027: Emotional Intelligence in an AI World and Upcycling: Tae Chong

Tae Chong is a passionate innovator, finding solutions to complex community challenges. He is also a wonderful storyteller and helps us to understand the importance of emotional intelligence, something  we need now more than ever in an artificial intelligence world.

Tae knows that our souls need to be recognized and developed for our best work; and you can’t put a metric on believing in humans.

His stories are filled with insights including a reminder that our founding fathers demonstrated significant emotional intelligence in writing our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

And because this is Tae, he will discuss the powerful environmental impact possible through upcycling.  Think about this…if we use our clothes for just three months longer than we normally do, it is the environmental equivilant to taking 1 Million cars off the road.

Join us!

Learn More about Tae Chong on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tae-chong/

Tae Chong is Manager of Social Enterprise and Workforce at Catholic Charities. He is currently working on three projects: creating a microenterprise ecosystem of 10 to 12 small businesses, connecting people in recovery and asylees with employment opportunities, and he is working on a research project to extend the career of skilled older workers at Catholic Charities.  Tae has over twenty years experience working with the immigrant and refugee populations in Maine.  He has worked with this population as an educator, advocate, policy maker, social service provider and as a business advisor.

Tae has been a speaker at MaineLive and Ted Dirgio, and he was named as one of Maine’s 50 most influential people by Maine Magazine and he attended the White House Conference on retaining and recruiting immigrant and refugee knowledge workers.

Edited Transcript:

ERH: How did you become interested in emotional intelligence relative to artificial intelligence?

Tae Chong:  Well, they seem to be at odds with one another, and that’s what artificial intelligence and emotional intelligence is really all about. I think everyone can attest to the fact that because of social media and how social media uses a lot of data, it uses patterns that we like or dislike, to feed us information that persuades us. We are in this environment of extreme echo chambers because of artificial intelligence. I wanted to figure out, “Well, how do we get back to being more centered, and how do we get back to being more human?” What emotional intelligence tells us and what artificial intelligence tells us is that we need to explore our creative, our emotional, and spiritual sides. That’s something that a computer or an algorithm can never do, and I believe that’s why we were put on this planet. If robots and artificial intelligence can do our mundane day to day stuff, that’s actually a blessing. That allows us to be a more complete, fuller human being.

Tae Chong:  There are also opportunities in [AI]. There are people in the artificial intelligence world, like Jack Ma, who’s this incredible pioneer. He’s kind of like the Jeff Bezos of China, and says, “Look, robots and computers are going to take over. We are giving you permission to be more spiritual. That’s actually a good thing, so let’s figure out how to start a business and how to start programs around that.”

ERH:  That’s beautiful. What are some examples that you have seen of the two working well together; technology working on our behalf, and not controlling us?

Tae Chong:  Right here in Portland, Maine. Neighbors in Need is a great example. Whenever you can use artificial intelligence or software to connect people on an individual level, that’s a beautiful thing. Neighbors in Need is a grassroots program, like Craigslist for do-gooders. There are almost 1,000 members locally, and there are a lot of iterations throughout the country where volunteers and do-gooders can say, “Someone in our community needs a bed.” Or, “Somebody in our community needs a ride to such and such.” And then people just volunteer. It’s that human connection where we hear what people are saying and we hear what people’s needs are, and we are moved by our empathy and compassion, that that allows that to work.

It may seem like it’s a small, trite thing, but for Maine, we’re the oldest state in the nation, and when we become more welcoming of others, it changes the dynamics of our entire state. A thousand people seems like a small number compared to a big city, but in Maine, without new arrivals, asylum seekers, there would be no population growth in the last five years. So having 1,000 people; say, 500 asylum seekers or 500 people, from away, it opens the door for other people to come to Maine and to help our economy to grow and flourish. Greater Portland’s economy is fifty percent of Maine’s economy, and so if Portland is not welcoming, it affects the entire state. A thousand people doing all this good through volunteer work has an incredible ripple effect.

ERH:  Absolutely.

Tae Chong:  Yeah, and you are a part of that, and that human connection is what makes us unique and not something that a computer or AI can ever do. It’s that individual connection that we have to make with one another so that we can evolve as a community and as a species, and I think that’s the upside of having computers allow us to make those personal connections.

ERH: That’s such a beautiful example.   I often use the term, “Eye to eye, and heart to heart.” I think that we are starving to be seen and heard, and to be loved and accepted. To your point about new people arriving in our state, we need new people everywhere because of the aging population and it makes our communities so much richer.

