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Life-Changing Conversations

Become – High Profiles
March 24, 2017

Early this year, 10 powerful women shared their life-changing conversations with me. In the spirit of that piece, I decided to ask 6 highly respected and successful men from various industries to share a personal conversation that changed their life.

Not many people are willing to reveal a deeper and more real side to them, and share the stories that mean the most. Sometimes the greatest stories are never told.

When I got the opportunity to share these 6 warm, touching and sincere stories, I realised a common thread in all of them—that what really matters in this world is not prestige, fame, or wealth, but having empathy for others and the power of human connection.

6 Powerful Men Share Their Life-Changing Conversation

Written by Wy-Lene Yap

Pann Lim (Co-Founder & Creative Director, Kinetic)

Every conversation with someone has helped in moulding my perspective about something. So to credit a single person who has shaped the person that I am today is almost impossible. Of course, countless ‘wise’ and strange conversations have taken place, and some range from: “When you cannot convince, you confuse...”, “You either go all the way or you go the other way”, “Love what you do and you will never be tired of what you do”, “Try hard enough and even if you fail, you have done your job”, “Never take part in a competition and you will never lose”, “Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon”, “People fight because they are both right.”

But out of the many conversations, I will never forget this particular one I had with Claire.

Claire and I had been doing freelance designing together since we were in polytechnic. Although we were not married yet, we decided to start a joint savings bank account sometime in 1997 to deposit all our earnings. In 1998, after I graduated from art school, I was working in an ad agency, and a couple of months later, my dad passed away from cancer. Seeing my mom alone at home, I left my job to do freelance designing from home, so that I could spend more time with her.

I remember working on a few small projects that didn’t pay very well and the situation was made worse when the clients could not pay on time. I became very worried because my savings in our joint account were running very low. Hoping to ease my troubles, Claire said to me, “You can just use the money from my full-time pay, we can share everything.”

Till today, that is the only bank account we have.

 

Darius Cheung (Co-Founder & CEO, 99.co)

At 18, I was freshly graduated from Junior College. Like many, I loved adventure and wanted to backpack through the Middle East. As you would imagine, my parents did not like that idea at all. So I approached my brother, to which he responded, “Sometimes you have to fight for what you want, even if those who love you disagree.” Those words have stuck with me till today, and also the idea of defiance—in terms of pursuing your beliefs, regardless of whether they may or may not be accepted by those you love and those who love you.

Funnily enough, I don't think my brother knows how much that conversation has impacted me and changed the trajectory of my life.

He probably doesn’t even remember saying it to me.

The conversations seemed to go on forever, but by the time the train finally pulled to a stop at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, I had arrived at all my answers.

Larry Peh (Founder, &Larry and Creative Director, Faculty)

Much like my favourite Bill Evans album, “Conversations with Myself”, I’m someone who enjoys travelling alone and talking to myself (in my head). On 13 July 2016, I hopped on a train that took me from Dresden to Berlin in search of the so-called “poor but happy” spirit. It was in that 2-hour ride that I had the deepest conversations with myself, though I was briefly interrupted by the train conductor who wanted to verify my ticket.

I was trying to find answers to a lot of my work-related frustrations and something to give me the confidence to prove that my practice to “disrupt myself before others do”—which I began 3 years ago—was working. I asked myself how far I had come since the day I started &Larry in 2005, and juxtaposed that with my career at the end of 1999. What were the projects that brought me closer to my vision and how could we position ourselves for the future?

&Larry has always felt like a roller coaster ride with my constant push for excellence and desire to go upstream and influence C-suites with our incisive design language. With such a bold vision, there were many times where I risked leaving team members behind or struggled with the uphill task of influencing clients to invest more in innovation. That train ride, I also confronted the imminent loss of one of my most valuable art directors (who had been with me for 7 years).

The conversations seemed to go on forever, but by the time the train finally pulled to a stop at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, I had arrived at all my answers.

*Recommended listening: “Further Conversations with Myself” by Bill Evans

"I think what's bothering you is not how you run your business. But something deeper inside."

