A Career Retrospective

Today is my last day in corporate America (or at least in the confines of a 9-5 job).

I've learned and experienced a tremendous amount in my career. I've jumped from boutique branding agency to global consulting firm to advertising agency to design studio while juggling 4 startups of various size, impact, and scale at the same time. As I jump full force into a completely new world of startups, venture capital, and entrepreneurship, I want to be sure I'm taking the right things with me and leaving behind the things that will slow me down.

What went well (what I'm taking with me)

  • Explosive thinking: This is the consequence of the nature of my work (fast-paced, ever-changing, and never certain). Explosive thinking is the ability to think on my feet, come to some thoughtful or valuable conclusion fast, and express it eloquently and concisely.
  • A rebel spirit: I'm not sure if this has anything to do with the jobs I've been at or more just me, but most people I've met that I have loved in this career all had some sort of chip on their shoulder. A reason to prove themselves right and others wrong.
  • Care first: this seems obvious, but all of the most impactful managers and co-workers I've had all seemed to approach work with this mindset.
  • Attention to detail: This is something that was definitely learned and not innate to me. I really struggled with this, and though I am far from even competent at it, I strive towards it more.
  • Being strange: I've met some seriously odd and wonderful people in this career, and I am so thankful for that. They've helped to draw the strange out of me, and I am so much better for it.

What I'll do differently (what I'm leaving behind)

  • Pride in busyness and overworking: this is something I've never understood, and something I will vehemently oppose in Staat's culture. I believe there needs to be balanced. Finding pride in busyness or overwork will lead to nothing but an individual's own downfall and harm. It helps no one and hurts people so much.
  • Wild, harmful, flailing egos: This is perhaps inescapable in our society, but something I've always detested. Individuals who are allowed to prop up their loud yet fragile egos at the expense of others is something I will not stand for moving forward.
  • Contrived hierarchy: I think an org chart and structure are important, but I'm leaving behind any notion that someone deserves more respect than anyone else just because they have a title. I don't want anyone to feel they need to tiptoe around me or design their life, personality, or happiness around my preferences. We're all working towards the same thing.
  • Preferences versus Progress: This is something I feel we all battle. It's somewhat connected to the previous point, but I want to leave behind this notion that my or anyone's personal preferences trump progress. Just because an individual likes things done a certain does not mean it's the best way.
  • Toxic Positivity: I love positive people as much as the next person, but if a person has to wear positivity at the cost of their actual emotional or mental health, it's not worth it. We know life is up and down, good and shitty, bring it all – we can find a way to support you through it.

I'm sure this will be an ever-growing list, and I'm sure there'll be learnings from my new world as well, but I'm glad to have taken the time to do this.

the war within

I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I have definitely noticed that conversation, especially on social media, if you can even call it conversation, is being forced against a binary view of the world. You’re good or you’re bad. You’re racist or you’re anti-racist. You’re woke or you’re ignorant. You’re privileged or you’re oppressed. You’re contributing or you're consuming. I think for the sake of ire and urgency, the binary model works. In fact, I’ve utilized it myself. But for nearly everything else, it’s insufficient.

For most of us, neither our followers nor our critics will be present in the moments that matter. They won’t be able to shine their light of critique or applause when we make the decisions that most impact our lives and the lives of others. For most of these moments that matter, we will have to rely on ourselves, or at the very least, default to what we know. Moments where we choose to speak up or not. Moments where we defy our instincts and risk ourselves for someone else. Moments in our mind, where we give the benefit of the doubt or we relent to our prejudice.

The binary doesn’t work to affect these moments. These moments don’t allow for your black and white modality of good or bad or Democrat or Republican or woke or ignorant and more importantly, the moments don’t care.

The moments will instead expose who you really are. What your values consist of. Your vision of your best self. Why you act the way you do. Why you harbor the suspicions and doubts that you do.

In a few weeks, months, years, your timelines will change, the most important thing of the day will change, but you’ll still have to deal with yourself.

Of all the shit happening right now, I’m extremely thankful that so many of us are being forced to answer to ourselves. Beyond feeling guilty for posting or not posting or being a liberal or a conservative, a lot people are having to ask themselves things like: “Do I fundamentally believe I am better than others?” “I’ve always considered myself a good and just person, but do any of my actions actually prove that?” “I thought I was thoughtful and discerning, but do I just believe whatever I see?” “Why do I have the belief systems I have? How did they even get there?”

This is what will change generations. This grappling - the war within. The most violent things need to be happening within you - fighting tooth and nail for truth and clarity. This war within will change what and how you teach your children. How you care about your neighbors. How you behave when your actions aren’t recorded and scrutinized. Fight the war within for the moments that matter.

going home

I went home to drop off a dog and to see my parents this weekend. More on the dog later. It's been a while since we had lunch and caught up – mostly because of COVD related anxieties and social distancing.

It was sweet to see them.

Over Publix subs and Hawaiian coffee, my mom casually dropped a soul bomb. You know of those moments that simultaneously tear you open and fill you up. Anyways, she told my wife and me that she had been speaking with my mother-in-law and that my mother-in-law had mentioned she was looking into what it'd be like to retire in Korea – something my parents were also considering. All news to me.

