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Tong Yee, Founder Of Thought Collective, On Why The First Step Doesn't Matter

This was adapted from Tong Yee’s speech from The Platform Collective‘s forum, Ideals Vs. Ideas, and transcribed with The Platform Collective’s permission. It has been edited for easier reading. Images were added for descriptive purposes.
 
Tong Yee is founder and Director of the Thought Collective, a group of social enterprises that challenges the way we think, live, and serve as a community. Part of this group is popular tuition group School of Thought and restaurant chain Food for Thought.
 

The First Step

Image Credit: MikeSpitters
Image Credit: Mikespitters

However, if you get really deep into the insight, the only one really excited is the one watching. The person taking the first step actually thinks it sucks.

I’d like you to imagine what the first step means. And if you do remember that whole metaphor of the child taking that first step, then you would basically have this baby making its first step, and everyone goes “Ah! The first step!” Around that are emotions of exuberance and wonder, and “I can’t wait for you to take your first step!”

However, if you get really deep into the insight, the only one really excited is the one watching. The person taking the first step actually thinks it sucks. He actually feels a lot of fear and trepidation, and if you ever watch babies after the first step, almost immediately they just sit on their ass. And they’ll get up again, and you’ll find that it takes a pretty long time before they pick up the courage to do it again.

So there are a few dynamics in this whole idea of the first step.

There is that person taking that first step, and there are the people watching who are always enthusiastic, going: “Come on! Take that first step! You can do it!” But that group are typically the relatives watching this, not the father and mother. The father and mother who are watching the first step are actually very nervous.

And then there’s the friend of the father and mother who also has a baby, who hasn’t taken their first steps yet. And they’re going “Oh my god, their baby just took their first step, when is mine going to take its first step?”

And you realize that if you move further down the road, the first steps are seen very differently from different types of people.

So I’m going to use that particular metaphor to give you some insight into what I could be experiencing about first steps today.

Falling in Love

Image Credit: EliteDaily
Image Credit: EliteDaily

I spent these past few days working with a friend of mine. She has never dated all her life. She’s fallen in love, but she was born not entirely attractive. She has always believed all her life that she doesn’t deserve love, or she doesn’t deserve a relationship.

So at the age of 38, she finally had the opportunity to take the first step, to fall in love, and she allowed herself to do it.

“It’s either now or never.”

But the thing is that she had fallen in love with a married man. And there was this story in her head that was growing, of:“I’m never ever going to fall in love”, and there was almost a desperation that was tied to that story. So what happened was that she went into the relationship, and after having that relationship, she ended it after a period of 8 months.

And she’s completely crushed.

The narrative at this point of time is that that first step was too heavy a price to pay. “I don’t have the time to redeem this or turn this around.” Somebody with a broken heart at the age of 19 is really different from someone who is at the age of 38, and even more different from someone with a broken heart at the age of 50.

First steps, at this time and age, is really a beautiful thing, because there is space for learning. And there is a space for recuperation. But to us, at different stages of life, people see first steps differently. And I would actually exercise a lot of caution in those territories.

Collaboration Cannot Be Rhymed.

I have lost my ability to be playful. Too many people are at stake, too many jobs are at stake, too many reputations are at stake.

Let’s look at the idea of stake.

For this particular event, Platform Collective was asking me for a quote, and my PA Ling Hong caught me at some really busy time.

“So you want me to have a quote. Quote on what?”

“Give me a quote on collaboration, so they can put it up on the posters and online and stuff”.

So I messaged Ling Hong: “Okay, I really don’t have time, so I’m just gonna give you nonsense. ‘Collaboration is a word that is really hard to rhyme. Corroboration could be the closest, but that’s illegal. ’nuff said.’ ”

And if you listen to it, it’s complete crap, it’s all nonsense! I put it out there because it’s damn funny for myself, but seriously speaking I just wanted to finish this. Half an hour later I repented, and I gave them a proper quote on collaboration.

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Image Credit: The Platform Collective

Unfortunately, Platform Collective chose the first quote, took it and put it up on Facebook. And I thought: “Holy shit, did they do what I thought they just did?”

And it’s interesting because my immediate instinct was: okay, you see this as adventurous, but I have sector partners all over Singapore who are looking at this. I got an email saying “What on earth did you just quote?” And then I got another email saying, “Did you just say what I thought you just said, collaboration cannot be rhymed? What are you talking about?!”

And that playfulness isn’t playful anymore.

