A few years ago, I was packing up in my Walmart Labs office when received an email from Hung Pham with the subject headline: “Save this for a rainy day.” I teared up after reading it, touched that he’d spent so much time writing this very thoughtful email for me before I even needed it yet.
I met Hung back in 2012 when I was mentoring at a Lean Startup Machine Weekend. Over the years, we kept in touch; Hung reached out whenever he had a question about product management or UX. We even briefly worked on a consulting project together. He has always been hardworking, eager to learn and really humble. I loved working with Hung!
I got the email right before I left San Francisco, CA to be the Founding CEO of MaGIC (a USD$30M government-funded entity to develop startups in Malaysia and Southeast Asia). I knew that this role would be challenging, as it required me to straddle between the rigidness of government and the fluidity of startups. But oh boy did I underestimate other unforeseen challenges that came my way (the death threats, racism/discrimination, cronyism and rampant bullying, but that’s another story over drinks!).
Late July 2014, 3 months after I’d assumed my position, it was indeed one of the toughest days of my life, and I reread Hung’s “rainy day” email. It meant so much more to me then and I probably sobbed for an hour after. The paragraph “People Depend On You, Draw On Them For Strength” gave me the courage and strength that I needed to survive a very brutal environment. Whenever I felt hopeless or felt like giving up, this email always made me stronger. In the end, we achieved so much for the startup ecosystem in Malaysia and Southeast Asia in under 2 years and I left MaGIC on a high note. I have many to thank, but I wanted to especially call out Hung for giving me what feels like a lifelong reference for when things get rough – Thank You, Hung!
Fast forward 4 years, Hung has founded a very successful business in Culture Summit and is looking to build a global community of culture leaders. I still read his “rainy day” email and have forwarded it to a dozen or so friends. His words of wisdom are evergreen. I’ve decided to share it here so that you can benefit from it too, especially on your “rainy day” (produced with Hung’s permission, of course). Enjoy!
I’m going to email you from my personal email from now on incase in the future I’m no longer with LSM. I just wanted to thank you again for inviting me out to dinner and wish you luck on your new adventure. I can’t really say I know what you’re getting yourself into but I know it will be very challenging and there will be times when you will want to break down and cry. Hopefully this letter serves as a reason for why you need to continue to do what you do and be an inspiration for me and others.
It’s Suppose to be Tough
Hopefully one day I can share some of my personal stories with you. My goal is to become a successful entrepreneur so that I can share my story with others about finding strength even in the darkest of times. I went through a really dark period of my life a few years back where there were so many times I thought about suicide. It wasn’t that my life was bad but I kept shooting myself in the foot and making mistakes over and over. Every time I wanted to give up or the thought of suicide crossed my mind, there was a little voice in my head that said:
“Wow is this how it’s really gonna end? All these years you keep telling yourself you’re going to make an impact in this world and this is how you want to leave your footprint? You’re a coward Hung, life is suppose to be tough. Nobody who’s ever made an impact in the world had it easy and if it were easy then it wouldn’t be meaningful. Suck it up and fight back because nobody is gonna get you out of this mess except for you!”
I use to wonder why me, why does my life suck, why blah blah blah. But when I began to accept the fact that only I can fix my mistakes, I started working on it one day at a time. Trying to fix a mountain of mistakes is overwhelming and often times, I gave up before I started because in my mind it was impossible. However when I just broke things down to smaller chunks, “What can I change this month, this week, today, tomorrow?” it became manageable and eventually I was able to get back on my two feet.
Give Yourself Time to Grieve
When I would get depressed before, I would just be unhappy and unproductive for days and even weeks. I wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t do anything, and almost got fired from my job a few times. The problem was that I couldn’t get out of my own head. These days whenever I have a tough day or feel unhappy, I give myself time to grieve. I tell myself something like this:
“It’s okay to cry or be unhappy, it’s actually normal. And for the rest of the day you can cry, watch tv, play videos, or do nothing at all. That is perfectly okay. However tomorrow when you wake up, you are going to come back stronger than before and you are going to address the issues that were making you unhappy!”
I found this to be very effective for me. Rather than just being in a funk, I basically told myself to take a day off and do whatever I wanted. But tomorrow when I’m well rested and my batteries are charged, I come back stronger and tougher and get shit done.
People Depend On You, Draw On Them For Strength
I am constantly hard on myself and because of that I have a tough time doing things for myself. If I’m disappointed at myself, I’ll usually stay that way for several days or even longer. It’s annoying but I’ve always been like this. However what I’ve learned about myself is that I can rise to the occasion when people depend on me. It’s kinda like when you walk through a dark neighborhood at night alone; its scary but if you were to walk through it with a younger sibling, you don’t have time to be scared. In fact you have to be brave because you are the protector.
So whenever I am sad I think about my girlfriend, my family, my parents, my nieces and nephews. All of the people who depend on me, who have made sacrifices for me, I think about all of them and draw strength from that to push me through the toughest of times. I depend on you, so don’t give up no matter what happens.
Everything Happens for a Reason
I hate this line, in fact it’s so cliche that I never ever used to believe in it. Let’s say I get robbed, am I suppose to accept that it happened for a reason? I use to have a very negative outlook on life and it was mainly because I hated my own life. But when I stopped blaming others, took responsibility for my own mistakes, and just worked on fixing things one day at a time, slowly things got better.
If you knew me 3 years ago and compared me with today, it is like night and day. I’m pretty sure the same goes for you with your entrepreneurial journey. But I also understand now that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for those tough times. If I ever become successful as an entrepreneur, it won’t be because I’m a whiz kid visionary. It would have been because I am resilient and never gave up no matter the challenge. In fact I am more humble and grateful today because I failed and found the courage to get back up and fight for what I believed in.
So while I hated to believe that everything happens for a reason, I can honestly look back at my life and say it does. I definitely wouldn’t be writing you this email and we wouldn’t be friends.
Good Luck Cheryl
This is who you are Cheryl. I know you enjoyed finally settling down in SF and having a cushy job but deep down this is who you are. You are here to create impact in the world and inspire others. I hope this email serves you well in the challenges that lie ahead. Don’t worry because you’ve got a lot of fans who are routing you on. Go get em!