I used to be averse to 9-5 jobs. Who in their right mind would want to call it a day at 5 or 6 pm, and enjoy the rest of their night? People are weird sometimes.
I gravitated to startup culture for its blatant- if slightly overplayed- cheekiness. Work whenever you want! Don’t you dare wear a suit! Take a specially designed American Apparel tee instead. Even when I didn’t mind donning pencil skirts and heels – and actually, kind of wanted to – something in me admired the irreverence of startup culture.
Underlying everything was my belief that startup people loved their jobs more than corporate ‘sellouts’ did. Startup employees had passion and personal stake that kept them working into the wee hours. While definitely true for some people, particularly founders, the obsessive workaholic drive isn’t a good fit for everyone. It eventually took its toll on me when I found myself unable to think amid side conversations 3 feet to my right, flying ping pong balls inches to my left, and no clear boundaries or stopping points in sight.
Since ‘selling out’ and joining a larger company, I’ve discovered that innovation can still happen in highly controlled environments. In fact, Tim Brown of IDEO says constraints, when set appropriately, drive innovation. Ideas develop based on the strict parameters provided (needs, resources, time, size, impact etc). They range from simple process tweaks to larger strategic initiatives. Sometimes they exist more as improvements than complete recreations, but it’s still innovation. Was not the iPhone a mere ‘smart’ improvement from the generic cell phone?
Entrepreneurship takes many forms. I used to think it didn’t count unless you worked at a startup, or bootstrapped your company out of a garage. Many of my friends are involved with side projects. My best friend has a popular fashion blog, another friend designs 3D bracelets. There’s Melissa who writes a vegetarian food blog after hours, and a stellar sister duo creating modern-day versions of global dolls. None of them are dropping out of college or quitting their jobs. Silicon Valley’s ‘fuck it all, wear your hoodie, strike it rich’ narrative is just a tale, not a template for day-to-day entrepreneurship.
The spirit to create lives in all of us, but the conditions (and constraints) needed to thrive vary from person to person. For now, I’m happy innovating from within.
My father recently won second place in an essay contest about the American Dream. The contest was sponsored by the Asian supermarket Hmart, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. It just so happens that my parents are also celebrating their 30 year anniversary of living in the United States. In 1982, they emigrated from Taiwan so my Dad could pursue graduate study. He eventually obtained his Ph.D. in engineering, gained employment, and rooted our family of 5 in Americana (suburban house, fence, lawn, and all). The rest is still a story waiting to be written.
The American Dream is an oft-used phrase by politicians these days. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have praised entrepreneurship, innovation, and immigrants’ crucial roles in those fields; yet life usually manifests differently from the shiny tint we often associate with the Dream.
My father said in his essay:
The American Dream is a phrase most immigrants are chasing all of their lives knowingly or unwittingly. It means different things to different people…I believe that a successful and memorable American Dream requires not just determination, perseverance, strong work ethic, continuous improvement and understanding of one’s role; it also includes special joy of savoring the food and cultural heritages of one’s mother country.
The American Dream in real living form can be hard. Sacrifice, struggle, and constant work are the stuff real first-generation dreams are made of. What about for the second-generation? Having adjusted to a country’s customs, do those dreams shift and reappear in the form of comfort, stability, and status?
Two years ago, as a junior in college, I wrote a blog post, titled “A Spectacular Failure”. 5 paragraphs in, read:
I look at myself and know that I’ve been able to lead a comfortable life precisely because my parents struggled for me. This is both a blessing and a curse. I’m tempted to settle for a safe success, and know this is easily attainable because my parents have already set all the stones in place for me. As long as I attend school, get good grades, go to college, graduate, secure a job, make money, marry, and raise a family, I’ll be happy. Ot so I think. But is that it? They’ve made the path easy for me to be comfortably numb. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to choose a path of stability & security…but, I can’t help but feel the itch of my parent’s youthful gamble resurrecting itself in me.
At the time, I used this as justification for the amount of time I was spending on CampusTweet.TV – a multimedia passion project of mine that was not yielding any tangible reward. I filmed restaurant reviews and offbeat stories around campus on my own time. At one point, I was working on it more than my actual school work, receiving no money or external validation. All logic was telling me to close shop, get some sleep, and invest more time in something with a more reliable yield (ie. school and graduating). But stubborn idealism gave me the resolve to build it into something bigger and I continued with the sleepless nights. If I failed, at least it would be a spectacular failure.
Well, I failed. The site is now dead, literally. We killed CampusTweet.TV halfway into my senior year when I started working for ABC. Idealism – 0, Reality – 1. But, this version of the Dream is still alive, and I think it’s even more relevant for all of us now, given the rapidly changing world we live in.
Almost 2.5 billion people use the Internet. We talk about immigrants moving to new countries. But we all live in a new space. We don’t just live in a physical world; heck, some of us spend more time wrapped in the digital and mobile worlds. That’s the new landscape. In the next 2-3 years, cheap Internet-connected tablets will enable hundreds of millions more to move into this arena. Same with the increased accessibility of mobile. Billions more will be able to share knowledge and speedily exchange communication as we, the privileged already do today. The new 3 billion on the Internet will build their own apps, solve their own problems. Vivek Wadwha says, “Over time, Internet access will be cheap or practically free–just like electricity is today.”
In this digital age, we are all immigrants. As new American citizens, my parents knew they had to work harder- not just to get ahead- but to simply be rooted in American society. The wacky world wide web, similarly, is a landscape bursting with new tools and networks. Get to know them. Success won’t be written by established traditions or inherited ties we can take for granted. They don’t exist. Instead, having an immigrant mentality – that of continuous improvement and understanding of one’s niche in the new technological space- will be crucial. Claim your stake. Our roots remain the same, but we’re branching into new territory. Dreams do evolve.