Know Yourself — Why I Turned Down a Job at a Super Company to Focus on My Inner Self (a pile of random thoughts)

Yes, I am talking about a super company. It’s so popular and impressive in the Silicon Valley and beyond. It’s consumed in every cafe and super market. But I had to let it go. Saying no to job offers is harder than you think. So much of American’s individual identity is engraved in their daily jobs. How much time do we spend on the job, thinking about the job, talking about our jobs? A lot. Every person I have met would say it’s so impressive that you don’t have a job. What they are really trying to say is I don’t what the hell you do and how you managed to survive so long without one.

Whenever I meet someone new, they ask me what do you do? Even at the San Francisco Customs Border Control, they ask you what do you do? If you don’t have a job how do you afford to live in San Francisco?

The fact is, before majoring in business means taking up a job at a big company or a startup, it meant you will create a trade that creates value. To create value is also to know what people want. To know what people want is to know what you can offer.

Twice I was handed interview invitations in my inbox for jobs at Google: one for being one of the best engineering blogs in the USA for 2016, one for the Operations and Strategy department. Between 2016–2017 I have received 5 checks / cards from Google. I have never once asked for these positions. Every single time, it was because I did something I was truly passionate about: Pokemon GO, anime, Japan, learning to code … These silly endeavors that my parents will so not approve landed me numerous times at the Google HQ. And I knew I am still not a fit.

How? Well, when I first met a female senior manager at Deloitte at a recruiting meeting, I realized that I have met my mentor immediately. She was kind at providing guidance and she was candid: she said you have to work your butt off to learn every day. That really stuck with me even though I rarely see her at the firm. It turns out to be the best 2–3 years of my life. Because at Deloitte, they really cared about keeping the best people and letting them shine. They can be Caucasian, Asian (East Asian or Indian), or just about any one. Any one has an equal chance of being promoted, hold events, and write a paper for the CTO’s office. Deloitte may be an old entity but it does its job very well.

Then the beverage company, whose CEO drives about 3 million dollars worth of profit per month, approached me to struck a deal in growth. He wanted to be the best of the internet. He wanted to be the top ranked Google page. And in his mind he should have been one already. He had the branding, the story, the monetary power and more… Except he wanted spend just a few thousand dollars to fix the problem and he wanted me to deliver the result now rather than in 2 months.

Growth is not free. Growth is not a chance. It is a deliberate strategic process to achieve what millions of dollars can barely buy. I said please hire an outsourced company to do the work you want them to do. I will cost much more and I won’t be easy to work with. He was extremely frustrated. Thinking his shiny company should be enough to convince me to jump on board even though the pay was exceptionally low. The one and only advice for women in Silicon Valley is to never do unpaid work. Sorry, but NOT sorry.

Being a growth hacker, one wants to work on challenging problems. His company was extremely enticing. We are close family friends too. Every part of me aches to jump on board. Then I remembered: women should not take on free work, we should stand by firmly on the value of my work, and also we need to see partners who can take us to new heights. This partnership needs to be equal or a mentor-mentee relationship. It cannot just be a boss and an employee. Because growth is etherial and it is fluid. It can only be obtained with much deliberation, collaboration, feedback, trial and error, and fierce fierce experimentation as well as perseverance.

If there’s one thing the Waldorf education has taught me, it is to Know Yourself. Do not chase the unreal, do not be aloof, stay grounded and do good meaningful work.

Deep inside, I want to be an intellect, only evaluate the world with well-tested metrics and only make prudent decisions. But I know better than that. Often in business, and in the world, we forget the people element. When I wrote my first multi-million dollar contract, my first deal, my first mega investment, I was not writing emails or coding. I was chatting, simply chatting and humanizing. I don’t play golf but I had zero doubt that many deals are made on golf courses. My Waldorf friends have given me a lot of crap about being at Stanford and doing the Stanford things. In certain sense, they were correct, Stanford does not guarantee success. Many parents at Waldorf are extremely successful, Jonathon Ive is a parent too. There are parents that brought Pokemon and even the SF Chronicles to life.

I think if I was cut out to study at Stanford and never spend a moment at Waldorf, I would be in trouble now. I will think way too rationally and forget the arts and the people. Many people think I chase money and success. But the reality is I have turned down many opportunities to be normal to fit in. I still choose to care about politics, the well being of people and my inner self (an inner child practically). That’s why the best moments in my life are when I make business work with my inner self: that internship in Japan work + travel, Tassajara meditation trip with my Stanford dorm, Yosemite climb with the outdoors club, volunteering in Yucatan in Mexico. I think I have understood really early on my role was not just being Asian American but being me. It may be inconvenient to be out of the norm but it is extremely rewarding. Trust me, there’s nothing more frustrating than trying individualism as an Asian American. The social norm hates you.

In the end I am happy to achieve what I have achieved in the last two years of extreme chaos. I was equally happy to seal a multi million dollar deal as to fix my tenant’s sink and to illustrate machine learning the Waldorf way. I find myself doing more and more “silly” doodles and deviating further and further from the norm. But then that’s when I had the best performance too. When I was working at WW Hansen Lab of Relativity at Stanford. There was no way I could have succeeded but it worked. And when I first went to Deloitte I was very unprepared too but it worked. And then after wanting to go to business school for many years, only to realize that real deals are done at strange times and places for strange reasons. May be somewhere in the middle, I forgot commerce is rudimentary in human societies. More than theoretically learning, it requires extreme personal contact.

Part of me thinks there’s a science to business. But part of me firmly understand when it comes to human interactions, it’s an art, not a science.

My inspiration is my mom, who only has a high school diploma. She has achieved the most in a family of businessmen and scholars. Yet, she is still personable. She spends her day buying vegetables, planting flowers, learning about WeChat commerce, cooking, and with the people she love. She has found happiness faster than many.

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Y Sun

Silicon Valley tech, startup, machine learning, data, food! & travel! Worked at 2 YC startups, quoted on USAToday TechCrunch VentureBeat