In this podcast with Linka Lin, who works for the United Nations Development Programme in Bangkok, we discuss making life-changing decisions, keeping one’s energy high, and supporting the next generation of innovators.
Feel free to listen to the recording on Anchor.fm, Spotify and Apple Podcasts or read the transcription. Any questions? Comment at the end of the post.
Linka, we’ve known each other for quite some time. How about you share your journey with the audience now.
Sure, sure, sure. So, I am right now (and being brutally honest) 26 years old. Am I allowed to say that? (ahaha)
I was born in Xiamen. It’s an island very near to the Taiwan Strait, and it is not a first-tier city. It’s not a world-famous city such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou. And in fact, apart from my parents, most of my family is living in the countryside.
To give you a bit more context on the mindset of people in my hometown: I remember when my father supported me to study my Master’s degree in Hong Kong, one of my family asked him, “Why do you send your daughter to study a Master? She will come back, be an old lady, and no one will want to get married to her.” And I remember that I was just 22 years old at that time.
I was shocked because, as I grew up learning a lot about Western mindsets and philosophy, I kind of have observations from both sides. I was surprised that still nowadays, people in my hometown would think that getting married is the only thing that girls should strive for in life.
So, I was shocked, but at the same time, I was very grateful that my parents could support me.
I studied in Hong Kong for one year as part of my Master’s program. Then, I worked there for almost a year before moving to Bangkok to join UNDP; The United Nations Development Program in the regional office. There, I am in charge of national programs in more than 10 to 20 countries.
So, that’s a considerable shift in my life. I would say: from a girl who grew up in a rural part of China to a very international platform.
How do you think your neighbors would consider you right now if you had to go back to Xiamen?
That’s an excellent question, and I am also very curious to see how that would turn out. I remember visiting my neighbors and families with my mom. I was observing how she was interacting with them.
Obviously, my mom was proud of me, and she was sharing how I had started working with the United Nations. And surprisingly, the family was asking her: “Is it because she can’t find a job in Xiamen, that why she’s working abroad?”
And some others were asking, “What are the United Nations? Is it a private-sector company?” At that moment, I realized that I shouldn’t have taken their opinions too seriously, and I shouldn’t let myself be influenced by whatever they think that I can achieve in my life.
When you were younger, how could your parents allow you to be pretty independent? What did they do to set you on that path towards making your own decisions, flying out of the city and all of these things?
I think it’s a gradual process. My parents are very, very busy with their work. I know that a lot of people from my generation in China can relate. The Chinese economy was growing so fast that their generation was busy being part of this economic movement.
Combining this with the only-child policy, it made my generation very special. A lot of us didn’t have any choice. Both my parents are the youngest in the family, so my grandparents are a little bit too old to take care of me at the time. So, there’s no option actually to be very dependent.
For example, at the age of nine or 10, I was going to school by myself, taking one-hour buses. Back then, my father and my mother weren’t able to do that with me, and we simply couldn’t afford a car. I have to get to school by myself: changing buses three times, without adult supervision, day in – day out.
And during lunchtime, I remember that everyone was going home. Theirs were close enough, or the children had someone to take care of them. I was eating by myself in the restaurant next to the primary school.
So, I feel like there are no choices, besides being a really independent person. When you are by yourself, you develop this third-person point of view. It’s not like you are becoming too worrisome, it’s more like you are more aware of your presence. That you are observing yourselves; sometimes you’re confused, sometimes you don’t know what’s going on, but you have this third-person to make sure you are aware, trying to guide you. Yeah, I think that’s a very, very unique experience that shaped me.
It sounds like independence is going to be the theme of today’s podcast! You didn’t mention this as part of your journey, but you studied translation, is that right?
And when we had conversations before, you were explaining to me how you shifted very quickly, right after graduation. Can you tell us a little bit more about that journey, that adventure of yours?
Yes. So, I think a lot of Chinese, young people like me before they turn 18, they have only one goal in life; that is to get to the university. I was lucky enough to get a free admission because I was quite (how to you say it nicely) excellent in English and Chinese. I was able to study a language-related major without the difficult university entrance exam.
So, as I got this notice earlier than most people, I started to think about what is going on with my life. Because before that point, everything in my mind was, “Okay, I need to go to the university” because otherwise, I won’t be able to achieve anything in my life.
Then, I get to that point when I knew that, “Okay, I am at the university”, I started to think about, “Okay, so after, what’s next?” And “What exactly is the thing that I really want to do in my life?” How to make sure that if I don’t exist in this world, at least there are some footprints of my existence.
