Dear 24 year old self
It’s 2008, you’re going to your first job out of college. You’re at a small Japanese automotive factory where you’re the one engineer tasked to increase output and efficiency out of the company’s manufacturing processes. Plant wide of 3 shifts and over 200 workers, you devise production strategies, manage labor resources, build new tools and fixtures, write standard procedures, redesign assembly lines, dive deep in massive self built ERP spreadsheets. Your mind is leading this company to record profits. In fact, it’ll be the only North American division to even make a profit…Out here. In California.
You’re loving it.
You found passion in strategizing and system building. Enjoy it while you can, because in a year you’re gonna get laid off.
The automotive industry was heading into a shit hole and everyone is going to get laid off; the whole factory shuts down. Someone you’ve never met, and perhaps never set foot at the factory, decided it didn’t make sense run operations out here in California. You’ll learn that no matter how successful things seem to be, it can disappear quickly. You’ll find that you didn’t have enough control.
You’ll wish you knew more.
Also if only you weren’t so stubbornly naive about pursuing a career in Automotive either, right…? Yeah you love cars, that’s why you studied Mechanical Engineering, right? You conveniently ignored the downward trends signaling that the American Automotive industry is fading.
I’m telling you now that through the next 10 years, you won’t find another gig like your first job. You won’t be as happy. You’re going to get a lot of experience and earn a lot more money, but the job won’t ever be as fulfilling.
Through this run, people will look at you as someone they can count on. You’ll become the subject matter expert, the go-to guy like you once were but something will always be missing. You jump from opportunities to opportunities, wearing different uniforms, preaching different core values. But it’s all the same to you; every company fulfills a mission and you go about business the way you know how: use your technical problem solving talent and be rewarded for it. So what is it about these jobs that they don’t provide?
I know now, but damn I wish I realized it so much earlier. That’s why I’m reaching out to you. Hopefully as your older self, you’ll listen to me and act on it. So first, hear me out and ignore that inner voice of yours. Second, learn to trust someone else (who else better than your wiser 34 year old self?). Third, use less of your head. “What? My brain is my best asset…the fuck ya talk’na’bout?” your inner voice would say. Let’s break down your situation.
You’re the one engineer in this company. You’re looked as the one with a college education hired to solve problems. As a quiet guy who goes only about his business, you’re a perfect culture fit. Being in a Japanese company, you learn about nemawashi — “an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, and so forth.” Nemawashi allows you as an individual contributor to lead without leading. You become the powerful current underneath the harmony. You’re planting idea seeds deep in the company, you’re showing that effectiveness starts from the bottom-up, you’re proving that leadership is to be a listener and a guide.
That’s all you know about doing things, and that’s why you’ll struggle in your next jobs.
Somehow you’ll stumble into the Tech industry working at startup companies. It’ll be very obvious that nemawashi is not part of their culture. But again that’s the only way you know about doing good work. So you’ll learn a bunch of things and do a bunch of other things. But the whole “quietly laying the foundation” thing isn’t helping you out.
The Tech culture known for being fast paced and results driven ironically promotes the opposite. Projects get prioritized by who shouts the loudest. Nobody gets career advancements if they don’t belong in the boys club. People get their way being smooth talkers than being technically competent. I mean jeez…You’d think you need to be a sociopath or a narcissist to get any respect.
You realize it, but never fully want to admit it. You’ll stay quiet, and actually you’ll double down on your beliefs: Taking credit is not what leaders do right? Doing “real” work is what “really” matters right? Fulfilling the needs of those at the bottom is more important than the requests of those above right? That’s the right way…right?
Sorry man. The results are that you’ll be passed over for promotions, passed around teams like a poker chip, passed up for the chance to show your real value.
You’ll be mulling over that for years. You’ve been blinding yourself following your righteous and only way. It get even hazier because you’re actually surrounded by well meaning people. Bosses and colleagues encourage you to think about what you’d like to do. They want you to be highly visible. They do want you to be happy and successful.
