Yesterday I accompanied my dad to the hospital A&E. He had dengue fever the past 2 weeks, but the fever had not subsided, and he was experiencing bleeding from his colon. My sister drove us over, and I followed my dad in.
Sitting in the waiting area, while the doctors did some preliminary checks in a room away from my view, I felt a sudden wave of mortality course through me. Amidst the surrounding sounds of scanners beeping, wheelchairs rolling, names of patients being called out, the state in my mind was stillness. Clarity.
This has happened a couple of times before: the lifting of the fog of life, and the call to reflection. These episodes, fortunately or unfortunately, seem to occur whenever something bad happens. Regardless, I am thankful.
This time, the answers for the following came to the fore: What is the purpose of life? What is my purpose in life? What is the purpose of a relationship?
Why am I publishing this? A simple answer: Skin in the Game. I believe that the only way for any idea to grow stronger is for it to be exposed, tested, challenged. Everybody is entitled to their opinions, but how many are willing to put theirs out there?
“If you do not take risks for your opinion, you are nothing.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
I intend to be deeply honest and deeply authentic. And I’d love to hear what you think and feel about this. Here goes.
What is the purpose of life?
For a long time, I struggled to find a resolution between 2 ideas: we all want to grow, to learn new skills, to change parts of our character, to be better. Yet, when we meet our friends or relatives after being apart for some time, they exclaim: ‘you’ve changed! The Eugene I know would never do these things.’ Sometimes, they mean this in a good way, but most of the time, they are uncomfortable with the ‘changed’ version of you. They may be happy for you, but deep inside, the loss of familiarity turns into more negative sentiments. Now that your interests, virtues and values have changed, so does your friendship.
There seems to be a dissonance between growth and authenticity. We want to be ‘true to ourselves’, to be ‘our authentic selves’, but we also want to grow. How do we resolve this conflict?
The answer is simply that there is no conflict. My reply to “you can’t change someone’s nature” is that “change is nature” (quoted from Ratatouille, one of my favourite movies). Growth is the most natural phenomenon. All living things grow, until eventually they can’t anymore, then decay and die. To not grow, to not change, is unnatural. Therefore, it is only in growing that we are being true to ourselves. This applies not just to you, but to every other person you meet. If growth and change mean that you can’t have the same friendship that you had 5 years ago, then so be it. To try and bring back the old days would be the unnatural thing to do. Either embrace a new chapter in your friendship, or part ways in peace.
Growth as the purpose of life manifests in many ways: literal growing physically, growing children (reproducing), growing communities, growing in character, growing in skill and knowledge, growing ideas (spreading them), growing businesses. The list goes on.
Aristotle champions the idea of the highest good in life being happiness, or ‘eudaimonia’: fulfilment through action. Specifically, virtuous actions. I like this. I find the idea really pure and positive. And one that has withstood the test of time. What I like about it, is that the happiness he describes is not a state, but a journey. It is moving, not static. Yet I find it odd that whenever I tell someone of this definition of happiness, I always have to explain in detail that it is not the happiness we are used to. Perhaps, then, happiness isn’t the right word.
Happiness has its appeal, for sure. We live in a society which compels us to consume rather than create. To enjoy, to relax and be merry. Yes, to afford the things that will make us happy, we will need to work for a living, but the work here is a means to the end, i.e. happiness. To me, that is a limited existence. One that is forever locked away in the future.
Shifting the paradigm to Growth means that creation takes the front seat. If growth is the purpose of life, then the journey is the end. The process is paradise. This way, we capture Aristotle’s version of happiness as activity too. What do you think?
What is my purpose in life?
While my purpose in life will most certainly be to grow, for this question, I want to take things just one level lower to something more focused, more specific, more actionable.
When I was a kid, being carried by my dad to see the MRT construction site across the grassy field from our house, I wanted to be a construction worker. Watching Bob the Builder probably had some influence too. Then, watching Postman Pat, I wanted to be a postman. Watching Thomas the Tank Engine, I wanted to be a Train Conductor. Watching Yu-Gi-Oh and Duel Masters, I wanted to be a game developer (and this actually came true!).
These childhood aspirations faded away as I grew up, only to come back repackaged as ‘career options’ before going to university. Here, I was really close to taking Accountancy, following in my parents’ footsteps. I can’t remember why, but a little voice in my head told me to choose Business instead, and so I did. And it is through this path that I discovered my passion for entrepreneurship.
