When my startup failed, I didn’t know what to do next.
Starting a startup is like starting a family for the first time. I got married to my co-founders. We worked a lot of late nights on our immature product. And our love for this company and the problem we wish it would solve possessed us entirely.
It became a vital part of our identity.
Once it was all over, it left a dark hole in our lives.
We were always busy – pushing, selling and building things that we never had time to think hard about where we were headed.
Since then, I’ve had more time to think.
I dug deep.
Over the past year, I’ve travelled tens of cities, met hundreds of people and spent thousands of hours reading – all to answer one question – what the f*ck should I do with my life.
Through my journey, not everything yielded fruit, but some of the experiences changed my life.
I hope that by making this journal public, you’ll be able to benefit from the fundamental ideas that had a positive impact on my life.
Like me, this collection of mini thought-essays are deeply influenced by Stoic philosophy, Buddhist teaching, some of the great classical thinkers, and most importantly, all the people, family and friends who have helped me, supported me and given me courage along the way. I borrowed heavily from them all in my writing, just like I have leaned on them my entire life. If there is anything that helps you in this writing, it will be because of them, not me.
** Note: This is my first attempt at writing journals. I wrote this as a memo to myself while being on the road over the period of a year. Rather than presenting it as a cohesive book, I’ve decided to keep it raw with minimal touch up, including the dates of when these ideas crystallized in my mind **
August 28, 2018
I have felt lost a number of times in the past few years ever since finishing high school.
Looking back, I think it was from failing my business, a big f*ck up at work, a lack of recognition from peers that left me feeling unfulfilled and finding then losing the things that kept me intrinsically motivated in what I do.
While travelling through China, talking with the locals there and seeing how they live their lives made me realise something important:
Throughout most of my life, my decisions were heavily influenced by the environment and the people around me.
I cared too much about what others thought of me.
I’ve allowed fear to hold me back and it buried the voice in my heart that tells me what I truly want.
Work is telling me to fall in line and follow the ladder to success. Brands are continually brainwashing me to define what beauty is, and my social circle is making me conform to what’s socially acceptable out of the fear of the unknown.
I realised these are just opinions of people telling me how I should be valued and how I should live my life.
“Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables — slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
– Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Human beings are tribal creatures. We are hardwired to listen to others and follow the herd. But the truth is that everyone has an opinion. Just because a belief is popular, doesn’t mean it is right.
History has shown us time and time again; popular beliefs are often very wrong.
Our belief about the origin of life over the last few thousand years is a great example.
*The following illustrations are inspired by Rob Liu from ConsciousEd*
2000 years ago – We thought that all life on earth was created by the gods – if you questioned it, you’d be punished by death.
2000s (Today) – We believe all human life on earth evolved from chimps – if you think otherwise, people will call you crazy and disassociate with you.
3000s – Maybe we’ll learn that we are all just a science experiment, cloned and put on earth by aliens, and we actually live inside test tubes they’ve created only to be harvested for energy later on.
Like caged, circus animals, all throughout our lives, we’ve been trained to behave based on what society deems best. Instead of getting treats, we get rewards, admiration, and pay rises. Instead of getting whipped, we get ridiculed, alienated, and demoted.
In the end, most of us by default listen to others because we’ve been doing that our entire lives.
We are too scared to have our own opinions, and when things become uncertain, we’re not sure what to think, what to do, what to feel…
We are trapped inside the Matrix and have forgotten to listen to our hearts.
“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”
– Morpheus, The Matrix
January 20, 2019
Leaving my social circle and work environment in Australia allowed me to develop new perspectives. Combining this with extra time spent reading, learning and meeting new people, I was able to realise many of my past mistakes.
I was able to think clearly and temporarily escape the social conditioning around me.
I realised that risk and reward naturally go together. Knowing how to balance risk and reward is essential to having the best life possible.
Imagine you are faced with a choice of having a safe, boring life or having a fabulous one if you break out of the social convention and take the risk.
That is essentially the choice we all face.
The choice was clear to me, but that doesn’t mean the path forward was without obstacles.
I still needed to overcome the two big barriers we all must face:
Unless we want to have a life that’s directed by others, we need to decide for ourselves what to do, and we need to have the courage to do it.
To overcome these two barriers, we must have a bias toward action. Let’s first focus on overcoming fear and gaining courage.
The best way to overcome fear and have the courage to take action is to realise one simple truth.
A simple truth I discovered at the opera from a 13-year-old student who was half-joking when she said this to me:
“We Are All Dying.”
It doesn’t matter if you are an 80-year-old man or an 18-month-old baby – we are dying.
Sorry to be so dramatic, but this is a universal fact.
“You act like mortals in all that you fear and like immortals in all that you desire”
– Seneca, Shortness of Life
January 28, 2019
*A powerful perspective adopted from Tim Urban’s Wait but Why*
Life is really precious.
Too precious to follow the opinions of others blindly.
It is too precious to give in to fear.
It is too precious to conform to society without digging deep and finding out what our heart really wants.
If we were to assume that we would live an optimistically long life, this is how it would look like if we can live up to 100 years old.
And this is how it would look like if we break it down into months.
But let’s look at our life in weeks.
Each row of weeks makes up one year.
As life gets busier with studies, work and other things, it kind of feels like our lives are made up of a countless number of weeks but in reality, each week is fully countable, fleeting, evaporating and – looking right at us.
This is how a typical person born in a first-world country spends their weeks:
There are some other interesting ways to look at this chart. Here’s a list of famous people and their ages when they died:
Here are the ages when Steve Jobs made his major career accomplishments:
Here are the ages when Albert Einstein and Issac Newton accomplished their most notable contributions to science:
But what about our weeks?
