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Nick Ang

My biggest fear

Jarvis Johnson is a YouTube content creator who was previously in tech as a software engineering manager at Patreon. In his interview with Mayuko, he revealed how difficult it was to leap to quit his job to become a full-time YouTuber.

The neat part about his story is that he worked very hard and created a lot of content by the time he decided to quit. He had 300k subs.

All things considered, I love my job. Quitting is not something that I’m thinking about right now, but it does sometimes pop into my mind in daydreams. Like, what would life be like if I were to quit my job and try and be a creator?

What’s interesting is that both Jarvis and Mayuko worked at Patreon as software engineers before they became full-time content creators. I’m also working in tech as a software engineer…

Anyway, when I think about the word “creator,” I reflexively cringe because I find myself a little too neurotic nowadays. It seems like gone are the days of Nick who does things on a whim. I’m so much more structured these days, perhaps because of my job as a team lead/manager at a fast-growing company. So this neuroticism to do things properly just occupies my mind and leaves me with not much space for wondering and doing creative things.

But that’s crazy! Jack Conte, the CEO of Patreon, runs a billion-dollar company with over 200 employees while producing music with his pretty popular band to the tune of one music video a week, and films and edits documentaries on his JackConteExtras YouTube channel. Have you seen his film cuts? They’re sick! (Watch his video to Casey Neistat for his prowess in full display.)

If someone can juggle this many things and do them so fascinatingly well, I should be able to juggle half of it, at least, if I tried hard! But I’d aim for half of what Jack does because I’m going to become a dad soon and he’s not a parent yet. Just gotta keep it real.

So this brings me to the big question: am I going to have any time left at all to pursue my creative side when Charlotte, our first child, is born? I’m afraid that I won’t and that by the time I realise my regret it would be too late and the regret would eat me from inside.

My wife, my dog, and I I have around 140 days before this family grows by 1 human headcount.

Weirdly, I see Jarvis Johnson’s quitting moment to my Charlotte is born moment - there is a date, something bubbling from it, and I have to use this time that I have left to explore the creative side of me. Like, truly explore. Fearlessly explore things, try different things every day. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do everything in time!

Keeping in line with naming fears, here’s another: whenever I clear space in my head and think about being a creator, I feel like I arrive at an empty room in my mind. I’d ask myself, “okay, so what Creative Thing are you gonna do, Nick?”

I don’t know. I really don’t!

I’ve never been called creative and therefore have never seen myself as someone creative. I can think of interesting ideas to solve problems at work or home, but that’s as much legitimacy as I would give myself for being creative.

I recently tried writing a novel and it was 80 percent misery and 20 percent enjoyment, and even so, the 20 percent was not that enjoyable. I know enjoyment isn’t supposed to be the measure of creative work, at least not the sole measure, but hey, if it’s mostly miserable then why the hell am I pushing so hard to get to do it?

To be clear, for the past 6 to 12 months, I have been waking up 1.5 hours before my wife wakes up in the morning to explore my creative side. I ended up with many journal entries, 2-3 random chapters for 3 different novels, and some digital drawings that accompany my weekly blog posts and some published as Instagram posts. That’s about the size of my creative accomplishments.

I doubt my ability in the creative arena very much and regularly.

One thing I know will not work is to emulate someone else and copy what they are doing. This won’t work because you are not that person, and that person is not you. Our lives are entirely circumstantial and when viewing others’ accomplishments and enthusiasm out of context, we are putting ourselves in a dangerous place of vain emulation.

If we are not supposed to look outward, at least not until we know who we are, then we ought to look inward. My instincts tell me that the most important thing is to figure out who I am for myself. Once I know that I’m more of a brooding guy who likes melancholy and reading Murakami books, I can then try to make up and write Murakami-esque stories. Or, if I know that I’m more of a nature lover who has not gotten enough of nature because of growing up in the concrete jungle of Singapore, then I could set out on expeditions and film mini documentaries and share them with other inhibited nature lovers.

Now then the question we arrive at is, how do we figure out who we are?

I imagine that watching Charlotte grow is going to teach me simple but profound lessons about figuring out who you are. A baby starts right at the very beginning, tabula rasa, and has to figure out what she likes and dislikes. As the pieces of her being are ordered and re-ordered, shaped and re-shaped, coloured and re-coloured, a vague picture will start emerging at a higher level. What does my picture look like when viewed from the 15th floor? I can’t tell for sure, but I guess that if 100 lego blocks make me up, I would be rainbow-coloured but looking nothing like a rainbow.

It’s been said time and again that writing is not about teaching or telling but about thinking. Writing, as a uniquely human tool, is supposed to help you think.

What is a baby going to do to figure out who she is? She is going to interact with the world one thing at a time, stop to think about it, try to do something new with it, stop to think again, and then eventually decide upon what that thing is in relation to who she is.

