Yesterday, while sitting on campus at the University of Hong Kong, I had a local Hong Kong Chinese guy, Bobby, come up to me with recording equipment and tape. Tall, striking and with a kindly voice he asked if he could speak to me, explaining he was a freelance journalist doing an audio Human’s of New York-like project. He asked if I could tell him the best compliment I had ever received. Before I replied he went on to say that when he asked a lot of Hong Kong Chinese this question, they could answer it pretty easily, because they said they weren’t used to getting compliments, and so if they ever did get a compliment, they remembered it. On the other hand, many of the Europeans he asked often couldn’t remember a compliment in particular, because they received compliments so frequently. [This is pretty interesting in itself… Does a compliment lose value when swamped with others? Or reinforce us so much so that we don’t need to rely on remembering the compliments for them to positively affect us? I’m optimistic and think reinforcement is important so I’ll say the second].


Normally a little guarded by strangers approaching me asking questions, this guy immediately intrigued me, and so the compliment I went on to share with Bobby involved the story of my year 11 English teacher, Mr Robinson, an extremely intelligent and cynical man whom both my sister and I loved. I must have shared something in class one day, because he pulled me aside at the end of the class and said to me, “Elise, you’re not a parrot. You have a brain as well as a heart”. I think it shocked me so much because I didn’t even think I had a heart, at least, not one other’s could see, let alone him seeing the brain in a small, cheeky-but-shy 16 year old.


Going on to talk to Bobby was one of the best 15 minutes I’ve spent – he was probably in his twenties, had studied in Europe and America, and was now back in Hong Kong trying his hardest not to fit back into the financial/monetarily-driven square his contemporaries and seniors espoused. I found out that we had two incredibly similar interests – both driven by gender empowerment and social enterprise. In fact, 5 years ago he had created his own social enterprise to empower women in the new territories in Hong Kong, called Cookin’ Mama, linking women who were housewives with top chefs around Hong Kong to create brands for their cuisine and a story, which was delivered to office workers in Central Hong Kong. I didn’t ask him what the best compliment he’d ever received was, figuring everyone must ask that in return, but he shared a lot about his life in other ways that I appreciated.


As we talked about the dualities of Hong Kong, and of life for Gen Y, some of the thoughts that have been stewing in my head started to solidify. I’ve now reached a point in my life that I recognise and celebrate the fact that I do have both a heart and a brain, and have increasingly become aware of my quite unique position in learning and in society. I believe that myself, and the others both on the New Colombo Plan in Hong Kong with me, and some of my closest friends and colleagues at home and in the region, are at a unique time in our lives where we can be “all in”. This was a phrase that has actually come out of the research I am doing on women in leadership in Hong Kong, referring to a notion that women leaders have to be “all in” to attain leadership, however I have adapted the words slightly to mean something else.


I think this group of people I am so fortunate to surround myself with is “all in” because we can get involved and act on a range of initiatives and ideas without inhibitors – we can create social enterprises together, we can study full time knowing that it is expanding our capabilities and is seen as a socially-productive activity to engage in, we can work fully and passionately without fear of being locked into something for the next 30-40 years, we can embrace those of all kinds around us, we can fall in love, we can go on adventures, and we can launch into changing systems and communities we are involved in, to build the most innovative and kind and inclusive societies. And for the most part, we can do all this in a relatively unencumbered way.


My time in Hong Kong over the past four months has included just about all of this, and I am pretty happy to say I have tried to live as consciously and fully as I can – with heart and brain. My research involves networking with and interviewing chief executive women (and some men!) leaders, reinforcing for me the great interest and relevance in advancing women’s leadership in Asia. My internship involves re-creating branding and media presence for the Women’s Studies Research Centre (to be launched soon!) and helping organise HKU’s UN HeForShe events, talking with some of the most accomplished and interesting thought-leaders in this area (my supervisor for one, Dr Sarah Aiston, and my brilliant mentor and HK ‘mom’, Dr Staci Ford). And I have launched into the creation of another social enterprise with fellow NCP scholar Amogh Sarda, a venture which involves many late-night university meetings and days of skipping from café to café in Hong Kong in attempt to keep up Wi-Fi and not get kicked out by owners disgruntled at our purchases of only one cup of coffee each (HKD$55 per cup – that’s over AUD$10. I think we’re entitled to stay a little longer in your café!).


While I was cautious of launching into the social enterprise in particular, and I guess like most people, have reservations at the beginnings of new ventures, I happened to be reading the works of Tim Ferriss and Nassim Nicholas Taleb at the same time, and came across this: “Conditions are never perfect. “Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. . . If it’s important to you and you want to do it “eventually,” just do it and correct course along the way.” The more I read of both and the more my experiences show, I realise I don’t have time, ever, to waste on waiting for perfect conditions. If I’m not doing something now and want to be, then I’ll make a way.


How’s this related to Bobby and his question about compliments? I think Mr Robinson’s compliment has had a great affect on how and why I act in life, or rather, in highlighting how and why I act. As a fairly… confident… individual I would definitely say I recognised my brain, but I think it is this ‘heart’ that has actually allowed me to do my best and most successful work, throughout both my study and work lives.

I wonder if, like me, some of my contemporaries and role models whom I look up to so much and love working with, have similar stories of compliments which overtly or subtly encouraged their ‘heart’, their ability to think and act kindly and innovatively – compliments, or reinforcement, that gave them the confidence to be ‘all in’.

Do you remember the best compliment you ever received?


Hey! It’s me! A local HK designer drew this at an event we were both at.