Your passion is not as clear cut

In non-asian context, there’s always this talk of finding your own passion. When you find it, you will never work a single day of your life.

And in asian context, chances are, your parents, relatives or friends will just say, “Find a job that give you stability, high pay and prestige. Fuck your passion.”

What if you are asian and received western education?

It turns out, in both asian and non-asian societies, parents behave mostly the same, which lead to their kids doing stuff they don’t like. And Gary Vaynerchuk does a better job of explaining it in this video.

So… what is passion?

Now, for me, I was lucky. My parents didn’t expect me to be anything. They just want me to have a better life than them and be happy. Then the day came when I was inspired to be a game programmer when I was about fifteen years old. With that inspiration, I pushed myself to do my best for my studies and make my way to a polytechnic where I get myself exposed to the world of information technology. Then I graduated with a final year specialisation in game development.

But I didn’t go that route because I found that the game industry in Singapore wasn’t as established as it is today and the reality of video game industry meant I didn’t want to risk burning out on the very medium I rely on for relaxation.

So I went with general software development. Before I know it, five years passed. Now I realised I couldn’t be bother with the latest technology. I no longer want to spend time learning about messaging queues like Kafka, latest trends in microservices, what’s new with Spring Framework, etc. And when I watched Apple’s WWDC 2019, as much as I’m happy with the state of Augmented Reality and what Apple is doing to help developers on that front, I find myself having zero desire to do it.

I would say these five years of work in the real world exposed quite a lot of things for me. It made me think about what I truly enjoy.

I like science.

I like technology.

I love reading fiction.

I love writing, science fiction in particular. It was all to express myself.

I love building structures and routines for myself.

I love playing video games.

And now my question becomes: what can I do for a living that allow me to apply some, if not all of the above, so that work doesn’t feel like work? As of right now, even I accepted the counteroffer from my company and continued to work there, I know my heart and mind is now all on crafting my next science fiction novel, which is moving along nicely at eight thousand words.

For those who are still attempting to find your passion, please don’t rush. I know you must feel like you are running out of time. But really, if you are in your twenties, you got the time on your side. If you are inspired to do something, go do it as much as practicality allows. That way you have the chance to decide if that’s something you want to do for a considerable amount of time. Otherwise, you will never know. By the time you hit your thirties, you’d probably identify things that you know you can do without feeling like shit.

I’m glad that I got the chance to identify all the things I enjoy after attempting to do something that I thought I might enjoy. I will probably need a career coach to advice on where to go next.

Good writer communicate clearly

It’s easy to trick yourself into believing that you are a good writer just because you write often and that you get some resemblance of readership, and then your friends tell you your writing is doing good. But more often than not, you are not really a good writer. At the end, it’s based on that one metric: Can people understand what you are trying to communicate in a specific context.

For example, on this blog, majority of the content written are stories, insights or ideas told by yours truly based on what I have experienced or learnt. Therefore you will see that the content tend to be longer and come with some sort of introduction, body and conclusion in my own style and word choices.

But in cases like a resume, it’s a whole different beast. You have to communicate in a clear and succinct manner, using action words to demonstrate your skills and abilities so that hiring managers can make his or her decision quickly.

And it’s the same thing with your performance reviews, reports or even emails.

Now, you may be thinking that I could always go for courses to teach me how to write good resume, etc. That should solve a lot of problem.

Yes and no. Going for courses can serve as the foundation on which you can build on. It was that thinking that got me going for technical writing courses too. However, it doesn’t guarantee you can write good. You can only become good if you do it often with intent to improve.

And right now, I know for a fact that I won’t be able to craft a good technical document for my readers even though I went through technical writing course. It’s because I didn’t specifically seek out positions, roles or even tasks that requires me to do that. It put me in a position where I don’t have the experience or feedback to enable me to think like my reader.

Yet it didn’t stop me from having the thought that I’m good at writing. A delusion on my part.

It was that delusion that got me in a situation where I shared what I’ve done or achieved at work in my performance review using the style similar to how I write on my blog. When I first wrote it, it made perfect sense. I believe I was clear and the idea was complete. But when my manager attempted to read out loud what I wrote and fail to understand, it became clear to me that I was wrong.

Was it saddening?

Definitely but all is not lost.

She suggested that I could write it like how I write my resume. The idea was to communicate what I’m supposed to do, how I do it and what I’ve achieved in addition to my main tasks using the shortest number of words that catch the attention of my management.

So it was a good lesson. I want to be a better writer. A writer who can communicate ideas clearly that is both relevant and can grab people’s attention.

Dealing with backlogs

These days there are so many things that vie for our attention and we usually aren’t mindful about which thing actually get our attention. And so we find ourselves reacting to things or just doing things without asking if we should or need to.

It’s because of this that most of us feel miserable at the end of the day. Rarely do we feel happy about our life. Thus, there is this growing movement of minimalism to counteract the increase in busyness, being called to devote our energy and attention on various things and the increase in mindless consumption.

