1/26/19

Note to self: 2018 edition


2018 was one of those years where, only by looking in the rear-view mirror, do you realize how much of a blur it was. Many years of life lessons were compressed into one.

I learned a lot about myself: how to be a manager, how to empathize with others, and how to grind through difficult situations. More than ever, this year taught me that life is only truly experienced through moments of contrast. Without challenge and adversity, you can can never truly find clarity and appreciation for the human condition.

First half of 2018: A soft-landing in Singapore
Being my first "full year" in Asia, I split my time equally between two of it's largest financial hubs: Singapore and Hong Kong. Both presented different flavors of Asian culture appealing to different parts of my heritage.  Growing up as a first generation Canadian, with parents from Hong Kong, and grandparents from China, my identity has grown to represent a blend of the three.

In many ways, Singapore was a soft landing for me in Asia. I appreciated the pragmatism, efficiency, and universal use of the English language. It may be one of the only places in Asia where, you can communicate freely in English, yet at the same time try so many experiences that are authentically Asian. As a more Asian version of Toronto, Singapore really was a melting pot.

My most vivid memories of Singapore will always be the warm feelings associated with the food and drink. After finishing really tough (sometimes impossibly demanding) days in consulting, I always looked forward to going to the many Hawker Centers that were (still) open at 1-2am, ordering really good cheap food, and just blending in as a local for a moment in the dead of night. On the off night where I finished before midnight, I found refuge at one of the city's best cocktail bars (Free the Robot). As the bartenders belted out old classic pop songs whilst mixing no nonsense drinks, it was internalized for me that moments of happiness was neither expensive, nor far away. In fact, you can almost always find them just around the corner.

However, like many times in the past, the wear and tear of consulting made me reflect more broadly on life, family, and my role in the bigger picture. Having flown red-eye flights consistently every week to-and-from Singapore, I was able to have many introspective moments peering out the airplane window at sunrise. While I grew the most  personally and professionally  running this project in Singapore, I felt that work had again gotten ahead of life. Working through major holidays, missing family events, and being absent from Sunday night dinners, weighed a lot on my mind. While I was grateful for my wife's support, I knew that I needed to change this narrative.

Leaving consulting, joining a bank
The first time I left consulting (in the spring of 2014), was more of an external push. I was young, not married, and sensitive about making an impact (whatever that meant). When an old friend asked me to move across the country to Silicon Valley (building a platform for funding science research) I knew it wasn't a choice. Life only gives you a handful of "can't turn down opportunities", and I knew joining Experiment was one of them.

This time however, choosing to leave consulting would be different  leaving this time would be an active choice.

Leaving consulting a 2nd time had implications. Few people return to consulting a 2nd time, almost no one is allowed back a 3rd (haha, 😂). I would be leaving a family that had given me so many opportunities, exposed me to so many places and people, and expanded my perspectives as that kid from Toronto. But no matter how good the career trajectory, the money, and the influence, I knew that I needed a different playground.

Second half of 2018: A harder-landing in Hong Kong
Landing at a Swiss bank, but in their Hong Kong branch, presented a different opportunity and lifestyle. From constantly traveling, working with a team that had an average age of 25, and changing projects, working at a bank was a contrast. Perhaps the most significant, was that in consulting, citing some C-level executive's name, gave you a voice; while working in-house at a Bank requires building that influence through time and relationships before you have it.

I spent much of 2018 trying to be helpful and starting to build these relationships. One area that I'm looking forward to for 2019, is to continue driving some of the ideas I'm passionate about.

On the personal front, spending more time in one place has been refreshing in ways I could not have predicted. Attending Sunday night family dinners has allowed me to spend more time with our nieces, and prompt me to think more about my own family. Being in town more has allowed me the flexibility to travel to China more perhaps the most surreal moment was having lunch with one of the co-founder's of Tencent. My horizons have expanded in a different way through these experiences.

