archived fragments

imported from fragmented.posterous.com

a deliberate life of transience

This trip back home to Singapore, I am struck by how much I feel like a tourist in my own country. Perhaps it is the knowledge that I am only here for a month (based on current plans). 

This is the first time I have been away for this long – six months, not that long compared to plenty of other people, but I have never been away for more than three months.

I have really missed the people I have here and I have never felt it so keenly. 

Because I am deliberately planning to be here for only a month, I am aggressively arranging for coffees, dinners, whatever meetings with as many people as possible. Truth be told, if I knew I was going to be here long-term, I would never have been this motivated to pack my life this tight. 

Just for the past two weeks, inclusive of the few days I was down and out because of my small surgery, I have spent more quality time with a lot of people I care for probably more than the last stretch of a year I have spent in Singapore. People know I was going to be gone soon, I knew I have limited time to spend. 

Every moment felt precious.

It suddenly occured to me today that I should make a deliberate effort to live a life of deliberate transience. In reality, life is by default transient but it is part of the human nature to take things for granted. That there will always be time to spend with loved ones, to accomplish goals. I am guilty of the same crime, even though I have already been very consciously living my life such that I try to live as though every day is my last. That has been effective for making some big decisions but sometimes it is really about the small ones. The small conscious decision to allocate an hour for coffee with a dear friend instead of the work which always seemed so urgent. The flip of a switch in my mind that I should make an effort to go out instead of being comfortable at home. 

This time around, because of a self-imposed limit, I had to organize my schedule with a purpose, because I didn’t give myself more than a month to be lazy with my decisions. The comfort and lull of Singapore did tempt me into extending my trip, foregoing my plans and even for brief moments – *gasp* considering settling down here instead. My loved ones are here, my community is here, it is truly tempting. Even at this very moment.

But I have my ideal self to answer to. There is always the self that wants to be comfortable, pampered and stable. Yes, despite my apparent craziness, I really do have that side of me that wants to be surrounded by material luxuries, sip tea and be a bum. Or to a less extreme extent, the side of me who is tempted to be part of the drill here in Singapore. 

As long as I can exhibit some sense of self-awaress and control, I refuse to give in to that self. This is heightened by those days I was down and out – being sick simply reaffirms my desire to make the best use of my time. I absolutely dislike the feeling of being alive but not feeling alive. Having to be in that drugged state which rendered me zombie-like – it sounds almost ideal, I didn’t have to work, I could do nothing, but I felt like shit. 

That feeling of lifelessness – I really do not wish for myself to go through that too often. But it served as a good reminder. That when I have no such health issues, when I can breathe normally and feel normal – day to day health which plenty of people take for granted – I should really kick my own ass and start doing things that really matter to me. 

For me now, being able to eat, sleep and poop normally (sorry if this is TMI) is truly a blessing. Such simple pleasures I used to take so much for granted but as I age and continue to disregard my sleep and diet, I had been suffering the repercussions of abusing my body in my earlier years.

Being sick once in a while, being in places only temporarily, never allowing myself to be comfortable, is really making life a lot more meaningful for me. I want my life to filled with stories I can constantly re-tell, I want my story pipeline to always be filled. 

I planned my current trip home to be short out of practical reasons but having seen the value I have gotten this time around, I am inclined to continue this travel pattern out of the desire to have self-imposed limitations. I am not at the stage yet where I can be that aware and mindful without them.

This time around I am fortunate enough to meet up with friends I haven’t kept in touch with for ages because honestly we probably never felt the neccessity to since we are all busy with our own work and life in general. But with mutual deliberate effort, it is incredibly how energizing it can be for both parties to exchange stories, I have gotten new perspectives on old friends. They too, probably see the transformation I go through – for a social hermit visibly unhappy just a couple years ago, I have made considerable progress I guess.

I am still a work in progress obviously but what matters is my deliberate effort to upkeep that progress, despite the temptation to settle for the very alluring comfort zone.

*pardon me for the number of times I have used the word “deliberate”, I just erm, want to emphasise how deliberate I am deliberately being deliberate. 😉

What I have learnt in Vancouver

“You can only connect the dots backwards.”

That is one of my favourite Steve Jobs’ quote and I probably reference it so very often in my writing. I would like to think I am slowly developing the patience to simply wait it out when I experience setbacks, because I know that we can only connect the dots backwards and when I seriously think about it, only good things have happened after my most miserable times. There is not a single event that has happened which I felt that I would prefer for it not to happen. 

Vancouver is the same. It was a choice I willingly made, though back then I would have preferred not to make it, wishing that I could have been in SF instead. I felt like it was a detour out of practical reasons and it wouldn’t have been a period of my life which I would look back fondly upon.

I was wrong.

The first two months were the hardest, I have never been homesick so much. I had always thrived upon travelling and being alone. For the first time in my life, I was very tempted to just take the next plane back. 

It was probably a combination of the cold weather (which I was exposed to for the first time in my life), disappointment that I couldn’t be in SF, stressful periods, missing people, the realization I had nobody I could share my struggles with, guilt of leaving my family behind.

I think this is the first time in my life I have experienced true loneliness. There have many moments when I was really close to giving up.

I am glad I waited it out. 

Three months in I started to form a couple of meaningful connections with some people in Vancouver, the launch for simplehoney happened, my team flew in to see me, things got a lot better for me.

But what truly transformed me was the self-discovery process I had to go through. I was pushed into a corner, I almost couldn’t breathe, I wanted to give up but I remained defiant. Somehow, some way, I hung on. The act of hanging on made me see myself for who I really am. 

Due to a situation I cannot elaborate much on, I was pretty much coerced into pushing myself really, really hard. I don’t think I have ever pushed myself so hard before and I have never ever wanted to push myself so hard before. 

