So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ‘cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.
This text and post was originally found on halfhalf.posterous.com. I don’t believe I have to adhere to any specific blogging format. This is merely a way to express my views and share those ideas that resonate with my own. Enjoy.
Written by Adrian Tan, author of The Teenage Textbook (1988), was the guest-of-honour at a recent NTU convocation ceremony. This was his speech to the graduating class of 2008.
I must say thank you to the faculty and staff of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information for inviting me to give your convocation address. It’s a wonderful honour and a privilege for me to speak here for ten minutes without fear of contradiction, defamation or retaliation. I say this as a Singaporean and more so as a husband.
My wife is a wonderful person and perfect in every way except one. She is the editor of a magazine. She corrects people for a living. She has honed her expert skills over a quarter of a century, mostly by practising at home during conversations between her and me.
On the other hand, I am a litigator. Essentially, I spend my day telling people how wrong they are. I make my living being disagreeable.
Nevertheless, there is perfect harmony in our matrimonial home. That is because when an editor and a litigator have an argument, the one who triumphs is always the wife.
And so I want to start by giving one piece of advice to the men: when you’ve already won her heart, you don’t need to win every argument.
Marriage is considered one milestone of life. Some of you may already be married. Some of you may never be married. Some of you will be married. Some of you will enjoy the experience so much, you will be married many, many times. Good for you.
The next big milestone in your life is today: your graduation. The end of education. You’re done learning.
You’ve probably been told the big lie that “Learning is a lifelong process”and that therefore you will continue studying and taking masters’ degrees and doctorates and professorships and so on. You know the sort of people who tell you that? Teachers. Don’t you think there is some measure of conflict of interest? They are in the business of learning, after all. Where would they be without you? They need you to be repeat customers.
The good news is that they’re wrong.
The bad news is that you don’t need further education because your entire life is over. It is gone. That may come as a shock to some of you. You’re in your teens or early twenties. People may tell you that you will live to be 70, 80, 90 years old. That is your life expectancy.
I love that term: life expectancy. We all understand the term to mean the average life span of a group of people. But I’m here to talk about a bigger idea, which is what you expect from your life.
You may be very happy to know that Singapore is currently ranked as the country with the third highest life expectancy. We are behind Andorra and Japan, and tied with San Marino. It seems quite clear why people in those countries, and ours, live so long. We share one thing in common: our football teams are all hopeless. There’s very little danger of any of our citizens having their pulses raised by watching us play in the World Cup. Spectators are more likely to be lulled into a gentle and restful nap.
Singaporeans have a life expectancy of 81.8 years. Singapore men live to an average of 79.21 years, while Singapore women live more than five years longer, probably to take into account the additional time they need to spend in the bathroom.
So here you are, in your twenties, thinking that you’ll have another 40 years to go. Four decades in which to live long and prosper.
Bad news. Read the papers. There are people dropping dead when they’re 50, 40, 30 years old. Or quite possibly just after finishing their convocation. They would be very disappointed that they didn’t meet their life expectancy.
I’m here to tell you this. Forget about your life expectancy.
After all, it’s calculated based on an average. And you never, ever want to expect being average.
Revisit those expectations. You might be looking forward to working, falling in love, marrying, raising a family. You are told that, as graduates, you should expect to find a job paying so much, where your hours are so much, where your responsibilities are so much.
That is what is expected of you. And if you live up to it, it will be an awful waste.
If you expect that, you will be limiting yourself. You will be living your life according to boundaries set by average people. I have nothing against average people. But no one should aspire to be them. And you don’t need years of education by the best minds in Singapore to prepare you to be average.
What you should prepare for is mess. Life’s a mess. You are not entitled to expect anything from it. Life is not fair. Everything does not balance out in the end. Life happens, and you have no control over it. Good and bad things happen to you day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Your degree is a poor armour against fate.