I started to think about this. I started translations because of suggestions, advice coming from my parents, and from their friends who were saying: “This is a good skill to have. You will make sure that you won’t starve yourself.” Because I think even now, a lot of parents’ mindset is that you need to own “a skill.” As long as you have a skill, you will have a job.
Things turned out to be different when I entered university. As courses started, teachers started saying that you have to study harder because new machines are being invented, they improve rapidly. So if you don’t study harder, you will be replaced by a computer one day.
My classmates were eventually all studying translation out of fear, not out of passion; it was difficult for a lot of us.
During my studies, I joined the world’s largest youth organization called AIESEC. With this experience, I started asking myself one very fundamental question: “Am I the person enjoying being the cook -> who repeats everything on a menu or am I the person who wants to be a chef and wants to create something that no one tasted before? No one knows that it’s going to be a favorite thing in the market or not, but still just enjoying that process of creating something new.”
With this mindset, I joined another youth organization named Komodo APAC. It is similar to the United Nations in the sense that you’re encouraged to think like global leaders, to look into the future, and to look at what’s going on in the world.
I realized that when we move from the small world of the translation classroom to the bigger world outside, your focus is not just focused on: “What are we going to have for dinner?” It’s more about, “So, what is the future?”
With those questions in mind, I was a little stuck when it came to picking my Master’s program. But I enjoyed the process of learning something in a concise period of time while internalizing it rapidly. Eventually, that’s what translation allows me to do. In a way, as an interpreter, you have a week only to prepare a topic. And then, you need to speak as if you are a professional person at a conference on this topic. That’s a process I enjoyed, and I continued to study translation and interpretation in Hong Kong.
But something unexpected happened in Hong Kong. I realized how much of a bigger world was out there. I started to understand the impact of trends in technology, A.I., and more.
In many ways, translation is one of the most vulnerable activities against A.I. Having a Master’s degree might increase your competitivity in the job market. But I realized that my mission was to narrow the gap between school education and the job market. That would help protect our generations against this wave of technology and find our place in society.
How did this process concretely happen? Were you sitting in front of a piece of paper and thinking these things through? Or you had new ideas popping up to your head at times?
I like the question, I think that’s something I want to offer to this world. I know a lot of people are talking about, “finding your passion, sticking to your passion,” and you are all set! But really, no one knows how.
In Chinese, we call this: “Toxic Chicken Soup.” It is the idea of making somebody excited by offering them a bowl of soup. But then you leave them hanging, not giving that person the spoon.
For people in a similar situation as I am, here is the methodology that I can offer: Initially, I would reflect on my actions that helped to make things happen. When you want to achieve something (such as a university entrance exam, learning a language or achieving something bigger, grander with your life), there are always three levels of thinking that we need to plan.
The first level of planning is the vision.
Imagining at a certain stage of one’s life, “How do I picture myself and what is the favorite part about me at that time?”
Then the second level is a strategy.
To be able to achieve the vision I have, I look for the strategies of execution. For example, I should stick to doing something, no matter what. Or what are the things that I should keep reminding myself?
And then the third level is daily actions.
To give a very concrete example, let’s say one wants to learn a new language. That’s the case of a lot of people. But they often don’t have a clear vision of why they wish to learn this language.
For example, I’m currently learning Thai. My vision is to be able to handle a human-centered design process. Or at least being able to run the interview part. I would be able to empathize with my users without translators. That’s my vision of myself learning Thai.
To achieve that, what is my strategy? My strategy could be, “I’m going to spend at least eight hours per week to study Thai” or “I’m going to find Thai speakers and practice with this person for at least 10 minutes whenever available.” But it could also be to attend a language school. My daily activities would be, in this example, to speak Thai, learn Thai at a school, and remember some keywords.
I found with people that they sometimes don’t have a vision, they only focus on activities. Eventually, they see themselves at the same place making circles; there’s no improvement with anything. Or they have the vision, “Okay, I’m going to learn Thai, but I don’t know how to get there.” And then after a few tries, you realize, “Oh, I’m so frustrated. I don’t see myself getting there.” Then you lost your sense of direction and abandon.
The same thing happens with life planning. For a lot of people before the age of 18, they have a very clear vision: I’m going to university. That was me back then. And what is their strategy? They go to extracurricular schools; they’re trying to do as many exercises as they can, and their daily life is well structured: “I’m going to sleep only six hours and will be memorizing stuff the rest of the time.”
