A Letter to My Struggling 20-Year-Old Self

Difficult Roads lead to Beautiful Destinations - Reflections and Overdue Encouragement

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The Coffee Roaster Founder at 20 Years Old

Hello former Swee, this is your future self at 25 years old. I know you are undergoing a massively challenging period in your life, filled with seemingly unresolvable issues. You may not believe this, but this period is going to be instrumental in shaping who you will become when you emerge from this tunnel.

At 20 years old, you are living a life that is very different from your peers, as you have since childhood. Growing up in a single parent family is not easy at all; everyone is perpetually on “survival mode”, worrying about tomorrow’s livelihood. You once laid down the goal of being financially independent from 18 years old onwards, and you have done it! Let me first give you a pat on the back for achieving that goal, with a mix of allowance from National Service and hard-earned income from giving tuition. I understand the pressure you put on yourself since young to carry this load for mum. It’s the only responsible thing to do.

Starting a business at such a young age is in part “when opportunity meets passion”, but more so because it represents a shot at getting out of poverty. There is nothing shameful or inherently wrong in admitting this, as you have chosen not to disclose in most instances.

You will recall that the first year of operations was filled with sorrow. There were never-ending issues to resolve, from sales, infrastructure, products to back-end business, just to name a few. I’m sure you remember those secret spots around International Plaza (TCR’s first outlet) where you could hide and let go of your tears when nothing seems to be working. I feel you deeply; the feeling of helplessness and loneliness is all too familiar.

And then there are the naysayers. You become very affected by what people say about you and the business, and the closer these people are to you, the more it hurts. They called you “naïve”, “grossly inexperienced”, “not going to amount to anything significant”. You also earned uncalled-for labels as “the stubborn one” and “the foolish one”.

As the future you, let me tell you something honestly: I do not blame you at all, in fact I am very proud of every damn thing you did. They called you naïve only because you thought of ideas that they haven’t tried themselves. They called you foolish only because of the sheer number of times you tried to implement things, way more than they would ever try in their entire lives. They called you stubborn only because you held on to the belief of eventual success so strongly that you knew failure wasn’t an option. It’s not good enough that things may work; it must. The stakes are too high to simply call it a day.

Beneath the financial uncertainties lie the intangible emotional issues that are mostly overlooked. In your very busy day, these issues are probably the lowest in your priorities. You feel bad about things not working out, you are anxious that sales is showing signs of dipping and perhaps most intensely, you feel a lot of fear that you have brought yourself and your family down because of your weakness.

As your future self, I find it hypocritical to tell you to relax and have faith that things will work out eventually. A lot of what the 25-year-old you and the current TCR is enjoying is attributable to the relentless, almost-mad attitude that you have in chasing success. I only wish you knew how to take better care of yourself not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. You are lucky to have survived this extended period of emotional turbulence, because it could very well have gone south and plunged into a depressive state. I wish you could establish a source of support earlier and create an emotional safety net to fall back onto when things got out of hand.

Being more emotionally stable now, I can tell you that this internal turmoil you’re facing is not a unique problem. In fact, many start-up leaders that I know face similar issues. I want you to know that seeking help not just for tangible business solutions but also for your own internal emotional stability is of paramount importance. Nothing takes higher priority than yourself and your well-being.

Steve Jobs is right: you can only connect the dots looking backwards, never forward. No one can predict the future, so in almost all instances the best thing you can do for your present self is to leave everything you’ve got on stage. Perform to the very best of your capabilities and with utmost integrity so that the future you will be proud of what you’ve done, regardless of outcome.

Sometimes, the only way you can rebuild your life is when you’ve hit rock bottom. I know it’s tough to see this clearly when things are not going smooth; try to adjust your mindset to perceive these huge challenges as opportunities to become better. Pay attention not to what you’re accumulating, but who you’re becoming. If you trust me, you will become a much better person in future.

Keep fighting on! As your future self, I would love to give you the recognition and encouragement that you needed, but never received. You can only have faith that one day your suffering will pay off. Often, you take care of others so much that you fail to take good care of yourself, which you must.

In this journey you’re embarking on, keep this in mind: Difficult Roads lead to Beautiful Destinations.

With 100% love and 0% regret, Swee at 25 Years Old

The author is the co-founder of The Coffee Roaster Group. Having started his business at 20 years old, his start-up journey is frequently featured on national media.
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