Lessons Learned

I have traveled internationally all of my adult life. And I’ve found that, without exception, every time I visit a foreign land I end up learning more about myself than my destination. For the nine years I lived and worked in China, the lessons I learned profoundly changed the way I live and evaluate my life.

Here are a few of the key lessons I learned:

  • Trust v Obligation

How we live our lives, and the stress that flows from our choices, often comes down to our ability to predict the behavior of others. And in Western cultures, more often than not, that ability of prediction often comes down to trust. Westerners put great stock in trust, which is why we put such great cultural emphasis on telling the truth.

Chinese culture, by contrast, turns on obligation. Trust plays a secondary role. And, as a result, so does telling the truth, at least in the Western sense. Without a concrete expectation of obligation, in fact, the Chinese trust no one.

And I think they are on to something. Perhaps I’m just fed up with the 2016 presidential election, but I’ve come to believe that obligation is a much simpler and more practical way to determine behavioral reaction to the behavior of others. The rules of obligation, in a conceptually structured culture like that of the Chinese, are very straightforward and easy to understand. A child is obligated to his or her parents. You do me a favor and I owe you one. You respect your elders.

Trust, on the other hand, is a much more challenging judgment. There are many variables at play, including the ability of one party to act out the tenets of trust. With trust, you often have suckers.

I’ve concluded that the beauty of obligation, beyond its simplicity and predictability, is that obligation is naturally a two way street. If you demonstrate obligation to me, I am naturally inclined to feel obligation to you. It’s just how we’re wired.

Even if I trust you, however, I may not be able to assume that you will put your interests above my own when the two are in conflict. That’s a crapshoot that requires a fair amount of guesswork.

  • Result v Process

Deductively – minded Westerners typically put great emphasis on process. A job well done is to be praised even if the objective is not realized. Businesses, in particular, spend much of their time codifying processes in the belief that this will lead to more predictable results with minimal risk.

The Chinese, in contrast, typically focus exclusively on results. A job performed according to a pre-defined process brings little satisfaction if the desired result isn’t achieved.

And doesn’t the Chinese perspective make more sense? There have to be boundaries to the process, of course. If everyone cheats or breaks the rules, you have anarchy. Nonetheless, it’s the W that really matters.

Which is why the Chinese would surely applaud the women’s Swedish soccer team for knocking out the Americans at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a slow down strategy of conservative play. America’s goalie, Hope Solo, on the other hand, mocked the Swedes for leaving their womanhood in the locker room and not giving the Americans more chances to win. (I have to go with the Chinese on that one.)

  • Speed v Longevity

Everything happens faster in China. Buildings go up seemingly overnight. Online purchases often arrive the same day. Elaborate houses can be gutted and totally refinished in a matter of weeks.

In Beijing, a city of 22 million people, they recently replaced (replaced, not repaired) a 10-lane overpass, complete with lane markers, in 43 hours. (You can watch it in time lapse on YouTube.) The state of Michigan, by contrast, recently announced a construction project to improve one of the main arteries into Detroit that will last 16 years. Yes, almost two decades!

Speed is money, of course, at least in the short term. Longevity, on the other hand, can be money in the long term. If a building needs to be replaced in X years, it may not be cost effective in all cases to cut the corners that allowed you to build it quickly.

But the world is changing more rapidly every year. Who knows what our needs will be 20 or 30 years from now. That, in my mind, increasingly gives speed the edge.

  • Acquisition v Fulfillment

While the millennial generation is changing the game, Americans typically like to acquire things. It’s no wonder that personal consumption drives 70% of the US economy.

The Chinese acquire, too, of course. Newly acquired wealth, in fact, often leads to conspicuous consumption. China now represents the biggest luxury market in the world.

The Chinese, however, use acquisitions to define their success, not who they are. I’ve met some very wealthy Chinese. Many have gained and lost multiple fortunes. Seldom, however, do they define themselves by their things. In their minds, that’s just business; that’s not life.


I’m not suggesting the Chinese are ‘better’, or even right. I do believe, however, that self-reflection is always a good thing. And there’s no better way to promote it than to immerse yourself, even temporarily, in a foreign culture. That assumes, of course, that you can do so with an open mind. If you can’t, save your money. You’ll just get frustrated.

For more about the lessons I learned in China, read my book, China – There’s Reason for the Difference. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Contact: You may contact the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com. I am available to share my China experiences at corporate or other group events.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. A lot of Chinese architecture, and much of its culture, has endured for hundreds of years. That is part of the beautiful duality of China. You can never figure it out completely.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. A lot of Chinese architecture, and much of its culture, has endured for hundreds of years. That is part of the beautiful duality of China. You can never figure it out completely.