Message to the young

I recently gave a graduation speech to my high school alma matter. Compared to my usual technical talks, this time it’s about inspiring the younger generation and to share some of the key lessons and experiences I’ve had for over 12 years since I graduated. This is also a good reflection of what I will advise my younger self if I am talking to him right now.

Below, I summarize my speech that is in a written medium. The words may not be the same, but the meaning are.

What is success?

What is success? Spoiler alert: It’s relative. What it means is that success would mean differently to every individual. Other would consider having a lot of money as successful. For some, it’s about having influence and fanbase. Others are about being a CEO or director of a company.

Achieving “success” is actually very simple, but the process is often hard. For example, if you want to be an author, all you have to do is to keep on writing - over and over, day in and out. You won’t be an author “overnight” per se, it’s those thousands and millions of words that come out of your mind and the hundreds of revisions that will make you an author.

The same applies to being an entrepreneur. All you have to do is to keep on exploring business opportunities. Keep on selling solutions to people’s problem. It’s about the constant market research, the cold-calling, networking events, and so on. It’s those hundreds of rejections when you’re trying to convince investors to put money to your startup product. Learn, iterate, pivot - repeat.

Another example is doing marathons. To be good at running, cycling, swimming, and other cardio activities - you just have to keep training repeatedly. Again, simple but hard. I could cycle 100 KM in less than 6 hours. The achievement is not a world record or so, but I am thrilled with the results. It’s because it was me trying to set a goal and during those hours of the journey, I almost always wanted to give up. It was a mental game that I had to endure. With all these unique challenges that I face and overcome, I achieve more success in life. The internal success if much more important than what the rest of the world has to say.

The world is full of influencers. Dangerous influencers. Most of the time, they are after their own agenda. You’re just a number in their likes, views, and subscribers. They don’t just sell you products that you may not need, but they also sell you dangerous ideas. Some of them sell the idea that material possession equates to success: mansions, sports car, and vices will bring you ABSOLUTE happiness. Of course, a lot of these material aspirations are not necessarily bad like owning a house or luxury cars, but if it is the one and only measure of your success, then you have to think harder.

Next time, criticize. Ponder if it’s legit. Does it apply to me? Add a comment to that post, share your insights, write about what you think, constantly redefine what is “success.” Do you agree with what I am saying right now?

Passion, Profession, and Passion

Now, I want to tackle about finding a career for you. Spoiler alert again: There is no single answer. There are so many factors in play to find a fulfilling career, but let me explain some of the core parameters that you can look at.

During the last 2 to 3 years, what are the projects that you’re in “FLOW” or as we call it, “In the zone”. Those times when you didn’t really count the number of hours while working on that project. That is what you call PASSION. It’s about doing the “extra mile” not because someone else said it, it’s because you have the burning fuel inside you to do it. For me, it was solving complex problems with code and technology. For others it may be video editing, writing, studying a complex mathematical topics, history, drawing, and so on. Some of them are very specific like “DNA sequencing” in biology class or it could be a mix of different topics.

But could that be a profession? Some of them yes, and some are unfortunately almost always a hard “no”. In order for a passion to be a profession, it needs to be valued by others. Someone has to pay you for that skill, knowledge, or experience. That’s where it’s important to see what the market needs rather than what you want. Some are lucky like me I am passionate about something that is in demand right now. For some, they have to do the hard work to market that skill or find a fitting profession for it.

But sometimes, there is “no calling”. Unlike in those movies when it’s the lightbulb scene and the protagonist figures it out; sometimes that doesn’t happen in the real world. But that doesn’t mean you’re hopeless or with “no future.” You just need to figure out your purpose along the way. It might take you years or decades to find your real purposeful profession.

Whatever happens, don’t be in the “auto-pilot” mode. Don’t make a career choice “just because” or because you have a fear of missing out. I know it’s hard, but try to believe in to something, whatever “that” is. Believe that you’ll do great things in this world. Believe that you’ll be a successful entrepreneur, a world-class architect, a best-selling author, a loving family member of the community. Because you’ll be needing that belief to fuel your every day with motivation.

Forever learning

Now that you know what success could be and what purposeful profession you want to do, it’s time to remember that the road is not a simple 10 meter straight line. The only proven way to guarantee outcome is to learn all the time from your experiences.

Sometimes the easiest way to learn about something is to simply just do it. You will eventually hear the concept of “10,000” hours. Spend the time to master and craft that skill, you will learn what works and what doesn’t. Some are talented and passionate that they don’t need the 10,000 hours - but the world is moving fast these past few years. A lot of the things that we value now didn’t exist decades ago. If you want to change the world, then do that first little step, that first little punch, that first word on your pen.

In order to fast track your career, find mentors. Get frequent feedback about the work that you do and how you can improve in the future. Be open to criticism but don’t take 100% of it, just take them as feedback that you may or may not do. Remember, you’re in the driver’s seat and sometimes you just need guidance.

Learn by teaching. One of the easiest way to know if you really have mastery of the topic is, if you can simplify complex topics and share it with others. Contribute your knowledge and wisdom to others. Present at conferences, mentor people who need guidance, create a blog or website. Be a creator, not just a consumer.

Summary - Give yourself the permission to fail

In summary, success is relative and not definitive. Find a purpose to your profession. Don’t stop learning.

I would like to end this by saying that the world is unfair, it rarely revolves around “just for you.” Not everyone has equal opportunities and resources. That you’re here reading this blog post from that screen, you’re already more fortunate than others.

As one of my favourite authors “Nassim Taleb”, wrote in the book “Antifragile”. Embrace the chaos and actually benefit from it.

Give yourself the permission to fail. But don’t just fail repeatedly. Learn from each one of them, and emerge as a new and more successful person.