My Five-Year Zig Zag Journey

A month ago, I gave up my summer internship team in the Bay Area and decided to join a completely different team in Seattle. It was not an easy decision to make, as both roles equally have their merits. Even though I was only given a couple of days to decide, I did so much thinking that left me reflecting for days. What’s more, Facebook’s “On This Day” feature reminded me that I went through a similar process five years ago – staying in Minnesota headquarters versus moving to a regional office in Houston. As Steve Jobs once said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”, this blog post is my attempt to connect the dots and uncover some learnings professionally and personally.

On Making Decisions

As we progress more in career and life, the decisions we are faced with are no longer easy, especially when you are open to possibilities. As I’ve learned over the years, what makes the decisions so challenging is that it is quite rare to find a winner that checks all the boxes. For example, if I prefer the sunshine in California, I have to pay for the high rent; if I decide to continue working in the US, I might be faced with the “bamboo ceiling” that prevents me from going far in my career.

 It was when deciding which role to take for my first job out of MBA that I truly understood I couldn’t have it all. When I got off the phone with HR about my options, I jumped into making a list of criteria. I first came up with four criteria, but got too greedy and expanded the list to eight. When I was trying to tally up the scores for these eight criteria, it dawned on me that not all eight mattered as much and I was micromanaging. Thus, I refocused and narrowed down the list to three that matter the most to me at this point in my career. 

After telling HR about my decision, I did not have much “buyer’s remorse” compared to my state of being after saying “yes” to Houston five years ago. You can say that I have become more comfortable owning my decision and all the associated consequences. When I was working in Houston, there were times when I wish I stayed put in Minnesota. After a few struggles, I realized that you could never use what you know now to judge the right or wrong of the decision made back then. The best decision is based on what we know at the time, not what we have learned after certain events happen. The unpredictability of life is what makes it so exciting.

On Taking Calculated Risks

Taking risks stretches me, tests my resilience, and allows me to see the possibilities beyond what I had experienced before. Thanks to the move to Houston, I’ve came to see that I learn very fast, enjoy working with people from diverse background, and can hustle. In addition to the professional gains, I found out about what mattered to me the most when picking a city to live in the long term – weather, nature, and diverse community (more on that in “Houston Impression”). Had I stayed in Minnesota, I would have grown content with where I was.

As I am risk-averse, I like to take on calculated risks. I usually have two criteria in terms of judging risks: (1) does the gains in general outweigh the losses; (2) do I have a good exit if the plan was to go south. I’ve learned through my move to Houston that though the change puts me out of the comfort zone, it definitely came at the expenses of losing all the personal and professional network I’ve built for six years and investing time to start all over. Due to this experience, as I later contemplated about a big promotion opportunity in Ecolab China, I turned it down because the move was too costly (not in $ terms) and a lot of uncertainty existed for the job prospect. In addition, before embarking on something brand new, I make sure I have a solution to hedge the risks. Getting my MBA was my hedge against moving to Houston, as I always had plans for the degree but not sure when to go and what to focus on. When picking internship office last summer, knowing most full-timers will end up in Seattle was my hedge to work on a product I was passionate about in a smaller office.

I am not saying what I do is the perfect way. However, taking calculated risks works well for me and you need to find a solution that you are most comfortable with. I am a big proponent of the YOLO philosophy. If you find yourself keep wondering “What if I took that job?”, “What if I went to graduate school?” etc, it is time that you take actions to minimize your regret. If quitting a job to pursue the dream of writing is too bold for you, taking on a blogging gig on the side can be a good first step towards that goal with the stability of a regular paycheck.

On Bouncing Back

I was catching up with a friend who was going through a similar struggle of taking risks. She was happy for me that I was doing well and was a lot closer towards my goal. She told me learning a change turned out amazing for me was exactly what she needed. Then I shared with her that not everything was smooth sailing and I definitely had my share of struggles.

