Lessons: An Autobiography
By An Wang
Addison-Wesley; 248 pages; $17.95.
D ILEMMA: HOW DOES a brilliant man write about himself, without simply coming out and saying just how brilliant he is? He doesn't, he gets a ghostwriter to help him leave out all the important details.
An Wang, Harvard graduate and founder of Wang Laboratories, tells the story--with the help of writer Eugene Linden--of his rise from Chinese immigrant to self-made billionaire as if anybody could have done it. If you missed Rags, and this year's Fourth of July celebration, Lessons: An Autobiography is your chance to get in on the golden opportunity bandwagon.
Lessons is no "life and times" of An Wang. The first quarter of the book gives a superficial look at what any kid would have experienced growing up in early 20th century Shanghai. As to the details of Wang's life, he tells us how many relatives he had, and that most of them died before he came to America--but little else.
What he does end up saying is that his traditional Chinese upbringing and schooling in Confucian principles of moderation, patience, balance, and simplicity stuck with him throughout his rise in American academic and corporate life.
Obviously there were more than principles of moderation and simplicity at work in Wang's 16-month race through Harvard's engineering doctorate program.
During his youth in Shanghai and Kun San, admission to junior high was based on an exam. Despite his poor performance in the humanities, he took the exam and, of course, scored the highest of any of the students. After high school, he earned a place in a program to send Chinese engineers to intern with American companies.
BUT HE NEVER interned. Armed with a Crimson Ph.D., $600 and an idea for storing computer memory, he started Wang Laboratories. But the road to building a multibillion-dollar corporation was fraught with obstacles, not the least of which were the legal battles with IBM over the patent on his idea.
Lessons would have us believe that simply by applying the ideals that he learned in China to the business world, he was able to maintain an astronomical 40 percent growth rate over about 10 years, through bad economic periods and intense competition.
Wang also had to fight the resistance of his board of directors to his unpopular--but ultimately successful--business decisions, such as switching from a lucrative calculator market to the highly competitive arena of computers and word processing, and from the New York Stock Exchange to the less prestigious American Stock Exchange.
In the end the great entrepreneur became the great benefactor. With the establishment of the Wang Institute and gifts to Harvard, Chinatown and the Boston community at large, he says he is giving back to the communities and institutions that have given so much to him. The circle is now complete.