I felt really vulnerable, extremely uncomfortable, but slowly I began to find my own voice. I was proud of myself for making the choice to take the difficult path, I was aware that in truth there was no way I could be alive if I chose the easy way out. Because of the little pride that started forming in me, this is a little embarassing to admit but I began to develop some self-respect for myself.

I have always depended on other people to determine my worth. I was always wanting to prove myself. I was always very afraid to upset other people. I was fearful of ownership. 

I have been sort of blessed. Through some other people I have been very blessed to be acquainted with in my life, they gave me a little bit of foundation of my self that I can build upon. They encouraged me, gave me kindness even though I was not being kind to myself, recognized me for my strengths even though I self-determined that I was weak. 

But that was not enough. No matter what others have said and done for me, it was not enough because all that self-doubt would destroy everything. Through developing that bit of self-respect, through recognizing that I am already leading an extraordinary life, I started to find my own little voice.

The realization that whatever happens externally would not matter if I keep disbelieving in myself. Or if I keep relinquisihing my self-power to other people because I perceive them to be stronger than me. Or if I believe that others have the power to determine my life. Or that fear of losing everything because I do not have myself to depend on.

My fragile existence was built upon what other people can give me, good or bad. 

My loneliness allowed me tons of time to self-introspect. I could no longer hide behind distractions because there was not much to distract me in Vancouver.

I now understand why I had to be here. I needed that time and personal space to shed my old self, I guess. If I were to be in SF instead, I am convinced that till today I would still be hiding behind people. Trying to seek external validation. I am barely done with shedding my old self, but the first layer is always the hardest. To even be out of self-denial that I had to let go of my old self was incredibly hard. I thought being my old self was being authentic, but it was only because I did not want to admit I could be capable of much more.

There were quite a few life-defining moments for me in Vancouver. One of them was the decision to start getting some writing on design published publicly. I was actually (*ahem*) “strongly made” by someone to do so, I put up the greatest resistance but I couldn’t even convince myself if I did not even try. 

I never wanted to write on design because I had felt that there were so many better designers out there who can do so and I rather write what I am really good at – long emo blog posts like this which I demonstrate that I am proud to write about my emotions. Writing that first design article made me realize that as long as you put your heart into something, there will be people who will feel that effort through the writing. 

And I think it is important to be able to share your voice with other people no matter how shitty you think it is. There are very few people who start writing/designing/acting/whatever and instantly become a genius. I don’t think it is fair to compare ourselves to these people. We are all unique individuals capable of our own perspectives, coloured by all our different conditionings and acquired experience. Nobody can truly be a carbon copy of someone else.

Therefore whatever we do is valuable because it is unique only to us. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t do well, even if one other person finds it valuable it is a success, even if nobody finds it valuable but it is still a learning experience for yourself, that is enough.

My life has always been a work in progress but I think the past 5 months have been like some accelerated course I was on. I think this has been the most accelerated growth process I have been on so far. I have had @crazygrape visit me a month ago and he kept telling me how different I am now from the person he knew.

I used to be really nervous when I talk to new people I meet (in fact I only started meeting people 3 years ago), I stutter a lot and most of the time I wish the ground would swallow me up – that no longer happens too. In fact, now I think I talk too much. Lol. I am so excited to share my stories, if you ever meet me in real life and you think I talk to much, please do not hesitate to shut me up.

Time really flies, in a blink of an eye it has been almost half a year since I was here. I will be back in Singapore next week. What is going to happen next? I do not know. I am slowly learning to not expect any outcomes. Because of what has happened in Vancouver, I know whatever happens is really for a reason. Therefore even if good things do not happen, I know I will keep on learning from it. 

I really believe in destiny and the will, previously I was a fatalist, just bobbing along with life because I think things will just happen anyway. Now I am kind of a reformed fatalist, I still believe things will just happen anyway but that doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy the process. Or milk everything out of it. When things happen it is truly up to us whether we want to learn from it or live life feeling we are really ill-fated humans. 

I’ll admit it, there are still many times I end up feeling like why things always have to be so difficult for me, and I feel disappointed with myself for feeling this way after all that I have learnt, but slowly I am beginning to recognize, at the very least, my moments of joy have been increasing and I snap back into my optimistic self (at least there is
one now)much much faster than before. 

In fact, one of the things I have learnt while being here is to embrace all those moments when I feel like shit. The point is to stop the vicious cycle when you feel like shit and you feel the guilt and despair for feeling like shit, so it simply carries on. If I accept that life simply has its ups and downs, that I am unrealistic to expect it only has its ups, then I just fully embrace the downs and let it pass. I no longer feel that bad about feeling bad now, allowing myself to simply feel bad is ironically speeding up the recovery process.

What is life going to behold after I leave Vancouver? I cannot say I anticipate my future with excitement or things are only going to get better, but I honestly have this curiousity of how my life will be. If I cannot be fully enthusiastic (yet) about how my life will unfold, then for now I will take the curiousity. 

 

Overcoming setbacks

Having been through a rollercoaster ride for the past year, I have learnt to be grateful even for the downward spirals. Being in Vancouver alone was somewhat unexpected and it was really hard in the beginning – but even for this I have found tons to be grateful for. 

But one can only be so optimistic and positive, when setbacks occur again and again, your internal walls wear thin. At least mine was wearing thin. Even when I fell on my face in Hoi An last year I found the reason to smile – I smiled, because at least it was just a bruised face and I did not have any serious or even troublesome injuries. 

I’ve asked myself how many times do I have to pick myself up again and again. How many disappointments I have to endure. 

