Sell or Die

I’m now in Vietnam for a short trip and I am being reminded of the time that my day job boss made a remark about how I only got a “serious” job at 38. He exclaimed “I don’t know how you survived before that.”

I bring this topic up because, while Vietnam has made great strides economically, it’s still an obviously poor place and I’ve encountered all of two people begging (that’s from three days of this trip and three other weekly trips in the last decade). For the most part, the place is filled with micro-enterprises where someone turns a hole in a building into a shop selling something or other.

These guys are the answer to how I survived before I got a serious job. They are also what you call the unknown reason as to why people become entrepreneurs. For me, I ended up as a “free-lance entrepreneur” because I didn’t have a choice. I had to do something to put money in the pocket. I had burnt out and crashed after my first job in a fly-by-night agency, which worked me the most ridiculous hours. It didn’t help that the girl I was with at the time decided that my job was her jealous competitor and would either call up crying or stalk me in the office. The average lifespan of someone in my job was three weeks (including the two week notice period) and I somehow managed to last four-months.

However, when I went to look for other jobs, people didn’t see me as someone with four and half months of experience. They saw me as someone who quit too easily and given that there was a recession in 2001 and the advertising and PR industry had been hit, I wasn’t exactly anyone’s favourite choice to get hired.

A friend from university days then suggested that rather than look for someone to pay me a salary, I might as well go straight to the source of the money – the client. I remember my first client being a Holistic Living festival. Made all of $400 from the job and then I picked up a client called Tempur, who made the most expensive but the most interesting sleep materials.

I spent slightly over a decade freelancing. I did have spells in agencies but somehow got myself fired after four months. I did try to teach and ended up resigning because I dreaded the bureaucracy involved (I am allergic to “committee meetings” and I can say with some pride that I never have been and never will be involved with committees again). Somehow, I managed to last a decade with no agency experience in an industry that only “respects” industry experience.

One of the most fundamental questions that I was consistently asked during that period was “why can’t you get a proper job?” If I think back, I guess my answer was simple – no one wants to hire me (at the time I had a very patchy work history) and so I have no choice but to hire myself.

Now, I failed to build anything resembling a business. However, I will make the point that the path of entrepreneurship isn’t a conscious choice. There are a few too many self-help books telling you that you are either an employee or an entrepreneur. Then, you live in Singapore, you get a government that believes that entrepreneurship is nothing more than a fancy word to show that you’re trendy and I do get the feel that the government tends to see entrepreneurship something it can offer the citizens as an alternative career.

Truth be told, entrepreneurship is not for everyone. Too many people talk about it as the only way to get rich but ignore the fact that most of the journey an entrepreneur makes is long, hard work and the opposite of financially rewarding. Not everyone is cut out for that.

However, that being said, there may not be a choice for an increasing number of us. The tech lay offs should be a very good indicator for many of us that the concept of a steady job isn’t so steady anymore.

It’s even if worse if you happen to be over 45 and some bureaucrat in the accounts department in New York or London sees you as a costs to the CEO’s bonus. You can get culled and unfortunately, we live in a world where the HR department is not going to look at your “loyalty” or “skills and experience” but what you’re costing the company. An increasing number of HR departments look at a guy with skills and the fresh graduate with no skills and figure out that its cheaper to hire the fresh graduate and train him or her with the skills than to keep the old timer.

So, an increasing number of us have to understand that we’re not going to have income security. We need to understand that we have to have something to sell regardless of our employment status. It’s as simple as sell or die.

Governments talk about economic growth. Individuals need to talk about survival. Sure, at certain stages you may get a hand out. However, that won’t last forever. Always look for something to sell.

When you’re in entrepreneurship mode, you stop looking at defending your turf and look for various angles to get something from a situation. For example, if you lose out on a job, do you sit there and complain about how unfair life is or do you find a way of getting something from the guy who got the job?

An increasing number of working professionals will need to understand that they have to think like the food vendors on Vietnamese streets. Governments and corporations from elsewhere will not rescue you. The only choice is to always have something to sell or die.


Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.




6 Responses to “Sell or Die”

  • The-rapist:

    Self-healing therapist. Write. Write. Write. Pour out your past sorrows. Justify your past actions and thoughts. Satisfy your deepest dreams. Use your pen to screw the girls you missed.

    If you are a powerful CEO, you can also go before 100 subordinates for a self-healing talkcock therapist session. Screw your enemies. Your subordinates will clap hard. The zealous ones will zi-dong take action against your enemies.

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  • Spec Ops:

    The best thing you can do as this current old world collapses with layoffs, bank collapses etc is focus on oneself and not worry too much about a world you can’t control.

    If you keep getting emotionally sucked into the negative news, you go down with it.

    This is generic advice as individual circumstances differ by large degrees.

    Eventually we will find our way out of this old world that made ‘meritocracy’ a religion supporting a fascistic (corporate + government) ideology that runs Sinkieland but left those who couldn’t fit in, out in the dust.

    And we have seen the results. Meritocracy has been a disaster. And all the efforts of the system to put heavy makeup on it will fail as their fanatical devotees drop dead from the death shot and Cosmic Law’s Causality (Karma) returns with heavy interest.

    Wave Function Collapse News 1

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  • Kaiju:

    Let’s just pause and listen to this

    We have a similar economy which left with Finance and Tech that create little meaningful jobs to our economy. And we continued to do so under this leadership and perhaps the next, the next next….

    Listen carefully, 3x if you need to. It applies to them, it applies to us. And it won’t ends.

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  • Sporeans Keep Govt Employed:

    Industries like advertising, PR and editorial are mostly unstable.

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  • I_AMDK_Angmophiles'_favorite:

    Self-healing therapist. Write. Write. Write. Pour out your past sorrows. Justify your past actions and thoughts. Satisfy your deepest dreams. Use your pen to screw the girls you missed.

    If you are a powerful CEO, you can also go before 100 subordinates for a self-healing talkcock therapist session. Screw your enemies. Your subordinates will clap hard. The zealous ones will zi-dong take action against your enemies.

    Sounds to me like he’s justifying the next affair with another one of ‘his girls’ lol. And blaming his own scripted mid-life for poor career decisions from the start. “Large plate of spaghetti logic”; the whining is before less than 100 TRE numb-nuts w/o fundamental credulity for testimony of becoming a real CEO.

    Agreed. Me? 900+, I reckon, lol

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  • tax is 40% in singapore:

    In singapore unless u are connected to elite and meritocracy. dont bother scouting for jobs. The rest of the population is just similar to “economic cannon fodder” for them

    Like myself i am an Mini- entrepreneur. I rent out by HDB flat to Foreign imports of PAP talents and they pay me rental. With that money i am staying in phillipines renting a out-city landed property.

    Many people dont realise singapore is no longer creating wealth for middle income or low income, it is doing the opposite now, sucking the wealth off these income groups.the pap is responsibe for this because they have to forego wealth creation for the local middle and poor classes in favour for their foreign imports turned new citizen who will vote for them to stay stay in power. however these new citizen are incredibly stupid. they will be stuck in that pradigm mentioned above if they convert their more valuable PR into citizenship

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