What I Learnt In NOC Silicon Valley 2014 #NOCStories


NOC Silicon Valley is a program offered by the National University of Singapore (NUS), specifically, the NUS Overseas Colleges. Silicon Valley is one of the locations out of 7 global entrepreneurial hubs around the world. Undergraduates embark on a 6-month or 1-year internship program at startups while taking entrepreneurship classes at partner universities.

Prologue

As I boarded the plane bounded for San Francisco from Singapore on 29 December 2013, I felt free. I was not beholdened to any thoughts, assumptions, or judgements. I told myself, the theme of 2014, is to be open-minded. I will take that attitude with me for everything. It was easy to do that, because I haven’t been to USA before, I have no idea what to expect, and the best way to prepare oneself, is to start on a blank slate.

If you want to do something new — if you want to progress — you only have a limited amount of time and you are going to have to make a choice first. The past is gone. What do you want to start with?

I’ve never seen myself traveling out of Singapore for so long, much less be away for a whole year, with no friends, or family, and go to a faraway place. I didn’t make a conscious choice that I wanted to progress in the direction of tech startups, my path just eventually led me to here. People ask me what I want to do in 5 years, I don’t have an answer. The much more achievable answer I can give is, I know what I want to do today, and tomorrow, and then I take each day as it leads me.

Applying for NOC Silicon Valley was a very scary decision for me. I had all these images appearing in my mind of the what ifs, the unknowns. I had all these questions about coping. Coping with the absence of loved ones, familial support, social support. And then I stopped thinking. Sometimes it’s good to ruminate over the past, and reflect upon lessons that can be learnt, but it’s never good to hypothesise the future excessively. I stopped all the thoughts. And just did it. That was all there was to it. I just did it.

Lesson 1: To Know Someone, Is To Stay With Them

I’ve gained this immensely valuable insight from being away from home, a home that I’ve lived in for more than two decades. I would not have otherwise experienced this if not for being away from home in a traditional culture where children do not move out until they are married. The close proximity and daily interactions are huge windows into someone’s character, personality, and way of life. I’ve lived in two drastically different households during my one year, and this lesson was consistent. If you want to know if you can enter into a business / romantic / platonic relationship with anyone, the best bet you can enlighten yourself is to live for a duration together. I can say with a good amount of certainty that this is the best indicator to know the life of a relationship - if it will be a temporal or a lifetime one.

Lesson 2: Don’t Know Something? Just Do It.

This is in the same vein as my last paragraph in the prologue. The biggest what, how, when, where, whys can be answered through experience. Want to know how it’s like going to Silicon Valley? Just go. Want to know how to cook a gourmet meal? Just buy the ingredients, kitchen tools and cook. Want to work in a startup? Just find one and work. Remember that everybody is unique. Someone’s experience is not your experience. They can serve as much as a guide. But they are not your reality. Your reality is you going out to uncover the unknowns. My best analogy is like playing a RPG, with a darkened territory, the character illuminates a radius of light around wherever he goes. The more he walks, the more darkness is uncovered. He has a map at the top right hand corner to guide his location, but he never knows what to expect in the direct darkness. He meets people, places and objects along the adventure of uncovering as much darkness as possible. How do you fill the darkened territory with light? You keep walking and illuminating it. It will tell you a lot more about what’s in the dark in excruciating detail than the best maps can provide. Being in your own experience, is about as real and authentic an experience you can get for yourself.

Lesson 3: What It Means To Be Completely Alone

The most ironic part about going to someplace faraway by myself is that I felt the most vulnerable, but I also felt my strongest. It’s the feeling of being out in the wild, by myself, oblivious to everything else that has not shown itself yet. But once it comes, I am there, ready to fight to the death of me. There is nothing, but myself, and my will to survive. The mind became extremely clear on what it needs to do. When shit happened, I had to deal with it. I didn’t and couldn’t turn around and run, call someone or ask for help. I had to deal with it and accept all its responsibilities and consequences. If I failed to survive, it was because of me. If I lived to see the next day, it was because of me. Through being alone, I embraced my weakest and strongest sides. I knew what I was incapable and capable of doing. I knew what made me lived, and what killed me, because of my decisions. It taught me a great deal about myself and being responsible for every single decision I make for myself. There is no finger pointing, there is no blame pushing. There is only me, and my own decisions.