Neighbors in Need is a great example and NextDoor is another app where I see a lot of people helping one another. Once we are made aware of a need, then we can can go out and make those connections and help one another.

Tae Chong:Absolutely.   I think we are all starving for this. One of my binge watching programs is The Kominsky Method on Netflix, with Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin.

ERH: Yes.

Tae Chong: Those guys are amazing. In the last line in the first season, Michael Douglas says to his friend Alan Arkin, “Look, the Kominsky Method is: I see you.” That’s emotional intelligence, right?

ERH: Exactly

Tae Chong: It all comes down to knowing that the other person exists, and you see them for who they are, and you see them fully. This might sound like a crazy connection, and nobody would ever think that Bill Belichick, the coach for the New England Patriots, is a very touchy feely and emotional, intelligent guy. But he actually is one of the most emotionally intelligent coaches.

The reason why I believe that is because he believes in a six round quarterback and he doesn’t have stars. What he says to all these players is, “Look, I know you weren’t picked in the first round and you’re not a superstar, but I see your talents, and if we work together based on your talents and our trust in each other that we’re all good, and that were good enough, we can do great things.”

That’s the lesson I take from emotional intelligence, is that a great business and organization has leaders that see people for who they are, and they let people be who they are. And then they create a culture where they say, “Yeah, I see you, and if we work together in our roles, we can do great things.”

ERH: Absolutely, empowering.

Tae Chong: I believe that Tim Cook,  the CEO of Apple said, “Don’t believe in assholes.” He said, “Superstars are great, but you know, superstars aren’t worth it. I’d rather have 10 people who support one another than have two superstars who are assholes and they just break up the team.”

That’s what we’re trying to do in our day to day lives, right? We want people who see us for who we are rather than people who give us drama. It might be fun to go on that wild ride on risky behavior, but at the end of the day, we know it’s toxic. We’d rather be around people who support us and see us for who we are, for our positives and our negatives, because everything is a marathon. Everything is a long distance race, and people get glory in short races, in short distances, but at the end, if you’re not in it in the long run, you fail. That’s why you see a lot of big businesses that flame out because they’re trying to make as much money as quickly as possible, or you have bosses who try to churn as much work out of people as possible rather than seeing people for who they are as human beings, and seeing them completely.

Tae Chong: That’s why emotionally intelligent companies like Patagonia survive, even though they’re fighting against Nike. That’s why emotionally intelligent companies like PeopleSoft was able to beat Oracle and almost beat Microsoft even though they’re much smaller. At the end of the day we realize that the difference between human beings and AI and a lot of other organizations is how you treat and see people every day. That’s why I’m fascinated about emotional intelligence, because it’s such a simple concept, but it’s like life. Anything simple is really complicated, and that’s what it’s about.

ERH:  l love that, you gave so many rich examples.

I’ve been in employee wellbeing and wellness for 20 years, and you know we are killing people at work [with the lack of human focus]. I’ve studied the human work experience for years. In the mid-1920’s  Henry Ford took a risk and implemented  the 40-hour workweek and 8-hour days. And guess what? His productivity and his profitability immediately increased. Then awe went through this whole technological advancement era over the last 3 decades. In our excitement about how work could be done, we lost sight of the human impact. In the ’80s when I left work at 5:00 PM, the door was locked. I literally could not go back in the building.

Tae Chong: Right.

ERH: As we developed all these ways of connecting artificially with technology, we seemingly forget that we human beings require emotion, and empathy, and space to think, and to be in touch with our spirituality in order to thrive and to do the best work.  There is a reason that the top expenditrues for companies are stress-related:  workplace accidents, mental health, obesity, heart disease, cancer, etc.

It is gratifying to hear about the scientific evidence in the many great examples you just mentioned, companies and leaders who are proving that.  There are a lot of people out there that don’t believe it. They believe that they can just keep churning through human beings, and it’s not true.

Tae Chong:   There are so many great examples, right? In ‘Good to Great’ and ‘Outliers’, these great books are talking about likability and being loved are similar. The difference between Paul Revere and his ride through Boston warning people about, “The British are coming,” versus the other guy, nobody remembers the other guy. There were actually two people that night that were riding on horses. The other guy actually started out closer to where the boats were, but he wasn’t liked by his community. Whereas Paul was like, “Oh yeah. He’s a great guy. He’s a buddy,” and everybody listened to what he had to say.