That is very clear. No one gets confused before the age of 18. It typically happens after the age of 18 because they can’t see themselves in the future. They don’t know how to get to a new vision of themselves. If it’s not there, it’s harder to translate into daily activities.
Back to your questions; how do I make this lengthy process work for me?
I knew what kind of person I wanted to be reaching the end of my life. I then tried to break it down: “Okay, knowing the bigger picture, in the next three years, in the next five years, what do I want to be like?”
For the strategy, it meant: “I need to make sure everything I do needs to have an impact.” The impact is my bottom line, no matter what, besides making myself protected financially wise.
My daily activities could be more flexible: “Today, I’m going to do this; tomorrow I’m going to do that.” That helps me not just rely on short-term results. I know that in the long-term, something will turn up ok.
That’s interesting. In a short period, you left Xiamen, studied in Hong Kong, worked in Hong Kong, and now you’re in Bangkok.
How do you see these transitions as part of your life goals; as part of your vision for yourself? These are not simple decisions to make. What does that represent for you?
I didn’t choose the locations on purpose, but I wanted the platform carefully. In Xiamen, I realized the stage was not big enough for me. Even though it’s beautiful and the city’s doing a great job with its economic growth, I didn’t see myself helping the society there. I know I can do more.
When I moved to Hong Kong, I realized there’s so much going on that I had no idea about before. And then when moving to Bangkok, this represented a much bigger platform, notably with the UNDP Asia-Pacific headquarter here.
“How do I make those decisions about moving to a different location?” I stick to my principles, no matter what. It has to be aligned with that vision of myself. It has to work with the bottom line I told myself.
And the challenge with having such a… Well, not a clear path, but a way that you are sticking to. How do you maintain your energy, your balance, so that no matter what happens, eventually you get to where you want to go?
I have three questions that I ask myself every day.
The first question is: “What do I like the most about myself today?” It doesn’t have to be a super-giant achievement. It could just be something that I’ve never done before, but I just did it, or something that I realized that is recognizable.
The second question is: “How do I know the world a little bit more?” That doesn’t mean that I have to travel to a new country. It can simply be, for example, a lady downstairs always showing up in the same place and doing the same thing. I never noticed her before, but today I would talk with her. She tells me her story, where she comes from, and what is she doing. That helps me understand the world a little bit more.
Now, the last question is, “Have I made someone happier, or did I create more positivity for others today?”
Those are my three daily guiding questions. On top of that, I am doing some sports and workouts help. Our body is also receiving messages but also sending messages to our brain. No matter what our body is doing, our brain will receive its messages.
Therefore, if you practice some sports, (I enjoy Muay Thai, the martial art) your body is telling your brain that your body is capable, your body can achieve more.
That message becomes so powerful that whenever you are facing challenges (at your work or in your daily life), you have this idea in mind that your body can achieve more.
What I love about martial art is not just about making your body stronger; it’s also teaching how to dodge. You know how to avoid an injury and how much your body can take hits. This kind of awareness of your body will help you become more aware of yourself.
Apart from the three guiding questions and the martial arts/sports exercise, I am also really proud of a specific mindset. A lot of time, our frustrations come from a mismatch between expectations and reality.
For example, we might have really high expectations of our partner, parents, jobs, or an event we host. We expect them to do a lot for us or work correctly. But when reality hits, it is different because of this imbalance.
People see the gap between the two, and they only focus on this gap. I call this specific mindset the “Blank Paper Mindset.” When I face a tough situation, I mentally picture a blank sheet of paper with nothing on it.
I then imagine that everyone can draw something on it. Rather than resisting the process, I see this as adding colors. People want to make my blank sheet of paper more colorful and beautiful.
Instead of getting into a situation with the perfect picture in mind and feeling that everybody’s interactions “are destroying my artwork,” I come with a blank sheet of paper on which people add their own creations.
That’s awesome. At this stage, it might be interesting to hear what you are doing at the UNDP in APAC. We’ve talked a lot about getting young people involved and giving energy. What is it that you do?
What I’m doing is related to young people a lot. I’m with the team for Youth Development at the UNDP, Asia-Pacific.
We have a unique end goal of our action. We use social innovation and entrepreneurship to empower young people so they can become future leaders. Some of you might know that government programs or development agencies projects are mostly following linear processes.
Like, we’ve done this research, then we’ve done this workshop, now let’s implement it. That’s a linear process.
What we are trying to do is pushing for experimentations, prototyping with young people. So, if you are an entrepreneur, what kind of things would you want to create? And if you are already an entrepreneur, what kind of support do you need? And if you are not in the startup ecosystem, what are the changes you would expect from your Government or the private sector?
