“The secret of adventure, then, is not to carefully seek it out but to travel in such a way that it finds you. To do this, you first need to overcome the protective habits of home and open yourself up to unpredictability. As you begin to practice this openness, you’ll quickly discover adventure in the simple reality of a world that defies your expectations. More often than not, you’ll discover that “adventure” is a decision after the fact—a way of deciphering an event or an experience that you can’t quite explain.”Rolf Potts, Travel Writer
In my last Annual Review, I declared my intended theme for 2019 to be adventure.
By the end of 2018, I had left my comfortable tech job, lost 25 lbs of fat, found myself single, and abandoned my stable lifestyle in SF. Having just finished reading Vagabonding by travel writer Rolf Potts, I eagerly anticipated the start of my travel sabbatical. My headspace was in a peak state, and it felt like the whole world was laid out in front of me.
I had written in my last review that I desired to “use the skills of my structured, logical self to support the dreams of my creative, emotional self” and “push myself out of my comfort zone.” In other words, I sought out challenge and growth in my personal life. This meant overcoming my fears of the unknown and learning to adapt to new environments — but also experimenting with my writing and entrepreneurial projects.
One year and 19 countries later, I still find myself walking an unpredictable path, but with more courage and conviction to say that I am on the right path. The year turned out to be exceptionally adventurous, but in many unexpected ways, which I’ll get into in this review.
My values and personality also haven’t radically changed, but I feel like how I express them has evolved. The biggest difference is that I trust myself more.
Paradoxically, even though I feel more open towards new ideas and people, I make quicker calls about what and who I want to invest in. I have a more refined BS-filter. I spend fewer cycles on getting caught up in the details. It’s taken me quite a stretch of my 20’s to get to this degree of self-assurance, but I’m grateful that now I can leverage this clarity and confidence into a more focused vision for approaching life.
So, if I had to sum up what I did this last year in one sentence it’s this: I went on the adventure that I’ve always dreamed of, grew from these experiences, and doubled down on a life path that feels fulfilling (even if I don’t know where it takes me yet).
Going forward, the theme I’ve decided on for 2020 is architect. I see architecting a new home as a fitting analogy for what I want to do this year — lay the foundations for an expat lifestyle in Singapore, and more broadly speaking, a sustainable life path that relentlessly prioritizes my long-term fulfillment.
What were highlights of my last year?
Looking back, 2019 was action-packed. Bear with me for a moment as I try to synthesize the highlights across all that happened:
Surmounted my fears to turn my lifelong dream of long-term travel into reality
Growing up as the son of of middle-class Chinese immigrants, we never took an international vacation (outside of family visits to China). Before high school, I had rarely heard of anyone who traveled the world outside of 62-year-old retirees, let alone friends in my immediate circle. I just got very lucky in HS, spending a summer at a State Department-sponsored cultural exchange with students from over 40 countries, which put globe-trekking aspirations in my head. (thanks BFTF!)
Sadly I shelved these travel dreams for a decade. Looking in the rear view mirror, I can see how I was held back by my own fears as a career-driven person. I would think, do I have enough money? Am I going to be left behind in my career? And as many immigrant children would consider, what would my parents think?
External voices confirmed my internal FOMO as well. After I announced my plans, a few colleagues furrowed their brows and inquired, “but what about your career?” Six months into my sabbatical, my dad still texted me headlines about an impending recession, warning me to find a job before it hits.
Ultimately I’m grateful that I pulled the trigger. Taking the time to do something for my personal happiness — and not to please my parents, employers, or society — felt self-actualizing beyond what I expected. I felt proud of my decision, but more importantly, I finished 2019 with more confidence in what I’m capable of. I know I’ll be OK no matter the outcome.
(Aside: Even if a recession hits, I believe I’m more resilient because I feel recharged. In at least two private chats with executive recruiters before I left SF, they revealed that they come across burnt-out executives with serious mental health issues on a weekly basis, commending that I decided to take a break. Their anecdotes were the cherry on top for me that I was making the right call.)
Pursued novel experiences that pushed my limits and broadened my sense of what’s possible
I’m very curious and wanted to try out as many new things as I could this year. So, I took surf lessons in Bali, rode 2500km on a motorcycle across Vietnam, trekked a 5-day imperial pilgrimage route in Japan, worked on tea farms in China & Taiwan, scuba dived in the Galapagos and Bali, took 8 weeks of Mandarin and Spanish intensive classes, and more.
