Friday, November 12, 2010

Overrated/Underrated -- the Asian Way

Here is the first installment of the Korean's shameless gimmick item -- the overrated/underrated series. This series will cover everything from serious to petty, as the Korean sees it. Each part will be loosely themed, and the theme of this post is a little more on the serious side:  things that people constantly overvalue/undervalue when they consider how Asians -- including Asian immigrants -- do things.

The point of this post is NOT to say that Asians do everything right. That is obviously untrue, and in the future there will be a post exploring the other side of the equation also. Neither is it the point that Asian countries/Asian immigrants have nothing to learn from anywhere else, nor is it that the things listed as "underrated" are all-important. They mean exactly what they say -- they are underrated, i.e. people often do not stop to think about it when they consider the corresponding overrated thing.

Without further ado, here goes.

OVERRATED:  Creativity of Apple's iPhone
UNDERRATED:  Creativity of Samsung's production line

"Creativity" is the favorite hobby horse of people who want to criticize Asian industries. The argument usually goes something like -- "Sure, Asians make quality things that don't break, but where is the creativity? Look at my shiny iPhone. I bet Asians can't make something like this!"

This attitude is something that drives the Korean crazy, because of its inability to see the real creativity that exists beyond pretty, sparkly things. Take a look at this article, which explains out Samsung is able to keep up with Apple even though Galaxy S does not create a psychotic fan base like iPhone. Essentially, Samsung's production line has an extremely fast reaction time to precisely caliberate the amount of production based on consumer response. If Galaxy S sells well, Samsung can instantly double its production. Apple cannot do this, and must turn away potential iPhone customers if they do not have enough in stock, and must sit on the excess inventory if they produced too much.

Developing this reaction time requires real creativity. It requires an outside-the-box managerial vision of what might be possible. It requires highly-skilled, highly adaptable professionals working in the factories so that they can switch to producing just about any product in Samsung Electronics lineup. It requires creating a supply chain that few other companies in the world has -- a chain that is both cheap, reliable and flexible. It requires creating a product lineup that makes such a supply chain possible. This is not creativity?

OVERRATED:  Apple's creativity and America
UNDERRATED:  Nintendo's creativity and Japan

Continuing on this theme -- this myopia of seeing "creativity" also does not connect the creative product from the culture in which it was born.

No one can doubt that Nintendo is a creative company. Think of it this way -- it is a Japanese company that made its fortune by telling a story about two Italian plumbers who eat mushrooms to grow big. When it seemed down and out, it came out with an innovative motion gaming system that took the world by storm, expanding video game market to the populace who never even imagined enjoying a video game.

Japan dominates the world's video game market. Japan also dominates the world's animated cartoon market. It makes great movies over which critics fawn. The Japanese people, raised within Japanese culture and Japanese educational system, are responsible for this success. Then the question is -- why do people always say Japanese culture and educational system inhibit creativity? Can it be that a culture that emphasizes hierarchy and discipline -- like East Asian cultures generally do -- actually helps creativity in a way that other cultures cannot even imagine? Perish the thought -- Asians are not creative, we all know that. They work too hard and never think for themselves.

Hey, there is another overrated thing.

OVERRATED: Critical thinking
UNDERRATED: Hierarchy and discipline

"Asians lack the ability to think critically," the never-ending Greek chorus sings, "because they are taught to follow orders and know their place in the hierarchy." This is such a steaming pile of crap. Koreans achieved their democracy by relentlessly rebelling against their own government for decades. The democratization leaders were imprisoned, tortured and killed, but they did not stop until Korea indeed became democracy. That's a sign of the people who always follow orders?

The hypocrisy of this position was the clearest during the Mad Cow protests in Korea in 2008, which many observers denounced as a result of Korean culture and educational system that discourage critical thinking, since the protestors seem believe in something that seemed obviously wrong (i.e. danger of Mad Cow disease in American beef.) But wait -- Korean government wanted to import American beef, and was telling its people that it was safe. Weren't the protestors taking a stance exactly opposite of what their government was telling them? Were they not protesting because, after critically examining the government's position, they came out against it? Apparently the protestors were called "lacking in critical thinking" not because they did not think critically, but because they did not agree with certain non-Korean people -- who somehow have a monopoly over deciding what counts as critical thinking.

Why do hierarchy and discipline have to be the antithesis of critical thinking? Has it occurred to all these "critical thinkers" that hierarchy and discipline are what get stuff done? In the end, a million good ideas are worthless if not followed by concrete and effective action. Often the best ideas cannot be implemented by one person -- it requires an organization (sometimes as big as the entire country) consisted of people who are willing to sacrifice their individual interests for the common goal. Armchair quarterbacking is always easier, but the quarterback on the field is the only one putting scores on the board.

Along the same lines...

OVERRATED:  "Problem-solving"
UNDERRATED:  Rote memorization

The bloviating Greek chorus also sings:  "Asians emphasize too much rote memorization and not enough problem solving; Asians are book-smart robots who cannot handle real-world problems."