“I want to lead our team and the company. I want to make the decisions. I want to be in discussions of project prioritization. I have good rapport with all my colleagues, I know what benefits us for the long-term, I can plan and drive us to where we need to be.”
But you’ll never say those words.
Nemawashi right? “Put me in wherever I can help” right? “Just doing my job” right? If you did deserve a leading role, they would’ve handed it to you right?
And who are they anyway? I’m asking because I know your answer, and I need you to rethink it. You see, you’re very democratic. You believe leaders are born from the bottom up, and that means your colleagues would be the ones electing you as their leader. That’s a noble idea but it’s wrong, and you know it’s wrong. It’s obviously wrong in reality, you gotta have to scrap that thought as well.
Think of it this way. If you get promoted, it’s because the boss higher up the ladder wants you to be their direct report. This boss entrusts you for tasks they want done. Realize that’s exactly how you’d expect if you had reports too. And if there’s a difference between what you think are priorities and what they think are priorities, communicate with them. Build that trust with them. Don’t just simply say that you’re independent, or that you can think on your own with minimal supervision; that’s not enough. You have to show your abilities, explain your thought process, prove that your agenda aligns with theirs, the team’s, the company’s. That requires a healthy dynamic relationship with them.
The relationship between you and your boss is just as important as the ones with your colleagues. Shit maybe it’s even more important because that also affects your colleagues.
That’s far different from being a doormat or a yes-man that you abhor to become. That also means you’re not a selfish rogue no-man either. Having a conversation about what you want, mixed with what they want, and what these people want and what those people want, leads to the truest form of what we want.
So that’s the mindset you need to work on. Now let’s go over the body part. Or in other words, what steps you need take once you get your ass off the couch. In short, build yourself a platform. Get a microphone and a spotlight aiming at you. Bring an audience. Think of yourself as a stage performer.
That platform was already built in your first job, and it was meant for you. The whole being the only engineer and nemawashi thing was the stage that you simply had to get onto. People were set to looking up and paying attention to you. Just doing your job was all you had to do.
In your next startup jobs, there isn’t any of that. You got a hammer, some nails, and wood. There’s no audience. Your official job title and responsibilities won’t match anything that you actually do. There’s no process. Sometimes there’s no direction. And people have no idea what you do, many times you don’t even know yourself!
Much like a startup company that’s trying to find itself in the market, you are yourself your own little startup. You need to find your place amongst your peers, you need to show and explain what’s unique about you — Why would someone go to you? What is something that needs to be done and the first person your coworkers would think about is you? Go market yourself. Spam about yourself to everyone. Hand out flyers to anyone to attend your show. Sell your skills and services. Show your vision, show your mission, show how you can fulfill it. Do these with being in tune with your reputation and perception.
That last bit is super important. As an introvert, it’s too hard to talk about yourself all the time. So find ways to leverage your energy with letting others speak about you. Soon enough people will come to you saying “hey I heard from someone else that you may be able to help me.” Think about how far your name reaches. Focus on building trust with people that have long reaches, ie the bosses, PMs, and rockstar engineers.
Use effective communication. Being a guy with a few words, make everything that others see and read count — whether that’s in your e-mails, ticket comments, blogs, etc. Take any chance to proactively ensure people are informed of your thoughts. Document your work. Host meetings. Do presentations. Position yourself where people will have to look up to you. Those are introvert things, believe it or not. You’re in complete control of curating what you say — Time, place, manner. Words just have to be out there, never accept to keep them in. Keep that mic on and find a way methodically.
And then, over-communicate.
Yes, over-communication is bad, you’re one of those that just can’t be bothered and interrupted. But with the way you are, you’ll never get to be overbearing. Relatively, you’re only going to be at the “rightly” communicating level. It’s just too hard for you to be or even pretend to be domineering, so try your hardest anyway. With your stage and marketing built, people are gonna want to hear from you. How many times have others said that you always have the right things to say? You do possess what others need to hear. So as Jalen Rose says, give it to the people.