Lesson 4: Importance of Material Pursuits

I packed a bare minimal when I flew there. I shopped once, at the start of the year, to have suitable clothings for the weather. And I stopped. I needed a car to get around, since I was living an hour away from my workplace. I shopped around for one on Craigslist, in vain, and then I bought a 1999 Porsche Boxster off from a senior out of convenience and frustration from searching high and low for so long. I learnt that clothes represent very different things for different people. Some use it to cover up their physical bodies, some use it to cover up their insecurities. I viewed material possessions as having functional purposes. Once it stops serving its function, it loses its value to me. I gained very little spiritually from consuming beyond what I need. I learnt that driving a Porsche didn’t come with all the good feelings one would think to have. Maybe I drove a sucky one that I was constantly worrying about breaking down. But I spent close to little or no money on accumulating excess. I learnt that the importance of material pursuits is that it is not important in helping you lead a more meaningful life.

Lesson 5: Navigating Relationships Tactfully

I learnt a great deal about Dale Carnegie’s number one lesson — Be appreciative. It doesn’t matter if it’s your hired cleaner, your friend or your spouse. Every single human thrives on the same vein of knowing that someone appreciates and acknowledges him and his efforts. Know that even if you are appreciative, you still cannot control how someone else will perceive your intentions. I have misunderstood, and been misunderstood on numerous occasions. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try. You put your best foot forward, and you learn to navigate what comes. I have, on the other hand, been appreciated immensely by my company during my internship with them. My performance on the job in the marketing team was acknowledged during one of our monthly all-hands meeting, and my CEO sang praises of me in front of the team (of ~100 people). When it was my last day, he gave me a special speech during our team lunch addressing and acknowledging my efforts in front of everyone yet again. Letting someone know that they are being appreciated is one of the greatest gifts you can give to anyone.

Lesson 6: People Who Mind Won’t Matter, People Who Matter Won’t Mind

And then you learn more. People who matter won’t mind, and people who mind, won’t matter. You learn to hold on to people who matter, and you hold them on for whatever it takes. You learn to let go of people who don’t matter, and you let everything go; that includes all your baggage, resentment, judgement and emotions about them. You harbour nothing positive or negative.

Lesson 7: Being Taken Advantage Of / Misunderstood

At any stage of life, I’m sure every single of one of us have felt that way. The reason why I’m singling this lesson out is because it’s so much more amplified when I was alone in a faraway place. There wasn’t someone I could reach out to for emotional support. For being nice, I’m reciprocated with being taken advantage of.

One of the biggest uneventful stories was loaning my car to a friend who was going to loan my car out to some paid renter in replacement of his own, because he wanted to earn some extra cash, and he crashed his car just 2 days before he was due to loan it out. This turned out to be the one of the biggest wrong decisions I’d made, for being nice in helping a friend out. Turned out that I got taken for a joy ride, my car broke down, got left out in Fresno, some 3 hour drive away from the Bay Area, left at the Porsche dealer to get it repaired, which was 2,3 times more expensive than a regular mechanic. I had to bear the full costs. I was poorly compensated by the rental service who claimed. I troubled 2 other friends in this whole event to loan their cars to me while I was car-less and fretting, all because I gave in to help a friend. I was also moving out of my house to the city. The troubles all kept coming. As it turned out, I paid for an expensive lesson, a lesson learnt of being taken advantage of. Along the way, a friendship turned sour from whom I borrowed her car while I needed one. I was deeply grateful for the help rendered to me when I needed them the most. But as it turned out, I was misunderstood as being out to make some extra cash for myself, while inconveniencing others. The other friend, subsequently had his spark plugs turn faulty, from whom I borrowed his car to drive to Fresno to fetch my own car. I felt miserable. I learnt that well intentions sometimes are reciprocated with ha, you fool. But I also learnt that being taken advantage of and being misunderstood are merely parts of life.

