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[Kim Ji-hyun] Learning the language of empowerment

Yes, words can hurt you. In fact, there are such things as fighting words. Then there are phrases and terms that possess the power to melt the hardest of hearts.

Now, it’s true that some people refuse to be affected by words. Even when faced with a barrage of criticism, when their carefully laid plans are relentlessly berated and not a whisper of encouragement comes their way, they persevere. These are strong folks.

But most of us seem to be vulnerable. Verbal attacks can reduce us to a sobbing wreck, while compliments can turn us into a shining hero.

In the world of startups, 1 out of every 10 attempts ends in a failure within a year. The biggest reason is money. Another is lack of traction and the failure to scale up. Lack of faith and negativity is cited another key factor. Experts say that it’s common to see entrepreneurs talk themselves into their own demise.

Every time they utter words of doom, it adds to the possibility of it actually happening. Every time they doubt their team, a member really will leave. Every time they criticize without clear reason, they shuffle closer toward a full-blown collapse.

At the same time, words can’t be just a strategy. Last year, the founder of Korean payment app Toss -- now a smashing success valued at over 1 trillion won ($884.1 million) -- said that at one point in his business, he was left with just around $20 in his pocket.

Instead of despairing, he bought some cheap presents with that money and went back to the office, where three colleagues -- all that was left of this team at that point -- were waiting. Instead of telling them to go home, that they failed, he handed around the gifts and asked them if he could borrow six more months of their life.

His words weren’t a promise, but they certainly weren’t those of failure. At the same time, it wasn’t a gesture. He meant it. No matter how one tries to sound eloquent, without determination and true faith, your words will be an empty echo.

Two years ago, actor Jim Carrey gave an inspiring commencement speech that went viral. The essence of it was, that life doesn’t happen TO you, it happens FOR you. It’s a subtle difference, just one word, but the impact was lasting. It makes you want to go out and do things, to thank life.

When I was growing up, more adults believed in tough love. Instead of cheering them on or being supportive, a lot of times they expressed disappointment in their children, hoping that would get their motor running. Perhaps it worked, looking at where Korea is now.

The consequences on the kids’ mentality, however, can be quite permanent and quite damaging. A negative portrait of yourself, of your company, of your surroundings, of your country. That’s the strength of words.

As a country too, Korea has always been hard on itself, having to grow out of nothing but the ashes of war. However, the country had, and still has, a knack of picking itself up and getting back on track.

Despite the seemingly ubiquitous bad news, it would be lovely if we could take time to look around at the progress we made and thank each other for pulling their weight.

Whenever a door closes, they say, a window opens. Once, we were lamenting that Korea has no Unicorn startups. Today, we have four, which is double from last year. Instead of letting life happen to us, starting today, it can happen for us. Here’s to learning the language of empowerment. 


Kim Ji-hyun
Kim Ji-hyun is editor of The Investor desk. She can be reached at jemmie@heraldcorp.com. — Ed.

By Kim Ji-hyun (jemmie@heraldcorp.com)
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