Let’s dig deep here and see why you’re this way — See why you’re so reserved. It’s because you’re afraid. Behind the stoic confidence you exude, you’re really an over-sensitive cupcake. You’re so insecure about looking incompetent. You’re that one who doesn’t ask questions because you’re too afraid that they’re stupid. Sucking at something hits you deep. You can’t accept about not taking things personally. The heart you wear hides behind the big thick long sleeve of aloofness.
I mean the real aloofness, not your usual Resting Bitch Face. Recognize when you concede to caring less because it hurts too much giving your all and sensing your audience isn’t fully satisfied or appreciative of your performance. You don’t wanna go there. You’ll lose yourself disengaged going through the motions of just getting by. You’re not that kind of person. Just getting by isn’t satisfying, complacency won’t make you happy.
When you get a big new challenge, anxiety seeps in. That’s totally normal, you want to feel. It’s a chance to face fear while it’s right in front of you. You got the right initial approach — Absorb everything like a sponge. Read the documentations. Observe, observe, and observe. Consider perspectives. You’re dealing with your fear of incompetence by gaining insight and knowledge. But that’s what will isolate you once you spend too much time doing it. It’s a trap.
You’ll keep on hoarding knowledge and build up your skills without having done much use of them. You get stuck because it feels comfortable. You’re tricking yourself since you’re learning and growing, you’re getting out of your insecurity. Piling up information and mastering something make you feel invulnerable. That’s fake confidence, it’s a drug and you’re addicted to it.
Look. I’m not saying you should go out there without knowing what you’re doing. Putting more thoughts before acting is still your MO. I’m talking about the unhealthy level that you’re doing it at sometimes — when you try to go over literally all the “what-if’s”, when you already know the answer but you’re reassuring its correctness over 9000 times. Like dude, it’s been correct after the 5000th time you checked.
The crazy thing is you already know your plans and solutions are good. And you keep on rechecking and rechecking, making sure there’s no blind spot. The reality is you’ve been ready, but you’ll revert and say you’re not — gotta get more information! See how ironic that is? See what you’re experiencing is a drug withdrawal? That longing paralysis tightening your heart up? That’s fear. The unknown that your mind would never figure out unless you get real feedback. The unknown of “What if I disappointed them? What if they think I suck? What if they lose respect of me? What if they find out who I really am?”
Fear is all made up. In your head, by your head. It’s all made up. People aren’t even aware of the fear you’re experiencing. They won’t have any idea of how rigorously you’ve been trying to cover it.
I’m not going to tell you to simply be more courageous because you’ll go all-or-nothing fight-or-flight mode making reckless decisions. Stage performers before their show starts all go through rehearsal process. So go do a rehearsal. Get some of your work done, show it to a few people you trust. Get feedback, improve your work. Rehearse again. Show it to more people. Time for dress rehearsal. Do it a couple more times. Now your work, your plan, your solution, all that information will flow so quickly in your head like it’s second nature.
Now you’re ready. You’ve been ready but now you actually feel ready. Now that anxiety turns into excitement. You can’t wait to get on stage. You have a story to tell. Ain’t no better storyteller out there than yourself. Let me tell ya, there’s no better high than knowing you’re hot shit walking off the stage.
Find any chance to get on stage. Get addicted to perform up there and chase for that real confident feeling you deserve. Grab that mic and constantly remind that your work isn’t gonna sell itself. Surround yourself and rehearse with people that prop you up and inspire you. Trust them with your fear, take their honest feedback, and make them believe in you.
Be at peace with who you are with your strengths and weakness, your fears and aspirations. Once you fully accept yourself, you’ll start believing that:
You are a leader. You’re a visionary who wields deep empathy and technical expertise. You’ll pave the way to a world where people can genuinely express themselves, build personal bonds, and flourish as high performers. And it’s not enough for you to pave and walk the path, get others to come ride with you.
And with that, good luck.
See you in 10 years.