNL” button multiple times each second.

But in VC it often takes ten years or more to receive decent data on whether you’re any good at this job. The average vc/founder relationship lasts longer than the average marriage. This is why the game of venture capital requires patience. And when I get impatient it helps me to reflect on my father’s journey.

Hie-Joon Kim turned five years old as the Korean War came to a close, and like most products of the post-war era, his upbringing consisted of consistent hardship, with a sprinkle of hope. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the only outlet he knew, his education. It just so happened that he really loved learning, and like most lifelong learners he often found himself sharing knowledge with others.

There was very little time for hobbies in those days and given that large swaths of the Korean population had just died, everyone who remained treated competition as a life-or-death pursuit. The only time I’ve ever heard my dad talk about anything fun from his childhood was when he and his brother played “school”, taking turns being the student and the teacher. Even when he was playing, my dad was in a classroom.

It was this passion for learning and education that brought him to the top of his class, at the top schools in Korea. He and my mom brought a couple of bags of clothes and a heart full of the American dream for graduate school in the US, again attending some of the top institutions there. It was clear to him and everyone around him that my father was destined for academia. More than his performance, it was his innate need to gain and give knowledge that made it so blindingly obvious.

So after he had finished his postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, Dad applied for academic positions. But somehow every door shut in his face. This was clearly his destiny and calling. He knew it. Everyone knew it. But it just wasn’t panning out. He experienced buffet portions of sadness, confusion, disappointment, and a whole slew of other emotional staples. I’m sure he questioned God too. “I know you’ve called me to this, so how could you shut all these doors? Why God? Why?!”

But he kept his head down and found what work he could, eventually as a researcher for the US Military. He struggled at work, struggled to integrate socially, and struggled with rebellious kids who resented their identity. I got bullied as a kid and blamed my dad for my suffering, but it was only after I had grown up that I realized my plight paled in comparison to his. If I felt like an outsider in America well, he must have felt that so much more. If I felt like I didn’t understand American culture well at least English was my first language. And perhaps most importantly, I had no idea that from the day I was born until the day I left for college, my dad was enduring in a line of work that he felt was clearly not his calling.

As he approached his fiftieth birthday, Mom says he had pretty much given up on that calling. If there was any remnant, the academic dream was a shadow of its former self. But then one day, out of nowhere, my dad got a call from Seoul National University asking if he’d like to be considered for a professorship.

Well, he applied and got the job, and when he started, he did some things that he could only do because he had NOT been in academia for his entire career. As one example, in Korea, teachers will never ask for feedback from their students. The Confucian culture leads to this idea that those in authority need not ask underlings for their opinion. Since a teacher is clearly the authority, why would he ask his students about how to teach? But my dad broke that rule and asked every student after every lecture to write one thing they liked and one thing they didn’t like about class that day. Through this process, he quickly honed his delivery and soon won an award given to the top lecturer at the top university in the country.

That initial notoriety led to journalists reaching out to him for quotes, and then shortly thereafter he started writing his own columns. Book deals came soon after. Appearances on radio and television followed. Eventually, he starred in his own nationally syndicated TV show. Dad became the Korean Bill Nye The Science Guy.

Another development that came out of his outsider status was a new type of science curriculum. Dad started asking “Why is it that we teach science in these discrete subjects, memorizing facts from biology, chemistry, and physics? The human brain is not designed to memorize facts but to understand stories.” So, he created a curriculum that teaches the story of the universe, from the big bang through present day, weaving in concepts from each of the three science subject areas throughout.

The approach was revolutionary and required a different perspective that he wouldn’t have had if he had gone into academia from day one. He tested the curriculum at Seoul National, then at some gifted high schools where he taught, and soon the government caught wind of it and made it their mandatory national science curriculum. Every year half a million kids encounter the mystery of the universe through my dad’s learning journey, where he literally wrote the book.

I turned 45 this year, and I started venture investing professionally ten years ago. I have some early signs that I’m pretty good at this business. Multiple unicorns, demonstrated ability to return investor capital, strong testimonials from my founders… But if I’m honest with myself, there are days when I feel lost. I look at others who seem to be speeding ahead in various ways, and I feel behind where I’m supposed to be.

In those moments I often find myself reflecting on my dad’s life. He questioned his trajectory for years and years, and he didn’t even get started teaching until he was 50. He just kept his head down, worked his tail off, and leaned on his faith and not his own understanding. Looking back, it all makes sense. He had to go through what he went through, to make the impact that he made, ultimately touching the lives of tens of millions of people. But for decades he felt like he was wandering in the desert. And for decades he persevered.

