Tia Gao
Tia Gao
Jun 20, 2016 · 5 min read

By the time I was 14, I had moved six times, through three countries and six cities. I attended local schools and was always known as the kid who couldn’t speak the local language.

I kept my foreigner status as a badge of honor, because, well, different is good right? Until I read the recent research finding from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on how moving is linked to bad things in life.

AJPM concluded that if you moved between the ages of zero through 14, you will likely have a troubled life. You’ll have a higher rate of suicide, drug abuse, violence, psychiatric illness, …

I disagree with the implications of the article. As a child, being moved showed me that the most emotionally-draining events in life are often beyond our control. An event can turns your life upside down, and you can’t do anything to change its course. So if you’re moving, you have two options: to resist the change, or, to go with it.

But “resistance” is futile, because the move is going to happen whether you like it nor not. Whatever resistance you put out is just a way to hang onto a false sense of security, in order to balance out the impending insecurity. But it doesn’t work. So “going with it” is the only good option.

Disrupting Values

Here is what a move does to kids. It disrupts two values that are frequently upheld by kids. Certainty and Significance:

  1. Reliance on the Certainty of life. This is our sense of security on what’s going on in our life. For example, all of us live with a level of certainty that our friend today will be our friend tomorrow, certainty that we’ll have a job tomorrow, certainty that we’ll have our home to sleep in tonight. Being forced to move disrupts that certainty. It disrupts their friendships, their school life (which to a kid is like their job), and their home .
  2. Belief in one’s Significance. Kids often desire to be significant in life. To be super heroes or movie stars, because feeling significant is a great feeling to have. Heck, most adults seek significance too — to many of you, your sense of self-worth is determined by how highly others perceive you to be.

When a kid experiences a move, these two values get disrupted. In turn, kids who resist the change will do so by holding onto a their sense of certainty and significance. Kids who just “goes with it” will do so by finding new values that work better for them.

For a while, I’ve tried hanging onto the certainty and significance, but believe me, it didn’t work. I did whatever I could to assert my significance, by doing things that I was certain was under my control — as a kid, those things were eating, talking, and studying. I tried not talking, talking too much, not eating, eating too much, skipping class, getting bad grades, etc. By my third move, I finally realized that none of that worked. They just made my life worse. I didn’t wanna keep being that kid that got the lowest grade in the class, nor that kid who had to meet with the principal. It’s no fun. So, eventually, I realized that I had to find better things to go after in life, and it’s not about certainty nor significance.

Finding New Values

Some kids never find new values, because their belief in certainty and significance is unshakeable. If the kid moves, they will try to rebuild those values, and even overcompensate for them. As did I for a while.

Other kids, including me eventually, try to find new values that work better. The thought flashed across my mind:

Wow, this world is filled with uncertainty. And this world doesn’t revolve around me, but I still really wish it did. Anyway, I cannot rely on certainty and significance anymore.

Which values were better than certainty and significance? For a while, I sought out uncertainty. I looked for variety in life. I became restless. Eventually, by the fifth move, after trial and error with the wrong values, I found a couple values that work best for me. Learn and Contribute.

Learn— I focused on learning new things, academically, athletically, socially, artistically, religiously… I pushed myself outside my comfort zone, because learning is uncomfortable. And whenever I get too comfortable, that’s my cue that I’ve stopped learning.

Contribute — I found ways to make an impact on the world. I did things that contributed to the lives of others, because contributing to a bigger cause made me feel great. Whenever I’m feeling bad about myself, that’s my cue that I’ve stopped contributing.

There you go, researchers, above are hypothesis on Why moves are bad, and How to avoid the negative implications of moves. Now go run some more experiments to disapprove it. All the Bart Simpsons in the world need you to.


1st move at age 3: Moved from a courtyard home to a modern apartment to live with my Grandmother, because the Chinese government tour down the old home. Every family in my neighborhood had to move.

2nd move at age 7: Moved away from my grandmother’s home to my Dad’s university dorm, so I can spend more time with my Dad. My dad was going to grad school at the time. Him, me, my mom shared his dorm room. In my journals, this was the most depressing move because I lost all my friends and didn’t like the new school. My grades at school plummeted, and I failed out of second grade. Not a big deal now, but back then, moving away from my Grandma seemed like the end of the world.

3rd move at age 8: Moved to Singapore, due to some political mishaps with the Chinese Communist party. This was a good move, as the quality of life in Singapore was much higher. In Singapore, I made friends quickly and my grades shot up.

4th move at age 13: Moved from Singapore to the Washington DC, because my parents thought that the US was better. This move was a scary one, because American kids seemed so much bigger and fatter than the Singaporean kids! I didn’t say a word at school, because I was scared. We got kicked out of our house, due to some mishaps between the landlord and one of our housemate.

5th move at age 13: Moved from a new apartment with our remaining housemates, in a new suburb of Maryland.

6th move at age 14: My Dad finished his one year grad school program and we bought a house in a better school district. This move was a great one, I made new friends and met my best friend “Katie” who was also a recent immigrant from China.

Creativity & Leadership

Lessons from Google, Microsoft, and entrepreneurs from around the world

Tia Gao

Written by

Tia Gao

Chief Product Officer at AI English learning app www.elsanow.io. Y-Combinator startup founder.

Creativity & Leadership

Lessons from Google, Microsoft, and entrepreneurs from around the world

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