Season 1
43 Minutes

Ep. 8 | Sam Yau | How Does a Corporate CEO Emerge as a Poet After Tragedy Upends His Life?

Facing Life After Losing Your Son. A Conversation with "Soul's Journey" Author, Sam Yau. Finding Meaning In Life and Connecting With The Divine.
Sam Yau, 72, has reinvented his life several times over – from being a 6-month-old baby on a refugee boat to a penniless student in a distant land, from the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation to the Head of the Board at Esalen, the pioneering and iconic personal growth center on the California coast. After facing an unexpected personal tragedy in 2016, Sam went into seclusion, only to re-emerge as a poet and publish a luminous first book of poetry, “Soul’s Journey.”

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Season 1 | Episode 8 | 43 minutes

Sam Yau, 72, has reinvented his life several times over – from being a 6-month-old baby on a refugee boat to a penniless student in a distant land, from the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation to the Head of the Board at Esalen, the pioneering and iconic personal growth center on the California coast. After facing an unexpected personal tragedy in 2016, Sam went into seclusion, only to re-emerge as a poet and publish a luminous first book of poetry, “Soul’s Journey.”

How do we face unimagined loss and grief? What new gates will open for us when we allow the help of others?  And how do we learn to fully listen to our soul’s whispers?


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Sam Yau, Achim Nowak

Sam Yau  00:00

Big laws and wave thus for us is open a heart. So that is raw and tender. With that we can feel the pains of the world and that become a continuous source of our love and compassion for the suffering of the world. And then is that the effect of the loss?

Achim Nowak  00:26

Hey, this is Achim NOwak, executive coach and host of the my fourth act podcast. If life is a five act play, how will you spend your for that? I have conversations with exceptional humans who have created bold and unexpected for that, listen, and to be inspired. And please rate us and subscribe on whatever platform you’re listening on. Let’s get started. Hello, I am just delighted to welcome Sam Yao to the My fourth act podcast. Sam Yao and I want to get these words right has reinvented his life several times from being a six month old baby on a refugee boat to a penniless student from a distant land to the CEO of a billion dollar corporation to the Chairman of the Board of SLN, an iconic pioneering center for personal growth on the California coast. When his son Ryan killed himself in 2016. Sam retreated into seclusion. He has reemerged this year with a truly luminous book of poetry, souls journey. And he has definitely entered the next act of his life. Welcome, Sam.

Sam Yau  01:59

Glad to be here.

Achim Nowak  02:01

I’m glad you’re here. And I I have many reasons for wanting to speak with you. And I want to be transparent. I have a brother who committed suicide. So I know how an event like that changes our lives forever. And takes us into a different stage of our lives. So that part of the story is interesting to me. But not everybody emerges out of this type of experience as a poet, and writes a beautiful book of poetry that clearly connects to something inside of you that I assume was always there, but finally got expressed. So I hope we got to speak of that as well. I always like to start with the beginning and your biography. So curious, you say you were a six month old baby on a refugee boat. I’m assuming you don’t remember being on that boat. But But what what stories did mom and dad tell you about? You? You were refugees from China? Is that correct? Can you tell us a little bit about that story?

Sam Yau  03:07

Yes, the communist were coming to town and a family had to flee the place in order to avoid prosecution. So we were on a boat. And the boat was the last boat that left without being intercepted by the communist. And so we just escaped narrowly. I was six months old, as you said, Yes. That’s no memory collection. The story, you know, was relayed to me by my parents.

Achim Nowak  03:51

There’s something powerful about just escaping. Just that part of the story already creates a dramatic beginning to one’s life, doesn’t it? I’m wondering when you were a young man growing up before you came to the United States? What were your dreams about what you wanted to do with your life?

Sam Yau  04:15

Well, even in my teenagers, I was most interested in exploring lives the big question, why we are here what is the purpose and meaning of living a life and what is real what is true beauty and goodness, etc. So I was dissatisfied with the with the answer I got from my Christian church. And I carry one word from the church and that is love. And this were back again again when I in a different position in my life. But I was also practical. So I took a combination major of Economics and Business at the University of Hong Kong work for one year, and I left for University of Chicago, in the United States for my MBA.

