Things I wish I knew at the beginning
It may sound like an odd thing to say, but it needs to be heard: there are no right answers. It needs to be repeated many times over.
Startup life is more hard work and grime than the romance it portrays to people who aren’t living it — once you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, you need to keep making more.
The trouble with Singapore and the people in it is exactly as this article puts it: “the average Singaporean professional would rather do the wrong thing, the right way – than the right thing the wrong way.” (There are some problematic assumptions in the article, but I agree with the overall premise.)
We can call this anything we want: a cultural quirk, the Singaporean way, the kiasu syndrome. I won’t pretend I know exactly why we are this way, or even say definitively if we are changing or if we aren’t — though I suspect the education system and the ‘Singapore dream’ has something to do with it.
Growing up in Singapore, the “right way” and the “right answers” are so deeply ingrained in every step of our lives that we seldom stop to think whether they are truly ‘right’, or whether there is such a thing as one way of ‘rightness’ at all.
We’re told (and led to believe): success is great grades at the PSLE, O Levels, A Levels, entry to a prestigious university, a scholarship if that can be arranged, a ‘good job’ (by which it means either a prestigious government job or MNC job or at the very least, one that pays decently well), a good match, a flat (to upgrade to a condo or other ‘private’ housing at an appropriate time in the future), the right number of kids, the right number in your bank when you finally hit the ‘right’ age at which the government will allow you to withdraw your CPF monies to retire in the ‘right’ way.
It’s a national manifestation of the corporate saying (of yesteryear): nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM.. or McKinsey. Strive to do well for yourself but always cover your ass when you can help it.
And then what?
For those of us who have rejected the ‘right’ path and the ‘right’ way to life, it takes a shockingly long time to unlearn this obsession with being correct — to even learn that there is no such thing as the one true way, answer, or path. That this sort of thing is better left to exam-takers and students. And to the religious.
Obsessing about the ‘right’ things to do leads us to take steps that lead to outcomes that are far from ‘right’, such as:
- Postponing your passion for the safety of knowing what comes next. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the yearning for stability. It is essential to the way most of us structure the rest of our lives, and it affects our interactions with the people around us. Yes, money is very important. Yes, prestige is important. But if you choose to slog for the Big 4 instead of hustling while you are most able to, in your youth, then you shouldn’t be too surprised when you find that your ‘passion’ or ‘dream job’ is rather hard to pursue as a hobby on the side when you have so few hours after-hours. When it’s time to take it up again, your peers will be far, far ahead and far more accomplished — because they slogged for it. I have known crazy talented dancers or musicians at school who would rather do this than keep at their craft, even if it’s so clear to everyone else that in 10 years they could very well be among the best in the world. And yet they would rather temporarily live off the prestige of a massive, faceless company.
- Projecting for a future that you will talk about, but never end up living. It takes tremendous discipline to actually do what you say you will. It takes more effort than actually doing it. I was often asked, “How do you find the energy to travel to all these places? Or find the money? One day I will quit my job and travel the world for six months.” The problem with that sort of defeatism is that many people dream of doing things. It’s okay to dream. It’s much better to do. You need to know what you really want out of a less-than-ideal situation that you willingly get yourself into — greater financial disposition is usually accompanied by a reduced appetite for risk. It can empower you to set yourself up in such a way that you can eventually fund what you really want to do in the future, but I generally find the people who end up doing exactly that are a dime a dozen and they are the ones who have immense discipline to follow through. Which are traits which would have served them well whether or not they postponed their ambitions.
- Vacillating. This is the scariest place for anyone to be in. Our education system has trained us to spot answers. We memorize from ten year series, spot trends, guess-timate what we should devote our attention to, skipping whole chunks of interesting knowledge for a higher probability of being correct. After a certain time, our lives stop being defined by the numbers and letters we are awarded for our efforts. Anyone who allows themselves to continue being judged by someone else’s standards is selling themselves short. The net result of a lifetime of all this, which are second guesses at worst and trained reflexes at best, culminate into an expectation of success in return for labour. As kids in school will tell you, this has always been true and will continue to be even more so outside the school system, there are those kids who don’t even seem to try who will do better, and it will have nothing to do with how hard you worked and everything to do with how they were smarter and worked harder.
I could go on. I’ve had a relatively straightforward path to unlearning these bad habits, mostly because as a student of the humanities I preferred to meander than to be precise; I was better at essays than at equations; I was more inclined to investigate the nuances, the spaces between the black and white. I don’t think one should dwell entirely in those nuances, but they have a part to play in kicking you away from certain assumptions about the ‘right things’ that are often dead on wrong, because you consider every other possibility.
In my short time learning to thrive in the startup world, there’s been plenty of thinking on my feet, and even more of making things up as I go along (caveat: make things up in a measured manner, if that’s possible: if you say you will sell ice to eskimos even when you don’t have the water to freeze, you better be able to find a body of water somewhere, somehow). If there was a ‘right’ way to go about doing this, I definitely did not see it. There are some best practices one would do well to adhere to as closely as possible: I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to protect yourself legally and to make sure you are not being taken for a ride by business partners (insisting on contracts with specific scopes, knowing exactly what percentage of equity you are getting and when, what voting rights you have — sounds simple when you talk about it, but is not practised enough especially by young entrepreneurs who are learning on the job. I know because I say this from being on the wrong side of those experiences, early on.)
But the “right” answers? Not such thing. The rational, reasonable things to do so in these strange, fluid worlds of business and technology, very often end up being plain wrong. Pursuing the right answer at every path may land you further away from where you want to be. It is what makes some founders flounder in the face of a little competition, as though competition alone was enough to quit. It is what makes others stick relentlessly to a model that doesn’t work, because the right answers tell them a pivot is not required, even when a pivot is what will save or improve their lots. It is what makes others yet never quit the safety of a job they dislike (oh, and staying in something you don’t particularly love or hate isn’t any better — would you ever marry someone who say they “don’t mind” marrying you? I hope not), to carry the hope of one days and somedays.
So what is the right way? I have no such prescriptions, except this: have a ball of fun, doing and learning this stuff, on the job. Be nimble on your feet, be ready to jog when it’s necessary and sprint when you have to. It’s the best job in the world. It wouldn’t be so if it wasn’t so hard to be ‘right’ at it.
Featured image is “Go” by kaneda99 (link), some rights reserved.