2021-03-22 update: After a lot of contemplation about this post, I believe there is nothing special about ‘nondual leadership’. The idea of nondualism, in my mind anyway, can too often be a distraction from the present moment. Which is ironic since the concept of nondualism is a pointer to the idea that there is no separation between self and experience. It can become a distraction when the focus is on the concept rather than the direct experience. Leaders should be rooted in the present moment, and not distracted by whether they are sufficiently grounded in nondual practice, process, or feelings. My interest in nondualism led me to recognise that the present moment is all that is available to us. The present moment cannot be improved upon, it simply is. We may not like what we are experiencing in the present moment, but it cannot be different. We may decide that we want different outcomes in the future, and that’s great. It just doesn’t change what is right now. Coming to this understanding was helped along by a book called The Ten Thousand Things, by Robert Salzman.
As part of my commitment to cultivating a deeper practice of meditation, I have been investigating and learning about nondualism. Nondualism, in a nutshell (and to my layman’s understanding), is the state of consciousness that recognizes no edges to experience. The concept of subject/object loses meaning; all is one.
There is a recognition among nondualists that at some level one must continue to attend to the perceived world, and not simply bathe in transcendental understanding. I suspect there is also an understanding that interaction with the perceived world is necessarily influenced by nondual knowledge. Put simply, when you find no edges to experience and all is one, it is a natural extension to care for others (because they are not actually “other”, but only the continuation of what can be called Experience (as opposed to lower case experience)). Other names I have seen for this include Consciousness, Witnessing Awareness, Awareness, and Nature.
As I learned more, I have become increasingly interested in how nondual awareness might influence the practice of leadership, mine in particular. One difficulty with this line of questioning is that nondual awareness itself implies no value system; it is simply witness to experience (or, when concepts sufficiently collapse, simply Experience). This state of valuelessness may worry critics who foresee anarchy and chaos on the (nondual) horizon. I strongly suspect benign neglect is more likely. Anarchy requires a value system.
Less experienced nondual leaders may, ironically, have two distinct experiences of the world. One is the transcendental experience of witnessing the dissolution of the border between self and world. The other is the world as the nondual leader has been historically conditioned to experience. Assuming continued inquiry into nondual awareness, I assume this condition is temporary and eventually collapses into a singular Experience. In this singular Experience the nondual leader is able to behave in the perceived world with great fidelity toward nondual awareness.
My curiosity revolves around whether expressions of nondual leadership take on a particular cast or bend in a particular arc. As mentioned above, I suspect the policy outcomes of nondual leadership will generally avoid expressions of “isms” and will tend to share power if not outright decentralize it.
Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.
—Justice Felix Frankfurter
I read this quote recently and it struck a nerve. Over the last few months my eyes have been opened to what it means to be a white man in America. Having been a white man in America for decades now, this seems like an odd realization. I am a natural navel-gazer, and I’ve spent a lot of time mining the depths of my own mind and psyche. I haven’t spent a lot of time understanding where I fit in society. I read widely, so I certainly had heard of “white privilege” prior to doing the deep work with diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Like many white guys, the first time I heard the phrase I mentally recoiled. Who was telling me I had privilege? How dare they paint me with such a broad brush! What did they know about my life, my troubles, my struggles? And besides, how could someone be anti-racist while racializing something like privilege? Wasn’t that hypocrisy? WTF!
Over time I learned the true meaning of white privilege, but it remained an abstract intellectual concept. It wasn’t until I was able to see and internalize the ways in which society blocks progress for people of color, and for black men in particular, that I began to understand what it means to be a white man in America.
I suppose once white people begin to have a recognition of their privilege, they have some choices about what to do with that knowledge: engage with it and try to reshape spheres of influence; shove it way down deep and pretend you still don’t know any better; embrace the privilege and the inherent racism that accompanies it. And it is important to note here that only white people get these choices—another privilege.
Back to the original quote because I don’t want to make this post too long. DEI wisdom is arriving late for me, and I do not reject it.
