How Has 2020 Shaped You?

On my blog’s ‘About Sijie’ section, I stated that ‘moving around (Seattle being the fifth city I’ve lived in) has given me the privilege to compare and contrast China and the US, the Midwest, the South, and the West Coast. It is by taking myself out of the familiarity that I understand myself better and know that I am capable of doing things that I would not imagine before.’ In a way, Covid-19 induced changes have also taken me out of the familiarity – I set up meetings with coworkers rather than walk down the hall to ask a question or just chit chat, I no longer went out to restaurants, I didn’t travel to meet up with friends and my flight to visit parents in China got suspended,… The list can go on. It was through this special event that I’ve observed a lot more about how I work and play.

First of all, while I enjoy having go-to hobbies, I now appreciate having new things and activities to explore even more. When the state lock-down started, I thought to myself, ‘I would be fine. A lot of my hobbies are done in solitude. I now will have all the time to read, write, run, and hike different trails (the mountains are usually less crowded, thus safer).’ Nine months later, despite all the reading, hiking, and board games that I’ve done, I really miss meeting up with friends in person, trying out new restaurants, exploring a new neighborhood, planning fun activities in town (I was known among my friends to have the best recommendations for ‘date night’), and coming up with itinerary for travels. I realize that the curiosity in me always craves exploring and trying new experience, which can be as small as going to a nursery (referring to plants, :)). It is an integral part of who I am that I’ve ignored during the pandemic. In hindsight, I played it too safe with these activities and totally gave them up. For my own sake of mental health, I could have put on a mask and done activities where 6 ft. social distancing is strictly followed, such as doing a picnic in a park with friends, going on walks, outdoor dining, etc. In the past, I always come up with bucket list of activities that I want to do in my city every year. Last year, I checked off ‘take a ferry’, ‘visit the Arboretum’, ‘run a half marathon’, ‘eat at Sushi Kashiba’, ‘rock climbing’, ‘visit the art museum’, ‘see an art performance’, etc. Armed this deeper understanding with myself, I’ve developed a new list for 2021 and am excited to start working on it.

Second, I appreciate my support network even more. Even though my friends and families are located in different time zones around the world, I am thankful that they are just a phone call away and show me tremendous support and love during a difficult time in my life. There are many small moments that I am grateful for – friends (broadly speaking for families as well) who invited me over for a meal when they cook for me, friends who offered help with move and assembling furniture, friends who shared with me awesome pictures of their holiday meals and sent me invitations to travel and stay with them in their homes, friends who periodically checked in on me to see what I am up to, friends who patiently listened to me and allowed me to talk through my feelings to come up with actions, etc. I was telling a good friend of mine that it is the love from them that helped me heal faster, to have the courage to walk away from a bad situation, and to have the courage that even after a major setback, eventually I can still get up and keep fighting. Dear family and friends, you all know who you are, thank you for always being there for me.

Apart from close connections, I also appreciate my Facebook and Instagram friends who I may not talk to on a regular basis. Seeing folks making progress towards their passion – becoming a yoga teacher, doing tough workouts, baking, reading more than 50 books in a year, creating original content, baking, writing thought-provoking reflection, etc – inspires me even more. I don’t think it motivates me out of competitiveness that ‘I need to do this more’ (a wise woman told me ‘everyone is running their own race’, J), but more ‘wow, I know awesome people who are killing it’ and it’s nice to know them and to be in the same boat as them. Though a common sentiment on social media is that it only shows part of the life, we can still make something good out of it. All my social media friends that I don’t talk to often, thank you for your inspirations.

Third, I have a tendency to focus too much on negative emotions so to cope I am learning to park my feelings and find distractions. So many changes this year made me notice that I was not very good at handling my emotion and wanted the instant gratification by talking it out. [In my case, when I am a writer (self-claimed one, hehe), I am even more in touch with feelings.] However, as I later realized, some feelings (negative ones especially), however important at the moment, ended up benign. Instead of being hyper-focused with them or trying to talk it out with others right away, I shall put it on hold for a few days and see if it is still left unresolved. Now I use running, reading novels, journaling (my attempt to logically break down the problem) and forcing myself to do some house chores as a distraction.

Speaking of reading, reading novels is a good way to immerse myself in other people’s storyline, so that I temporarily forget about my own world. Lately, I have been reading some self-help/psychology book to recover. As mentioned in ‘Silver Linings’, even though self-help books cannot help us avoid the pain, it would help us get better at reflecting and growing faster. Books that I’ve been reading/plan to read are ‘Nonviolent communication’, ‘the Five Love Languages’, ‘the Courage to be Disliked’, ‘‘Maybe you should speak to someone’, to name a few. [I welcome any recommendations!]