One year after his passing there are still days when I find myself in tears. I miss my dad a lot. I wish I could see him again. I’ve even found myself questioning God’s timing. “Why did he need to die now? God, why did you have to take him away?” But when looking back on my dad’s life, I know that even though we don’t understand it in the moment, ultimately we can trust that divine timing is never early and it’s never late. It’s always on time. I believe I’ll see Apa again someday, and until then I can only try to live out what he lived out so well. Patience.

  • Writer's pictureJohn Kim

The other day at our family devotional we found ourselves talking about swearing. Kyan chimed in “Yeah I realized when we went on that overnight camping trip that kids at my school swear a lot. The S- word… the F-bomb… they were dropping them all over the place.”

“Ohhh – kaayyyy… do YOU swear at all when these kids are swearing?” I asked.

He paused. Then with a sheepish look replied “ummm…. yessss?” But he was quick to qualify “but I do it a lot less than them!”

I took a deep breath and held my tongue as a passage I’d read from McLaren’s Faith After Doubt played through the tape recorder of my soul. In describing the phases of the faith journey, McLaren writes

“To help you, your parents and other significant adults began teaching you that some ways of meeting your needs and desires were acceptable and others weren’t, that some would be rewarded and others would be discouraged. Smile, say thank you, share … and the Big People responded one way. Scream, steal, bite, and hit … and the Big People responded another way. Adults around you had one primary teaching goal: to help you survive independently in human society and in the natural world by learning the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, safe and dangerous, appropriate and inappropriate, permitted and prohibited.

For us to become fully independent adults someday, we need to start life fully dependent on the guidance of older, wiser Big People. They make the rules and we follow them. We ask questions and they answer them. They give commands and we obey them. We have problems and they solve them.

I call this first stage Simplicity because it revolves around a simple mental function of sorting nearly everything into one of two categories. Is this berry edible or inedible? Is that person or tribe a friend or an enemy? Is taking your friend’s toy permitted or prohibited? Is telling a lie or using violence a clever and effective way to get what you want or is it a punishable offense? Did this make me happy or sad, glad or mad?

For that reason, in Stage One, you set out to master the mental skills of dualism, of seeing the world in twos: this or that, in or out, right or wrong. Dualism may be simple, but it’s not so easy when you’re first getting started. That first, “No! You can’t!” or “Yes, you must!” comes as a bit of a shock for an infant who is used to being coddled and given whatever she cries for. Her original innocence is disrupted by a new responsibility: to figure out what the Big People want, what they will reward, and what they will punish.

The Big People—your parents, grandparents, teachers, chiefs, and religious leaders—are central to your world in Stage One, because they’re the ones who know the rules and show them to you. They’re also the ones who enforce the rules. So Stage One is the stage of authority as well as the stage of dualism.

As far as you’re concerned, the authorities know everything, and you don’t, so you feel highly dependent on them. You trust them and want to please them, and you aspire someday to be as certain and all-knowing as they are. Sure, sometimes they make you sad or mad when they don’t let you get your way, but in the end, they’re the Big People, and until you become a Big Person yourself, you need to fall in line.

Before long, you find out that your Big People dislike or distrust some other Big People, and your dualism adds a new category: us versus them. Our Big People are good; their Big People are bad. We are right; they are wrong. Familiar and similar is safe; unfamiliar and different is dangerous. This social dualism creates a strong sense of loyalty and identity among us. It also creates a strong sense of anxiety and even hostility about them, the other, the outsiders, and the outcasts.

Stage One is built on trust, because for the child, trust is an absolute necessity, a matter of survival. If you distrust the authorities, you’ll ignore their warnings and venture too far into

the woods, where the wild things will eat you. You’ll run out in the street, where the cars will hit you. You’ll get too friendly with the other tribe, and they’ll kidnap or corrupt you. If you don’t trust, you won’t obey, and if you don’t obey, you won’t survive. So you’d better not blur any edges or allow any shades of gray: life is a war, and your survival depends on you becoming a good, obedient, trusting soldier who follows orders as an absolute necessity.

Simple trust; simple obedience; simple, unquestioning loyalty … that’s what matters in Stage One.

Nearly everyone you’ve ever known was born and raised into Stage One, and in fact, that’s the baseline of what being raised means in our culture: being taught the basic dualisms of Stage One. Many people spend their whole lives in Stage One. They submit to the authorities and follow the rules. Then, when it’s time for them to become authorities themselves, they demand the same submission from the next generation that they themselves gave to the previous generation. It’s that simple. For that reason, it shouldn’t be a surprise that faith and religion are a strictly Stage One phenomenon for millions, even billions, of people.

