Articulating any self identity can be tricky. Expressed too generally, and you’ll end up with pseudo-scientific nonsense, like “I’m the trajectory of a unique event path in the space-time continuum of the universe”. Expressed too explicitly, and it can both define and confine you.
Often when I’m asked “What do you do?”, that annoying shorthand for “Who are you, and what is your source of income?”, I find myself replying with “I play ping pong”. After all, I do love an occasional game of ping pong. But on days I’m feeling more cooperative, I’ll usually give a less eyebrow-raising answer: “I’m the Founder & CEO of Clockspot.com with a background in Computer Science from Georgia Tech, currently living in San Francisco”.
Although self identities are immensely complex structures, with messy edges, historical layers, and ever-shifting centers of mass, I’ll nevertheless try outlining the territory with a couple of bite-sized anecdotes. I’ll map out the points of interest, but leave it up to you to connect the dots. With any luck, the stick figure that forms will start to resemble what I see in my own head.
If you peel back all the geological layers of my identity, you’ll find family at its core. My dad, who is a pediatrician, was relentless in reminding his four boys to eat more fiber, and avoid trans fat. My mom, who taught music and art, worked hard to ensure we fulfilled our daily quota of piano practice, math lessons, and weed pulling (kids are cheap labor).
With two older brothers and one younger brother, there was plenty to distract me from all the fiber-eating and SAT problem solving, like building cardboard castles for our turtles, hedgehogs, and other various odd pets. Still, the combined parenting managed to forge a solid foundation of values that are fossilized somewhere within the bedrock of this stratum.
For some odd reason, in high school I decided to be interested in calculators and programming instead of sports and girls. I probably figured since girls weren’t swooning over my mad ping pong skills, I had to impress them with calculator games instead.
My life purpose at the time was to be featured on the front page of ticalc.org, which showcased all the hottest new games and apps for TI calculators. After creating several games (which I distributed to friends in math class), I finally hit it big with my game Alien Invasion, and then later Zelda: Link’s Awakening. This bit of social validation was the push that convinced me to study computer science in college.
In college, my growing disinterest for boring Computer Science projects and prerequisites pushed me towards a new passion – electric guitar. I initially learned songs from Weezer, Foo Fighters, and Dave Matthews Band, but quickly grew tired of rocking out to three chord songs. The more I developed a better ear for tone, the more I began idolizing guitarists like Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Trey Anastasio. Within a year I became good enough to play shows, and formed my first rock band Lobster Fight.
“Lobster Fight” was originally a song I composed in college for one of my video games. My roommate at the time heard the melody and said it sounded like two lobsters fighting.
After graduating, I had to make a choice. Continue with Lobster Fight to a life of fame, fortune, and rock stardom, with a good chance of eventual disillusionment, bankruptcy, and heroin addiction…OR get a job.
I felt as if two incompatible life paths had collided head-on, triggering a seismic shift that split the ground from under me…with adulthood, corporate life, and social indoctrination on one side, and a life of free self-expression and perpetual volatility on the other. As all of my idealistic hopes and dreams came crashing down, sucked into the widening chasm, I was left to choose between these two soul-crushing worlds.
So I took a good look at both sides, closed my eyes, and like a fugitive cornered from all sides…jumped straight into the chasm. I decided to start my own business instead *.
[Two years later]
By 2008, Clockspot had grown from a tiny idea in my head into a company serving thousands of businesses from all over the world. Beyond just being profitable, I had also managed to automate almost every process in the business so that I only had to work 30 minutes a week to sustain its growth.
Somehow I had jumped into an abyss two years earlier, and ended up on the other side in a strange land with no work schedules, no vacation limits, and no managers to report to. I could live anywhere in the world (with internet). And best of all…I had time. A whole lot of time.
It turns out this strange land was not just paradise. It was heaven on earth.
* Actually my first startup was Qaboom.com (Question Answer BOOM, pronounced “Kaboom”), a social question and answer website for college students. Long story short, it didn’t work out. It devastated me, and it really did feel like I had jumped into a chasm. But we’ll save that story for another day.
Taiwan & World Travel
When the mind is in a strange land, the body desires to be there too. In 2008 I decided to move to Taipei, Taiwan, homeland of my parents. I immediately fell in love with the chaos of people, motorcycles, and street vendors that gave Taipei an energy unlike any other city I had been to. What started out as a vacation from my business ended up being a two year mini-retirement of exploring and traveling Asia.
Living abroad helped me recenter myself, away from the whirlwind of startup life. It helped me reduce my anxious fixation on the future, and constant focus on career success. It helped me rethink some of my American ways. It helped bring me back to the present…to recognize and fully enjoy the energies around me.
Maybe it was from all that green tea I was drinking. Or maybe I just thrive in densely populated tropical islands. Whatever it was, it sparked an insatiable zest for life which led to a series of adventures that define some of the best moments of my life.