Bullshit. Here is a real world problem: gasoline price is only going to get higher, and sooner or later it will run out altogehter. What to do? Real world solution: build a car that uses much, much less gasoline. Who gave that solution? The rote-memorizing Japanese, specifically with Toyota Prius. Here is another real world problem: with miniature electronics, there is less and less space to put in a battery inside the machine to run it. What to do? Real world solution: build a much smaller and efficient battery. Who gave that solution? The rote-memorizing Koreans, with world's leader in battery technology in LG Chemicals.

East Asian economies are roaring precisely because (among other reasons) they keep on making products that in fact solve real world problems. Facing this result, the idea that Asians are not good at solving real world problems is laughable. One needs technical knowledge to solve actual problems, not elbow grease. Technical knowledge is gained from studying and yes, memorizing the books, not from learning through osmosis from the "school of life," whatever the hell that means.

And another thing...

OVERRATED:  Socially inept Asian Americans
UNDERRATED:  Social superstar Asian Americans

Another variation on theme:  "Asians Americans might be book smart, but they lack social skills." Really? Did Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth College, become the president of an Ivy League college by being socially inept? Did outgoing D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee become one of the most extolled education reformer in America by being able to recite Shakespearean quotations? Did Connie Chung become one of the most prominent television journalists in America solely through her impressive ability to solve nonlinear alegebra without a calculator?

Are there socially inept Asian Americans? Yes, there are tons of them. Is their ineptitude because of Asian-style child-rearing? Possibly. But if that is so, shouldn't there also be a correlation between Asian-style child-rearing and the ability to create real social superstars in a number disproportionate to the portion of Asian Americans in the general population? How is that Asian style parenting gets always associated with the downside, but never with the upside?

And the stupidest refrain of them all...

OVERRATED:  Unhappy Asian professionals
UNDERRATED:  Happy Asian professionals

"Sure, Asian Americans might test well and become high-income professionals. But are they happy with their lives, working at a 16-hour-a-day job that their parents forced upon them?"

So much is made about this "happiness." Well, the Korean is such a professional, and he is very happy. His parents never told him to be a lawyer, but there clearly was an expectation to become some type of professional.  He narrowed it down to a journalist or a lawyer, and in the end he chose lawyer. He is surrounded by other Asian American doctors, lawyers, engineers and financiers, who essentially chose their paths in a similar manner -- some parents were more explicit, some were less so. And overwhelming majority of them have happy lives, and the unhappy ones are generally not unhappy because of their jobs.

Would we have pursued a different profession if our parents did not push us toward being a professional? Possibly. Could we have had happy lives working in a different job? Maybe. But are we unhappy because we have a job in which we work hard and earn of a lot of money, because somehow we are not doing what we were "meant to do"? Hell no. We might complain about our jobs like anyone else, but at the end of the day we do them because we like the exchange of what we put in and what we get out of it. Being a highly-paid professional is not an easy gig -- if you don't like being one, there is zero chance that you will make it as one. Don't write us off as miserable just because long hours seem grueling, and money can't buy happiness. We enjoy the fact that not everyone has the grit to work long hours, and that we have money to ward off much of life's unhappiness. And all in all, we are thankful that our parents cared enough to push us to become educated and hard-working.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

46 comments:

  1. You know who I mostly hear the creativity claim from? Koreans. I file it away next to all the claims about how English should be the national language of Korea ... products of an unhealthy impulse perhaps better left unnamed. (At least by a non-Korean such as I.)

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  2. Never could understand people who argue that one can't be a critical thinker AND support hierarchy and discipline. As if the two are mutually exclusive? I generally hear this argument in reference to lemming-like religion devotees, so I appreciate the use of hierarchical Asian cultures to exemplify the hypocritical statement. Are there people in hierarchical societies (including religions) who don't apply critical thought and always just do what they're told? You bet. Does it mean you lose all ability to think critically as well as act on those thoughts because you sustain hierarchy and discipline? Of course not.

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  3. I think the criticism of Asian "problem solving" is that we are very good at evolutionary improvements as opposed to revolutionary ideas. Asians optimize efficiency, miniaturize, and make constant incremental improvements very well, not just in technology, but in process and manufacturing as well. Nothing to sneeze at that ability, but to be fair, I do not believe there are quite as many "break the mold" type innovations in asian achievement. Of course there are exceptions, there is no question that the Nintendo Wii was such a "mold breaking" innovation, and others inventions like the Walkman and even Karaoke machines were Asian in origin. However on the whole I'd say it's a pretty big stretch to compare the creativity involved in developing a product like the iPhone/iPad with Samsung's manufacturing capability of Galaxy S phones. I don't think that is really something many would categorize as revolutionary creativity, its more just a product of an efficient and finely tuned business process. Not to diminish that achievement, but it's kind of hard to really say if that deserves to be deemed overrated/underrated when you compare the accomplishments side by side, it's an apples vs. oranges (no pun intended) comparison.

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  4. Japan jumped on the Prius because GM's electric car took the Japanese completely by surprise - and it was summarily crushed because, well ... who knows why? I normally enjoy your articles, but this one's a lot or unwarranted piss and vinegar. Study up, Bub, before you go making fantastic claims.

    Just because some idiots in this World claim that Koreans have no creativity doesn't make it acceptable for an intelligent person such as yourself to start flinging feces all over the cage.

