Thinking About Life

Maybe it’s do with the weather of late – cool, dreary, wet; or maybe it’s to do  the long runs I’ve been doing – lonely, peaceful, contemplative.

Whatever it was, I’ve been thinking about life – about how it has been; about how it is now; and about how it is going to be.


I first came across this beautiful poem called Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy more than ten years ago. I was about 17 or 18 then, and I must admit that I didn’t fully appreciate it. I had, in fact, actually thought that it had to be mistaken: what is life but the destination?

Now I’m almost twice as old, and its reading has a profound new meaning to me, and reading it always calms my nerves when I start worrying about possible life-changing decisions (which, experience tells me, is truly life-changing in only 1% of the cases).

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(An aside: I’d come across the poem in Robert Fulghum‘s Words I Wish I Wrote, a book I first loaned from the library and which I later procured second-hand through a charity event. It was perhaps the most influential book in my life, introducing me to some of my favourite pieces of literature and authors, including the book Catch-22, which made me realise I could actually like fiction; and Albert Camus, who introduced me into the rather dark world of existential philosophy.)


An added bonus here. I was just re-reading Words I Wish I Wrote and came across this gem from Franz Kafka, which is another magnificent calm-your-nerves piece:

If we knew we were on the right road, having to leave it would mean endless despair. But we are on a road that only leads to a second one and then to a third one and so forth. And the real highway will not be sighted for a long, long time, perhaps never. So we drift in doubt. But also in an unbelievable beautiful diversity. Thus the accomplishment of hopes remains an always unexpected miracle. But in compensation, the miracle remains forever possible.

On meritocracy, luck, and giving back

Image of a die with "maybe" and "yes"

Kottke’s post on meritocracy, a concept that I had in my younger days considered infallible, reminded me that even those of us who have worked hard and achieved so-called “success” have much to owe to “luck”.

Even the smartest, hardest working, most beautiful of us all, would likely have not fared well, had we been born in the midst of a famine to parents who couldn’t even afford to feed themselves.

And even the dumbest, most slothful, and ugly of us all, would not have fared too badly, had we been born to highly influential and powerful parents whom held us in even the slightest regard.

So let us all remain humble if are ever lucky and become “more successful” than others.

We probably owe more to chance and luck than we think.

Lucky

I met up with a friend last week over lunch, and one of the things that was brought up in the conversation was on our work, our careers. He was genuinely happy and excited for me that I was (finally) going to graduate from my Master’s degree in Analytics.

To him, my having these analytical skills, backed with a Master’s degree, would easily propel me to the top. I would, he said, be in high demand.

Being quite the realist, though, I didn’t exactly share his optimism.  I knew that even if I was the best in the world at what I did, if nobody knew what I did, it didn’t matter. There would be far too many people like me with similar qualifications and experiences.

But I knew where he was coming from.

It was true that my skill set was in demand. And it was true that I probably had an easier time than most in finding career opportunities. Unlike many others I knew, I was in the rather envious position of not worrying whether or not I’d find another job if I left my current one, by choice or otherwise, because I knew I would. I only stayed because I wanted to.

It then occurred to me how lucky I was.

Living the Dream

“I am living the dream,” I said to the group, “doing what I love.”

I was in a management development workshop organised by the company, and that was my response to the question, “tell us something nobody else in the workshop knows.”

It had come spontaneously and was as much a surprise to me as it was to everyone else.

It wasn’t that my career was perfect — I still had much I wanted to do; much I wanted to achieve.

But given all the million-and-one constraints, my career’s turned out pretty good: leveraging my business-IT background, I work within Sales but deal with technology (even doing some scripting and programming) every single day; I develop data products that are used by hundreds, from the frontline through to senior management; I regularly get to present my ideas and train Sales on technology and data literacy; and I lead a team of wonderful colleagues who do excellent work (and at the same time have a great boss); it’s almost precisely how I would have envisioned a “good” career outcome (shame about the pay!)

But it could have been so different.

I knew was lucky.

Right Place, Right Time

I was lucky in that my parents weren’t poor, and had purchased a computer for the home even when that wasn’t a very common thing to do. And I was lucky that I was allowed to use this very expensive toy, which exposed me to technology at a very young age.