Don’t expect anything. Erase all life expectancies. Just live. Your life is over as of today. At this point in time, you have grown as tall as you will ever be, you are physically the fittest you will ever be in your entire life and you are probably looking the best that you will ever look. This is as good as it gets. It is all downhill from here. Or up. No one knows.
What does this mean for you? It is good that your life is over.
Since your life is over, you are free. Let me tell you the many wonderful things that you can do when you are free.
The most important is this: do not work.
Work is anything that you are compelled to do. By its very nature, it is undesirable.
Work kills. The Japanese have a term “Karoshi”, which means death from overwork. That’s the most dramatic form of how work can kill. But it can also kill you in more subtle ways. If you work, then day by day, bit by bit, your soul is chipped away, disintegrating until there’s nothing left. A rock has been ground into sand and dust.
There’s a common misconception that work is necessary. You will meet people working at miserable jobs. They tell you they are “making a living”. No, they’re not. They’re dying, frittering away their fast-extinguishing lives doing things which are, at best, meaningless and, at worst, harmful.
People will tell you that work ennobles you, that work lends you a certain dignity. Work makes you free. The slogan “Arbeit macht frei” was placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps. Utter nonsense.
Do not waste the vast majority of your life doing something you hate so that you can spend the small remainder sliver of your life in modest comfort. You may never reach that end anyway.
Resist the temptation to get a job. Instead, play. Find something you enjoy doing. Do it. Over and over again. You will become good at it for two reasons: you like it, and you do it often. Soon, that will have value in itself.
I like arguing, and I love language. So, I became a litigator. I enjoy it and I would do it for free. If I didn’t do that, I would’ve been in some other type of work that still involved writing fiction – probably a sports journalist.
So what should you do? You will find your own niche. I don’t imagine you will need to look very hard. By this time in your life, you will have a very good idea of what you will want to do. In fact, I’ll go further and say the ideal situation would be that you will not be able to stop yourself pursuing your passions. By this time you should know what your obsessions are. If you enjoy showing off your knowledge and feeling superior, you might become a teacher.
Find that pursuit that will energise you, consume you, become an obsession. Each day, you must rise with a restless enthusiasm. If you don’t, you are working.
Most of you will end up in activities which involve communication. To those of you I have a second message: be wary of the truth. I’m not asking you to speak it, or write it, for there are times when it is dangerous or impossible to do those things. The truth has a great capacity to offend and injure, and you will find that the closer you are to someone, the more care you must take to disguise or even conceal the truth. Often, there is great virtue in being evasive, or equivocating. There is also great skill. Any child can blurt out the truth, without thought to the consequences. It takes great maturity to appreciate the value of silence.
In order to be wary of the truth, you must first know it. That requires great frankness to yourself. Never fool the person in the mirror.
I have told you that your life is over, that you should not work, and that you should avoid telling the truth. I now say this to you: be hated.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Do you know anyone who hates you? Yet every great figure who has contributed to the human race has been hated, not just by one person, but often by a great many. That hatred is so strong it has caused those great figures to be shunned, abused, murdered and in one famous instance, nailed to a cross.
One does not have to be evil to be hated. In fact, it’s often the case that one is hated precisely because one is trying to do right by one’s own convictions. It is far too easy to be liked, one merely has to be accommodating and hold no strong convictions. Then one will gravitate towards the centre and settle into the average. That cannot be your role. There are a great many bad people in the world, and if you are not offending them, you must be bad yourself. Popularity is a sure sign that you are doing something wrong.
The other side of the coin is this: fall in love.
I didn’t say “be loved”. That requires too much compromise. If one changes one’s looks, personality and values, one can be loved by anyone.
Rather, I exhort you to love another human being. It may seem odd for me to tell you this. You may expect it to happen naturally, without deliberation. That is false. Modern society is anti-love. We’ve taken a microscope to everyone to bring out their flaws and shortcomings. It far easier to find a reason not to love someone, than otherwise. Rejection requires only one reason. Love requires complete acceptance. It is hard work – the only kind of work that I find palatable.
