Category Archives: passion

On circumstances and somebodies

How much of a role does luck play in success? A lot. Malcolm Gladwell goes into this in great detail in his book Outliers, which explored the systemic, situational factors that contribute to people becoming wildly successful.

To call it just luck is to ignore the hard work that people put into recognizing and taking those opportunities. To shrug it off as a life lottery shuts one to the possibilities that stretch before them. We have many, many stories of people who have changed the world from unconventional starting points.

Stop worrying about luck. You’re always luckier than someone and not as lucky as someone else.

When I was growing up, I used to feel pretty darn lucky. I stumbled across computer programming at an early age. I had an aptitude for it, which developed into a passion.

Then I heard about people my age—or younger!—in other countries doing even incredible things, and I felt insecure. Maybe I’d missed out. Maybe I’d never be able to catch up.

It wasn’t even the bright stars like Marcelo Tosatti, who became the Linux 2.4 stable kernel maintainer in 2001. We were both 18 then, and he had attained my then-pinnacle of geek coolness. It was the fact that in other places, ordinary students were hacking on incredible things. I remember feeling despondent about the fact that our operating systems course in computer science had a reputation for being more theoretical than deep-in-the-guts-of-an-operating-system practical, and I felt envious of universities like Georgia Tech, where undergraduates experimented with Linux on the Compaq iPAQ PDA. The Internet could get me curricula and whatever resources people shared, and it could let me participate in open source development, but it couldn’t give me those hallway conversations and interesting project experiences people no doubt enjoyed there. There were the coop opportunities that I would never get to explore, because I wasn’t in Silicon Valley or Waterloo. People I wouldn’t bump into. Mentors who might never find me.

Then I decided I wasn’t going to let being in a third-world country stop me. And I learned, and I hacked, and I ended up committing code to the Compaq iPAQ bootloader, which was actually my first public commit with my name on it and which made me feel that hey, I could stand up there with everyone else. (Story: I had sent in patches almost every day for a week. This was either final exam week or the week before that, so coding was a great way to procrastinate studying. ;) It got people’s attention, and Jamey Hicks of the Compaq Research Labs actually called me up, long-distance, to find out who I was and how they could help me keep hacking. That felt awesome.)

And then I decided to stop stressing out about prodigies and possibilities and uneven distributions, and instead work on helping people surpass me by sharing as much of what I learned as I could.

After I finished my degree, I taught computer science in university to students who grew up with even better tools and better resources than I did. The things I helped them learn how to build in first year were better than what I built in first year. Awesome!

Do I feel a twinge of envy when I see a 12-year-old girl publishing books and speaking at TED? Yes, a little bit. But it’s drowned out by a feeling of inspiration for doing it, pride that the world makes it possible, and excitement about what can come next.

You know what’s even more inspiring? The people who discover their passions late in life, and make a difference anyway. The people who develop and deepen their understanding into something that changes the world. Life is not a sprint. It’s a marathon, and we’re all in it together.

There will always be someone luckier than you are, and someone less lucky. There will always be someone who knows more and someone who knows less. It’s what you do with what you have that makes you who you are. It’s okay if you didn’t start ten years ago. Start now. Find and develop your passion.

Thanks to Mylene Sereno for the nudge to write about this. Hang in there! Everyone starts somewhere.


It was sunny and almost spring-like on Sunday. I rode my bicycle 5km to the Artscape Wychwood Barns, shedding my winter jacket and fleece along the way, enjoying the ride in a light turtleneck and thermals. That 5’C is warm must speak to the reality-distorting powers of winter, which will make a return in the next few days. But today was like spring.

I wanted to check out the Seedy Sunday event I’d learned about on one of my favourite Toronto gardening blogs. The converted barn bustled, hundreds of visitors flipping through seed packets and comparing cultivars. I slipped into the attached greenhouse for a seminar on seed starting, marveling at the rows of young plants sheltered from the cold. After wandering around to see what was available, I bought almost twenty seed packets: cherry tomatoes, assorted carrots, bok choi, bitter melon (W- loves it), and various herbs.

With the exception of bitter melons, equivalents for the herbs, fruits, and vegetables I plan to grow are readily available at a supermarket that’s within walking distance. I can buy bitter melons in Chinatown or ask W- to pick up some from Lawrence Market on his way home from work.

But there’s a certain thrill in turning over the soil and watching earthworms squirm back into the ground in search of more nutrients. Seeing something grow and remembering that just last week that patch of soil was brown and bare. Tasting something fresh and knowing that it doesn’t get much better than that.