When I look back, I don’t see these experiences as highlights necessarily because I felt intensely happy during them. There were joyful moments, for sure, but also plenty of painful ones. For example, trekking in torrential downpour, getting into a motorcycle accident, and falling short of my expectations in surfing. Rather, each experience was a highlight because I did something that expanded the definition of what I thought was possible for me.
A decade ago, I could have never imagined myself taking a month-long motorcycle road trip or working on a farm. But now I actually feel quite comfortable in these situations. I even discovered an interest in sustainable farming, which I never would have considered before the sabbatical. Or after brushing up on my Mandarin, my dad complimented my speaking fluency for the first time in my life. I started becoming more open to idea of working in a Chinese-speaking country.
In other words, by breaking boundaries I started to think bigger for myself.
Met inspiring travelers from different backgrounds and formed surprisingly enduring relationships
Living in San Francisco, nearly everyone I knew and met worked in tech. While traveling, I’ve met people from all walks of life — chefs, artists, designers, farmers, teachers, students, retirees, police officers, and entrepreneurs. The 64-year-old Canadian grandmother and recent divorcee who decided to backpack solo across Vietnam, aspiring to explore the largest cave in the world. The 38-year-old Cambodian-French woman who sold her house and finally pursued her dream to visit Southeast Asia after a bad car accident nearly took her life. Meeting people outside of the tech bubble has been a welcome breath of fresh air.
I also felt shocked by the type of relationships that transpired. When you’re traveling through backpacker hostels, it’s easy to meet a group of people you like, spend a couple of delightful days together, and then part ways — never hearing from them again.
That’s why it feels crazy to share that my partner and I serendipitously met in a Singapore hostel one month into my sabbatical, and we started dating three months later. After 6 months of traveling across Europe and South America together, we are now happily planning our next chapter together in the city where it all started. I could have not seen our relationship coming before the sabbatical. (Believe it or not, my intention going into the year was to avoid any serious dating!)
Serendipity also led me to cultivate several good friendships through the year. I made friends in Bali that I’d later cross paths with again in Taiwan, Vietnam, Germany, and Colombia. My Vietnam motorcycle buddy and I spontaneously decided to go on the roadtrip together after meeting in a Canggu hostel. In Bagan, I connected with a few bright-spirited backpackers who I still keep in touch with. The list goes on. I’m very grateful for these friendships, because they’re so different from my circles back home and exposed me to a wider range of perspectives.
Launched a tech career coaching business that I’m proud of
Building this business has been an incredibly fun and wild journey — full of learning, facing my fears, and pushing (sometimes dragging) myself towards my entrepreneurial vision.
Here’s what’s happened in the last 5 months since I started this business:
- Coached 30+ clients, several landed their dream job offers at Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, and fast-growing startups while others reduced their stress levels and grew into high-performers
- Won my clients a combined ~$100K in salary raises
- Garnered 27+ 5-star reviews on HireClub’s coaching platform
- Got covered by top outlets like Business Insider, CBS, Thrive Global, Business News Daily, and more
- And finally, published 11 research-backed articles in 3 months, launched my new website and weekly newsletter
It still feels surreal that all this happened so quickly. Dipping my toes into this field has confirmed for me I do love coaching and want to keep growing my business long-term. I’m eager see how I can continue building out my programs and marketing even after moving to Singapore.
Learned about diverse topics, from farming to creative writing, via books and experiences
Reading books was still one of my favorite ways to explore my curiosities. I read 26 books this last year spanning genres like regional fiction, autobiographies, and non-fiction (travel, mindfulness, psychology, learning, coaching, habits, writing).
Here’s a selection of my favorites:
- Catfish and Mandela by Andrew Pham
- Factfulness by Hans Rosling
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson
- Self as Coach, Self as Leader by Pamela McLean
- How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
- Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday
In addition, I learned about tea and coffee production processes by touring and working on farms. I also improved my Mandarin and gained conversational Spanish through taking language intensive courses. These aren’t skills that I’m looking to apply immediately, but I’m optimistic that they will come in handy down the road.
What were lowlights of my last year?
Came to grips with the reality that my fears and anxieties are unlikely to subside completely
Although I confronted my fears and anxieties last year, I also learned that they’re deeply wired into my brain. In my last annual review, I wrote about befriending my fear. This has been a helpful practice, but is still largely a work-in-progress in several areas of my life.