Fourth, I understand that no one can face the fear but myself. I had fear of forever being alone, the fear of losing a relationship, and the fear of not being able to handle life challenge myself. As a result, I kept opinions to myself and projected high expectations onto others. Looking back, I know that at the end of the day, as much as others can provide support to you, at the end of the day, no one can fight the battle but myself. I need to be the one that look at fear in the eye, then I will come to see that fear does not exist.

After posting ‘Silver Linings’, I had quite a few friends messaged me and said what I wrote is quite relatable to them. For that, I think that’s part of the reason I write – to help others know that they are not alone in this journey and to help them formulate feelings that they haven’t put words to yet. This post is mostly me monologuing who I am, but I hope reading this post also reminds you to check in with yourself and think about how this strange year has shaped you and pointed out things that are not as clear as before.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. May we all grow a lot from 2020.

Silver Linings

2020 has been the most challenging year for me of all, not only because there are a lot of uncertainty in the world – social injustice, Covid pandemic, and presidential election, but also because I was pushed out of my comfort zone in the midst of all the uncertainties. I went through a challenging job switch when I was so stressed that I cried a lot out of pressure that I wouldn’t be able to deliver on projects, couldn’t fall sleep, or had bad dreams in which I was not prepared for exams or missed a paper deadline. I didn’t travel or meet up with friends much out of fear of contracting Covid. I went through a breakup in November when for the first couple of days I questioned my self-worth and values (luckily, I recovered quickly). My September post was my first attempt to dive into those uncomfortable moments at work and adjusting to a new life. This post is my attempt to see the silver linings – to reflect on obstacles I’ve overcome and to celebrate the wins and newfound strengths.

Win 1: Keep iterating.

This win I have my new job to thank for. I’ve learned a lot about ‘Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good’. In the past, it would take me much longer to make decisions because I would try to optimize to the best I can – fastest way to solve a problem, cheapest way to buy a ticket, best sentence structure, etc. As a result, it was a lot of thinking and not a lot of results. Thanks to this mindset, I’ve learned to be more forgiving towards myself if the outcome is not ideal. As a result, without the pressure to be perfect, I can make decisions and produce results much faster.

Win 2: Look forward and not back.  

My dad used to tell me often ‘Don’t cry over spilled milk’ to comfort me not to feel too upset over something that has already happened and cannot be changed. This saying really struck a chord with me this year as I tried to adapt to unexpected events quickly.

Instead of dwelling in self-blame, regret and unhappiness, I focused on finding a solution:

An important product feature was missed in sprint planning? -> Let’s see if I can talk to anyone to move it up the priority list;

Coming across a bad landlord after the initial screening? -> Forget about the application fees and back to the list of available units to rent.

Having noisy upstairs neighbor? -> Get the landlord and property management team involved as soon as possible.

These events might seem trivial to you, but they all trigger a lot of negative emotions in the past that don’t go away very quickly. This year I realized jumping to problem solving mode will cut the pain significantly and make me a lot happier.  

Win 3: Confidence

I see confidence and fear go hand in hand. The less fear you have, the more confident you will be. It is the fear of rejection, the fear of losing someone, the fear of being seen as incompetent, the fear of failure that give us pauses from pursuing an opportunity and from voicing our true opinions. I came across this quote that I found valuable – ‘all fears are illusion, but you don’t know it until you face it.’ Thus, to develop the confidence, we need to do things that we are afraid to do, so that when looking back, we will think, ‘huh, it’s not as bad as I imagined’. This year, I am proud of myself for taking a risk in a role that I am more excited about without much experience. Though I struggled a lot at the beginning, I can see light at the end of the tunnel. I am proud of myself for taking on challenging hikes and still maintaining an active lifestyle. I am proud of myself for picking myself back up from a breakup and appreciating who I am even more.

A cherry on top is that I am not doing as much comparison of myself to other people anymore. I become even more genuinely happy for others’ accomplishments (hate to admit it, but occasionally I will feel jealous). All this is because I am happy with how much I’ve grown compared to the past self. I’ve found more peace and content.

Win 4: I am more than just work.

