Big Thinking

Elizabeth Shen - Camarillo, California
Entered on April 10, 2007

I believe that thinking small can create astonishing results.

My father, Shen Ting Wah, was a big man and a big thinker. He grew up in a small village near Nanjing in China. His family was poor and his education did not go beyond high school. By thinking big and working hard, he built a Merchant Marine business when he was in his thirties, with ships traveling to ports throughout the Pacific, trading in tons of coal, steel, iron, and other commodities. His big thinking applied to his family as well—he had eleven children.

When the Maoists came into power, my father left his entire business, ships and all, and brought as many of his family as he could to Hong Kong, where he had to start from scratch. In Shanghai, the adjective “Dah Fong”—literally “Big Direction”—is used to describe people who think big, are generous, and have their arms open wide. Keeping his eyes open and his thinking big, my father began trading again, and became a success a second time.

So, I grew up determined to be like my father, to be “Dah Fong.” I decided on a career in business, intent on earning the most I could for every hour I worked. Since I’d studied music most of my life, my choices were rather limited, so I decided to work in sales. I sought out only the biggest opportunities. This tactic made me successful, and I moved up the corporate ladder quickly, always taking incredible risks, always going for bigger deals. Nothing was worth doing unless the effect and outcome were huge.

A series of events over the past few years has forced me to rethink this strategy. After the birth of my second child, a car accident, and a serious illness, I was distraught and didn’t know how to continue my life. At about the same time, my father was diagnosed with cancer, and he passed away six months later.

At my father’s memorial service, people showed up who were complete strangers to our family. One by one, they stood up to say a few words about my father. After retiring from business, my father had become a violin maker, and a few of the people were fellow craftsmen. Others knew him as their Chinese calligraphy teacher; some called him their Tai Chi Chuan Master. These were all people who had come a long distance to pay their last respects because my father had touched each one of them through his love, his religious faith, his generosity.

It struck me then that “Dah Fong” has to do with embracing small things with a big attitude. I had overlooked the real lesson. The reason for my father’s success in life was his way of dealing with people—one person at a time—with a big heart.

Now, I’m volunteering at my son’s middle school, helping motivate students and awaken the spark within each of them. And when the students ask if I’ll tutor them after school, I’m delighted, and I teach them as passionately as I once went after million-dollar deals. One child at a time.

Born in Hong Kong, Elizabeth Shen has since made a life in the United States, and she is the proud mother of two children. Her career has included music (violin), senior management positions in telecommunications and high-tech corporations and, more recently, working as a volunteer in local schools.