October 10

20 lessons for getting ahead in your early 20s


On Monday, I turned 28.

I had now reached my late 20s.

And as I look back, in particular at the last 2 years as a full-time business owner, I wish someone had given me this advice, this rulebook, this set of principles, that would make life simpler to navigate.

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Nah don’t get crushed in your 20s. Here are some things that work better.


No one knows shit

Pardon the French.

But you get the idea. As a starry-eyed 20 year old, I was once lost. I looked around me, and everyone seemed to be getting ahead. Especially on social media.

My female friends from college were showing off their times in university, the achievements they had, and I felt hopelessly lost.

Around me, my peers seemed to have their lives sorted. They knew what they were going to do for university or in life.

I didn’t know what I was going to study in university. And one day, I decided to give it all up. I had wanted to become a doctor, but not being able to do so, led me to eventually see there was no point in trying harder at this thing called life.

I actively thought about suicide.

In the lead-up to Christmas, I would take a chair to the highest floor of my apartment building, step on that chair, and wonder if I should flip myself over.

Fortunately I didn’t, or I would be like ketchup, rather than writing here with you today.

So I think the advice here is

1. Quit or delete your social media apps, so you spend less time comparing

2. Accept and tell yourself, “I don’t know, and that’s okay.”

Choose early and often

One quote that sticks with me from Michael Port, who coached me as a speaker, is

choose early and often,

which I will add,

and adjust along the way.

Any decision will do, really.

We decided to write a book, without even knowing how to make money from it
We decided to write a book, without even knowing how to make money from it

Read like crazy

The best skill that school teaches you is how to read.

But it’s strange how far we’ve thrown that away.

We choose to consume snackable content, but not the long form content that actually helps us grow.

Sure, you can say everything you want about how books don’t always apply to your life.

But come on. Unless you’re a better billionaire than Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, all of whom have credited reading to helping them become better versions of themselves, read.


It’s the fastest, and most economical way to grow.

Stop spending thousands on that fancy course.

Just get a book.

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Well you can get my book too.

Don’t do the 1% bullshit

James Clear popularised the ‘improve by 1%’ everyday with his book ‘Atomic Habits’. I’m here to say that’s not very useful.

Hat tip to entrepreneur Shane Melaugh for pointing that out.

Because whilst it’s true and healthy to make good habits, improving 1% every day in 1 thing, doesn’t get you very far in life. Because you get to a point where it’s difficult to even see how you’re improving 1% a day.

Say you want to be a better writer. How can you even tell you’re improving the skill of writing, by 1% every day, or even 0.1% everyday?

What gets measured gets improved, and if your measures and key performance indicators are not well set, you might find it difficult to grow.

You can tell me,

But sir, I’m writing everyday.

That doesn’t make you a better writer.

Hat tip to Angela Duckworth for pointing that out.

She observed that she was running everyday, but not necessarily improving as a runner.

A coach asked her,

Are you recording your runs? Asking yourself what you can do better?

Where you went wrong?

If you’re not, little wonder why you’re not getting better.

Here’s a better way.

Focus on one core skill for a season

Shane Melaugh points out that for entrepreneur, they need to grow in these 6 distinct areas before they are able to succeed, in business.

Credit: Shane Melaugh, the founder of Thrive Themes
Credit: Shane Melaugh, the founder of Thrive Themes

It’s much the same in your journey towards a better human. Focus on one core skill each time.

And each day when you put in the rep, focus on one aspect of your skill you’re trying to improve. Let’s go back to the writing example.

For example, for a day you could focus on improving the humour in your article.

It’s not true that reps make you better.

Better reps, make you better.


Entrepreneurship is a state of mind

Wherever you are, you can be an entrepreneur.

Even in a 9-5.

Here’s a secret. Don’t tell my boss.

When I was in my first full time job, COVID-19 happened. And I quickly realised that at home, I could finish my job in 2 hours, compared to the usual 8 hours.

I realised that I could do things faster than everyone else because whatever colleagues advised, I would try the complete opposite.

Colleagues would tell me,

You have to answer every call you get.

I would wonder,

What if I didn’t? What if I gave them a schedule to call me on?