Also, the supermarket doesn’t stock purple carrots or yellow cherry tomatoes. =) And I hate throwing away herbs if all I need is a small bit of it (I’m talking to you, parsley). Much nicer to just snip a few from a plant that can keep on growing.

This year, I’m learning how to plan ahead. I’d like to start as many plants from seed as possible instead of buying plants from the nurseries of nearby hardware stores. It promises to both be cheaper and more wide-ranging. It’ll be fun. And if it doesn’t work out, I know where to get plants that are ready for transplanting, and I know those will work in our garden. =)

I suspect gardening’s one of those hobbies I’ll grow into. I want to be like that older lady down the street, the one who grew rows and rows of bok choi, tomatoes, lettuce, and other assorted goodies in the front yard of an apartment building. I always peeked at her garden whenever we walked by.

I enjoy gardening a little bit now, and I can imagine how much more fun it will be when I can appreciate the difference between cultivars and know what kind of environment I should provide to help the plants flourish. It all begins from a seed of interest.

Looking back on her years, my mom wondered what she did with her free time and why she can’t identify any particularly physical hobbies. She ran a business and raised us—that must count for a lot of time and quite a lot of exercise. But of the different hobbies she explored, she wrote:

Embroidery, sewing, pottery, carpentry, cooking, baking – I’ve tried them all but could not go beyond introductory levels – there was not one that I was passionate about to pursue through the years.

What I’m learning about passion is this: most of the time, it doesn’t spring full-formed from the ground. Passion comes from skill and appreciation. The more you know about something, the more you can appreciate it. It’s okay to be interested but not passionate about something as you explore it.

I’m interested in gardening and sewing. I enjoy baking, and I’m getting better at it. They’re not my passions yet, but perhaps someday, they will be. I’m passionate about helping people connect and collaborate, and about sharing ideas through writing and presenting. It took me a while to be able to really enjoy it, but now it totally rocks.

Passions develop from seeds of interest. They benefit from a little care, thought, and time. Maybe some potential passions have longer “times to harvest” than others. Some seeds don’t germinate at all, or they grow and they don’t flourish. Others are like zucchini and can take over the rest of your garden if you don’t pay attention. Some passions go well with other passions, like companion plants. Other passions don’t go well together at all. So you do a little planning, but you can’t plan too much, because life happens and you just need to figure out how things work out.

Sometimes you need to put in the right support structure. Sometimes you need to build a protected environment – a greenhouse of time and motivation – so that new interests can survive until they’re self-sustaining.

Cultivate the ground, plant seeds, and see how things grow. Keep what you like and think about replacing what doesn’t work out. And enjoy the process, always. It’s not about the fruits of your labour (although that’s yummy!), but also all the experiences along the way.

(Tangent: My dad is an awesome gardener of opportunities. ;) )

Circuses, pots, and cathedrals: three key stories

There are three stories I refer to again and again: taking the first circus, making more pots, and building a cathedral. They form part of my approach to life.

Taking the first circus

My parents told the story of the first circus to us when we were growing up. On her blog, she wrote:

It came from an anecdote that my husband and I read in the Readers’ Digest about a little girl in a town soon to be visited by three circuses. Her father explained to her that the family was not financially able to take her to all three circuses and could take her only to one. The first circus would be just a small one, while the third would be the best and biggest, and presumably the most expensive. “I’ll take the first circus,” she said, and so her parents took her to the first. A few months later, when the second circus came, the family’s finances had improved and they were able to take her to the second. And finally, they found that they could afford to get tickets to the third and most expensive circus.

Harvey Chua, I’ll take the first circus

The story of taking the first circus reminds me to take opportunities when they come up. I tend to be conservative and frugal, but I’m also good at figuring out when it’s time to take that leap.

Making more pots

In a previous blog post, I wrote:

There’s a story about a pottery teacher who divided the class into two groups. A student in one group would be graded based on the quality of one pot that they turned in at the end of the semester, while a student in the other group would be graded based on the sheer number of all the pots submitted throughout the semester. At the end of the semester, students in the second group–those measured only on quantity–had produced better pots than those who had focused on quality. In the process of creating a large number of pots, the second group had learned from their mistakes, while the first group had been paralyzed by endless theorizing about what a perfect pot would be.

Me, Of sewing more dresses and making more pots

I use the pot-making story a lot. For example, when I struggled with writing, the pot-making story reminded me to just get something out there. The pot-story reminds me that even mistakes help you move towards mastery.

Building a cathedral

Several builders were on a construction site. A visitor asked the first worker what he was doing. The first builder replied, “I’m laying bricks.” The visitor asked the second, who replied, “I’m building a wall.” The visitor asked the third, who proudly answered, “I’m building a cathedral.”