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  5. @Shawn..
    I don't know what "fantastic claims" you're talking about. The Prius and hybrid car technology in general WAS pioneered primarily by Japanese car companies there's nothing "fantastic" about that. American companies in the past 15 years have made very minor if any significant sales of alternative fuel or ultra low emission vehicles while Toyota and Honda made huge strides in hybrid technology that didn't require us to change our infrastructure, which is the main reason why electric cars never caught on. They found real world solutions for implementing radical fuel saving technology that was for the most part successful and was adopted by many average consumers. US companies in comparison basically sat on their hands in regard to this technology and instead developed Hummers and full size SUV's. There's plenty in this article for people to dispute, but the least of which is the Prius argument. The US simply out and out FAILED when it came to meeting the challenge of fuel efficiency and only now after GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy are they changing their tune.

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  6. UNDERRATED: Hierarchy and discipline

    I am European but I completely agree with your point of view.

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  7. Sure, Samsung has mastered the production system - meaning anyone in the world that desires a given phone can get one. Whoopie. That's a very back-end sort of thing - not the thing the average customer / phone-user concerns themselves with when buying a new phone. That Samsung hasn't yet generated a fanatical reaction could be that the company has paid more attention to the back-end concepts than the front-end concepts. Let's also review the software that Samsung uses - Android - which is primarily a US-based creation. Sure, there's some localization and adaptation done.

    Wasn't it the WSJ that recently stated how Samsung was forced to speed up their tablet development plans after the success of Apple's iPad? Doesn't that suggest a sort of 'me-too' mindset to you?

    To be fair, there are plenty of creative things that don't get lots of press - I saw quite a few of creative ideas at the Seoul Design Fair not too long ago.

    Hierarchy seems the antithesis of critical thinking because you're left to do what your superior tells you to do, not add your own input. Granted, the people higher up theoretically know what's going on - but do they? Do they use their power for the benefit of the company, or to force female associates to drink with them? That young Koreans feel powerless to offer suggestions (such a thing would be unheard of!)

    I'd agree with the rote memorization - it's the best way to drill stuff in your head, and requires a lot of effort to make it stick.

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  8. Visviva -- you are totally correct. This post applies to Koreans equally as non-Korean observers of Korea.

    brutus -- The Korean understands your point, but he still fails to see what was so revolutionary about iPhone/iPad, other than that they are pretty. (Please don't say the AppStore. Verizon's Get It Now has been around for at least a few years before iPhone, and the AppStore is no more than an incremental step from that.)

    Shawn -- What is aggravating is that it is not "some idiots," but the overwhelming majority (including Koreans and supposedly well-learned people) who say Koreans lack creativity.

    Chris -- 1. Why is back-end creativity worth less than front-end creativity? (And please do not forget that iPhones use the LCD display from LG.)

    2. If Samsung's tablet production is an indicator of a me-too mindset, than Apple's foray into the phone market is an even bigger indicator of a me-too mindset. But hey, they get to be called "creative" as long as their products are pretty, right?

    3. The point about hierarchy is that it is a necessity, and it does not stand against critical thinking -- exemplified by the fact that even in a hierarchy-emphasizing countries like Korea and Japan, plenty of critical thinking goes on right now.

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  9. Interesting post, but all this goes beyond just technological issues.

    The Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium, arguably the most renowned competition for solo classical musicians, used to be dominated by Russians (David Oistrakh and Vladimir Ashkenazy won in the early days), but last decades have seen a lot of outstanding Asian performers. Last year's edition had 3 Koreans and 2 Japanese in the finals.

    You might argue that this falls under "rote learning" again -- Asians mindlessly learning Tshaikowky by heart -- but at the same time the contemporary piece in the contest was composed by Korean composers two years in a row, and you don't get to do that unless you are absolute world class.

    More broadly speaking, Masaaki Suzuki's Bach Collegium Japan made the best recordings of Bach's cantatas *ever* -- managing to capture the Baroque, Lutheran spirit of the 17th century better than a lot of European ensembles.

    I for one praise myself lucky to be living in a time where I have the peoples of several countries vying to bring me to best of everything.

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  10. @tK
    I will admit that Apple has a more vocal and rabid fanbase which is probably why you consider them "overrated". However, as an engineer, the iPad/iPhone products are definitely what I would call revolutionary not evolutionary, and I think Apple deserves some of the attention they've gotten for their achievements. The fusion of hardware and software design, form factor, functional capability, user interface, price, all put together in an entirely new visonary way, were paradigm shifting. All smartphones have made the shift to try and emulate iPhones, all tablets are now going to copy the iPad. Granted taken piece by piece all the parts of those devices are incremental improvements of previous inventions, but put together at the price points they set them at was definitely in my mind a much more creative endeavor than the improvement of a manufacturing process. It may be hard to appreciate right now, but I'm sure 10-20 years down the line those products will be seen as major pivot points in the way we use technology, Samsung's manufacturing ability will probably not.

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  11. You used the Prius as an example? The prius is a lousy piece of engineering, which exists for 'green wash propaganda' The extra weight it needs to carry around in the form of batteries hampers its fuel efficiency. So what it gets 50mpg. My toyota Yaris gets 62MPG without all this expensive hybrid rubbish. To boot the prius also takes a hell of a lot more energy to manufacture AND its batteries die after 2-3 years so need complete replacement.

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  12. As religious authorities hindered science in middle age, hierarchy thing hinders creativity in Korea. I think almost all creativity in Korea is coined to 386 generation, in the act of protest against the older generation. Starting from famous movie directors and producers of idol groups to failed .com innovations.

    It is a well established theory that the explosion of Korean movie began with the democracy. Of course the 386 generations are not free from hierahcial thinking but they started to rebel.

    Samsung is just a black hole which absorbs every resource in Korea starting from SKY students to minor achievement in technology occured in Korea upto being endorsed by government including illegal methods. Even after that absorption, if Samsung fails to make one or two creative things, that would be strange.

    I suspect that the most innovative technologies also come from struggle to fight against their hierachial system. I do not know much about Japan so there is nothing more to say. I only suspect that Japan might be losing their creativity recently by becomming much conformist, not because less diligent than before.

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  13. @ the Jo
    Yes, it's believed a mix of critical thinking and rote memorization is the most effective, especially with critical thinking having the final say on matters. Whether it's within one person or between two people, these two opposites play off each other and stimulate each other.

    For example, the Korean is incorrect in saying Nintendo recent success with the Nintendo Wii and the Nintendo DS was based purely off discipline and traditional Japanese business practices. In actuality, their success was based off Blue Ocean Strategy and The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen. These books heavily promoted out of the box thinking, creating new markets, and refusal to follow tradition or norms. Much of this thinking defined Sony’s rise through power through products such as the Walkman and micro-transistors.

    The President of Nintendo of America (then Head of Sales and Marketing) had introduced the new Nintendo CEO to these books when Nintendo was losing marketshare to Sony and Microsoft. Normally, Nintendo of America employees would never approach the CEO like this since they were largely a marketing and distribution arm of the company. However, the new CEO had done away with some of the company's hierarchy since the Nintendo was getting thrashed and needed new ideas.

    Likewise, hierarchy was a major issue for Sony. A major criticism of Sony is that their divisions are divided like feudal kingdoms. Division heads fight among each other, ignore workers’ concerns, and don't work towards integrating divisions or sharing technology with each other. This was especially true during the development of the Playstation 3 game system (aren’t videogames a great way to talk about business). Ken Kutaragi, the chief engineer for the division, had virtually unlimited power during its development. He didn't listen to people telling him the production costs were astronomical or that developers would have a hard time developing for the system. The system went on sale for an absurd $500-600 ($200 over the nearest competitor) and had a production cost of $800. The Playstation 3 high costs and poor sales effectively destroyed most of the profits from the entire Playstation line all the way back 1994. This isn't to say hierarchy is inherently bad. It's needed to make timely decisions. However, such a strong emphasis on it can destroy a company in ridiculously stupid ways.

    Sony has combated these issues by adapting more Western business practices and dissolving some of their hierarchal issues. Likewise, many other Japanese companies have hired Western executives to diversify their brain trust in fight the stagnation plaguing many companies. These executives are often the push behind new ideas and show less resistance to sub-contracting, layoffs and other unusual ideas for the company. This isn't to say that traditional Japanese business practices have been replaced entirely. It's a matter of having as many different ideas and perspectives on an issue as possible.

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  14. cont.

    If we go back to Nintendo in the 80s, we can see that the father of the mega-selling Gameboy, Gunpei Yokai, was a lateral thinker. Yokai was a mere assembly maintenance worker making toys in his spare time. Instead of climbing up the corporate ladder, he was hand-picked by the then President of Nintendo (who was a very unorthodox Japanese businessman) since he saw a lot of potential in Yokai. Much of Nintendo's success has to do with these having these crazy mad geniuses tempered with traditional businessmen making sure things didn't go too out of control. Many of Nintendo's current problems (and they do have problems), can be attributed too much power given to certain employees based off seniority/rank since they go off and spend money on having a ego-trip with a pet project. Another problem is their inability to attract or keep development partners in Europe and America. Nintendo’s hardware is criticized for being designed specifically for Nintendo’s own developers and not incorporating outside input. This is why Apple is such an amazing company. It's not much their hardware or their software so much as it is that they've attracted so many developers through an excellent integration of development tools, software and hardware. They're mind-bogglingly good at this.

    Speaking of Nintendo’s people, Shigeru Miyamoto, pretty much the most famous videogame designer, was a very poor student and enjoyed drawing more than his studies. He needed his father's connections to actually get a job at Nintendo. Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokemon, was a poor student, constantly disobeyed his parents, and regularly skipped school to play in arcades or go hiking. He's actually a critical of the direction of the Japanese school system (you'll notice that Pokemon training is a nationally sanctioned alternative to grammar school in the games) and business since industrialization destroyed much of his childhood fields and ponds that inspired Pokemon. Many of the top people in both the Japanese and American are drop outs or delinquents, such as John Carmack, since video game creation was considered a degenerate's job and unorthodox thinking was required to succeed in it. The current CEO of Nintendo was disowned by his family for working in the videogame industry. This trend is also common in the Japanese animation and comic book industry with many drop outs working as writers and artists. You need people of different backgrounds and personalities to bring a good idea to life. A videogame often needs a designer being the driving force behind development, programmers who help the designer technically and challenges him creatively, and a producer who brings order when things get out of hand.