So if what I just said is true, then writing is my tool for figuring out who I am because at this moment as I sit here writing this, I am considering a few things:

  • How Patreon’s CEO makes amazing videos
  • How Patreon’s CEO seems to do most of his filming and music projects in his garage and maybe I should try to simulate a garage in Berlin
  • How Jarvis Johnson and Mayuko had an intertwined journey of working as software engineers at Patreon and both left to pursue creative lives as YouTubers
  • How does a baby figure out who she is?
  • How can I be a baby again?

Writing forces me to:

  1. Interact with the world one thing at a time
  2. Stop to think about that thing
  3. Do something new with that thing
  4. Stop to think again
  5. Decide upon what that thing is in relation to me

So by writing, I’ll gradually figure more of who I am. Is blogging about that personal journey considered something creative? Perhaps. But perhaps evaluating everything I end up creating for its creativeness is a silly waste of time. I believe blogging helps people by letting them know they’re not alone.

My approach remains to write a lot of crap, some pieces documenting my learnings and reflections, others experimental, and see what feels good. Just got to write a lot of crap.

Visiting and evaluating Singapore

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Kurt Vonnegut

In-flight selfie Pandemic era in-flight selfie on a KLM flight from Berlin to Singapore, transiting through Amsterdam.

In late 2019, my wife, dog, and I packed four pieces of luggage and took a one-way flight to Berlin. We’ve lived here for the last one and a half years and this weekend we are returning to Singapore for the first time to visit.

First, we’ll be quarantined for two weeks in a hotel room. That cell is going to be the first taste of home we will be getting.

I choose to see this positively: this will be the longest we’ll stay in a hotel room. A first! Of course, the bad side of this is that we’ll be footing the SGD$ 2,600 bill ourselves since the Singapore government removed subsidies at the end of 2020. Knowing that stings a little, but I believe what comes after quarantine will be sweet.

I’ll be taking three weeks of leave from work after we’re released from our cell to explore Singapore. This is the fun part.

One and a half years is the longest either of us have been away from Singapore, and having three weeks to explore our city like we’re tourists is priceless. I’ve always wanted to do that.

We’ve been out of the fishbowl long enough to recognise Singapore for what it has been for us all our lives. This time, we can evaluate with clarity whether living in Singapore is for us or not.

The distance has given us perspective but we’re back to do the last step of a good evaluation: to feel what it’s like to live in Singapore again.

Later this year we will welcome a child into our lives and I know we’ll be discussing frequently education, politics, weather, society, language ease/barriers, career prospects, culture, environment, childhood, attitudes and this and that. All that, in relation to being a family of three.

I am lucky. I grew up in Singapore, a third world country turned first by the time I was born here. I grew up in the stability and prosperity that that environment afforded all Singaporeans. I know people from Europe and the US who moved to Singapore and love it there.

I am even luckier to have had the opportunity to live abroad. Sure, I worked hard for it, but I was also very lucky to have stumbled upon a great company to work for that decided I was worth relocating to Berlin when I asked for it.

Now I have lived 29 years in Singapore and 1.5 years in Berlin, Germany, and I have the privilege to choose where I want to live in the long term. It’s like being given the choice between a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz - they’re both fantastic choices.

What will it be? I don’t know yet, but I’m relatively certain that I will know better by the end of this trip…

At home in Berlin, days before our first trip to Singapore, wondering how I would feel being back.

UPDATE: On our fourth day of quarantine in the Regent Hotel in Singapore, the government tightened the Stay Home Notice (SHN) requirements from 14 to 21 days of quarantine for travellers from high-risk areas. Germany is unfortunately for us a high-risk area at the time of writing. So we’ll be quarantined for three weeks instead of two. I’m trying hard to keep my sense of humour.

UPDATE 2: My wife was interviewed by Channel News Asia and mentioned in the article that was published in response to the sudden lengthening of our SHN. I found it funny that she was interviewed while in quarantine. Makes me think about journalism as a cool alternative career that will survive even the greatest and most prolonged disasters.

What I learned from Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell, in the documentary by Werner Herzog Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man. Screenshot from the documentary by Werner Herzog.

Yesterday night I stayed past my bedtime to watch the 1 hour 40 minutes long autobiographical documentary Grizzly Man directed and narrated by Werner Herzog. It’s about a man whose life took a dark turn and became obsessed with grizzly bears in the wilderness of Alaska where he spent 13 summers living amongst them. He eventually died at the paws and teeth of one.

His seeming madness — I wouldn’t sugar coat it, partly because he didn’t — has an admirable quality to it. “I love you, Mr Chocolate,” he would say to one of the wild grizzly bears with his back to the camera, alone in the Alaskan wilderness, five meters from being a potentially violent end.

But I love that he knew what he loved.

For me, the lifelong struggle is to find something that I love doing. A “pain I want to sustain” as Mark Manson puts it. I still haven’t found what it is, and I often wonder if I will before it’s too late.

Our first child is coming. When she comes into our life, loving her and providing for her would probably become the thing that I would love and can’t stop doing. And you know, it’s unsettling to hear myself admit it, but I think that may be enough.

In a bid to capture more tiny, intimate moments that I experience and will experience, before and after her arrival into this world and our lives, I’m loosening the criteria for what I write and publish on this blog. Not that I had any strict rules, to begin with. Anyone who browsed the titles of the nearly 400 posts I have published here would know. Still, loosening even more.