But even this is still quite broad. Starting a games company, making Rats to Riches, and now having Ethos, Rats 2 Riches and A Game of Cards in the pipeline, has been a fantastic experience. I find genuine fulfilment working on these projects, designing, testing, strategizing. I find myself genuinely drawn to this type of work, but at the same time, I have a gnawing feeling that this isn’t my true purpose.
I thought about this a lot nearing the end of the Rats to Riches development journey, in 2019. I thought about the next projects I would want to get into, and the ‘ultimate’ projects as well. I had spent so much time absorbed into the growth process, that on reaching the end, I felt lost. Empty. Initially the next steps were clear: just work on more games. But games seem to be a intermediate step to something greater, I just didn’t know what.
Back to the hospital. Sitting there, waiting for the doctor to call my dad’s name, it hit me. The kind of work I want to do. My purpose in life.
It is the amalgamation of Creativity and Design, with Strategy and Business. I realise that the companies that excite me the most are LEGO, Tesla, Disney and Mindvalley. Think about this: LEGO is a materials company. They literally just produce plastic parts and sell them to kids (and adults too). How boring is that! But of course, we know that LEGO is so much more. They infuse creativity and design into everything they do. And in so doing, ignite inspiration and wonder in everyone who engages with their product. What they sell is imagination and fun. Amazing stuff.
Disney’s lifeblood is creation. Creativity. Design. Without constant innovation in new content, they are dead. With it, they are Magic.
My purpose is to create the next LEGO, the next Disney. A company with creativity, design and inspiration coursing through its veins.
Why must it be a company? Why can’t I just do the creativity part without the business side?
I love the thrill of the competition, the constant innovation. I love failing fast, pivoting, then getting back up stronger to kick-ass. And all the while, rallying others to my side and trailblazing together. To me, this comes only through a start-up. So, this is where I want to be.
"But aren’t you in the Navy?"
Yes, and its been great! I’ve had the opportunity to meet plenty of amazing people, the space to grow, and avenues to create and contribute. Of course, with any organisation comes drawbacks, and I do recognise that this might not be the place for me to reach my true purpose, as outlined above. Does that mean that I should devalue my time here? No. Does that mean that I should leave as soon as possible? No again. There’s plenty to learn here: plenty of ways for me to grow as a person, as a comrade, and as a leader. I have already learned loads over the past 5 years, and I am truly grateful. I think that my chapter with the Navy should follow its natural course. Whether the chapter ends in 6, 10, or 25 years, what matters is that I gave what I could and had a positive impact.
There’s no rush to start the next LEGO, the next Tesla. There’s no rush to start any company at all. When inspiration ignites, and am convinced that I can make it happen, I will go for it. I can start at 30, 40, 50, even 60. It's all fine. Authenticity comes first.
On that note, comes the final nugget of clarity:
What is the purpose of relationships?
I struggled a lot with the question: ‘what is the difference between a friendship and a relationship?’ over the past couple of years. What typically happened for my past romantic interests was that we would start off as friends, then I would catch feelings, then proceed to screw things up. And the friendship would crash and burn.
For these cases, I see them as a disruption to their equilibrium. With any two people, or even in larger groups, there is an ideal equilibrium for connection. Some people should just be ‘acquaintance-friends’, others should be close friends, others, possibly more. Trying to disturb the equilibrium would cause friction for all parties. It is important to note that equilibrium between people is a function of the version of them at that time. So, 2015 Eugene might have been close friends with (insert name), but their 2020 versions might be better as acquaintance-friends instead. Or it could be the other way around! So, in my ‘failed’ romantic pursuits, our equilibrium was probably close friends, and not romantic partners. Maybe our 2020 versions could be different?
All hypothetical, by the way. Don’t get any ideas.
Okay so each connection between 2 people has its ideal equilibrium, but what is the difference between friendship and relationship?
Is the difference merely in physical intimacy? If so, then what about friends with benefits? Is the difference in the level of trust? For quite some time, I thought this was it, but then I realised it doesn’t really capture the difference all that well. I trust my close friends A LOT, but it is actually really tough to trust my partner (could just be me).
