In retrospect, 2017

To me, 2017 was a year of changes. It was a rollercoaster ride, a Matrix movie, and a kaleidoscope combined together. It made me see a lot of things in completely different ways which I didn’t even know exist before. So I think it deserves a little bit more than a simple Twitter status update.

What I have here is a rambling combination of a tribute, a self-diagnosis, and a startup “what I have learned” story. And I wrote it mostly for myself, to dump the bits off my mind, so hopefully it can also be useful to you.

The year started with the thunderous news of my dad’s sudden death, after being able to successfully fight off various stroke complications for five years. My father and I weren’t very close, and he had been sick for quite some time, so the ending wasn’t really beyond everybody’s imagination. But still, it was the first time I had to deal with a loss that I knew couldn’t be compensated by something else.

Strangely, I thought I would be more sad, but I wasn’t. But the untimely death itself (my dad was only 62) did make me reflect on my own mortality. I used to have a very organic view of death, in which death seems to only happen to someone who had already passed the apex of life and run out of things to do. There were exceptions, I knew, like all the famous people who died before their time, but those cases were so distant and you didn’t really need to internalize them.

Well, until now, because here is the perfect example of someone who had died before using up all their energy and their will of living. Someone who you also knew all too well. Suddenly, the experience became impossible to internalize.

In the ashes of that organic, PG13, view of death, a new rational view of death was then born, which was cold, R-rated, and truly terrifying. You started to realize that when Randy Pausch said what if you only had three months to live, it wasn’t a completely hypothetical question. There is a real, non-zero, chance that you really do only have three months to live. Try to internalize that.

I wouldn’t say that was the only reason that made me later pull the trigger and quit my job to take on the startup journey, but it definitely played a part. I had known that I would eventually jump into the startup world full-time, at least for once, even just to get that battle scar so I could show it around like a badge of honor (how naive I was!). This event had brought me a strong sense of urgency, that I couldn’t hold off any longer.

Doing the startup, or putting it in a more basic form, trying to build something from the ground up that other people would use, is an altogether different challenge from what I was used to. I had been struggling to understand why. Now I think I finally have some answers.

People were driven in life by many different things. In my past life, I was probably driven by curiosity 60% of the time and competitiveness 40% of the time. The mix had served me pretty well in the past: the competitiveness part got me through the Chinese school and exam system; the curiosity part carried me through graduate school, and helped me land my first job. But it didn’t work very well now.

In a way, both curiosity and competitiveness are about doing something for yourself, while doing a startup is fundamentally about doing something for the others. There was something new about this experience, about being motivated by helping others, that I wasn’t really accustomed to.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy helping others, but it was more about I didn’t know how to work towards earning a new type of reward — other people’s appreciation. It was always easier for me to fall back to the comfortable old path of getting rewarded through discovering something new or achieving technical excellence.

The good news is that after realizing this “motivation misalignment”, I had started to train myself to focus on the rewards from positive user feedback, and distance myself from the feel-good moments of technical achievement. It was like learning to walk all over again. I had to “unlearn” some knee-jerk reactions that were trained long long time back.

But at the same time, it was also a fun experience, as I got gradually hooked up with a new poison — the thrill of making other lives better. It was a “high” that was very different from the “high” of learning some new secrets or designing some beautiful systems. It was a feeling that you somehow made a difference, no matter how small it is, in the life of a stranger. It feels GOOD.

This is only one among the bazillion things I had learned in my journey so far, though it was probably the most important one of the year. Your motivation has to be aligned with what you want to achieve. So take a hard look, and make the adjustment.

2017 swooshed past like a tornado, but I think there was also an implicit cycle that had been completed within all the craziness: it started with death, but ended with a new thing being born.

It was also my dad who first taught me coding when I was 10, and now I am working on making coding simpler and more accessible to other people. Maybe this is a little more than a coincidence, at least that is what I hope for.