"I think my journey has been driven by a mixture of three things: luck, curiosity, and enthusiasm."
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
There is something to be said for "out of the box" values. There are things we know are valuable: like school, working for the same company our whole lives, and working our way up. And some things are not so obvious: the ability to deal with failure, being a self-learner, an ability to make novel connections, pattern recognition, risk tolerance, and nonlinear problem solving.
Sequential Linear Thinking
There is this belief that if one wants to be gainfully employed and financially comfortable, there is a certain sequence one must follow: go to a good high school, do well, take all the right classes; go to a good college, do well, choose the right major (e.g., business, pre-law, or pre-med); go to the right grad school (med school, law school, MBA), do well; get a good job, do well...
Only the "Special" People Got to Bypass the System
As a child, I was taught that if I wanted to bypass this process, the most likely course related to fame. Possibly becoming an actor, artist, dancer, filmmaker, rock star, athlete, etc. That's all we had seen and known. Another possibility entailed astonishing people skills, extreme extroversion, and a strategically savvy mindset — a sales/ politics rockstar. An unattainable path for most was reserved for those born into wealth/ connections (where it wasn't about what we could do but what our parents or our grandparents did before we were born), then it really didn't matter what we did. Otherwise, it was a reasonable idea to stay in the system. Even if aim was fame: go to school for theater, get a job as a production assistant, and work your way up until you make the right contacts — just to be safe. Or get a law degree as back-up.
Your Future Is Up to the People
The common theme in these paths: to bypass the system, people had to vote you out of the system — your fans, your constituents, your customers, and even your parents. This is not the truth of on industry, but of all industries.
Modernity has provided many out of the box ways for people to vote: clicks, views, tags, shares, likes, downloads, and others soon to be created. Credentials matter less and the quality of the product matters more. Who made an app isn't as important as how well the app performs. It isn't good enough if something works 95% of the time, it has to work 99.99% of the time. If it doesn't, feedback is instant. Old methods had to be abandoned to stay competitive. This is similar to the evolution of the fighting arts. It doesn't matter if a black belt or white belt creates a technique, if it works, it works. If it doesn't, we'll know right away. The principles are the same: instant objective feedback.
There Is No Playbook Except the One You Write
School taught us that life has a playbook, follow it accordingly and you'll be comfortable. Now we're seeing people who seemingly did all the right things lose their jobs after decades of service. Or perhaps the company itself closed. Perennially safe spaces experienced massive layoffs. We define comfort as predictability, yet what is predictable in an unpredictable world? It's not that comfort is impossible, but we must first break out of our predetermined linear worldview.
The obvious path isn't any safer than the less visible; it is also the most competitive, saturated, inflated, time-consuming, and expensive. This closes some doors, but it also opens less crowded doors for those willing to follow the change. The analogy Dr. Spencer Johnson made in Who Moved My Cheese was; when the cheese moves, only the mice who follow the cheese survive.
My Friend Peat
I was used to going back home to Oregon, walking into some store, and finding someone I went to high school with, working there part-time. In conversation, I would discover that they were living in an apartment with three of their friends. Financial instability had become too commonplace in hometowns. I thought "Hey, maybe I'll run into Peat this way." None of my friends growing up were academically inclined, so none of us were expecting much from one another. Just happy for each other if we were employed.
Oddball Kids Sometimes Find Oddball Paths
Last time I saw Peat, he was like the rest of us, an oddball. We played Dungeons & Dragons, Mortal Kombat, watched anime, read comic books, and mostly avoided going to class. Peat came off to me as contemplative, curious, and full of energy. Peat always had an interest in new things, but not like the rest of us. We were only interested in what entertainment value they held. Peat was more interested in what they were capable of.
"A Taste of Things to Come"
We weren't going to an academically competitive high school. Peat wasn't an exceptional student as far as I could tell. A few years after high school, I heard Peat was living in New Zealand. I figured he was stalling on "growing up" and trying to find himself. We connected for a bit while I was in college. Even back then I was blogging, though "blogging" had yet to become a term. Peat was doing some stuff with computers, I didn't really understand it, but he offered to host my website. (At the time I didn't even know what "hosting" meant.) I remember I declined and I didn't talk to him again until years later.
