Lucking out on life

L

Luck Out: (colloquial, idiomatic, US, Canada) To experience great luck; to be extremely fortunate or lucky.

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/luck_out

My life has been series of lucky breaks, a collection of events where I’ve ‘failed upwards’, and while my career isn’t wildly successful, I’m smart enough to know and humble enough to realize the comforts I have are a distant hope for billions(!) of others on the planet.

So I’d thought it be fun to walk-through a few of these lucky breaks and perhaps wonder how different my life would have turned out if any one of them didn’t happen.

Lucky Break #1, was being born into a middle-income household in Klang during the 1980’s.

Malaysia was a different country in the 80’s, rich kids with drivers and poor kids who couldn’t afford lunch, went to the same schools. Sadly, such diversity no longer exists in Malaysian schools — so I was fortunate enough to be perhaps the last generation of Malaysians to enjoy such an education.

Being middle-income, meant my parents could afford a Personal Computer (PC) when I was 13. My father spent $4999 on a Acer PC that had a 486-100Mhz processor, 8MB of RAM and a whooping 850MB of Hard-Disk space. That’s a lot of money for a simple game machine, which is what I treated it as for the first few months — playing endless hours of a game called Wolfenstein-3D, which was neither 3D nor involved any wolves.

Fortunately, in the 90s was also this thing called ‘The Internet’, a fairly new introduction to Malaysia that allowed anyone with a computer and a Modem to log onto the ‘World Wide Web’. Truthfully it was a horrible experience, slow speeds resulted in slow load times, and an absence of a good search engine (Google would only be founded much later) meant it was hard to find anything of value.

But at a time when Teletext was the best interactive data you had, The Internet seemed like a God-send. Luckily … I very quickly discovered the internet’s killer app!

Outside of the browser, lived an interesting program called IRC. It too, used ‘the internet’, but was focused on one thing — chat. On IRC you could join ‘channels’, and chat with random strangers, just to talk via a rudimentary text interface (think Whatsapp with no emojis, pictures or even history). This absolutely blew my mind! I’d spend hours everyday chatting to folks I had no idea who they were. The most popular channel in Malaysia was #Mamak (yes, hashtags were used way before twitter!), and soon there was #Klangmamak — for folks living in Klang 🙂

As an awkward 14 year old in an all-boy school, IRC was pretty much the only way I talked to girls, and nothing is more motivating to a 14 year old boy than talking to girls.

All this made me fall in love with technology, and I can’t help feeling that had I not been introduced to the internet when I was 13, I’d be a completely different person. My sister who was 6 years older than me — she merely adopted the internet, I was born into it!

By the time I was 18, I had finished SPM and was applying for local universities. My results of 6 A’s wasn’t terrible, but they weren’t awe-inspiring either — I applied to Uniten, UTP and MMU. Only MMU accepted, so no decision was necessary (a common theme throughout my life!).

MMU was based in Malacca at the time, so my group of friends would took occasional bus trips back to Klang. On my very first trip back, I sat next to a girl, and we talked all the way back home — that’s a 3 hour trip! I was still awkward when talking to strangers, but somehow this girl was different.

If you have to ask, we celebrated just celebrated our 10th Wedding Anniversary., and that my friends was lucky break number #2.

I did much better in Uni than in school — since it was an engineering course, it only involved subjects I actually loved like Maths, Physics and Science. One year into my degree, my CGPA exceeded 3.9 (out of 4), and I was cruising. I applied for a scholarship from a company called Motorola, who operated out of a big assembly plant at the intersection of the Federal Highway and LDP. Thanks to my CGPA, I got the scholarship and the associated RM7,000 a year it paid out.

But getting the scholarship wasn’t a lucky break.

Soon after graduating, I applied to fulfill my bond with Motorola (which was now called Freescale Semiconductor), but they took a long time to respond to my emails. So, as I watched my friends get onboarded to new jobs, I decided to apply for jobs elsewhere, including at a company called Shell.

After completing an online questionnaire for Shell, I was called in for a face-2-face interview, which I promptly attended. The day after my face-2-face, Shell HR called me to attend what they called a ‘Shell Recruitment Day’, a full-day interview with senior execs of the firm, and the final step in their 3-step interview process.

I remember telling the lady that I actually had an appointment the next day and couldn’t make it, to which she replied that I had actually failed(!) my face-2-face interview, but someone had dropped out from the recruitment day, and they needed to make the numbers. This was my only chance, so I dropped whatever I had and went for the recruitment day and eventually got the job. Lucky break number 3!

I can’t even remember what appointment I rescheduled, it was probably something mundane like meeting a friend to play Counter-strike, but I’m glad I went for the recruitment day. The lesson I took, is to always grab a lucky break whenever it presents itself– 23 year old me, wondered what the chances of someone who failed the first level interview would succeed at the next level. But from that day, I learnt to always try your best, and things will eventually work out.

