This month, yWE TALK is launching a campaign to cast a light on an issue that is too often stigmatized and silenced: men’s mental health. In order to obtain a greater understanding of this facet of mental health, we reached out to individuals with unique and interesting experiences.
Through his reflection, Kev Kim draws a parallel between being in the South Korean army and a rigorous business program. He shares his challenges, realizations, and advice on how to navigate through stressful situations. yWE TALK is extremely thankful to Kev for candidly sharing his story.
yWE TALK: How do you think experiencing two stressful, but profoundly different environments, has changed you as an individual?
K.Kim: Thinking back, the two experiences were not too different. In the army, we went through six weeks of intensive training before we were sent to our home bases. At the training camp, they taught us how to dress like a soldier, talk like a soldier, heck they even taught us how to walk like a soldier. These all seem like very small and meaningless things, but that’s where you start if you want each of the hundreds of people from various backgrounds to become a uniform resource. I quickly learned that being a man or a woman in uniform meant that you had to give up your own individual mannerisms in order to be uniform to everyone else in the organization. And they knew exactly how to get rid of our individual mannerisms – by sparing us not even a minute to think. From 6AM trumpets when we frantically folded our sheets and put on our uniforms, to two minute showers, to cleaning the entire barrack multiple times a day… we didn’t have much time to rest until 10PM when we got to go to sleep. By not letting us have time to ourselves, they were able to break us down and reconstruct us from ground up. We became uniform resources without even realizing it.
When I resumed my studies at the Ivey Business School, I thought to myself “Wow, I feel like I’m right back in training camp!” Of course, they didn’t make us crawl on the ground or do any push-ups. But they for sure were trying to turn us into uniform resources – this time, employable business people. Once again, they didn’t give us any time to think. They bombarded us with three case studies a day (each of which would take hours to complete), a midterm exam or a report every other week, along with various case competitions and social events that the school offered. This time though, I knew how to deal with it. I knew I had to take a step back, observe how the program can change me (for better and for worse), and determine what changes I would allow. I made a conscious effort to absorb the appropriate professional behaviours and the strategic business mindset that Ivey was trying to instill in us while rejecting other unintended byproducts like materialistic goal setting or objectification of the world for profit generation. Unfortunately, a lot of my friends at Ivey were not aware of the changes that they were going through and ended up suddenly realizing one day that they didn’t like who they had become.
How did these two experiences change me as an individual? I definitely have more confidence to tackle new challenges. I have the confidence to say “Hey, I’ve gone through worse, bring it on.” More importantly though, I now know how to filter what I take away from each experience and have a bit more control over how I’m developing myself as a person.
yWE TALK: What was the hardest part of each program? Were they physical or mental?
K.KIM: On February 12, 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapons test. I was the squad leader for my unit at the time. Immediately, my squad was put on high alert. Since we were a counterterrorist unit, it was imperative that we were ready to be deployed at all times to respond to terrorist attacks. This meant that we couldn’t take off our boots when we went to sleep. This meant that only one person was able to take a shower at a time. There were several drills everyday testing our readiness for deployment, sirens often going off at 3-4 o’clock in the middle of the night. It was terribly draining. I got emotional at times for no reason, made mistakes in my daily duties, and talked less. However, that wasn’t the hardest part by itself. It wasn’t my first time being put on high alert after all. What made it really tough was that I could not show my weaknesses. There were 11 other squad members going through the exact same challenges with me, depending on me to provide leadership. Having to endure enormous amount of stress and not having anyone to share my emotions was a very lonely experience.
At Ivey, it was definitely the job recruitment season. Up to that point, life was largely a series of individual projects that fairly rewarded me for my efforts. I worked hard in school, receiving good grades as a result. I always believed that if I worked hard enough, I could achieve anything. This changed during the first recruiting cycle in first semester of third year. For the first time in my life, I needed someone else’s endorsement in order to succeed and was competing against my peers who were just as qualified as me. When I failed to get a summer job after third year, I was devastated. I thought about the amount of student debt I was in, about my parents who supported me along the way and were expecting good news, about my future plans that I made for myself.. I felt like everything was falling apart in front of me. I got nervous for full-time recruiting. I spent countless nights editing and revising my cover letter and resume. Since I couldn’t focus in class, my grades began to drop. I let the fact that I didn’t get a summer job pin me down instead of thinking forward and focusing on full-time recruiting efforts.
