If there is one thing that I’m skilled at in life, it’s this: I’m good at letting people laugh at me in my face, and then still continue doing what I decided on.
In Chinese, this is called 脸皮厚. Having thick skin.
I wish I could say I was born this way, but I wasn’t.
Shakespeare wrote many great works, amongst them is my favorite, Twelfth Night. It’s about two twins, a man and a woman, separated at birth and the tragic comedy that ensues.
In one of the scenes, a character, Malvolio, reads out a paragraph from a letter that said:
‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.’
It means that some people are great by nature. They don’t have to try very hard.
Some people are great because of the effort they put into achieving greatness. They are ambitious people with big dreams.
And then, some other people are great because they have no other choice. Their circumstances force them to become great. Or they will face dire consequences.
I wasn’t born with thick skin. I didn’t achieve thick skin-ness. I had thick skin-ness thrust upon me.
I was born the daughter of a hardworking mother from a ‘good’ family and a lazy father from a line of gamblers and womanizers.
How did the union happen? Well, that’s a long story. I’ll save that for another time.
For the first 10 years of my life, I lived in a lot of luxury. I had two maids at home and dad drove his Mercedez to pick me up from school.
After that, life went downhill.
My dad’s business failed. He won’t admit it, but it was entirely his fault. He delegated everything to his workers and spent most of his days entertaining himself.
First, the maids went. Then the cars. Then the private school. Then the food.
By the age of 15, I was in survival mode.
I worked very hard at school, hoping to get scholarships for my dream university because I knew that my parents would not be able to pay for my tuition without adding to their already ginormous debt.
I gave up everything and focused on my studies.
I hoped that by graduating from a good university, I would be able to get a good job with a high income when I graduated.
At 15, this was my biggest goal.
I didn’t know it then, but it would be the first time I learned how it felt like to be laughed at for a big decision I made for myself.
‘Lu Wee, stop being so kiasu,’ my classmates would say to me, ‘Being #1 is not the most important thing in the world. Go out and have fun. Don’t be with your books all the time.’
I didn’t offer much of a reply whenever someone said this to me.
I didn’t tell them that I didn’t really care about being #1.
I just wanted to survive.
If you are a teenager living in a house you don’t know if your parents can pay rent for, or if the next meal is coming without a fight, well you’re gonna do whatever you can to survive.
If getting #1 is going to help me survive better, I’m gonna do it.
Put it in another way, my classmates were wrong. I was not kiasu. I was kiasi. Afraid to die.
By the age of 17, I learned my first big lesson in thick-skinness:
People laugh at you because they are not you. They don’t understand why you do what you do. So they are confused. Don’t let what they say make you change your decisions. You made the decision, go ahead with it. If anything bad happens, you will bear all the consequences.
And I’m glad I stuck to it.
I left high school with straight A’s and a full scholarship.
Today, I don’t need to pay any student loans and I did not incur debt to my family.
They can laugh. I don’t care.
My second big lesson in thick-skinness was harder the first.
I was 21 years old, a student engineer and I was determined to start my own business.
I knew nothing about business except for reading books and buying one online course that cost me US$1,000 I had to borrow from my mother who had to borrow it from the bank.
When my friends heard this, one of them remarked: ‘We are engineers Lu Wee. You don’t know anything about business. We learned nothing about it at uni. Why even get into it? Stop being so 无聊 and focus on your studies.’
I felt very demotivated. I wanted my friends to join me. But all they did was criticize me for my decision.
I never blamed them though. I decided that everybody had different goals and aspirations. I respected their decisions.
This time around, I learned this:
You can’t always rely on your good friends to support you in everything you do. They too will laugh at you sometimes. Rather than being hurt about being laughed at or being angry with your friends, continue your journey alone.
By the age of 23, I made my first 5-figures sum online.
I didn’t get into business full-time until I had worked a few years as an engineer.
I couldn’t afford to.
So I moonlighted.
I took a job which allowed me a lot of spare time to work on my part-time business.
I started connecting with other young people who had ambitions like me.
Some of them, unlike me, were able to afford to go into their business full-time.
Interestingly enough, some of the full-timers saw people who run their business part-time as being inferior to them.
One day, when I met up with a friend over tea, he asked me, ‘Well, you’re still working at that company?’
He snickered, as though mocking my situation.
‘Some people just have to have that comfortable paycheck, don’t they?’ he told me.
I quit those friends, but I thank them for teaching me my third big lesson:
Just because people have the same goals as you does not mean they will support you. They too will laugh at you. It also does not mean anything. Some people just need to feel like other people are inferior to them to feel like their own life is worth something. Continue moving forward, regardless of what they say.
Eventually, I did quit my job and started running a few businesses full-time.
The last time we met, he wanted to laugh at me again. But when he asked me, ‘You’re still with that company right?’
I said no. I quit two years ago.
His face turned white and he didn’t have anything else to say before leaving.
This time around, I’ve picked just these three lessons, but I assure you there are many more lessons I learned in thick-skinness throughout the years.
But, I think you get my point.
So, what did these three lessons teach me?
When a friend comes to me and I sense that they are having some reservations about doing something new, I ask them:
‘Are you scared of starting because you’re scared that people will laugh at you?’
Most of the time what I get is a nod back.
I tell them:
‘People will laugh at you no matter what you do. So why not do what you want?’
And that is what I learned from all my lessons in thick-skinness.
Imagine if you took everyone seriously. Where would you be today?
More importantly, it taught me not to ever laugh at people for their dreams. Only encourage them.
Today, if you have a dream, I want you to know that everyone may laugh at you, but I won’t.
I hope you succeed.
And, remember this:
The only reason people laugh at you for dreaming is because it makes them feel better for giving up on theirs.