breadcrumbs: a series of connected events

Birthday Reflections: Top 35 Lessons I Learned in the Past Year Running MaGIC

I celebrated two birthdays in the past few weeks – one of MaGIC’s 1st year anniversary, and another of my own. I’m two weeks late on my yearly birthday reflection post, perhaps because I was born premature and the original birthday was supposed to be 13 June 🙂

When I moved back to Malaysia in 2014, I didn’t know many people, having been away for 12 years. A year later, I’m thankful to have established many meaningful friendships. Having grown MaGIC from 1 to 65, many of those who work with me have in fact become some of my closest friends. Being a leader in a government-funded agency and in a very public role is by no means an easy feat. And even in my toughest times, I’m heartened by friends who have cheered me on and supported me from near and far… especially those back in the Bay Area. I’m glad I’m not “out of sight, out of mind” and that some of you still ping me now and then to say hello or initiate a skype call, just to catch up. Yes, I miss y’all too!

3 Bday

Impromptu birthday celebration with some of my closer friends back home

So thank you for all the birthday wishes. I might not say it enough, but I really appreciate you all for being part of my life and for making everything just a little bit better.

As change agents in our society, we are called to constantly better ourselves – both personally and professionally, so we can be more effective in leading others. For those curious about my year at MaGIC, we just released a comprehensive Impact Report on what’s we’ve done in the past one year: On the birthday end, I had the opportunity to reflect on a few things at Awesomeness Fest in Croatia this year, and also quiet times on the plane where all my crazy travels have taken me in the past few months.

Here are my top 35 nuggets:

On Taking Risks and Action

“I’d rather regret doing something than regret not doing something.” ~James Hetfield

  1. Don’t over think decisions. Indecision is worse than making a bad decision. If you treat every decision as if they were experiments, they would seem less daunting because you can always change it.
  2. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and uncomfortable with the comfortable. Similarly, be familiar with the unfamiliar, and unfamiliar with the familiar.
  3. Life is not fair, and it was never meant to be. Deal with that fact and move on.
  4. We don’t have to know exactly what we want to do in life right now. We just have to figure out what we don’t want to do, to eventually get us closer to what we want to do.
  5. Small deeds done are better than great deeds planned. Visible output is a good sign of progress. If the idea stays in your head, then it’s just as good as nothing.

On Facing Adversity, Cynicism & Compromise

“I always think that cynics are really romantics who have been crushed sometime in their lives and have put up this cynical mask to protect themselves.” ~Jeff Bridges

  1. Prove the critics wrong by showing, rather than telling.
  2. When provoked on social media, best policy is to ignore. People who love controversy feed on your emotional and angry responses to fuel more controversy. Ignoring them completely will drive them up the wall. And they will stop.
  3. Play the 80-20 rule. Sometimes, in order to fulfil a bigger purpose (the 80%), we have to compromise and do things we don’t fully agree with (the 20%). As long as it doesn’t violate your personal values and principles, you can live with it.
  4. There are black, grey and white scenarios in ethics. Never do something in the black. When asked to do something in the grey, bring the matter into the white by pulling a third party in or shedding transparency onto the matter. If you keep compromising values and do things in the grey, you won’t know when the grey starts becoming black.
  5. Never respond to something when emotions are high. Wait an hour or two, and I can guarantee you that the response will be different.

On Personal Growth

“The most important investment you can make is in yourself.” ~Warren Buffet

  1. Your career can only go as far as your personal growth and development.
  2. Curiosity is a huge asset. People who are curious ask more questions, care more, and learn more.
  3. Resourcefulness is street-smartness. It’s probably the one quality that differentiates between a good vs great entrepreneur.
  4. Journaling forces us to transform the clutter in our minds into coherent stories. Putting thoughts into words provides clarity and helps us see beyond the negativity.
  5. Live on the 3Gs principle: Be Grateful, Always Give, and Keep Growing

On People Issues

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.” ~Ian MacLaren

  1. Trust your gut when it comes to people. It knows more than you think.
  2. Learn how to have difficult conversations early on. Humans are very complicated and sometimes we have be patient enough to peel a few layers through to understand underlying issues.
  3. When having difficult conversations, start with “I feel…” rather than “You didn’t do … ” or “Why did you …” You build empathy when you start from sharing how you feel, and the conversation starts from a more constructive tone. Starting from an accusative or derogatory tone will make someone defensive and the conversation will quickly spiral downwards.
  4. Many people are good at criticism. Rather than assigning blame, strong leaders offer constructive criticism, delivered in the right way at the right time. And they balance it with praise, appreciation and acknowledgement.
  5. If you want to raise an issue or concern, always proactively think of solutions first, or seek help from others. Otherwise it’s just a complaint or gossip, and is not very helpful.