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
– Steve Jobs
During certain weeks, life may seem really short, while in others, time seems impossibly long.
However, one thing is for sure, and these charts show it – our weeks are finite. These are our weeks, and they are all we’ve got.
Death is purely an intellectual concept that gives life meaning.
No one wants to die. Even the people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. Yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be. Because death is likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old and makes way for the new. Right now, we are the new, and some days from now, we’ll gradually become the old and be cleared away.
This is why people often describe their time as precious. Let’s extend that metaphor and imagine if each of our weeks is a small, precious 2mm, .05 carat diamond.
If we multiply the volume of this 0.5 carat diamond by the number of weeks in 100 years (5,200), we can actually fit our entire life into a tablespoon.
Looking at this spoonful of diamonds, it seems obvious to ask ourselves: “Am I making the most out of my life?”.
January 28, 2019
Most of us live life in discovery mode.
We bounce around from wall to wall, obstacle to obstacle, hoping to bump into the next great opportunity that will make us happy and fulfilled. However, if we wish to have an extraordinary life and live it on our terms, we must start by having a vision of what our perfect day looks like. We must go after this vision with intent and focus.
This vision will become our guiding compass. When faced with difficult crossroads, it will help us make important judgement calls and keep you on track.
Given that we have a very limited number of weeks, there are only two ways to use my diamonds that I can think of:
In other words, we have this small spoonful of diamonds and we really want to create a life in which they’re making us happy. And if a diamond is not making us happy, it should only be because we’re using it to make other diamonds go down better—either our own in the future or those of others.
Most people live their life balancing between #1 and #2. In the ideal situation, we are able to achieve both simultaneously (for example, the times where we love our job).
There are some poor ways to spend our diamonds as well.
For example, we can enjoy all our diamonds today and screw up the value of our future diamonds by gambling all our money away, or buying that car we can’t really afford.
Most people are conscious enough to avoid this. However, there is something far more horrific that smoulders most people for decades…
The worst possible way to spend our diamonds is when we are achieving neither #1 or #2.
Sometimes “neither” happens when we are in the wrong career, studying for the wrong degree, or being in the wrong relationship. This is often a symptom of the lack of courage, self-discipline, creativity, self-belief and self-awareness.
We’ve all had Neither Weeks and they don’t feel good. And when a long string of Neither Weeks happens, we become depressed, frustrated, hopeless, and a bunch of other upsetting adjectives. It’s inevitable to have Neither Weeks and sometimes they’re important—it’s often a really bad Neither Week that leads us to a life-changing epiphany—but trying to minimize our Neither Weeks is a worthy goal.
October 7, 2018
To optimise our Neither Weeks, we need to have a clear vision of what we value and what we don’t value in life. A story from The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris illustrates this really well, which I’ll share below.
An American businessman took a vacation to a small Mexican coastal village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American businessman complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of the fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, “only a little while”.
“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” the American then asked.
“I have enough to support my family and give to a few friends,” the Mexican replied as he unloaded the tunas into a basket.
“But… What do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman looked up and smiled, “I sleep in, fish a little, play with my kids, take a siesta with my wife, Luisa, and stroll in to the village every evening where I sip wine and play the guitar with my amigos. I have a busy life, senor.”
The American scoffed.
“Sir, I’m a Harvard M.B.A and I can help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the extra income, buy a bigger boat. Soon, you could buy several boats and increase your haul. You would have your own fishing fleet in no time.
He continued, “Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village, of course, and move to Mexico City, then to Los Angeles, and eventually to New York City, where you could run your expanded enterprise with proper management.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, senor, how long will all this take?”
To which the American replied, “15-20 years”.
“But then what?” Asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said “That’s the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock and make millions!”
“Millions senor? That then?”
“Then you would retire, move to a small coastal fishing village, where you would sleep in, fish a little, play with your children, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll in the village after where you could sip wine and play the guitar with your amigos…”
March 15, 2018
Like the fisherman, we want to be very clear about what we want in life, but more importantly, what we don’t want.
We want to be clear with what our perfect day looks like because it’ll provide us:
Having a vision of our perfect day also shows us a lot of the things we value is already easily achievable today, such as going to the gym, sunset surf in the afternoon, spending time with loved ones and learning new skills.
I found writing down my perfect day to be extremely beneficial, and I strongly recommend you to do the same. You want to be as descriptive in your writing as possible. Describe what you see, what you hear, what you smell, how you feel. Paint a picture. It’ll motivate you during the hard times and allow you to review it regularly.
Here are some of mine:
“Life is not a dress rehearsal—this is probably it. Make it count.”
“Time is extremely limited and goes by fast. Do what makes you happy and fulfilled—few people get remembered hundreds of years after they die anyway. Don’t do stuff that doesn’t make you happy (this happens most often when other people want you to do something). Don’t spend time trying to maintain relationships with people you don’t like, and cut negative people out of your life…”
“The days are long but the decades are short.”
– Sam Altman
Sometime during August 2017, updated on May 26, 2020
Deciding what to do with our lives, what to work on, and what our perfect day looks like seems like such a big question to answer. Where do we even start?
In startup, when we are trying to answer important questions that don’t have a clear definitive answer, we often fall back on a framework. In life, it’s actually not very different. I stumbled upon a framework that resonated with me the most while reading about ancient Japanese philosophy. It’s called Ikigai, which roughly translates to “our reason for being”.