Achim Nowak  05:19

When you say you’re practical I, I hear that from so many people, I’m always curious, did you get an MBA? Because that’s what mom and dad wanted you to do? Because that’s what a successful son does, or, or did you on your own, decide I want to be practical. And that’s what I’m going to do.

Sam Yau  05:39

Well, that’s my This was my decision. Yeah, yeah. My parents did not influence me on this one.

Achim Nowak  05:49

I like the way you said on this one, it sounds like they influenced you on some other things.

Sam Yau  05:54

Well, they’re very devoted Christians that did fat me, in our early part of my life, I was quite active in the church. Uh huh. Nice.

Achim Nowak  06:07

Now, for some decades, you were a corporate CEO you worked in, in different industries and in different environments. And if I understand your journey correctly, you you are what’s often called a turnaround CEO, many you come in to fix stuff, to, to put things in order and help a business be successful. And then you didn’t stick around forever, you went on somewhere else. Did I? Did I present that correctly?

Sam Yau  06:44

Yes, they went through four different industries, completely different industry. Yeah, I was known as a turnaround guy. But I do not like that term, I consider myself more a strategic strategist. repositioning the company for success, that’s how I look at myself. I like the challenge of going into a new industry and a new company, and figuring out a very short period of time, like three months, why the company is in the shape it is in, in terms of market leadership and financial performance, I enjoy identifying the trend where the market will be in three and then position the company to be at the right place in the market, to ride the wave, so to speak. So over the year, I realized that I need only to know a very small subset of a strategic, the answer to questions about company. And then and then I can grasp rather quickly the strengths and weaknesses of the company, the changing dynamic of the marketplace, and develop the strategy that position the company to win and thrive. So I enjoyed doing that. And it was really exciting for me that I could increase the value a company, they’re very quickly. Like the last company, I worked full time, you know, I increase the valuation from 200 million to $1 billion in less than two years. So I love that.

Achim Nowak  08:34

Well, here’s, here’s the part that gets me because I, you know, I’m a corporate coach. So I’ve coached a lot of people like you. So I understand that for some people, there’s an excitement in doing that. But some of our listeners might go and think God, that’s what he finds exciting. That’s what that’s what turned him on. So this besides making making more money, if you go a level deeper, what what’s the thing that really excited you? I get the money part?

Sam Yau  09:08

Yeah, I think it’s, it’s the change that I can I can I can make the changes happen with people. I pay attention to the quality of the of the leadership and the company culture. Yeah, that’s how I turn around company, a culture. I’m talking about a culture that support not only productivity, but more importantly, in in the kind of company I went into is the culture of adaptability and innovation. And my job is to motivate and guide the management team to be at their best is very rewarding for me to see how people grow through challenging position and accomplish They are very proud of and make them successful in what they chose to do. So that’s a quick view of satisfaction, I can see that a lot of making changes, especially the more intangible part, like, people and leadership.

Achim Nowak  10:22

I like the way you said art, because you didn’t call it a science. So why is why is what’s the art part of helping people be the best they can be and changing a culture? What’s the art in that, from your experience?

Sam Yau  10:40

Well, is an art precisely, people are complex. And they are different in their skills set and the personality, the power, the art is a you have to look at what you have on your hand, and leverage their strength and motivate them. There’s no fixed formula for that. Yeah, it’s not a size is something that you have to use your intuition. That’s part of the art. And also, you know, you’re looking at the future of the market. It’s not that straightforward. Linear explanation is more base, also your intuition, after looking at a bunch of data and see the connection of the dots to find a more complete picture.

Achim Nowak  11:40

As I’m listening to you, I’m also thinking of a word you mentioned, when we started this conversation now, which is the word love. And and I think leaders who truly love other human beings, and are able to bring out the best in them. And all of the things you just described are more successful at leading businesses. So in my mind, I’m connecting that to, to the kind of love you were taught and the Christian church, even though the expression of it may have been really, really different, you know,

Sam Yau  12:15

right. And then as a human being we seek love in everything we do, even though it’s not very explicit in the moment,

Achim Nowak  12:26

somewhere along the way, as you are this successful. Corporate strategist, I’ll call you that your corporate strategist, you ended up getting involved with a place that I greatly admire that has a mythic reputation and the personal transformation field and that’s excellent. For listeners who don’t know what that spelled e s a l e, n, that’s a, an iconic, personal growth center. It’s a beautiful spot on the California coast. It’s a dramatic, gorgeous setting. And for a while you were the the chairman of the board, at this iconic place. Tell us how you got involved with that, because it’s not a natural evolution. So I’m curious.