    The key to success seems to be a mix of both worlds. There needs to critical thinking tempered with discipline. While the Korean isn't completely about the merits of hierarchy and discipline, he is wrong to simply associate an individual person or company’s success to their culture’s norms. Many innovations in Asia are the result of individuals or groups going against the system and its norms. That isn’t to say that hierarchy and discipline didn’t help bring those ideas to life. You'll notice that many of the most successful companies have two or more people running the show. There's usually one guy with the crazy ground-breaking ideas and the other guy who keeps everything under controls and makes sure the bills on time. In a few cases, such as with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, you’ll have a guy who understands both the creative side and the business side.

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  15. Great post! You could have mentioned all the Chinese inventions too.

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  16. Korean,

    I believe an Asian country is pretty heavily involved in the manufacturing of the iphone and its success (China).

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  17. Also take a peek behind the scenes and see who's developing Apple's creative technologies. You'll see lots of foreign-educated Asians working here in America under H-1B visas. Once you have the fundamental knowledge, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills can all be learned on the job (or in grad school).

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  18. The Samsung Galaxy S has an extremely innovative GPU. I still can't believe how those Samsung engineered it. I think the Galaxy S's GPU itself is enough to triumph over the iPhone.

    But I must disagree with the Korean on one thing though. The iPhone is not a phone in a regular sense. It is a computer that just happened to have the capabilities of a phone. It was both daring and I daresay creative.

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  19. I agree with the Korea's comments on the importance of discipline and (especially in the cases of math or foreign language learning) rote memorization. American students would do well to do more of those two things. As others mentioned, the combination of discipline and critical thinking is a winning combination. I don't quite understand why the Korean is advocating hierarchy so much, though- what does hierarchy get anyone anywhere? Discipline and hierarchy don't have to go hand and hand, as discipline can be enforced in an atmosphere in which all respect one another for ideas and contributions to the group.

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  20. I'm not a big fan of hierarchy, but discipline is very important. The first thing I establish in class is discipline, not in the sense of me meting out punishment, but in the sense of students being focused and understanding expectations.

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  21. If the South Korean, Japanese, and Chinese educational systems somehow inhibit creativity, like so many people seem to believe, then why do these three nations consistently rank at the very top of countries filing for and being granted patents? http://www.ibls.com/internet_law_news_portal_view.aspx?s=latestnews&id=1833

    Also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_patents (info sourced from the WIPO)

    Also, why is there such a significant presence of Asians in Silicon Valley where your creativity and problem solving abilities are your most valued attributes - so much so that the multi-leveled interview process focuses mainly on how well you can think outside the box?

    And how many Asians (who are the products of the k-12 East Asian educational system) contributed to the development of "Western innovations" such as the ipad?

    And why are there so many PhD's in science, engineering, and math (for which you must contribute something new to the discussion) given in America to Asians who were primarily educated in Asia?

    On a smaller scale, if the Korean educational system stifles creativity, why are there so many South Korean car designers making an impact on the American Auto Industry (as well as others)? http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121311527578861039.html

    In addition to car design and classical music (as jvk mentioned above), there are East Asians making an impact on countless other creative fields - everything from architecture, to photography, to fashion design, to food (Tokyo now has more top rated Michelin restaurants than any other city) - all of this before China really revs up its "soft power" engine.

    And this is most likely only the beginning. As South Korea's and China's economies continue to mature (because economic development and creative output clearly go hand-in-hand), in ten years time, I have a hunch that the Asian presence in various creative fields will be even more prominent than it is today.

    I don't mean to imply that the Eastern educational system is better at fostering creativity. I just don't see the evidence that it produces people who are less creative than their western counterparts, especially in the last 10 to 15 years.

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  22. I agree with a lot of your points regarding things like Apple products being very overrated. I think you could throw in America's ignorance of where there cars and electronics come from as being underrated. Most of them think they probably come from Japan. In regards to the 2008 Mad Cow Protests, I have a hard time believing that there was any creative juices flowing around at that time. I was here in Korea and thought it was great people protested against something they didn't want but the sad thing was most people were completely uneducated and uninformed about the issue. Americans eat American beef and are not getting mad cow disease (Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease.) One more thing regarding the hierarchy approach, The Korean needs to work in Korea for a Korean company to see how the system works. Watching more skilled people getting passed over for promotions in favor of the older person is difficult to deal with. Older people get a free pass in Korea to act as they please and talk to people as they please. In other places respect is something that is earned through respecting others not because of the birth date on your drivers license. In regards to rote memorization, it works for those who are motivated not for those who are in their 10th hour of school for the day and for those who lack all other language skills except for being a poor man's Korean/English dictionary.

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  23. Hey they were good points you mentioned. I'm guilty of having been part of the Greek chorus.

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  24. JacL,

    You would think that both China and India would corner the patent market as together they have over eight times the population of the United States.

    Like the saying goes, "if you throw enough mud at the wall, some of it will stick."

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  25. John from Daejeon... China and India will no doubt have the most patents filed and granted in the very near future as their economies continue to mature. It's happening right now. The number of patents filed and granted is rising at an incredible rate in these two nations. So pretty soon, it's gonna be more like a mudslide hitting that proverbial wall.