Our organization has been engaged with training around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for several months. As C.O.O., I’m the person who got the ball rolling, though this goal was present on our 5 year plan prior to my arrival at the organization.
Though I have always had an interest in equality and inclusion, I had not had much education or training around it. These past few months have been nothing short of transformational for me. I believe the work we are doing will also be transformational for our organization, though that will take more time.
One of the fundamental ideas that I’ve learned is that DEI (or EDI if you prefer) begins with race. We begin with race because that work can be leveraged to impact other marginalized identities, commonly referred to as “intersectionality”.
Speaking from my own experience, beginning with race helped me see the world around me with fresh eyes. This education has made me feel embarrassed by my own previous assumptions, and humbled to learn a new way of viewing society in general, and my own privilege in particular.
I am convinced that a deep understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a non-negotiable leadership competency. Leaders must be educated in this work, and must maintain that education. Whatever a leader’s speciality—finance, m&a, HR, IT, whatever—their work must not only acknowledge the importance of DEI, but must center on it.
Centering our work on DEI does not necessarily mean we become trainers, though that role may make sense for some. It means that we are able to articulate organizational strategy in ways that expose, interrupt, and sidestep the currents of white supremacy in our organizations, and in the culture at large.
I feel strongly that leaders who understand DEI are obligated to work only with organizations that also demonstrate an understanding of the importance of interrupting inequitable cultures. Do not join organizations, as employees, board members, or volunteers, if the organizations do not clearly demonstrate a commitment to racial equity.
I am not an expert in either convenience nor privacy. But I do read about such things, and I have an Amazon Echo Dot in the kitchen. Mostly it’s a fancy voice activated tea timer. And we recently got a smart plug so we can tell Alexa to turn off the Christmas tree without being bothered to bend over and unplug the thing. I feel surprisingly powerful when I make the Christmas tree lights turn off and on with just my voice.
I am certain that Amazon collects the voice snippets I direct at Alexa. I’m convinced (a very different standard from ‘certain’) that Amazon collects everything else I say, regardless of whether it is preceded by the ‘Alexa’ keyword. Nothing weird has happened at our house, I’ve just read enough reports of weird things, and reports from terminated Amazon contractors. Also, if Amazon could gather that data and parse it in a meaningful way to help nudge your buying patterns on their website, I assume they would certainly assess the risk of getting caught against the value of the activity.
Anyway, I guess I let ‘em listen in. Turning off the Christmas tree with just my voice is apparently worth it.
The last post was about how I’ve lost weight by tracking calories. I’ve also been paying attention to how much I move each day. I have a tendency to jump into a routine and go too hard, which makes me really sore and provides a convenient excuse to stop doing the thing. It’s a dumb cycle that took too long to identify.
Anyway, these days I’m walking the dog. Literally. I wake up at 5am and have a quick self-talk in the vein of Marcus:
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
I’ve got a backpack1 that I use for pretty much everything, and once I finally roll out of bed I dump out the iPad and keyboard and throw in a 45lb2 plate. I take the dog for a 3 mile walk with the backpack. Takes about 55 minutes which, for me, equals about 6,500 steps. Since I’m a sedentary office drone and I don’t move much once I’m at work, this is a great way to get some movement and steps. I usually end up with somewhere north of 9k steps each day.
Generally speaking, our human bodies seem to adapt well to whatever we throw at them. In my case, just walking the dog, even with a weighted backpack, eventually becomes the new normal. When that happens, or to delay that adaptation, I try to mix up my walking approach with changes to time, distance, and resistance. I’ll try to walk the usual route a little faster, adding in some jogging. I’ll try a longer route, but throw the weighted pack on my back. That kind of stuff. I don’t plan it out, but I do try to get more time/distance on the weekends.
1. I use a 26L GR1 from GoRuck. They are expensive, though I got mine on eBay for a decent discount. These bags are bombproof, so there should be no hesitation buying a used one. For the last 18 months or so, I‘ve used mine daily, with 45lbs in it, and it’s in great shape. If it ever blows out can’t be repaired, I’ll get another one. GoRuck stands behind their gear, so if it ever does blow out I’ll send it to them first to see if it can be repaired. ↩
2. I got a 45lb plate on Amazon instead of directly from GoRuck. GoRuck’s manufacturing process is compelling though. For me, there wasn’t enough of a distinction between the American-made plates and the plates from who-knows-where to justify the difference in price. They both just get shoved in the backpack. ↩
There are lots of ways to lose weight. I recently dropped 30 pounds over the course of about 4 months. I started by trying Noom, but the whole model around Noom is very high-touch, and that annoyed me. I just wanted to suffer silently and alone. I switched over to LoseIt and did.
LoseIt pretty much leaves you alone to do what you need to do. At its core, it’s just calorie counter and has a very good database of food. It is easy to add your own food as well. It also has a low-key goals function that I found helpful. I set my goal weight and told the app how fast I wanted to go (1lb/week). After that it’s just a matter of tracking everything you eat.
I can get a little obsessive with details on things like this, but this time I just wanted to keep everything casual. If the food database didn’t have the exact thing I just ate, I’d throw in whatever seemed closest and I always leaned toward the database item that had more calories that I figured I’d eaten. I also tried to come in below my calories for the day, and was mostly successful with that. On the few days I came in over budget, I just accepted the day and did better the next day.
I did not intentionally change the stuff I ate. No keto, no low/slow carb, no weird fasting schedule. I did notice that by only tracking calories, I naturally adjusted the food I was eating in order to feel full longer. That means I ate more salads, not because of some plan, but because they were low calorie and made my stomach feel satisfied. I usually just have coffee with cream for breakfast, a salad from 7-Eleven, and whatever dinner the family was eating that night. Also beer.
Another thing I like about LoseIt is that it connects to other services pretty well. I use a Garmin watch which tracks my movement, and LoseIt is able to pull in that data and adjust my daily caloric goals. It also connects to my WiFi scale and pulls in my morning weigh-in to track progress against the goal. I don’t do much more than step on the scale and input my food.
I do try to move my body during the day, and I have some specific routines and gear that I use. I’ll save that detail for another post.
I’ve got one of those 12” iPad Pros. I bought it for work so I could take notes and keep all my shit in one place. It has been about a year, and it is working as I hoped.
I use GoodNotes for all my note taking. I like GoodNotes for a few reasons:
All my notes are in one place.
Handwriting recognition is magical. I have really lousy handwriting and GoodNotes doesn’t care. I can search for a word or phrase and >95% of the time I can find what I’m looking for within a couple of seconds. Try that with your Moleskine.
Though it’s a digital medium, the Bullet Journal method works great.
Good options for organization. I can make folders and sub folders, I can make subject-specific “notebooks”, or individual pages. I can import photos and PDFs and annotate them as needed.
Backups. I’ve left hardcopy notebooks on the roof of my car more than once, never to recover them. GoodNotes allows me to backup all my stuff, and if I ever lose the iPad, I’ll be able to grab a new one, download my data, and I’ll be back in business.
Some people dislike the feeling of “writing” on glass with a plastic pencil thing. I am one of those people, so I got a textured screen protector to make the feeling more paper-like. It’s not perfect, but I’ve adapted and it doesn’t bother me.
If you decide to give this a try, here’s one more little trick that probably works best if you have an iPhone. If you’re in a conference session or any meeting where there are paper handouts, just use your phone to snap a photo of the handout, or even the presentation on screen. Then use Airdrop to discreetly send the image to your iPad and into GoodNotes for annotation. It’s a super quick process and saves you the dorkiness of holding a huge iPad in front of your face to take a photo.
Ok, one more quick trick. You can write really tiny notes in narrow margins or between lines of text by zooming way in and selecting a very thin pen tip. This comes in helpful all the time, and of course the tiny notes are searchable.
Instead of saying, “There was a guy in front of me in line.”, say, “There was a white guy in front of me in line.” Instead of saying, “The seminar was almost all women.”, say, “The seminar was almost all women of color, with just a couple of white women.” You get the idea.
Why should you racialize it? I can only speak from my own experience as a middle aged white guy, but racializing what I see around me helps me get better at decoding the white supremacy that is the foundation of American culture.
I don’t usually say this stuff out loud, but I’m getting better at explicitly thinking it in my head. I want to get better at this because I have been able to recognize the way American culture has been set up to give me, and other white people, some extra benefits. Nobody screens out my resume because of my name. Nobody assumes I’m a shoplifter and follows me around the store. Nobody discounts my intelligence because of my accent. The list can go on and on.
If you believe diversity, equity, and inclusion are important then you need to get better at racializing it.
Let’s talk about your interviewing process. Specifically, how do you evaluate candidates? Intuition? Opinion? Experience? What if I told you there is a way to evaluate your candidates that is consistent, fair, and makes it really easy to justify your hiring decisions? It’s simple but a little more time consuming. In exchange for the extra time investment, you will ensure that everyone on your hiring team is operating from the same set of assumptions about how to evaluate candidates. You’ll take candidate evaluation beyond simplistic scorecards, while allowing the hiring team to fully own the evaluation process. I’d argue that adopting this hiring process will add value to your organization because your enhanced decision making superpower will do a better job of matching candidates to positions. You’ll find the best candidate for the position.Because your new hires will be better fits for both the position and your culture, they will perform better, and maybe even stick around longer. I’m about to describe a way to quantify the qualitative. You’ll learn how to pair rank and weight your feelings. It’s awesome.
There’s two parts to this thing. Part one is your criteria. Part two is the actual candidate evaluation. This whole process takes a little more time than just deciding on which behaviorally based questions you’re going to use, or whatever. You’re gonna need your team. One way or another you’re going to need to figure out who will be participating in the the hiring process, make sure everyone is familiar with the job description, and get them all in a room together for about an hour to sort out the criteria.
Once you’ve got everyone in the room, you’ll lead the team in a brainstorming session around what they believe are the most important qualities embodied by the new hire. Take 10 minutes or so, and capture everyone’s thoughts. A whiteboard will be helpful here. Now spend a few minutes consolidating the ideas, ie, “experienced developer” and “seasoned performer” can be combined into one phrase. Aim for no more than 10–12 descriptive words or phrases. Congratulations, you just finished the qualitative portion of this exercise.
Here comes the quantitative part. Ask the team to look at the first descriptive word or phrase (D1) and compare it to the second descriptive word or phrase (D2), and ask them, if they could only choose one the descriptive qualities, which would it be? This can feel like an impossible question sometimes, but the team needs to imagine two candidates, and each embodies only one of the qualities. Which imaginary candidate would be most successful in the position? That’s the “winner”.
Now let’s pause here for a moment to consider two ways of doing this small comparative exercise. The first way is straight majority rules — ask everyone to vote for one or the other, and go with the one that gets the most votes. This method is quickest. The second way is to tell everyone that you can’t proceed until they all agree on D1 vs D2. This method is slower, but more inclusive. It also takes some group facilitation skills. I’ve done both, and I can say that in larger groups, you don’t gain much for going slow. Smaller groups can come to consensus faster, and generally buy into the overall process more deeply when made to hash out their opinions, but if time is precious, just vote.
What you’ve just done is called “pair ranking”, and it is how you’ll process the whole list of descriptors. D1 v D2; D1 v D3; D1 v D4, then D2 v D3; D2 v D4, and so on until you have matched every descriptive word/phrase against all the others. If you’ve done the majority voting selection method, you’ll have to count the total number of votes, and the number of votes for each descriptive word/phrase. This will allow you to rank each descriptive word/phrase (D count divided by total count). If you’ve done the consensus method, the formula is the same but you’ll be counting fewer hash marks. This is pretty much as difficult as the math gets in this exercise. When you do the division, you’ll end up with a number that can be expressed as a percentage. Write out your descriptive phrases in order of percentage, highest percentage first. Consider not belaboring every single descriptor that gets a percentage greater than zero. I typically stop at 10% and either ignore the leftover percentages, or spread them out among the “winners”. The point here is to have a shorter list of no less than three weighted descriptors. Five weighted descriptors is a great number to aim for, but remember that the more descriptors you use, the more time the evaluation process will consume.