That began the game of becoming more effective and efficient with my time.

And slowly, I had more time for other things.

You too can do that. Take time to figure out where are places you can be creative in your work, and keep doing that.

Play to strengths, always

If you’ve survived in this world for 20 odd years, you would have some idea of what you’re good at.

Don’t run away from that.

The world often feeds us this myth that we should chase our passion, without realising that strengths are often, a better predictor for longer term job satisfaction than any other factor. Just ask the likes of Angela Duckworth, the professor behind the book “Grit”.

The other myth that it feeds us is that we should be holistic and well rounded.

Screw that.

You can only improve your weaknesses to such an extent. The rest of the difference you will make in the world will depend on your strengths.

Go deep, and wide
Go deep, and wide

Being likeable

My colleague in my first company, taught me how to be a better human.


By buying donuts for everyone. By treating people to drinks.

By listening to colleagues complain (about each other).

She was a world-class diplomat, and possibly the best at her job.

Not because she was really that great technically, but because she had the people skills.

Being likeable isn’t natural to all. But learning how to be more likeable is a definite must, if you’re not natural.

Not just to curry favour. But because it makes the work easier.

Learn to lose

I’ve spent about $27,000 on products, and sold about $2000 worth of it.

There’s nothing to be proud of.

But in investment, they have a saying,

You can’t force the market.

In business, it’s the same.

And in life too.

One of the biggest mistakes in my career was deciding to persist on in my first fulltime job, despite the company issuing me with a Performance Improvement Plan, and me having an infinitely better offer on the table.

I walked away, thinking that I had to hold on to improve.


website design company
Learning to fly away from toxic bosses and colleagues may be a core skill.

When things aren’t working out, learn to quit.

Take the loss, bite the bullet, and leave.

Don’t hold onto the myth that you have to turn things around from a losing position. Often we do that because of vanity, not because we are good. We do that because we think that we can, not because we really have a track record.

What track record do we have from 20 years of life?

None, really.

I’m not trying to be mean.

Just realistic.

Forcing yourself to turn around in a losing position, especially when you’re young and inexperienced, is a really poor decision.

Find a superboss, fast

Sydney Finkelstein’s book ‘Superboss’ is one of my favourite books.

Precisely because he shares just how the top in each industry didn’t just get to the top because of hard work and luck, but because of their mentors.

He found that the top in the industry tended to spawn from the same places. And when he peered into these places, he found them led, always, by a superboss.

Someone with a knack for nurturing talent and pushing them to their best self.

I missed a superboss like that in Christian Chao, the then Head of Organisational Development, and the now CEO of Care Corner, when I walked away from the position he offered.

How do you find a superboss when you’re young? Ask around. Ask your teachers who they recommend as great bosses in the field. Your lecturers would know, especially after the numerous industry partnerships they have been with.

And when you find that superboss, go all out to make him hire you.

Do business, because you learn the fastest

As a 18 year old, I already remember myself trying to make money off arbitrage, buying things off Groupon, and selling them on Singaporean consumer to consumer (C2C) site Carousell.

Then 20 year old me started buying phone holders off Tao Bao in China, and trying desperately to market them to an unwitting Singaporean crowd that seemed to find TaoBao too difficult to figure out.

We spent so much money on these products, but they all bombed
We spent so much money on these products, but they all bombed
We even got a pop up store, in Orchard which also bombed
We even got a pop up store, in Orchard which also bombed

Sure, I probably couldn’t make much money that way, but it was a good lesson in making it a proxy for life.

Business had no rules,

just as life had none.

Unlike work, where there were clear rules you had to follow, in business, there are none.

When you’re the owner, you earn as much as you’re willing to work.

Don’t work?


You don’t get any money.

The buck stops at you.

If you’re thinking of some side-hustle, do it.

Even if you don’t know every step of the way, just do it.

You’ll figure it out along the way.

Another product of ours, which also bombed
Another product of ours, which also bombed


Keep toxic people at an arms length

Well, well, welcome to the real world.

Where you will be stabbed in the back, like no one’s business.

It’s just business.

Stop complaining.

The world isn’t supposed to be nice just because you existed.