I'm sure all kinds of people think about their parents and what the latter half of their lives should and will look like, but I think many POC and especially people of Asian descent, take special account of this. In part, due to Confucianist ideologies and familial-honor-based culture, but also in part due to guilt.

For me, it's guilt that my parents gave up a life in a place they belonged to begin again as others. It's guilt that I could not become successful more quickly, to give them what they deserve sooner. Guilt that they've perhaps given up on their dreams, for me, for us. Guilt that maybe my life won't live up to their sacrifice.

My mom said that she was looking into it because many people have told her how much easier it is to retire in Korea, and how hard it'll be in the US (non-universal healthcare, transportation, etc.) She said she's always been hesitant about the idea because she didn't want to be too far from us, but after talking with my sister, she saw that for us, the most important thing is that they are ok. She seemed to have started accepting that. She went as far as to say that they are thinking of going to Korea soon to see what it'd really be like.

I don't know about you, but I always imagined these conversations happening very dramatically. Perhaps looking at old family heirlooms and cross-legged on the carpet – maybe a tear or two. Instead it was over a kitchen counter and butcher paper.

I don't think the guilt will ever let up. I think the guilt is an old and forever scar that reminds me of what it took to have the life I do. The guilt is the bite of that first drink after a long day. The guilt is the pain of walking up gilded steps.

I'm going to work with the guilt, not because of it.

really hard things

The other day I overheard the founder of my agency talk about building companies. He referred to Elon Musk talking about how no great company was built on a 40-hour workweek. I believe his point was that nothing great can be built with a moderate work ethic – greatness requires obsession.

I agree with this logically, but isn't it destructive in practice?

It made me think about other really hard things: relationships, weight loss, and reading.

I can see that all of these can be achieved with obsession, but from my limited experience, it seems that all of these things are achieved through a slow, grueling, and patient process.

The one I can speak to most is weight loss. I’ve lost about 70 pounds, I’ve gained back around 25, and I’m on track to lose it again and more.

Weight loss is a very difficult thing to do. I’d say it’s pretty similar to building a company – something that I’m also doing.

Weight loss takes over your life. Most of your conversations will have weight loss included. It’s an impressive thing. To radically change your body chemistry and to reorient your way of living in pursuit of a single goal. Your day begins and ends with it.

I’ve been obsessed with it. I’ve given hours to it. I’ve given my entire wellbeing to it. When I did that, I began to see a stall in my progress. You can see it in the data.

You can see that the months leading up to the wedding (where I was most stressed about the weight loss and hitting my goal) was where I hit a plateau.

Now, I don’t want to contrive or abstract some larger meaning from my single data set, but it begs the question, what is the most impactful way to approach really hard things?

Is it a compulsive obsession or is it a peaceful slow burn?

creating value

At the very center of my existential crisis is my (in)ability to create value.

My entire professional career has been spent making PowerPoint presentations, thinking about brands, and trying to see past the corporate bullshit and into the humanity of businesses. Whenever I reflect on the last several years, I question my impact and what value, if any, I measurably created.

I have been wrestling with this for the last couple of years, and especially in 2020. I teeter back and forth between shame and confusion. Shame for having had led a seemingly fruitless career, and confusion of how to get out and/or add the value that I so desperately want to add.

Today I had an unexpected and completely welcomed collision that jolted me alive. I hit up an old friend and coworker of mine, and she asked me about a previous venture of mine, Gük. Usually, when people ask me about Gük I’m hit with a mix of sadness, guilt, and nostalgia. It was a difficult decision to close Gük, and is a reminder of yet another thing that I did not succeed in. Today was different.

I explained to her why we had to close shop and tried to soften my own sadness and blow to my pride by saying, “but who knows… things resurrect”. But her response floored me.

She said, “I mean hell… the fact that y’all were able to garner that much attention in the time you did speaks volumes. True creators… Y’all did that from scratch and broke through hella culinary noise in the city...That’s the grassroots feel that so many wish to achieve.” And then it hit me. I have created value. Maybe not in the setting or to the scale that I imagined, but I have it in me. The question of “how do I create value” has been banging around in my head for weeks, and today I was reminded, you don’t create value, you create momentum.

Gük started with a text message to my co-founder at the time. It progressed to an in-person meeting. It snowballed into a trip to the grocery store and a cooking session in an apartment kitchen. The value of our little brand wasn’t conceived through our skills or strategy or even our food. The value was conceived by all those small moves.

I’m sure you’ve all been to Dave & Busters and played this coin pusher game.

download.jpeg This seems like the most accurate depiction of value creation. It’s part luck, part madness, and mostly repetitive small pushes. You don’t really know if that next coin will cause the gold rush, but you do know that if you keep pushing down coins, something will move.

In the case of business building and value creation, we’re not pushing coins down a chute, we’re pushing ourselves. Every email, every conversation, every failed attempt, and action has an effect. That’s what I need to trust in and walk with.

The value will come with the momentum. The one thing I do know how to do is move. Maybe that’s enough. For now.