Curing a Social Disease with Art

Curing a Social Disease with Art

Have you ever felt like you’re not good enough at what you do? Do you obsess over how you’ll win that promotion, or how you’ll increase your salary? Do you feel burdened to pursue a path that makes you feel passionless?

On Juneteenth, I interviewed Linda Cheung—the nonprofit director of Before It’s Too Late. In our interview, Linda identified a type of financial cancer that pervades our society. She also talked about how her earliest money memories made her feel like she was entrapped in finance. Fortunately, she found a way to prevail. 

From Restaurants to Day Trading: A Rollercoaster Ride

Like many, Linda’s earliest memories with money stem from watching her parents.

Now the creative director of a thriving nonprofit, Linda has humble roots as the child of Chinese immigrants. Her earliest money memories are of her parents scrambling to open a series of chain restaurants. At the time, her family shared a cramped attic with bats in upstate New York.

Linda’s parents were ambitious. Their busied efforts with their restaurants proved successful, allowing her family to move out of their attic and live comfortably.

As they transitioned to a higher standard of living, Linda recalls her parents getting caught up in the rush of generating wealth. They pursued day trading, a lucrative job that rapidly scaled her family’s wealth.

“Our home turned into a day trader’s home,” she says. “We always had like four TVs on.” It was an opportunity that was hard to manage without emotion. Her parents made millions on a whim, then lost a great deal of it with the dot com bust.

“They kind of just got swept up,” she remarks. “My dad had a gambler’s sort of mentality. He would say, ‘I know just know one more trial will make it. The next investment will be great.’ Unfortunately he did not succeed in that . . . we never reached that same level of success again.”

After their great loss, Linda’s father moved her family around the United States to relive the profits they made earlier in New York. They opened restaurants in California, Michigan, and Ohio, but never again experienced the same level of growth or income as before. 

These early experiences left Linda concluding that money—like gambler’s luck—is ephemeral.  Money is attractive; in an instant, it can change a person’s life. And the act of making money can leave one feeling instaiable. 

How Traditional Expectations Bred Pressure and Dissatisfaction

As a child of immigrants, Linda grew up with traditional Chinese expectations: go to school, get a degree, and get a high-paying job.

Except don’t go to any school—go to a top school. And don’t get just any degree—get one that’s practical. And don’t choose any profession—become something respectable and secure. That way you can make a lot of money so you don’t have to worry about money. Except don’t stop trying to make more money because you should always be making more money.

“I was bred to believe and want that success for myself and to prove something,” she recounts.

Of her parents’ aspirations for her she says, “My parents were like, ‘You’re going to be a doctor,’ and I’m like, ‘Okay, there’s a big problem with cancer.’”

Linda chose a profession that coincided with her parents’ interests and traditional expectations. She studied finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. It was there she learned about the intricacies of finance and managing money.

At Wharton, she gained a sophisticated lens on finance. Her intense studies made her parents’ day trading mistakes and wealth mismanagement seem so obvious. “They were so naive,” she surmises.

She pauses thoughtfully before adding, “I had not really understood how the world worked. It’s a really big culture shock for people who come from small towns, or even average middle America to suddenly come into this high performance, high pressure obscene wealth environment.”

The whole industry of financial schooling and business was laden with competition and luxury. She recalls observing the pressing, courtly nature of it all in college. “Being around all that—the big banks, the boutique banks, coming to constantly wine and dine our classmates—was just intense.”

At first, the nature of these relationships confused her. “Every student prepped intensely for these interviews and was obsessed about which banks they got into and what offer.”

But soon, they started to make sense. “This is how real power and money moves,” she concludes. Her awareness of the innerworkings of finance left her wanting more. She wanted to succeed where her parents had failed.

She admitted to feeling constantly at odds with not wanting to be ruled by money like her parents were. Of her struggle she says, “I didn’t ever want to be quite attached to money and let it dictate my life. But on the other hand, I wanted to rule money.”

How the Obscene Wealth Environment Cultivates Crisis

After graduating from Wharton, Linda entered the corporate banking industry. But after seven years, she felt lacking—in skill, passion, and purpose. All she seemed to care about was getting the best base ratings for her next job.

Her self-doubt spoke louder than her words. “I wanted to obtain that kind of sophisticated skillset. And yet I felt the imposter syndrome. I don’t possess those skills—almost like sociopathy to be great at this.”

Her work in corporate finance left her feeling exhausted. Similar to her parents’ pursuit for the most profitable opportunity, her life had become a continuous hunt for the next best career move. Linda recognized her personality needed a particular sort of ruthlessness to be successful in corporate finance.

With a sigh she says, “I was 26 and started having a quarter-life existential crisis where I could not imagine myself doing this for the rest of my life. I would think that would be a waste of my potential to just keep going after that promotion. I just don’t see this as being my life mission.”