The increased time in Hong Kong and mainland China has encouraged a re-connection to my Chinese heritage. Growing up in Canada, there was limited need to speak Chinese outside. Unlike Singapore, where you could get away with only speaking English, experiencing Hong Kong and China requires a good command of Cantonese and Mandarin. A goal for me this year is to improve on both of these fronts almost out of necessity  to get more out living here. I stand by my observation last year that Asia will be an important contributing author of world history.

On other random topics
In last year's note, I mentioned a line about cryptocurrency and digital assets being an interesting area to monitor. While 2018 was a tough year (based on market performance) for digital assets, I remain convinced that this "industry" will play an increasingly important role for our generationespecially those of us under 30 years old with many years ahead. Many I've spoken to see digital assets as a plausible alternative to "opt out" of certain longstanding financial services constructs.

More specifically, as we begin exiting one of the greatest monetary policy experiments in history, I think there will be questions around what type of sovereign risk is left behind as a legacy. While I don't know how digital assets will perform in the short-to-medium term, what I do see are some signals that are hard to ignore:

  • More digital asset designs explicitly try to reduce the effects of sovereign risk
  • An increasing number of my friends (especially from finance and software engineering) are considering a move to the digital assets / blockchain space (the last time I saw this pattern was in 2014-15, when we saw a similar shift for the FinTech boom)
  • An increasing number of regulators looking to clarify the rules. A paper I helped write while in consulting covers some of these ideas.
For these reasons, I think it's not a matter of if, but when, we start to see take off.

In conclusion
Last year I ended with 3 rules of thumb related to: good food & drink, being humble, and spending time with family. In 2019, I'd like to keep this tradition and add more.

Therefore my goals in 2019 are:

  1. Building lasting habits remembering that learning is achieved through consistent practice
  2. Allowing for more spontaneous experiences
  3. Prioritizing investment of resources (e.g. time and money) in yourself and your relationships, not the market
* * * * * 

Good books I'd recommend reading in 2018:

1/8/18

Note to self: 2017 edition

This past year was one where my personal life took a front-seat to work. A lot was packed into these 12 months, the most significant of which was getting engaged and married. I'm grateful everyday that I got the chance to marry my best friend, and equally important, gain a whole new set of family. If marriage is one of the main sub-plots on this journey called life, then I couldn't be more excited to explore it with my wife and partner-in-crime — figuratively speaking of course!

Going home
Last year I wrote about being nostalgic of places. A big change this year was the decision to move to Asia, and Hong Kong specifically. While my heritage is rooted in Hong Kong, I spent the majority of my life experiencing this heritage second-hand, while growing up in Canada. Of the many reasons that we decided to move, it felt important to connect with our roots. Half a year in, and it definitely feels like this was the right move.

Asia has over a third of the global population and is the engine for global growth. It seems as if things are happening faster here than anywhere else. Not understanding how this side of the world works would be like reading a novel to the mid-way point and stopping. On a related note, having grown up in a largely non-Asian workforce, its been a real confidence boost to see and work with Asians that are in leadership roles.

Coming full circle at work
At work, I've continued to piece together my understanding of how the financial system works today. In the first half of the year,  I spent my time focused on Bank Resolution Planning — or, "how to shut down a bank in an orderly way". I learned more than I ever wanted to know about bank liquidity and drivers of financial stability.

This in many ways, brought me back full circle to why I joined the Financial Services consulting industry in the first place. I got in because of my curiosity with the 2008 financial crisis. Fast forward 10 years, and it felt like I was finally getting a chance to build some of the defense mechanisms to lessen the impact of the next.

On cryptocurrencies
As a result of the Resolution Planning work, I became interested in learning more about macroeconomics and currencies. This coincided with the news cycles starting to cover the rise of cryptocurrencies. Like anyone who has gotten into crypto, I went down the proverbial rabbit hole. I read everything I could find on the history of money , monetary policy, and even pulled up my notes from my ECON 101/102 school courses.