I looked above at the skies, I chose to take myself out of the comfort zone, I chose to fight for what I believe in, I don’t even ask for much except to be able to do what I love to do. I do not dream of buying fancy cars nor sprawling mansions. I own only one pair of shoes and one laptop bag which I carry around. 

So I really didn’t understand why things get so difficult sometimes. 

I even feel guilty for feeling down because I always tell myself, at least I am not starving in some war-torn country. If you’ve been somewhat in my shoes before, you’ll know that doesn’t work very well. 

People experience tunnel vision when they feel down. Everything is taken personally, everything seems bleak, everything seems to be going against you. If hurt was inflicted on you, the first instinct is to inflict it back. Thoughts of taking the easy way out become very tempting. I can assure you it is during these dark times when people cross the thin line between good and evil. 

I have found out a lot about myself. I learn that I am only human, that many times I would like to be zen-like about everything, but the reality is being in denial or dishonest about your feelings does not equate to being zen. Trying to sweep everything under the carpet isn’t being zen either. 

The only thing I could do for myself is to be really honest about how I feel. It is only human to feel anger when hurt is inflicted, when trust is being lost. Especially if it is from an unexpected source. 

However, it was interesting to put myself into observer mode and observe my own reactions. I guess that is part of being mindful. I allowed myself to feel the full spectrum of my emotions but I kept reminding myself who I want to be. 

More importantly, I have learnt that energy is precious and resentment takes a lot of energy. It is also not energy-efficient to let your thoughts churn repeatedly over the same issue. I had a thousand question marks in my head – why did it happen? When there are no answers, perhaps the only way to deal with it is to let – it – go.

They say time will heal and it is true. We just need to not dig deeper into our own wounds. Sometimes the best way to heal a wound is just to remove the bandaid and air the wound naturally. Don’t attempt to take pain killers, accept the pain and just let it be. Without paying too much attention to it, without noticing, one day you’ll realise the skin has healed. Perhaps it would leave a scar but it would have healed nonetheless. You can choose how you want to perceive the scar. As a badge of honour or as a source of pain. We get to choose.

The quicker way to heal is to pour salt over your wound. Or if you would like a gentler version, you can choose to swim in the sea. 

I was very tired but in acknowledging I was only human and I truly cannot be gandhi-like ironically allowed me to recover. At the core of this, I truly believe authenticity matters a lot in life, and being authentic means to be real even to yourself. 

Setback after setback, I still raise my eyebrows at the sky and I grouse a bit here and there. But you know in old kung-fu films the mentor will always be harsher with the best students. I believe it is the same in life, the challenges do not get easier, they become harder – because it means you have learnt whatever you needed to and hence you have to proceed to the next level of difficulty. 

Sure, I get thrown curveballs a lot. But it is a testament to my personal strength that I am still here writing this post with a twisted sense of humour. I can always take the easy way out, it was always available to me as a choice. I consistently choose to take the path less trodden because to me it is very simple – why would I choose to experience the same thing everyone else has experienced? There is no clear incentive for me. Here, I’ll admit it, I want to be special – I want to be myself and nobody else. 

I can look back at the past 30 years of my life and mourn about all the mistakes I’ve made, all the failures I’ve accumulated, all the hurt inflicted. Or I can look forward to tomorrow and wonder how I can make a difference. 

I can choose to write, I can choose to code, I can choose to push pixels, I can choose to send a simple tweet to make someone’s day, I can send emails to people I care about. The wonderful thing about the internet, once you send some bytes of data over, it sort of has a life of its own.

We live in a blessed era with the incredible power to create. I think those of us in tech, we take it for granted sometimes. We forget just years ago, how difficult it was to get published. How difficult it was to share, to be heard, to create. 

That is why I refuse, I really simply refuse to be discouraged. No matter how tough things get for me, I wield the power to be authentic, to be true to myself and to others, to be as kind as possible, to share as much enthusiasm as possible, to make those in despair believe – there can be hope for a better humanity. 

I am only human, I can’t be zen, but I can strive to be. All those scars I have, I wear them proudly as badges of honour. 

I am grateful. 

The story of finding my life purpose

Unlike some people I know, I was not blessed with innate self-confidence. From a young tender age it was clear to my family that I was different from other kids and endowed with basically what they labelled as a general sense of laziness. They were very exasperated because they didn’t know how to motivate me. I didn’t know how to motivate myself either. I thought they were right that I was lazy, so I kept trying to do things they hoped I could do – like study hard, but it didn’t work out because I don’t really have a capacity to remember theory, especially theory that doesn’t interest me.

I was set up for society-perceived failure and my self-esteem eroded. In fact, I don’t think I had the chance to build one anyway. 

I didn’t think there were any incentives for me. I wasn’t interested in material wealth and I think that was the core problem. The incentives that other people pursue – prestige, wealth and security were not motivating for me at all. What made it worse was that, it didn’t seem like I was interested in anything else either. I was basically disinterested in life in general. I didn’t understand why I had to suffer just to live a life that I don’t actually find very interesting at all. I kept asking, what is the point?

It took me a long while, actually only recently that I realized I wasn’t lazy. I was basically interested in something very intangible. Till today I don’t think I have a string of words which I can use to accurately describe it.

I have a long-time friend whom I am very grateful for, because if not for her I probably would have given up on myself a long time ago. I was feeling very lost in my early twenties, moving from one job to another with no sense of purpose, still wondering what was the point of life, feeling very discouraged because everyone around me was telling me I was a disappointment. 

She told me that it is okay to be lost, to be experimental, to do whatever I want to do while I was still young and had no commitments, because once I got older and have inevitable commitments, I wouldn’t be able to do so anymore. 