We make our work focused and centered around young people. We are trying to create a nourishing environment around them.
I love how you’ve been using “we” to describe your role. I think it represents what you’re passionate about. Can you tell us about one of the last examples where you concretely saw your impact, and you realize how much good you were created for people around you?
There is a lot to say! My favorite example is in Pakistan. We were working with a national incubation center. This center is under the Ministry of Information and Technology and receiving support from the largest Telecom company in the country.
The national incubation center liked us for our support to two social entrepreneurs; one is hearing impaired; one is visually impaired. Together, they co-founded a social enterprise called Deaf Talk.
They are aiming at giving young people jobs by training them as a sign language translator. They could easily find roles at conferences, hotels, and many other service industries.
Our role was to give them a stage to showcase their projects and connect them with some international enablers. In that sense, they were invited by the Finnish Government to showcase their products at Slush, one of the coolest tech event!
Our impact doesn’t stop there. We intend to be inclusive and to bring more marginalized young people into this social development process.
The National Incubation Center mentioned earlier was also willing to work with us to empower more transgender entrepreneurs in Pakistan.
That’s something we are really proud of. In a way, the private sector that will mostly focus on a limited percentage of people who already have access to resources and opportunities. We fill in the gap for the much larger group of people who is a little bit behind. They also have huge market potentials, but no one has been pushing them to come closer to the people in front.
When you unleash the broader group of people who are currently not in training, education or employment – they can be part of this socioeconomic development with significant impact.
That’s an incredible mission. How do you stay in touch with “reality”? In a sense, you are in genuine situations; the ones you mention before can’t get any more concrete. And yet, at the same time, it probably feels overwhelming to address pain points that you had probably never heard of before. Very quickly, you discover a pressing issue that you can work on solving but as rapidly. You may have to do another mission in a different country on a very different topic. How do you stay grounded?
That’s a very, very good question and one of the challenges that I was facing in my professional life. When sitting at the regional office, our role is not to really to be on the ground and implement our work. We are supporting national offices and observing what is going on. We try to be grounded through our colleagues there.
Personally, I’m involved with three social enterprises.
One is the Asia-Pacific Youth Exchange. We bring together 150 young people to come and visit Thailand. They will go to five different local communities and co-create solutions with community members. It is typically taking a week, and they work using the design thinking process.
The second is a social enterprise in Hong Kong called Intercultural Education. Hong Kong is a very, very international city, but the media mostly display the lives of the wealthiest or less fortunate people.
This gap is clear for people who cannot afford to travel abroad or know very little about the rest of the world. They don’t get much in terms of support. That can be hard to reconcile considering how international Hong Kong is.
To solve this, we invite international students and international experts to join classrooms in Hong Kong. They teach kids and local students about everything that’s happening around the world.
Once you get to know somebody from a different culture, you won’t think in abstract terms when you hear about them in the news. You’ll attach your experience with that person, and it’ll be more concrete.
I am proud to share that different partners have recognized this social enterprise as one of the most sustainable social enterprises in Hong Kong.
The last one, which I just started, is created with a friend who lives in Taipei right now. We empower children bullied at school through the learning of martial arts. Bullying is harmful to mental health, but it is hard to find practical solutions.
For example, psychological counseling doesn’t help as it can be too short. Instead, we build confidence within oneself via learning self-defense techniques. That will stay with this person for a lifetime. To circle back with your question, I make sure to stay grounded by being involved with social enterprises that get me to face inspiring people every day.
Clearly, you are often on stage and full of energy. You are often in leadership roles. What’s your understanding of the concept of leadership? What do you think makes a good leader?
It is the question I keep asking myself. I’m still asking myself right now. And to be honest, if I have to give a score of my leadership skills, I would say barely pass.
I noticed that a charming individual is not equivalent to a good leader. A good leader needs to give space for other people to be able to speak out, to be able to make sure that they feel secure when they’re taking responsibility or when they’re taking the initiative.
My vision of me being a leader in the future is to create this environment. A leader is not just someone good with everything. A leader is an environment creator for people to feel empowered, to feel safe. I still have a little way to go to be the leader I have in mind. But I know that’s this kind of leader I want to be.
Can you please share what kind of leader you would want to be and who are your role models?
Savi, my team leader, comes to mind. He’s my role model in terms of leadership. He isn’t trying to take all the spotlight with things, with achievements. In his team, people get credit for their work.