Don't Underestimate Startup Founders or Martial Artists
When we did reconnect, it actually came as a welcome surprise when I learned Peat was a startup founder, CTO, mentor, speaker, and professional photographer (among many other things). He was shy, he wasn't driven by fame, he wasn't connected — so in that linear framework of thinking, he was a complete dark horse. I probably should have known better from getting my butt kicked by mild-mannered martial art opponents my whole life, to never underestimate someone. There are many ways to be formidable.
We go to school and we expect some people to go off and do extraordinary things. We make educated guesses based on their people skills and/ or their grades. We don't generally base it off of someone's level of curiosity, but maybe we should.
I was curious how this awkward kid who I never thought would grow up, became this adult who mentors others. From where I last saw Peat to where he is now, it wasn't a direct straight-line transition. So I asked Peat about his life playbook:
Focus on the Right Qualities Rather Than the Right Goals
According to Peat:
To be successful in whatever you do, you need three things:
- Luck – those opportunities you can't control
- Curiosity – the thing that finds new opportunities
- Enthusiasm – pursuing opportunities in spite of their challenges
Luck Finds Those Who Are Curious
Curiosity Over Risk
Peat on how martial arts and startups tested his comfort zone:
Be Curious, Have Enthusiasm, Then Cross Your Fingers
It's actually freeing to know it doesn't have to be this straight line. The way everyone else is doing it.
This Mark Cuban quote is poignant since he's worked with one of Peat's companies. This makes sense since they are both looking for creative approaches.
The Beginner's Mind
Maybe Peat's best trait is that he never grew up. He kept his childlike wonder, his beginner's mind. In martial arts and Zen Buddhism, this is "shoshin" (初心), the ability to head into anything with the enthusiasm and curiosity of a child. If you move a child's toy, a child will follow it. If you move something valuable from an adult, the adult will complain and wait there expecting you to return it.
Kids Have Enthusiasm, Adults Need Motivation
Enthusiasm is different from motivation in that, motivation needs an external reason to exist. Enthusiasm is a natural quality that exists within you. Motivation comes from the outside and acts as an external reinforcer. One is perpetual, the other is fleeting. Rather than attempting to mimic the results of someone successful (external), focus on their qualities (internal). Peat never had a destination in mind, he cultivated his best traits. You end up further than you could imagine and arrive as a better person.
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Growth Can Even Come From Trauma
It hasn't been all roses and four-leaf clovers for Peat. He's had plenty of life challenges to overcome. On this he said:
A theme of many stories: a character that is too curious for their own sake, they make a leap of faith, discover their inner strength, and in the end, they land on their feet. Besides curiosity, enthusiasm, and luck — perhaps one also needs courage and faith.
You'll Probably Live — Now What?
My father used to tell me, whatever obstacles life throws at me, I'll live. Conditions I'm in will change, but I'll survive them. If I am a survivor, then I get more chances; I can do better tomorrow. But I can't always come out unscathed. There is this Eastern saying regarding falling down seven times and getting up after each fall (七転び八起き) — without resilience, one falls and that is the end of the story.
Don't Grow Up, Self-Cultivate
I'm still blogging and Peat is still working in tech. As much as things have changed, much has remained the same. We both took the less obvious path, stayed the course, and it's paid off. (This time, I took Peat's recommendation on where to host my site.) I not only make my living on the internet, I actually met my wife through a short story I posted, so there you go. Life is not a straight line or even something you can relate to visually; it's meant to be lived and we should maximized our abilities to do so.
Don't grow up, become a more refined version of who you were as a child.
Luck is the right opportunity under the right circumstances. A curious person is always looking for something new to learn, and it is in that "looking" where you stumble upon luck. The less you look, the less you find. Luck doesn't reward those who are passive; even a winning lottery ticket must be bought. Curiosity will bring you luck, but to continuously chase new opportunities, one needs enthusiasm. There are risks in whatever you do... or don't do. Have faith and courage, that no matter what, you'll land on your feet... even if it stings a little, even if it means picking yourself back up with the same enthusiasm as when you started.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- Peat on The Job Podcast
- Letters from a Stoic – Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Author), Robin Campbell (Translator)
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell
- Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries - Confucius (Author), Edward Slingerland (Translator)
- Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life - Eric Greitens
- Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything - Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
- Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell
- The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference - Malcolm Gladwell
- Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets - Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder - Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. - Daniel Coyle
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - Carol Dweck
- Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life - Spencer Johnson
- How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It - Mark Cuban