“People think big ideas suddenly appear on their own, but they’re actually the product of many small, intersecting moments and realisations that move us toward a breakthrough.”
Adam Braun, Founder & CEO of Pencils of Promise
After moving back to Singapore last year, I have met many different people who are from all walks of life. In our conversations, I have noticed the emergence of a beautiful thread that ties us together: we are all trying to figure out what we are most passionate about, what our purpose in life is, and how to be happy.
Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the past year of my life post-university, and wondering about my future. All this thinking started when I finally got the chance to pick up a book I’d been wanting to read for a while: “The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change” by Adam Braun.
At the end of the first chapter (aptly titled “Why be normal?”), I immediately knew that I was about to read a book I could relate to when I came across Braun describing the challenges his adopted brothers had faced. In “choosing to be different”, he writes, “they proved that through struggle, sacrifice, and service, staggering personal transformation in possible.” That was the hook that reeled me in closer to the core of this book. I knew what it felt like to act differently and ask myself “why be like everybody else” and then, actually choose to be different.
UNSCRAMBLING YOUR THOUGHTS
When I started reading ‘The Promise of a Pencil’, I had not yet realised, that subconsciously, I was also trying to figure out my place – in the world, in my life, in my workplace. A year into my first job out of college, I have been asking myself questions that I thought only 20 something year olds asked, but I have slowly come to realise that any person in this world could be asking.
“Am I on the right track?”
“What am I doing?”
“Where do I see myself in a few years?”
“What am I working towards?”
“What do I want to achieve, and why?”
“Am I happy?”
“What can I change?”
“What is my purpose?”
These are just some of the questions that have been running through my mind. Then, I read my next “woah-that’s-me” sentence in Braun’s book: “Success in life isn’t about conforming to the expectations of others, but about achieving personal fulfilment.” Wow, I thought to myself. I absolutely agree. It is not easy to ignore expectations set by others, but something I’ve learned is that you need to know when to set your own expectations, and fulfill your own dreams.
MAKING THE HARD DECISIONS
My first real-world job experience after graduating from University in May 2013, was to intern for a startup called Billion Dollar Boy, started by 3 alumni from my University. They gave me the chance to start doing something I had never considered a profession for me: writing. I was writing articles for Dead Curious, and I didn’t even realise how much I enjoyed it. This realisation would be important for what is about to come next in my reflection.
A few months after I had sent out more job applications than I care to admit, I was faced with one of the first most important decisions that would impact my life. I had a job offer with a company, where I would have stability, and I was about to go sign my contract. The day I went to sign my contract, a startup I had interviewed with offered me a job, with my role focusing on something I enjoyed: writing, and the more creative sides of business.
That was the memory I reflected upon when I read another sentence in Braun’s book that spoke to me: “Purpose can manifest from so many different places, but it most often appears through the small things that enable us to feel connected to a broader whole”. After interning with Billion Dollar Boy, I realised I liked writing, and the challenge of stringing together words to tell a story or paint a picture that others could form opinions about. This would be the base upon which I could find other skills to learn and hone.
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR THOUGHTS
So, what next? Which offer was I going to choose? The corporate job with stability, or the riskier startup where I had the chance to explore a career in something I knew I enjoyed? Although it seems like it was an easy choice, let me tell you: it wasn’t.
My gut told me to join the startup. So I did. Once again, my actions are reflected by something Braun said: “in moments of uncertainty when you must choose between two paths, allowing yourself to be overcome by either the fear of failure or the dimly lit light of possibility, immerse yourself in the life you would be most proud to live”.
Exactly one year later, I sit here composing this piece thinking about the past year, and what a roller coaster ride it has been professionally and personally. My take-away from this entire year has been this, as stated by Braun: “True self-discovery begins where your comfort zone ends”. Once again, a perfect description of my experiences thus far.
How serendipitous is it that I happened to start reading this book when I really needed it and would understand it the most? All the events in my life have aligned to show me something I need to pay attention to: my thoughts, and my goals.
Strangely enough, with all this in the back of my mind, I went to a talk last night about evolving in your career. The speaker, Aseem Puri, who is the Senior Director of Marketing at Unilever, talked about how every 2-3 years in his career, he has focused on one big idea. The catch (and this made everybody sit up straight) was that the more resistance the idea got from colleagues, and his superiors, the better it was. One of Aseem’s criteria for this one big idea, was to declare it publicly to prove that you believed the outcome would be successful, as well as take full responsibility for it if it didn’t work. Again, my mind strayed back to a part of Adam Braun’s book, where he stated, “we each bear responsibility to prove ourselves day in and day out and have no one to blame but ourselves for the outcome”.
I was really surprised I remembered that, but it just goes to show how much this book speaks to me. That moment where I remembered Braun’s book and found an overlap with what Aseem said, made me realise I needed to take the time to write these thoughts out.
ASK YOURSELF THE HARD QUESTIONS
Close to the end of his talk, Aseem asked us two powerful questions. I share them here in hopes that it makes you think:
1. “In 5 years, imagine you have just walked in to a party. A party, which has been thrown in your honour. You are surrounded by everybody that you know. What are they celebrating? What is your big success?”
2. “When you die, what would your epitaph say?” In other words, if you had the choice, how would you want to summarise your entire existence?
To you, who is reading this, how would you answer these questions? Have a think – you may be surprised with what you come up with.
Only you know what your purpose is. You know what you need, and nobody can make that decision for you. Sure, people can help to guide your thoughts, or give you advice, much like Braun’s book and Aseem’s talk have done for me, but at the end of the day, it is only you who can figure out what makes you tick, and what motivates you to keep pushing ahead in life.
3. Picture from the talk with Aseem Puri: Credit to The Hub Singapore (https://www.facebook.com/thehubsingapore).