I was lucky that I grew up in a time when the Singapore government wasn’t too interested on clamping down on software piracy — I suspect the government did this on purpose because many of us, though not poor, were not rich enough to actually purchase professional-grade software to play around with. 99% of what I know I learned on bootleg software.  This move alone probably bumped up Singapore’s technological literacy a fair bit.

I was lucky that I was never stopped in pursuing my love for technology — when I opted for a technology-focused polytechnic education (i.e. the Diploma route) instead of going the more traditional “junior college” (i.e. the A-Levels route), I never met any parental resistance (which in a way, was because I was lucky enough that my grades were good but never exceptional, and so my parents didn’t really care — had they been exceptional, my guess would be that the would have been far more opinionated).

I was lucky that I was hired for an analytics position at the very last interview that I decided to go for before heading into the world of Financial Advising, thereby leading me to my current world of technology and analytics… what were the chances?

Right place. Right time. And if not enabled by the luck, at least not hindered.

But not everyone will be so fortunate, and it is up to us, the lucky and empowered ones, to give back and to try to provide opportunities to others who may not be as lucky.

Yet.

On Giving Back

My one simple philosophy on giving back: that anyone whom I work  or in any way interact with should find that if I had never appeared in their lives they would have been a little poorer for it.

I seek to be the luck in people’s lives.

Because so often they are in mine.

Great, but incompatible

It’s painful how sometimes you can put in lots of effort and sacrifice  into a project (or a career) in the hope that it will pay off, only for it to fall through in the last moment.

It’s worse when the motivation that was used sustain that effort was based on the fact that “there’s only X months to go; we’ll be done soon,” but X months has passed and we’re no closer to our goals than we were X months ago.

And sometimes it’s not even the first time this has happened. It could be the second or third (or forth) year you’re telling yourself, “not this year, but maybe next.”

But there will come a time when we have to tell ourselves that it’s time to cut our losses. There will come a time when we have to realise that the seed and soil may both be great, but simply incompatible.

The question is when, and will we know it then?

The net is set for the fish

The following passage is taken from the beautiful book  Master of the Three Ways by Hing Ying Ming (which libraries might classify as “Eastern Philosophy”):

The net is set for the fish,
But catches the swan in its mesh.

The praying mantis covets its prey,
While the sparrow approaches from the rear.

Within one contrivance hides another;
Beyond one change, another is born.

Are wisdom and skill enough to put your hopes on?

Just a little reminder for my future self on the uncertainty of life (r-squared never is 100%).

Update: For the uninitiated, my comment on “r-squared”  above was just a little statistical quip. R-squared is a number between 0 and 1 that represents the amount of variability of a linear model, in percentage, that can be explained by the model. Anything outside of r-squared, so 1 less r-squared, is uncertainty.

How I became an analyst

I just approved a comment on one of my earlier posts, a post about my possible foray into sales. A post that, as I re-read it, brought back plenty of memories. A post that reminded me how my career as it stands now, that of data science and analytics, is quite different from what I had once thought I would be doing.

When I’d written that post in January 2009, I’d just graduated from the University of Western Australia and was actively looking for a job. But what job I was looking for I didn’t have much of a clue. Most of my peers hadn’t studied what I’d studied (a combination of business and information technology), or had the interests I had.

The Career as Journey not Destination

Back then I wished someone told me how jobs and careers worked; I wish I someone told me that a job or career is more journey than destination, and that not everybody knows outright what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And sometimes, careers are, as in my case, down to plenty of randomness.

So as these memories flooded back, I thought, why don’t I write something about how I found my current calling? Maybe it might help someone just starting out as well, someone as confused as I was. So here it is.

My Initial Career Intentions

Based on what I’d studied and what I was interested in, I had the following careers in mind:

  • Entrepreneurship (to be my own boss was something I’d always dreamed about, but doesn’t almost everybody);
  • Web-design (I’ve had a website since since 1997 — you might, but probably don’t, remember Geocities and Homestead, two free web-hosting platforms I used in the early days);
  • Programming (in 2002 I wrote a content management software in PHP that was essentially a clone of one of the leading CMSes at that time called MoveableType, and used it to power edonn.com);
  • Copywriting (I used to write, still do, a lot, and loved writing to influence (and still do);
  • Business analysis (whatever that was… the only reason I’d had it down was that in my university’s course material for one of my majors, information systems, it was listed as a probable career, and I’d scored a perfect GPA for the major, something I only found out in hindsight as I prepped my résumé);
  • Education (teaching or similar — I wanted to “change lives”); and
  • Financial planning (I’ll talk more on this later).