From the age of two to twelve or so, Stage One works pretty well for most of us. But as we mature into adolescence, we naturally desire more independence and we begin to chafe against Stage One rigidity. We may begin to question some of the rules that Big People have imposed on us since childhood. Our social circles widen, and we discover that some of them are every bit as nice as us, maybe nicer, so we see some of the dualistic judgments of our Big People as prejudices. With more age and independence, we read new books, make new friends, travel to new places, and we start to see that there are other groups with their own Big People and their own differing rules and beliefs, and they are just as human as we are. Still more questions arise.

Up until this point, Stage One may have felt like a school to help us learn the basic morals necessary for independence, but now it starts to feel like detention, a cage, even a prison.

The only way out is doubt. We may doubt that the authorities are always right. We may doubt that all the rules are always absolute and appropriate. We may doubt that they are as bad or dangerous as our authority figures warned us or that we are as good and exceptional as we were told. Add hormones, puberty, sexual curiosity, and changing bodies and brains to the mix, and Simplicity stops feeling so simple anymore.

Whether it happens at twelve or twenty-two or fifty-five, eventually, many of us doubt our way out of Simplicity and enter Stage Two: Complexity.”

I knew in my bones that the answer I’d been given as a youth wouldn’t work for Kyan. Telling him that swearing is a sin and he shouldn’t do it would most likely drive him even further from faith, which is exactly what happened to me. It’s the kind of answer that parents, Sunday school teachers and youth group leaders give because it works and works… until it doesn’t. (McLaren talks about how one pastor told some boys at church that if they masterbated their penises would fall off. Wow.)

So I tried something that was a bit new for me.

“First, Kyan I want thank you for trusting me enough to tell me that you swear sometimes. It means a lot to me, and as you enter into this era of your life, I know there will be a lot of experimentation to figure things out for your own. I want you to know that you can always come to me to ask questions, and I will always do my best to give you a loving and non-judgemental answer.

Second, I’ve been reading about spiritual development and doubt, and I’ve realized that it’s important to sort the world into categories to start, but eventually the world gets more nuanced than that. So I’ll stop short of saying swearing is a sin and it’s wrong for all people all of the time. In fact, I remember a Christian rapper named Andy Mineo making a pretty strong argument that swearing wasn’t necessarily wrong.

And finally, you’ve actually heard me swear before, so no judgement from me. But I think most of the times where I swear, it comes from a place of lack… a lack of self-control, a lack of love, a lack of intentionality. I also remember swearing a lot when I was about your age, and I think a lot of that came from the desire to impress other kids. So I guess I’d encourage you to think about whether swearing comes from a healthy place in the context you’re in. If you think it through, I’d guess that you’ll find most of the time it’s pretty inappropriate, not beneficial for your aims, and not from a good place.”

I’m not sure if the answer I gave was the best one. Part of me wonders whether he could use this answer to justify more swearing. But well, I guess I’ve done my best, and I’ll let God do the rest.

  • Writer's pictureJohn Kim

1 Corinthians 9:24 “Do you not know that in a race, all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”

So the boys have been in school here for a week, and I’m totally blown away at the transformation I’ve seen, especially with our oldest. Kyan hated Chinese and wanted nothing to do with his Asian identity, but the other night he said “Apa, I think I like Chinese now. Our teacher makes it fun.” He also used to say that he was not athletic, but he was excited to play soccer at Sofi Stadium next week (the same one that hosted the Superbowl) and he also joined the cross country team at school.

Yesterday they had their first practice, and he got cramps half a lap into a seven lap training session. Back in Singapore I would have expected to hear all sorts of grumbling about how he wanted to quit the team, but Kyan just recounted the episode in a very matter of fact manner. There was no trauma associated with the episode at all.

When I met Coach Angela Brown and told her about Kyan last week, she immediately said “I want him. I want him on my team. We have a no cut policy, and we love meeting kids where they’re at to foster a love of sports. A lot of them surprise themselves and go on to compete at a very high level too.” When I went home and told him about the conversation, Kyan surprised me by saying he’d like to join. I guess being wanted by a former Olympian and NCAA Champion did something for his confidence.

My understanding of Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 9 has been that we all need to take our spiritual lives very seriously. While I think that’s absolutely part of the story, as someone who considers myself a relatively intense person, sometimes I forget that competing at a high level first starts with meeting people where we’re at. Thankfully we have a coach in heaven who’s got more gold medals than can fill the sky. And he wants you on his team. And he’ll meet you where you’re at. And training with him will transform the tedious into the delightful.

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