She had a desire to leave the corporate world to pursue humanitarian entrepreneurship. But with her entire social and professional network embedded in corporate finance, she couldn’t picture a way out for herself. “My close friends at the time would say, ‘You have the personality to be an entrepreneur.’ I just never had the bravery to do it for the longest time.”

She found herself at a crossroads, observing some friends who stayed in corporate finance versus those who left. “It was really hard to think that I could potentially break away from that. And when people did break away from it, it was like the entire world was all centered around success in the traditional sense of a lot of wealth.”

How Childhood Dreams Brought About Freedom

Linda knew it was time for a change. But she didn’t know what to do or where to look. She wanted to make an impact, but didn’t know how to help the people and world around her. 

The clouds started to clear during a regular corporate workday. Her company was participating in Giving Tuesday—a global generosity movement that supports humanitarian causes.

Linda researched various nonprofits to which she could donate. It was on this day she found a cause that resonated with her: climate change.

What she learned was intriguing; she couldn’t stop reading about it. She became so invested in the topic that after Giving Tuesday, she started an employee group dedicated to promoting sustainability.

It was in this group Linda first saw herself as an entrepreneur. With the employee group, she ran meetings, planned goals, and inspired involvement—all within her corporate network.

Exhilarated by the thrill of affecting change, Linda was compelled to explore her options to satisfy her desire to be a globally-conscious entrepreneur.

Linda revisited her parent’s desire for her to become a doctor, as well as her own aspiration to cure cancer. “I returned to my childhood idealism and started being more confident in my childhood vision of the world.” But this time, she did not want to become a doctor in the traditional sense. Linda planned to make her corporate exit.

But with the imposter syndrome looming overhead, Linda felt she needed to go back to school to do what she wanted. She felt she needed to be more qualified—maybe earn another credential—before she could really make a change. She almost caught herself falling back into the traditional mindset of thinking that school and credentials were the secrets to success. Almost.

After exploring various business schools, she settled on MIT Sloan for its focus on sustainability.

Linda realized if she wanted to use her professional experience to make a difference, she needed to change her mindset about finance and business entirely.

She spent a long time reflecting on her parents’ rollercoaster rides with the restauranting and day trading, her competitive schooling in Wharton, her seven year grind in corporate finance, and her disenchantment at MIT Sloan.

Linda, her parents, and her peers all shared the same mindset. “Without thinking, we measure our success—the world’s success, company’s success, country’s success—on this one metric: how much are you growing your growing money?”

Instead, Linda suggests, “Maybe more isn’t better. I think we have a disease. I think the real cancer of this world is people being obsessed with financial growth. To me, cancer is just overgrowth.”

Tired of equating success with money, Linda decided she was ready to change her ideals and carve her own path. It was here Linda decided to exit the corporate world for good.

Combating Climate Change with Art and Technology in Miami

Linda decided it was time to make an American case for climate change. So she started her nonprofit, Before It’s Too Late. She recalls the concerns and disbelief of her peers.

“When I started my nonprofit,” she remembers, “A lot of people would keep asking me, ‘How are you monetizing this?”

She felt clear about her attitude towards money and her future. She was no longer hassled by the rat race mentalities of finance and money-making. She was no longer burdened by the traditional beliefs that more education and more money produce professional success and personal fulfillment. To this day, Linda works tirelessly to dismantle the traditional mindset of being married to money.

After researching areas affected by climate change, she settled on Miami, which is predicted to be underwater by the end of the century. Gentrification had run rampant in the city; the wealthy were moving away from the sinking coast and moving in on the disadvantaged communities living inland. The whole city seemed to be calling for her attention.

Linda’s nonprofit inspires community action and climate change by proliferating art throughout the city. Before It’s Too Late uses murals to excise the cultural obsession for obscene wealth with visual stories. The breathtaking installments weave technology and art to tell layered stories through augmented reality. Visitors interact with the art by scanning them with custom apps made for each mural.

Looking back, it was easier than she initially thought. Linda was surprised at how easy it was to create together an activist community workforce. There was already a huge base of skilled earnest people, they just needed a leader to band them together.

“It’s funny,” she says, “When I left my graduating class of the MIT Sloan MBA class, my path was considered strange and brave. Now I’m here in Miami and part of the creative and activist community and everyone is by those standards, very brave.”

Be Part of the Change, Before It’s Too Late

She didn’t have to become a doctor to find fulfillment. She didn’t have to stay in finance to make a living. Thanks to Linda and her awesome team at Before It’s Too Late, the people and climate of Miami are fighting global warming, gentrification, and the obscene wealth mindset one mural at a time.

If you want to be part of this movement, visit Linda’s website at beforeitstoolate.earth. Don’t forget to follow them also on Instagram @bitl.earth!

If you liked this blog post, check out this full podcast interview here.

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