In Nepal, a borrowed camera yields a lifelong lesson

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Ogilvy & Mather's worldwide chief creative officer on lessons learned in an unfamiliar land

The simple truth of reciprocity experienced by Tham Khai Meng while backpacking as a youth has helped him in business and in life. He explains why this lesson, as well as the thirst for restlessness, are so important for creatives.

Over the years, I’ve been to a lot of places, seen a lot of things and been the recipient of a lot of advice – both sought and unsought. But one of the most valuable life lessons I learned was from many years ago as a young man backpacking round India and Nepal. A man loaned me his Rolleiflex camera for three days. For no reason. He was a complete stranger, a Nepalese, and he didn’t know me from Adam. He just trusted me.

Conventional advice would have told me he was crazy, but it’s a funny thing about human beings. If you trust them, often they repay your trust. It’s called reciprocity and is a fundamental principle governing human relations. If you are nice, people are nicer back; and if you are bad, they are worse back. It’s why wars always spiral out of control and why sales people give you free gifts.

This simple truth has stood me well in business and in life in general.

I discovered the travel bug early. As a kid, I used to be fascinated by a photo I found in a book showing that famous moment on May 10, 1869, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met at Promontory Point. As they drove in the last symbolic "Golden Spike," they took a photo. Hundreds of workers crammed into the frame, sitting and standing on the locomotives, wherever they could find a space, like bunches of human grapes. It made me long to go to America.

I didn’t know it at the time, but there was one thing missing from that photo. The Chinese. Ten thousand Chinese laborers built that railway but they weren’t allowed in the photo.

Like immigrants everywhere, they weren’t too popular. One thing the other workers objected to was their strange ways, such as taking a bath. In barrels of water perfumed with flowers, apparently.

Why did they do it? The urge to seek a better life over the next hill is as old as time. Restlessness defines the human spirit.

As the son of Chinese immigrant parents in Singapore, I inherited the restlessness genes. They took me to London as a young man to study art first at Central Saint Martins and then film at the Royal College of Art. When you are a stranger in a foreign country, you stand out. When the spotlight is on you, you have to perform. So, to not fall off the high wire, you have to work harder to succeed. Later, the restlessness genes brought me here to New York.

Of course, it wasn’t economic hardship that made me travel. I did it to feed my soul. Creatives need to be intellectually restless. Creativity requires risk-taking, courting failure, daring to fall flat on your face. As creatives, we need to keep doing the mental equivalent of setting sail for distant lands.

This takes courage. Not the sort that braved Atlantic storms but the sort that braves storms of scorn and defensive, insular thinking.

With Ellis Island on the doorstep, New York is the spiritual home of the intellectual pilgrim. Just being here is exhilarating. Walking around and simply taking it all in is a form of calisthenics for the imagination. New York is my home now but, when I’m not here, I still venture to all four corners of the world for work and to seek creative stimulus.

To avoid stagnation, it’s vital that we constantly challenge ourselves away from our home port. Otherwise, like a tortoise in its shell, we stay in our comfort zone. And, as someone once said, comfort starts out as a servant and ends as your master.

Or, to put it another way, you can’t think outside the box if you spend your life living in one. Unless you are holding a camera, in which case you do indeed capture the world inside a little box.

Maybe that guy in Nepal was trying to tell me something.


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