Reprogramming Directive

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One girl's quest to go from audit files to Broadway

No Day But Today

We have massive news…and – before you even think it – no, I am not pregnant and we are not having a baby. -_-;

The past year or so has really been a whirlwind for me. Not long after I was done with my audit busy season, I found out I was going to the Times Square New York office for a short ten week secondment – something that had been on my goals at Ernst & Young ever since I started as a trainee almost seven years ago.

Ten weeks was over before I knew it, and soon I got back into the swing of another busy season. I almost went back a third time – not to study or to work, but to pursue my dreams, before it all fell apart.

Well they say that when God closes one door, He opens another. Not too long after that particular devastating blow, Terence proposed and after a whirlwind few months planning the wedding in Sydney, flying to Singapore and Hong Kong for secondary wedding receptions, then a few more whirlwind months of settling into married life, here I am again now, getting ready to pack my bags for New York once more.

Yup, that’s right.

WE’RE MOVING TO NEW YORK!!!

Moving to New York

I’ve signed a contract with EY New York and I’ll be starting at the New York Times Square office next year.

Obviously a huge move. But I’m so excited about this in so many ways at I can’t even begin to describe. I’ve spent my whole life to date dreaming about living in New York and partially/temporarily living in New York that this feels like the culmination of all those years of dreaming, and a step into a brave new world.

It’s hard for me to articulate why I love New York so much, apart from the obvious: the centre of all things Broadway, great food, great (cheap!!!) shopping, incredible diversity, literally being the city that never sleeps, et cetera, et cetera. But to a certain extent, all of those things are somewhat available in other first world capital cities in the world these days.

Life in New York has a completely different feel to life in Sydney. It’s fast-paced, it’s exciting and it’s incredibly vivid; full of millions of interesting, crazy moments. It’s living in high definition as opposed to technicolor. There is a real sense of being and feeling completely and utterly alive, without inhibitions, and present in every moment. When you walk down the streets, dodging foot and vehicle traffic alike, there’s a magical quality to the hyper-sensation of feeling really, truly alive. And when you feel that way, you start to learn how to live in and savour each moment and – at least for me – it completely changes who you are.

New York City is Alive and Well

I have spent so much of my life planning for the future that I find it really hard to just live for “no day but today”. Yes, I am one of those people who are incessantly working or trying to “be productive” all the time (in fact, most of this post was written on my way to/from work and right now I’m writing this at the airport whilst we’re waiting to board our flight). I am also one of those people who when you ask them where they’ll be in three, five, ten years’ time, I can answer that in reasonable detail.

For so much of my life, it’s been endless working towards one thing or another in some way distant future that I sometimes wonder if I’ve missed the whole point. I mean, the whole point of life isn’t to get to the destination (what would that be anyway? If one looks at life as a journey from A to B – with B being the destination – then doesn’t that by default mean the destination is death? So why would you want to rush there?!), it’s about the journey, right?

The Emerald City

A little over a year ago, I had a moment where I just wanted to throw everything to the winds and run off to New York, and whilst we’d been talking about and planning this for a while, there had been so much talking about and planning for everything that it didn’t feel real to me. And now everything is all suddenly happening so quickly, and I’m counting down to my last day in the Sydney office, our last few weeks in Australia, and the enormity of all the little logistical tasks and things are starting to dawn on me. The project manager in me says I need to start making lists, putting things in boxes and labelling them neatly, but maybe life isn’t meant to be under control and neat and tidy.

Maybe it’s just about letting life take you along for a ride and not stressing about the fact that you aren’t necessarily the one driving, and keeping your eyes open for interesting side roads along the way.

The Open Road

Most people over-estimate what they can do in one year, and under-estimate what they can do in 10 years. Ten years ago, I was about to enter my final years of high school, with no idea of what I wanted to do and picking subjects based on well…no good reason. I could never have dreamt that by age 26, I’d have studied in New York, worked in New York and now, be moving to live in New York.

Start Up Weekend Sydney

Images in this post are from those posted by Barry (@nolim1t) and other participants via Twitter at #swsyd.

Generally, my Monday mornings on the train to work are spent feeling exhausted and half asleep because the weekend is when I play catch up on all the housework that I’ve left undone during the week. But today, it’s because I spent a hectic 48 hours participating in Start Up Weekend Sydney.

Start Up Weekend Sydney at Fishburners on Harris Street, Ultimo.

Start Up Weekend Sydney at Fishburners on Harris Street, Ultimo.