So if you are part of this movement, you can call yourself a minimalist. And the thing about being a minimalist is that you develop a habit of constantly questioning yourself about what you are doing, what you bring into your life and what’s the purpose. Put it simply, it’s all about saying no so that you can say yes to the things that is more important. Things that are more valuable.

And I call myself a minimalist. Saying no to a lot of things is the default stance because I want to devote my limited attention to the things I find joy or meaning. Decluttering and being mindful of what I consume is a big part of my life.

However, I slipped up in recent months. I fell into that trap of mindless consumption. The end result is not pretty.

First of all, there’s a backlog of eight physical books, 50% of which are science fiction novels, that I’ve yet start reading or read halfway. That’s not mentioning there are also four more science fiction e-books in my kindle app also in various reading stages. Then there’s also five video games to play across my three gaming consoles that are in various stages of completion. Third, I got a bunch of personal software and writing projects that I’ve not done or in various stages of completion. Lastly, the backlog for my day job has also grown almost unmanageable.

For some people, they would probably feel pressured to do all of the above I mentioned. Furthermore, other areas of their life will also catch up and demand for their attention. Cortisol level will rise.

Now, this is where things get interesting…

I don’t feel that kind of pressure to complete all of the above. Not like how I would have felt in the past.

You may be wondering why.

I got it figured out.

First of all, I know why I’m in this situation. It’s nobody else fault but mine. Once you accept that, you actually will feel empowered to take back control. Second, you accept that you don’t have anything to prove to anyone. Third, you recognise and accept the fact everyone got the same amount of time. It’s virtually impossible to deal with all the above at the same time without sacrificing your health or life.

Now, your combination of backlogs and situation would be completely different. But the important here is that you figure out what’s the things that you can actually say no to so that you can say yes to clearing your backlogs.

For me, I have been spending my night time looking at jobs and trying to determine what’s suitable for me. It has been that way for the past month. Inadvertently, I got demoralised by the lack of experience I have in various technological stacks that companies are looking for. Also, I had issue reconciling my aspirations and desire for growth versus having time for those things I mentioned because they are important to me. Those things affected my mood to do my projects, read or play video games.

And don’t get me wrong, those things that I mentioned are pretty trivial stuff in grand scheme of things and are not more important than eating, being healthy, spending time with family, have a roof over my head and have quality sleep. But they are what make me happy.

With that, I took actions actually to start clearing my backlogs as of last week. Whatever slot of time I could find, be it commuting, using the toilet, waiting for things to happen, I use it to read or to play my games. This way, I can clear my mind for my personal projects, especially since I know I can get distracted very easily or would rather do something else but “work”. By that, I mean anything that need me to think a lot. Programming and writing both require lots of thinking.

But it’s also important to remember to say no to all the above. If you’ve notice, all my hobbies, my day job, and my personal projects require me to be sedentary. And that is bad for health. So going out for a quick jog, do some pushups, weight lifting is always more valuable in grand scheme or things.

Focus and specialise

Conventional wisdom dictates that there are two main types of people in this world: Those who are specialists and those who are generalists.

But do you accept that wisdom is the truth?

For me, I don’t accept that wisdom.

It’s because, we also forget there’s the third type of person. The polymath. The Leonardo da Vinci of the world.

These are people who are really good at multiple fields or industry that to most people they are no different from specialists from specific field or industry.

Now, some people will just say that a polymath is really just someone who’s the best version of a generalists. However, the truth is polymaths are not generalists. They are specialists who figured out how to take what they are truly good at to apply at other fields or industry as described by Sean Norton in his article titled Polymaths aren’t generalists.

And the sad truth is that being either a specialist or a generalist isn’t good enough anymore for the global economy we have today. We all have to polymaths in order to participate in the economy in any truly meaningful way and earn our keep.

The reason why I said that is because of what I experienced during my job search.

Although I have at least five years of software development experience with a collection of other experiences I acquired over the years, they aren’t enough for me to get into the doors of certain companies like Grab, Lazada, PayPal or even Google. At the same time, I’m unable to go with a smaller and older companies, especially those SMEs in Singapore because they are unable to pay the kind of money that I believe I’m worth. If you are wondering, on average, a software engineer with my years of experience can command at least SG$4800 per month, excluding bonuses. Most SME can’t afford that. And so they will either hire someone who just need a job or more junior. Worse case, the role will be vacant for months because they just couldn’t find the right person.

So my conclusion is, to be a truly good software engineer who can command a high salary and respect from your peers, you have to really devote a large portion of your time to practice and play with technology. Because, you are to have a good grasp of algorithms, mathematics, software design patterns, software architecture, be fast, rational and logical, understand user needs and requirement, know about the different databases, and have working experience with a bunch of programming languages under your belt. A polygot, if you will. You also have to know how to write properly to prepare the necessary documentations. Furthermore, you have to know how to properly manage your time, communicate well with your colleagues and the various stakeholders. Finally, you have to know how to sell or market either your idea, yourself or both. Oh, don’t forget, you might also need to provide support to users…

What if you aren’t that good or don’t want to be that good due to a variety of personal reasons.