I never had anybody in my entire life up till then, to tell me that it was okay to feel lost. Or to keep trying different things. Everyone was telling me to stick to one thing, even if I didn’t like that thing. They said it was reality and that in life, it is not possible to do something you like doing. That is just life, they said. But I really didn’t understand why I should bother with a life which I had to stick to doing one thing that I don’t like doing. It makes no sense.

Because of that one friend I had and because of what she said, it gave me hope. It made me look at my life from a different perspective, it reminded me of my precious youth, that she was right. 

I still struggled for a few more years after that but I kept her words in my heart and each time I felt despair, she would be there to provide new perspectives, or some sanity – that I wasn’t alone in this. She was leading an unconventional life by Singaporean standards and she was a bright shining example to me, that if she could live her life differently, I could too. Perhaps one day I would have the courage to be more like her.

Gradually I did. With tons of her encouragement. With a little more hope. I fell down a few times, went into despair, but I picked myself up. I started getting to know a few more people who were like her. Somehow despite my general bitterness with life they saw something in me which I couldn’t see. They provided unconditional support and encouragement, even though I was my own greatest wet blanket.

I wouldn’t have been writing this post today if not for these people. So it was clear to me, when the opportunity came along, I should do the same for other people who were lost, misguided or misunderstood like me. It was not because I have “made it” (I still have not) but I knew how tough it was to receive geniune empathy, I also knew how important people’s empathy was to me. One by one, by serendipity, I offered my listening ear and my heart to friends who needed it. I started writing on my blog about my ups and downs, because I wanted strangers out there to know, hey, you’re not the only one. 

I was very lucky to have access to people who were my support when I felt like giving up on myself. I know for a fact that there are many out there who are not as lucky as me. I hoped that if I could be more honest and blunt about myself online, I would perhaps become a tiny trickle of invisible support for these people. 

A couple of years ago I received a hand-made thank-you card from a dear friend. She simply wanted to thank me for being there and for encouraging her to do what she loves. Till today, till this very moment, it still fills me up with immense pride that she is now doing what she loves. And she’s doing really well. I am proud not because she thanked me, but because she had the courage to finally do something for herself. 

It was that indescribable emotion when I received that card, coupled with a few precious emails and comments I received from strangers who read my blog, plus a few real-life conversations I had with some others – it finally came to me when I wanted to do with my life.

I don’t have much to give to this world, what I have is – excess empathy. I don’t have much strength admittedly, I wouldn’t run a marathon for example or be a tireless activist like Louis Ng for ACRES, but I have the courage to be honest. As honest as possible, without negatively impacting other people. I am not motivated by material wealth, but the extraordinary strength of humanity when it truly matters. 

I believe there are tons of people out there feeling lost or despair. And I believe like my friend who is now happy doing what she loves, that if more people have enough support and encouragement to do what they love, they would ultimately be happier, more fulfilled, and in return they would be impactful and contributive for the greater good of the world. 

It breaks my heart when I see my talented friends hiding their innate talents and taking on jobs that kill their souls because they believe it is what they have to do to survive. And my heart breaks into a million pieces when I see friends giving up on themselves in ways you cannot imagine because they feel like they do not deserve better.

Some people may not possess the inner strength to change their own circumstances but they habour secret hopes. They simply need something or somebody to tip them over. 

I had a serendipitous conversation with a couple of new friends last week. They were facing some challenges and I told them something similar to what my friend told me almost a decade ago – that it is okay to feel lost and try different things to find your own ground when you’re young. That sometimes even though it seems impossible, just do it anyway, because you’ll never know what you’ll get. Hustle. Know that we’re only young once and not to take their youth for granted.

Their eyes began to light up as they saw more doors opening in their heads. I didn’t do much, I simply paid it forward with what was given to me a decade ago. Most of the time we just need new perspectives. 

When I tell my story to people now it has more power because I am a living example of what I believe in. When I share my sense of purpose with people it is starting to gain a strange momentum because I know my eyes light up when I talk about it. I feel my entire self being lit up from within.

I don’t think I can feel more alive than those moments when I am living exactly the way I am meant to be – full of joy and love, driven by the desire for a more empathetic humanity. 

That, is my incentive to live better and work harder. To be able to create more opportunites to deliver hope to those who need it. To see their eyes light up, to witness people’s genuine happiness when they finally make that leap of faith to do what they love or to
be themselves.

That is what that truly keeps me alive, it is what I think about when I wake up, when I eat, when I shower, before I sleep. 

Why am I so obssessed with this? Because it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling and it makes me proud to be human. Proud to be part of a species capable of extraordinary strength and love. That is priceless, which all the money in the world cannot buy.

 

What keeps me going

The couple of months leading up to our product launch was particularly hard for me. I was feeling alone without close friends or family near me, I keep having this paranoia that whatever I did would not be accepted positively, I was very tired, didn’t have enough sleep, couldn’t sleep even if I had time because I was stressed. 

There were some dark moments when I felt like I wanted to throw in the towel, not because I had doubts over external factors, but I was very doubtful towards myself. I honestly wondered if I had the strength overcome all the odds. (I am sure whoever’s of startup blood would empathize with me ;P)

During those times, what kept me going was not the promise of riches or grandeur, they were things that were somewhat unrelated to my work.

There were a few nights when I was completely fatigued by work but unable to sleep, I turned to Netflix and my Kindle – I’ve always believed films and books have this uncanny timing of bringing the right message to me at the right time. 

Many times I wondered to myself, seriously, I was so spent, was I sure that I wanted to read a book or watch a movie? I could use that time to do more work! However, each time in turned out every book and every film was significant, I never regretted any of the time I lost, because what I gained in return was something intangible – continued hope and strength.

