3 Mentors and 3 Lessons from a 3-week internship in Tokyo
“Are you sure that you didn’t get someone else to do up your online test for you?”
It was 4 a.m. in Philadelphia and I was dressed in a business shirt and track pants while being interviewed for a summer internship at BayCurrent Consulting, one of the largest general consulting firms in Japan. I was sluggish in tackling the math and case questions being hurled my way through Skype by my Singapore-based interviewer and it showed.
Truth be told, I was more appalled by the attack on my integrity rather than my intelligence with the lack of empathy ranking somewhere in between. In response, I apologised, clarified that my online test was truly my work and pointed out that it was still darkest before dawn where I was.
Thankfully, dawn came in time and I soon found myself a 3-full-week long internship (technically 18 working days) in Tokyo in the August of 2018.
I had three mentors whom I remember fondly from my internship days, all whom spoke fluent Japanese. The first was an ethnic Korean Australian. She was patient, stoical and brutally frank. I have lost count of the number of times I was chided for 1) not clarifying the requirements of the task before proceeding 2) using fanciful English which impeded understanding and 3) giving too many excuses. Yet she still made it a point to set aside an hour a day poring through my work with me, nudging me towards an insightful response each time and stressing the importance of formatting and presentability in everything that I offer as completed work.
The next was a US-educated Chinese. He was approachable, kind and responsible. I was assigned to his team to help with some research in my final week. I would have understood if he saw me as a temporary worker to be exploited and threw me the most mundane of tasks with little guidance. Instead, he treated me as a full member in his team and I was tasked with research that would eventually be presented to the client. Along the way, he gave me tips and tricks for being a more efficient and effective consultant and encouraged me to develop my own interpretation to the data.
The last was a fellow Singaporean. He was eloquent, generous and seemingly mercurial. On my very first day, I drank from a consulting fire hose he nonchalantly held. In subsequent days, I racked my brains to come up with data and syntheses within time constraints that felt impossible at times. At work, his standards were exacting, and he would not accept compromise. After work, he did a 180 and became a buddy. From him, I learnt that we each must make our own choices in separating work and play. But more importantly, I know now that a life without a hypothesis is not a life well-lived.
I embarked on the internship thinking that it would be a fun and enriching experience with no lasting consequences. After all, I could barely speak enough Japanese to get around the city, let alone engage in business discussions. The internship was supposed to be a serendipitous once-off occurrence which I could cherish as a memory. But I could not forget the excitement I felt during those interviews, the inspiration I felt from my mentors and the vibrancy of the city. And the three lessons of this unforgettable experience in my forgettable life.
First, we must recognise that our achievements are almost never only due to our merits. At first glance, it may seem that my grades and exhibited abilities got me through the door. But that would only be a very small part of the story. BayCurrent Consulting was actively looking for Singaporean interns in late 2017, motivated surely by the performance of our local universities in global rankings and the reputation of our people. Singapore was a brand that they could trust, and this was corroborated by the track record set by my pioneering Singaporean mentor. It was on the shoulders of these institutions and precedents that I stood that gave me the stature to reach for this opportunity. So now it is my turn to help pave the way for those who will come after me.
Next, we must connect with one another. Nothing adds a feather to our career cap like an overseas work experience. It exudes desirability, intrepidity and adaptability in a resume for the most part. And of course, you get to tick off your fair share of tourist attractions while you’re in the area as well. But what I remember most from my time in Tokyo and other overseas stints which I’ve had the privilege to embark on are the connections, however fleeting, that I’ve made with people from diversely different backgrounds. A weekday lunch with an American colleague at an izakaya near the office. A weekend day trip to Kamakura with a fellow Chinese intern. A farewell dinner with Japanese supervisors. I may no longer be actively in contact with most of them but during the intersections where our paths crossed, we had more that we shared than otherwise.
Finally, we must each come up with the hypothesis to our lives. As Singaporeans, most of us grew up knowing (and needing to know) what our paths in life would be. It was a path that also came embedded with an implicit promise: study hard in school, get good grades and you will be able to finance a materially comfortable existence for you and your loved ones. You will be able to live the good life. The hypothesis is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps more than most others, I bought into that promise and certainty and I devoted most of my time and effort into my academics. For the most part I did well in school but as the years rolled by, I felt increasingly dissatisfied. I was studying with no direction and as thankful as I am for the support I had received for this journey, it did not feel like a journey which I had any agency in. But this couldn’t be any further from the truth. We have the freedom to choose; we just need to accept whatever consequences that stem from these choices, including consequences that we could never have imagined beforehand.
That is when given the opportunity to return, I seized it. And I haven’t looked back since.
The following article is written in conjunction with Singapore’s Career Stories 2019 Writing Competition on the theme of #MyCareerJourney organized by CareerSocius.