Q & A - 5 Steps to make it Big - Part 2

  1. Who you are born to:  Legacy


Why do Asians tend to be better at Maths? The answer to this question is also related to the answer to seemingly unrelated, even contradictory question: why was Korean Air’s loss rate, i.e., a plane involved in an accident, 17 times the no. of losses encountered by United Airlines (an American carrier) in the period of 1988-1998? The understanding of the answer is what led to the transformation of Korean airlines whose safety record has been immaculate since 1999.


  1. And the Answer is….

    Cultural legacy is the answer. Regarding the “Maths” conundrum, one reason might be the way numbers are pronounced and ordered in the Chinese language—you can pronounce 6 digits in 2 seconds which the size of the memory loop in human memory. This means that given a sequence of 6 arbitrary digits, if you speak Chinese, you will almost always get it right, but you have a chance of being correct only 50% of the time if you speak English. Also, the numbers are ordered more logically in Chinese, rendering addition and subtraction easier and faster. But more credit goes to their history—the Chinese, Japanese, Singaporean, Koreans etc. have traditionally been the people of paddy fields; they grew rice unlike their American counterparts who frolic in the fields of wheat. Growing rice is as different from growing wheat as it can be: the fields are tinier, it involves a lot more involvement and careful tending giving rise to vastly different proverbs—“Don’t depend on heaven for food, but on your own two hands carrying the load” than those originating in American or Russian wheat fields—“If God does not bring it, the Earth will not bring it.” This tenacity and persistence indeed endures in the field of mathematics. For example, given a puzzle, a Japanese child would work on it for a time period 40% longer compared to their American counterpart.

Cultural legacy was also the reason behind the alarming no. of crashes encountered by Korean Air: the hierarchy and deference to authority is deeply embedded in the Korean culture. Thus, the first officer was less likely to directly point out to the captain that he had made a mistake or something was amiss if he was a Korean. Their communication is also receiver oriented—it is the listener’s responsibility to decipher and understand what the speaker is saying as opposed to the western speaker oriented communication where it is the speaker’s responsibility to get the message across. As beautiful and subtle the Korean language is, the zenith of cultivated speech, during emergency, when clear and concise instructions are required, this only proves to be a handicap. Understanding this, David Greenberg of Delta Airlines who was called by the Korean Air to address the problems faced by them, started his reformation by training the Korean Air’s pilots and crew members extensively in English, and imbuing in them the quality of questioning the higher authority in case something went awry. This led to the ‘spotless’ image that Korean Air now has.

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