I can’t even remember how I heard about Start Up Weekend Sydney, I think it was through the magical process of clicking through random links on the internet, and I found it early enough that tickets were still at the early bird registration price of $75. Whilst I have had a history of entrepreneurial tendencies (starting from primary school projects, then running a Young Achievement Australia program company, right through to specialising in the entrepreneurial/strategic growth market sector in my career to date), I didn’t think I would actually achieve anything over the weekend. I signed up thinking that I’d just get a decent feed and maybe meet some cool people.

Start up frenzy on Day 2 of Start Up Sydney Weekend.

Start up frenzy on Day 2 of Start Up Sydney Weekend.

What I did not expect was that I would walk out of there completely inspired, feeling like I can do anything I put my mind to, and with a bunch of amazing new friends.

Your dream job does not exist. You must create it.

Your dream job does not exist. You must create it.

I’ve read stuff from Ramit Sethi (of IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com fame), including the Earn1K course, and intellectually I understood the whole “getting inside customers’ heads” and the focus on getting your first three paying customers. I still have no idea why I didn’t just go out there and actually do it. I think I kept making excuses like “it’s going to take a lot of time which I don’t have” and being terrified of actually going out there and asking people stuff (ugh, or worse trying to sell people stuff).

But when I actually went out there during SWSYD weekend and started speaking to people on the street, it actually wasn’t that bad. Here is what I learned.

Customer Validation is the most important thing, EVER

If I could do over the weekend, I would have made sure that the minute we got agreement on our rough vision was the minute we walked out the door and onto the streets to validate that vision with actual customers. Instead, we spent waaaaay too long inside a building talking to each other, refining lengthy surveys, spending time on minutiae like logo fonts and colours and generally confusing ourselves; instead of pounding the pavement and speaking to our target customers.

By the time we finally got out there, it was quite late in the day. I only talked to the general populace on the street (i.e. at Pitt Street Mall, Myer Food Court and Westfield Food Court) from 6:40 PM on Day 2 of the event and kept going until about 7:40 PM. This was the ONLY time the whole weekend that I spent talking to random people on the street.

  • During that time, I approached 24 people in total, 2 of whom declined to speak to me, 6 of whom were “passive observers” (i.e. was with someone willing to speak to me but didn’t talk to me), and 16 of whom were willing to answer my survey questions.
  • Of those 16 people I interviewed, 11 people were interested in our product/service and willingly gave me their email addresses. 4 of them would have been willing to pay for our product/service.
My customer validation results.  It was not nearly as scary as I thought it would be.

My customer validation results. It was not nearly as scary as I thought it would be.

Focus on getting the right team, rather than the best idea

You’ve probably heard the expressions “good ideas are a dime a dozen” (Unknown) and “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” (Thomas Edison). Ideas are not hard to come by, yet for all these years I kept thinking that every idea either wasn’t good enough to act on or I didn’t know enough to act on it and so I did nothing.

This weekend, it really hit home that a great idea can be ruined through terrible execution, and in fact perform more poorly compared to an average idea which is solidly executed. And when you realise that, you start to understand that the key driver of results is not having the ultimate magical idea to end all ideas, but having the right people on your team all working towards the same vision.

Ideas are just a multiplier of execution (Derek Sivers)

Ideas are just a multiplier of execution (Derek Sivers).

Establish value, trust and relationship before you sell

The idea we were pitching was an app to connect up and coming local comedians with like minded comedy fans, by letting the fans play short clips of their material and suggesting new material based on their viewing behaviour.

We are the StumbleUpon for Comedy

Screenshot of a t-shirt pitch, courtesy of fellow #swsyd team Start Up Puns (startuppuns.com) - "We are the StumbleUpon for Comedy."

Now, we thought this was a great idea in itself, but we were up against a lot of very talented competition and under pressure to earn revenue no matter what by the end of the weekend, so we went out there to hustle and see if we could collect some cash:

Hi, I’m from The Comedy Hunter. We sift through the garbage for the great comedy so you don’t have to. Would you like to sign up for a paid three month subscription to our mailing list?

Now in hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that walking up to someone with a ten second pitch followed by asking for money does not work, no matter how good your pitch (and as an aside, this pitch wasn’t stellar).

Thanks to years of working in a client facing professional services firm, I’ve gotten good enough at reading people that I didn’t even try to approach people who refused to make eye contact with me, let alone hard sell anyone who was willing to talk to me. Plus, I was so apprehensive about approaching random people on the street that I did what I normally do when I’m nervous which is turn up my “bubbly-ness” by three hundred percent and opened with small talk and gradually escalating my requests with each question.

