Hon-Ming Lam: My Three Guiding Principles
Updated: Sep 28, 2019
"Distress as we may be in, we should hold more firmly to our integrity and never abandon our lofty aspiration"
Editor’s note: In May 2019, Professor Hon-Ming Lam delivered a speech to the graduating class of The Yuen Yuen Institute MFBM Nei Ming Chan Lui Chung Tak Memorial College. Here is the full translated transcript. The editor would like to thank Albert Yu for assisting the translation process.
Dear graduating students,
You are about to enter a new stage in your life. Surely you must feel nostalgic yet hopeful towards the future.
Primary schools prepare students for a world beyond their family; secondary schools prepare students for adulthood; colleges prepare students for their role in society.
As you step out of the secondary school entrance, you will soon become an adult. With greater freedom and power comes with greater responsibility. You all will have to come face to face with more challenges alone while making more choices with your future in mind. Dear students, are you ready?
I’m much older than you all, a bit more seasoned in society, having endured all sorts of challenges growing up and walked through a rugged path. I hope to use this opportunity to share with you anecdotes about some of my guiding principles over these years: a grateful heart, a determined will, and deliberate choices.
A grateful heart:
First, you should thank your parents for giving you the most invaluable gift: life. Although it’s expressed in many ways, your parents’ love and care exceed money and possessions, enabling you to become who you are today. I remember how our family was poor when I was young; my father told me that only knowledge could change our fates. With no money to help me, I was on my own if I had to pursue further studies. I’m grateful that he did not force me to drop out of school and work to make ends meet; he gave me an opportunity to turn around my own fate. I believe your parents must have put in their best effort to provide you with many opportunities. I also believe that you will be grateful towards them, only sometimes you have articulated this fully.
Bumps and bruises are inevitable on the road to growing up. I believe that while you have received help from many others, your teacher should be one of the most important of them all. The effort and hard work put in by your teachers to take care of you occur around you on a daily basis. But perhaps we’ve taken it for granted; oftentimes we forget to give our heartfelt thanks. When I was in primary school, I had to take my secondary school entrance exam. If I screwed up, I would be unable to continue my schooling. Because I didn’t have money to buy supplemental exercises to prepare for the exam, I had to swallow my pride and borrow them from my teachers. My Math teacher grabbed some for me in a heartbeat and even told me that I could ask him for more if I finished them all. It might have been a simple act of kindness for him but from my perspective, his helping hand has left an indelible mark on me.
In fact, every reassuring smile, every encouraging look in the face, every pat in the back, they help nourish the souls of students like a soothing breeze or a drizzle, empowering them to grow without even realizing it. Once I have become a teacher, I strive to remind myself never to be stingy when giving out a reassuring smile, an encouraging look in the face, and a pat in the back. “Do not commit an act of evil or fail to commit an act of kindness just because it is small in scale.” Each small act done by every one of us can have an everlasting impact on somebody else. With a grateful heart, we can spread kindness; this is the best way to repay those who have helped us. I hope that the seeds of kindness sown into your hearts by your teachers could sprout and be passed on through you.
A determined will:
Dear students, your parents, teachers, and every single person in this room will wish that you find success in the future, but they will never engage in wishful thinking and hope that you never stumble. Failure is the mother of success; the only thing separating success from failure is whether you get back up one more time after you’ve fallen down. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; failure and challenges could be tools that sharpen you. Therefore, a determined will is the foundation for ultimate success. Never grumble about the lack of opportunity to showcase yourself. Be well prepared, for opportunity only finds the prepared.
In university, I mainly engage in cutting-edge scientific work. In that, I would never be lazy, but I hope that my research results could help those in need. I believe that science and technology should include humanistic elements because I have a vision in my heart: a world in which everyone could have a chance to live and develop themselves, an equal and just society.
The reason why I chose to do research on agriculture and soybeans, is to provide sustainable agricultural technologies to farmers in remote areas. In achieving this distant dream, I have experienced many failures and setbacks. In the beginning, I did not have any funds to do research in the fields, so I paid for it out of my own pockets. For a while, to save money, my students and I even went to the rubbish collecting station at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to pick up some furniture and tools, so that we can remodel them for use in the laboratory. I could still remember how I laid out the blueprints for future development for my team on a whiteboard that we have scavenged. When we had reached a point where the funds for our research were proven to be insufficient, I could only let go some of the more experienced team members. Although they have eventually found higher-paying jobs, they were all nostalgic for the times when we strived towards our common goals in the lab.
Today, I am very proud to announce that, after more than two decades of perseverance, we have already applied our research results in rural Northwestern China. We have also launched a collaboration project with South Africa to improve the agricultural produce of local peasants. From the lab to the fields, from Hong Kong to the Mainland, from China to the world, we progressed through perseverance, step by step.
I would like to share with you all a motto of mine. “Distress as we may be in, we should hold more firmly to our integrity and never abandon our lofty aspiration (窮且益堅、不墜青雲之志).” The origin of the motto is from Tengwang Ge Xu (滕王閣序, Preface to a Farewell Feast Atop the Prince of Teng's Pavilion in Autumn), written by Wang Bo (王勃), one of the Four Paragons of the Early Tang. Distress (窮) refers to the difficult situation resulted from a lack of conditions. For example, a child born in a grassroots family may face limited material conditions. However, it may also refer to a talented man who could not exercise his strengths due to the lack of opportunities. Nevertheless, when faced with difficulties due to all sorts of limitations, we must stand firmer than ever instead of complaining, and we should never give up our ambitions easily. This is the meaning of the phrase above.
Dear students, in the future, you will have to make many different choices, and I hope that they would be made after much thought.
Some people say that they have decidophobia, the fear of making decisions, and they would prefer others to make the decision for them. In fact, this is only an excuse for their reluctance to think and to bear the consequences of their choice. However, few would realize that not choosing is also a choice to forgo the right to choose, and eventually, we must bear the consequence of this choice.
When we make choices for the future, we must first understand ourselves, acknowledge our abilities and follow our hearts. It is not necessary to care about what others may think and distort ourselves from who we truly are. You only live once, and therefore you must think carefully what it means to live a fulfilling life. Set your goals, and then do your best to achieve each milestone. Not only are we to press on towards a distant goal, but we are to experience the sorrows and joys in every segment of our journey, and enjoy the friendships established along the way.
We may all have different thoughts about the world and different core values, and so we will make different choices for our futures. We should respect the choices of everyone, as long as they are not deliberately hurting others in exchange for benefits.
In the end, I have chosen to be a teacher, because I recognize the fact that the things that I can do are limited, and so I want to pass on my beliefs and values by educating the future generation. To get a grasp of whether I am cut out for teaching, I have taught two cohorts of students at a girls’ evening school when I was studying for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Most of my students worked in textile and electronics factories during the daytime, and so it was understandable that they were tired during class. Although there were only a few students coming to the classroom at the beginning and most of them were yawning, the classroom was fully packed after several weeks; there were even students who were willing to do outdoor experiments and sit in lectures about popular science during the weekends. I have found my dream job: becoming a good teacher.
In pursuing research, I have chosen a difficult path, but during the most difficult times, I have risen above my own limits and met companions, not through transactional relationships, but brought together by a common ideal. And the most important is that I have no regrets regarding my decisions.
My dear students, I sincerely hope that, with a clear mind, you would all be able to make the best choice for your own future.