Recently, I went on a business trip to South East Asia to meet with some of our customers. There I visited a more developed country like Singapore, and then traveled across a city in one of more developing countries like Indonesia. Jakarta was full of surprises, an eye-opening experience, similar to the feeling I had when I first visited Beijing.
There was an insane number of motorcycles on the road, swerving around a three-column of cars on a two-lane street. They were opportunistic, if not entrepreneurial. It was dizzying, yet mesmerizing to see how so many of them could go past all the cars without scratching a single one.
We visited multiple companies, some already hugely successful, having raised billions of USD, working out of a cool office with a perfect view of the city, with the latest gadgets and shiny interiors. While on the other hand, there were companies who were operating on only a few million dollars raised, people working out of a cozy but incredibly packed office space that’d be borderline illegal and deemed quite unsafe in U.S., typing away their keyboards diligently in the late hours of the night, not knowing when to stop.
Stumbling upon articles like Michael Moritz’s post on Financial Times makes the wise and the experienced people in the developed countries wonder and criticize the stories. Andrew Ng’s job posting tweet created a lot of heated discussion here in Silicon Valley. Living and working in the bay area, you can related to the sentiment the people are feeling. But as soon as I travel to these countries, with massive developments all around and technological landscape that looks more similar to an on-going digital earthquake rather than a conquered land of tech giants and billionaires, it’s hard to say if there’s such thing as a norm or a work-life-balance. Everyone is being ultra opportunistic and working impossibly hard to grab as much of the digital land as possible. No one bothers going on hikes in the Muir woods or grabbing a beer at an happy hour hosted by a cool startup that just got backed by a top-VC a couple of blocks away. The traffic there is horrendous and the air quality is poor, so staying at a cozy office working the long nights with your colleagues dreaming of a paradise almost sounds like a better option.
I begin to feel like these developing countries, filled with relatively younger and less-experienced workforce, almost resembles that of a new hire, fresh out of college, not knowing the limits, filled with eagerness and hunger for growth. They are pulling 70-80 hour weeks without knowing that it’s considered strange in some of the more developed countries. They think it’s sustainable. To put it more accurately, they don’t even think about whether it’s possible or not, because work-life-balance is not a regularly discussed topic and the expectation of what a quality of life means can be different. They just do it until they succeed and grow to become unicorns. It is almost scary to watch them grow this fast. As they mature and get more seasoned, they too will become more efficient, knowing their own limits, becoming more self-aware and also lose some of that energy and hunger that drove those early years of incredibly fast growth.
Like many others, I too was once a young hire, not knowing how to program that well, working 80-100 hours a week, sleeping at the office regularly, just trying to get something to work and feeling frustrated by inability to implement an idea like I wanted to. At one point, my boss(1) had to made me use some vacations based on the company’s policy, and looking back, he might’ve been concerned that some people may get into trouble for HR violations if I didn’t use any vacation at all. So I would use the vacation and come back to the office and continue working on the projects. Back then, it was not a job for me or way to make money, but more of an interesting opportunity to solve interesting problems, learn, and grow along the way. It was the thrill of learning and the fun of shipping and getting feedbacks from the users that really made me feel high all the time. At one point, I lost so much weight, barely weighing about 108 lbs (at 5’11”) just by working and staying up so late, skipping meals all the time.
I was a fool, not knowing what was the norm, what was expected, what were the limits. And I enjoyed it and thrived in it.
As I’ve gotten a bit more experienced, I probably picked up a bit more of a perspective along the way. I probably learned to value life a bit more, family a bit more, friendship a bit more, and traveling a bit more as well. But what really keeps me up at night, is that I am getting wiser — a bit too wise to dare into the unknown, able to blaze past one’s limits, taking that leap of faith without running an ROI first. Perhaps, this allows me to avoid mistakes, but this also keeps me from doing unimaginable things at an unimaginable depth and speed.
And this is not what I want. We can only break a limit when we don’t even think about where the finish line is. I know there’s more to life, more problems to solve, more value to create, and a whole lot of amazing people who’d love to be part of that journey.
We need to stay a fool, start that adventure, where the journey is the reward.
(1) That boss became my first angel investor in the first startup, which I’m still grateful to this day. It felt pretty good to return his investment in multiple folds after the first company’s exit.