    But your point really doesn't address why Japan and S. Korea are numbers 1 and 2 respectively in terms of the number of patents granted per million people. (http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/eco_pat_gra-economy-patents-granted). Much higher than the U.S. which came in at third (Also, with the case of the U.S., there is the question of how many Asians who were primarily educated in Asia contributed to the patents filed by American companies such as Apple and Microsoft.)

    So the question remains - if Japan and South Korea have educational systems that stifle creativity and critical thinking, why are these two nations consistently numbers 1 and 2 respectively when it comes to patents being granted, much higher than any other country including the United States?

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  26. this all seems to very vague and has lots of self interest. Not everyone learns and creates the same way. Most of the stuff your speaking about completely flew over my head so ya.....

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  27. I don't think the argument of anyone who is actually familiar with the Korean educational system says that it inhibits creativity. That is to say, the people are just as creative, but have less freedom to act upon it.

    It's drilled into your mind that you will conform. You will study your ass off memorizing math you'll never use, and English words that native speakers don't know, simply to get the highest score on the test, get into a good university, and then get a good job and make lots of money. If you don't achieve this, (especially the lots of money part) then you are a loser. You might as well have not studied and become a street sweeper as far as everyone else is concerned.

    You may actually play the guitar or be good at painting. Too bad for you, neither of those are skills necessary to pass the tests.

    In fact, just forget everything you want to do yourself and do exactly as you're told.

    Now, for someone who works at Samsung and LG as an engineer, they are exactly told to design new products. That in itself is creative, so they get to exercise their creativity.

    If you're stuck in accounting or marketing though... do exactly as you are told, and be prepared to take the fall if you know what you are told to do won't work and you warn the person who told you to do it. He still tells you to do it anyway, and if it doesn't work, it's YOUR fault.

    Now, I don't claim to know anything really about how it's really like to go to school in Korea, because I didn't go to school here. But, there is something to be said about hierarchy stifling creativity.

    At the same time, when creativity runs rampant, you'll have all these college graduates who majored in literature or communication who found their true selves in college, but didn't acquire any practical knowledge from their educations, so they end up not being able to apply anything they learned to their actual job.

    In which case, what was the point of going to college?

    (This is largely self critical, and no offense to literature or communications majors)

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  28. Given the state of the financial world right now, we probably would have been better off if our accountants were not creative at all, actually.

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  29. Dear Korean,
    The Expat has to disagree with you on this one. Your post reeks of jealousy for Apple. I think that Samsung as a company is fantastic and they should be applauded and recognized for what they have built over the years, but I have to agree with Brutus. Comparing a manufacturing design with amazing innovation in a mobile phone... come on. People don't buy a phone and brag to their friends how efficient and calibrated the manufacturing process is. What consumer cares?
    I can tell you why software design is more important than manufacturing design; it sells phone and creates demand. If the design is not there in the first place THERE IS NO MANUFACTURING PROCESS!!

    I expected more objectivity based on your previous post and from the fact that you are an attorney. Apple succeeding is not an implicit way of saying that Korea (vis a vis Samsung) as a country is failing or playing second fiddle to America.

    The entire IT industry is trying to copy Apple's products (iphone, ipad, ipod)... that is not game changing innovation? Maybe some other companies had similar ideas BEFORE Apple, but who executed?
    A lot of the Samsung phone designs are copying Apple.
    I teach here in Korea and see how students think everyday. They are fantastic at observing a sentence pattern then replicating it. However, if I don't give some sort of direction or a choice of words/ grammatical structure for the students to follow... they can't do it. I do not believe a lack of critical thinking skills is something Korean students cannot attain, but it is just like working out one part of your body at the gym and neglecting an another. You will be weaker in that neglected exercise. The education system in some ways is too overly dependent on wrote memorization. I think a lot of the system is purposely maintained that way to provide workers with specific skills sets and thinking patterns for the big Chaebols. It increases their efficiency as companies and helps them compete. That can be good or bad depending on what a person values. I feel that history speaks for itself. In aggregate, more innovation in the past 100 years has come from Western societies than from Korea. Part of that is the educational system's design. Another part could be due to wealth as well. The university system in general is just not that competitive when compared to other systems (Japan, Canada, the U.S., or Europe). A lot promotion is based on hierarchy and age instead of actual work produced and merit. When you take away the competitive drive all humans respond accordingly.
    @TK
    To touch upon your point about Wall Street and finance, it was not innovation that has destroyed the U.S. Economy, but greed.
    Innovation is great if used properly. A lot of those financially engineered derivative instruments could have been used to help businesses manage risk better instead helping thieves steal more money.

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  30. tAO,

    First of all, the Korean thinks the handle "The Expat" is taken by the proprietor of Ask the Expat

    As to...

    I can tell you why software design is more important than manufacturing design; it sells phone and creates demand.

    The point of the post is not about what is more important -- the point is whether there is real creativity behind an innovative manufacturing process as much as there is real creativity an innovative design.

    The entire IT industry is trying to copy Apple's products (iphone, ipad, ipod)... that is not game changing innovation?

    No one said it was not.