Most importantly, I like working with him because he never asks you to change. He would instead try to find your advantages and disadvantages and aim at strengthening your strengths. He wants to make sure that we never feel bad for things that you’re not good at. You only get to focus on the things that you’re good at.
Interesting. Tell me about teamwork. You’ve mentioned your manager. How does collaboration work for you? What do you think are the key components and the critical factors of success when it comes to creating a team and having these deliver remarkable output?
That’s an enormous challenge! Working in the United Nations, everyone has varying opinions. That’s the role of our leaders. They need to understand everybody’s opinion, finding intentions behind.
The important thing for leaders is to stitch different opinions and intentions into a map of the work. It might have some overlaps, but also some gaps. The leaders have the responsibility to make sure that the plan is complete in the end.
They make sure everyone focuses on the larger picture and results. Instead, if we were focusing on daily tasks and small things, we’d start the blame game with teammates. That would make us lost our motivation to continue working on projects together.
So, we aim to focus on the bigger picture, the results. And make sure that we do not put too many personal feelings into our work.
Tell me how you started Muay Thai. What were you expecting, and what did you get out of it?
Sure. At first, I wanted to lose weight. Interestingly, I noticed when studying at the university that people would be treating me differently based on my weight!
Oh, wow. That’s unexpected.
Yeah. Take the example of carrying a heavy suitcase, when I have a larger weight, nobody will be offering help. Whereas, after losing some weight, people would automatically reach out and ask: “Do you need some help?”
Oh, wow. That’s a bomb that you’re dropping here!
Right. So, I mean, I was young and naive and I then I just realized: “Okay, maybe probably I should just lose some more weight.”
That was the starting point of practicing Muay Thai. I’m being frank. I wouldn’t say, “Oh, because I want to focus on myself, health or self-improvement.”
But then, I started enjoying the process. As I mentioned earlier, when my body can, it sends the message to my brain that it can too! And I became addicted to this kind of mentality.
Moving to Bangkok, I knew that Muay Thai was the pride of Thai culture. So I just figured, “Okay, let me just try it.” I met my grandmaster through an excellent friend who teaches Muay Thai. I was not looking for just superficial levels, with punching, kicking, and those techniques. My grandmaster would say that Muay Thai is a philosophy; it is a way of living.
I remember something very, very concretely: the grandmaster asked us to stand where we were, and not to move at all, to take his hits. He says that you have to feel them. Once you think, you can decide for your body if you want to avoid the next hit or not. That was his first point.
His second lesson is to know when your body can take the hit, and you don’t move. If you step back and then want to counterattack, it takes longer. But if you stay there, and you know your body can stay there, you can hit back immediately. You don’t have to spend any extra time.
I like that mindset. Muay Thai changed me a lot.
I used to see my confidence as fake because I felt like I had no choice – people had expectations for me that I was compelled to consider.
But now, I have a very, very solid confidence. I know that no matter what kind of hit, my body can take that and I’m so ready to counterattacked any time!
Nice. That’s pretty cool. Introvert or extrovert?
I think it is 92 percent extrovert. Based on MBTI tests.
Okay, interesting. Do you believe it?
I don’t know.
So, what would you say you are?
I would say that it depends on whether I am in input or output mode. When I’m just discovering a new topic, and if I want to sit there and learn, I am an introvert. But I can also talk a lot!
Okay, got it. I was reading a post from a friend of mine who spoke about “Aloneness versus Loneliness.” Have you thought about this a little bit? What would this mean for you?
I think Loneliness is a passive choice, while the other is a proactive choice. With loneliness, you’re probably longing for someone to be around with you, but you don’t have other options; you’re by yourself. That gives you a sense of powerlessness. You might realize that you feel there’s no one around you to validate your thinking.
But I think aloneness is more or less a proactive choice. You choose to be by yourself; you don’t need external validations or recognitions because your self is strong enough.
That’s the point where your self-talk comes in; whether it’s loneliness or aloneness.
We also need to observe where our self-talk goes. Is our self-talk trying to scare us because of our limited imaginations or is our self-talk trying to nourish us, trying to help us to understand the situation?
You have a difficult task to show an example to hundreds of thousands of young people all over the region. If they were to ask you for one life lesson or one advice, what would you tell them?
Yes, I will say to them, “Don’t let your imagination stop your action.”
Oh, that’s pretty cool. Thank you very much for this, Linka.
Thank you for reading the transcription of this podcast with Linka Lin. Curious to discover more interviews? Head to our Podcasts page or jump to the next one directly.
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