The cathedral story reminds me of the power of vision. Good vision can turn any work into a joy. The lack of vision can make even the most talented lost.

The story also tells me that vision can be created by anyone. Even though I’m a recent hire, I have a strong vision for what I want to help the company and the world become, and I have a strong vision for myself and who I want to grow into.

Circuses, pots, and cathedrals – shorthand for how I live. What are your key stories?

Thanks to Paul for the nudge to write about this!

The sweet spot at work

I had a wonderful conversation with my manager’s manager the other day. She wanted to know more about what I was working on with Innovation Discovery, and the other things I was doing at IBM. I told her the story of how I joined IBM after getting to know so many incredible people throughout the organization. Two and a half years later, I’m even more in love with the amazing people, talents, and opportunities within reach, and I’m doing work that’s exactly in line with my skills and passions.

“You’re so lucky,” she said.

Yes, I am. But it doesn’t have to be luck. I think we can help many, many people have these kinds of experiences, particularly as we get better at bringing down the walls of geography and organizational division. I want to figure out how other people in IBM and in other organizations can have these kinds of wow moments.

It reminded me of the “career best” moments described in The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders. “Career best” experiences are the highlights of people’s work—when they contribute something of significance and they feel successful. The concept was researched by Kurt Sandholtz and further developed by Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson. Dalton and Thompson wrote, “If individuals don’t understand their unique strengths or interests, they don’t have any basis for deciding whether a job or an assignment make sense for them.” Knowing what to say no to is as important as knowing what to pursue.

In The Extraordinary Leader, Zenger and Folkman share a model for leadership sweet spots: the intersection between competencies, organizational needs, and passion. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that Venn diagram is very useful in all sorts of life situations. I’ve used it to think about the sweet spots in life, too. It’s the intersection between what you do well, what the world needs, and what you love.

What would it take for more people to find those sweet spots for themselves?

I think self-awareness plays a huge role. I think a lot about what I like and don’t like, in what I excel and in what I’m merely mediocre.

Communication matters, too. My manager, my organization, and my clients know what I care about and what I’m good at. I can show people how what I do meets the organization’s needs and our clients’ needs.

My blog is my primary tool for both self-awareness and communication. Blogging solutions, tips, ideas, and reflections helps me think through things and share them with other people. Reading what I’ve written and what others have shared helps me understand even more.

So this is one of the reasons why I’m passionate about helping people connect and collaborate. The more we can encourage people to reflect and share, the closer they can move to their sweet spots.

There’s still a lot of fear and resistance when it comes to sharing. People are afraid of embarrassing themselves, or they tell themselves that they don’t have time, or they think they don’t have anything to share.

I used to say that maybe the reason why I share so much is that I’m new. I’m learning a lot. I don’t have the established networks or reputations that other people have. I don’t have a choice – I need to share as widely as I can, in order to catch up.

But not many new hires have embraced sharing, and they’re having a hard time finding their sweet spots. So maybe it’s not that. Besides, I’ll keep sharing even as I grow in responsibility and reach.

What is it, then? What can help people find those sweet spots?

How can we help people build those serendipitous relationships with unexpected mentors?

How can we help people reflect, share, and grow?

Or should I focus on finding people who already have that spark – who already know it’s possible, who know a little bit about their sweet spots, and who want to grow even more – and help them do amazing things?

What if more people could be fully engaged? How wonderful could this be?

The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders
John Zenger and Joseph R. Folkman, 2009
ISBN: 9780071628082

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Google Books: The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders

Training wheels for setting goals

“Do you have any good questions to encourage people to set goals?” my mom asked. She’s been having a hard time getting people in the office to set personal and business goals. She’s tried worksheets, acronyms like SMART, motivational speakers,

I suggested providing a menu of suggestions, if people had difficulty answering open-ended questions. Generic suggestions –> concrete personal goals –> actions they can take to achieve that goal. It can be hard to dream from scratch. Ideas, guide questions, and role models help a lot. They’re like training wheels for setting goals.

When I’m brainstorming what I want to do in life, I find that reading and listening helps. I look for what resonates with me, and then I choose elements to incorporate into my plans.

What helps you set goals? How do you help other people learn how to set goals?

Rabbit-holes of awesome


Interests can be rabbit-holes of awesome. There’s no telling how deep they run.

One of the things I love about exploring interests is getting inspired by people who are passionate about them. Book-binding, for example—there are people who are very geeky about book-binding. Same goes for photography, sewing, gardening, and all sorts of other good things. That’s what’s great about the Internet. It’s easy to find people passionate about an interest, no matter how niche it is.