Here’s a snippet of what I watched and read for the past couple of months:

1. Capitalism, a love story
Was particularly moved and encouraged by the solidarity and team spirit shown by the factory workers in Chicago

2. Coco before Chanel
I hmm, didn’t know Coco Chanel had so much influence in redefining women’s fashion, it was incredible considering her background and what she went through to make Chanel the brand it is today. I changed the way I perceived Chanel as a brand after this film.

3. The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama
I don’t think I can particularly point out to any part of this book because I was highlighting tons of passages in the book:

We wouldn’t tolerate schools that don’t teach, that are chronically underfunded and understaffed and underinspired, if we thought that the children in them were like our children. It’s hard to imagine the CEO of a company giving himself a multimillion-dollar bonus while cutting health-care coverage for his workers if he thought they were in some sense his equals. And it’s safe to assume that those in power would think longer and harder about launching a war if they envisioned their own sons and daughters in harm’s way.

4. Michelle Obama in Her Own Words
Reading this was particularly inspiring for me because I’m reading a book which echoes my own thoughts and beliefs. It is a book of such great quotes and these are my favorites: 

When you know you’ve been blessed and know you have a set of gifts, how do you maximize those gifts so you’re impacting the greatest number of people?

and

The selfish part of me says, “Run away! Just say no!” because my life would be better. But that’s the problem we face as a society, we have to stop making the Me decision and we have to make the We and Us decision.

and

Things get better when regular folks take action to make change happen from the bottom up. Every major, historical moment in our time it has been made by folks who said, “Enough,” and they banded together to move this country forward—and now is one of those times.

There is a common theme throughout these books and films. They are stories of ordinary human beings who chose to be extraordinary. Like the factory workers in Chicago showed what it means to unite for a common cause, that collectively, common people like you and me can make a difference. 

These events inspire me for my work because they show me what is possible with belief and perseverance. That the impossible can happen if only you have the will to try. That sometimes it takes courage to want to act for the greater good than for yourself.

Unlike some other people I don’t believe tech startups are trapped in their own silo or echo chamber. There have been tech startups making great strides towards making this world a better place (think Khan Academy). I honestly believe those of us who have the blessing to be working in tech have additional resources to make this world a better place:

“It used to be that in order to reach more people than you could talk to in a day, you had to be rich and famous and powerful, be a celebrity, a politician, a CEO, but that’s not true today. Now ordinary people have voice, not just those of us lucky to go to HBS, but anyone with access to Facebook, Twitter, a mobile phone. This is disrupting traditional power structures and leveling traditional hierarchy. Voice and power are shifting from institutions to individuals, from the historically powerful to the historically powerless, and all of this is happening so much faster than I could have imagined when I was sitting where you are today and Mark Zuckerberg was 11 years old.” – Sheryl Sandberg

I am greatly inspired by these stories of people who had more difficult circumstances or faced with more difficult choices but they did it anyway. Those of us who are privileged enough to choose, and by privileged I don’t mean having material wealth or being born with a silver spoon; by privilege I mean the fortune to have health and mobility which people in third world countries may not have. If we have the privilege to choose, or rather, if I have the privilege to choose, I cannot in my conscience, choose a safe and comfortable existence. 

I now consider myself highly privileged, because by the fortune of my birth I don’t have to be in some country where females are subjected to constant threats or unfairness, though I was never born with a silverspoon I never had to worry about the survival of my family, though I don’t have the best health but I have full function of my body.

Everybody has their own reasons why they live, or perhaps most people don’t even wonder why they live, for me, it is becoming increasingly clear why I live. 

I live, because I want to make a difference, as long as I am not bound by unavoidable conditions, I will try to always make that choice to have the uncomfortable but meaningful existence, to always make that extraordinary choice to be extraordinary, even if I am an ordinary human being.

 

Fight for what you love and believe in

So some of you may have heard, simplehoney, the startup I’ve been working for, launched a couple of days ago.

It was an emotional event for the team because we’ve poured in blood, sweat and love but particularly for me, I saw my entire life flash through in my mind.

From the five year old wondering about the meaning of life, to the misunderstood 15 year old flunking her exams because she was too busy making websites, to the angry teen who dropped out of school, to the jaded adult who once gave up on design to work as an adminstrative assistant, to the independent designer who worked purely remotely because she was afraid to meet new people, to the person I am now – watching our twitter stream seeing users tweet about how much they loved our site.

I have come a long way. A long, uncomfortable, painful way actually. Between those past events you have absolutely no idea who much I had to endure having to withstand silent gazes of disappointment and disapproval (because I refused to have a stable job or life, actually) or the teachers who destroyed my self-esteem telling me I was going to be a waste to society (just by having bad grades). 

The point of this post, before any misunderstanding, is not to complain about how much I went through, but it is for those of you who know I am talking about, the struggle to grow into your true self, for those young kids who have dreams but have people telling them to stop dreaming – I am writing to all of you out there, hey, it is very much possible to be yourself and still find joy in life.

People say that I am lucky, I tell them I had to break many hearts including my own, I had to be firm on my own beliefs, I had to go through periods of extreme discomfort, to put myself in a position where luck may find me.

You have got to fight for what you want in life, because really, nobody is going to fight for you. You have to be the one believing in your own dream, because if you’re skeptical yourself, how do you ask of someone else to believe in you?

I know whatever we have built has a long way to go, I know this is just the beginning of more blood, tears and sweat, I know this is nowhere remotely near to success, but for someone like me, allow me this moment to take pride in the work I do, in my team and in the product we worked so hard to build.