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  31. jvk -- indeed. The Korean is married to a classical musician, who daily makes a mockery of the notion that Asians, educated in Asian culture and educational system, are not creative somehow.

    brutus -- The Korean is not disputing that Apple products are creative and innovative. They are. But the inability to see the real innovation and creativity behind having a game-changing manufacturing process is what underrates Samsung. Actually, it does not even have to be Samsung -- the same point can be said about Wal-Mart. Surely you would think Wal-Mart's logistics innovation was game-changing, right? The point is that creativity does not have to manifest itself in a shiny pretty thing only, and a myopic vision of creativity discounts real creativity that exists in other forms in the world.

    Myung-Jun, don't confuse "hierarchy" with "military dictatorship." And Korea's smaller companies (like iRiver before it lost out) were plenty innovative also.

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  32. rkadam,

    For example, the Korean is incorrect in saying Nintendo recent success with the Nintendo Wii and the Nintendo DS was based purely off discipline and traditional Japanese business practices.

    The Korean never said that.

    While the Korean isn't completely about the merits of hierarchy and discipline, he is wrong to simply associate an individual person or company’s success to their culture’s norms.

    The Korean never did that either.

    Joo An -- Sure, and Blackberrys were computers that happened to be a phone also, long before iPhone. The idea is not new.

    Bonnie,

    what does hierarchy get anyone anywhere?

    It took Colin Powell pretty darn far, for example.

    as discipline can be enforced in an atmosphere in which all respect one another for ideas and contributions to the group.

    At the end of the day, only a few ideas are taken and the dissenters must shut up and execute. Hierarchy helps that process.

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  33. One more thing that is VERY underrated (at least within the popular discourse) about Apple is how disciplined, hierarchical and actually creativity-squelching Apple can be. Few companies are sustained by the sheer control of its every aspect by the chief executive like Apple is. Tech beat reporters constantly complain about how it is impossible to get any information out of Apple's marketing division because they constantly have to look over their shoulder for directions from the higher-up, which is ultimately Jobs himself.

    And when Apple gets even a whiff of competition, it does everything to annihilate it using its dominant market position, just like the oh-so-uncreative monopolies of the 1920s. So Jobs stands off with Adobe over Flash with some BS reason, and Google Voice is not allowed on iPhone -- the supposed open marketplace for all. Creativity is welcome on the AppStore, as long as that creativity does not threaten Apple.

    The Korean has no problem with Apple as a company. It is a great company. But it does get annoying when it is heralded as the most ingenious, creative, innovative or any other superlatives, when the company itself is not really different from any other successful company -- it creates good products, it markets them well, and it relies on hierarchy and discipline to execute. And all the focus on flashy, pretty things distracts people from other real means of success through creativity.

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  34. Apple and Samsung are both successful companies, for entirely different reasons. Is Apple, the "most ingenious, creative, innovative, etc.. " super company? I certainly don't fall in that camp, but I would also not say they are just a run-of-the-mill company that succeeds doing the same thing every other successful company does. Apple succeeds more so from it's creativity in the mobile tech market than say RIM or Nokia, which you could argue are more "successful" than Apple if you compare market share or gross sales. I would contend that if the most creative minds at Apple and Samsung switched places, the people at Apple would be able to come up with the Samsung galaxy manufacturing process with similar results. On the other hand, I find it difficult to see Samsung's team coming up with a comparably groundbreaking smartphone or tablet as the iPhone or iPad. In as much as I acknowledge that is pure speculation, I believe Apple deserves some level of "overrating" in that particular comparison. Again I do not diminish the creativity that exists in Samsung's innovations that apply to areas outside of product development. It just doesn't doesn't seem like they are the same magnitude of creative accomplishment in my opinion.

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  35. I think there's a lot of good points in this post--some that I agree with and some that I don't, but the two cents I wanted to add are in regard to the U.S. beef protests. I believe it is a bit of a stretch to say that critical thinking of the government's position was the root cause of the uproar. It was ill-informed middle and high schoolers who first took to the streets, and it was only after some time that the protests turned into an expression of frustration and anger towards the Lee administration for lack of transparency in the negotiations of the imports specifically, and lack of appeal to public opinion when making policy decisions in general.

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  36. Agree with Brutus, Asians are great in "following up" on innovations to make them more efficient. But being creative means thinking outside the pack and questioning authorities. Two key qualities that the Asian Education system DE-EMPHASIZES!

    So hierarchy and discipline is overrated...Sometimes:)

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  37. The Korean,

    You make some good points, but I think you're off on several of the others:

    1) The Japanese gaming industry is in serious trouble and isn't as dominant as it once was (it's declining at a very fast rate, both the market and the quality of its games). Most of the developers are struggling. Many of the biggest names in the industry would concur. It's all about the West now and again.

    2) The Nintendo Wii is mostly just a gimmick (marketing). The same reason why people think the Ipone is overrated is the same reason why the Wii is overrated. Motion sensing is nothing new in the gaming industry -- it has come in many different forms, with the Wii motion sensing just being the latest.

