F* up Nights Talk – Summary

A few people have asked for a link to the video of this! But I didn’t feel I spoke very well so here is a written summary instead.

It was interesting that most people spoke about their f*ups with startups, and then wanting to go work for someone else instead. Mine was pretty much the opposite. Also I spent quite a long time thinking of what to talk about because after watching other speakers’ videos, I felt like wah, actually I never really f*ed up…

But then when I gave it deeper thought, I realized that at different points in my life, I must have seemed like a failure to most.

Since majority of my life was spent in school, I thought it was important to establish that I had already started failing then, which perhaps explains my laissez-faire attitude to failure now and then a spirit of bo try mana eh zai, cos if you fail, at least you learn. And life goes on anyway. So. Here goes:

Stage 1: School

I wasn’t very smart and I learnt this very early on in life thanks to our education system. Though I managed to get into schools that were considered good schools; I never did well. (Check out the evolution of stooffi man…)

In primary school I was a very average student, but it was apparent then that I was struggling with many subjects. In secondary school I enrolled in the Art Elective Programme, but flunked almost everything else save for English. Not exaggerating on flunking math, it was so bad I only managed a pass at O levels. I was also in a school where majority of the students took Higher Chinese, and I was in the only class of dropouts that struggled with “normal” Chinese.

I managed to get into NJC through AEP. The four subjects I took were Econs, History, Lit and Art. I was like probably 1% of the cohort that didn’t take math; but eventually I had to drop economics. I was probably the only person in the school who didn’t take those two subjects and then just spent a lot of time sleeping during History classes and cutting classes by hibernating in the art room. Did super average at A levels with an A B C grade. Art and dance were the only things I did better than the average person; but obvi these were skillz that did not pay the billz.

4 years of my life outside of secondary school was dedicated to rhythmic gymnastics trainings, and honing my fine art skills. Later on I continued dancing for 7-8 years.

…and I did fine art for a good 6 years.

At this point in time the only good thing about failing was that it helped me narrow down my options very early in life. While there was pressure for me to pursue a generic and safe degree like business, it didn’t make sense because math or economics were clearly not my forté. Pursuing a degree in art or dance were totally not up for negotiation in my family; so I did the next best thing: decided on studying mass communication. Which brings us to our next problem:

Stage 2: What Career?

i) Failure to stick to a job

Graduating from WKWSCI opens a lot of doors. Don’t get me wrong, I totally enjoyed my time in uni and the people I met there; but a mass comms degree was almost as generic as a business one. You could be anything from a journalist to PR person to advertising person to a producer in broadcast. Thankfully I gave myself a head start by interning more than the average undergrad would; trying out PR and digital marketing stints. Eventually when I graduated, I landed a job as an accounts executive, but I hated the nature of the job and left quickly after 3 months.

In the course of 4 years I never held a job for long; I started off as a suit, then moved to being a copywriter, designer, and finally a social media account executive. Call me the epitome of the strawberry generation or what not but I never regretted job hopping, though universal advice is to stay “for at least 2 years, if not it wouldn’t look good on your CV”.

I was quick to leave when I realized a job wasn’t for me, or the company wasn’t the right fit, but this helped me accelerate my learning process to pick up the variety of skills I needed eventually as a “social media person”.

This might draw flak, but my advice to people trying to find the right job for themselves is to be quick to leave when you feel that something’s not right for you. Yeah, the older generation might complain that we’re not loyal anymore — but what’s the point of staying somewhere and being unhappy when there’s probably something better for you out there? Nowadays the internet opens up countless opportunities to various jobs.

Someone asked about when the right time to leave is; I explained that I had 2 criteria:
1. When you’ve done all you can to try to effect the change you want seen that is beneficial to you being a better worker in the company, but have been unsuccessful.
2. When your boss does nothing to help you effect the changes.

ii) Failure to “pursue my dreams”

I also tried being a dancer and in the process realized that dancing as a day job really killed my passion. This is also why I have the utmost respect for my peers that pushed through. People whine about #agencylife. I don’t think you’ve ever tried #dancerlife.

This led me to…

Stage 3: Being utterly LOST

Really leh. At this stage most of my peers were starting to grow into their careers, while I was still stuck at entry level wthness, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Not a good feeling. I was struggling to embrace this stage of my life.

