Ever since I relocated from Silicon Valley to Beijing, I have literally been asked by everyone around me: Is the move permanent? Do you want to be in the US or China in the long run?
To which I reply: Why do I need to stay in any place “permanently”? Why do I have to decide where I want to be in 10 years right now? How could I know? Why would I want to know? If we all know exactly where and what we’ll be doing in 10 years, wouldn’t life be so boring that it’s not worth living?
To put it in another way, I disagree with the mental framework behind the question. It implies that when you move to a place, you stay there for decades without moving again, and that we should all plan out each stage of our lives meticulously and live according to that plan.
I moved to Beijing because I felt like there was a specific opportunity in Beijing at this specific moment in my life that I wanted to grasp. It doesn’t mean I want to spend the rest of my life there.
I’m privileged to have lived in a number of places at a relatively young age – Changchun, Singapore, Boston, Silicon Valley, and Beijing – and this experience of moving around has taught me that I can survive anywhere, just like a potted plant can thrive wherever it goes. While most people find the process of being uprooted painful, I actually came to enjoy the process of adjusting to a new culture and new environment. Instead of fearing and avoiding change, I now embrace and welcome change. And I consider this a major competitive advantage in our fast-changing world today.
Throughout this experience, I have also learned not to try to predict where life will take me. There was simply no point in living my childhood as if I would end up attending Harvard, because that was not considered possible while I was growing up in northeast China. There was no point in planning my college life as if I would end up working in venture capital, because I didn’t even know what “VC” stood for when I was a freshman. Similarly, there is no point predicting what I will be doing in 2030. Opportunities will arise in the most unexpected places, and we just need to do whatever we do so well that we’re prepared to grasp them.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t plan at all. My point is that it is often futile to make specific plans for the long term. I have an abstract idea of the direction that I want to progress towards (see: in 2007, I wrote “a letter to myself in ten years“, which actually had some quite accurate predictions), and this serves as the guidepost as I make choices about each opportunity along the way. As long as this direction is clear, I prefer to let life unfold, unencumbered by my present self’s ideas about who or where my future self should be.
I acknowledge that the potted plant mindset is not applicable to everyone. Many people are constrained by factors such as immigration status, family, and so on. And different people have different personalities: Some are stability-oriented, others are risk-oriented. But I would encourage other young, internationally educated folks (like myself) to think about your life as if you’re a potted plant, not a rooted one, because the pain of uprooting ourselves only increases with age. Embrace unpredictability, don’t over-plan, and consider it a privilege to delete the word “permanent” from your dictionary.