Man Refuses to Fly, Understands Language

Bill LiaoBill Liao is a techie entreneur who made his first million by changing his language. And not PHP, Javascript or some other computer language.

He did it by changing plain old English (or maybe plain old Mandarin, because he’s bilingual).

Liao (@liaonet), successful entrepreneur, co-founder of Xing, author of Stone Soup, Special Diplomatic envoy for St. Kitts and St. Nevis, philanthropist founder of WeForest.org, business mentor, investor, TED talker and, most recently Coder Dojo co-founder, was speaking at the Science Gallery (@sciencegallery) in Dublin this evening.

Liao’s talk was on language and the impact it can have. Our worlds occur in language, he said: spoken, physical or emotional. Meanwhile, a lot of talk is also going on inside our heads and interfering with listening and our ability to comprehend, he said. A half-Chinese Australian, Liao said his bilingual upbringing “gave me an interesting insight in to the world.”

But he felt the sting of racism and struggled socially as a geeky teen, he said. Despite winning a major youth science competition in Australia, Liao said his worst experience came in school.

He was alone in a science lab one day looking at some equipment. Engrossed, he did not hear his teacher approach from behind. The man slapped his hand down hard on the desk, caused the young student to jump with fright, and stated: “Bill Liao, you will never amount to anything.”

The words cut deep, Liao said. The following year, despite his enthusiasm and talent for science, he had dropped out of school, and was working as a computer engineer. “For the next 10 years I basically didn’t succeed at anything,” he said, adding, “You can trace that back to a bit of language.”

By age 27, he had found a beautiful wife and was expecting his first child. It was also around that time that he was able to move his life forward by “rebelling” against the teacher’s ill-judged comments.

Again, Liao said, language helped him. He and his wife went on a work-sponsored, personal development course. His wife wasn’t impressed, but Liao felt he was on to something. He latched on to a definition of the work “integrity” as giving your word to something and honoring it. Taking that a step further, the budding entrepreneur decided that if you want to achieve something you have to honor what you just said you would do.

What finally spurred him in to action was when his wife went to hear about the work being done by the Hunger Project. Despite the young couple living in a room in his parent’s house, $30,000 in debt and both holding dead-end jobs, she came back from a meeting where she pledged $5,000 to help.

Aghast, Liao went back to say they couldn’t afford it. The charity worker asked him to close his eyes and visualize who he would have to become β€” within legal and moral boundaries β€” to be able to afford the donation. “That day, I pledged $50,000,” he said to laughter. He also pledged to himself to become a millionaire by age 30.

Realizing the key to wealth would involve becoming comfortable with sales, Liao quit his job and jumped in the deep end. He became a door-to-door salesman, cold calling at houses. Realizing other geeks would need the same skills, he set up a business to train them in the art of sales.

Liao missed his deadline. He hit his million one year late. But he overshot his target for the Hunger Project β€” they got $100,000.

“All of these things occurred because I changed the language I was using,” he said. He became careful about what he would say and how he would honor his commitments.

Meanwhile, Liao looked at our personal relationship with language. “There’s a lot of selective talk going on in the world,” he said. And many internal conversations revolve around fear of the future or regrets about the past. But that internal clutter can be clear by meditation, or by training ourselves to observe our own thoughts, Liao said.

Often while someone else is speaking to us, “we have our own commentary going on about what someone is saying,” he said. We should listen and think about the content later.

Addressing how people get their point across, Liao said humor is one of the most important tools. Citing “The Wombat” example below, Liao said humor combined with the right amount of force can be very powerful.

Humor can also be very effective at cutting through jargon to explain complicated concepts, Liao said. He asked the audience how many understood carbon offset credits, and who could explain that they were a bad idea. No hands went up, so he showed the video below.

Entrepreneurs

On the topic of business proposals, Liao lamented that they seem to suck the life out. When he meets entrepreneurs, “I am forever asking them to tell me their story,” he said. He cited his own decision to stop flying because his carbon footprint had become huge. His last trip to the U.S. was on a freighter, he said. But it also helped when he started his environmental work. “Walking in to a room full of environmentalists as a rabid capitalist, it gave me a good story to tell,” he said.

Coder Dojo

Co-founded with James Whelton, Liao said they worked hard finding the right name and tag line but “after a lot of iterations, we got the language really crisp,” he said. The dojo concept was taken from martial arts. And the tag, “Above all: Be cool” is both a target and fun. Another important aspect is that “the risk of not being cool is enough to end bad behavior.”

Us Mere Mortals

Liao said everyone has a great idea. But most people struggle to communicate it in a meaningful way. Fewer still can articulate it forcefully, fewer still with humor, and even fewer still will honor it by following through, Liao said.

Men Can be Trained to Listen

When people know they are not being listened to, they get annoyed, Liao noted. If this is happening in a group situation, it can annoy more than one person simultaneously. But there is hope, especially for women who often have a hard time getting heard by men. Training men is easy, he told the women in the audience. It is like dealing with puppies. “They need short, sharp corrections and lots of praise.”

Image of Bill courtesy of Illustir on Flickr.