    2) The Japanese didn't invent hybrid technology (Toyota recently settled out of a lawsuit for supposedly stealing its hybrid technology from an American inventor) or the concept. They were surely not the first to build a hybrid car -- they were simply the first to commercially make them available. Now that's an achievement in its own right, but like the Ipone and Wii, most Hybrids are overrated (gimmicks), which is probably why GM killed its program. In the end you're not saving money (because you pay a hefty premium), nor are you reducing your Co2 emissions by that much.

    The Japanese weren't creative -- they just took a gamble. One failed (Honda, which was actually the first to introduce a hybrid vehicle) and one succeeded (Toyota). Nintendo also took a gamble with the Wii.

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  38. brutus, could you elaborate why you feel that way? The Korean is genuinely curious. Why is creativity in supply chain worth less than creativity in engineering?

    marcus75, you are walking right into the Korean's Nintendo point. The overarching point of the Korean's is this -- stop guessing the result from the process, and look at the result itself. Asian education might not explicitly focus on creativity. But that does not stop Asian countries from making very, very creative products, especially if one looks beyond pretty, shiny things for creativity.

    Kwame,

    1) The current state of Japanese gaming says nothing about its creativity. It still remains wonderfully creativity.

    2) That only proves that iPhone and Wii are about the same in terms of creativity -- which was the Korean's point all along.

    3) Everything you said can apply to Apple and its products as well.

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  39. Well, I wasn't arguing against the idea that Asians are creative. It's just that some of your facts are a bit off (I should've taken my time with that comment).

    I personally think that both the Ipod and Wii are overrated.

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  40. @tk
    I don't think creativity in supply chain is worth less than in engineering in general. I'm just saying this particular comparison between Apple's engineering of the iPhone and Samsung's supply chain achievement with the Galaxy S are quite different in the magnitude of complexity. Therefore it seems to me that Apple deserves more recognition in creativity in this instance. If you were comparing the engineering achievement of say an iPod classic, I would probably say Samsung's achievement in supplying a comparable MP3 player as more significant. I guess having worked on both the product development side and on the supply side of a tech company, I just feel like one side certainly requires more dimensions of creativity than the other. Inherently there is only so much "creativity" that suppply side manufacturing can achieve, the ultimate goal being that you could respond instantly to demand, making 1 thing as instantly and inexpensively as making a million of the same thing. Until we create "Star Trek" style matter replicators that will probably never happen. Conversely on product development side there is an infinite ways of solving a problem and infinite number of products that can be developed for any number of needs. That endeavor in my mind is always going to require more creativity.

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  41. "but he still fails to see what was so revolutionary about iPhone/iPad, other than that they are pretty."

    Really?!? Does anyone remember what "smart" phones were like before the iPhone was introduced? I do, and it wasn't pretty. Windows Mobile based phones or even worse Blackberries.

    The iPhone was a revelation on how a smartphone should be designed. Multi-touch, centralized app store, full chocolate bar display, and an elegant interface. Things we now take for granted but what would smartphones look like today without the introduction of the iPhone?

    I wouldn't discount the notion of "pretty," either. It was Apple's obsession with "taste," that spawned a digital renaissance in topography, video, and commercial user interfaces.

    The Samsung Galaxy S is a beautiful phone in its own right but the comparison to Apple is unfair to Samsung. Samsung (when it comes the the Galaxy S) is a hardware manufacturer like HTC.

    Apple is a software development house that uses its software to drive hardware sales. It's never been just about the hardware. It's the operating system and software that drives cell phone sales.

    Froyo is almost there and I really look forward to Gingerbread. Maybe I'll even dump my beloved iPhone for Android on the Verizon network.

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  42. One of the things I'm having trouble understanding is what you mean by "hierarchy" and its value. Is it just not updating your résumé when the CEO declares that all intracompany communication be in a foreign language (English), or is there something else to it?

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  43. Basically, it is the willingness to accept being told what to do, even if it grates against personal preference.

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  44. Interesting post, and I agree with all but one of the points made here i.e. the creativity of the Apple Iphone versus Samsungs Galaxy S line.

    True, there is creativity in having a stable, high quality, adaptable production line, like Samsung does. But, it is an order of magnitude less creativity than a company that regularly creates products that change the course of the industry.

    In the ipod, iphone and ipad (to an extent yet to be determined), Apple have created products that reimagined how we use electronic devices in our day to day lives. They have led, and the rest of the consumer electronics industry have followed, including Samsung.

    There is of course a lot to be said for manufacturing techniques, and their ability to change an industry. It was the dependability of Japanese cars in the 80's that motivated customers to expect cars that didn't fail to start on a cold winter morning. But these days, manufacturing competence and reliability is something we can largely expect.

    Also, Apple is still adjusting to being a large volume production company, something it never set out to be. Samsung has been working towards this goal for a long time now.

    In terms of Nintendo's creativity, they are one of the few companies in consumer electronics to have scored creativity wins that rival and in some cases beat those of Apple. The Wii trounced the utterly more powerful ps3 and xbox, and Sony and Microsoft are only now catching up. While the DS was a global phenomenon, and could be said to have paved the way for touch screen devices like the iphone.

    Peace.

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  45. john, Apple's products were never revolutionary. The ideas and the technology for iPod, iPad, and iPhone were already there, and guess what they are using components from Samsung. They simply put together a refined product that is coherent, responsive, and usable.

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