On Leadership

“Good leaders energize people. Bad leaders drain life out of people.”

  1. When in crisis mode and you’re at helm, pause and take a deep breath (it will reduce your heart rate). Then smile and calmly say that everything is going to be okay. Everyone in the room looks to you for leadership and direction. If you’re hasty, emotional and reactive, everyone will follow suit.
  2. Leading with vulnerability means that you’re willing to put yourself at risk in the way you communicate and interact with employees. People trust leaders who don’t need to prove their superiority, success or significance in any way, but from a place of being a bit more “human.”
  3. Listening authentically means doing it with the intention of understanding another’s worldview through their eyes, not yours. To influence people to see your way, be open to see what they see and feel what they feel so that barriers that cause people to withhold trust can be broken.
  4. People will move mountains for you if they know that you genuinely care about them and not just about results. Leadership isn’t about the leader, but rather those being led. Take an interest in their career aspirations and value their opinions.
  5. Everyone has a superpower – something that they’re naturally good at. If you’re in a profession that leverages your superpower, you will achieve natural greatness and fulfilment in your work. Most people try to be someone they’re not because they’ve mistaken someone else’s superpower for their own. Accept your own strengths and build a team around you with other superpowers you don’t have.

On Success & Happiness

“Success is about liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” ~Maya Angelou.

  1. Start your life by writing your eulogy; what people will say about you when you die. Use that end story as a guiding principle to how you live your life every day. You hold the pen to your own story.
  2. Success is a peace of mind that you did your best to reach your full potential and purpose.
  3. Much of our own unhappiness or dissatisfaction with life is up in our heads. We can choose to change the way we see things.
  4. There are two kinds of happiness; one internal, the other external. External happiness is fleeting, dependent on your environment and what happens day-to-day. For example, I’m upset that I missed my flight or someone stole my lunch. Internal happiness is the kind only found within your core, when you’re striped away from societal definitions of success. You’re comfortable where you are in life, in your own skin, with your personal growth and trajectory in life. No matter what happens externally, your core is not easily shaken, because you’re self-accepting, self-confident and have self-love.
  5. Happiness or success is only real when shared. Make sure you identify the important people in your life, and don’t leave them out while pursuing external happiness and material success.

On Family, Friendship & Love

“Love cures everything. Like everything.” ~Cheryl Yeoh

  1. Our upbringing and childhood influences so much of our character and values in adulthood. Understand your past to understand present behaviors. But don’t let your past define who you are and who you want to be in the future.
  2. Hurt people hurt people. Forgive hurt people, so they can forgive themselves and people who’ve hurt them.
  3. Expectations are the biggest cause of unhappiness for most people. Try to reduce expectations, and just give and love out of abundance.
  4. People tend to take “quality time” for granted. You can often be with someone, but your mind is not really there. Being fully present for the people you care about is the greatest gift you can give them. It shows that you respect them and want to be there with them.
  5. When looking for a life partner, these three things are must-haves in order of importance: 1) Mutual Respect, 2) Best-Friend Chemistry, 3) Sexual Chemistry 🙂

p/s: I celebrate my birthday twice in Bangkok this year. TWICE!

leadership award

Thank you to the 10,000 university students who voted for me 🙂

Tiger Awards

At least I can now say I’ve won the “Golden Globe Awards”!

7 Responses to “Birthday Reflections: Top 35 Lessons I Learned in the Past Year Running MaGIC”

  1. xgeneer

    Hey cheryl.. Just want to know your view, the comparison between work environment within malaysia and others.. Would you love to share?

  2. Rachel W

    Happy Belated Birthday Cheryl! Thank you for sharing your top 35 lessons, “start your life by writing your eulogy” really struck a chord with me and I’m going to print that out and stick it on my wall. Life IS hard, knowing you can accept that fact and keep rolling with the punches is important. I am currently diving into the job market and reading your post gave me some well thought-out brain food to chew on. Keep up the great work Cheryl, looking forward to future updates!

  3. Krista Goon (@krista_redbox)

    I stumbled upon your blog when I read an article about MaGIC and somehow the link led me here. It must’ve been quite a challenge working with the Government because as you said, start-ups and Government are at both ends of the spectrum. I am sure it was a good experience, nevertheless because we can always learn, even from the toughest of times. I also like your optimism and your words of wisdom.


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