Take learning Spanish. When picking up a new language, it’s critical to practice speaking hard phrases even if you’re embarrassed about using broken grammar or sounding funny. You need to just get over it and put in the reps, much like you would lifting weights at the gym. As I’ve been practicing dialogue, I notice that I often feel afraid of making a fool of myself — and have to consciously push beyond my perfectionist inertia to make more progress.
Beyond languages, my fear of failing continues to show up in my life, but it does feel more normalized than before. What I’ve found to be the most helpful is focusing on coping strategies, like managing my reactions to fear.
Struggled with bouts of loneliness as a solo traveler
Drink with any seasoned solo traveler bragging about their individual conquests, and after a few rounds of beers (or one), they’ll probably confess to longing for companionship. I’d like to think that I did a good job making meaningful connections throughout my independent travels, but there were certainly a few times where I stared isolation in the face.
Take one week in Osaka, when my hostel had only a handful of other guests. And speaking very limited Japanese, it felt challenging to connect with locals (though I made a friend through a language meet-up). As a result, I felt despondent and questioned my hostel choice. Or in Myanmar, I got a bad case of food poisoning and spent a couple days and nights shivering in my bed alone, waiting for my fever and stomach flu to pass. I admit to brooding about my misfortune at that point.
I also felt surprised by how my loneliness was more acute if I spent time with a crowd that I didn’t connect with (e.g. party backpackers) than if I was by myself. This happened in a few youth hostels across Southeast Asia, where more travelers prioritized drinking over exploring culture.
To summarize, loneliness joined me from time-to-time as a travel companion. While we didn’t become friends, I did my best to cope with these feelings.
Set inflexibly high standards for myself
High expectations for yourself can be good, but there’s a fine line between holding oneself accountable and punishing oneself. I noticed that I had a tendency to slip into the latter.
Take my Vietnam motorcycle roadtrip. There were several days where my buddy and I were falling behind schedule. I lobbied for us to cover more distance by doing a full-day ride, which ultimately turned out to be a miserable idea. After covering nearly 300km, we felt exhausted and had a few too many close calls. We switched back to doing half-ride rides, which turned out to be a smart decision.
In Latin America, I set a high bar for myself for building my business, writing, and learning Spanish — all while traveling. I felt like I was used to our pace of traveling, but I underestimated how much time these projects would take, accomplishing less than I set out to do. I initially beat myself up for it, but then realized that I was the only one holding myself to these inflexible standards.
What I’ve tried to do more since then is adapt my standards on-the-fly to the present situation, instead of staying fixated on my initial target.
Learned less Spanish than I set out to do
Relating to my previous lowlight, I overestimated my ability to learn Spanish concurrently with my other projects. If I could go back, I’d caution myself about how all-consuming taking Spanish intensive classes would be — 4 hours of class a day, plus additional hours for conversational practice and doing homework. The rapid pace of our learning was already challenging enough without putting my other projects on my plate. By the end of the year, I was pouring much of my limited energy into coaching and writing, so it may have been more strategic to try learning Spanish earlier in the year.
What did I learn?
Real freedom comes from owning your whole experience, particularly your emotional reactions
Before my sabbatical, I had a bad habit of reacting with a victim mindset when things wouldn’t go my way. Then catching myself in the act I’d feel self-critical of these unhealthy thoughts — starting a negative feedback loop. This toxic cycle became my Achilles heel, making it harder to stay motivated in the face of life’s obstacles.
During my solo travels, my new context made it easier for me to challenge these feelings of being slighted. After all, traveling independently meant that I was in the drivers seat of my own experience. There was no one else to blame. Starting a regular mental practice, every time I noticed myself slipping into feelings of victimhood, I tried stopping these thoughts in their tracks and reframing their underlying assumptions.
For instance when I got caught in a few massive downpours while motorcycling in Vietnam during its monsoon season, my first reaction was feeling snubbed. How could I be so unlucky? I wanted to blame someone for my discontent. After noticing my negative thoughts, however, I made it clear to myself that I was the one who decided to ride a motorcycle during monsoon season in the first place. Strangely enough, taking responsibility made me feel better — like I had gained newfound respect for myself.
Many repetitions later, I felt like I had carved out a fresh pathway in my mind. I started feeling more responsible for my own happiness. While travel is no panacea for mental woes, I believe that thrusting myself into a new environment helped me break free from old, harmful patterns of thinking and cultivate new, positive ones.
Adopting a beginner’s mindset opens you up to more serendipity
Intention and perspective greatly influence the kind of travel experience you have. Like how a fictional tale is shaped by the author’s mindset when writing the narrative, the story you tell yourself about your journey is a product of how you see the world.