Turns out this approach actually works:

[Walk around until you make eye contact with someone who is sitting down and not actively doing anything else (e.g. not on the phone, not actively talking within their own group), then approaching them while smiling and maintaining eye contact.]
Hi, I’m from The Comedy Hunter, a small start up here in Sydney and we’re doing some market research today. Would you have two minutes to help me answer a few questions?
Great! The first one is very easy: who is your favourite comedian?
Second, how often do you go to comedy shows?
[follow up varies depending on response, e.g. if they say no, ask why; if they say not often enough, ask what would make them go more often]
Third, would you download a mobile app which would allow you to watch short clips and recommend new material based on what you like?
Finally, would you be willing to pay for this app?
Thank you so much for helping me out! Would you like to be notified through email when we launch our app?

My conversion rate of emails received from people approached was about 50% in my first hour which surprised me. I’m sure if I had picked a better time of day when more people were around and not rushing off home from work or out to dinner, plus more time to test out variations on my script, I would have gotten some higher response rates.

Now I didn’t sell anything, nor did I get any cash, but I did get a lot of personal contact details, which considering that each conversation took on average just under four minutes, that’s a fair amount of trust established. But that brings me to the final point.

A concept can only take you so far

If your idea requires technology to be successful want to launch fast and become cash flow positive, you need a good dev on your team who can build a minimum viable product that can later be expanded upon. You can get pledges to a concept, but you can’t convert the pledges to cash in hand.

Every single team that did bring in cash had built a working prototype that they had launched and were demoing around when they were making their sales pitches. And if you’ve done your customer validation properly, it means you’ve really gotten inside your target market’s heads so the value of your product/service can be clearly articulated. Even if you don’t necessarily have your product or service fully built, because you can show them this working prototype which is addressing their core pain points and solving their problems, they have no hesitation in reaching for their wallet.

Unlimited

Unlimited
My future is unlimited
And I’ve just had a vision almost like a prophecy
I know, it sounds truly crazy
And true, the vision’s hazy
But I swear someday there’ll be
A celebration throughout Oz that’s all to do with me
Stephen Schwartz, “The Wizard and I” from “Wicked

We didn’t win the competition this weekend, but we learned a lot, and what I learned was worth more than any prize. The whole Start Up Weekend Sydney experience has been amazing and it’s given me so much more confidence in my instincts and abilities.

I’ve always felt a bit useless as a BCom(Accounting/Finance). Not only did my classes basically comprise of learning a lot of commonsensical and nonsensical rules by rote, I felt like I didn’t bring anything useful to the table, plus I didn’t believe that I was good at selling. Just three days ago, I would never have thought I could have convinced eleven complete strangers to sign up for a product that didn’t even exist in beyond a rough concept, or gotten expressions of interest from multiple comedians and comedy venues in the idea.

Maybe – just maybe – this whole Broadway dream is a whole lot more possible than I originally thought.

Now or Never

I am now twenty-six.

It’s funny how time gets away from you. I reprogrammed this blog more than two years ago yet there’s so little visible progress to talk about. I thought that I had figured everything out; what I have come to realise and now believe is that epiphanies – particularly those to do with the meaning of life and one’s purpose – are not single moments of perfect clarity. It’s a series of random serendipitous coincidences which – when you look back – somehow seem to be stunningly inevitable.

Serendipity

  • Why did I choose to do an accounting cadetship in Sydney instead of studying classical music in New York to become a concert pianist? Because my parents thought it was a safer career path.
  • Why did I end up going to UNSW instead of UTS? Because my octogenarian grandmother objected to the idea of one of her grandchildren going to – horror of horrors – a technical university and yelled at my mom – for the first time in twenty-odd years – that it’s completely unacceptable for me to go anywhere except for UNSW…because that is the only Australian university that she’s heard of.
  • Why did I end up working for Ernst & Young instead of KPMG? Because even though KPMG had better catering at their recruitment functions, at the very first Career Information Night (before I had even put in any applications), I met and really connected with Nathan Rossetto (who would end up being my manager and later my counsellor) and subsequently Andy Lang, who interviewed me eight years ago and became a partner I work with a lot and a valued mentor.
  • How did I make it to New York, first as an exchange student, then as a working professional? Because I studied at UNSW, which has an exchange partnership with NYU…but only exclusively for business students and because Ernst & Young has an New York office right in the middle of Times Square…and they were looking for people.
  • How did I actually figure out that my life’s ambition is to write a Broadway musical? Because while I was on exchange to NYU’s Leonard Stern School of Business, I wrangled my way into Joel Derfner and Rachel Sheinkin‘s Musical Theatre Writing Workshop class and got it approved as my elective subject…then found out that this was where I should have been all along.

