If I Were 22: From Post-War Korea to Meeting Kennedy

Ban Ki-moon showed at the yellow circle

(by  ,Secretary-General of the United Nations)

When I was 22, I had a very few material possessions, but I was fortunate to have been blessed with values I learned from my parents, the Confucian traditions of my society, and some simple advice from my middle school principal.

I grew up in the immediate aftermath of the Korean war. My family lived in a modest home, sleeping together in one of our two rooms, drawing on the cooking fire for heat, and reading by candlelight since we had no electricity. We did not have much, but we were hungry to learn and build a better future for ourselves and our communities.

After doing my best to learn English, I won an essay contest organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which sponsored me to travel across the United States in a group of young people from more than three dozen other countries.

That voyage transformed my perspective and my life. From my dusty village in Korea, I opened my eyes to the wider world. The highlight of our trip was an opportunity to meet President John F. Kennedy at the White House. Reflecting on the multinational character of our group, he said, “There are no national boundaries; there is only a question of whether we can extend a helping hand.” I resolved then and there to pursue a career in public service.

Wondering where to begin, I reflected on a Confucian teaching that had been impressed upon me from a young age: “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right.” I understood this to mean that if I wanted to contribute to the greater public good, I had to begin by working on myself; only then would I see progress radiate out from my personal circles to society at large.

These two approaches – the concrete push for hard work and study as well as the philosophical focus on personal responsibility as a prerequisite for leadership – found common expression in the simple advice I received from my middle school principal, who said, “Keep your head above the clouds and your feet firmly planted on the ground – then move step by step.”

He was advising me to hold fast to lofty ideals and take practical actions to realize them. Never has this been more useful than in my work as Secretary-General of the United Nations, which every hour of every day copes with seemingly intractable challenges, from conflicts and human rights abuses to poverty and disease – and in the worst cases, all of those challenges at once.

I have learned that it is never enough to simply parrot principles without activating them through concrete steps – but at the same time, concrete steps will take us off the right path if we do not hold fast to our principles as we pursue them.

[This post is part of a series in which Influencers share lessons from their youth. Read all the stories at http://linkd.in/1nlErZ9%5D

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