These were some of the options I had bouncing around in my head. And whatever I decided to do, my initial thought was that it should be related to non-profit or charitable work if possible. If I was going to be spending the most part of my life doing something (i.e. a job) it might as well be something “worthwhile”.

Limited Options

I would find out soon enough that though I might have tons of ideas of what I wanted to do, those tons would be whittled down quickly to what jobs were available. Being in the middle of an awful recession — remember Lehman Brothers and the sub-prime crisis? — many of the  jobs I thought I had a chance in were simply unavailable.

Sales(y) jobs, though, were still in abundance. These were jobs were largely commission-based, and no- to low-risk propositions for the employers: if you don’t sell, you don’t get paid. And I suppose because of the abundance of these jobs and my not quite knowing what jobs to look for, I decided to try my luck interviewing for them, finding out what they were about and convincing myself that I could do them (the post above was part of the “convincing myself” part, but to a large extent I stand by what I wrote — though I’m not “selling” a product to external customers, I do plenty of selling in terms of ideas , analyses and other “data products” to internal customers).

One sales(y) career that I had seriously considered was that of financial planning. I had taken (and enjoyed) financial planning at University, and I loved reading personal finance blogs and books. Helping others with their finances was also something I felt I could do, especially if I was doing something I knew would help them.

I interviewed with an independent financial planning firm (one I trusted and felt really comfortable with) and was conditionally accepted. I was told to go back when I had the necessary certifications, which I diligently went out to get (which set me back about $600).

But all this while I still wasn’t sure if that was really what I wanted to do. Did I really get a degree for this? A polytechnic diploma would have been sufficient, and having a degree didn’t really help. So I decided to let fate decide: if by April 2009 I hadn’t been offered a non-financial planning, non-salesy job, I would take up the position at the financial planning firm mentioned above.

I continued scouring job postings, looking out for the less sales(y) jobs, trying my luck by sending out résumés for which I felt unqualified but had great interest in. I also targeted jobs more relevant to my degree, which I would never had gotten with just a polytechnic diploma.

Then one day a job ad came along that made my small eyes open a little wider. One that made me think: I could do this; I want to do this. It was for a Business Analyst position, a position I had, until then, not really thought much about, but which had a beautiful mix of business, social science and information technology.

The technical skills that they were looking for seemed a little more than I could offer (specifically VBA programming skills), but everything else I had down to a tee. I sent in my résumé and hoped for the best. A few days later a call came, and I was told that they wanted to interview me (hooray!) That first interview went decently, and I was told to return for a technical skills test, which I passed.

And then I was told that there was a final interview. By this time I was feeling a little job-search weary, and I told myself that this was going to be the last interview I’m going for before I said yes to the financial planning firm.

And as fate would have it, the final interview went well, and I was told a couple of days later that I got the job.

On 1st April 2009 I started my career as an analyst at Future Electronics.

(Yes, April fool’s. “My job’s a joke; my career’s a joke” became a standard joke for me while I was at Future).

And that’s how I became an analyst (and not (yet) an entrepreneur; web-designer; copywriter; financial planner; or an educator. Though on this last one, I still do plenty of educating in my analytics role!)

Some asides:

  • In case you’re wondering what an “analyst” does, read my post “What do you do? I’m an analyst.
  • I’m no longer at Future, and currently work at Study Group (a higher education pathway provider), where I’ve taken a similar but more strategic analytics role – still not quite non-profit or charity, but I’m getting there).
  • As an analyst, especially in smaller companies or teams, or where analytics is more immature, I find that you pretty much define your own job scope. Sure, the job you’re hired for needs to be done, but there’s often so much more you can do with data and systems with lots of business impact, that if you’re gung-ho enough you can start side projects that can quickly become integral to how the business runs things.