Something new…

Last Friday was a big day for me.  I started the day employed as a researcher in the mobile industry.  I ended the day as a first-time entrepreneur (a.k.a. unemployed, but hopeful, bum).

When I joined Qualcomm Research Silicon Valley (QRSV) 19 months ago, the job seemed like a perfect fit.  QRSV was an up-and-coming lab in my research area.  The pay was a huge step up from grad school.  The people were awesome.  The project was intellectually challenging, with the potential for large industry impact.  It was just about everything a fresh PhD could ask for.

That’s great.  So, why leave?

About one year into the job, something started to nag at me.  I couldn’t place it, but something felt wrong.  At first, I convinced myself that I was uncomfortable with industry. Coming from grad school, industry felt like a huge culture shock.  I told myself to stick with it, and hoped that the feeling would pass.

Except, the feeling didn’t pass.  With each day, the feeling grew stronger.  I wish I could say that I understood myself, and quickly figured things out.  Unfortunately, that was not the case.  Initially, days passed, followed by weeks.  Over time, work became less exciting, and I began to dread going to work each morning.

As the feeling grew stronger, it eventually manifested itself as a faint voice in the back of my head:

“This is wrong.  What are you doing with your life?”

What was once a vague feeling, was now a voice with a clear message.  The message itself isn’t anything unique or special.  If I had to bet, a good majority of the human population has heard the same message at some point.  It is the stuff that great mid-life crises are built on.

In any case, it was time to honest with myself.

What am I doing with my life?

I was doing what I was trained for.  I spent many years in school along the same streamlined career path, accumulating B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in Computer Engineering.  This job was the next logical step.

I was doing something that I could be good at.  I’ve learned over the years that as long as I work hard, I can excel at what I’m working on.  I believe that I did reasonably well.  If you measure by publications in top-tier conferences, I made a meaningful impact through several papers.  If you measure by real-world impact, it remains to be seen.

I was doing something that could be fun.  Research is fun.  Working with brilliant folks at the top of your field is fun.  Writing code, debugging it, and integrating it into a larger project is fun.

As I mentioned above, this is a really good set up, and there really aren’t any complaints. Most people would be happy with the situation.  In fact, I continue to refer my friends to Qualcomm Research because I believe it is a great place to work.

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  It took me a while to answer this, but in hindsight, it’s quite simple.

We only have one life.  We are only young once (and at 32, I’m not that young).  We have a limited time on this Earth, and we better make good use of this time.  Therefore, the most important decisions we make in our lives are related to how we allocate our time.

Furthermore, we spend a majority of our young adult waking lives working.  To some degree, this is a sad realization.  The average work day is supposed to be 8 hours.  Most of the people I know work far more than that.  Thus, on an average work day, people spend more time at work than with their families.  If the most important decisions we make are related to how we allocate our time, and we spend a majority of our young lives working, the choice of what to work on is pretty damn important.

The result from this thinking is straightforward.  Doing what I can is not good enough. Doing what I could be good at is not good enough.  And doing what may be fun is not good enough.  Given the opportunity to work on anything, I need to find what I want to do.

What’s next?

This brings us to the present.  I quit my job to figure out what what I want to do.  There are several ways I could approach this.  One approach could be to find a position within a large company that gives me freedom to explore.  Another approach could be to join a startup that has goal that I vibe with.  Both of these may work, but I am afraid of being constrained by the direction or politics of the organization.  For now, I intend to strike it out on my own, and give myself absolute freedom to find what I want to work on.

Although the future is hazy, I do have a general idea of where I am going.

I have always been interested in the human condition.  If you see me in a book store, you will not find me in the computer aisle.  Instead, you will find me rummaging through books on psychology, self-help, business, and personal development.  I am interested in what makes people tick, and how people live their lives.  I like thinking about how to make my life more awesome.  I like thinking about how to help others live the best lives that they can.

I want to combine my fascination with the human condition, and my interest in computing technology.  How do we design products that change lives?  How can technology help make us better people?  How can technology help create a better society?