And so, sitting in the hospital waiting area, the answer clicked:
Being in a relationship means being in a whole other level of vulnerable with your partner. Why do I say that? I’ll explain with Day and Night Eugene.
Day Eugene is my public persona; I’ve washed up, done my morning routine, had a full breakfast (presently not really because I am trying out intermittent fasting), dressed up, and am ready to seize the day. Day Eugene is sociable, energetic, witty, agile, stoic. He greets others with a smile and strives for positive impact on whoever comes his way. This is the version of Eugene that my friends see. Debatable, but hear me out for a bit.
Night Eugene is my private persona. It is the side of me that I switch to after I’ve got back home after a long day of work. I’m hungry, exhausted, moody. Night Eugene loves being by himself, away from all the stimulation of the world, which manifests mainly through interacting with other people. He just wants to have a simple dinner, wind down, and rest. This is the version of Eugene that my friends don’t see. And the version that my partner would.
I started noticing these different sides during my entrepreneurial ‘hustle’ days in 2018. Kick-ass in the day, switch off during the night. I noticed it because I found myself treating people very differently in the home and out of the home. I was a much worse person inside the home than I was outside, and my flatmates paid the price.
I also noticed that there were days when Night Eugene would show up in the day! The ‘facade’ would crack, and the moody, tired, switched off side of me will take over. These would happen if I got very little sleep, didn’t eat well, or had been drained/overstimulated by other things already.
Day and Night Eugene is a good system: it ensures I am at peak performance when it matters, and vice versa. It is balanced: one cannot exist without the other. And it would be ‘perfect’ if I was staying by myself, with nobody having to deal with Night Eugene. But this is not the case in a relationship. She’s going to have to deal with both sides of me, potentially seeing more of Night Eugene than Day Eugene. Guess we’ll die?
I used to see Night Eugene as a necessary evil. Something to hide away at a corner. The un-ideal side of me. But I see now that he plays an important role for my identity: one that I need to embrace.
Night Eugene is the vulnerable side of me. When the facade, the armour, the aura of Day Eugene fades, this is what is left. Is Night Eugene the real side of me? Yes, but I think he is just the half of me that others rarely see. I treat Day Eugene as still very much real and authentic, but just… incomplete.
And so, with vulnerability comes insecurity, fears and weaknesses. It is one thing to embrace this part of me myself, and another to invite someone else in to embrace it too. That to me is what being in a relationship is: to see the ‘night’ versions of each other and love them all the same.
With increased vulnerability comes increased responsibility. When friends discuss their opinions on a topic, it generally doesn’t matter what the end result is, whether both parties agree or disagree. Everyone walks away and goes on their own path thereafter. But in a relationship, both parties need to be clear what the end state is. Because it has consequences.
Last week, I was having a conversation with some colleagues about relationships, and I thought about what would happen if I was having the same conversation with my (hypothetical) partner in the evening at home. With my colleagues, it would simply be an interesting conversation to have. We might change some views, learn about what other people think, but that’s it. Everyone moves on after. With my (hypothetical) partner, not only are more personal and sensitive things going to be brought up (how was I feeling about that conversation, about those colleagues, about work in general), but the same conversation would have significant consequences for us. It demands a clear conclusion. That doesn’t mean we have to agree, but if we don’t, it needs to be understood and managed well. Because the difference is, we are a team. Not that we are conjoined, but that there is a conscious choice to come together as a single unit, to walk a shared path. And that requires a higher level of understanding and coordination.
Alright, that’s about it. The end of my cathartic episode in the waiting room of a Singaporean hospital. I sometimes wonder when and why I started to think like this: part philosophy, part psychology, part self-help, part scientific, part spiritual. Perhaps its when my dad’s health started to take a toll when he first got diagnosed with prostate cancer. That would make sense; and the timing does seem to coincide. There is always this lingering feeling that one day, I will be the only male in the house, and i’ll have to be ready to ‘step up’. What does that even mean?
There are still so many things I do not know. To me, the tangibles, like paying the mortgage or calling the plumber, they will come when the situation demands it. I could just phone a friend. Or Google it. But it is the big picture stuff, the intangibles, that I feel I need to actively seek. Understanding the world, and my place in it, is paramount. Because it is only through understanding these that everything else will fall into place. And if I am not deliberate about asking these questions and seeking answers, then I will continue being lost.
And so, i’m going to start, on Purpose.