You are left with companies that are neither here or there. You still can get a decent pay writing code and managing projects but don’t expect yourself to be doing “change the world” type of projects. Before long you will be replaced by younger generation of software engineers who are probably smarter, faster, more nimble and flexible. I’ve seen first hand just how good the younger codes are. And who knows. Maybe replaced by an artificial intelligence (AI).

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with going to tech companies that are neither here or there. Maybe they can offer better working conditions. Maybe they are much slower in terms of pace. Less over time. The thing is, these companies are still around because they still can deliver a certain kind of value to their customers. In that context, for a person who’s married, have kids and a variety of commitments, your priority will be very different from someone and that might be a good fit. But for someone who’s single and still want to make an impact with what he or she does, those kind of companies might not be suitable.

But of course, don’t forget about self-awareness. You have to know who you are truly and whether you are a good fit in those startups or big tech like Amazon, Facebook, or Google. If you know you are not, then you better find alternatives that are more inline with what you look for and take actions to go that path.

For me, I know why I’m not there at the top. It’s nobody’s fault. I made the decision to split my time into doing a variety of other stuff that don’t really have any relationship to software development.

I devoted time and energy into writing that went relatively well for me for a time. Then the motivation just died and my writing enters into mediocre, barely any content state that you see now. You don’t even see me log in to Medium or WordPress that often these days. Neither do I even think much about writing. I let my writing projects sit and idle. I devote time and energy into video games and TV shows. Furthermore, in terms of the programming languages and technology stacks that I use to build software, I’m all over the place. Even my job role changed from developer to consultant-like and back to developer. I don’t even know how to market myself to job agents and hiring managers. Hell, I don’t even know what I like anymore.

So the lesson here is that one have to focus and be a specialist in whatever they do. Because ultimately, even polymaths are specialists. Don’t be a generalist because it will lead you to nowhere nice. After you have mastered all that you could possibly master in a given field, take the skillsets you’ve acquired to master the field and apply it into another field.

For example, as a programmer, I know I care deeply about formatting, style and highly readable yet expressive codes. So I have to keep practicising until I can do it without betting an eye just so that I can apply those techniques in writing with ease. Furthermore, if I focus on mastering a specific technology stack and framework, I could expand out into mentoring people using that specific stack. Now that will allow me to grow in a different way. Maybe, grow to become someone who can teach and communicate well. Even better, write highly detailed contents about the technology stack I use to help other people. And that could be the start of the journey to become a polymath.

Who you work with is important

You are the average of the five person you hang out with the most. The truth cannot be any further than that. It applies also to your professional life.

As humans, most of us want to conform to our social group and not be left out. To conform, we instinctively pick up on behaviours, the habits and mindset of the social group we are in. And it didn’t matter if it’s bad behaviour, habits or mindset.

For me, I had this sudden realisation that I’ve been affected by what my colleagues are doing and it’s actually quite damaging to my professional and personal development.

Majority of my colleagues are married. So their primarily focus is their family, kids especially. Therefore, they aren’t the kind who wants to put in so much hours at work or to deal with a fast paced environment. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Family is important. Spending the time to ensure your kids knows a loving environment is important.

As a highly-sensitive person who is also very introverted, I don’t like a high-stress or high pressure work environment too. I tend to take things slow and I don’t do well with toxic work environment either.

But I also want interesting challenges to solve. Who likes to go to office, sit there and do the same thing over and over again?

Yet, I realised my drive and desire to do good work has disappeared. A quick audit of my professional life has shown me that I allowed myself to behave like some of my colleagues. Pushing away work that’s not mine to deal with. Rushing home on time when there’s obviously nothing for me to do at home. And even join in a little bit of office politics for the wrong reason. So how is doing all that good for you? Best part is, I’m complaining about my work load. In the past, I don’t. I actually don’t mind challenging programming problems to solve.

In hindsight, there’s a difference between assertive with what you need and being plain mediocre with the things you do. Don’t confuse the two like I do.

And you know what? My audit also show me the biggest influencer on my recent attitude was the one I have to work with over the past year. Her bad attitude towards work has rubbed off on me. Lack of ownership is the biggest problem she has. While I had to go onsite to solve issues, sometimes caused by her failure to do a good job, she always try to find ways to push it away when it’s her time to go to work site. Initially, I turned a blind eye because I didn’t want to offend her since we had to work together on many things. My team lead had talked to me and her on separate occasions about her work quality too. However, there was nothing either one of us can do.

But recently, I had to confront her about why the stuff she does never quite seem to work correctly when you need it the most. I had done it in poor taste, as is typical of me. So it’s natural she took offence and now pretended that I don’t exists anymore. Yet, for some strange reason, I found it quite liberating. It’s like I have confronted what influenced me to do badly and I could finally move on with life.

And nope, I’m not going to apologise. I just have to deal with the aftermath.

With this, I hope you can see that it’s important for one to audit what’s going on with their work life and how are the little things affecting you. Being self-aware and conscious of your surroundings is very important. Less you find yourself sucked into a hole of negativity that you can’t climb out of.