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
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Good books I'd recommend reading in 2018: