Lance Gokongwei is the president and chief operating officer of JG Summit Holdings. He is the only son of John Gokongwei, Jr., one of the pillars of Philippine business. He is also a father of two to Hannah and Jacob.
Below is a letter Gokongwei wrote for his two children wherein he shares the greatest lessons he learned from his father. He hopes that his children will grow up unafraid to take risks and be able to live out their dreams.
Dear Hannah and Jacob,
I wanted to write you to tell you a bit about our family history, where we came from. About your angkong, your ama, and your angkong’s mother Juanita, who you never met. She was the strong matriarch of our family who, while I was growing up, lived with us in this same house we live in now. She died when I was 24.
Juanita always believed in the importance of family. Her husband died when she was very young. Her eldest son, John, your angkong, was only 13 years old and he had to work very hard to support his mother, four brothers, and one sister. To this day, over 75 years later, your angkong remains very close to his brothers and sister and their children and grandchildren — your aunties, uncles, and cousins.
Growing up, Juanita made sure that no matter how hard they worked during the day, her children would have dinner together at night. That’s what my father (your angkong) wanted for us while we were growing up, too.
Your angkong worked very hard six days a week, many hours a day. But he always made sure that when we sat down for dinner at 7:30 p.m. after a long school day, he was there to join us after a long workday as well. Some days he had to leave after dinner to go back to the offi ce or to go to another meeting, but at dinnertime, he was there with us. Your angkong’s presence made me realize that despite the pressures from his growing business, our family was always important to him. He always made time for his family.
The best lessons I learned from my parents were from being with them and observing and listening to them at the dinner table.
I learned about the importance of family. I learned about the importance of working hard. I learned about running a business from the stories my father told all of us. So many adventures! We shared in his successes and his failures. There were many of both. Fortunately, more the first than the second.
Now that all of his children — your aunties and I — are married with children of our own, Angkong and Ama make sure we are all together for lunch every Sunday. That’s when we share stories with each other about what is happening in our lives. That’s when we get helpful tips or give advice to each other.
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We also get together regularly to honor our Chinese heritage. Our extended family, including Angkong’s brothers and their families, all get together to celebrate the Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. We play a traditional dice game where we play for mooncakes in different sizes and flavors.
Your great-grandparents came from China. A few years ago, your angkong took me and my male cousins to see where we had all come from. We saw how our family had very humble beginnings, starting from a tiny house in a small town in Xiamen. Seeing where our family started made us appreciate what we have and where we came from. It made us grateful, without any feeling of entitlement. That’s why I want you to learn Chinese, to be in touch with our roots and our heritage. I want you to learn the value of being thankful and grateful.
Our family has always been a simple one. We’ve always worked very hard and we continue to do so. Your angkong experienced many years of hardship and learned how to be frugal. He was known to be a bad dresser. He never spent a lot of money on clothes, shoes, watches, cars, or other flashy things. He never flew business class while he could still fit in economy class seats. He never believed any of those frills were important.
Don’t be afraid to take risks. Live out your dreams. Be adventurous. Do your own thing.
What he did spend money on was books. When we were growing up, he would take us to the bookstore and let us buy as many books as we wanted. Books opened our minds and made us curious about the world we lived in. They made us open to new ideas, excited to try new things. That is why your mom and I let you buy all the books you want, too. We want you to expand your minds the way your angkong and ama had us expand ours. Your grandparents also spent money to give us experiences. They took us to different cities around the world to see the sights, watch different shows, and explore many museums. That’s why we also try to give you experiences, like deep-sea fishing on a small boat in Hawaii (even if the choppy waters made your mom and me seasick) or swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob (even if we had to go over many bumpy roads to get there). We want you to explore the world.
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Your ama never coddled or spoiled us. She was never ever overprotective of us. She let us play in the mud and in the rain. She allowed us to live life and didn’t worry about us too much. Till now, she loves to laugh and always sees the brighter side of things. She always tells us, “Be yourselves. Don’t compare yourself to others. Because someone will always be smarter than you. Someone will always be better-looking or richer. So just go out there and be yourselves.”
So that’s what I want you to do, too. Have fun. Enjoy your childhood. Do what you want to do, not what others want you to do or what others consider to be cool. Choose your own path that will lead you through school and through the rest of your adult life.
When you find joy in your chosen field, then working hard to be the best you can be at it will come naturally. You will excel.
On the flip side, sometimes there will also be things you really don’t enjoy doing, but you will need to do because they’re the right things to do. During those times, you just have to keep steady and suck it up. You do what you have to do. Because that’s what life’s all about. It’s not all about you. It’s not all about what makes you happy. It’s about doing what is right.
I’m very proud that you have very good grades, but more important than that, I want you to earn other people’s respect. I want you to be considerate. I want you to be kind. I want you to be known more for your good character than for anything else.
I want you to learn how to share. I want you to learn how to give back. Your angkong earned a lot of money through the years, and he shared his abundance with other people. He was only 30 years old when he made his first large donation to the Sacred Heart School in Cebu. Later on, your angkong put up the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation, and has built schools in Ateneo and La Salle here in Manila. The foundation awards many scholarships to deserving students all over the Philippines who want to build brighter futures for themselves. He wants other people to be given the opportunity to learn about the world the way he did.
Your angkong has always been different from other people. He has marched to the beat of his own drum all his life. That’s what I want for you, too. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Live out your dreams. Be adventurous. Do your own thing. Do what you want to do. Be who you want to be. Do it.
This letter was originally published in the book Letters to My Children, a compilation of heartwarming notes penned by public figures and celebrities for their kids. The book is published by Summit Books.