There are four components to our Ikigai:
I’ve adopted this ancient Japanese philosophy with some of Naval’s podcast around how to build wealth and obtain freedom. A big part of what I summarise below is largely from him because I don’t think I can phrase it better than him. You can read more about it here, I highly recommend it.
My passion should be an essential part of finding my purpose and my perfect day. We all have things that make us feel good, things that make us stop thinking for a short period of time. These are things we do that cause us to be in the present. For those that are more technical, this is our “flow state”, but most people call it love.
That’s why many of us enjoy singing, dancing, running, writing, coding – it takes us into this state of bliss where we stop thinking about all our worries and just focus on the tasks at hand.
Sometimes, being passionate isn't enough. I have to be obsessed. I think one of the most important thing is what can I get obsessed with. And I realise I'm not going to know until I start somewhere. For me, that is getting really frustrated about something, and wanting to solve it permanently.
What are you obsessed about?
What do you enjoy refining? What's an areas in life you can’t help yourself from editing and optimising. This is where you'll have a long-term advantage.
I’ve made the mistake of repeatedly searching my ego, only to find out that I wanted to be something that I’m not. I find that asking my friends, family and mentors for their read on me is a good way of telling me who I am. Looking back at what I’ve done is also a good indicator.
“You have to be careful when you get caught up in status games. You end up competing over things that aren’t worth the effort… Play stupid games, win stupid prizes”
– Naval, Stupid Games
Finding what I am uniquely good at naturally comes after finding what I love. This is because we are typically good at the things we love. Since we live in a world where there’s so much competition, and everything is relative, we can’t just be good at something. We have to be uniquely good at it. Part of this is a search for who we are and recognising it.
Peter Thiel talks about how competition is for losers, it’s counterproductive.
"The only way to be the best at what we do and love it is to do things that are authentic to ourselves."
“Artist are, by definition, authentic. Entrepreneurs are authentic too. Who’s going to be Elon Musk? Who’s going to be Jack Dorsey? These people are authentic, and the businesses and products they create are authentic to their desires and means.”
Naval summarised this very nicely – specialise in being you.
People are multivariate. We have a lot of skills. One banker might be good at finance. Another one might be good at sales. A third one might be good at macroeconomic trends and have a feel for markets.
We all have our various niches.
As we go through our career, we’ll likely gravitate towards the things we’re good at, which by definition are the things we enjoy doing. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be good at them. We wouldn’t have put in the time.
Other people will also push us towards the things we are good at. Because our smart bosses, co-workers and investors will realise that we’re world-class in this one thing (and we should just recruit people to help us with other things).
The older I become, the more I’m convinced that once we’ve found what we love, specialised in it and become the best at what we do, we’ll get paid. Thus, if I want to get paid in this world, I need to “keep redefining what I do” until I’m the best at what I do.
In his podcast with Nivi, his co-founder at AngelList, they discussed:
“If we really want to get paid in this world, we want to be number one at whatever we do. It can be niche—we can literally get paid for just being us.’’
Some of the most successful people in the world are that way. Oprah gets paid for being Oprah. Joe Rogan gets paid for being Joe Rogan. Wim Hof gets paid for being the Ice Man, dumping people into freezing water and pushing them to their limit. They’re being authentic to themselves.
Some of the key points Naval made are:
“If we want to be number one, we want to keep changing what we do until we’re number one. We can’t just pick something arbitrary. We can’t say, “I’m going to be the fastest runner in the world,” and now we have to beat Usain Bolt. That’s too hard of a problem.”
“Keep changing our objective until it arrives at our specific knowledge, skill sets, position, capabilities, location and interests. Our objective and skills should converge to make us number one.”
“When we’re searching for what to do, we have two different foci to keep in mind. One is, “I want to be the best at what I do.” The second is, “What I do is flexible, so that I’m the best at it.”
“We want to arrive at a comfortable place where we feel: this is something I can be amazing at, while still being authentic to who I am. It’s going to be a long journey. But now we know how to think about it.”
Lastly, we have to find out what the world needs, and give back to the world. I think there’s this age-old paradox of “the more you want something, the less likely you are to get it”. This applies in many instances such as people chasing after wealth, success, reputation, and so on.
Let’s look at one specific example. In startup and growth, people often ask: “How can I build a billion-dollar company” or “How can I grow my startup”. However, I think they are focusing on the wrong question.
I have a philosophy – if I want to grow a company, I must focus on the fundamentals – how can I add massive value and help our customers.
When I started my first company teaching kids to code, I wasn’t thinking about money, building a business or having the entrepreneur status.
I didn’t even know what a startup was. My motivation was simple: I wanted to find fulfilling work after my college graduation.
I wanted to teach, I enjoyed working with kids, but I didn’t want to be a teacher. I loved to code, and wish I had a place to learn growing up. Because nothing existed at the time, this led to me to start a class where initially, only six students signed up. But because I loved the work, got good at it, and my program addressed a problem for schools, parents and kids. Within three months, my class grew from six to 86! I was forced by people’s demand to hire people, productise what we do. That was how it started.
If I want to build a big, impactful business, I need to focus on a big problem I can uniquely add value. When I grow a startup, I focus on how to add value and be helpful to more of our customers, because doing that is the only way we grow.
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
―Winston S. Churchill
December 18, 2017
All the best things that have ever happened to me, happened because I followed my heart. My heart is like a guiding compass inside me, that always knows which direction I want to go.
I think within all of us, there are two minds constantly battling each other for what to work on, where to go in our life.
One is our “feeling mind” – our emotions, our intuition, our heart. It decides what feels right to us.
The other is our “logical mind” – our rational self, what logically sounds right, our brain. When we refer to ourselves, we are often referring to our “logical mind”.
