Flash of Tsunamis

Watching the havoc wreaked by the tsunami in Japan reminded me of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia on Boxing Day 2004. Thinking back, this devastating event may have seeded the change in how I view career.

I was working in Hong Kong at the time. I was a young ‘un — two months into my first year as a BigLaw associate — working on my very first deal. We were representing Morgan Stanley, the underwriter on this precedent-setting high yield transaction. My main client contact was Hannah Shi, a first-year investment banking associate. She was tall and stylish. Her multiple ear piercings were the only aberration to an otherwise impeccable and professional appearance.

Rushing to price the deal before Christmas, we worked day and night — my first taste of working consecutive 100+ billable hour weeks and the physical torture that is sleep deprivation. During those long nights at the printer, I got to know Hannah better. Like me, she immigrated to the US from Shanghai when she was little. Like me, she harbored lofty career ambitions. We worked hard wanting to impress our respective superiors.

We priced the deal successfully at 3am two days before Christmas. That afternoon, I got a call from Hannah on some housekeeping matters as she was packing for her Phi Phi Island vacation that she had been looking forward to for months. In fact, the prospect of the vacation was what gave her the little sprint towards the end. I remember that conversation vividly because I was silently berating myself for not planning anything for my Christmas break. I wished her a relaxing vacation; that was the last time I talked to her.

On the morning of December 26, 2004, instead of going scuba diving with her colleagues — who all survived — Hannah stayed behind in her beach front bungalow to catch more sleep. Her bungalow was destroyed when the waves hit. She went missing.

I saw her parents, who looked just like my parents, on CNN. They flew to Thailand from New York looking for her, for her body. They looked anxious and tired. They sobbed. After many days, they found her, identified only through her unique ear piercings.

We closed the transaction a couple of weeks after the Christmas break without Hannah. In preparing for the closing, I had to revisit some of her old emails. Whenever I saw her writing, I couldn’t help wondering whether she was conscious before the waves hit. If she had not worked so hard in the days leading to her vacation, perhaps she would have gone diving. The thought lurked behind, haunting me.

Life can be so fragile. It can disappear in a flash. Who knows when my flash will appear? I don’t want to live my life beholden to that inevitable yet unpredictable flash. But I also don’t want to live my life knowing that I will regret — at that flash of reckoning — that I have depleted myself on the StairMaster of predictable professional life.

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