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SS, 57, is a Korean American and a serial entrepreneur. He talks about his grandmother, his many, many thoughtful and kind lessons for his children (and for humanity) and why he can’t manage to take a U turn even when he knows he is driving in the wrong direction. Hint: The earth is round. He lives in Johns Creek and we arranged this meeting in his pizza parlor. Here’s the transcript of my face to face interview with him.
SS: I’ve been in America for 30 years, but my English is still poor. It’s stuck, its 30 years old. (Laughs)
Heart: As long we understand each other, I think we will be fine.
SS: Yeah, as long we understand oral language, body language, and emotional language, we are together.
Heart: Exactly. So, is there a source of happiness in your life?
SS: My goal is happiness.
Heart: OK. What gives you happiness?
SS: My goal is not to get rich, my goal is to just earn enough so my mind is comfortable. And that’s when I am satisfied. I don’t get happiness from money or my job or my family. I am happy when I give. If I give something to someone and they receive it, that makes me happy. I am standing here because of, first it’s my son, my wife, and then after that my family, after that my friends and after that my employees.
Because I was born, my duty is to give back to people until I die. So, that’s my goal. To give myself (to others).
Heart: Great answer.
SS: But, the problem is, when I’m giving, I judge myself.
Heart: Why? Why do you judge yourself?
SS: You know, I wonder sometimes if by giving to the other person, I’m making them weak. Am I making them lazy? Are they improving themselves? Only then, my giving is good. So, I judge myself.
I don’t want them to just think that they will automatically receive from me, that will make it all wrong. I don’t expect anything from the people I give to, but if I realize they are like that (feeling entitled), I stop giving. I don’t want anything back, it doesn’t matter. But, it should not be wrong.
Heart: You just want them to value what you’ve given them?
SS: That’s right. I want to think with common sense if I have made a right decision. I am not able to judge them, that’s something I can’t do. They might have a problem and I am not better than anybody else. We are two different people in two different situations (in life). I just stop giving because I don’t want to do the wrong thing with them.
I came to America when I was 27, 30 years ago, and I was always mad at everything. There would be days when I would be mad at something for 3 or 4 days. Those were days when I was only thinking about myself. That’s not good. These days, I can still get mad, but it lasts for 10 minutes sometimes, 5 minutes sometimes and 10 seconds most times. After 10 seconds, I am OK. I think it’s a problem, “Let me calm down.” So, I am getting better.
Heart: I guess everything gets better with age. What did you bring from Korea? I’m not talking money.
SS: I know. I understand. I was a country boy, I was a farmer. My parents were Confucians. They followed Confucianism. So, this is how they thought, first you respect and obey your parents. Next, comes your country. There is no “me”. My parents loved me, but they didn’t express it. They never said, “I love you.”
Heart: Did they hug you?
SS: No. Never. Confucianism is like that. But, my grandmother would touch me and she would be there for me, she would sit next to me, shoulder to shoulder. When I was 11 years old, she passed away. And when I was 27 years old and coming to America, I brought the dirt that was at her tomb.
Heart: Do you still have it?
SS: No. And I also brought the family tree with me. I wanted to my children to know where I came from, where I studied, about my grandfather, everything. So, those are two things I brought. The dirt and the family tree.
Heart: Wow. What would your grandmother teach you? Did she tell you stories?
SS: Yeah. All the time. When I was 2 or 3 years old, we did not have any electric power. We could only see the sky and the stars at night. Every night, when it was winter, we would be indoors, but in summer, we would sleep outside and count the stars. My grandmother would explain to me, “That is my star, this is your star,” and it would go on.
There was one story my grandmother would teach me, “You need to make a good friend. You have your parents, but you will also need a good friend. It’s important.” Also, they would tell me, “You cannot step on teacher’s sandals. You cannot work at their same level, you should always be one step behind to your teacher. He is your mentor. It’s important.” Those are the kinds of stories my parents and family taught me.
Heart: Have you learned any lessons in life?
SS: Any business, or real estate or investment I have made, I have learned it by myself, very easily and fast. Very fast. I know how to work my balance sheets, how to manage my profits, everything.
I want a challenge. Every time. I keep trying new things. Even when I am driving, and I am going in the wrong direction, I don’t want to go back.
SS: I want to keep going because eventually, I will come all the way around, even if its the long way, I don’t want to go back the way I came.