We often have the illusion that we are logical and make logical decisions in our lives. We think we are in control. However, the more I observe my own mind, the more I realise that when I follow my heart, the better my life becomes. When I try to only be rational in life, my life often goes off course. I’m never truly in control.
Imagine driving in a car, through the unknown roads of life. Our “feeling mind” is in the driver’s seat while our “logical mind”, is buckled in the navigation seat with your Google Map.
We may be able to suggest decisions and directions of our “feeling mind” from time to time, but the truth is, we are never really in control.
If we ignore and limit where our heart wants to go by reaching over and grabbing the steering wheel forcefully, we could go off the roads, get lost, or have a serious crash that puts both of our thinking and feeling minds in tremendous danger.
For example, right after university, I worked in the financial industry as an engineer. Even though I was making good money and the work was easy, I hated my life. I hated the lack of freedom, the repetitive tasks and the politics. I hated how no one around me was passionate about their work and only live for the weekends. Deep down, I knew I wanted to start my own business and work on solving meaningful problems like education inequality. But I was afraid. I didn’t trust myself. I’ve migrated to a new country and studied so hard so that I can have a good-paying job like the one I’m in and live a “good life”. Wasn’t I living the dream? I was depressed.
It took me about six months to find the courage, quit my job and start my own business – it was one of the best decisions of my life.
Because of fear, we end up telling ourselves a bunch of BS like:
I found myself constantly seeking other people to validate what I already knew deep down. I often found myself talking to my friends, seeking advice on what I should do. A really self-aware friend said to me:
“You already know what you want. You are just waiting for others to give you permission. So just go do it.”
As Steve Jobs said:
“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift”
– Albert Einstein
Sometime in July 2018
Most people actually settle for smaller goals in life because it seems more achievable. We’re afraid that if our dream is too big, we’ll fail. However, we’re actually more likely to succeed if we dream big and have a big mission.
This is because a big mission inspires people. Big missions are more meaningful, exciting and energising to work on. It’s more likely to attract others to help you. People are more likely to invest in that dream. Smart and talented people are going to be more interested to join our team because they love being challenged. We’ll also have less competition.
How many of our friends are trying to solve global sustainability, pollution or education? How many of our friends are working in investment banking?
Big dreams and big mission are great movements that bring people together. However, because of the fear of hard work and failing big goals, not a lot of people do it.
What most people don’t realise is that it takes a lot of effort to build up small things as well. I don’t think the corner grocery store owner works any less than Elon Musk and pour any less sweat and toil into their business. Just because Musk’s net worth is 100x or 1000x greater than the grocery store owner, it doesn’t mean he’s working 100x and 1000x more hours. But, for whatever reason, education, circumstances, the corner store owner didn’t get to think as big and so the outcome is not as big. Part of this is about leverage. But that’s a different topic for another day.
When I was 22, I started my business teaching kids to code and build computer games. I just wanted to teach kids, do what I love and make enough money to pay for my expenses while studying at university. I didn’t think it was going to be a big business, so I had trouble attracting great people, customers, and investors to join me on this journey. Fast forward a few years later, after many frustrating days and weekends of figuring out product and growth of the business, I’ve finally worked things out by myself and made it work.
However, in that same amount of time, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Max Levchin and others from the Paypal Mafia managed to create Paypal, the world’s first online payment system, impacted millions of users around the world and excited to eBay for $1.5bn.
Within the next decade, the Paypal Mafia went on to start other visionary companies like:
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”
– Steve Jobs
We only have one life, with a limited number of weeks in it. Ask yourself: what would I rather do?
Ok, let’s be practical and talk about the thing we’re all thinking but no one is saying – what about money?
I think the best way to think about how to make money, is to explore the Babe Ruth effect in Venture Capital.
“What is interesting and perhaps surprising is that the great funds lose money more often than good funds do. The best VCs funds truly exemplify the Babe Ruth effect: they swing hard, and either hit big or miss big. You can’t have grand slams without a lot of strikeouts.”
“How to hit home runs: I swing as hard as I can, and I try to swing right through the ball… The harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball, and the farther the ball will go. I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big.”
– Babe Ruth
The “dream big and have a big mission” mentality described by the Babe Ruth effect is hard to internalise because we are generally predisposed to avoid losses. Behavioural economists have famously demonstrated that we feel a lot worse about losses of a given size than we feel good about gains of the same size.
I think this leads us to thinking too small and too short term in order to avoid the fear and pain of losses. Most of us drastically overestimate what we can achieve in one year and drastically underestimate what we can do in 10 years.
I was most definitely guilty of this.
Instead of thinking about how I can make money in one year, I started to think about how I can grow and compound my wealth in 10, 20, 50 years. The way to think about that is to:
Notice the word “bet”. There’s definitely an element of risk involved – higher the risk, the higher the reward. For the 20-year-old Steve Jobs, personal computers weren’t just some fringe technology for geeks and hobbyists. It was the thing would make a dent in humanity. For Jeff Bezos, selling books online wasn’t just for the book-obsessed at the time; it was going to be “The Online Shop” for everyone’s everyday needs.
Right now, investment bankers, software (web and app) engineer and doctors might be in demand and on the rise. But what does the world need in 10, 20, 50 years from now? Is it going to be a decentralised financial system? New ways to mine rare earth metals? Biotech and genetic engineering? Or new ways for students to acquire knowledge instead of going to school? Where am I going to invest my future?
25 August, 2019
To create the world, we have to be a rational optimist. Rational in the sense that we have to see the world for what it is and yet, we have to be optimistic about our own capabilities to get things done.