If you view the world as just a checklist of attractions, it’s no surprise that traveling will start feeling like checking off the boxes at work after the initial rush of adrenaline wears off. Chasing the beauty you find on Instagram is setting yourself up to be disappointed. However, I learned that by traveling with an open mindset I could be pleasantly surprised by what I might find. Maintaining a beginner’s mind helped me create my own luck, leading me to opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise.
For example, I had never heard of eye gazing ceremonies prior to staying in Ubud. These intimate gatherings bring strangers together for long sessions of making eye contact with one another, focusing on connecting meaningfully without words. I would have thought of it as a rather touchy-feely exercise back in San Francisco. However, when my buddy shared his positive experiences with me, I became intrigued and decided to try it out. I’m so glad I did because the experience felt profound, revealing to me the power of body language.
If I hadn’t led with my curiosity during this journey, I would’ve missed out on so many of my favorite experiences.
Focusing less on goals and more on systems helps you create sticky habits
Partly inspired by Atomic Habits by James Clear, this past year I started seriously applying the science-backed principles of behavior change to every aspect of my life. From health to business, I started focusing on changing my inputs instead of outputs.
I used to set Big Hairy Audacious Goals for myself (“break my half-marathon personal record!”), which would always leave me disappointed when I would fall short. The reason is now clear to me: these goals never helped me develop consistency, which is usually a prerequisite to accomplishing anything significant. As a result, I’d always be on-and-off about my running, writing, diet, etc. which made me doubt my own ability to make progress.
What I do now is focus on the tiniest actions I can do in each area I’m trying to develop — but doing it consistently. For example, instead of trying to follow a strict work out regiment, I start each morning with one push-up. After I do it, then I get to check off the habit. Once I start, however, I have momentum, so it’s easy for me to do more push-ups and tack on other exercises. Or take my writing. I focus on writing just one sentence per day, but I always end up writing more (sometimes even a whole article!).
One reason why this strategy is effective is because it helps me stay motivated, which is key to making a new behavior sticky. Going forward, I’m excited to continue using this approach to evolve my behavior over time.
It’s not too late to start taking steps toward environmental conservation
As Greta Thunberg drums up a fervent movement to tackle climate change across the world, I came to my own painful conclusion that the environment was in danger in just about every country I visited.
What I witnessed this year was not surprising, but certainly disheartening. I observed disrupted ecosystems, disappearing wildlife, mounds of trash, and overexploited resources. Singing gibbons being hunted to extinction in Vietnam, native Galapagos birds shrinking in population due to human impact, and plastic litter strewn across the Balinese countryside — just to name a few examples.
In the past, I never considered myself an environmentalist. However, this year, seeing the widespread impact of consumerism forced me to confront my own wasteful behaviors. I started taking responsibility for how much resources I expend by making a few lifestyle changes: avoid the purchase of single-use plastic products, buy only what’s necessary, switch to a vegetarian diet, and eat less in general.
I fully recognize that I’m still guilty of plenty of other harmful actions. Traveling the world on a carbon-emitting plane. Eating avocados and almonds that fuel deforestation and water shortages. But I’m happy that I’m starting to make contributions where I can and plan to iterate over time.
What am I looking forward to this year?
Transitioning my nomadic lifestyle to a semi-permanent living situation
After a year of continuous travel, what I discovered is that long-term digital nomadism doesn’t suit my tastes. I’m more than ready to shift back to living and working in one place.
This year, I’m excited about all the aspects of making a new city my home — meeting friends, starting a job, building a network, and exploring its arts and culture scene.
Re-building foundational habits for physical health including sleep, diet, and fitness
While traveling, I had a hard time committing regularly to 8 hours of sleep a night, eating nutritious meals, and lifting weights.
This year, I want to normalize my weekly schedule (finally!) and start focusing on slotting these physical habits back into place in my life. For example, I’d love to build muscle and get stronger, so I might develop a weekly strength training routine. If these new habits go well, then I’ll continue layering on additional behaviors.
Building new habits for creative pursuits like writing and building my business
There’s a lot that I aspire to do in the creative realm, but I’m trying not to bite off more than I can chew.
That’s why I want to apply the behavior change lessons I learned last year and focus on creating small habits that I can do to grow my target skills. Example habits might look like writing 1 nugget of insight a day or contacting 1 publication/podcast a day.
That’s the end of my 2019 Annual Review. Thank you for reading and can’t wait to share more of my life and work with you in 2020.