Heart: No U-turns? (Laughs)
SS: No U-turns. (Laughs) I was in Philly one time and I was in the Appalachian mountains and I saw the map when I came to a green road, that means it has no asphalt, and so no road, but I still passed through the forest on that road.
I drove up the mountain and the road was very bad and maybe there were bears and it was so dangerous, but I didn’t want to turn back. So, I just kept going for one more hour and finally found a road. Even though I knew it was a wrong direction, I kept going. Because, I thought, “OK, the earth is round, I will keep going and I would eventually come back to where I started.” (Laughs)
There are so many things going on in the world, there are so many new things to learn, there are all these challenges, and every day, we learn and learn and learn. When we learn, we keep getting smaller, smaller and smaller.
Heart: Your ego is getting smaller.
SS: That’s right. When I keep getting smaller, I will keep understanding everyone. I can understand what other people are thinking. Only when you experience everything including the bad, you will experience the good. You will know the difference, only when you experience bad things first. You will learn to see the real person behind the face. So, if I don’t want to take a U-turn means, every day I want a new challenge. I want to learn, learn and learn. Whether it is a new thing or an old thing, learn again. And that’s how I improve myself. And I want to improve myself.
People say, “No pain, no gain.” So, without pain, you can’t understand the good and the bad. So, if you live a valuable life, death doesn’t matter. If you always help people, if you die tomorrow, it doesn’t matter. So, learn and help people. And you will become smaller, smaller every day, and you automatically become humble. Money will not give you all the happiness. I don’t own all this money in my pocket. You get my point?
SS: Sometimes, I lend it to other people and they don’t return it, it doesn’t matter. They just have to value that money.
I don’t want to earn in a bad way. I opened a Donut shop, I pay my employees minimum wage. But, they also have a chance to have part of the ownership if they want. In America, with minimum wage, you can’t have a dream for the future. At my store, I want to give that option, but I don’t want anyone to waste my time, or their time. So, I have to make my decisions with common sense, after finding how to work it all out with people who can be trusted. So, that’s what I’ve been doing over the last 30 years. No U-turn (Laughs) and learned, learned and learned.
Anytime you’ve a goal, you’ve to have a right way to achieve it. But, what’s a right way? For some, it can be one way and for others it can be a wrong way.
Heart: True. So, what do you want your children to know?
SS: This education system is all wrong. Even though America’s education system is better than Korea, of course Obama has said that Korean education is better, I don’t think so. I want my children to know, the first thing is, “Take care of other people.”
Forget fighting over religion. We’re in the 21st century, but the problem with religious education is that it teaches, “We are right, they are wrong.”
Next, have respect for others. If everyone respected one another, our society would be so better. So better. Just start with respecting yourself, then family, then country.
Heart: Try to work with others. That’s great advice.
SS: That’s right. I want to become the principal of a school and teach this.
Heart: Do it! Life’s too short.
SS: (Laughs) You know, I want to tell them, “Take care of others. Give what you can.” When you give, your mind becomes bigger, bigger and bigger. When you fight, your mind becomes smaller, smaller and smaller.
So, I want my children’s minds to open up. That way, they will have more opportunities to learn. And you can learn anything you want.
The other thing, you cannot judge. You’re in America, the Number One country, great. But, you also have to love all other countries. That means, you have to understand everyone better. America can become the best and number one multi cultural country in the world.
I want our children to understand there is no wrong or right. It doesn’t matter, you will learn either way.
If I take care of myself, others take care of themselves, that’s not good enough. Where’s the harmony? When we don’t meet other people, our minds become smaller. When we learn from others and take care of others, our minds grow. There’s love and respect there.
When people talk about love, they talk about mother’s love or Jesus’ love. But why not talk about loving one another? Why can’t we do that? We don’t’ have to only take care of ourselves, we can also take care of others. I hate the concept of nationalism. No country is first, no people are first. I want my children to develop a global spirit. I want my children to learn everything. And then, they’ll grow mentally.
That way they will gain more meaning, gain more respect. If they respect other people, automatically they receive respect. Then it doesn’t matter how much money they have. If you know how to make money for basic survival, then you are good.
Heart: Are you afraid of anything?
Heart: What is it?
SS: Um, I am afraid that somebody might get hurt because of me. I focus on that a lot. Somebody might be disappointed by me. If its other people, its OK, they don’t have to deal with me anymore if they don’t want to. But with family, I am worried about disappointing them.
Heart: But, do you have control over other people’s expectations of you?
