January 12, 2023 · Essays

Risk and Reward

I’ve recently been reading an illustrated adaptation of Journey to the West with my son. Possibly the most well-known and beloved work in classical Chinese literature, it’s a wildly entertaining tale about the travels of a Buddhist scholar and his fantastical entourage of a monkey, a pig, and an ogre. (Yes, it’s the story that Dragon Ball is based on, only without all the alien stuff.)

So I became curious to learn more about the real-life Xuanzang, the 7th-century monk whose life inspired Journey to the West. I learned that Xuanzang was highly gifted and intellectually curious from a young age, and had already achieved renown as a Buddhist scholar by his twenties. At that point, he had a bright future ahead of him: all he had to do was continue his research and teaching, climb the proverbial ladder in a monastery, and he’d eventually end up heading a monastery of his own.

But he was driven by something greater. He was dissatisfied with the state of Buddhist scholarship in China. He found that many scriptures available to him had been either poorly translated from Sanskrit into Chinese, were missing passages, or had multiple conflicting translations. He decided to make it his life’s mission to solve that problem. He would travel to India where Buddhism originated, and bring back a library of original, authoritative scriptures to translate into Chinese himself. At 27 years old, he resolved to throw away everything he had — his career, his friends and family, and potentially his life, in the pursuit of that mission.

There were many reasons why this was a terrible idea. The Tang dynasty had just established its rule in China, but was still fighting territorial wars along its borders, and enforced a strict ban on civilian travel. The land route from China to India, passing through the uninhabitable Gobi desert, was incredibly difficult and dangerous even for an experienced traveler. He could very easily die on the way from disease, injury, dehydration, starvation, or be murdered by bandits. And he would have to somehow find his way through many cultures and languages. And he’d have to do it all alone.

But in the year 629AD he decided to set out anyway. He had to travel in secret to evade soldiers at the Chinese border. He barely managed to make it through the deadly Gobi desert. Many times it was by pure luck that he survived at all. But in the end, he made it all the way to India. Over the next decade or so , he traveled the country extensively to study with great masters of different schools of Buddhist thought. He visited holy sites, collected scriptures, and absorbed the diversity of Indian languages and cultures. After 16 years, in 645AD, he finally returned to China, and was personally received and honored by the Tang emperor. The emperor ordered a monastery built for him, where he worked and taught for the rest of his life. And in the centuries since, his translated and written work has had a lasting impact on Buddhism and popular culture in East Asia. (Yes, including Dragon Ball.)

I find two anecdotes, recorded by his student Huili [1], especially moving:

At one point, Xuanzang became lost in the desert, and accidentally spilled his entire reserve of water. Despairing, he started to make his way back East towards a military post along the Great Wall he had previously passed through. But after a few miles, he suddenly stopped in his tracks. He had sworn an oath that he would not take a single step back East towards China until reaching India. He decided he would rather die on his way Westward than go back Eastward and live. He turned around and resolutely pressed on Westward. After five days without water and close to death from dehydration, he finally located an oasis and survived.

There were multiple opportunities along his journey where he could’ve chosen to take the easy way out and “cash out” on his status as a Buddhist master. When Xuanzang arrived in the kingdom of Qocho, his reputation preceded him and the king begged him to accept a lifetime appointment on his court, where “the people of this entire land would become your pupils” and he would preside over “several thousand monks” in the kingdom. The king was so sincere that he personally served Xuanzang each meal while bowing in reverence. But Xuanzang declined: “I did not come to find patronage. […] I am risking my life to go West, to seek teachings I have not yet heard.” When the king would not let him leave, he refused all food and drink for days until the king finally relented.

In a way, Xuanzang’s story reminds me of the difficult choice often facing modern-day tech entrepreneurs. Do you give up your comfortable job and conventional career in pursuit of a crazy venture?

For example, Steve Wozniak was quite reluctant to leave his cushy job at HP to start Apple [2]:

There was one little hitch: I would have to quit HP and make Apple 100% of my life. And I said — wait a minute! In less than a year, I designed the Apple I, the Apple II, I wrote a BASIC, I wrote two monitors, I wrote all these demonstrations, I designed cassette interfaces, printer interfaces…I said I did all this stuff at nights, part-time. I could still keep my job at HP for a while, for security. And Mike said: “No, you gotta leave HP!” And he gave me a date I had to make a decision. And I thought about it — boy, I had things pulling me both ways. And I finally decided I was going to stay at HP. And I told him that on the ultimatum day.

Similarly, Jeff Hawkins was initially scared by what it would be like to leave his job to start Palm [3]:

You should know that I never really wanted to start a company. I sometimes say I'm an accidental entrepreneur. I had two venture capitalists who approached me, and tried to convince me I ought to start a company, and convinced me that I ought to accept their money. […] At that time, I really wanted to build a small product, but I didn't really want to start a company. My observation was that the people who started companies had miserable lives. They worked really hard, most of them ended up divorced, and many of them failed, and got really depressed. It just didn't look like an attractive thing to do, and so I was reluctant.

In the end, they decided to take the risk, and it paid off — their achievements have had a lasting impact on our world. At the same time, Silicon Valley lore is also littered with stories of smart and hardworking people for whom it did not ultimately pay off.

Herein lies the rub. Our life choices are constant tradeoffs between risk and reward. In financial investments as in life, the higher return you seek, the more risk you have to take on. To achieve their successes, the folks above all had to take on a huge amount of risk. Xuanzang was literally risking his life, while Wozniak and Hawkins were risking their financial stability and the opportunity cost of years of their life. And, despite their genius and hard work, their ventures very well could have ended in failure due to factors completely outside of their control.

So, is it worth it for you?

The question is close to my heart. At one point several years ago, I was struggling to decide whether to try my hand at entrepreneurship. I had pitched several VCs. I met founders of their portfolio companies. I wrote a business plan and built a prototype. It was an exhilarating prospect. But in the end, I couldn’t take the plunge: I was too scared to risk my cushy job at FAANG and my opportunity to stay and build a life in the US. And while I don’t regret the decision, it was a humbling experience. I’ve since known several friends and co-workers who’ve taken that leap of faith, and I have only deep respect for them. Because I know how hard it is to give up what’s in front of you.

In the end, I think the answer to that risk-reward tradeoff is going to be different for everyone. There is no right answer, just as there is no single right way to live one’s life.

It will depend a lot on your life situation. Do you have savings in the bank? Does your family depend on you for financial support? Do you have to worry about your immigration status?

It will also depend on your values and personality. How important are impact, status, and wealth to you? How important is personal enjoyment, or time with your family? Do you enjoy a slower-paced, lower-stress way of life, or do you thrive in an environment full of action and excitement?

For most people, the answer to “is it worth it” is probably “no”. And that’s fine. And for a lucky and brave few, the answer is “yes”, and that’s great too.

[1] https://zh.m.wikisource.org/zh-hans/大慈恩寺三藏法師傳
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V81xvNvR77k
[3] https://ecorner.stanford.edu/videos/the-accidental-entrepreneur-palm-history/

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