Tae Chong:  As a New England person I’ll use another sports metaphor. You’ve got the evil empire and Alex Rodriguez, and then you’ve got David Ortiz. I mean, Alex Rodriguez is arguably one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He has the body of a god. He was hitting home runs when he was a teenager, and he’s faster and stronger and has better reflexes than David Ortiz. But when it came time to do something critical, people didn’t believe in him. I believe that kind of energy also carried in who he is in playoffs, and he could never really do well in the playoffs, whereas David Ortiz is kind of overweight. You know, he’s not the most physically fit guy. Can only play one position, which is designated hitter. Can’t even run down first base. But when he was at bat, everybody believed in him because he was such a likable person. That energy changes. The emotion and energy of the entire stadium changes, and people are afraid of him in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series or against the Yankees. Time and time again, something magical happens.

That’s the mystery of believing in people, that people don’t or can’t find a metric for. By all accounts, these businesses will say, “Oh, if you do this, this and this, your productivity will be this.” But the reality is, human beings are spiritual beings and emotional beings.

ERH:  Yes.

Tae Chong:  There’s something about us that comes out when someone believes in you. The best bosses I’ve ever had are the ones who believe in me. The other bosses, the worst bosses I’ve had are the ones who will say, “You don’t know anything and you must do this.” I do the bare minimum to get by because there’s no incentive for me to win them over. There’s no incentive for me to work harder, because they’ve already set a limit that they don’t care about me. They only care about me as a widget.

Whereas a boss or a coach that cares about you, like Alex Cora, he’s a rookie coach, and the previous manager for the Red Sox by all metrics was the highest paid payroll in Major League Baseball, but he wasn’t liked. Whereas Alex Cora, the first thing he did, the first meeting, he invited everybody, including the water boys and the trainers to be in the room, and talk about how much he appreciates people. That talk in itself, when when someone in leadership says, “I’m a servant to you and I believe in you,” people work even harder. And that’s why people believe in Tom Brady. In the last game, it was amazing how they beat the Kansas City Chiefs, because everyone worked that much harder because they believed in him. They don’t want to let him down, so they somehow find this inner depth to get that extra catch that Hogan did or Edelman, or whoever.

Tae Chong: For that, you can’t come up with a metric or statistic. No computer can come up with those spiritual, emotional things that aren’t even there, because it’s magic. I believe when you believe in people, those things happen, and that’s why emotional intelligence is so critical. That’s why we have this country, because we had incredibly emotional intelligent founding fathers who said, “Look, we have to make sure that everyone has a voice, everyone has the right to live here, and so let’s write a document.” That is emotionally intelligent, and that’s the Constitution, and that’s the Declaration of Independence. We go back to that touchstone to say, “This is who we are. This is who we’re supposed to be.”

In these times when we have institutions and leaders that fail us, we go back to an emotionally intelligent document to say, “We’ve failed ourselves. We are not living up to what we’re supposed to be, because we believed in this higher union, this incredible democracy that we’re supposed to live up to.”

ERH: And it’s in writing.

Tae Chong: Yeah. It’s in writing. It’s inviting. It’s all-encompassing. It’s emotionally intelligent.

Think about Vincent Van Gogh. I mean, if Vincent Van Gogh’s brother didn’t believe in him and didn’t encourage him, would he have painted all those things? He would have been another person that tragically died. He would have committed suicide. That’s the power of spiritual human beings, emotional human beings. When you see someone and you believe in someone, even when no one else does, but you see that spark in them, they do amazing things.

One of my favorite stories is from Deepak Chopra. He talks about how this father had an autistic son, and for years he was trying to get his autistic son to say something. Just a complete sentence. Every day he would talk to his son, and he would get nothing. He would try to say, “Just say, ‘I love you mommy or daddy,’ or, ‘I want a glass of water.'” And for like 10 years or a really long time, he invested, and he kept trying and trying and trying. They finally were able to get a computer, and the boy was able to speak to a computer, and this father said, “I didn’t think you could speak. I didn’t know you could say these complete sentences.” The boy said, and it’s still chokes me up today, the boy said, “I’ve been listening.”

ERH: Oh, wow.

Tae Chong: That’s what emotional intelligence is. Even when someone doesn’t say anything, you’re still listening. Even when someone does say something, but if it’s not said with authenticity, you still listen, right?