Loving someone has great benefits. There is admiration, learning, attraction and something which, for the want of a better word, we call happiness. In loving someone, we become inspired to better ourselves in every way. We learn the truth worthlessness of material things. We celebrate being human. Loving is good for the soul.
Loving someone is therefore very important, and it is also important to choose the right person. Despite popular culture, love doesn’t happen by chance, at first sight, across a crowded dance floor. It grows slowly, sinking roots first before branching and blossoming. It is not a silly weed, but a mighty tree that weathers every storm.
You will find, that when you have someone to love, that the face is less important than the brain, and the body is less important than the heart.
You will also find that it is no great tragedy if your love is not reciprocated. You are not doing it to be loved back. Its value is to inspire you.
Finally, you will find that there is no half-measure when it comes to loving someone. You either don’t, or you do with every cell in your body, completely and utterly, without reservation or apology. It consumes you, and you are reborn, all the better for it.
Don’t work. Avoid telling the truth. Be hated. Love someone.
In 1911, 25 reindeer were introduced to St. Paul Island, an island that is part of the Pribilofs. They were introduced to replace the native caribou that had gone extinct due to hunting.
By 1938, the reindeer population grew to 2,046. A boom as they expected and the average body weight of the reindeer had dramatically increased by 22%.
A few years later, there were 8 reindeer on the Island.
No major predators were around. Bad environmental conditions didn’t play a role. Disease didn’t spread. The island of St. Paul hit carrying capacity. Every living thing (and business) has a carrying capacity. Biologist and economist refer to carrying capacity as K on a graph. Only 2 things can happen when you hit K.
- You can stabilize. You can overshoot and begin to stabilize around your peak until you eventually flatline at a comfortable level and continue existence.
- You crash. Which is what the reindeer of St. Paul Island did. They overshot carrying capacity and the population plummeted.
At best, the island could support 2,046 reindeer. But at the rate they were growing, resources would eventually come short. The island is unable to ween the reindeer off of their eating habit. The population doesn’t slowly decline or “hover” around their carrying capacity. The reindeer become practically extinct in one season because of starvation as the last resource is consumed.
I jump at the chance to tell this story. Last night a friend of mine was expressing how exhausted and consumed she was with her work/life/school balance. She keeps piling on the work and making no headway. She is taking steps backward. I applaud her for her efforts and confidence to handle so much. But everything and everyone has a carrying capacity. I doubt she will disappear out of existence, but you understand.
I think productivity and sustainability is all about finding that sweet spot. The sweet spot where you’re at the maximum productivity and still able to grasp and control growth. I’m not usually one to preach about “slowing down” and I won’t start now. But I believe without the proper understanding of your own carrying capacity, you will plummet.
A lot more plays into your personal carrying capacity then your work load. Romantic relationships, hobbies, friends, late nights, financial debt, stress, sex, school, food. Allowing your life to consume you will be the quickest way to be wiped from memory.
Find your sweet spot. Here’s how:
- Work to achieve a goal. Weed out the bad priorities.
- Be with someone who helps. If you’re going to be romantically involved with someone, make sure they’re taking the stress away – not adding.
- Unplug. The quickest way to feel overloaded is to check Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email and blog stats 15 times a hour.
- Sleep. This is life’s natural way of rebooting you. Don’t take it for granted. I wrote more about the importance of sleep here.
***Can you believe they introduced more reindeer in 1944? Guess what happened.
This past week Under 30 CEO posted an article on 5 Tips to Launch a Successful Business as a Student. After digesting, I’ve came up with some more honest tips that can help you avoid pitfalls and succeed faster. I’ve launched two businesses as a student and now have left school to pursue entrepreneurship
Take all of these with a grain of salt. But I’ve been there. I’ve failed tons of times.
1. A business plan isn’t as useful as they say. You’re going to change it within 3 days of launching – I guarantee it. If you don’t, you’re not seeing the signs. Your original plan is NEVER flawless.