Sam Yau  13:16

Yeah, that’s a that’s a predict term. I was at the peak of my career. And I decided that I don’t need to do the Same thing. Again, I want to take a few years off. And finally have the time to ponder the big questions about life and embark on a journey for personal and spiritual growth. And guess what? Excellent, it’s just a logical place for me to go there. With was such a magical beauty and the nature and to pursue my personal and spiritual growth. And I’ve been there quite a few times before people notice me. And someone, you know, talk to the board at the founder, and said the Same I have some skill set. Take advantage of and so I was invited to join the board. And the after few years, I became the chairman. So that’s the that’s the story.

Achim Nowak  14:30

Because SLM is a place where some amazing teachers go to teach, and students go to learn and you just said what you went there initially for your own own inner journey of discovering more meaning and connection to two things. I’m going to keep it that General. When you think of the experiences you’ve had, besides being on the chairman of the board, what’s what it What personal experiences stand out for you about being an excellent?

Sam Yau  15:05

Well, I owe to ask for one thing to recover my body. Mass is there, I was living in my mind. I’m a thinker all the time. And I was not aware that my brain was carrying a body. Wow. And so I was kind of a walking head of walking brain, dragging my body along as a support for my brain, then I discover how important it is to be in my body, because it contains so much wisdom. And it’s also a place for the soul to signal to get me to whisper to me, you know, messages about my life and what I need to learn. So that’s only one of the many. But But I was really fascinated that excellent play a major role of being a catalyst, for the movement we call is spiritual, but not religious. There’s a big movement for many, many years in America. Now, it’s almost 40% of the people either say, you know, I am spiritual, but not religious, or I’m spiritual, but I’m also religious, and has a significant impact on the society. And I love that part of the mission, as john has accomplished,

Achim Nowak  16:46

you told us that as a young boy, part of your preoccupation was to, to on this one to understand more about the meaning of things, the meaning of life, our purpose, and then you found yourself in a place called epsilon, where you could explore some of those boyhood interests. Yes. And I’m gonna ask you a big question right now, which is not fair when I’m going to ask it anyway. Okay, so what are some things you discovered an excellent about purpose and meaning?

Sam Yau  17:19

Well, we are here in this lifetime, to fully live, every part of our being that’s body, mind, emotion. And so that, that feeling of being home and live fully in every aspect of our lives is the is the movement of, you know, holistic wellness. That’s a big part of one excellent, happy doing is to teach the world how to live fully, and how to be home in new ways that’s not available in the past. That’s many, many new modality about the body and integrations of body mind. And it became mainstream and popular. Yeah, in the last 30 years, including bringing in the eastern meditation tradition, all of which came the mindfulness movement in America. And so so that’s many thing ehsaan has accomplish, which is, which are quite, very, very amazing. So those are some of the aspects but more,

Achim Nowak  18:39

I appreciate you reminding our listeners that so many, especially if you’re a spiritual Explorer, that so many the things that you’re exploring, at some point, we’re not mainstream, and a beautiful place like SLN is a place that almost was an incubator that made it possible for those wisdoms to flourish and blossom, and be shared more widely.

Sam Yau  19:06

Yes, I will say one, sometimes we call the we call this a seeker spirituality Yeah, is a form of spirituality where you know, you can examine all the traditions, their wisdom, the teaching the practices, and use, find out which one resonate with you choose and things that work for you. So you open up the whole spectrum of option for people to find a unique way to be come spiritual.