ERH: Yes!

Tae Chong: We’ve all heard people who say, “I care about you,” and you kind of tell yourself, “Oh, that wasn’t authentic. They didn’t really mean that,” or whatever. An emotional intelligence is about listening with all of your senses, and that’s what this little boy was talking about. His father was talking to him with full love and understanding, and that’s why he was able to process and formulate the language without even being verbal. And that’s magical. There’s no algorithm that can say or predict that will happen.

That’s why I believe in human beings, and in emotional intelligence.

ERH: Amen, my friend.

As you know, the Art of the Break is is breaking from patterns, and I think we’ve been talking about that, and doing things differently. I know you have another passion, Upcycle. I would love to hear about what that is all about.

Tae Chong:  Yes! Upcycle is taking donated goods or textiles and turning them into new projects or new products. I work for Catholic Charities Maine. We have several retail stores called Threads of Hope, and we get donated textiles. I’ve started a micro enterprise program for new entrepreneurs and I’m really focusing on trying to help women, immigrants and creative artists to start businesses. I’m encouraging them to upcycle, because for me, I’m trying to hit a triple bottom line, which is if I can help save the planet, help someone start a business, and then help someone in particular in poverty, I’ve done it.

We have created a micro enterprise program. We have an Iraqi stitcher that could work with a designer, then Catholic Charities Threads of Hope has all these donated textiles where a designer can work with the stitcher to make a new product. Jason Ryan of Open Bench has given a scholarship to use a laser cutter, so the designer could cut out a pattern with the laser cutter and then have Anam of Chiffon Alterations make the product, or they could work with our African designer and together create some kind of multicultural line, a product line using our donated goods. Most people don’t understand that making textiles or clothes produces as much greenhouse gases as international shipping and international aviation combined.

ERH:  More of us need to know about that!

Tae Chong:  If you wanted to save the planet, if you just used your clothes for three months more, it’s the equivalent of taking a million cars off the road.

Making one tee shirt uses 2,700 liters of water, and unfortunately around 80% of all the textiles that we have in this world go to the incinerator, yet 100% could be recycled. Only a tiny fraction of all the clothes that are donated are actually used for consumer consumption. A lot of it goes to industrial rags, and it shouldn’t be. What better way to make this world more unique than to take one of a kind clothing from upcycle clothing. And that’s something that Amazon and the malls can’t compete with.

ERH: Right.

Tae Chong:Upcycling things is unique, and I believe in this next generation of millennials. They’re very conscious of what they want to buy and how they want to support the planet. Upcycling is a new niche market that could help save the planet and create a new industry. I’m really passionate about that, so that’s what I’m trying to do.

ERH: Thank you, Tae. I am excited to learn about that. Is there a place where we can go to pay attention to the work that’s happening in this space?

Tae Chong: Yeah, there are lots of places. Greenpeace has an organization that does upcycle, and there’s an organization called the Balance of Small Businesses that talks about sustainable businesses and textile recycling. But really the best place to really help upcycling is through donating your second hand clothes and shopping at thrift stores.

ERH: Great point.

Tae Chong:  If you started with those two things in your own backyard, you’re going to help with upcycling, and the more you donate and the more you try to keep the clothes that you have or recycle them, the more you’ll create this demand for upcycle fashion.

ERH: That’s terrific. Thank you for that.

In the theme of the Art of the Break, how do you find time to unplug and to refuel yourself?

Tae Chong: I have two hobbies. One is photography, and for me, photography is being emotionally intelligent, because so much of it is just listening with your eyes. Just taking in a scene and just being present and quiet, and trying to find one little tiny picture that represents everything that your eye sees, and you can never capture all of it, but you try to do that. And the other is weightlifting. For me, I call it “angry yoga,” because so much of weightlifting is about breathing. It’s about form, and it’s about visualization, and then you get really pissed at something and you lift it quickly. That’s what weightlifting is for me. It’s my therapy, for someone who’s ADD and with a lot of internal issues. You can be calm and then be angry at the same time, so that’s me in a nutshell.

ERH: That’s beautiful. Tae, you are a gift. I am blessed that you are right here in our community in Portland, Maine, and making ripples well beyond our community. Thank you for spending time with me today and to share this conversation The Art of the Break.

Tae Chong:  Me too, Elizabeth. I’m so lucky to know you and I’m glad we’re in the same circles.