During my first year in Houston, I worked a lot with the “hope” of being promoted early on. However, that “hope” was never communicated to my manager and I found out later on that the team had a different plan for me. When I learned about the team’s expectation, I more than once broke down in tears in front of my manager and my manager’s manager (I know it was not professional but it was hard to control my emotions), only to come home to my roommate and cried even more.

During my second year in Houston, I took on the responsibilities of an interim finance manager of the same team, worked even longer hours, and started applying to business school. At the time, I was quite pessimistic with my career prospect in the company that I saw MBA as my only exit. Thus, I was devasted when I was not accepted by any of the programs I applied to, although looking back now I know my applications were not that admission ready. I was seeking a stamp of approval through MBA acceptance to show that I was smart and competent, as I was not able to get it through a promotion the year before. The admission rejections ended up a bigger strike. I felt I was at rock bottom. With some encouragement and mentoring, I picked myself back up and started looking for other roles internally. I turned down an internal transfer to the Shanghai office, networked and found a business operation role that I always felt would be perfect for me.

During my third year in Houston, I was a lot happier than the first two years as I loved my new role. As a result, I built more confidence that I knew really well my strengths and passion (covered in this post). I attended a local hackathon, which piqued my interest in tech and product management. I researched and decided that business school was still the best way to switch careers. Thus, I applied to business schools again and this time was waitlisted at two top programs at first. I hustled a lot to win over the admission by retaking my GMAT, visiting the campus again to meet with admission, and having alums write letters of recommendation for me. Eventually, I got off the waitlists of both programs and happily picked Michigan Ross. The rest is history.

I shared these detailed account of my past three years because I want to let you know that taking risks definitely comes with expenses. However, these experiences have a profound impact on my journey, as I’ve built resilience, knew what I wanted to get out of my MBA experience, and had a clearer idea of what my priorities are professionally and personally. These are things I will never be able to gain as much, had I stayed in Minnesota or not applied for an MBA program. I’ve also developed a sense of serendipity that things turn out the way they are for a reason. Had I gotten into an MBA program the first year I applied, I would not have ended up at Michigan Ross nor would I have that strong a conviction that tech would be the right career path for me. As Steve Job said “You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever”, having this mentality allows me to be less stressed, knowing that things will work out in the end.

 On Getting to Where You Want to Be

I am a big advocate of taking smaller steps towards a goal. It would definitely be ideal to get to where you want to be right away. However, that ideal state rarely happens. It usually requires breaking down an ambitious goal into smaller milestones and working towards each milestone. In business school, I learned that this philosophy is similar to design thinking process of “design, prototype, and iterate based on feedback”.

Take my career switch into tech as an example. After attending the hackathon in Houston, I researched about career in tech by reading lots of medium (where a lot of techies write and share their thoughts) posts on product management and talking to a few product managers. I learned that (1) it is hard to break into with no technical background; (2) MBA program with strong career switch resources can help; (3) Amazon is one tech company that is more forgiving in terms of technical background. With these information in mind, I applied to Michigan Ross MBA program, because its curriculum is heavily geared towards career switchers (especially MAP!) and the school has a huge alumni network in Amazon. Once I started business school, I picked most of my curricular and extracurricular activities with the goal of breaking into tech. I participated in tech case competitions, got involved with the tech club, worked on MAP at a tech company, etc. I am happy to report that now I am working for Amazon in Seattle post MBA graduation!

After coming back from my first Seattle visit in April 2014, I raved to my friend how much I loved the city for its emerald color and the outdoors and how much I wanted to move here. Five years later, it took me a move out west to Houston, a couple of job changes, and an MBA degree to finally make the dream happen. It was also five years ago when I took the risk to start this blog. Apart from rediscovering my passion for writing through blogging, I was able to keep in touch with friends near and far and even made new friends thanks to my blog posts. I am grateful for all the risks and challenges I took on during those five years and beyond excited for the next chapter in life!

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