Beyond the hype of Bitcoin, I found the most interesting part of cryptocurrencies to be the numerous real-time natural economic experiments being run. Though nothing is certain, its hard to imagine that cryptocurrencies and decentralized economic systems won't become a bigger point of debate in an increasingly globalized economy. Having spent years looking at systems that should probably be more decentralized (e.g. science funding) this will continue to be an area of focus.

Onward to 2018
My goal this year is to find better balance between work and life. To help with this, there are important lessons learnt from this year worth documenting and remembering. To "future Andrew", if you live by the following rules of thumb, you'll probably do alright.
Life's rules of thumb: 
1. Take every chance you get to enjoy good food, with good drinks, around good people. 
2. Be humbled by the fact that the more you learn, the less you'll probably know.
3. Always make time for family. Otherwise, what's it all for anyways?

1/2/17

Note to self: 2016 Edition

Most of us experience nostalgia in some way, shape or form. For me, I'm nostalgic for places. In particular, cities I've lived in are cemented in my memories as snapshots of who I was and how I felt at specific points in time. New York was always a place of inspiration for me, and I was glad to have the opportunity of returning in 2016.

Landing back in New York, back in a corporate setting, I had reservations about the fulfillment I'd find in my work, and my personal growth.  After all, everyone around me was heading towards the very things I had just left behind — an office in a garage, sunnier shores of Cali, and this notion of doing "impactful" work. A year wiser, I've come to appreciate that fulfillment, growth, and "impact" (whatever that means) are all relative to something more important: your attitude.

I approached 2016 with a positive attitude and tried to view everything as an opportunity to learn something that I didn't know. This helped me to appreciate that there was always a bigger and more interesting question to ask — if you're willing to put in the time to look. 

Here are some of the topics, I found myself spending time on:

Market failures
Through the course of the year, I found myself increasingly interested in questions relating to market failures — e.g. conditions in which free market capitalism may not result in the most efficient allocation of capital to achieve positive outcomes.

This tied closely to learning as much as I could, through my work and other research, around how different types of institutions allocate capital (both public and private), as well as their failure modes.
 
Books I read, that I'd recommend:
How Markets Fail (history of economic theory), Capital Across Borders (history of wealth management), More Money Than God (history of hedge funds), King of Capital (history of private equity)

Investing in science and technology
Much of the lessons learnt on market failures has also been applied to Boundary Impact Ventures — the platform I started in 2015 to personally invest in deep science and technology ventures.

www.boundaryiv.org

The initial intent was to operationalize Boundary through a donor advised fund (DAF), but that was put on hold in favor of leveraging the equity crowdfunding infrastructure that went live in 2016. Platforms like WeFunder ("VC-as-a-Service") have democratized the fund management industry by lowering the barriers of entry for new fund managers.

I don't think people have yet realized how revolutionary this will be — in particular, for deep science and technology investing.

Nonprofit efficiency
In my day job, I spent a good chunk of time looking at the U.S. non-profit sector. Picking up Python in the process to crunch the numbers, I helped to lead the analytical component of this report on non-profit efficiency.

http://seachangecap.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Overhead-for-Trustees.pdf

This topic hit particularly close to home for me, as I spent a lot of my time at Experiment.com thinking about how to efficiently fund social projects (in that situation, scientific research). Funding overhead at non-profits is complex - and this report helps to shed some light on the questions one should be asking.

Outside of professional life
I was fortunate in 2016 to have had the chance to do a bit of traveling. I spent extended periods of time in New York, Boston, Toronto, Stockholm, Copenhagen, London, and Zurich. On many of these trips I was reminded of how life exists outside of my e-mail inbox, social media feed and constant career goal setting.

Perhaps this was the most important lesson of the year.

Onward to 2017
Here's to another year of learning and approaching life as one giant amazing opportunity. Thank you to all that have played an important role in helping to guide me along the way.