At the same time, I cultivated an interest in social media marketing and tried to fast track my learning (it’s not something that was taught in school at that time) by reading everything that was available and documenting my learnings at Penn Olson (now techinasia.com).

I also spontaneously did silly things like organise a picnic in response to the Diner en Blanc fiasco,  organized a dance concert called Dance for Japan to raise funds for tsunami victims, take part in a World’s Coolest Intern contest, did a response to some girl named Steph who dissed our local creative scene etc etc etc. And through all that I learnt a lot more about the nature of social media and how genuine conversations could actually take place on the platform, even with strangers.

I was intrigued by social media in Asia for 2 reasons:
i) It was relatively new, so it also meant that people who were smarter didn’t have a head start. Level playing field!
ii) A lot of what I was reading was best practices from the West, which could not be replicated in Asia where each country subscribed to different communication nuances, which then shaped different usage patterns on social media. Cannot copy paste solutions. Even more level playing field.

…Which eventually made me leap into my last job, as a social media executive.

Stage 4: Jumping out of agency life

…and then promptly jumping out of it

FIRSTLY I need to say I learnt crap loads in my last stint and I cannot be more thankful for the opportunity; it was only after that I had the guts to actually try doing it on my own.

But what I also learnt was that there wasn’t a hard and fast approach to social media marketing; and a large agency structure made it very hard to innovate as fast as I would like to. Being a “hybrid” + a social media role being relatively new meant that scope creep happened a lot – or was it not a creep? It didn’t help that I didn’t ask for a proper job description beforehand. Eventually I was confused and frustrated.

A lot of people think I was very brave to start my own business. The truth is, I was just being an escapist.

Stage 5: Trying to Run a Business

At this point I will accelerate through the learnings I’ve had in the past 2 years.

  1. You don’t always need a business plan from the get-go, but eventually you will.
  2. Complaining is the most non-productive thing you can do. I hate it with a passion.
  3. Fire fast – you can’t afford to let toxicity spread in the office, especially if you have a small team.
  4. When you start hiring, you need to quickly decide what kind of culture you want, and what kind of manager you want to be. Even with your first hire.
  5. Management is damn hard. I now understand why there are so many bad managers… it’s just damn hard to be a good one. (I am still trying and learning.)
  6. It’s inevitable that early in the business you are a yes-man (or woman… I still am, actually). But beware of clients that don’t pay fairly. These are the people who devalue your work, and more often than not ask for more while paying less.
  7. It’s okay to be honest with your flaws. I think most of our clients stick with us because we are bullshit free. And they end up being more protective over us because we’re upfront with our limitations. (<3)

The biggest learning I had in the recent years that wasn’t quite emphasized that really improved my quality of life was not to cling on to things that don’t add value to your wellbeing. Even if it means letting go of people. As a young(er) person I tended to be more sentimental and felt obliged to hold on to people I knew for years; but I now realize some people are meant to come and go. Life is much better when I surround myself with people I genuinely like, and can communicate candidly with. Now that I’m in a position to choose the people I work with, I realize the power of good communication also makes the organisation more effective. Processes are a lot more painless and jobs get done a lot quicker when miscommunication and politics are out the door.

In a nutshell, the definition of success and failure is very much shaped by society. In the early stages of your life, it’s defined by a grade – pass / fail. Later on it’s defined by how fast you could climb the ranks at a job. How much money you can earn. I guess even later it gets defined by your material possessions; even later then which school your kids went to; then how well they did at school (at least very much so in Singapore). Even as an entrepreneur, the definitions of success are very subjective to one’s own priorities.

I eventually grew to embrace the fact that you must choose your own path when you have the freedom to. It’s a super clichéd learning but I can’t emphasize enough that everyone’s path is different.

When you’re fresh out of school it’s understandable not to know what you want in life. At least be reckless in trying so you eventually know what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t settle, because most people just end up being depressed, and that’s probably why they complain so much. A bit a bit also sensitive, because a bit a bit also triggers a lot to be unhappy about.

Signing out with a brilliant quote by a brilliant man:

“If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”
– Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc. (<- Brilliant book.)

Live well, folks.


One Comment

  1. Hi Steph, thanks for sharing your life. I wish you big success in 2017!

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