Achim Nowak  19:42

Beautifully said a word from your sponsor. That’s me. I invite you to go to the website associated with this podcast. fourth you will Find other equally inspiring conversation with great humans. And you will also learn more about the my fourth act mastermind groups where cool people figure out how to chart their own fourth acts. Please check it out. And now back to the conversation. Now, I do want to go to the day when your son Ryan killed himself. And your email I had a similar experience in my life. So I remember where I was when I got the phone call. I remember who called me, I remember vividly how I reacted I remember who I called. Take us to that moment. How did you find out that that your son Ryan killed himself and describe that a little bit for us? What happened to you in that moment,

Sam Yau  20:58

I got a phone call from my daughter, who found the bodies. I call police and then drove to Ryan’s home. And I could not get inside the ambulance and police cars. Were around the house. Let me recite a very short poem, which leads to a okay it’s called only 27. pains sick like lonely sorrow through your veins. You choose to end the life you will get a bullet with his ways through your brain. You are only 27 I sit on the cold concrete curb, welling heaven above opens and pours her tears in my heart there you’ve left for spilling for the rest of all my remaining years. There’s a light that shines beyond the gate, a glow with peace and freedom can bake. So many analysts suffering escaped, there will now be no more tears in heaven. Deep down I know you cannot die, my eyes will look for you in the sky. So I developed the habit of looking into the sky to look in to look at the cloud patterns for messages from Ryan. So I fell in love with the with the forever shape shifting clouds and wrote a poem about clouds which is in my book.

Achim Nowak  22:45

Thank you for reading that poem. When I read your, your, your entire book souls journey. I share this with you I love all the many different facets of the human experience you go into. But the the section right after your son Ryan died is where I felt the immediate grief and the loss and the pain and, and your exquisite expression of it. Now I don’t want to analyze your poem. But as I listened to it right now, the word light stood out for me the word at the gates and the gate is open. So can you reflect on what light means to you and what the gate being open means to you.

Sam Yau  23:35

Light represent actually represent the divine. And we all had this spark of divinity inside us. And people who are spiritual and help the world we call them light worker power of my healing of cause is to know was certainty that Ryan is much more alive now with him ever in his living life on Earth. So, the gate, it just means that we transition. So that in terms of the eternal soul is illusionary we merely transition in a back to our home.

Achim Nowak  24:27

We could spend an hour talking about the word home and what all of that means. So you just throw in a beautiful, big word. Let me ask this question. It’s not a natural progression to grieve, and then decide that you’re going to write some poems. And then the poems get published. Not everybody grieves by writing a book of poetry. And I’m asking this question because many listeners We’ve all experienced grief and loss, and we move through it differently. And then we make new, we may get instincts to do certain things that we have never done before. So in that spirit, where did the impulse to write poetry come from Sam?

Sam Yau  25:17

Okay, here’s a story. One of the biggest change, so this is a major change, as Ryan was in the other room, and I recognize that now he transitioned back to be a spirit. But I am also spirit in a human close. So I asked myself a question, what if I live as a spirit as a soul, you know, they are interchangeable in the context here. And in the human spirit, the human close, human who has a soul. So now this is a inversion of the priority. And basically, his death is like a hurricane. Okay. And, and it, it left, you know, a huge swath of the breeze. And what I meant is that, you know, I lose interest in a lot of things. And I say, okay, so I asked myself, so if I miss So, so tell me, what should I do now. And I get messages from different sources that the way I’m going to heal, not just for myself or other people, is in words, there was a total surprise to me. And I say, Okay, I don’t understand what it is about. Let me see unfolding. Within three months, people came into my life, it’s like dropping in, in parachute, you know, I got, I got people who inspire me to write poetry. And I got a teacher that came into my life, best a coach I had, and I have someone who would read one poem of mine, and wanted to do original art to illustrate or to, to be inspired. And, and, and then, and then I have a group of friends who just, you know, keep feeding back to me. So I was just so I was, you know, going along with, with what I was told, and then the evidence is so strong, that writing poetry, as well, while I was going to do is so clear.

Achim Nowak  27:47

What I love about the story you just told is, or this is my interpretation of it. A whole bunch of angels showed up to nudge you into writing poetry. And I believe for all of us, the angels always show up and often were too busy to pay attention, right. And you were ready to notice them. And to not fight them and to allow them to guide you. And that’s the beauty of Yes, I think that what you just described.