I was talking to my good friend E a couple of weeks ago about work stress and she said there was a book called ‘men are like waffles women are like spaghetti’. Putting the book aside, the analogy itself reminded me that I let work completely define who I was as a person. It was because this work identity association, when I was struggling at work in the beginning, I just didn’t feel good about myself overall. Hobbies that used to excite me such as reading and writing was not as appealing anymore. I even mentioned in my previous post that it was because I felt I had no insights to write about when I did not have my act together at work. Now that I am back to consistently running and writing again, I understood that maybe the secret to achieving work-life balance is having passion projects and hobbies that you look forward to outside work, so that work does not consume you and become your default option.

Win 5: All pains are necessary to let growth happen.

When I excitedly shared with my dad my win of ‘don’t cry over spilled milk’ this year, it suddenly dawn on me that he has been telling me since I was in high school. (lol…). The full meaning did not really register until many years later when I experienced a lot of pains/growth. It got me thinking – maybe no matter how many wise lessons other people passed onto me, no matter how many self-help books I read, I will not truly understand the wisdom until I experience the pain myself. In that sense, I should learn to welcome pain, embrace or even celebrate it when it happens, because it was the pain that makes me reflect more and find a way to grow to avoid it the second time. (Regardless, reading the book or talking to others will still help me formulate ideas that I’ve started to see.)

All the wins I described above all started with failures in my mind at the beginning – terrible first year in a new job and lots of unplanned changes that I have little control over (pandemic, working from home, breakup, etc). Once I frame them the other way, I see a lot more successes and person growth. I remain positive and hopeful. 🙂

P.S. I set out to write a few more wins in 2020 on hobbies and friendship, but I will dedicate another post for it. Stay tuned!

Keep Iterating

Adulthood after business school was tough for me. I was hit in the face with everything new – new job, new city, new expectations held for myself, etc… In moments of despair, I wondered to myself, I wish I could have my life back before business school, I was so at ease navigating life back then. I have analyzed what has contributed to such an overwhelming feeling to some challenges, hoping to come up with solutions of how I can overcome it.

New Job

In my old job working as a financial analyst, I can say with confidence whether I can manage it or not before diving into the details. I know who to reach out to, what systems to use, what analysis/approach I need to take. Because the tasks usually come with some repetitions, I can keep perfecting the process. My new job is so different. When I start a project, I don’t know what the process and results can be. My old habit kicked in and I would be trying to come up with the perfect solution on the first go while letting precious time pass. As I learn over time, no one expects you to have the perfect answer – I just need to get it to be ‘good enough’. The mentality is always ‘keep iterating’. The other major challenge is to be comfortable making many decisions on a daily basis, including prioritization. As I juggle multiple projects, I need to come up with a set of work principles on how I approach product development, product design, customers’ requests, etc. I need to develop my own point of view.

New City

Rather than titling my second challenge new city, maybe new life is a better choice. Seattle is the fourth city I’ve lived in, so I was not a rookie to starting all over in a new place. Plus, it has brought me the pleasant surprise of hiking as a newly developed interest than initially expected. Thus, I have no trouble living in this new city. The challenge is more associated with I having doubts and questions on ‘Now that you make your job switch, now what?’

I was asked recently ‘what do you do to relax?’. Because I felt engulfed by the work, nothing seemed to pique my interest (Covid-19 quarantine also didn’t help) and I struggled with coming up with an answer. I recalled my life before the new job and found that I always had goals that I was working towards – promotion, MBA application, 10k/half marathon race, reading goals, etc. I also remembered that writing and mentoring were two things I considered my passion, but have not done any in the past one year. I suspected that a big reason is that I did not feel that I had anything valuable to contribute. I started this blog five years ago with the intention of sharing my learnings, of which professional growth playing a big part. This past one year was hard for me that I did not feel confident writing. What value would I bring if I could not get my own act together?

When I started writing this post, I was reminded of the confidence I once had in taking a risk to switch a role and how I expressed the pride and happiness in my past posts after I successfully navigated the challenges. I remain hopeful that I’ve made the right decision to switch role and industry and even more optimistic that all the stress shall pass and everything will be ok. After all, the process of writing might still have the magic of helping me. It might not all come across in the words, but the process does bring me some assurance and clarity.

I initially planned to document this year of learning and not post on the blog. It failed my old blogging standard that it only described the problem but not the action steps I will take to overcome it. Starting to write again in my opinion is already a good first step. Sharing this post unfinished could be what I consider my action towards developing the ‘keep iterating’ mentality and cut myself some slacks of being a perfectionist. Someday, I will return and finish the rest.  

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!