Allow me this moment to feel the pride when I see our users noticing the little details we have put in, allow me to feel very encouraged because our users seem to understand the problem we’re trying to solve, allow me to indulge in the positive feedback that our users have been sending to us.

All of these is just going to motivate my team and me to do even better, work even harder.

From a personal perspective, I continue to trudge on my long journey, this is a baby step in the overall big picture in my mind – I so desparately want to be the change that I want.

I hope that one day kids like me would have different avenues of learning and not be put down based on their grades, that they will no longer have to go through long periods of their life feeling that they have to pretend to be someone else, that some of my friends who are brilliantly talented will no longer feel like they have to hang on to their jobs which make them dread every single monday morning.

I never thought it was possible, but I feel so alive being in love with my work, my team, my product, my users. It seems like all these blog posts that I used to read with famous people telling us, you got to find what you love to do, and me cynically going yeah, right – I finally understood what these people are talking about.

It wasn’t enough for me to be a designer, I was struggling to find true joy just being a designer, but being a designer working with a team sharing the same vision and values + a product that may be potentially disruptive and at the same time make people happy – I don’t know what else can I ask for, in fact I think this is way beyond my own dreams.

I used to write everywhere in my online profiles that I’m a designer with nomadic tendencies because traveling is not only a hobby, it feels like a lifetime’s calling for me. I have had so many turning points in my life and so many moments of epiphanies on my travels. It makes me feel very blessed and grateful to have this opportunity to work on a product that would aim to bring more smiles to fellow travelers.

Let me take this opportunity to express my gratitude, to my team, my friends and peers who have been very supportive, users who take the time to write feedback for us, and of course my family – they had to smile encouragingly for me when I left even though it was hard for them to have me away. 

So many times I had to remind myself that I have to make tradeoffs for the bigger picture in mind, if you were to ask me again, I’ll do it over and over again, because the joy that I feel when I see our users appreciating what we’ve built – priceless.

Thank you, all of you, especially those of you who are long-time readers of my blog, you have been with me through my ups and downs so you would know how much this means to me. 😉

I end this post with a beautiful quote:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. – Mark Twain

when the going gets tough, remember your sense of purpose

When I started to blog I promised myself that I would write about both the ups and downs. I’ve always wanted to maintain an authentic online persona and I cannot be authentic if I only write about the ups in my life.

I think I didn’t want anyone to worry about me if I wrote about the downs, but then I realized I could be honest about the downs and yet write about how I try to react positively to them. I say try, because I am only human.

I mentioned in previous posts that the past year has been a rollercoaster ride so far. I have gone so high on top of that ride that when my precious macbook pro got stolen in SF last year I didn’t even feel upset about it. I knew I was getting a lot of good in my life, so losing a material possession wasn’t a big of a deal.

The caveat with such positive thinking is that it requires strength and positivity – the ability to process thoughts in a logical manner. When you’re down and out, the ability to have clear logical thoughts is impaired. They ain’t kidding when they say everything starts to go wrong when you’re down and out. I have only realized recently this is because we lack the cognitive ability to make good decisions when we feel like shit. Thus we spawn a vicious cycle of one bad decision after another. So during a time when you need positive thinking the most, it probably fails – probably what one gets instead is thought after thought of fear-induced paranoia.

The key to snapping out of bad cycles is awareness. It starts with the awareness that my thoughts are not me. Actually, even prior to that, it starts with a deep understanding of one’s self. Who is my one true self? After 31 years of life, I can safely say though I am always evolving, when it comes to crunch time I have never been scared to make a tough decision. My true self always wanted to be true, free and living life to the max. I have never, ever wanted a mundane life.

So when the going gets tough, I ask myself, what would my true self want? The other morbid version would be, if I were to die tomorrow, how would I make this decision? When one’s mortality is concerned, most people will tend to realize a lot of things fall away in terms of perceived importance.

I don’t care what I do in this life as long as I am proud on my deathbed. I do not want to die thinking, “I could have been more fearless”. Given a choice of a safe,comfortable existence vs a tiring life full of adventure – the choice is obvious.

I say my paranoid thoughs are not me – because I know these thoughts resulted from years of fear-conditioning externally. Years of “no you cannot do this”, “you’re such a disappointment”, “no this is not possible”, “no this is not realistic”, “you need this, this and this in order to survive”, coupled with people giving me sympathetic looks because I chose to live my life differently from them.  

I had never known fear when I was a little kid, I had never known how it feels like to have your soul crushed repeatedly, I had never known the pain I brought to people I love because I didn’t subscribe to the mainstream ideals of chasing a “stable” life. Yet the older I grew, the more obvious it was that I was causing pain to people around me by just being me, so I grew fearful of everything. 

I was scared to be myself, I didn’t even like the idea of life itself. Why would life be meaningful when I cannot even be myself?

It took me a long while, of examining my self, my true values, that I realized the painful existence of my fearful self was not really me. 

If I didn’t have any expectations of people to meet, I would be a nomad or a vagabond. I wouldn’t be concerned about how much money I have in the bank or whether I can ever make enough money to buy a house. I would never be afraid of being homeless because if I am all by myself I don’t really mind being homeless. And nobody will be hurt to see me homeless.

But now I have a different set of expectations. I have expectations of myself to meet. I want to be proud of my life when I die.

For this stage of my life, that means I want to work on something I will be incredibly proud of, and I want to be in a position whereby I can have more impact on the change that I want in this world. 

And when the going gets tough, when I feel down and out, this is what I repeatedly tell myself. Whatever I am going through is nothing compared to the bigger picture I am fighting for.

When everything goes wrong there is only one thing we can fall back upon. That is – our sense of purpose. Nothing to me is greater than my sense of purpose. Nothing is more motivating than remembering that I would rather choose to have my current circumstances than to have a safe, comfortable, mundane existence. 