In my life, I often get sidetracked by cynics and pessimists. Their beliefs are self-fulfilling. We all know someone who thinks he’s being helpful, but he’s actually being a downer on everyone. That person will not only never do anything great in their life, they’ll also prevent other people from doing something great. They think their job is to shoot holes in things.
Our world today is full of problems. Problem seekers are a dime a dozen. It’s ok to shoot holes into things, as long as we come up with a solution. Similar in the military, they have this saying:
“Either lead, follow, or get out of the way”.
All the successful people I know have a very strong action bias. They commit to do things. The easiest way to figure out if something is viable or not is by doing it. At least do the first step, then the second step, then the third and then decide.
The beautiful thing about achieving our dream in life is that we can fail at it most of the time because we only need to achieve it once. Assuming that nine out of 10 projects we start will fail, and it takes around four to six months to figure out if this is a project worth pursuing, it’ll take us around three to five years to create something of value. Often, it can easily be 10 or 20 years. If a friend got there in three to five years, it can drive us insane. But those are exceptions. And for every win, there are multiple fails.
“You have to make sure you give these things time. Life is long. You have to put in the time. You have to put in the hours. You have to put yourself in that position with specific knowledge, accountability, leverage and an authentic skill-set in order to be the best in the world at what you do. And then you have to enjoy it and keep doing it and doing it and doing it. Don’t keep track. Don’t keep count. Because if you do, you will run out of time.”
“Focus on where the puck is going, not the scoreboard. Anyone who focuses on the scoreboard loses and ultimately never gets any points.”
– a friend
A lot of big things have humble beginnings. I find it humbling to look at the growth of Apple’s stock price since its IPO in Dec 1980. After the first 20 years of hard work, Apple only doubled in size. It wasn’t for another five years of persistence and relentless focus before the company sees any substantial growth. And another 10 more years to become one of the most influential companies in the world.
In order to achieve our perfect day and be fulfilled in life, wealth, relationships, fitness or happiness, we need to have an action bias towards getting what we want. We also have to be rationally optimistic about it. We wouldn’t want to be irrational, full-heartedly chasing something that isn’t going to work. We want to be rational, know all the pitfalls, know how long things can take, know the downside and keep your chin up. We’ve only got one life on this planet, why not pursue our big dreams, live our most perfect day and help those in need.
August 30, 2019
To achieve our life’s purpose, we have to let people criticize us and we have to be willing to take risks. That is what being accountable for our own life is about.
We’re always afraid and often pessimistic of something at any stage of our life.
When we are five, we’re scared of being left at the supermarket.
When we are 10, we’re scared of not making any friends at school.
When we are 20, we’re scared of failing our exams and college degree.
And when we are in our 30s, we’re scared of not meeting the one, not marrying the right person or running out of time to do the things we want to do.
In our 40s, we’re scared of not being able to support our family, kids and giving them the best.
The list goes on…. (a very personal confession – I’m still scared of being alone in the dark.).
However, despite all these fears, it’s important to realise something important – We are extremely lucky. It’s all about perspectives.
If we were to go back 10,000 years and have an optimist and a pessimist in the wild. They just heard a pack of wolves howling, this is what would probably happen:
The optimist would say: “Oh the wolves are not headed our way”.
On the other hand, the pessimist would say: “I’m afraid and I”m going to run away.”
The optimist gets eaten while the pessimist survives. So, in some way, I think we are mostly descended from pessimists. We are genetically hardwired to be pessimistic and our fear of the unknown protected us.
However, modern society is much, much safer. There are no wolf packs wandering the streets. It is very unlikely that we’ll end up in total ruin. In today’s society, our upside is unlimited and our downside is limited.
This is why Elon Musk inspires so many people because he takes on really big, audacious tasks and he provides an example for people to think big.
I think to succeed in modern society, we need to override our fear, pessimism and take slightly brave optimistic bets because the upside is unlimited. If we start the next Tesla, SpaceX, or Uber, we can make billions of value for society and for ourselves. If we lose, we might lose billions of investor money, but we won’t lose our life. And for anyone who invests in company shares, we all understand that’s the game we’re in.
A really famous example of this is Japanese billionaire and Softbank founder, Masayoshi Son. Masayoshi Son is an investor who had the highest ever financial loss in history. During the height of the dot-com bubble, he became the richest man in the world, with a net worth surging at a rate of USD 10 billion per week (USD 1.4 billion per day). However, that didn’t last long. After the dot-com bubble burst, Softbank’s shares plunged and he lost more than 93% of his net worth over two months. Masayoshi Son and Softbank almost went bankrupt. However, he continued to take risks investing in mobile networks in 2006. After that, he continued to invest the remainder of his wealth into tech companies around the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and robotics. Now he is among the 100 richest people in the world.
It made sense to be afraid and pessimistic in the past. However, it makes more sense to be optimistic today, especially if you are educated.
Don’t do anything illegal and stay out of total catastrophic loss. That means you should look after your health, avoid doing things that are physically dangerous or do things that can cause you to lose all your capital, like gambling with your entire wealth.
Throughout this year, I’ve learnt that fear and discomfort comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes real discomfort is very personal to you. However, if we constantly choose comfort over discomfort, our lives become very unhappy. Because it is in facing our fears, pushing our limits and deeply connecting with people do we feel truly alive.
“The cave we fear to enter holds the treasure we seek.”
– Joseph Campbell
September 3, 2019
We all have this voice inside our head that tells us we’re not good enough, not smart enough, and don’t have enough talent… But what most people don’t account for is what persistence, dedication, and hard work over time can achieve.