SS: Its usually the behavior and people misunderstanding each other. Like small things is fine, but if I disappoint people in a big way, I want to disappear. But, I cannot disappear with family. (Both of us laugh)
I have to see them tomorrow, day after tomorrow and every day. In my mind, something might not be wrong, I might think that, but, if someone doesn’t like it, I can say, “I’m sorry.” Tomorrow I can say sorry again, because its a behavior I cannot change. I cannot change because, in my mind, you see, its not wrong. (Laughs)
So, if it becomes too much, sometimes, I just want to die.
SS: Because after that, um..
Heart: You won’t disappoint anyone anymore?
SS: No, its just peaceful after that.
Heart: No, don’t say that.
SS: (Laughs) Only sometimes I feel that way.
Heart: You sound like a super positive person. Please don’t say that.
SS: I have had 5 heart attacks so far.
Heart: What? Wow. OK.
SS: 5 times, yes. The 4th time, I was not able to breathe. My condition changed every 5 seconds, every 10 seconds, I could feel it. When I had my 4th heart attack, I was working very hard. By that time, I already had 3 heart attacks and a surgery, so I knew how it felt like.
So, I would be like, “Oh, I think its coming now.” But, I kept working, next day, I was breathless for 3 or 4 times, the next day it was 5 or 6 times. I was in pain. After 2 weeks, it started happening 10 times a day. When I would lift heavy things, I would have to sit down and hold my chest. I could not go to the hospital at that time, because, um..
Heart: Why? Were you busy?
SS: Yeah, there was so much work, so many things were going on.
Heart: So what?
SS: I know, I know. There were so many things going on at that time, we had a Community bank, we have 5 businesses, I had 40 employees and it was 2008, I was involved with a fight with the banks for all of my properties. There was a lot of stress and I had to solve my problems. Otherwise my employees will also be in trouble along with me. I was breathless somedays with chest pain for 15 times a day, I couldn’t climb steps, I couldn’t drive.
Heart: My God.
SS: I had to drive carefully, I had to stop and take deep breaths. Then it would go away and two hours later, it would come back. Then, I finally drove to the hospital with my wife.
Heart: You need to see your children grow. You can’t take stress.
SS: I know. But, I have a debt to my parents. To my wife. To this world. To my son. I have to pay back my debt. That is my goal. “How can I pay back?” That’s my focus. When I was born, I already have a debt. As I grow, I keep accumulating more debt. I have debt to my friends, my neighbors.
Heart: You can even pay them by giving them your time.
SS: That’s why I think dying is better. I am in so much pain, with all these thoughts. The doctor asked me, “Are you not afraid?” I said, “No, I am not afraid. It doesn’t matter.” I know it will be difficult for my son with his father, but its OK. I already gave him the foundation that he needs. I have done good things, I know that. I have helped so many people with their green cards. I helped their parents in Korea. Finally, I think its OK. If you have a strong foundation, you will be OK.
Heart: You have no right to take away your time from others who need you. I don’t think your son cares about anything more than spending time with you.
SS: I know. I believe, we are all different. I learn from your religion too. Sanskrit and Hindi (texts) give all kinds of foundation for all other religions. Buddhism, Christianity and all these religions are born from your religion.
Heart: Philosophy and spirituality are OK.
SS: I believe in the circle of life. When I was a little boy, we have a small cosmos in us, and we live in a big cosmos. And we are all connected to each other. Everything, even this chair, this wall, we are all connected to each other somehow.
Heart: We are all energy centers, even I believe that.
SS: Earlier they had talked about finding out the black hole, now they have found the white hole. Black hole comes in, and white hole comes out. Like an apple. Like the earth, with the North and South poles. Even our body, look at the Chakras in our body. It forms a line coming from the top of our head to the bottom of our spine.
I try to do my best everyday. So, I am not afraid of dying. I am not afraid of anything wrong. If the foundation is good, we will have no problem. I have had 6 surgeries and I work really hard. I wake up at 2am in the morning to get to work.
Heart: You are already so peaceful with your thoughts, then are you stressed?
SS: Stressed? Um…
I want to visit your country. (India) My dream place is the Himalayas.
Heart: I am going there next June, I will take you.
SS: No, I cannot come. I am very busy.
Heart: Nothing will change for 15 days.
SS: No. I have sooooo many things going on here. (We both laugh)
Heart: Life’s too short.
