Do you know what BTS, Samsung, and KaKao have in common? They are all from South Korea and I am a die hard fan of all of them! And no, I am not biased by being a Korean American who happened to grow up in both Washington, D.C., and Incheon. I am a fan because they never stop innovating or inspiring others to share their own creativity.
I am not alone in thinking this.
The world’s love and interest in South Korea’s innovation, economy, and startup culture are growing exponentially. Twenty years ago, people asked me whether I was from South Korea or North Korea when I said I was Korean. Now when I introduce myself, they brag about how they love their latest Samsung phones, BTS’s performance on Saturday Night Live or AmorePacific’s full skincare line.
This is why I am saddened by the parallel reality: the lack of daily creativity and the increasing number of highly stressed and anxious people in Korea in pursuit of their version of a successful life.
Let me explain how we got here.
South Korea’s innovation today is remarkable and powerful. Compared to 60 years ago after World War II when the citizens barely had food to eat, in 2018 South Korea was recognized as one of the most innovative countries in the world by the World Economic Forum. This has lead South Korea to be the 5th largest economy in the world. In fact, South Korea is so driven by innovation that the country filed the largest number of patents in 2017.
I can attest to all of these successes because they align with my experiences visiting South Korea for the past thirty plus years. Each time I visit there is a new building, a different fashion fad, and innovative products improving Koreans’ daily lives. Life always seems to get better in Korea.
I believe Koreans’ high appreciation for speed, efficiency, customer service, and user-friendliness has helped the economy and innovation grow to where it is today.
Speed and efficiency are embedded in Korean culture. Everywhere you go and talk, everyone always adds the phrase Bhali (빨리), which means fast. If I translated a sentence for words, you’ll hear something like “Let’s quickly order our food and quickly eat so that we can quickly get the project done and quickly head back home to rest for the day.” They don’t always mean fast in a literal way, but speediness is anticipated. This is why Seoul is one of the world’s most well-connected, productive cities with high-speed internet since everyone wants to quickly connect online!
Korean companies complement this drive for speed and efficiency through impeccable customer service in their products and services. From Korean Air, Coupang, LG, Shinsegae, POSCO, to Paris Baguette, companies want to give their customers the utmost experience and attention. I worry less about having issues with products and services in Korea because I know they will quickly look into the issue and consider my feedback. Even their bus and metro system are so user-friendly that many of my non-Korean speaking friends have few problems using it during their first trip to Korea.
At the same time, they have done a great job preserving the 5,000-year history and culture through food, language, and ancient temples around the skyscraper-filled city. This is one of the many reasons I agree that Korea’s thriving and innovative economy today is not unexpected. They have worked so hard and have been doing so well for so long.
At the same time, another reality remains true.
The stress and mental pressure students, professionals and leaders in South Korea face on a daily basis is extremely high.
- In 2017, OECD reported that South Korea had the second highest number of suicides in the world with Lithuania being the highest. The rise in cyberbullying, unemployment, depression, and the high pressure to succeed have all made suicide the fourth most common cause of death in South Korea. Over 40 people commit suicide each day.
- More than half of Korean students aged 11 to 15 report a high level of stress and anxiety caused by pressure to succeed academically and in their careers. Many depressed students express how this high level of pressure leads them to have suicidal thoughts.
- Most professionals report experiencing a high level of stress and feeling pressured to have a good job at a reputable firm, a good salary, and successful life. Yet due to the strong stigma people have against depression, these professionals are either unaware of and/or do not seek mental health support. The mental health stigma in Korea is so strong that found 78% of elderly Koreans think depression means a person is weak, while only 6% of elderly in Americans think that way.
I was saddened when my friend in Seoul confirmed this reality by saying that Koreans today do not even bother to dream.
“Why bother dreaming or wanting to do something if you know it’s going to fall apart? It’s too stressful already living the status quo each day.”
In the face of societal pressures and mental health stigma, dreaming for today’s generation is a luxury. This lack of dreaming coupled with a high burden of stress and pressure is crumbling Koreans everywhere.
Entrepreneurship development, which plays a key role in a countries innovation, also has a parallel reality in Korea. Yes, the Korean government and Fortune 500 corporations have proactively created innovation centers, competitions, and investments to support a thriving culture. They have undoubtedly played an important role in the rising number of entrepreneurs and startup development in Korea. But this space has its fair share of challenges too:
- Many entrepreneurs and my startup friends still express their concerns on how the bureaucracy and elitist culture prevent them from doing something too different from the status quo. They would rather create their own business than partner with conglomerates in fear of being stuck.
- Finding innovative talent is challenging since most Koreans have been told that learning how to take tests is the only measurement of being a good employee and student.
- Success for someone who is younger, female, or not from the top elite universities is a lot harder as the culture’s harsh evaluation judges them to be inadequate.
- There is also a language barrier as most Koreans, despite having taken English language courses, prefer building products in Korean or staying in their closely knit social circles they are already comfortable with.
- The overall lack of diversity in age, background, and gender in entrepreneurship makes it hard to encourage different types of people to enter the field.
Why should you bother doing something different if the risk feels too high? It’s understandable.
How did we get here? Is there anything we can do about it?
Unfortunately, South Korea is not the only country that faces this challenge. Gallup reportsthat 87% of professionals around the world feel stuck and stressed. Depression and stress lead to suicide and feelings of isolation worldwide, not just Korea.
More creativity is urgently needed in our lives.
We need more:
- Leaders that encourage their people to take risks and try something different.
- Teachers guiding their students to think differently and solve complex problems with creativity instead of multiple choices with strict grades.
- Parents who are praising their children’s character, empathy, and open-mindedness instead of their academic grades, job titles, and awards.
- Communities that create a safe space to foster a diversity of thoughts.
- Individuals who are excited to start their days and feel encouraged to creatively express themselves in any field of work instead of feeling shut down society’s expectations.
Unleashing your creativity is not just good to do, it’s a necessity in order for our world to thrive.
The good news is the most important resource already exists – you and your community of coworkers, employees, family members, and friends.
When we find better ways to unleash everyone’s creativity and support a diversity of thought, people are able to think differently about how they handle stress, societal pressure, and the never-ending drive to succeed. This is why I respect and love Korean celebrities and companies like BTS and Naver who are fighting this battle for societal good. BTS songs talk about the importance of loving oneself, mental health challenges, and the societal pressures students face. Their courage to speak up and stand up for their fans is making a difference.
Don’t you want to wake up to a day full of hope and possibilities instead of feeling depressed in a structured society? What can you do to spark more creativity in your life and in those around you?
I reflect on these insights as I prepare to return to Seoul next month to speak at the Asian Leadership Conference by ChosunIlbo. It’s the biggest international conference in South Korea with influential speakers such as President Obama and Jack Ma. This year Prince Andrew and his team at [email protected] are speaking along with many other experts in politics and technology. As a returning speaker and Knowledge Partner to the conference, I’m excited for the implication of our work at InnovatorsBox and message that we will share during our innovation workshop and panel on creative leadership and rethinking networking.
As my love for innovation and the people in Korea grows, so does my hope to see more creativity in society. I’m looking forward to meeting new and old friends who will join me in finding ways to empower people to embrace their full potential and creativity.
If I left you with more questions to think about at the end of this post, I’m glad. We can’t get great answers without first asking more thoughtful questions.
Originally published in LinkedIn on April 25, 2019