I strongly believe there’s a compounding effect of skills that will overtake any natural talent. So what if someone is born smarter than me, more money than me, more talent than me. I have to play the cards I am dealt in life and take that first step, the second step, the third step. There’s something beautiful called “compounding growth”. If I persist at something long enough, I will achieve great results.
“You may have more talent than me, but if we get on a treadmill together, you’re getting off first, or I’ll die on that treadmill.”
– Will Smith
“Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
– Steve Jobs
When I started my first company teaching kids to code and made revenue, I understood a very important lesson in life. As Steve Jobs said:
“Life can be so much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
I think the media drastically over-advertised the myth that the most successful entrepreneurs are young. While this is true for people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s important to recognise them as outliers and copying what they do is like copying the winning lottery ticket from yesterday.
Alibaba’s co-founder, executive chair, and one of the richest men in China, Jack Ma, didn’t start Alibaba until he was 35 years old. During his 20s, he famously applied for 30 different jobs and got rejected by all.
“I went for a job with the police; they said, you’re no good. I even went to KFC when it came to my city. Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy …”
– Jack Ma
In 1978, the 15-year-old Michael Jordan was rejected from his high school’s basketball team.
Colonel Sanders started KFC at the age of 65.
According to the Harvard Business Review, the average age of successful founders is 45 years old.
If you are reading this, you have to believe in yourself, and take that first step. You are good enough, you are smart enough, and you most likely aren’t too old to start.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”
– Steve Jobs
“Tranquility can’t be grasped except by those who have reached an unwavering and firm power of judgement – the rest constantly fall and rise in their decisions, wavering in the state of automatically rejecting and accepting things. What’s the cause of this back and forth? It’s because nothing is clear and they rely on the most uncertain guide – common opinion.”
– Seneca, Moral Letters
Believe in yourself.
April 4, 2019
To have a great life beyond the norm, we need to take risks. However, taking risks and occasionally being ruined isn’t acceptable (i.e. running out of money, and going bankrupt). Neither is not taking risks and not having exceptional results. I needed an approach that would give me an exceptional upside without also giving me the exceptional downside. Discovering it turned out to be my holy grail.
To get it, I need to replace the desire of being proven right with the joy of learning what’s true.
This prompted me to do two things:
Being radically open-minded means: to simultaneously have a strong opinion, and have the capacity to hear and allow others to challenge that opinion. We want to be open-minded and assertive at the same time. Most of all, we want to be driven by curiosity, harvest the best conflicting ideas around us and sort it with our own mind.
I think one of the biggest and worst ways to fail is that we sometimes get too opinionated and can’t take in other perspectives. This is compounded when we get attached to our own opinions that are wrong and we don’t want to have others stress test our idea.
Failing because I was close-minded is unacceptable to me because I think it’s one of the worst ways to fail.
This prompted me to find the most thoughtful people I could find to disagree with me, stress test my thoughts and kick the shit out of it. I wanted to see things through their eyes and they wanted to see things through my eyes. Together, we could hash things out to discover what’s true.
What I wanted most from them were radical honesty and thoughtful disagreement. This allows me to go from seeing a small field of the world around me in darkness to seeing multiple fields in colours. This gives me the best possibility to see things clearly and make the best decision possible.
I don’t need to be the best at everything, and I will never be. But together with my thoughtful peers, we’ll complement each other, help each other see things clearly and make the best decision forward.
I needed to give up on thinking I have all the right answers. There’s nothing better than to be on a shared mission, with extraordinary people who can be radically truthful and radically transparent with each other.
I recommend writing down what you are not good at and find great people that’ll give you the leverage to stress test your flaws and take you to the next level.
February 21, 2019
Finding great mentors has been extremely valuable in advancing myself towards my purpose. There are seven billion people on Earth. Someone out there has definitely solved a similar problem that I am trying to solve right now.
I found the best way to reach a mentor is through warm introductions. The second is through direct emails or messages on non-personal channels. Ask people who aren’t directly competing with me. In the context of starting a company, I can ask people who are from different geography, who used to build a competing company but have now moved onto something else.
Our mentor’s value isn’t to help answer all our questions. We can’t learn Kung Fu by watching Bruce Lee videos and listening to him talk about how to “be like water”. We have to put in the work, the hours and get our hands dirty. I believe a mentor’s true value is to help us gain more self-awareness, and in specific situations, they can connect us with specific knowledge, capital or people to help.
I like to ask my mentors what’s their read on me. I find their objective read gives me clear direction which re-affirms my heart on what I need to do.
We also need to add value, give back to our mentors. Don’t just take from them. Adding value may be in the form of paying them, giving them equity in our company. But I think most importantly, it’s us being respectful of their time. Put in the work. That’s the value we give back to them.
Be direct and be genuine. I find that most of my long term mentors have eventually become my friends.
Lastly, not everyone is going to be a good mentor for you. There’s a high level of noise in the world. Find people who’ve accomplished what you want to accomplish. Find people you enjoy and get along with. A good mentor relationship can become lifelong. Find someone you’d want to grow with. Find someone who believes in you even in your lowest times.
I’m grateful to the mentors who have shared my journey so far, and for those that will continue to share my journey in the future.
November 17, 2018
There are infinitely many things in life to learn. Each thing has infinite depth, many before us have spent their entire lives learning and crystallizing almost all aspects of our career and life. If I am stuck in an area in my life, why reinvent the wheel?