With your weighted descriptors in hand, you now know which qualities to look for in your candidates, and the importance of each quality. Pretty cool, huh? That’s enough work for the team for one day. Make sure everyone on the hiring team has a copy of the weighted descriptors. At this point you can proceed with your usual method of developing interview questions, but try to develop questions that relate to the list of weighted descriptors. After all, these descriptors are by definition the most important qualities for success in the position, as determined by the smart people on your hiring team. It is a good idea to get this work done well in advance of actually interviewing candidates. The process of ranking and weighting descriptors helps anchor their importance in the minds of your hiring team, and will make the final evaluations of candidates much smoother.
Once you’ve interviewed all your candidates, reconvene the hiring team to begin to pair rank the candidates against each weighted descriptor. Start with the first candidate (C1) vs the second candidate (C2) along your most heavily weighted descriptor (D1). Which candidate better embodies D1? Tally your votes or make a hash mark by that candidate, and continue with the rankings along D1. C1 v C3; C1 v C4, etc. Keep doing the rankings until every candidate has been evaluated against every other candidate for each descriptor. Usually you can see an obvious pattern emerging about halfway through the exercise, but for the sake of completeness keep going until the last ranking. This is where your earlier decision about how many descriptors you weight comes into play. This step takes time, and if your team is unfamiliar with the process they may push back against it, preferring to stick with their intuition. Ask them to stay with you, and don’t be shy about re-explaining the overall process again. The payoff is worth it when you see the lightbulb go off in their heads and they understand what they just did.
Again, this is a good use of a whiteboard. I put descriptors on the left and candidate names across the top. Often the hashmarks can make the winner seem obvious, but usually it is a good idea to multiply hashmarks by the weight of the descriptor. So if your D1 is weighted at .5 and C1 has gathered 11 hash marks, the D1 score for C1 will be 5.5 (.5×11=5.5). Once you have all these scores calculated by descriptor and candidate, add them all up by candidate to determine the winner. Most of the time the winner will be indisputable. Occasionally two candidates will be in a horserace and the final scores will be really close. When this happens, it’s time to have some further discussions with the team to come to consensus. Regardless of whether the winner is clear or the decision needs more massaging, check in with your team for a final gut check around the decision. If you’ve been diligent about the process, by the end everyone should understand what they just did, and should be able to validate the results against their intuition.
That’s it! You’ve successfully quantified the qualitative. Sometimes you’ll have people on the hiring team who are very resistant to engaging in this process. They’ll be more trusting of the old intuition or instinct or gut feeling. Acknowledge their preference and point out that 1) their intuition or gut feeling is going to come in really useful during the pair ranking process, and 2) encourage them to track their gut feelings during the interviews and compare them to the outcome of the quantitative process. It may not always match up, but they’ll feel valued by not having their preference dismissed out of hand, and you might even make them into a convert for this method of quantifying the qualitative!
If you’ve never encountered anything like this, it’s a great idea to practice it on your own decisions first. You can use it with anything — buying a car, deciding on a place to go to dinner, deliberating between vendors, etc. Avoid getting caught up in building an Excel spreadsheet to do some of this thinking for you. Just use pencil and paper for your hash marks. It’s quick and easy for personal decisions. Don’t forget to gut check the final result.
Here’s the disclaimer: this isn’t really a post about a proper Korean “homeland tour”, at least not in the sense that it’s marketed by the big agencies. I’m not going to tell you all the cool places you should go. There are too many cool places to list, and anyway if all you need is an itinerary just Google it (or this). This is a post about how to have a good DIY visit to Korea with your family, adoptive or otherwise. Primarily Seoul, but much of the advice will probably apply in other big Korean cities. Some of the generalized advice will probably apply to other countries. Also, just FYI for those readers not based in the U.S., this perspective is skewed toward native English speakers living in the U.S.