Something that has been bothering me for a long time is the definition of success, or rather, what success is perceived to be – at the intersection of wealth, fame and respect – because in most frames of reference, this intersection would be at the pinnacle of all their hopes and dreams. Frames of reference, I have come to realise, are deadly and insidious. Like some fun house mirror, their inherent distortions render what you know to be your true self barely recognisable.

Office Politics: A Rise to the Top

I mentioned two notable events in my last post, of which I only talked about one. Now that it’s been almost a year, I guess it’s high time to reflect on the promotion to manager, which probably has been the main focus of my career to date. Coincidentally, just a few days ago, LinkedIn featured an article citing a (pretty biased) Minneapolis study which said the best time to leave public accounting was between three to six years after starting out (alternate article with more insightful commentary).

Certainly the learning curve in the first year of manager is massive, and I don’t regret staying on for it (instead of leaving immediately, like quite a few of my peer group did). But to be honest, I’m at a loss as to what’s ahead after manager. From talking to those who’ve made it to senior manager and beyond, there only seems to be two reasons for staying: the obvious first being the partnership track; and the second being unable to find an equivalent satisfying role outside of public accounting. Ironic as that sounds, there is a certain appeal to working somewhere with so many smart people who are your own age but also from all over the world and to have the excitement of working on different projects all the time.

I know when I go out to my clients, in most cases, I look at their job and I just go, “no way in hell”. The very idea of being chained to the same desk, day in and day out, and particularly at month end is utterly repugnant. Don’t get me wrong, there are management roles and commercial roles as well, but at the end of the day, your contribution to the organisation is just too indirect. Just like everyone else, I have looked around on and off, and have just never been able to quite find the right role.

As to the thought of partnership? Absolutely no idea. The track to partnership is way too long with too many ifs, whens and buts and a maze on a minefield which is solvable only for those with the right political influence. Life is too short and my available mental capacity is too limited to be wasted worrying about these things.

Central Park in the Fall

So I feel like I’m standing at a crossroads…and it’s now or never. I am twenty-six. I believe success is when you can look back at your life and feel satisfied you have no regrets about how you lived. And right now, if I don’t do something to start focusing my attention on getting myself into a career that is musically oriented, I will regret it for eternity.

They say all roads lead to Rome, so I’m hoping in my case, all roads lead to Broadway. After all, despite not starting off studying music at Juilliard, I still made it to New York and the Tisch School of Arts even though I chose a Commerce degree. So here’s hoping that whilst I’ve started out with a career in accounting, I can somehow still end up with a career in music.

Getting back to frames of reference though, I didn’t realise how much my own frame of reference would change post getting married. And right now, the need for secure positive cash flow is paramount, beyond my need to run off to the bright lights and live a bohemian life in the East Village.

And with that, I’ve decided my new project for the rest of year is to find a way to start a side business related to music. If you’re interested in taking fun casual keyboard music classes, please help me out by letting me know your thoughts via a short market survey. It will only take ten minutes of your time, and you’ll go in the draw to win a free lesson for you and a friend!!

</end self-promotion>

Some Girls

Some girls take courses at all the best schools in France
Riding their horses and learning their modern dance.
They’re clever and cultured and worldly wise.
But you see the world through a child’s wide eyes.
Their dreams are grand ones, you want what’s just in reach.
Some girls you learn from, some you teach.

Some Girls” from “Once On This Island”

Some girls grow up fighting about things like:

  • Their choice of boyfriends
  • The way they dress
  • Maybe they get bad grades in school / didn’t get into the right school
  • Drug or other alcohol related problems
  • Going out/partying too much/too late
  • Getting into trouble with the law
  • Cheating on significant others / backstabbing friends

I have fights which are work/career related. Not “I’ve decided to become a stripper” or “I can’t be bothered and want to work at fast food counters” type fights. Just “I know what I’m doing right now is not what I want to be doing for the rest of my life because as crazy as it may seem to the rest of the world I really do want to write Broadway musicals so I would really like to get some reasonable sort of work/life balance and more time to myself so I can work on this” fights.

