In the 2008 movie “Yes Man,” actor Jim Carrey portrays a character who withdraws from society after going through an emotional divorce. Encouraged by a friend trying to bring him out of his shell, he attends a workshop given by a self-help guru who encourages him to change from being a “No Man.” He starts to say “Yes to life,” becoming an energetic “Yes Man” who tries everything ― even learning Korean.
In contrast, in South Korea, “yes man” still refers to a brown-nosing employee who is obedient to superiors. It is still better to be a yes man who obeys so you won’t be blamed when things go wrong because even one failure in school, the office, or family is unacceptable. Koreans I have mentioned the movie to immediately recoiled at the very mention of yes man, thinking it is the submissive yes man (or woman) in the office.
The different definitions of “Yes Man” (doing things) versus “yes man” (following the rules) are playing out now in Korea, most significantly in President Park Geun-hye’s policy of creating a “creative economy.” How do you foster a creative economy in a country of checklist checkers?
President Park also pledged during the campaign to make citizens happy, but the reality of doing this in a “No country” reminds me of the old saying: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
As a non-Korean, I am free from such pressure, floating like a leaf in the wind. My luck has gotten even better because I am re-joining forceswith Yonsei University professor Kim Chung-Ho, the president of the newly established Freedom Factory Co. Ltd. Whereas many Korean employers issue commandments, Prof. Kim is a bona fide “Yes Man.”
It is a great opportunity, but also a great challenge. My first day at work, I mentioned an idea to him. The approval process took about 15 seconds. I proposed the idea. He said, “Yes. Good idea.” I proposed another idea a few days later. He added even more ideas, quickly escalating it beyond what I had imagined. A “Yes Man” boss is more excited about ideas than employees are.
Based on what I have heard and experienced, a supervisor, manager or boss saying “good idea” in Korea (and Asia in general) seems to be translated as: “Let me think about it, let’s have many meetings, then we can make a decision…at which point I will say ‘no’ if you haven’t already come to your senses.”
But with Prof. Kim?” Good idea means, “Get started, let’s make it big.” It isn’t surprising that Prof. Kim is a big fan of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. In the 1956 book “The Anti-Capitalist Mentality,” Mises argued that people loathe capitalism because it takes away the excuse for their own failures. At the office or in a kingdom, people can blame the boss for their own inaction or individual failures.
I don’t know if that is Prof. Kim’s strategy, but here’s what happens: His “Yes Man” approach takes away the excuse for inaction. I am so used to hearing people say, “If I were in charge, then I would….” or “The boss should listen to me, we’d finally get something done around here!” With a “Yes Man” boss ― or living in a country based on freedom ― things depend on you and your own efforts.
A Korean-American friend of mine who says she was brought in to her company to bring “creative ideas” complains that her boss doesn’t listen to her. Laughing out-loud, I told her: “Don’t you realize that hiring you was the creative idea!” She has barriers at every turn ― either real or imagined ― because of her “No” supervisor. In contrast, I will have the freedom to do as I please, but also rise and fall with the results.
The last time Prof. Kim and I worked together, we did a fun rap battle music video titled “We can do it!” When I proposed that idea in 2010, before we first started working together, his email response was simple, something like, “I will do it.” And he did, and then some!!! He is now the Freedom Rapper. People are shocked to see him, a geeky Korean academic rapping about economics. I see a “Yes Man” celebrating freedom.
After a year, I may regret getting what I wished for, and start looking for a stern Korean boss who will gladly tell me what to do, blocking me until I come to my senses and just scurry about at his or her commands. But for at least the next year, I will be colleagues with a “Yes Man.”