Before the specific tips, there are just a couple of overarching philosophies to keep in mind…
Know Your Goal
This seems like one of those pieces of advice that you think you already know, but it is important enough to repeat. Understanding your goal(s) will make the trip so much easier. Decisions that would otherwise be excruciating become simple when contrasted against the goal. In our case, our goal was to go home with “stones unturned”, or things on our ToDo list that weren’t crossed off. In a nutshell, this trip was about mom and dad taking the kids somewhere we loved. We wanted to come home with the kids having some internal drive to return to do/see/learn/experience more of Korea, either as a family or individually. For example, one of the things we wanted to do was take the express train to Busan, since that’s where Amy and I met. It had the side benefits of seeing some of the countryside along the way, and having a beach to hang out at once we were there. But while we were in Seoul the weather in Busan changed and got rainy, so we stayed in Seoul. Knowing our goal made it easier to let go of the Busan side trip and do something else.
Do Your Research
This is probably another no-brainer item, especially considering that you’re reading this post while ostensibly doing your research! A little research goes a long way. The thing is, when you’re in another country, especially one with another language and alphabet, there’s a lot of “psychic overhead”. Psychic overhead is just a shorthand way of describing all the background processing that you’ll be doing both mentally and emotionally. Advance research helps limit the psychic overhead because it helps make things predictable and gives you a sense of control. It seems like no big deal from the comfort of your living room, but when you’re in a crowded subway station and there are people stacking up behind you at the ticket machine because you don’t know how to use it, and you don’t know how to ask for help, you’ll really wish you’d done a little research (true story).
With those bits in mind, here are some quick hits to help with your DIY Korean homeland tour:
Learn a little language. At least a few basics so you aren’t completely reliant upon English speakers. Books and flash cards are always great, and easily available at big bookstores and Amazon. Also check out TalkToMeInKorean.com for free language lessons via YouTube, KoreanClass101.com for a subscription podcast, or Quizlet for Korean flashcards. And practice by answering your phone in Korean (maybe not at work), or going to Korean restaurants and ordering in Korean, or making a family habit of saying hello, please, and thank you to each other in Korean. Also, if you have a smart phone, be sure and install Google Translate. It’s not perfect and it’s kind of slow (at least in terms of person-to-person interaction), but it can help extricate you from situations where nobody can understand one another.
Before buying your airline tickets, find the best travel rewards card, acquire it, and use it to buy your airfare. Plan way ahead for this step. At least a month before you plan to buy your tickets. In our case this single tip saved us about $450 on airfare. The “best” card changes pretty regularly, so don’t lean on our research for this one (it was the Barclay card). To figure out the current best pick, troll through this thread on FlyerTalk.com or check this page on FrugalTravelGuy.com. Generally speaking, rewards cards are either going to be through a bank (think Chase, Barclay, etc) or through a provider (airline, hotel, etc). Unless you’re really married to a particular airline mileage program, you’ll probably want to stick with a bank card since it’ll give you the most flexibility in terms of buying your tickets. The big thing to look for in a card is a healthy sign-up bonus (at least 30,000 miles/points). Beyond that, keep an eye out for other niceties like 0% APR for one year, or point multiples in specific categories (ie, triple points per dollar of spending on airfare, or double points per dollar in office supplies, etc).
For organizing travel, I really like TripIt.com. I’ve used the free version for years, but was pleased to learn that the Pro version upgrade came bundled with the travel card we selected. Sweet. I like how easy it is to forward confirmations (air, hotel, car, whatever) from my email inbox over to TripIt and then the app organizes my travel with all the particulars. Plus you can add notes, etc. Plus it has a nice format for printing out an emergency hardcopy (do it). Plus it’ll ping you with airline delays/changes. I like it.