I like to think – and hope that I am not alone in thinking – that I am a reasonably mature, stable, high-achieving, independent, focused young woman who knows what she wants but doesn’t foolishly chase after it without triply thinking things through and several contingency plans. I’m well aware of the sheer virtual impossibility of this dream; and thus the proportionally greater effort that needs to be applied to actually get anywhere with it.

Unfortunately, I still have the same five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes as everyone else. On any given day, work and work related activities (including work done before, during and after the commute to/from work) consume 840 minutes; other activities necessary for survival (e.g. sleep, eat, personal hygiene) take up 600 minutes; leaving me with a scant – let’s see now – oh, ZERO minutes left over to do anything.

The insightful reader will probably point out that I’ve not specifically mention weekends at the moment. Kudos to you, I’m just going to say that I’ve not really had a full weekend off without doing any work since I’ve been back from New York. Not to mention also teaching piano on the weekends, dealing with massive issues with an apartment and somehow trying to fit some sort of social life in. The insightful reader might also point out that I obviously do not want this bad enough if I am still trying to fit a social life in. To you, I’m going to say two things:

  1. We need rest and relaxation to produce anything worthwhile. No wonder I can’t write anything good – not only am I really new at this, I’m also sleep deprived and stressed.
  2. If you thought that was an excuse, try this instead – I refuse to believe that in this day and age, we have to choose an extreme of one or the other. Yes, I am Gen Y and frankly, I don’t think it is so unreasonable of me to want a career that I love and that I am passionate about which still leaves me with ample non-work time for a social life.
Choices - a screen capture from the Disney animation, Pocahontas, showing a fork in the river with one branch being a wide, smooth course and the other being narrow and winding.

Should I choose the smoothest course, Steady as a beating drum? Is all my dreaming at an end? Or do you still wait for me Dreamgiver? Just around the river bend.

Anyway. Somehow whenever the discussion about me taking my current job part time so I have time to pursue what I really want to do with my life comes up, I inevitably come across two viewpoints:

  1. “THAT’S SO AWESOME YOU SHOULD TOTALLY GO FOR IT!!!” (thanks all who fall into this camp…much morale support needed and appreciated)
  2. “…” – such silences can be split between
    • Those who think I’m an idiot for even considering it because how could you possibly contemplate a deviation from the tightly structured career path at a Big Four Accounting Firm (with all capital letters included) and that I must be lazy; and
    • those who think it means I’m not serious about and/or committed to whatever it is I am taking part time.

The former group of detractors normally come from the point of view where in their mind it is incomprehensible to take any sort of reduction in monetary benefits (i.e. salary) to gain in other benefits (i.e. work/life balance, time to pursue your life’s passion). This attitude is also welded to the concept of “sacrifice now, enjoy later” and the need to “secure the future”. A few problems I have with this argument are:

  • Monetary benefits are all well and good, but as a senior manager I admire once said to me, “past a certain dollar value, it doesn’t matter how much more they pay me, it doesn’t make up for the extra time at work”. Of course, I’ve also spoken with partners who have said the exact opposite (“it’s certainly worth it, I get paid a lot”) but I question how in tune that is with my own personal values and the way I want to live my life.
  • I appreciate the need to plan for the long-term but really, when is enough enough? Past a certain point, the dollar value earned just doesn’t give the same incremental gain to happiness or fulfillment. And it’s not like I’ll be able to take any of it with me anyway.
  • This is all based on the premise of living for a very long time. Not that I am trying to jinx or ill wish anything, but we can make all the plans we want but we really have no idea what will happen tomorrow. There is No Day But Today. I don’t want to be forever working and waiting until that far off “someday” when I have enough money/security/other such and such to start pursuing my dreams. I don’t want to look back and have massive regrets that I’ve wasted my life.
  • I don’t think just because I want to do something part time means I can’t be serious about what I choose to do in the time I’ve allocated to that part of my life or that I’m not committed. Although there is a positive correlation between time invested and seriousness/commitment to the task, it’s not necessarily causal; strategic focus, discipline, efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility are better measures.

Sometimes I think I’m stuck living in the future so much that I don’t know how to enjoy the present anymore. I feel physically and mentally drained and utterly exhausted every moment of every day. I dread every morning because I know I’ve got a massive stack of things left undone that I’ve already pushed back and need to be done because I can’t push them back any longer. I’m feeling guilty sitting here and writing this instead of working, because I had originally planned on doing work tonight but I couldn’t bring myself to. Just like how I was meant to work last Sunday but couldn’t force myself past the massive headache and then subsequently felt deeply guilty for not working.