Sam Yau  28:18

Yeah, exactly. There’s a lot of synchronicity with attention. And there’s also direct inner voices, you know, your, your, your thought is speaking to you, but actually, it’s the whispering from the soul. And then you You see, you know, you’re coming into new events, and people, and they all point you. Yeah, that direction. Yes.

Achim Nowak  28:45

But But what I’m also hearing is I’m going back to when you were wrestling, yeah, that you just told us that excellent. You will learn to reconnect with your body, which meant you you’re learned to listen to the whispers of the soul, which allowed you to have the experience after Ryan’s death.

Sam Yau  29:04

Yes, yes. And the voice is not can not just come in your thought. The souls whispering include your body sensation and feeling the whole body so our body is amazing as an instrument for the divine to inform us what is right what is wrong, whether it’s a goal, whether it’s a no. As as a as a wonderful way of receiving messages.

Achim Nowak  29:30

You You beautifully described Ryan’s journey as transitioning to another realm. Yeah, as I’m listening to you. I feel like Ryan’s death also help you transition into another realm. Here on Earth. You’re still on Earth, but you’ve been through your own transition. And you’re just emerging out of a time of uncertainty reduction seclusion. If you had to describe In a narrative, your transition, describe your transition to us what what has it been like to be in this transition into a newly emerging Sam?

Sam Yau  30:11

Well, if you talk about the feeling of the transition, is that that’s a lot of us have some doubt. But then I’ve lost interest in everything else. So you know, so I, and there’s a lot of joy. And it become, it helped me to understand how, how are we guided, you know, when we surrender ourselves to the highest part of us that sell. So that’s a lot of guidance from different places. So there’s a lot of joy, and a lot of surprises, as some of the joy came from the surprises, like the feedback of the, of the poetry from my circle of friends. And my poetry also invited many new friends, I make so many new friends to this journey. So when I look back, it does amazing, but one of the things I want to point out sometimes, you know, inland in our life, which you know, a big loss and wave does for us is open a heart. So that is raw and tender. With that we can feel the pains of the world. And that become a continuous source of our love and compassion for the suffering of the world. And that is the the effect of the loss. And it opened up our heart. And by the Same token, you open our mind and see the possibility of many new things that can come into our life is a huge transformation.

Achim Nowak  31:50

How else I mean, your heart was open through a what most people would call a tragic event, where life as he knew it was shattered, you use the metaphor of the hurricane and all the debris. And you are blessed to come out of it with a heart that is open. Some of our listeners may be listening to us. And so that’s great, but they might go I hope I don’t have to wait for somebody to kill themselves. So my heart to open. So and I don’t mean that in a snippy kind of way. But if you had to give, share some wisdom of guidance with any listeners who go I love what Sam is saying he’s talking about hearing more wisdom, being more guided being open to it opening the heart? How can other people get there in their own way? What kind of wisdom or guidance would you have?

Sam Yau  32:45

Well, I think you’re right, I don’t want to give the impression that we have to suffer like this to open our hearts, we can open our heart, you know, as part of our spiritual practice. But this particular event, I my heart was open already, but I didn’t know he was not that wild. And for this one, you know, it’s so huge, because we are always building some protection for ourselves. Okay, bye, bye, bye, bye, open a little bit, maybe a little bit more, okay. But you’ve been like this, it just, you know, swinging wide open. And it’s not that easy and experience. Because I cannot hear the news of you know, all the strategy around the world or the violence in the world. But they give me you know, the ability to know to to, to be at the level of compassions and inclusion, to be in a big heart and big mind. And they’re also become a basis for my poetry. So I think this why open heart, not everyone can take it. There’s a limit to our, to our ability to how much we’re open. Because, you know, we have a nervous system which trying to protect us so that we think our heart is open by maybe just open a little bit. But this one is just blew me away, you know.

Achim Nowak  34:14

So I may reveal your age, you’re seven, you’re 72 you’re a former serial CEO. You just published your first book of poetry. And I don’t think we always have to have wishes, dreams, aspirations for the future. But you have a whole bunch of life ahead of you. So as you think of the future, for yourself or for people you love or the planet, what do you think of?