I have some thoughts marinating in my head, but they are vague and need a lot of massaging.  I hope that in the near future, they will solidify into something to start building. And then, who knows?  Entrepreneurs love to talk about pivoting, and I’m sure I will do my fair share of that.

The first few days.

After quitting my job, I took the weekend off and explored Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County.  The hikes are good.  Some of the views are gorgeous.  The oysters grown in Tomales Bay are abolutely delicious.  If you haven’t been, I would suggest spending an afternoon there shucking oysters and washing them down with some good beer or white wine.

Yesterday, I woke up with an amazing sense of freedom.  It feels surreal.  Aside from monetary concerns, there are no limitations.  I don’t use my alarm clock anymore.  I can go for a run anytime I want.  I can spend all day thinking about whatever I want.  I can build whatever I want.

I know it’s only the beginning, and there will be many ups and downs in the near future, but for now, everything is fun and exciting.

Stay tuned.  I will keep you posted with random thoughts on life, and chronicles of my adventures as a first-time entrepreneur.

22 thoughts on “Something new…

  1. I don’t know you, but I stumbled on your blog via another blog from Manish. I showed my wife your 2 blogs and it inspired us. You go for it, push, push, push, don’t look back where your supposed friends are, they’ll run and catch up to you when you run ahead. Be like Secretariat, Belmont, 1973, run, run. Video on youtube. We all have things we’re not good at entrepreneur skill wise. All we can do is get up every day and be glad we’re alive and have a chance to ‘ get ‘er done’. If you get ONE key thing done every day, you’ll win. Also, remember to send your customers their invoices. haha

  2. great post. I’m older than you but kind of doing the same thing. It gets rough at times
    ( $ wise ) and sometimes I lose confidence but your post came at a good time for me. thanks a lot and good luck with your journey.

    oh, someone told me something recently that I love and is related to your post: the statement “time is money” is an insult to time !!!!

    • Mark, Yes! Money is fungible; time is not. There is really no comparison.

      Glad to hear this post helped out a bit. It’s only been a few months for me but I can already tell that maintaining confidence and drive is one of the tougher challenges as an entrepreneur. My approach so far is to work on something I really care about. But who knows? I will probably write a post on it when I’m further into this entrepreneurship thing.

      Good luck on your journey!

  3. Hey Alex,

    I think that it is awesome that you found the courage to switch gears; I know of too many people who justify staying in phd programs they hate, in jobs that aren’t a good fit, in marriages that are soul crushing. I took the leap to start my Artrepreneurial social enterprise, and I am happily scaling it up as I advance through my doctoral program. Let me know if you ever want to bounce any ideas off of me.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Hi Jason,

      Thanks for the encouragement, and congrats on starting your own social enterprise! It’s awesome you are working on your own thing during grad school.. I think that not enough PhD students think about it. And, it looks like you have a beautiful website going there… good luck on it! If you ever happen to be in the Bay Area, give me a holler. I’d be happy to meet a fellow academic/entrepreneur!

  4. This came from you: “my parents didn’t want to raise me to be too aware of ethnicities because they wanted me to assimilate.” Malaysia is a pretty clannish society and coming from that, your comment has stayed with me ever since and helped me understand how to make my life in the U.S. easier. So thanks, dude!

  5. Really a motivating post. I too quit my job one and half year ago as I never enjoyed my job as a banker. I was in Operations department not sales but I was not happy. I devoted myself to prepare for GMAT and TOEFL. Since last few days I was very frustrated as I did B.Tech then MBA Finance and sitting idle at home with no exact answers why I quit my job(worst is I have left after being promoted) and preparing for exams was something really depressing.But now I am happy that I am not alone with this strange “unhappy feeling”.
    Thanks again for posting your views.

    • Thanks! Congrats on quitting your job! When you first quit your job, the freedom can feel weird. I think it is because we are so used to having structure in our lives, that it feels strange without it. Get used to it, and enjoy it! There are so many things you can do when you free up all of your time to find what you are passionate about. Good luck on your journey!

  6. How my PhD unexpectedly carried over to entrepreneurship | Alex Shye

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  10. What’s in an identity? | Alex Shye

  11. Why I write | Alex Shye

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