Hunn Wai (Co-Founder & Creative Director, Lanzavecchia + Wai Design Studio)

Before I jump into my life-changing conversation, please allow me to set the context and lead-up to it.

In 2014, fresh off being awarded the Elle Deco International Design Awards for Young Design Talent of the Year at the Milan Design Week in April that year, my co-founder and I were feeling a bit burnt out. Our nerves were frayed from 4 years of running and planning for the studio's direction. It was a good year for us: we were also awarded top prize for a luxury helicopter interior competition (that is now in production) in that same week, and embarked on a Healthcare Contract Furniture research project with the renowned Herman Miller company. Even though these long-time dream projects were becoming a reality, I wasn’t happy.

I pegged my unhappiness and frustrations down to not being trained in business, since Francesca [Lanzavecchia] and I jumped right in to start our Italian-Singaporean design office right after reading our Masters in the Netherlands. The inefficiencies and un-optimised processes were causing friction—we both had never worked for a design studio before, and had to figure things out along the way.

I realised that I needed to be equipped with knowledge and awareness of how an optimal business should run, and that would help to diffuse many stress points and give us (and myself) a clearer vision and strategy to move forward.

Serendipitously, with this issue weighing on my mind, I started a conversation on WhatsApp with my old friend from ACS, to wish him a happy birthday, and told him what was weighing on my mind. I asked if he knew anyone who I could consult casually, since he worked in a hedge fund and might know someone who knew somebody.

He said enthusiastically, “Yup! I think I've the perfect guy for you! He's my colleague and has a vast bandwidth of experience. He used to be the CFO of a luxury company and now advises on our investments. And he's very open to share his experiences and insights.”

Before I knew it, I found myself in a meeting room on a very high floor of a tall shiny building in Raffles Place, with a majestic view of the Marina Bay. A stately gentleman stepped through the glass doors and I thanked him for his precious time.

I presented a deck, illustrating who we were, our current focus and the potential business areas we wanted to get into. He simply listened and nodded.

Using a blank A4 paper on the table, he quickly drew up a business plan on the organisation of departments and roles, how to park resources, productise, monitise, and set up and run the sub-businesses so they could be sold off without affecting the umbrella business. The speed at which he articulated and explained to me in such a succinct manner still amazes me till this day.

Shortly after, he paused with intent, and said to me, “Hunn, I think what's bothering you is not how you run your business. But something deeper inside. Solve that and everything external will work out and flow organically and positively.”

I did not expect that assessment since I was only there for business advice.

He proceeded to tell me his parallel experience to mine: he had achieved everything, owned everything, experienced amazing things in life and in work, but he was not happy, and it made him extremely frustrated and lost. He decided to unpack loaded narratives he had been telling himself over decades, narratives that had been wound so tightly over time.

Over the next 6 months, through multiple sessions, he helped me identify the “weights” that were holding me back, unpacking them in a way that helped me see the world with new eyes, clearing away the old, irrelevant narratives. He equipped me with new mental mechanisms to diffuse anger, dispel fear, deploy kindness, and enable empowerment in others, and myself.

Here are some key takeaways that I apply on a daily basis:

  • Focus and build your strengths to the point they supercede all your shortcomings.
  • We have everything we need to manifest meaningful and successful lives.
  • What we do now is the most important. The past is irrelevant and worrying about the future is futile.
  • Always ask "So what can I do about it?" to always be in a position of empowerment.
  • Everything happens for a reason. There is always value and meaning to be identified either now or in hindsight.
  • Always stay light (i.e. not deploying immediate emotion as a reaction) so you may have a complete view and awareness of the situation, and do what is best for it.
  • Positive vibes only. Identify the source of the negative vibes and diffuse it immediately.
  • Appreciate what you have achieved and what you have. You can't help but feel rich.
  • Never compare, because everyone is on their own journey of Life. I am on mine.

 

Since the life-changing experience with him, he’s been a good friend and mentor, who has helped me find my dwelling in bravery, clarity and joy. And it is by these themes that I operate in my daily life, to give back as I have been given.