“Steal from one and it’s plagiarism. Steal from 200 and it’s original”
– Austin Kleon
Read. Do a crap tonne of reading, and then read some more. Reading is a way to recruit mentors in our life that we can’t recruit in person. There are world leaders and billionaires who have spent years distilling the best of their life’s wisdom and principles of success into books. Books that we can access instantly for $20 online.
Yet most of us don’t read. Instead, we spend most of our time watching fictional or reality TV shows. What’s the latest gossip in Hollywood? Who’s hooking up with who? What’s the latest hit show on Netflix? All this crap we don’t really need in our life has become the biggest 21st-century drug addition. The biggest drug and baddest drug of all – social media. Who’s on a holiday? Which “Instagram influencer” is doing what? We post photos, spending hours taking the right photo, applying the right filters and writing the right caption, seeking that next hit of validation, that next like and that notification telling us we’ve got a new follower. We’ve learned to get our emotional high from social media or watching other’s drama online instead of enriching our own lives. We’ve become addicted to what other people are doing, people we don’t really know or don’t really care about us.
One of the best learning recommendations a friend has given me is to listen to audiobooks at 2x – 3x speed. I spend an average of two hours of commuting every day. That means I can finish a book every two to three days, two books a week, and 100 books a year. Schools didn’t teach me how to solve really hard problems in life, reading ruthlessly and applying what I read did. Books, articles, podcasts, essays were written by people who have done it before.
Don’t get too fixated on a few books. Read broadly but read from the first principles. For example, instead of reading specific books around biotech, we should read the Origin of Species by Darwin. They are all reference experiences from history’s best and brightest. Explore all their perspectives, but don’t get lost in them. We must form our own opinions based on our own reference experiences. I also find common essences from different books starting to converge, patterns starting to emerge.
“A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks. The quality of our thinking is proportional to the models in our head and their usefulness in the situation at hand. The more models you have—the bigger your toolbox—the more likely you are to have the right models to see reality. It turns out that when it comes to improving your ability to make decisions, variety matters.”
– Shane Parris, Mental Model
“Think often the connection of all things in the world and their mutual relations, they are arguably intertwined with each other and thus have for each other a mutual friendship, and that under the connection that leads him and the unity of matter”
– Marcus Aurelius
I like to ask my mentors, peers and people that inspire me what they are reading at the time. I find that to be the way to find out what I should read next.
Here’s a list of my favourite books to get you started:
March 2, 2019
We need to know what we want, but most importantly – what we are willing to give up. Focus on just a few things.
Strategies are often mutually exclusive. Throughout my life, there have been moments where I tried to take on too much at the same time. This always leads to me failing at both and not being able to work at my optimum potential. I was a college student and a founder. Then an engineer and a founder. I was often working at multiple things at once. Only when I quit my job to focus on my company full time was I able to fully embrace my journey.
I cannot be an engineer and a founder at the same time. Life requires trade-offs but my ego can’t allow it.
When children stick their hand down a goofy jar and grab a handful of treats, they often end up crying when they can’t get their hand. Drop a few treats and we will get it out! We have to curb our desires and not set our heart on so many things. Only then can we get what we need.
I feel like the same could be said about focusing on one project at a time and doing just one thing.
Why do I do what I do? Only when I can understand it, have enough self-awareness, can I then opt out of things and the races that don’t matter.
“Ego rejects tradeoffs, why compromise, the ego wants it all. Ego says sure, even though you’re just about the get the hang of one thing, why not jump right into the middle of another. Eventually, you’ve taken on too much.”
– Ryan Holiday
"Prioritise ruthlessly. To focus and do your most important work, you need to kill good ideas to make room for great ones."
Everyone’s often caught in the middle of the illusion “if only I had that, I’d be happy”. We’re often caught up in commitments, projects we can’t seem to drop and we can’t understand how we got there. It’ll take courage and faith to stop ourselves. Understand the why behind what we do, cut off all others that disrupt our pace – that is freedom.
July 19, 2019
In our lives, we often set ourselves goals to hit by a set date. Whether it’s a career goal, life goal or success goal, we’ve created this artificial scoreboard and use it as the ruler for our own self-worth. We’ve been living our entire lives focusing, working, fighting and sometimes, stepping over one another, all to reach this destination called “success”.
However, this magical destination called “success” never truly exists.
In a piece called “You Play the Piano”, British writer and philosopher Alan Watts beautifully illustrated why we should live our lives like playing a musical:
The existence, the physical universe is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn’t going anywhere. That is to say, it doesn’t have some destination that it ought to arrive at.
But it is best understood by analogy with music, because music, as an art form is essentially playful. We say, “You play the piano.” You don’t work the piano.
Why? Music differs from, say, travel. When you travel, you are trying to get somewhere. In music, though, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest. And there would be composers who only wrote finales. People would go to a concert just to hear one crackling chord… because that’s the end!
Same way with dancing. You don’t aim at a particular spot in the room because that’s where you will arrive. The whole point of dancing is to dance.
But we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our conduct. We have a system of schooling which gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded and what we do is put the child into the corridor of this grading system with a kind of, “Come on kitty, kitty.” And you go to kindergarten and that’s a great thing because when you finish that you get into first grade. Then, “Come on” first grade leads to second grade and so on. And then you get out of grade school and you got high school. It’s revving up, the thing is coming, then you’re going to go to college… Then you’ve got graduate school, and when you’re through with graduate school you go out to join the world.
Then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And they’ve got that quota to make, and you’re gonna make that. And all the time that thing is coming – It’s coming, it’s coming, that great thing. The success you’re working for.
Then you wake up one day about 40 years old and you say, “My God, I’ve arrived. I’m there.” And you don’t feel very different from what you’ve always felt.