This is what keeps me sane, keeps me breathing, keeps me believing. That even at the moment whereby every inch of my soul feels fatigued, I will not give up on my sense of purpose. I refuse to give up my dream of being proud at my deathbed. 

I hope whoever out there who is still reading this long, rambling post, that you would feel somewhat similar. That we can be tired, we can feel like shit, but that sense of purpose will never fade away. Together we can be the change we want. I really believe so, from the core of my heart.

Finding the meaning of life, at 31

The past year of my life has been a major turning point for me. I can look back at myself as pre-30 and post-30 and there’s almost two distinct personalities. Some traits will always stay the same, I am still the same old emo self who writes long blog posts.

I have always felt like I don’t fit into this world, but the core difference was that before I turned 30 I was always trying to fit in and yet struggling to shut down my self-defined weird qualities, after turning 30 I feel like I’m starting to embrace myself for the person I am. Yes, it took me 30 years to even think that I could actually just be myself, but it is never too late, isn’t it?

It is one thing to know what I want, another thing altogether to put it into real life practice. For the past few years from my mid-twenties onwards I have been going on and on about trying to lead a life as authentically as possible but what really happened was that I tried to live it, but I was always secretly afraid.

You can say that I have an idealistic soul with a paranoid, practical mind, always fearful that I’ll end up letting the whole world down (and end up homeless).

I tried to keep the world happy while I pursued my ideals – that didn’t work out. I became physically sick trying to balance everything on my small shoulders and when I turned 30 last year, I said “enough” to myself.

And that single word triggered a roller-coaster ride which is still going on today.

I think I have never been happier. Along the way I have encountered ridiculous serendipitous moments you only read in fiction, I have met people who have changed my life permanently, I have seen a lot more of the world and experienced a lot more of life. I have had setbacks which threatened to destroy my ideals and of course there will always be a fair share of people whom we like to call ‘naysayers’.

But that’s fine. I can bet that most people would actually enjoy the view on top of the mountain more after an arduous climb. The point is that I actually tried climbing that mountain instead of playing it safe and staying at the foot, never able to have one shot at looking at the possible magnificent view. They always say that it is the journey/process that counts and previously I would always snort at that, but now I am learning to savor as much as possible, even the perceived bad moments.

It is through some tough times that I learned more about my own character, that contrary to my own belief, I am actually very persistent when it comes to something I really want. Tough times also give you the opportunity to re-affirm what you really want in life. Do I stick with it even though it is difficult, or do I give up? When I keep sticking with it even though it is really much easier to simply give up, I know I’ve found something special.

I’ve also had a wonderful opportunity to experience the meaning of loyalty. Seriously, it is easy to find people who would party and laugh with you, but rarely in your life you will meet people who would walk through shit with you. Or in some cases, clean the shit for you. Pardon my language.

There’s this part of “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand that got etched deeply in my memory. When faced with difficulties Howard Stark refused to sell-out, and his worried friend asked him what/who he’s waiting for, and he replied, “My kind of people”.

I thank my lucky stars that I’ve gotten to meet quite a few of “my kind of people” in the past year.

Being hugely commitment phobic, I’ve never thought I’ll stop being an independent designer – I didn’t think I would be okay with looking at the same product every day. That changed some time last year when I met a bunch of people with a product which till today still excites me at my core, even though I’ve been looking at it for a long, long while. I would love to write more about it and the people involved, when the time is right.

So much have changed in the past year. I think the most defining change is the gradual lack of fear. I can say that I’ve been lucky, but I had to take that leap of faith to receive that luck. That’s the thing. When you keep on taking leaps of faith, it becomes a habit.

I have searched for the meaning of life ever since I was five, and I think I’ve found it. The meaning of life for me is to give myself my own meaning of my life. That’s the beauty of it, you are actually free to give your own meaning of it. You don’t have to live under some entity’s meaning or anybody else’s meaning. It is entirely your own and up to you how you want to define it.

I have lived up to 30 years of my life thinking I had chains to my feet, and suddenly I realised they were never there at all.

I look forward to my birthday post next year, because I have this feeling in my gut that it will be even better than this year’s.

Be your own weird self

I have no desire to be the best designer in the world, neither do I want to be really rich. Knowing what I truly want in my life has made it easier for me to make important life decisions.

So what do I want in my life? Ultimately, I would like to be in a position whereby I am able to make a difference to how conventional society perceive. If that’s too much to ask for, then I’ll want to make a difference to how unconventional people perceive themselves.

Of course, there are some blessed with innate self confidence and they wear their unconventional selves proudly on their sleeves, but there are tons, especially the young, who hide in the closet and pretend to be conventional, because that’s what the society expects out of them.

People are afraid to be their true selves, because they don’t want to be negatively judged for it. For example, when people ask me what music I like, I used to feel very uncomfortable answering that question because I didn’t want people to think I was boring or worse, tasteless. I’m a professional designer after all and I need to keep my cool front. ;p

I read “Quiet: The Power of Introverts” some time ago, and I was grateful for someone like Susan Cain who made it her mission to change society’s perception that extroverts are “better value” or “more successful”. For what society perceives as desirable traits, people tend to try and mould themselves in a way to project themselves as desirable. I get caught in the same loop too.

But, I believe everyone has their innate natural gifts and we all should maximize our own gifts, not try to emulate other people. You may not be a good salesman and you can learn how to be one, but perhaps your time is better maximized doing what you do best. I mean, can you imagine scientists all try to be good salesmen?