It suddenly hit me that first steps come at a cost once your stakes get high. If I were an individual, I would play. But this moment here, my immediate thinking was that the “don’t worry, make mistakes, things will pick up” sort of things don’t happen in your 40s or your 50s, they don’t happen when you’re part of an organization or if you have responsibilities.

And that’s why your 20s and your 30s are such a precious window, because when you screw up, everyone forgives you. Everyone goes “It’s fine! Don’t worry about it, learn from your mistakes!” Your 40s doesn’t have that.

Immediately after that, my organization had to go into damage control mode. But as it started to move, we decided to just play it out like a branding issue, and it worked. It’s fine and everyone goes, “OMG you’re so funny”. But internally, it was all that stomach churning sort of stuff.

And you know why I experienced that? This part I think it’s a bit depressing: I have lost my ability to be playful. Too many people are at stake, too many jobs are at stake, too many reputations are at stake.

It’s sad because when I work with my daughters today, I want them absolutely to grow up learning to take that first step to play. And I’m worried that as a father, who holds all this stake and responsibility, I  am not able to communicate that.

One First Step Is A Threat To Someone Else

Image Credit: Linkedin
Image Credit: Linkedin

Each time we innovate, we take a first step, and each time we do this, somebody out there is going, oh are you going to take a job away from me?

The funny thing was that I promised myself, when I was moving and doing this particular work, that I will never come to a place where the work of the social enterprise becomes competitive, and that we would always be collaborative. When we first established our first social enterprise, School of Thought, it was the cash cow that was keeping all our other social work alive.

8 years ago, School of Thought came to a place where if you googled “GP tuition”, it would always be ranked number 1. And we didn’t watch it. We were just collaborative, working with everybody — we didn’t look at our business practice, we only looked at our social practice; we looked at the ideals more than anything else.

But December last year, we actually began to look statistically at our numbers. From 2007 all the way to 2012, it was going up by 20% every single year, and we were very happy. 2012, it dropped 20%, 2013 it dropped again, and in 2014, and it kept moving.

We were wondering, what on earth is going on? So we went online and we googled “GP tuition”, and School of Thought appeared on page 10 of the Google search. Suddenly there were all these competitors that had come in that we weren’t even conscious of, that we weren’t even watching.

So here we have 64 other institutions that had all began to take their first step.

Everyone’s saying, go there, try it out, do this. But once we began to do this, another person’s first step is actually a threat on somebody else. Each time we innovate, we take a first step, and each time we do this, somebody out there is going, oh are you going to take a job away from me?

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It’s a crucial thing to become sobering towards that, because I have never seen myself like this. And of the 12-14 social movements started by youth that I’ve watched over the past 4 years, 8 have already been acquired by larger companies.

And the price that they are offering is really so small. It’s like $40,000 and then the youth go: “$40,000! Holy crap that’s a huge amount of money! You’re amazing man! You have empowered our SECOND STEP.”

And really what these companies are doing is that they’re acquiring threat.

They’re taking away threat from what could potentially take away their growth. So if someone’s going to come over to you, and give you $40,000, I would ask you to pause. Because if you’re getting these offers, it means that somebody is threatened.

Let’s say that the belief is that we have certain ideas, but the values behind the ideas are just as important as the ideas themselves. I agree. But I’m saying that these ideas exist in the real market. And if we don’t watch them, you wouldn’t be doing the kind of vision that you really are doing.

It’s Not The First Step

Image Credit: TylerShields
Image Credit: TylerShields

Remember how I started with my friend who had never fallen in love? And she got involved in a married relationship? She’s completely crushed. The biggest thing is as she’s crushed by this, she used these words: “I’m such a whore.”

And really, the crushing is not in the relationship.  The crushing is, “I’m no longer who I used to be, and my value systems have somehow disappeared.”

I think that any one first step you take, the question is not whether you do take the first step, because honestly speaking all of us are going to do it sooner or later.

The question is — in which direction is that first step going to go?

And that is why it needs to be informed by values. What do we really want for ourselves? What do we really want for our family? What do we really want for Singapore? And if I took this first step, would I be proud to have my child take exactly the same first step as me?

And if you are proud of that, you’re probably in the right direction.

So first steps in themselves, for me, they are a bit overrated. There’s a deep insight into what first steps really are. And yes, sometimes they can take you down the wrong track.

My hope is that it hasn’t been too sobering. But, take this ten years of your life seriously. It’s a powerful window, and it’s the one time you really can take risks. So right now, if you’re scared to take risks, then suck it up, and do it anyway. They are very valuable.