Look at the people who live to retire; to put those savings away. And then when they’re 65 they don’t have any energy left. They’re more or less impotent. And they go and rot in some, old peoples, senior citizens community. Because we simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line.
Because we thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at that end, and the thing was to get to that thing at that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.
But we missed the point the whole way along.
It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.
I recently asked a friend who’s turning 40 next year, what advice he would give to his 25-year-old self. My friend is a successful engineering leader across a really prominent startup. He’s been well-respected at work throughout his life, had many great travel experiences and a family full of love. He tilted his head, eyes flew to the top right corner of the ceiling, paused for a long second and replied:
“I would ask my 25-year-old self; have I played it too safe? ”
What if we give ourselves one year to follow our passion and leave our mark. The worst that can happen is we come right back to where we are now. We’d be 63 instead of 62. We owe it to ourselves.
“Doesn’t matter if you live for 10 years or 1000 years, keep in mind that no one ever loses a life other than the one they are living, and no one ever lives a life other than the one they are losing. The longest and shortest life then, amounts to the same, for the present moment all the same for all and is all anyone can possess. No one can lose neither past nor present, for how can anyone lose something that’s not theirs?”
– Marcus Aurelius, The Meditation 2.14
December 23, 2019
The ancient stoic philosopher, Seneca, uses the word euthymia in his essay on tranquillity, which means “believing in yourself and trusting that you are on the right path and not being in doubt by following the myriad footpaths of those wandering in every direction.” It is this state of mind that produces tranquillity, a peaceful and calm mind.
Having clarity of vision empowers us to have this belief.
This isn’t to say we’re 100% certain about everything because, in life, I don’t think we should. Rather, we can rest assured that we’re generally headed in the right direction – so we don’t constantly compare ourselves with other people or change our mind every three seconds based on new information.
As Steve Jobs said –
“You cannot connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect the dots looking backwards.”
This tranquillity and peace are found in identifying our path and sticking to it: staying the course, making micro-adjustments here and there but we TRUST our boat is sailing in the right direction!
In a way, we are all founders of our own lives.
February 12, 2020
Now, it’s important to say that the probability of failure is real and inevitable. And that going through failure is very painful and not fun. Mine was a very dark experience. But rock bottom becomes the solid foundation on which I rebuild my life.
As J.K. Rowling said: “You might never fail at the scale I did. But some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously, that you might as well not have lived at all, in which are, you’ve failed by default.
Failure gave me a sense of inner security that I have never obtained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I couldn’t have learned any other way. I discovered that I had a strong will and more discipline than I have suspected. I also found out I have friends who’re knowledge was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after secure in your ability to survive. You’ll never truly know yourself or the strength of your relationship until both have been tested by adversity.
Such knowledge is a true gift for all that it is painfully won and it has been worth more than any qualification I have earned.”
December 27, 2019
Throughout this year, I’ve learnt that we all got two choices: stagnation or expansion. To stagnate is to be comfortable. Expansions come with fear, uncertainty and doubt. But it’s the experiences and places that are unfamiliar to us that gives us life.
The most beautiful thing about seeking discomfort and facing our fear is that it embodies different things for different people. It could be about talking to someone you haven’t spoken with for a long time. It could be about chasing your dream, putting yourself out there, and learning from the experiences. It could be about travelling solo. It could be to forget about what other people are going to think and judge.
Will you say yes? Because every adventure starts with a yes.
And by going after your dream, you give other people permission to go after theirs.
“We got to revolutionise something in this world and show that we are made of much more than we think. And for that, we have to dive into the depth. We have to dive into fear.”
– Wim Hof
Life’s most profound experiences and deepest connections lies beyond our comfort zone. The question then becomes, are you willing to accept what you are scared of. Are you willing to confront which part of your comfort zone needs expansion? Are you willing to stare down your self-imposed limitation in pursuit of growth, fulfilment and adventure?
Fear and discomfort come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes real discomfort is very personal to you. Ask yourself, what is on the other side of that fear?
“The antidote of self-centred attitude is altruism. Consider the rest of humanity one human community”
– Dalai lama
So go on, I implore you to be brave. To take action today. To keep your dream close, but the love for yourself even closer.
Once we realise these limitations are just thoughts, perceptions and lies we’ve been telling ourselves for far too long, then we’re able to tackle them one step at a time.
“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become”
– Steve Jobs
This is one of my favourite quotes that’s given me the strength to quit my job and really go after what I want. I hope it’ll do the same to you.
What do you struggle with? What do you think your perfect days look like? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.
If you find this helpful, please subscribe to my email list and please share this post with a friend who’s trying to figure out what to do with their life. It truly means a lot to me to know what my work has helped someone else.
**If you feel like you are suffering in life, in search of some purpose, I strongly recommend you read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl. Frankl is a famous psychologist who survived the concentration camp. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to share the learnings around this topic as well as him. The second book I’d strongly recommend is How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton M. Christensen. The way he has applied battle-tested business theories into life has guided me throughout my entire process and will continue to guide me into the future. Both works have been a great inspiration in my own search for meanings in life. I hope it will inspire you too**
**This piece of writing has been one of the most difficult to write by far and have taken me months to slowly put together. When I was writing this, I thought I wanted to help others, but the more I wrote, the more I realise this was to help me. To help me not be afraid and have hope. It serves as a reminder to myself to dream big, to learn ferociously, to have the courage and to not give up. I’ve decided to make it public so that others who are thinking through similar problems will hopefully benefit from it too.**
My mum, dad and sister
And thanks to many others who’s positively influenced me, inspired me and made me realise how lucky I am.