I cannot imagine otherwise.

 

Jeffrey Paine (Founding Partner, Golden Gate Ventures)

Ah, the pitch meeting. For over 10 years, I have attended many pitch meetings to either raise money or provide funding to start-ups.

When I just joined his company, one of my first bosses would always try to include me in as many pitch meetings as he could. I remember sitting in an inconspicuous corner, listening, nodding, and jotting down notes. I was always intrigued by the various topics being discussed, whether it was financing, a joint venture or a reverse merger pitch—all centred on deal-making.

Every time after each meeting, without missing a beat, he would pull me aside and ask me 3 questions: How did the meeting go? What did I think of the pitch? And what did I think about the person pitching? I had to answer each question in a sentence. Once I gave my opinions, he would tell me his. For the first two months, our answers diverged most of the time.

Little did I know, I gradually became more attuned to such meetings, picking up questions and learnings from the previous meeting debriefs. I learned to listen, observe and use my feeling side to understand people. Fundamentally, it was the art of reading a person within minutes and using empathy to connect with someone.

One day, after my third month at work, my boss took me aside and said, “A company is run by people. Your life is surrounded by people with the exception of your family whom you cannot choose—everyone else in your life you can choose.

The single most important thing in life is to first understand yourself, then understand what makes people do the things they do. If you are able to read and judge people, your life will be smoother.”

 

Ignatius Chan (Founder, Iggy's)

It happened back in 1991 when I was 28 years old. 8 years into my career, it was another night of routine service at Raffles Grill where I worked as a Cellar Master. A simple conversation with a guest about wine and food changed my life. 

The guest I was assisting was Swiss. He was staying at the hotel, and dining alone. As with every table that I approach to this day, I was careful and polite, and didn’t presume that he would need my wine recommendations.

He was, however, immediately friendly and curious, and wanted to know how I got into the business. Perhaps, it was my sommelier’s outfit that made me stand out, since I was the only one in the Grill who wore a black suit with an apron, or maybe it was unusual to find a Chinese sommelier back then. 

As I was mindful of the food and service, I told him I would return later to chat more about wines, and share my story on how I became a sommelier. I recommended him a bottle of Rauzan Segla 1986, because it was reasonably priced and also one of my favourite Bordeaux at the time.

Towards the end of the evening, when he was finishing his wine and I was done with service, I approached his table. We chatted a little about the wine and he regaled me with his dining experiences in Paris and Burgundy. One of his favourite restaurants was Le Clos Longchamps at Le Méridien Porte Maillot (now Le Méridien Etoile) in Paris. I knew the restaurant because my good friend, Justin Quek (who eventually became my partner at Les Amis) had worked there as a stagiaire. Justin had told me so much about the restaurant, and because he had shared his experience with me so generously and in such great detail, I could relate to my Swiss guest even though I'd never been there. The gentleman was impressed with my knowledge, and more importantly, he saw that I was very passionate about the wine business. After that evening, he ate almost nightly at the Grill

One night, he asked if I had a dream.

I told him that my dream was to own a little restaurant with my dear friend, Justin Quek, who was a very talented and passionate young Chef. I shared with him the challenges I faced, as I did not have the resources and capital to turn this dream into a reality. Until I saved enough money, it would remain a dream.

That night he invited me to join him for a little supper at Ah Teng's Bakery. I had no idea that it would be the supper of my life.

I remember ordering a coffee and a curry puff. He didn't have anything. Once we sat down, he asked me how much I needed to start my little restaurant, and I blurted, "$50,000". (This would become just the initial paid-up capital for the restaurant). No further questions were asked, and he simply wrote me a cheque for $50,000 in return for an IOU scribbled on an Ah Teng’s Bakery serviette.

The rest, as they say, is history.

This gentleman and I have become very good friends, and I eventually repaid his loan in full, plus interest. My dear friend's generosity, sincerity and faith in me changed my life forever. I consider him to be my guardian angel. I've also learnt not to be too judgmental and cynical about people and situations. It was the greatest gift I've received in more ways than one, and it has definitely made me a better person.