The sooner you realise this truth, the faster you will get ahead.

There’s an easy barometer that I use. If someone makes me uncomfortable, I will give them the benefit of the doubt once.

The second time, I will keep my distance.

I think this is wise.

Here’s an example. In my first job, I had a ‘buddy’. He ended up leading a project I was involved in.

One afternoon, I was discussing a suggestion with a colleague. My colleague shared this with my buddy.

And later that afternoon, I saw an email copying the entire team,

if you have an idea, you need to share it…

There is no ‘I’ in team.

I felt ashamed that he had put me in such a spotlight, without bothering to ask me.

And later, again and again, he would try to embarrass me by asking me difficult questions or giving pointed comments in front of other bosses.

I kept my distance.

Distance makes a difference.

Social media is not that great for health

I’m a better human being today because I quit social media.

I know its ironic.

That I run an agency and media company, but have no social media.

But the turning point for me came when one evening in the army, I sat scrolling through the pictures of my friends having fun outside, and I thought to myself,

Why am I doing this to myself?

Is it making me happier?

No , not really.

I mean, ask yourself that.

Does social media make you happier, seriously?

If it does, keep it.

If it doesn’t, chuck it.

Get a life outside of work


Find your partner in school or university

Finding a partner outside of school and university can be one of the hardest missions. Because you just don’t have the spontaneity and time together that makes it easier to know someone without any pressure.

Research does show that the more time you spend with someone, the more you grow to like them. That’s why your dating apps aren’t working for you, because if you’re not Tom Cruise, the mere sight of your face can be too much of a barrier for someone to invest in arranging a meetup with you.

Take time to know someone from university and be intentional about dating them. Don’t leave it to chance. It will be far too tough outside of school.

Be the friend you want

Stop complaining that your friends don’t hang out with you anymore.

Why don’t you ask them out?

Yes, I know there are a million reasons. You’re busy. You’re tired.


You don’t ask because you don’t care enough. No, not about them.

You don’t care enough yourself. Because you know how much friends can help in your happiness. They help you make life meaningful. Have a good laugh. Support you when you need to make and follow through with a difficult decision.


Reframe work = money

My entrepreneur friend loves teasing me and telling me that I always think that working hard will earn me more money.

It was him who showed me that work wasn’t equated to money.

It was the assets, and the machine that you ultimately built that earned you money. That might be the job you have, where you clock in daily to get the money you need for your daily expenses.

Whatever your money machine is, take time to learn how to make that more efficient and productive.

You can make your skills more valuable. Ask for a pay rise.

Get more assets, not more money

Assets, like the above graph shows, allow you to earn with your mind, and the value of your judgment, and not just your time.

Say you pick a great stock that’s priced at an attractive valuation. You earn as the price of the stock rises. You’re earning whilst you sleep.

We often talk about earning money as you sleep, but not many of us optimise for that.

Whatever money you have, take time to invest it in something that grows.

Naturally. Without you putting in the effort.

Leverage helps you grow your wealth exponentially.
Leverage helps you grow your wealth exponentially.

The greatest lesson is this

Perhaps the biggest lesson that has moved me the most is this.

As a 21 year old, I was suicidal and scared of making the wrong decision for university. I was afraid that if I chose wrongly, I would go down the path of no return.

But later, I realised that there is no right decision.

And all the decisions are down to how you execute, as much as it is about how you decide.

So take time, to keep adjusting and learning.

The faster you adjust, the faster you succeed.

Just don’t flush down your dreams
Just don’t flush down your dreams

Keep failing.

And keep getting up again.



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  • Nice sharing 🙂 i completely agree on the parts on not spending too much time on social media, playing to your strengths and investing.

    Not so sure about the part on meeting ur partner in University being the best. I think one needs to “hustle” awhile in the real world to really know who they are and what is it that they want. If I had married my girlfriend from University, I’m very sure I’ll be a divorcee 😊

    What do you invest in?

    • Wow Mark, this is great advice, and I really appreciate what you’re adding to this blog. Yes, maybe it’s true that the partner I met in University also wouldn’t be that great!
      I guess the greatest investment has been in myself!

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