A Million Dollar Question

On the eve of Chinese New Year of the Goat, I found myself challenged by a million dollar question in the least expected of places.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

It was a simple yet provocative line taken from a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Mary Oliver. Reading a poem was the last thing on my mind this morning when I was getting ready to dive into a business project inside the student lounge at the Harvard Business School (HBS).

photo 5But this personal question – boldly edged across the top of a life-size billboard bandied around by a crew of handymen coming towards me – instantly grabbed my eyeballs. One by one, they began mounting the signboards in and around various strategic locations – next to a conference table, a sofa couch, a fireplace, an entryway. 

Altogether there were more than a dozen. Each bears a poignant black and white portrait of a HBS graduate and a personal essay responding to this question –

photo 2“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Admittedly, I had my own view of what kind of a place HBS is. It is an elite institution designed to train students to become leaders, make profit, and create impact through influence and power. It is also a prestigious school with graduates who have succeeded in or aspired to building a business empire or social enterprise.

So, I wasn’t expecting to see a PR campaign of sort – showcasing essentially a meaning of life question at this time of year – traditionally the beginning of recruiting season. Frankly, I was impressed and curious. After reading through a few of these essays on the placards, I was hooked. I went online to find out more about this “Portrait Project.”

photo 4As it turns out, this alumni “Portrait Project” dated back to 2002 when the MBA class decided to grow a network community to share not their business contacts or personal connection but their sense of self and personal calling. After reading a couple more of their essays, it became clear to me that every portrait reflects a mind keenly aware of one’s privilege of access to abundance at a place like Harvard. Every portrait also conveys heart intimately wedded to the responsibility of serving others at home and around the world.

It surprises and delights me to have discovered this trove of rare species who defy the bad rap that often pre-judged those who have received an elite education as an automatically self-absorbed entitled class.

Privileged – yes. But entitled – no.

Below are excerpts from a select few that really touch me.

Rye Barcott, Class of 2009 (a former Marine)


“We have a duty not to feel entitled. We have a duty not to have graduating from Harvard to be the greatest accomplishment of our lives. Harvard is simply an enabler.”

“We never know when our time will come. “From Iraq to Kenya to Bosnia and even here at home in the U.S., I have seen too many lives cut short by violence and poverty.”

“At a place as abundant as Harvard it is easy to become so engrossed in the next best thing that we lose perspective.”

“I want to live a life where every moment counts. I want my contributions as a husband, a father, a servant, and a leader to speak for me. I hope my life’s actions inspire others to carry on in our common quest for a more peaceful and equitable world.”

Tara Hagan Class of 2014 


Married by 20

Long hair

Nice job, maybe a receptionist

“In high school, I wrote myself a letter not to be opened for five years.”

“As the second-oldest child adopted into a multiracial family of nine in small-town Oklahoma, I almost didn’t go to college. We couldn’t afford it. Besides, I didn’t know anyone who had finished college.”

“My parents pushed me to consider college. My father stayed up at night proofreading the 30+ scholarship applications I submitted. Attending the University of Oklahoma changed my world view and sense of self to the point where those three life goals felt so foreign to me.”

“Don’t get me wrong – I would have made one hell of a receptionist, but it would have been because I didn’t know I had other options.”

“Finding that letter showed me how much high school Tara underestimated me and how lucky I am that I didn’t accomplish my goals.”

Ann Chao Class of 2013


“For most people, this question draws one’s gaze to the future. It suggests that their lives are just beginning, with countless possibilities ahead.

“For me, it’s also about reflecting on a life at its closing, because I once spoke this very question in a eulogy.”

“It was a eulogy for a five-year-old orphan who had almost become my little sister. Her name was Chun Yu.”

“I met Chun Yu at a foster home for blind children in China. She had been abandoned as an infant and neglected for years at a state institution.”

“She was blind and developmentally delayed.”

“I fell in love with her immediately. She was beautiful, perfect. “

“But just a month after we met, we discovered she had a brain tumor four inches across. We tried our best to secure top quality care, and prayed desperately for her to live after her surgery. After eight months in a coma, she passed away. “

“We felt the loss as if one of our family had died. We buried her ashes close to our home in the US, because she had indeed become one of our family.”

“Chun Yu’s life is embedded deep in my heart, in pain as well as hope.”

“I want to challenge others to examine their lives while there is still time to look to the future, and to choose to love others before any accomplishment or striving.”

These stirring epiphanies remind me of my own transforming experiences as a broadcast journalist – interviewing victims of violence, disasters, diseases, deformity and other forms of deprivations. Every one of those interviewees leaves me with a face and a voice that have dialed up my consciousness of what I have and of those who have less. They also spur me to imagine new ways to give back – creatively and selflessly.

As we embark on a new year, let us consider…

”What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Mable, New York

Mable Chan

Mable Chan is the founder of China Personified. Her contact is mablechan@chinapersonified.com.