Most of all, I wish I didn’t care as much about not letting other people down. I wish I could just let go of it all and not feel a thing. I wish I could bring myself to go on and buy a plane ticket right now and just…leave…

V Australia - Sydney to LA on sale

In a cruel twist of irony, I get this in my inbox today from Velocity Rewards, telling me about the great V Australia sales fares from Sydney to LA.

Audit Busy Season

This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series 26 Songs

Earlier this year, around my birthday, I felt like things were happening and life was taking off. Recently, I feel very much like life has slowed to a crawl – in terms of progress. The days are still passing by much faster than I would like (my mind still boggles at the thought that I’m now 24), yet strangely not quite fast enough (I can’t wait until I fly to New York next year).

At any rate, I guess it’s always easier to show progress at the very beginning, because there’s so many steps you can take – and most of them are fairly easy. But when you’ve gotten started and you’ve dived in, it’s sink or swim, and swimming for a long time gets tiring.

Anyway. I still want to try and write a song every two weeks. Since 30 September has just passed, my submission this fortnight goes out to my fellow auditors. We have survived another three months of the craziness that is busy season.

Thousands of colorful files, neatly stacked in columns.
Image by Horrgakx on Flickr.

I originally wrote most of the lyrics in late August, right after I finished what has probably been my toughest engagement ever – and I think I’ve had some pretty tough jobs before. Every day, I got up at 6 AM to catch the 7 AM bus so I could arrive at 8 AM, worked through lunch until 7:35 PM at night so I could catch the last bus at 7:48 PM (and oh boy, if I missed this one, I had to take the train which would take even longer). I would keep working on the bus for another hour before I had to walk home, force myself to eat and fall straight into bed.

This would be the pattern of my existence for an entire month. As the deadline drew closer, weekends did not necessarily offer me any respite. It all culminated in what I can only describe as…hell. I will never, ever forget how it feels to start the day with a 7:30 AM meeting and work at a feverish pace in a meeting room, ticking and bashing my way through a set of financial statements until 3 AM (~19 hours). I got home at 4 AM, slept for 2 hours and went back to work until 1 AM the very next day (~17 hours). Yup. That’s nearly a full week’s worth of chargeable hours (which is 37.5 hrs) in just two days.

As you can imagine, I was in a really weird head space when I wrote these lyrics. I was feeling so overwhelmed, exhausted, angry, frustrated, fed up and yet giddy, light headed and perversely satisfied that I had gotten through the torturous experience with no visible damage (though how many years I’ve lost off my lifespan and mental damage sustained due to the stress…well, I have no idea).

Audit Busy Season by Leng

Audit Busy Season

Stumble outta bed in the morning
Walk in with my eyes closed and yawning
Triple shot of caffeine while my empty stomach’s reeling
How I hate that busy season feeling

At nine o’clock my phone starts ringing
By one, all I’ve done is nothing
Every fifteen minutes my internet is dropping
How I hate that busy season feeling

It’s dark on my way in, dark on my way out
Got a massive suitcase I’m carting about
“We’re not ready” goes the client’s tune
They didn’t read the audit pack ’til today at noon
How am I gonna get this done?
I gotta get this done!!

It’s three and I’ve finally got something
The client says “We’d better be signing”
Deadline’s moved ahead two weeks to Friday evening
How I hate that busy season feeling

It’s dark on my way in, dark on my way out
Got a massive suitcase I’m carting about
“I’m so sorry, I gotta cancel again”
“Think I’m gonna be working at least until ten”
‘Cos I gotta get this done
I gotta get this done!!

It’s seven P.M. we’re still reconciling
These TB accounts don’t agree to a thing
This formula’s wrong and the spreadsheet’s confusing
And now my computer’s crashed without saving

It’s a quarter to three A.M.
Finally signed the accounts for them
I’m collapsing into bed
Is this what it’s like to be dead?

It’s dark on my way in, dark on my way out
Got a massive suitcase I’m carting about
“I’m so sorry, I can’t come in today”
“Think I’m gonna be going somewhere far away”
‘Cos I’ve finally got this done
I’ve got this done!!
I’m done
—Music & Lyrics by Deborah Lau

Lyrically, I wanted to experiment with identities. The first real song I wrote with one of my classmates from the NYU Tisch Musical Theatre Writing Workshop (hi Chiara if you’re reading!) had these fantastic lyrics that all ended in “-tion” in every line. It gave the whole song this driving rhythm and a frenetic feeling. I don’t know how to shorten “They didn’t read the audit pack ’til today at noon”; one day when I figure it out, I will come back and fix it.