Half-assing is for losers. You either want something or you don’t — and if you want it, you owe it to yourself to give it all you got. If don’t want it — why bother trying. I use to half-attempt opportunities, to give my self an excuse in case things didn’t work out. That meant I could keep my ego from being bruised — I stopped doing this a long time ago.

Soon after I accepted the offer from Shell — Freescale gave me a call, asking to come over.

Oh-Oh!!

I looked through my contract and there was a clause that they had to offer me a job withing a stipulated time or risk voiding the contract. Since that stipulated time had passed, I simply declined and hoped for the best. Lucky break #4 was not getting in trouble for it.

To be clear, I had actually interned in Freescale for 6 months prior to graduating, and it was a awesome place to work in. I was blessed to report to great bosses during that period, and actually enjoyed writing VBA scripts to optimize testing capacity at the plant.

But…. looking back I realize this was the best non-decision I have ever made. As Scott Galloway puts it:

Sector dynamics will trump your talent (I realize how awful that sounds). However, someone of average talent at Google has done better over the last decade than someone great at General Motors. Be thoughtful … any opportunity you have when you are young to choose among different paths is a profound blessing. Look for the best wave to ride.

When I graduated in 2006, The Semiconductor and Energy sectors were seen as equivalents. Graduates at Intel, Agilent and Freescale, earned equivalent salaries to graduates from Shell, Exxon and Petronas. That ceased around 2010, fresh graduates from Shell were earning nearly $5k, almost double their counterparts in the semiconductor industry. My starting salary at Shell ($2.6k) was actually lower than what Freescale offered me ($2.7k), but I have little doubt, that a career in Shell was was more fulfilling and financially rewarding than a career I would forge at Freescale.

You never know with these things, but I’m almost certain. I’m sure lots of folks had great careers in both companies — it’s just my opinion.

Lucky breaks #3 and #4 set me on my career, but there was one more break left.

Shell recruitment day was a ‘generic’ recruitment program, meaning it wasn’t an interview for a specific job, it was merely an entry into their graduate program. Shell assigned you jobs after you passed through the programme. Fortunately, my first job was a Business Analyst for their Retail division, in hindsight this was a good decision — even though I didn’t decide it. Lucky break #5.

So, if you’re wondering, I never decided to get into IT. I hap-hazardly stumbled and fumbled my way into what was an important decision. I didn’t wake up one day with clarity of what my career was going to be, God nudge (and then shoved) me into it, and it was the best non-decision of my life.

But there’s more!

In 2015, Shell decided Cyberjaya wasn’t the best place for an IT hub, and announced it would be moving jobs from Cyberjaya to Bangalore. The announcement was shocking, but truthfully I had already been toying with the idea of leaving the company. I decided to not stick around, and so in November 2015, after more than 9 years in the company, I left the wonderful folks at Shell, and went to work for Standard Chartered.

It seemed like a good decision when I made it.

But while I was serving my notice in Shell, they announced a rather generous package — 1.5 months of salary per year of service, which would have meant nearly 15 months salary for me (not to mention the tax breaks). I was disappointed, and left to wonder if I made the right decision.

And…things got WORSE!

2 weeks into my new job at Standard Chartered, I was told my team was moving to Singapore. The good news was they offered to relocate me, but after speaking to my wife, moving to a new country on a single paycheck was not the best move for our young family.

Not only did I not get the generous package from Shell, I did it to move to a team that now had an expiry date on it. Those few weeks of life, were filled with regret. But, God sometimes works in mysterious obvious ways, and here was lucky break #6.

A month later, my wife was offered a role in Singapore by her company as well — like what?! After a few days of talking about it, we decided that if both our companies were offering us positions in Singapore, we might as well give it a try.

Marina Bay Financial Centre | MBFC

So, I spoke to my boss, and got a move to Singapore. Not only was the move seamless (same role, same boss, just different country). I got a pretty generous relocation allowance as well, meaning moving across the causeway was super easy.

There’s probably at least a dozen more lucky breaks in my life that I’ve not dotted down, and I personally think of them as pure luck, and not something borne out of my hard-work or even intellect.

I don’t have a star-studded career, but it’s not an utter failure either. I (humbly) realize many folks would give an arm and a leg to be where I am. So I’m grateful of the numerous lucky breaks I’ve had throughout my life — as a believer in God, I truly believe he’s got my back! If you’re not the religious type, it still helps to think that somehow the universe is conspiring to make you better.

And while I tried to write this article in my usual cheerful upbeat self, there were many occasions of self-doubt and regret. I was accepted to only one university (even though I graduated with a great CGPA), and I only accepted one job offer from Shell (it was one of only 2 companies that made an offer!). Over the years, I’ve sent my resume to an uncountable number of opportunities (and got no reply), I’ve been turned down by numerous others after interviews.

Life does kick you down sometimes, but over the last 20 years or so, I’ve had more than my fair share of lucky breaks, and not appreciating it would be a tragedy.

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