For airfare comparisons, check out Google’s Matrix site. You can’t buy your airfare there, so don’t worry about that yet. This site helps you get a handle on the cheapest days to fly, and which airlines suit your needs best. The calendar view is pretty sweet, and I think the graphical implementation of the mobile version is even better. The overarching idea here is that if you’ve got a travel card that rewards you no matter what airline you choose, then you can either choose the cheapest pick, or you can set yourself up with a schedule that suits your needs a little better, all without wrestling with a particular airline’s logistics. The matrix site will let you set up an itinerary and print it out for your travel agent with all their special codes. I’ve never found this to be necessary; I’ve always been able to recreate itineraries online using either Hipmunk.com (personal preference) or airline websites.
For lodging, assuming you don’t have friends in the country who are willing to lend you some floor space, you’ve got a few options: vacation rental (AirBnB.com, FlipKey.com, VRBO.com, etc), smaller hostel-type hotels (more difficult to find and book without help), and straight up hotels (from local to Western brands). If you have a family bigger than about 5 people, you will have difficulty finding a straight up hotel room to fit everyone, which limits you to one of the two other options. Of those, the Western internet sites are easier to book. But if you have in-country help (or at least someone fluent in reading Korean on the Internet), you could probably find a hostel-type hotel for your size family. We went with a small apartment through AirBnB.com because it fit our goals (less expensive than a hotel, and provided a more realistic perspective on daily living). There were a couple of times, though, when we almost wished we were in a hotel so that we could avail ourselves of a concierge service for booking tours, etc. Our AirBnB host was awesome, but concierge isn’t in her job description so we didn’t bother her (plus, we do have friends in the city who did help us out). Judging from reviews on her listings, it sounds like others have leaned on her for concierge-type stuff and she has been gracious. YMMV.
Expect crowds. There will always be crowds, but some times and some places will have fewer crowds. But expect crowds. Seoul is larger than any city in the U.S. To put that in context, Seoul has roughly 6 million more residents than Los Angeles, all crammed into half of the land mass. So expect crowds wherever you go. Crowds can be a time-sink, an energy-sink, and even a money-sink. The first two are obvious, but the third comes into play with taxis. Taxi fares are a combo of time and distance, so it’s costing you money to sit in a traffic jam for 30 minutes. And speaking of taxis…
Taxis are everywhere. Since we have four people in our family, we fit pretty easily in a normal sized taxi (there are a few Sprinter-type taxis around, but they are rare). You could squeeze a fourth person in the back seat, but it better be a relatively small human. FYI, in Korea, seat belts are required up front, but only recommended in the back. As of this writing, taxi fares start at ₩3,000—that’s just for opening the door and getting in the car. After that the toll grows based on distance and time, as noted above. These days pretty much all the taxis have GPS in the car, so if you have a specific address the driver will punch it in and the GPS will reassure you that you aren’t taking the driver’s “special route” (read: long way). If you’re going to well known locations, you’ll just have to trust that the driver is going to get you there as quickly as he can. If you need reassurance, and have the language skills (or patience with Google Translate), you can use Naver maps to see how much a fare should cost. Good luck with that. I’d rather just trust the driver, or give a specific address. If you give a specific address, have it written in Korean, not in English. For most of us that means printing it out in advance (Research!).
Expect a lot of walking. Taxis are just one of a few ways of getting around the city. For a single person, a taxi will pretty much always be more comfortable and more expensive than any other transportation option (the others being subway, busses, and walking). For a family, a taxi can often be as cheap as the subway, unless there’s a lot of traffic. Aside from special city tour busses, my advice is to avoid the bus. It is difficult to figure out the schedule, and it’s really more of a localized option. The subway is easier to navigate and reasonably inexpensive. Walking limits you to some extent, but is what you should expect for marketplaces and tourist spots. The general routine will be: figure out how to use the subway to get as close as possible (there are some great subway maps for your smartphone), then walk the remaining distance which usually isn’t terribly far. When walking, remember that you can use subway underpasses to cross large intersections rather than trying to figure out how to get across on the street. Also, sometimes you will be tired of walking, and tired of crowds, and tired of the strain of an unfamiliar language. You might even have grumpy kids (gasp). This is a great time to hail a taxi and beat a retreat back to your lodging (have that written address ready to go).
Money stuff. Korean money is called “Won” (₩). The smallest paper currency is ₩1,000. The exchange rate varies daily, but is generally pretty darn close to $1 = ₩1,000. All proper retailers (shops, restaurants, etc) are required by law to take credit cards, so bring that new travel card with you. You can even use your card for cabs and subways (FYI, Korea is a no-tip culture). Smaller street vendors probably don’t take cards, and that’s when it’s handy to have a bit of cash on hand. You can exchange your cash at the airport on either side, but it’ll be the most expensive option. Though if you aren’t taking much cash, even the most expensive option doesn’t cost much. If a benchmark is helpful, we spent 7 days in Seoul and used about $500 in cash, and could certainly have gotten by on less by using the card more. If you really need the best exchange rate, change your USD into KRW at your local international bank (HSBC, Chase, Citibank, BofA, etc). At the other end, exchange your KRW to USD at a Korean bank. Remember that the bank option might take a couple of days, especially on the US side, so plan ahead.
Divide duties. If you have the benefit of a household with two adults, plus kids, then by all means plan ahead to figure out who will do what. In our case, Amy has the best language skills so she took the lead in the places where that was more important, while I kept the kids busy and out of her way. I can handle the less critical language scenarios (aka, buying soda and snacks at the corner store), so she was off the hook in those instances and could hang out at the apartment with the kids. We even let the kids take a swing at some of this stuff—the older one was confident enough to hit the corner store for his own snacks, and the younger one even stepped up in a restaurant to ask for more water please (in Korean, and with a little coaching from mom).
Bring your passports. It’s probably always a good idea to have your passport on you in a foreign country. If you’re reading this from the perspective of being part of an adoptive family, and the grown ups in your family aren’t of Asian descent, then having your passport can help make some potential conversations less awkward and drawn out. Google Translate can help too. Here’s putting it bluntly: we are two White American adults traveling with two Korean American kids. We got lots of double and triple takes, and once we had an extended “conversation” in a subway stop with with an older man who had lots of questions for us, and no English language skills. We didn’t have our passports on us at that time, but I imagine it would’ve made things a little easier on him if we could’ve shown him that we were a family. Thanks to Amy’s efforts he eventually understood, and was incredibly gracious toward us and genuinely affectionate toward the boys. The above scenario freaked out the boys a little bit, and helped drive home the point that roughhousing in public spaces in Korea is a bad idea. It’s impolite for starters, but it also draws attention to your unconventional family and begs questions from curious onlookers. After the encounter with the older gentleman, we learned better how to fly under the radar in public and limit the roughhousing to places where it’s expected (parks, apartment, etc).
Speaking of unusual scenarios, since Seoul is a big city you will see beggars on the street. Sometimes they’ll be drunk and sloppy. Sometimes scary. Sometimes they’ll be missing body parts. Since Seoul is a big city, the beggars don’t get much attention from Seoulites. Depending on your background, they may not warrant much attention from you or your kids either, but regardless it’s a good opportunity to have a conversation with your kids about homelessness in the US vs abroad, and the general human condition.
Figure out where to stay. Seoul has lots of neighborhoods. Check the Wikitravel page to get a handle on what suits your family.
So that’s all great advice, but you’re still left wondering what are you going to do while in Seoul? Well, remember the size of the city. There are a lot of options, and I think that what you end up doing should tie back into your goal for visiting in the first place. Seoul has theme parks, historical sites, marketplaces, galleries, museums, theaters, and on and on. Realize now that you will go back home having missed out on so many awesome things to do, and that’s ok! There’s always next time! 🙂 There are plenty of guidebooks to help you figure out what to do, but my suggestion is to make sure you don’t overbook yourself. Give yourself time to recuperate and refresh back at your lodging. Back to back non-stop days will take a toll on the kids (mine at least), and make them less fun to travel with. We had fun just walking to Namdaemun market from our apartment, buying a few toys and walking back to the apartment to play for a while. We got a good feel for the neighborhood, learned shortcuts to the market, and learned how to haggle a bit with vendors. Again, I think the activities tie back to your goals for the trip. I hope your trip is as fun as our was!