SS: Life’s forever. Even if I die, I will live forever (shows his index finger towards the sky)
About India, or anywhere, even in Korea, if I see mountains, I see the mountain ranges and think of energy waves, going up and down, going up and down, like the top and bottom of the mountain slopes. With the Himalayas, I feel like there’s a lot of energy. I can sense energies when I meet people. If I go to someone’s house, and feel like there’s negative energy there, I think, “Oh, I don’t want to come here again.” Its not bad energy, its just blocking my energy. I just don’t want to go there again, I am just like, “Nice to meet you.” But if they say, “Do you want to meet?” I say, “Oh sorry, I am busy.” (Laughs)
The problem is if its a rich person, they have a full spirit. They are in a giving spirit. They understand. But the rest of the 90% are just working hard. You can’t have this kind of a conversation with them. “You have teach everyone to respect one another and love one another.” If you tell them that, some people might try to understand and listen but they are just thinking only about their survival, “Tomorrow what are we going to, how are our kids going to be?” You can’t expect them to be satisfied because they are struggling.
Heart: You are right. So, what’s your favorite food?
SS: Pizza. (Laughs) In Korean, I like Kimchi Chigae. Because, when I was in Korea my mother would make Kimchi Chigae for 27 years until I came to America. Because its very easy to make, so she would make it for me everyday. But, now, I want to eat it, I miss it.
Heart: (Laughs) Are both your parents still alive?
SS: My mother is still alive. I feel guilty.
Heart: Guilty, why? Does she live by herself?
SS: No, she lives with my brothers. I have two brothers in Korea. But, I want to support her, travel with her, and show her her grandchildren. But she lives in Korea. And sometimes when my brother calls me, I am worried, “Is my mother OK?” If he calls me in the morning or evening, its OK. But he calls me in the middle of the night. I look at the number, and start praying, “Oh no, is she OK? Has something happened to mother?” Once I talk to her and ask her if she is OK, then I am fine.
I think everyone starts their life with their mother’s love. But with fathers we always fight. (Laugh) He tells you, “This is your country.” and “You have to make money.” But, mothers are different.
Heart: When did you last see her?
SS: 3 years ago. I can’t go on an airplane because of my health. But, its OK. You know what, when I think of my mother, my brother calls me, and he says, “Mother says she wants to talk to you.” And the same time we are thinking about each other. It happens all the time. I think of her and one hour later, my brother calls me.
I believe that. I believe in the connection between my mother and me. Even though, I have the same connection with my wife, there are so many calculations. The connection is not clear. “I need this one, I need that one.” She goes on and on. I hate that. Its not good. (Laughs)
Every day, I am happy. Even if someone gives me something small, I find happiness in that. Lets say I go to the store to find something and if someone helps me find something that I am looking for, it makes me happy. Small things like that. Even if there is a communication problem with my English, they don’t care. They try to help. Its positive energy. But wife and husband are not like that. That’s a problem.
Heart: Are you not communicating enough with your wife about how you feel? Maybe that’s the problem?
SS: I know I have problems. I learn from my mistakes. If I am mad, I know I am wrong. But, how can I be wrong all the time? Also, I don’t know which of the things I did was wrong? OK, forget it, I will try again. Because, its a problem for me too if she is not happy. Its a challenge for me to keep figuring out. How many times should I keep learning? If everything I do is wrong, how can I learn? I keep thinking, “What can I do?”
Heart: You are holding too many things in your heart, its not good.
SS: But, that’s my life. It doesn’t matter. Maybe in my earlier life, I was not a good person, and so I need to improve in this life. So, maybe that’s why I keep learning in this life. That must be it.
Heart: (Laughs) What do you do in your free time?
SS: I listen to Korean music, I watch news from Korea on YouTube. I am interested in things that are related to nature, Cosmos and to find connections between the Cosmos and humans.
20 years ago, I failed in a Donut franchise shop and I didn’t have anything more than 100$ left with me. I was driving on Interstate 90 and my car broke down. I was in the Rocky mountains and I didn’t have any money left. It didn’t matter. I was walking in the forest for one month, and it was very difficult. I was afraid. Maybe, there’s a bear somewhere. I thought, “It doesn’t matter. I am good for your food if you come.” And so, I kept going. I thought about nature, and the cosmos and I learned that nature will not hurt me. I kept thinking, “Where am I from? Where did my pain come from? Where does this cosmos come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?”
Note: Before you rate this episode, please consider if you would’ve been so open and authentic about your own life. Earlier episodes available at The Anonymous Manifesto™.