Formwise, I was tossing between the classic AABA and verse-chorus-bridge. In the end I went with a compromise – the chorus doesn’t kick in until the verse has been repeated twice. The bridge is in two parts, which I guess is kind of weird, but it was the only way I could think of to convey the surreality that is working at 3 AM. Seriously. The chorus was originally going to be the same every time, but since there’s a built in narrative, I thought it would make more sense if the middle lines changed every time.

Musically, I had a few things running through my head as I was writing the lyrics. For a long time, I’ve felt like everything I write musically is always very lyrical or classical (thanks, 15 years of classical piano lessons) so I tried to do something a bit different. In my head, I had a cross between Smashmouth’s “All Star”:

…and Busted’s “What I Go To School For” (yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. At least it’s not the Jonas Brothers’ version).

Somehow when I ended up at the keyboard, Ben Folds Five snuck in with “Brick” and it ended up being a lot less pop/rock and more soft piano rock:

Here’s to surviving another busy season.

The Aptitude/Passion Disconnect – Being Good At Something You Don’t Like

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Dream Traps - What's Stopping You?

Many people spend their lives wishing they were good at something. They look at people who are good at that something and they envy them. And because of that, it is not socially acceptable for someone to dislike something they are good at, since they will inevitably cop a backlash of “How can you say that? You’re so good at it! I would love to be as good as you are.”

There’s an overwhelming expectation or assumption that if you’re good at something (i.e. you have aptitude for it), you must enjoy it (i.e. you have a passion for your aptitude). I think this is a fundamentally flawed assumption. We can be great at things we don’t like and we can love things we’re completely hopeless at.

I have great attention to detail, an ability to understand complicated issues or concepts quickly and analyse a set of facts. This makes me very, very good at being an external auditor. But I spend most of my free time buried in a fantasy novel, going to shows, playing the piano or reading design blogs. This means my job – where 90% of the time is about whether you’ve ticked a box in a checklist or not – is a horrible fit given my passion for the creative arts.

The logical conclusion is obvious. A lifetime of being good at something that you don’t like and not being allowed to express the fact that you don’t like it means you end up with a lot of issues, such as disliking your job but not being able to quit, thinking there is something fundamentally wrong with you for not liking something you’re good at and so you keep on trying even though you really don’t like it and internalising all your misery and end up depressed, burning out, having a nervous breakdown or all of the above.

Depression: Affects More People Than You Think

Since I officially moved out into my own apartment in August last year, I’ve been getting a lot of junk mail. Generally, it’s the usual run of IGA catalogues, real estate agents hounding me about either selling my place or renting it out, and pizza coupons and takeaway food menus. I also got pamphlets and handy fridge magnets from Beyond Blue, an Australian organisation dedicating to providing information about depression to the general population at large. At work, I also constantly see signs notifying everyone that there’s a free counselling service available to all partners and employees.

The most recent ABS study on mental health and wellbeing in 2007 found 1 in 5 Australians suffer from mental illness each year with depression being the second most common disorder. Running the numbers, that means over 650,000 Australians suffer from depression each year.

Up until recently, I pretty much shrugged off all the facts and figures and everything being shoved in our face about depression. It wasn’t until I started talking to my friends and colleagues and listening to my parents talk about their network that I really started paying attention:

  • Most of my colleagues at senior accountant level and below are not happy at work. Accounting firms are in a high turnover industry but the recent spate of resignations at the level at which they are happening is ridiculous. Over the last 12 months there’s been more than 10 senior accountants and half of the experienced junior accountants have left in my division alone, with more contemplating their alternatives, like Matthew Caldicott who is a junior accountant in the Financial Services division and took a career break to go on MasterChef Australia 2010.
  • My managers at work appear to be generally content with staying in their jobs, even if they are getting hammered by client deadlines.
  • My partners at work love it. Probably because they get an average cash salary of $500k.
  • Most of my ex-colleagues who have left are far, far happier than before and don’t regret a thing.
  • Most of my colleagues who are still here have stayed because they like their colleagues.
  • In every single farewell speech I have ever heard and departure email I have ever read, everyone always mentions the great people they worked with – no one has ever mentioned the great work.
  • My happiest friends are not the ones with the flashiest cars, most expensive clothes or highest-paying jobs.
  • My happiest friends are the ones who are in jobs where they have both aptitude and passion, or the ones who still have no idea what they want to do but are out there doing their best to find out.
  • My unhappiest friends are those who haven’t worked out what they want and haven’t done anything about it.