**While operating a food delivery company during my freshman year, I thought my pricing strategy was PERFECT! After a few weeks of deliveries I realized I was seriously undervaluing myself and my customers took advantage of it.Changed the pricing to show our quality and the rest is history…
2. The less employees you have, the better. Or at least find less people to delegate to. While needing delivery drivers and people to answer the phone and help with accounting…I thought I needed to personally delegate tasks. Instead, what I needed was 2 people who could run things and make decisions without me being there. No time for hand-holding.
3. Time management means everything. I can’t believe the original article didn’t touch on this. You need to know when to separate yourself from the business. When to take class seriously, when to skip. You need to know how valuable sleep is.
4. Master the skill of goal setting. I stole this from the Under 30 CEO. Immediately find out when cash flow will be strong enough to purchase inventory – set a goal to buy it. Set a goal to hit xxx amount of traffic on your site by xxx date. But don’t set a goal to succeed. By starting a business, you’ve already succeeded.
5. Value Relationships. This is the most important. As a college student with limited capital or experience, there is a good possibility you’re not going to be the best in your field. I know that I wasn’t the best delivery company. But I made sure to protect, enhance and value all of the relationships I did have with restaurant owners and employees. I usually was selling them on my effectiveness more than customers.
**”No one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not billionaires, not even geniuses—ever makes it alone.” – Malcolm Gladwell
Be honest with yourself.
I took one of the biggest risks you can take at my age. I started a business. Looking back now, it was the best decision I have ever made and I wouldn’t do anything differently.
Starting a business when you’re 18 (now 20) comes with sacifices. I lost friends, gave up time and left school. But one thing I didnt sacrifice was sleep. Sleep is your greatest resource.
Why Sleep Is Your Greatest Resource:
1. My food delivery company consisted of a very small team. My twin brother and I managed any and all responsibilites for a long time. Over sleeping wasn’t an option and neither was not being alert. Be alert and decisive.
2. Nothing good can happen after midnight. Staying up past midnight answering emails or reading articles will do nothing. You won’t digest the article and you won’t be coherent in your emails. Grabbing a late night drink, even if they are an important, is not worth it. The opportunity cost of losing sleep trumps going to that party on campus. You could be sleeping and resting to GROW your business.
3. You feel better. No need for 15 cups of coffee and an energy shot. You did it the old fashion way and allowed your body to rejuvenate.
4. You look better. No dark circles, no bags, no lines. Go to a meeting looking like you partied all night and you will be treated like it.
5. You’ll live longer. Studies show that those who get a regular 8 hours of sleep decrease their chances of stress, heart disease and a number of other things. If you want to live to see your company go public…get some rest.
If you’re really working hard as an entrepreneur, you will go home every day ready to sleep. That’s the best sign of a hard day’s work.
I consider myself a pretty stylish guy. When I’m clothes shopping, I don’t yield to my girlfriend for her opinion on if I’m picking out the right things. I curate my closet and make the decision on what to wear.
I was shoe shopping about 2 weeks ago when I came across an incredible pair of brown wing tips. A beautiful set of shoes that I must have. My girlfriend, who was with me in the store, looked at me in almost disgust when I went to pick the shoes up. “I dont know if I like those” she said, “Do you really like those?”.
She was respecting my feelings. She didn’t want me to look like an idiot in these shoes. But remember, I don’t care what she thinks about my shoes. I know a great shoe when I see it. I bought the shoes and wore the hell out of them the next weekend for a wedding we attended together.
I met her at the church (she was a bridesmaid and was there much earlier) the morning of the wedding. She had asked what I would be wearing the days prior, but I didn’t mention the new wingtips would be on my feet. As I walked in, I was greeted by another friend, also a bridesmaid. Afer saying hello she immediately complimented me on my shoes. “Those are sharp! Where did you get those?”.
I finally got to see my girlfriend after the ceremony before we headed to the reception. She was standing with a friend and introduced me. I’m a gentleman and ask how they both enjoyed the ceremony and did they need a ride to the reception. After polite conversation the girl complimented on my shoes…stating they looked great with my suit.