Lesson 8: On Working Hard And Innovating

This is an easy lesson for Singaporeans. We all work hard. It comes as second nature. It’s working hard, balanced with humility, coupled with confidence, and choosing when it’s worth it that I learnt. Blindly working hard in a startup culture means nothing. It just translates that one is inefficient. The mantra in Silicon Valley is to get shit done. It doesn’t matter if you stayed 1 hour in the office, or 10 hours. I learnt to work hard for the right reasons. That means taking time to learn what matters to the company. It’s not about what matters to yourself. You are only adding true value if the company values what you are contributing. I constantly asked myself, how can I make the greatest impact, or in my CEO’s words “move the needle” for the company. I constantly innovated and asked what are we not doing yet. I was given a lot of flexibility to experiment, and innovate, to try, and to fail. I was hungry to learn and I wasn’t afraid of being foolish. Remember Lesson 2: Don’t know something? Just do it. In a fast paced fast growing startup, there are no best practices. You are doing the practice, and you are designing what’s best. I didn’t know many things, and I just tried doing it. I’m very appreciative of the fact that I was given a lot of autonomy to execute Lesson 2 over and over in the whole course of my work. We were at the forefront of Facebook advertising in the flash sales industry, being at the top, meant being alone. At every single point, we were doing the best that we could at that point. I had no resource to turn to when I googled “best practices for Facebook’s Multi Product Ads”, because it was a brand new ad product off the pipeline from Facebook. We were alpha testers. It was the epitome of “just do it”. No white papers to read, no forums to talk in, no articles, nothing. That was learning in its best form. I embraced the challenge of the unknown and I worked hard at learning to iterate as quickly as possible. Failing and learning with other people’s money is the most privileged way to fail and learn.

Lesson 9: On Being Open-minded

This is the singular most valuable lesson I could teach myself. I went on so many first experiences in my one year at San Francisco. My boss took me on so many adventures. He indulged me in his hobbies. We were very tight as a marketing team. I was exposed to skeet shooting with a shot gun. I was brought to eat a f-ton of fresh raw oysters at oyster farms. I was invited to go lake fishing which eventually led to deep-sea fishing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I puked the most number of times in one occasion, on the boat, while in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, while we were catching rock cods and dungeness crabs in the numbers of hundreds. I cooked my first live crabs. I caught my first fish in a lake. I attended my first Pride Parade in the heart of San Francisco. I lived in a community house filled with global citizens — that is another story on its own. I gave away my virgin clubbing experience. I experienced house concerts. I ate at 4 Michelin restaurants. I visited a Free Eats kitchen for the homeless in San Francisco. I went camping for the first time in King’s Canyon. I went skiing and snowboarding for the first times. I saw snow for the first time. I went to a strip club. I went to the big tech companies offices and met real people doing real work, and now I can associate huge tech names with a real face. I met my first Mormon. I made my first friends from various countries. I heard gun shots. I experienced the biggest storm San Francisco had in years. I attended tech conferences and paid some good money for it which I previously would not have. I bouldered in the outdoors for the first time. I went to Yosemite and saw El Capitan, Half Dome etc. I flew to Las Vegas. I visited Hollywood. I drove an old Porsche and sold it to the next fool. I commuted to work daily on a bicycle while I lived in San Francisco. I rock-climbed in my first gorge experience at Owen’s River Gorge. I airbnb-ed for the first time. I took Lyft and Uber. I cooked with foods I wasn’t familiar with.

Basically, whatever I wanted to try, I did. If I didn’t try it yet, it’s because I probably don’t know about it. I ventured away from my comfort zone so very often.

Through being open-minded, I discovered myself.

I recently just read a book by Lim Siong Guan (he’s a figure that’s a million times more inspiring than I ever could be, read more about him here) and this is an apt lesson espoused by him that’s applicable in what I learnt in NOC.

There is always something new to learn in every situation.
If you keep choosing what you want to do, you will be confining yourself to the world you know, and might miss the opportunity to learn things that you never imagined you could!

Because I was open minded, I allowed myself to be enriched by the experiences there were, and through that, learnt a whole lot more about myself than I otherwise would have if I’d stay in Disneyland Singapore.


End Notes

NOC Silicon Valley 2014 was a gateway to a different world. It’s cliche to use big words like it has “transformed” me. Sure it did, but it will mean nothing to someone reading this if you haven’t experienced it. Like any gateways, it’s merely a door. What happens after you walk through the door is what you make of it. NOC Silicon Valley is not your mother, neither is it a machine. It doesn’t tell you what to do. It doesn’t put you through a process. You listen to your heart, and you go through the door with an open mind. You learn by doing what you want and think you should be doing.

I promise you will learn what’s important in your life and come out with your own lessons too.

Find out more about NOC: http://www.overseas.nus.edu.sg/

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