Apart from preparing myself to become a good dad, if I did nothing else, I would write and publish on this blog, whispering into the void and dancing like a weirdo knowing that few are looking and even fewer care. But at least a few do.

The act of turning memories into words and publishing them on the internet is itself an act that helps me become closer to the human world. Similar to Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man, who tried to be with the natural world.

Free time default activity

Towards the end of my 20s and the beginning of my 30s, I suddenly gained the remarkable ability to see my cognitive fuel being depleted as a day goes by. At a party I’d probably describe it as, “It’s like I can see the amount of brain juice I have left for the day. Each time my brain takes a sip, I can feel it.”

Anyway. One of my goals each day is to deplete the day’s allotted brain juice before the 24 hours are up. That’s how I know I tried my best that day. Tomorrow, if I sleep eight hours, I get a full tank again.

What’s interesting about this ability is that I have started noticing how much thinking (and brain juice) goes behind making small, seemingly trivial decisions.

One of the decisions I make multiple times every single day is “what should I do now in my free time?”

The few hours after work, the one hour when my wife sleeps on the weekend and I’m completely alone, the few minutes I have between running errands on the weekend. These wonderful pockets of free time show up only when unplanned, so I’d always have to think about what to do with it.

Oh, look, I left that book on the tea table. I should read that! Hmm, but maybe I should organise my blog and create a ‘start here’ page because I find it hard to remember my favourite articles. But man, I shouldn’t! What matters more is the content of a blog, not its usability. Perhaps I should just write an article now. Plenty of ideas in the backlog. Oh wait, Simon from work recommended a new Netflix documentary about Berlin today. He sounded very enthusiastic about it. Maybe I should relax and watch that…

That inner chatter goes at 3,000 rpm and guzzles my brain juice. It’s annoying and it’s unnecessary. I could use that juicy brain to make art, read stories, learn skills, or try to achieve something.

What I have found to be effective in helpng me waste less juice is to figure out my single, preferred default activity.

When I’m alone and have free time, my preferred default activity is to write. It doesn’t have to be writing for publishing; it can be writing for reflecting and clarifying, or writing for fun.

a glimpse of part of a freewrite

I write on my phone if I know that I may be interrupted by someone physically near me. I write on my laptop or my Freewrite if I know I won’t be interrupted.

Since I’ve had this clear default activity, I’ve noticed that I waste almost no brain juice in deciding what to do. Got free time? Okay, I’m writing.

Over time, I believe I can further refine this to be a few defaults depending on conditions. For example, there are 30-minute blocks of free time, and there are 2-hour blocks of free time. For the shorter kind, perhaps I might edit a draft instead of writing a new one. For the longer kind, I can recognise its preciousness and go straight into doing some uninterrupted, flow state writing.

If you’ve never tried having a default activity, I recommend trying it. You will have more energy during that activity for the rest of the day.

One thing to bear in mind if you do try this: it will probably take you some trial and error to arrive at a sensible default for the unique person that you are.

"Dad, have you always wanted to be a software engineer?"

A hand drawn illustration with the capture "how am i going to make money?"

I’m going to sound crazy, but I’m imagining my yet-to-be-born daughter asking me this question in a few years, and it plunging me into a mid-life crisis. The timing sounds about right too, me being in my early 30s now.

“Well my dear, no. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I went to university,” is what I imagine my response would be. Despair ensues.

A child is a child, so I’d expect a follow-up question from her. “So then, how did this end up as your work?”

A stab straight to my adult heart. I start bleeding internally.

How do adults end up doing what they end up doing?

As far as I can tell, money seems to be the main puppet master for most of us.

About 2 years ago I was at a company off-site on Bintan island in Indonesia and in the evening my colleagues and I went to the swimming pool. I remember us forming into a circle, wading in the water, about to start talking.

One of my colleagues started, “So, what would you do if you didn’t have to worry about money?” We went around the circle in the middle of the pool, answering this bloody difficult question.

It’s a difficult question because each of us in that pool, having grown up, has had to learn to give up pursuing our dreams. Right after we’re done with school, people around us just started expecting us to find work. Don’t be an unemployed bum. You’ve studied enough, time to get to work.

But what if we haven’t had enough time to explore the work of our dreams? Like writing or singing or rock climbing or becoming an astronaut?

It’s not until I was suddenly booted out of school after my final year into the “real world” that I realised, “Oh crap, now I have to somehow have an income.”

That moment I asked “how am I going to make money?” was the moment I put my dreams of being a writer in a metal box on the top of a bookshelf. In the basement. With no lights.

Once I graduated from university with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies (Geography specialisation), I started a company. Then I realised how bad I was at trying to build that company that I went to learn to write software. I’ve been doing software engineering work ever since because I don’t hate the work and it pays well.

“That’s how dad ended up being a software engineer, my dear,” I imagine myself finally saying to my daughter.

And I know I wouldn’t be satisfied with that answer.