I think people are so uncomfortable with being themselves because we all need validation and we all want to fit in, thus we end up being a repressed society chasing the wrong values. Worse still, we allow people to take power over us because we don’t trust ourselves. And we grow old and bitter. Once in a while, somebody somewhere breaks down and either destroy themselves or destroy other people.

Obviously this is a simplified way of looking at the issue but again am not trying to be politically correct writing my own thoughts. This is how I look at things now and one day I hope to be able to help in my own weird ways.

So that is why I don’t want to be a designer blogging about design. I want to be a designer who advocates change through technology + authenticity. That is why I’ve made a lot of decisions people cannot seem to understand, but deep in my heart I know what I’m doing now aligns with what I want to do in future.

I struggle a lot, because being in such a path could mean feeling lonely or un-appreciated by the mainstream or even my industry peers. However, I think this is a trade off I am willing to accept, if it means one day I’ll be able to make a difference in the way I specifically want to. My own, weird way.

A post like this will never get more than a thousand pageviews, but what matters is the metrics I hold dear in my heart – touching the ones that matter and would find value in these words.

Changing lives with lines of code

There was one day I was feeling particularly inspired and grateful for the work I do, so I tweeted out:

Isn’t working in tech potentially so powerful? You have an opportunity to change someone else’s life with lines of code.

Wnat resulted was a somewhat intense debate on twitter with a friend, who argued that there are other professions that can change people’s lives too (I was not discounting other professions with my original tweet); that it was my sort of thinking that led to initiatives like the OLPC, that “code has no influence on the majority of the world”.

I really wanted him to see my point of view – that I am not saying that we should distribute PCs to poor children with no access to electricity or water, nor am I asking people in poor remote villages to learn Microsoft Excel – but I truly believe that we can be more imaginative with how we choose to use software to make lives better, even for people with no access to electricity. 

Perhaps I err on the side of being naive here, but there is no point lamenting about our first world snobbishness – that we do not understand the real problems poor people without electricity face. 

If that is truly the case, then to me, all the more we should bring awareness to these issues. Let’s admit that most people would not care, but there will be a rare few who would. And what would help bring awareness to these issues? Unfortunately or fortunately, the internet is really helpful in this area. Powered by lines of code. 

I know of people doing quick fund raising for the third world just simply through emailing their personal network alone. To me, the existence of email is so powerful, just the speed of dissemination is like magic. Imagine having to ask for help through traditional means. And this is all possible because some geeks decided to sit down and write some code.

So poor people cannot use the internet but perhaps we could use the internet to help them ease some of the problems. Or at least use the internet to debate on what is the most effective method to try and solve these issues. At the very least, can we use the internet to mobilize possible volunteers or resources?

I am not saying absolutely that it will help but just the mere possibility equates to hope.

Just look at initiatives like Kiva – I wonder how many people’s lives have been impacted by Kiva. Or the many online fund raising platforms. Yes, we know that some initiatives have questionable agendas, but I think it is really important to count each and every blessing rather than look at the ugly. 

It is all about hope, and continuous improvement. Baby steps are better than none.

It used to be that you will need a powerful publisher to get your software out to the masses. Or that computers were only toys for the rich. My own parents couldn’t really afford to buy me a computer until I was 15. But my life was changed when I first got my computer. I cannot imagine my life without a computer. I would have been sweeping the road by now. And I can proudly say, because I am not sweeping the road, I may in a better position to care about the less advantaged.

Change one person’s life and the very same person could change millions’. I wonder what would Bill Gates be doing without software. For all the causes he is involved in now, it is only made possible by lines of code which gave him his wealth. 

Conventional success used to be skewed to the elite’s favour. But today, if you hustle hard enough, with talent, hardwork and with the current software ecosystem, the odds of success are much higher than what it was ten, twenty years ago. I know plenty of people who used to come from disadvantaged backgrounds but because they were talented with computers, their lives dramatically changed. It is an ecosystem with a low barrier of entry. You do not need to be able to afford a college education to have a good shot at improving the quality of your life. Someone with a computer and minimal resources (compared to many other industries) can release an app.

I have no grand delusions that code can change *everyone’s* life. But to me, even if it is like 1% of the world’s population has had their lives enchanced through software, it is still a step forward. That is like 60+ million people. 

And don’t get me wrong, by software I am not only talking about Internet companies. Software powers planes, postal systems, logistics, tax systems, medicine, research and analysis, construction, I can go on and on. Remember those days when we had to handle our accounting and taxes through pen and paper? Remember how it used to be with no online banking? Or *gasp*, remember how we needed to buy stamps?

So I cannot agree that code has no influence on the majority of the world. Even if it is not the case now, it will eventually be. We have the power to change people’s lives with lines of code. Even if the influence is just on people around you or just your industry, I think that is enough.

(I used to use this time-tracking webapp letsfreckle, which was so well thoughtout in its interactions that it made time tracking delightful and it saved off precious seconds off my workflow, not to mention lessen the frustration I have with my paperwork. That to me, is meaningful.

There is also this guy who was a javascript evangelist in his local area, he was so passionate about javascript that he regularly held meetups out of his own effort and will. I remember him telling us that it was very much worth it, because there have been cases whereby he introduced something like node.js to his meetup group, and that changed the careers of a few people. That to me, is powerful.)

Overhyped? I don’t think so. Even though plenty of companies out there are just out to gain a quick profit through any means possible, there are always some that are geniunely trying to better the human race.

Sometimes I don’t think we fully understand the potential we have. Or the impact we could possibly have. That’s why it seems like we are overhyping the software industry. That is because of what we choose to do with those lines of code. We can choose to write code that will be meaningful, or we can choose to create software that prey on the psychological deficiencies of the masses. 

It is not code that is not powerful – but our choices that render us less hope than we could possibly have.