Sam Yau  34:44

For myself, I’m devoted to writing poetry. Because that’s my joy. And that’s my calling. And I will continue to do that. In fact, I try to simplify my life so that I can focus on doing that. And for the world. I think in a what we do, when we open our heart, every one of us has a responsibility to raise the awareness and consciousness, to look at the world and do our part, to help the world to the world we live in to be more compassionate, and inclusive. Because that this experience, actually, you know, is about the unity. And in this wide open, I experienced the unity of me with the whole universe, and every sentient being, and including the animal kingdom and the whole universe. And when we are in a state of unity, compassion is natural, not codify ethics, there’s no need to attempt to do good, it just flow naturally. Because we are not separate, the separation is an illusion. And what does experience a unity experience is remove that illusion of separation. So we feel the Unity all the time. And I feel being feeling unity is the ultimate healing. For us.

Achim Nowak  36:26

This was spoken as 72 year old Sam and I remember we, we spoke about younger Sam earlier, and he wanted to better understand the purpose and the meaning of life. In a way, you just answered that a little bit. Is there anything else that you would if you could whisper you’re talking about soul? whispering? If you could whisper into young Sam’s ear and give him some advice or guidance based on what you know, now? What would you want him to know?

Sam Yau  36:58

Well, looking back, you know, I have very little regret about you know, my career. I looking back, I always know love is the most important thing. But I was very curious away in my career. So I would say just thought to plays love at the center of your being. And ask yourself, you know, in everything you do, are you doing out of love. And if you do, it will change your life. So we’re going through a series of values and value changes, as soon upon a time we all come back and say, you know, have I love more, very few people at the deathbed and say, have I worked more, I would be in the office more. So I do not spend enough children time with my children, you know, in the early part of my career, and now I’m different and place, love at the center of your life. And seek to be you know, to your being the quality of a being rather than just identify what you do. identify who you are, and place left at the center of your being.

Achim Nowak  38:35

So how to know love more deeply and have it be the center is actually a wonderful invitation to for all of our fourth acts, and you’re very much in yours. And there’s so much beautiful wisdom that you’ve already shared with us. But as we get ready to close, would you honor us and just read one more of your poems.

Sam Yau  39:00

Yes. Okay. This poem is called Do not let anyone tell you to live someone else’s life.


Mm hmm.

Achim Nowak  39:14


Sam Yau  39:16

Do not let anyone tell you to live someone else’s life. You have the gift to co create your special life with a divine. Lead a spark in your shine, live and dance like a unique spirit. shape your inner world with quality that bring you delight. live inside out. The outside world would coalesce into your designed. Do not let anyone tell you to live someone else’s life. Listen to your inner voice from your soul and let it guide you trusted, living the authentic you will bring you freedom and joy. Clean it the sparkling you shy. Left and dance like the unit spirit. You are a soul incarnated in the human school to learn to left your frozen light. The SU will take the soaring flight. Do not let anyone tell you to lift someone else life already connected to the source, turn it on, and drink it in. Angels are always there to help. If you let your intuition aligned, let a spark in you shine, live and dance like a unique spirit. You have been knocking at the door from the inside of your life. Turn around. You are perfect and totally lovable. lifted. Do not let anyone tell you to live someone else’s life that is sparking you shy let them dance like a unique spirit.

Achim Nowak  41:17

Yes. So Sam, if any of our listeners want to find out more about you or your book of poetry, where should they go to find you?

Sam Yau  41:29

Well, my website is simply So you can go to my website and all the poet all the poem, The first book is there, you can read it for free. Or you can go to and, and purchase the souls journey. So those are the two ways on my website, you can also come in and send me messages as well. Beautiful.

Achim Nowak  42:04

Well, I thank you for your generosity of spirit and this generous conversation and I I look forward to your future poetry journey. Thank you so much, Sam.

Sam Yau  42:18

Thank you.

Achim Nowak  42:18

Thank you for having me. My pleasure. Bye bye. Like what you heard, please go to my fourth act calm and subscribe to receive my updates on upcoming episodes. Please also subscribe to us on the platform of your choice. Rate us give us a review and let us all create some magical fourth acts together. Ciao


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