Ivan Lee Commencement Speech on Entrepreneurship and Happiness

COMMENCEMENT SPEECHES BY NUS ALUMNI – Mr Ivan Lee Ceremony 9 ‐ July 10, 2008 (Ivan Lee is
CEO & Founder of the ThaiExpress group of restaurants)

Entrepreneurship is about business, finance and money. But not all of you want to be entrepreneurs, so what kind of meaningful advice can I, an entrepreneur offer you? The truth is, I didn’t have to think long for this. More important than business and money, entrepreneurship is about charting your own destiny and it’s about finding the truth to what really makes you happy.
What makes us successful and happy? Is it how much money and power we have? Is it how many degrees or certifications we can amass? Who defines success? Is it our parents or our friends, is it our schools, is it the government? Or is it ourselves? Each and every one of us is uniquely different, with different goals and dreams, so how can there be one standard definition of success for all of us?

Entrepreneurs are people who despite what everyone else tells him/her, says “I want to find out the truth for myself and I want to do it my own way”. Despite overwhelming evidence and advice, they go against the flow to try their own way to find out for themselves. What is the truth? Who determines the truth? Is the truth determined by a group of people we call experts? There’s a law in physics which says “For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction”. Let me tell you, if you read enough and if you search hard enough you will find that “For every expert, there’s an equal and opposite expert”.
Is the truth determined by the authorities, be it financial, political or religious authorities? Is the truth determined by your friends and family or by those we emulate, be it sports heroes or movie star and celebrities? How do you find the truth? The truth about “the truth” is that it is a bit different for all of us. So the first thing you gotta do is to try it. Let me give you an example.

If I was trying to tell two people about how great Singapore was, about how clean and efficient we are, about how wonderful our food is, about how we are in the Guinness book of records for folding the most number of paper cranes in one hour, about how there’s no chewing gum, but there’s going to be a Casino to make up for it. Now after these two people tried living here for a while, one of them said you’re right, Singapore is a great country while the other didn’t like it here. So what is the truth?
There is no doubt that there are many things that make Singapore a great place, and these things connected positively with something inside that person that liked it here. And that’s what I meant by the truth will mean different things for different people. Besides reading and researching the truth, besides people telling you about the truth, you have got to feel it, sense it, let it see if it connects with what’s inside of you. If it doesn’t, it is not meant for you, no matter what other people say.
You can’t work in a job that you know is prestigious or your friends and family are proud but you yourself hate going to work everyday. You can’t live in a place that doesn’t give you energy or excite you. You shouldn’t choose a religion just because all your friends and family are in it. You can’t live your life according to what other people want.

In trying to find the truth and what’s right for us, you’ve got to try different things. In becoming a more learned and thinking society, we sometimes talk and think too much while we do and feel too little. The Americans like to say “you talk the talk, but do you walk the walk?” In finding out what religion or career suits you, you gotta have the courage to try different and new things. I’m 32 years old and I’ve built up businesses in Shanghai, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. While you are young, you can afford to experiment, and through experimentation you will gain the experience that helps you find what you really want. We are not machines, but many of us are in danger of living a too highly routine and mechanized life that does not create any new energy for ourselves or the people around us.
And when we try to make sense of the world around us, as we make important decisions in our lives, we must not only use our head and the reasoning tools that school has taught us, we must also use our heart and emotions, and all the instincts we developed from our experiences. While our heads help us calculate and reason, our hearts unlock the passion and energy that makes life exciting and happy.
Whatever your career choice may be, whatever your life turns out to be, I just want to say, don’t let anybody tell you what to do. You must seek advice and you must learn from those who have succeeded in what you wish to accomplish, but the final decision is yours to make. Because remember that the truth and what works for you is different from other people and what used to work last time, may not work now.
And as you make these decisions, don’t forget to try many different ways and methods, don’t forget to experiment. Don’t be afraid to fail because failure adds to your experience and helps you decide what suits you. And make decisions with your head as well as your heart. Let your instincts and emotions guide your reasonings and calculations. Remember, there is no calculator or computer out there that can help you find happiness.

As for me, I have discovered many things that make me happy, especially the ability to touch the lives of those people through my business, be it my staff, my customers or people like you. I know I’ll never forget those staff which I’ve helped overcome a crisis in their lives, be it a critically sick family member or helping a husband and wife avoid divorce. Not too long ago, I received a letter from a lady, she wrote: Dear Ivan, I was googling your company profile when I stumbled on your article in the Spirit of Enterprise website. After reading, it really hit me. Having a violent husband and going through the darkest moments with him to nuture him and heal him despite the way he treats me, I have lost my own inspiration some time ago cause I was too drained off but your article has somehow or rather re‐ignited that fire in me to be enterprising again.

So, it is from my heart that I wish all of you the best for your future and don’t forget, to be happy. Thank you.

Source: nus.edu.sg