During the reception, I danced with my girlfriend and as the night slowly winded down and we were able to talk more, she noted how handsome I looked. I reminded her how much she didn’t like my shoes when I bought them, yet I was “handsome” in them now. She replied…
” What?? I never said! I’m the one who insisted you get them! I think I’m the one who picked them out, right?”
A few lessons to be learned here.
- If you curate your closet (or life, or product, or brand) and you’re doing okay, keep doing it. You will get better with experience and practice. You also won’t get a terrible mix of a bunch of bullshit you “sorta” like.
- No one wants to be the first customer. Have a great business idea you want to pitch? Tell the first client you pitch that his competitor is already on board and you are seeking others right now. Chelsea didn’t like my shoes until her friends did. She needed confirmation.
- Group debate and forums don’t always get the best result. Sometimes a key decision maker with the right vision will make the right decision. Take Steve Jobs, for example.
- Always dance with your lady at weddings.
My junior year in high school I signed up for an entrepreneurship class with the lady who usually teaches basic Microsoft applications to incoming freshman. What a fucking joke.
The only assignment was to write a business plan and present it to the class. That was it. 10 weeks for one assignment. You were even given the option to work with a partner. I usually work alone, but my twin brother Jeremy had taken the class with me.
I remember vividly the first 2-3 weeks in class because it was some of the best napping I ever did. Other students sat around and pretended like they were doing work. There was no pretending from Jeremy and I – we walked in, turned the computer on, checked my email (which was usually blocked, but I guess administration doesn’t know kids are actually tech savvy these days) and immediately put my head down for a solid 45 minutes of class. Why rush or put the effort in now? I had 10 weeks to create a 20 slide Powerpoint presentation of my “business plan”.
As I would sometimes drift around the room or try to skip class on days when I couldn’t sleep, I remember students putting so much pressure on themselves because they didn’t know what kind of business to start. Jeremy and I couldn’t wrap out heads around that. We seriously had 10 new business ideas each day.
Mrs. Teller (changed the name because she is a nice lady), our teacher, finally came around to noticing we were doing absolutely nothing with our time in class. So, instead of punishing us, she had us help other students think of business ideas because everyone wanted to start a restaurant and she didn’t want the whole class presenting on how they all want to open a Texas Roadhouse.
I didn’t mine the task so much. Jeremy and I sat around all class and let our imaginations and creative juices flow. We were gurus and untapped resources. Our minds were let loose and we flourished that day. We would always be entrepreneurs. We would always be idea men. We had great ideas for delivery companies, tech startups and everything else under the sun. These kids had no idea how to think of fun, creative, innovative businesses.
After practically writing business plans and explaining market strategy to the rest of the class, it was week 9 and we had yet to even start on our project…but we weren’t worried. We had been writing our business plan in our head all year. Jeremy and I were going to start a business building Nap Rooms. That is what we called it too – Nap Rooms.
See, we had been napping all year and praising how good we felt afterwards. Recharged, refreshed and back at 100%. Corporate offices, athletic clubs, universities, everyone would want a Nap Room. No more late night rendezvous leaving people dragging at the office the next day. Giving employees an opportunity to sleep for a small period of time in a room built for the ultimate nap. At the time, we thought we were geniuses.
We ended up not even using a power point slide. Jeremy and I wrote out some things on note cards and just bounced back and forth talking about possible growth. Besides, that’s what we were good at. Talking and napping.
I will spare you a lengthy ending and tell you that we aced the class (so did a few other students, wasn’t that hard to do so). But the grade didn’t matter to us. What did matter was that we saw other people get excited about our ideas and develop them on their own. Ideas that usually just get left at the cafeteria table or in the school store’s office we ran during our study hall.
Mrs. Teller didn’t teach me squat about how to be an entrepreneur, about how to write a business plan (who needs that shit anyways – waste of time) or about how to get a loan or investment. She was actually a pretty horrible teacher. But what the class gave me was a window of opportunity to learn how to pitch my ideas.