As a part of the Millennial Nomaad journey, I decided to cycle back to friends and acquaintances from high school –some I have not spoken to in years. Only after having lived in two different states did I realize Walton High School's unique student body –a community that was nestled in the quiet suburbs of Marietta, GA. These students, whether they chose to build a life in our hometown or relocate, were the kind where you look back and think: damn, these kids were all super different but they all had a bunch of talent and personality waiting to be tapped into.
Zenas Han was one of the star students –top grades, star viola player, super social, Ivy League grad. But, I'm not interviewing him for who he was or even what he has achieved since then. At some point, we all cease to be the reputations we have built. I am interviewing him because of his mindset: he is a risk taker, he thirsts for growth, he creates the opportunities he wants. Underneath the "all can do" drive, is someone very human with his own set of worries and challenges, but it's the way he approaches life that builds strength. During our interview, we tap into his introspective side as we discuss balancing competition v. compassion, his humbling experience at Yale (cue #Kendrick), his bold career move to LA for video-gaming, the concept of being "smart," love & more. Thank you to Zenas for sharing your thoughts with Millennial Nomaad.
The key to happiness is: purpose
My kryptonite is: chubby puppies
I dream of: paying back all those who have supported me throughout the years
Success to me means: being in the company of those you respect
Define curiosity: the need to know
To be brilliant is to be: able to inspire and empower all those around you
To be a Millennial Nomaad means: you have a say in where you end up
MN: One could say you have always been a strategic risk taker. You took a semester off as a sophomore attending Yale to work on a tutoring company you co-founded. Most recently, you left your job working at a FinTech firm in Atlanta, picked up your life and moved to L.A. to pursue a career in the Esports industry. How did you become so comfortable with change? Has the fear of failure ever shaped your decisions or stopped you from pursuing something either professionally or personally? How so?
ZH: Fear of failure hasn’t become a huge consideration yet. I’m 25 years old with no wife or kids, so I still have a few more years to take as many risks as possible before it really becomes a concern. I am much more afraid of being bored or being forced to stay in a career path that I dislike, because I have kids and mortgage payments. Maybe I’ve watched one too many shows with mid-life crises.
That said, I don’t think I’m more comfortable with change than the average person. The difference is that I am impatient with the things that I want and naïve enough to think that I can make them a reality. So I just go for it. Plus, I’ve always had an incredible support network of friends, family, and mentors who give me that extra bit of courage.
MN: I have heard some people describe video games as a “work of art” or even an “experience.” What do you think it is about video gaming that draws people in? What real life themes do you think video games simulate and how so?
ZH: Video games are fun. I know it’s such a lame answer, and I don’t want to trivialize the incredible work that game developers have accomplished over the years. But that’s it. Of course “fun” is subjective, and video games mean different things to different people. If you want narratives and interactive story telling, pick up a Role Playing Game (RPG). If you like the idea of paintball but don’t want to deal with getting paint out of your shirt, play a First Person Shooter (FPS). If you’re 35 with kids and the only moment you have alone is on the toilet, sneak in a game of Candy Crush.
I’m not sure that I can draw any direct parallels between gaming and real life besides the proverbial “art imitates life” shtick. What I will say, though, is that I have always been drawn to video games for their competitive nature. I used to love going to the gym to play pick up basketball games. Sure, I like basketball, but for me it was more about measuring my own skill and competing. Video games give me a platform to compete – except I get to do it in the comfort of my own home.
MN: At Walton High School, you were ranked among some of the “smartest” students. How did attending an “elite” institution like Yale affect or challenge your self-image? What role do you think education plays in cultivating well-rounded students? How do you think educational systems can be improved?
ZH: Although the intent was never necessarily malicious, every freshman at Yale seemed to be sizing each other up. It might take the form of comparing SAT scores and number of AP courses completed in high school or even the classes you enrolled/placed into that semester. It’s kind of like a social experiment: take a bunch of kids whose identities have been shaped by being “smart” or incredibly successful in some way and have them compete against each other for four years. Honestly, I never felt terribly overwhelmed or inadequate, but I also had no aspirations of being valedictorian. I simply wanted to take interesting classes and enjoy my time with my friends. In that regard, I was very successful. My biggest takeaway is that the most remarkable, brilliant people I met were typically also the most humble and open-minded, so I’ve had to tone down the ego I built up in high school.
I hate the word “smart” because it’s so arbitrary, yet it holds so much weight. This is entirely conjecture, but I think placing students in “gifted” or “honors” classes before high school has a much larger ripple than we care to think about. Not only do you affect the students selected for these gifted programs, but you are also indirectly sending a message to the other kids – “you are not gifted” – and I wonder what kind of impact that has on a child’s future. Again, this is all hypothetical, but I’d get rid of gifted and “advanced” classes before high school. We should be able to encourage intellectual ambition without marginalizing the majority of insecure, impressionable students.
MN: Happiness. We are living in the age of “Think and Be Positive” where everyone seems to be searching for a way to find joy. How do you manage stress or release negative emotions in a healthy way without suppressing them? How do you define happiness?
ZH: I hang out with friends. I play video games. I eat good food and have a drink or two. Combine all of these things, and that’s how I currently define happiness. More generally, happiness stems from comfort and security. Earlier, I said that purpose is the key to happiness, but I don’t know that you can get there without a foundation of comfort and security. I personally find comfort in friendships, food, and video games, so I guess I’ve been pretty happy for most of my life.
MN: You mention that being competitive is a part of your personality. Living in the diverse and rapidly changing world that we do today, what are some ways in which we can promote unity and greater compassion? How can one balance a competitive streak with team building?
ZH: We’ve divided ourselves in innumerable different ways – ideologically, racially, politically, socioeconomically, among others – and this division often results in dehumanizing one another and forgetting how to empathize. But empathy drives unity and compassion, and dialogue seems to be a great place to start. I recently watched an interview about an African-American blues musician named Daryl Davis who has convinced over 200 KKK members to leave the Klan by asking “how can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” Incredible. Find common ground, and don’t be an asshole, but most importantly, don’t be an asshole.
To be frank, there’s not a great way to reconcile being competitive with team building. The nature of being competitive is that you want to be better than your opponent. I suppose it comes down to knowing when to be competitive and when to play nice.
MN: How has a moment of vulnerability served as a catalyst for growth and ultimately inspiration towards reaching your potential? Do you perceive vulnerability as a strength or weakness?
ZH: The catalyst for my move to LA was a combination of personal and professional circumstances. I started feeling stagnant at my job because I wasn’t learning anymore, so I knew it was time for a change. Then my grandmother fell ill and passed away which took a toll on my mother and me. During that time, I reflected on what was making me unhappy, and it boiled down to a sense of control: knowing that I can actionably change where I live, what I do, who I talk to, the foods that I eat. I wouldn’t categorize vulnerability as a strength or weakness since the response is all that matters.
MN: Love. Sometimes it can be difficult to express what feeling we are exactly searching for. How would you define being “in love”? How has your perception of love changed over time?
ZH: I used to have a much more romanticized notion of love –the whole “love at first sight” deal. I’m not against it by any means, but now, being in love means that you care about your partner enough to work on the relationship, and there needs to be a willingness to change by both parties. But honestly, I have no clue. I’m less qualified to define love for you than Jerry Springer.