Exactly ten years ago today, my grandfather passed away. I was working on an important banking deal at the time and was on a business trip in Europe when my father rang to say I may want to consider coming back. He said that there was no immediate need to rush back so I booked an airline ticket for the day after I returned from my business trip. In so doing, I forgot the most important thing that my grandfather taught me. His lesson was very simple and I try to keep it in mind now as I prioritize my life: work is one third of your life, your family is your whole life. He died while I was on the flight back to see him.
For my grandfather this metric seemed most suitable. He lived until he was 93 years old as he had studied for 30 years and had worked for 30 years. But he had invested in his family by spending time with them his whole life. He believed one had to determine what one’s priorities are and use them as a foundation on which to build a life. He did not measure his success by power or money, which we seem so caught up with nowadays. He measured himself by another metric entirely, one I call “well-being”. It is being at peace with yourself and enjoying what there is to enjoy. For him this was his family.
He was born in 1912 into a wealthy and privileged family and his grandfather saw that he received the best education. During his youth, he had to navigate the second world war, first when he was a young Chinese student studying in university in Nazi Germany and later when he returned to China during the Japanese occupation. His sense of priorities served him well. At one point during the Japanese occupation, my grandfather was serving in the military in DongBei and was offered the post of mayor of a town in Manchuria. At his young age, this was a privileged post to be offered. His parents were in Guangdong province at the time and his mother wanted the family to stay together. My grandfather turned down the job offer, prioritising family over career. The next person they asked accepted the post and was captured and killed by the Japanese army. My grandfather’s dedication to family had saved his life. Later, when China went through a revolution and he had to move to Hong Kong, he lost the family wealth and privilege. This did not seem to be a major setback in his life. He still had his family and as he always told me, “if you lose everything, you will still have your education.”
Today most of us do not have big decisions like war to navigate. In modern times, daily life does not often bring life-changing decisions but the small daily choices we make every day are still leading us in a certain direction. We are usually not looking where these decisions are taking us. They go unnoticed and we arrive, sometimes surprised, when our future becomes our reality. Small events like eating with your family are the cement with which we build the foundation of our lives. Making the time to do this teaches children the importance of family and its role in life. Family is your whole life, your career is only a third.
Today I want to remember my grandfather by appreciating moments when they happen instead of brushing them off in the name of efficiency, always striving for more. When my son asks me to sit with him and explain something to him when I was just about to ring someone, when my husband is exhausted but someone has to get up early to get the kids ready for school and when I need to choose between e-mailing documents and chatting with my husband about his day, these are small investments which will last a lifetime. They are infinitely more valuable and durable than saving for a new Ipad. I will try to keep in mind that these are the moments I will remember forever and the work I finished is not. I cannot recall what important deal I was working on ten years ago today. I will never forget the sense of regret of having missed saying goodbye to my grandfather.