A Google Trends search on depression, happiness and career shows some interesting results (out of curiosity, I threw in global financial crisis just for kicks).

Google Trends of depression, happiness, career and global financial crisis

A Google Trends search of depression, happiness, career and global financial crisis shows a close - almost 1:1 - relationship between depression and career. A huge spike in depression happens as the global financial crisis sets in while more people are looking for happiness over time.

Obsession: The Pursuit of Happiness

I don’t think anyone will find it surprising that people are obsessed with being happy. We grow up listening to fairy tales where everyone lives happily ever after. We’re brought up with the idealised Great Australian Dream of a house on a quarter-acre block, 2.5 kids and pets. We think having a stable 9-to-5 job, a house like the ones in Better Homes & Gardens magazines and more money than we know what to do with will make us happy.

A whole industry around the pursuit of happiness has developed with companies such as The Happiness Institute providing seminars, training and events based on the science of positive psychology. There’s over 1.3 million research papers on positive psychology and articles in management publications and at least 50 TED Talks on understanding what makes us happy.

What does surprise me is unhappy people can be so 矛盾 (máodùn). They’re unhappy with their lives but they refuse to acknowledge it or, worse, they acknowledge it but refuse to do anything to change their situation or, worst of all, they place their hopes in things which aren’t going to help at all, like lottery tickets or hoping their dream job will fall into their laps from out of the sky or thinking if they wish enough it will come true.

Change is difficult, I know that. I know how difficult it is to fight against your upbringing, what it feels like to contemplate leaving the certainty of a well-paying, stable job and the sense of being overwhelmed by a seemingly unreachable goal. After all, I’m probably crazy in thinking I could go from being an external auditor to writing Broadway musicals.

Repression: The Disconnect Between Aptitude and Passion

By virtue of competition and the laws of supply and demand, most of us end up in jobs where we have some degree of aptitude, but not a great deal of passion. Some of us are not so lucky and end up working dead end jobs where we don’t have any aptitude or passion just to make ends meet. Others decide they’ve had enough – only to fail horribly and/or gain internet/popular culture infamy when it becomes evident they have no aptitude for it. A small group are able to find their dream jobs, but even then, they need to work hard to stay there and some come to realise dreams are not what they seem.

A Venn diagram showing where jobs lie between aptitude and passion.

A Venn diagram showing where jobs lie between aptitude and passion.

Progression: Keep Trying New Things

千里之行始於足下。
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
—老子 Lǎozǐ, Tao Te Ching

One of the hardest things to do is to look at yourself critically and acknowledge truths you don’t like.

I don’t like the fact I’ve spent 720 hours in high school, 3 years at university and another 500 hours and $10,000 towards a career I have a lot of aptitude for but zero passion.

I don’t like being torn between wanting to pursue my dreams and the constant internal voiceover telling me music is not an acceptable career path and I should stick to something I’m good at, that’s stable and pays well.

I don’t like the idea of looking back at my life when I grow too old to dream and find that I’ve made no difference at all on the world.

The next hardest thing is doing something about it.

It’s been two years since I came back from New York. Since then, I’ve watched a few shows, started a web design business with a friend, picked up two clients at work in the music/performing arts industry, attended a Talent Development Project workshop, met Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and negotiated a flexible work arrangement to allow me some time to figure out what I want to do and I started a piano blog which I’m still not too good at updating.

It’s been exactly one month since I started my flexible work arrangement. In the last month, I closed down my old blog and started this one to keep me accountable to myself so I don’t end up doing nothing at all, watched more shows and went to the UNSW Post Graduate Expo to figure out what my options are. I’ve talked to more people about what I want to do and how to get there and feel like I’m making really slow progress, but progress nonetheless.

My EBA exam is happening in the next month so I don’t expect to get a whole lot done, other than going to more shows and keeping this blog updated. Loathe as I am and as much as I’ll harp on about it, I need to focus and get this done because at this point, the incremental benefits of completing my CA far outweigh the costs.

One step at a time. Get the CA done, then get back on track with figuring how to get to Broadway.