- The best filet mignon I ever had, ironically, was in India, where cows are considered sacred. Oh and did I mention a 16 oz cut cost $8 USD?
- Will and I got scammed by the local police in Goa, the most affluent (and touristy) region of India.
- My cheapest meal cost $0.37, from a small shop in Bangalore.
- The entire 30 days we were there, Will never had a solid poo. That is the power of curry.
- The two phrases we heard most often when little kids saw us walking down the street were “Jackie Chan!” and “Obama!”
Mount Everest Base Camp
One evening, sometime between a third or fourth beer, my friend Will and I concluded that no soul-searching agenda would be complete without climbing up a steep mountain. With a cheers and a clink, we sealed our fate. We would attempt Mount Everest base camp come May 2009.
Initially, I tried to brainstorm a few profound reasons for voluntarily walking up a mountain at below freezing temperatures (people will ask). I then came to the realization that there were none. Sometimes, you just gotta do it because it’s there. So with youthful determination, stripped of any prior experience, expectations, or sagacious forethought, Will and I loaded our backpacks, flew to Nepal, and hired a Sherpa that would lead us on our journey to enlightenment.
It was hard. Really hard. Even harder than biking the circumference of Taiwan. Not because moving my legs up and down was hard, but because of a thousand other things I never prepared for – lack of clean water, altitude sickness, freezing temperatures, lack of oxygen (the oxygen at Everest base camp is 50% that of sea level), diarrhea-every-20-minutes (my biggest expense was toilet paper), trouble digesting food (due to altitude), trouble sleeping (due to altitude), bad hygiene, and the list goes on. By the end of the trip I had lost 30 lbs. My body went from being a solid 210 lbs, to an atrophied 180 lbs.
One night, after coughing and shivering in my sleeping bag for hours, wondering when the sun would rise, I got fed up and went outside for a short walk. It was an abnormally quiet night. I remember walking to the edge of a nearby cliff and staring down into the darkness. There was a vast emptiness below the valley, and it struck me how much presence a nothingness of this magnitude could have. As I traced my gaze down it’s side and back up the edge, something caught my eye. I suddenly reeled back in surprise. Hiding in the darkness this whole time was the enormous silhouette of Ama Dablam, a monstrous 22,000 ft mountain, and one of the most recognizable peaks in the Himalayas.
Now before I continue, let me try describing how unbelievably gigantic a Himalayan mountain like Ama Dablam is. I remember the first time I landed in Lukla, I looked up to see a couple of impressive mountains, followed by a beautiful sky, then clouds. Looking higher, I saw that above the clouds were taller mountains, then taller clouds. Only when I started straining my neck did it occur to me that above those taller clouds were the peaks of the Himalayan mountains. You can see what I’m talking about in my video here.
So as I stood there before Ama Dablam, completely dwarfed by its presence and engulfed by the emptiness around me, it slowly started to occur to me how delicate and utterly alone I was. What was I looking for in this frozen, moon-like land where nothing grows and no human civilization thrives? What did I expect to find here? The Himalayas had been standing here for billions of years, and here I was at age 23 thinking I was going to conquer something. How would I make my brief moment on this Earth meaningful? Everything faded away, and all that remained were my thoughts, Ama Dablam, and the faint sound of a passing wind.
That night, crawling back to bed, it dawned on me that this was the best trip of my life. I had been to the most uninhabitable and awe-inspiring landscape on Earth, while getting to know the Nepali people and their culture. I had gotten to know our guide Kaila and his wonderful family. I had become closer with my best friend. And most of all, I had come to better understand myself. I had finally found the profound reasons I came looking for.
Life works in such fortuitous ways. In the strange mathematics of happiness, all that endless climbing, trips to the toilet, and nights awake shivering, somehow ended up totaling to one of the best experiences of my life. I’ve learned that when you take chances and explore unknown territory, it can sometimes lead you staring down into an emptiness. But if you look hard enough, you just might find the silhouette of a magnificent destiny in hiding.
Watch the Short Film - Mount Everest Base Camp
My hope is that this blog will serve as an up-to-date reflection of my thoughts and experiences. Pictures can tell the “what”, but often not the “why”. I needed a way to capture all the ruminating and introspecting that goes on in my head, which often goes untold and becomes forgotten, buried under layers and layers of event twists and identity pivots.
In many ways, I’m trying to externalize myself as much as possible, scattering artifacts along the way, in hopes that they may be rediscovered later. Because inside all of us is a beautifully complex, yet evanescent world, ready to be shared. The stories we tell validate our existence, which is preserved in the minds of others who remember us. And like treasures excavated from a burial site, some day they will outlive us.
For now, I’m just enjoying my trajectory along this wonderful event path, curiously exploring the space-time continuum of the universe.