Phong, Senior Compliance Officer, Father of 2, MN
Phong is a Coffee Connoisseur, Outdoor Enthusiast, Chess Master, Husband, Father of 2, Engineer, Lawyer, Sour Candy Lover, Monopoly Expert, Army Officer, and World Wide Web Wizard. He lives in MN with his two children and his wife, Janet. Phong is a Catalyst for RE-ENVISIONED and was interviewed by his Mentor Catalyst, Erin.
So, the first thing we do is ask people to just take 30 seconds to a minute and think about a child you care about and what makes them special, their personality and characteristics. I know you have two children, but let’s focus on one.
Alright, let’s just focus on Sophia, but I think most of this can apply to Amani as well. Sophia is currently attending school so I’ve thought more about it with her. She’s definitely -I’m not biased at all :) - super sweet and caring. She enjoys doing arts and crafts. I like that she’s thoughtful of her little sister. I guess, that generally describes a lot of kids, but she’s special to me.
For sure! When you think about Sophia - she's 6 now. When she is all grown up, let’s say she's in her thirties, she’s out of school, an adult. What do you want for her? What’s a good life?
Well, I think the first thing that comes up to mind is a successful career. Something that challenges her, and stimulating but also gives financial stability. Hopefully that career is fulfilling. I also want her to have a healthy balance of social and family too.
Yeah. What do you think it takes to be happy?
Well, I know I’m happier when I have a little bit more money than when I didn’t have a job and didn't have money. But it's not necessarily the money in itself that makes you happy, I think it’s a tool to enable you to do all of the things that you would enjoy in life – like traveling, dining out, attending concerts, and many other activities. I want to be able to help Sophia create memorable experiences.
I guess my definition of happiness might be different than hers. So, as long as I can do the right things that enable her to have the tools in life to make her own path and make her own happiness. As far as what we can do right now, it's just to put her on the right path to have a good education, to provide her with basic needs, then allow her to make her own mind. And then she can carve her own path. Does that make any sense?
It does! It totally does.
Stop me if I’m talking in relative circles.
No you’re great. That’s what we all do.
I hadn’t fully thought things through.
You’re doing great, don’t worry! Many of us haven’t. Part of this is to get the conversation started, get us reflecting on it.
Is there anything as a parent, as you think of this kind of life you'd like for her, that worries you, or keeps you up at night?
Luckily, we are fortunate that we are beyond the stage where we don’t have to worry too much about money for basic needs, but it's definitely always in the back of the mind. Hopefully, we can set a better example of work ethics and things like - am I doing the right thing? Am I giving her the right opportunities?
Last year before she started kindergarten, we wanted her to be in a mandarin immersion program. I figured, it’s worthwhile and beneficial for her to learn a second language. So we made a life choice. We moved across town, over to a different school district. Hopefully being in a good school will setup a solid foundation in education for her.
That’s interesting because that leads to the next question - In your ideal world, what would you like school to do to help her get to that good life you talked about?
I think formal schooling plays a vital role but it’s one of many factors of a good overall education. Students in school is like a chef at a grocery store. Teachers provide the educational tools and some recipes. Some students follow the recipe, and that’s okay. Some students are more creative to take the raw ingredients to deviate from the recipes to create something wonderful and new. There are guys like Gordon Ramsey who could just make something fantastic out of those ingredients, whereas, somebody else would open up a can of noodle soup and just warm it up. So I think a good school system will be able to provide a solid foundation but it's just a start. There are friends and family, the support system at home, and experiences that helps bring that out as well.
Bring what out?
I do believe that everyone has talents and abilities to succeed. Hopefully, school and family can bring out the curiosity. The drive and the motivation. So I feel like the school system can play a big role on trying to give guidance and provide an environment to learn.
I’m just going to push you a little bit on this to say, as you think about, not even necessarily in today’s reality, but ideally what would you like school to do for Sophia?
I would like the school to go beyond the tests and standard subjects. It somewhat lacks life skills like finances. So it’ll be nice, as part of her education, if the school can also teach about money and other practical life skills.
Do you think that the school that Sophia is going to will do that for her?
Yes. It’s the main reason why we enrolled her in the school. Different schools are better than others, based on funding I suppose. They have the resources to hire better and more teachers, have better facilities, and provide a better learning environment. I also think that the school and the parents have to play equal parts, parents have to take some responsibility in that as well.
But the schools that you think that Sophia will go to - do you think they will live up to what you hope that they’ll do? Like giving her this foundation, maybe giving her some of the life skills and that kind of thing?
I don’t think it can ever live up to what I want it to do. The reality is that there’s not enough time or resources, to expect the school to do everything. So that’s why it falls back on the parents to bridge the gap. I think the school will be able to give her a good foundation to start out in life on a better foot. I think it’s good enough.
As you think, even, about that last sentence - “they’ll be able to give her a good foundation, and it’s good enough” - do you think schools will do that for all children?
Well, most likely not. They can only do so much for the masses. I think it’s like a grocery store. Even with the same resources, some students just not as fortunate, maybe due to home life, school can’t solve every issues. Same teacher, same environment, but you don’t know what’s going on at home. So that’s a factor too, and if the student doesn’t have the other leg to stand on at home, it doesn’t matter what the school does, the student will be facing an uphill battle.
I feel like in education, school is a luxury, education is an investment. I think it’s a long term investment that someone with lower socioeconomic status can’t afford. So there are limitations on what the school system can do because not everybody is going to be on the same foot. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s only so much that the school system can do.
Yeah, I’m paying attention, I’m just writing as we go!
You can probably narrow that down into like, two sentences, I talk in circles.
No, it’s interesting! Can I feed back to you a little of what I’m hearing? In that last one you said that - I had asked if it will do that for all children, about what you would like it to do for Sophia - and you said that it can’t really do it for all children partly because that parents and home life play such a large role in kids’ life and their education, and, I guess, part of what I’m asking is - Do you think that kids can’t do it for all children to get that good life? That financially stable life? Or is it that you don’t think it can do it for getting the foundational skills?
I suppose the definition of “What is a good life?” varies between individuals. I expect the educational system to provide solid foundational skills for everyone. But to achieve something more, like a financially stable life and a fulfilling career, it’ll depend on the individual. I suppose it is different expectations. It depends on what you expect, you get different things out of it.
I know you were talking about how you had chosen Sophia’s school and things - is there anything that you didn’t talk about that you’d like to talk about a little bit?
Yeah, we already touched on this, but I think in terms of school - I think some schools are naturally going to be better than others, maybe based on funding and resources. The teachers - maybe instead of dealing with behavioral problems they can focus on teaching. How do you separate the good kids versus the kids with behavioral issues?
Well, finish that thought about how do you separate out the good kids, or at least the kids that want to learn from the behavioral kids. Can you say - separate out for what?
I think to minimize the distraction, is the way to put it. In the classroom if the teachers have to spend time dealing with behavioral issues instead of focusing on teaching, maybe students can do better if certain distractions weren’t there.
So you’ve started touching on this a little bit, but I’m just going to ask you about each of these three levels and I’m wondering if you think people agree with you, and if not, in what ways you think you might have a different idea than most people. So on the good life, the ideal role of schooling and whether schools are doing that. So we’ll start with the good life, do you think that people agree with you?
I guess it depends on who you talk to, but I would be inclined to say no. Because I think a lot of people view money differently. My expectations and standard of a “good life” is different.
How do you view it differently?
I want more in life, not necessarily material things, and to have more, I suppose, I need more money. It’s quite a cyclical thing. I have higher expectations and lofty goals for myself. Money is just a part of it. Not to say somebody else’s definition of success is better or worse, it’s just different. So I think people are happy in different ways.
I’m curious about what you think other people would touch on, or how they would describe it.
Like, what makes them happy?
Yeah, or what you think that people would say that’s different than what you said about what a good life is
It seems that people tend to say it’s good enough, or I’m making enough money, or I’m doing enough. Just enough. And I feel like they’re being complacent. People get complacent and they don’t want to improve, make more money or continue learning. Maybe for me to be happy, I need to achieve a little more.
Do you think people agree with you on what their ideal role of school would be in life?
Probably. I think most people would agree that school should be a safe place to learn, fail, and grow. But I don’t think being successful in school will necessarily translate into being successful in life. It’s possible to not do well in school and still do great in life. I think it sets you up for success but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be happy and be living a good life. Does that answer your question?
It does! You’re so sweet. Do you think on that third level of whether schools are doing what they should, do you think that people agree with you?
Yeah, I suppose. I guess what kind of schools are we talking about? Just elementary grade schools or more of the universities?
You can interpret that however you like. Do you think that there’s a difference between the two?
I feel like in grade school a lot of people just go to school because it’s what you do, and when you go into college it’s what you want to do. So hopefully you went to school and you’re able to have a bit more focus in life. Hopefully, they find the right mentor, in school or elsewhere, to bring out the best in them. I do feel that schools try to educate the kids the best they can.
So what was your own experience with school?
I enjoyed school, but I just didn’t take it too seriously, mostly coasted through high school. I initially struggled to adjust in college. I had to learn how to study, time management, and organizational skills. I found what I enjoyed and kept learning. I found the value in learning.
My parents, growing up, made sure education was the number one thing. I think it plays into the Asian stereotype - education is the most important thing. So we did that. But I feel like looking back, nothing wrong with my parents, but what I would want to be able to do more for Sophia than what my parents were able to do for me is that they relied too heavily on the school to answer all educational problems. There are other resources that we can find outside of the traditional school, even just the parents themselves. There’s tutoring services and extra-curriculars that provide more enriching experiences. Even sports, for instance. I didn’t really participate in that because I think my parents didn’t really value that as much. You might not be sitting there doing math problems, but playing on a team teaches you other things as well like other skills like teamwork or communication - other skills that can be learned outside of a traditional school setting, and I think that’s important. So instead of just the four walls of the school, there’s different skill sets that can be learned in a variety of different settings.
You’ve talked a lot about how things happen both in school and out of school, so on this question if it’s out of school that’s fine too, but has there been any particularly empowering learning experience for you?
Yeah, years after school, I finally figured out the value of money - what I can do with money, and how I can leverage it. I think that comes with experience. Growing up I didn’t really have to worry or think much about the value of money. I think that’s another aspect of life that if school can teach, it can set the student up for better success.
Where did you have this learning experience about money?
I suppose just through work and life experiences. My in-laws had their own restaurant, they’re quite entrepreneurial. I’ve observed and discussed with them how they spend, save, and invest money. I work in a bank doing securities law, so to see how money really works on the inside of the market, it’s fascinating.
What have you found most fascinating?
I think it’s what you can do with the money - to leverage it in different ways. I find it fascinating that money touches every aspect of life. It cost money to be born, it cost money to live, and it also cost money to die. So maybe the earlier you can learn about the value of money, the sooner you can use it to help you live a happier life.