One thing I learned is that physical and mental challenges are not separate issues. In both environments, I had the toughest time when I was nervous about something and had little sleep. Having had only few hours of sleep left me with little energy to engage in the activities during the day, and left me vulnerable to mental breakdowns. This led back to not taking care of my physical health, since I had less appetite and motivation to exercise. You really can’t just focus on one. If you want to be less anxious, go for a run. If you have hard time sleeping, try meditating. Only when you have both a healthy body and a healthy mind will you truly feel healthy.
yWE TALK: What was the most important thing you’ve learned thus far?
K.Kim: I was a jerk. The most important thing I learned in the army was that I was a real jerk. My best friend suffered from insomnia when we were in second year university. It got to the point where he was contemplating suicide. I remember on one Tuesday night he asked me to go see a movie with him because he was depressed and he thought watching a movie together might make him feel better. I said no.
You see, I wanted to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I had always worked hard and wanted to continue working hard so that one day I would become successful. I wanted to be recognized and respected by other people. I wanted to be rich. I wanted to be proud. I said no to my best friend because I had an assignment due the next day and that would help me become successful in the future.
In the army, we took turns at night to go on sentry duty, where we guarded the base gates to prevent unauthorized personnel from trespassing. Usually though, nothing much would happen and I would end up with 2-3 hours of having nothing else to do but think. I was forced to self-reflect. I want to be successful! Why? I want to be rich! What for? I had these conversations with myself over and over again. After months of introspection, I realized that I was blindly pursuing these goals and ideas without having put in much thought into why. I couldn’t answer why I wanted to be successful and I didn’t know why I needed so much money. I repeatedly asked myself what’s really important for me and I came to the conclusion that being with people I love made me the most happy. If I wanted to have people stay with me though, I had to stop being ignorant and start becoming more empathetic. I realized what kind of a jerk I had been to the people around me and it broke my heart. I promised myself I would never turn a blind eye to a friend in need again.
I’m not saying wanting to be rich is bad. I do have friends that truly feel happy when they are engaged in money making and spending activities. I respect that. What I’m warning against is wanting to become someone or do something without individual thought, just because the society pushes these ideas to us. Self-reflect. Do it rigorously. Take a gap year, get away from your bubble, and really think about what you want out of your life. I know it’s easy to blame ignorance on stressful times, but it’s a poor excuse.
yWE TALK: What strategy do you still practice in your daily life?
K.Kim: Something I started doing in Ivey is to hold a kickoff meeting before each group project. From my army experience, I knew that people get sensitive under pressure and it’s a lot harder to resolve team issues at that point. And as mentioned before, the last thing I wanted to do was to let work get in the way of my relationships with others. To prevent team conflicts, I made a small agenda of things to go over before these projects even started. First, I would create a common understanding of what the team goal was. We also established that while our team goal was to get a good mark, it shouldn’t come at an expense of the relationship between team members. Second, I asked the team to decide on a decision making process. Would it be consensus? Majority rule? A happy medium I found was consensus by default and a vote to be held as a back-up. Third, I would ask each team member to introduce themselves in terms of working styles, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and any pet peeves they have. Lastly, I would close off the meeting by asking my teammates to agree that while honest feedback is important to high performance, it can be and should be done in a tactical way that does not hurt the other person’s feeling. You won’t believe how much drama I managed to avoid by having this 15 minute meeting before every project.
yWE TALK: What advice do you have for anyone entering a similarly stressful program?
K.Kim: Take some time to think about what’s really important to you. What are your core values? What kind of a person do you want to be in 10, 20, 30 years? This is where you start. This will help you guide your actions in the future when there are conflicting priorities.
Once you have set the direction, work hard in whatever you do. That’s expected of you from other people that work with you and you should expect that from yourself to make the most out of your experience. However, please do make conscious effort to take time out of your busy schedules to take a step back and observe yourself and see what kind of a person you’re becoming. It’s so easy to lose yourself and wake up one day to realize you’ve become someone you don’t like.
Failing is okay. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. That’s life. This one’s especially hard for high performers that have never been in a situation where they didn’t get what they wanted. Rather than being depressed about the result, take failure as a learning experience and think of what you can do now to make the next result better. Count your blessings and realize that what you thought was the end of your world is actually a much smaller part of your life compared to all the other good things going for you. This mindset will help you achieve more in the future without taking a toll on your mental health.
Lastly, but most importantly, please take care of yourself both physically and mentally. All your future achievements can only be made when you have good health. At least get 20 minutes of physical exercise in each day and spend a few minutes before bed reflecting on your day. You’ll soon realize that taking care of yourself will lead to better performance in professional settings as well. There will be times when you feel like you can’t do it anymore. Please seek help. You shouldn’t have to go through it alone and there are people that really care about you.