A Personal Thank You

by Victor Cheng

by 

I wanted to thank you for being a reader and follower of my work. It has meant a lot to me.

To understand why I feel this way, I’d like to share a deeply personal story that reveals my most shameful secret about myself. With the exception of two or three people, I haven’t shared this with anyone else before.

You see, I’ve spent most of my life thinking that I didn’t really have anything to say that would be valuable to anyone else… especially in the area of business. I know this seems odd given that you largely know me from either my writings or my videos on business.

It all started when I was about 11 years old. I grew up in a small business family. My parents ran one of the first Apple stores in my hometown of San Diego, CA. Back then, Apple stores didn’t look anything like they do now.

Unlike today’s largely direct (to consumer) sales channel, back then Apple used an indirect sales channel strategy (e.g., they sold products through independently owned retail stores like the one owned by my parents).

I worked at the store on and off for most of my childhood. I would pack boxes, count inventory, move boxes in the warehouse, drag networking cable in the ceiling crawlspace to connect new computers, and pretty much do whatever was needed to be done that a kid could do.

For dinner conversation, my parents would discuss the business – revenue, costs, personnel problems, new entrants (like CompUSA), lines of revenue, and other strategic issues. (Later, as a young adult, I was shocked to discover that this was not normal conversation for everyone else.)

I remember one conversation that I had with my dad when I was 11. I wanted to be helpful to my parents and their business because I saw how hard they were working. I forgot what prompted the conversation, but somehow I got on the topic of how to grow sales through advertising. At the time, my parents store attracted customers through:

1) Yellow Pages advertising,
2) newspaper advertising,
3) drive-by traffic from people seeing the street sign in a good location, and
4) repeat customers buying an upgraded or second computer.

Since the first three were all very expensive and probably the second largest expense after personnel costs, I remember asking my dad what percentage of the customers came from each advertising source.

I had two questions in my head at the time:

(1) Which customer source worked the best in terms of absolute numbers; and

(2) which customer source generated the most revenue relative to its cost?

I thought that if we knew which one worked the best, we could do more of it. So, if the Yellow Pages directory ads worked really well, maybe we should run a bigger ad, like some of the competitors. If the newspaper ads worked really well, it might make sense to run two ads instead of one, or to run the usual ad twice as often.

I figured, unless you knew what worked and by how much, it would be hard to know which approach would be the most effective and least risky way to grow sales. So, when I asked my dad what percentage of sales came from each advertising source, he said he didn’t know. The computer system didn’t track this information, and the salespeople didn’t ask customers this question at the cash register.

I became increasingly intrigued by these questions and thought long and hard about how to get the information needed to answer them.

It was during this time that Apple had introduced a new computer called the Mac. It had a completely graphically oriented user interface, which has since become the norm. You could write documents with different size fonts, write documents in bold or underlined fonts, and other things that were largely considered revolutionary for the average person at the time.

Well, one of the things these tools allowed me to do was to create a new order form – the form that salespeople fill out to record who purchased what item, how much it cost, and to provide the customer with a receipt.

I designed a new form that looked mostly like the old form, but with the addition of a simple one-question survey that asked this:

How did you hear about us?

* Newspaper Ad
* Yellow Pages Ad
* Street Sign / Drive By
* Previous Customer

(In hindsight, to be MECE, the hierarchy really should be new customer vs. repeat customer, and the advertising sources should really be grouped under “new customers” – but I cut myself some slack… Hey, I was only 11 years old!)

I figured, if we used the new order form for a few weeks, we could quickly figure out what was working, why it was working, and how much each advertising source was producing in revenues.

After spending a few hours figuring out how to do this, I was very proud of my new form. I thought it could really help my parents’ business. But, when I showed my dad, he took a look, saw what I did, chuckled, and told me to not worry about it and to just go play outside.

I remember feeling disappointed at the response and just assumed that my ideas must not have been very good. I don’t know if my dad was distracted, set in his ways, couldn’t fathom that an 11-year-old child could come up with a useful idea, or truly just wanted me to be a kid and not to worry about adult problems.

(In fairness to my father, he was 10 times the father to me than his father was to him. He did his absolute best with what he had to work with)

It was only in hindsight that I realized how much that experience, and others like it, influenced me over the next few decades. In class, I would often have ideas but would rarely say anything. On some unconscious level, I just assumed my ideas weren’t very good and in hindsight realized I was ashamed of myself. And, even though I did get good grades in high school and college, this underlying assumption was always there just below the level of self-awareness, somewhere in the back of my mind.

When I was recruiting for consulting jobs at Stanford, I remember going to one information sessions and meeting one person who had a BA, MD, and MBA – all from Harvard. I remember being in awe at some of the people working in these firms.

At the same time, I also remember thinking that the case-interview “puzzles” were really intriguing. In the way that Sherlock Holmes was drawn to a mystery, I was always drawn to business “puzzles” and found the entire process of problem-solving fascinating.

When I received offers from nearly every consulting firm that came to campus, and discovered that I received three- to seven-times more consulting offers than any of my friends, I was shocked. I figured that the firms must have made a mistake somehow. While I liked solving cases, I somewhat assumed that my ideas probably weren’t that good.

Before my McKinsey start date, I remember being scared to death. I would be advising clients 40 years older than me… people running $500 million to $1 billion businesses. Those businesses had way more zeros than I was used to seeing. The one word that describes my primary emotion during that entire time was:

INTIMIDATED.

To my credit, I never let this fear get in the way of taking action. I still practiced cases and applied. And, the more I practiced, the more confident I appeared on the outside, even though, on the inside, I was in awe of the whole thing.

By the end of my time at McKinsey, I stopped being intimidated by people in positions of power (CEO clients). I learned that no matter how much power one has, however many degrees from Harvard, at the end of the day, 2 + 2 still equals 4. For me, facts and logic became the great antidote to feeling intimidated. I found senior clients would listen to me when I had the facts and logic on my side.

As a result, I left McKinsey with a much higher confidence level.

However, it’s useful to realize that a distinction exists between confidence and self-esteem.

Confidence is the outward conveyance of calm and competence around a SPECIFIC domain. I am confident in my ability to solve business problems. I am not confident in, nor do I project confidence about my ability to run a chemistry lab.

Self-esteem is an entirely different animal. It is how you feel about yourself in all situations and contexts. It is an internal feeling that is comprehensive in nature (not just tied to a specific situation or task).

This distinction explains why, in my experience, some people who project too much confidence outwardly (bordering on arrogance) often have very low self-esteem. Sometimes the people who seem confident on the outside are compensating for an empty feeling on the inside.

It is my belief that some billionaires use the acquisition of wealth to fill a low self-esteem “hole.” They think: “If I just get the next billion, I will feel better about myself.” Of course, this is a fool’s journey. Any moment of success is a temporary high that eventually fades, and how you feel about yourself on a self-sustaining basis is entirely independent of achievement, success, or money.

You can’t fill a hole in your heart with money, a degree, or a more prestigious resume.

You can solve financial problems with financial improvement solutions.

You can solve a career problem with a career improvement solution.

You can solve emotional problems with emotional well-being improvement solutions.

But, you can’t solve an emotional problem with a financial or career improvement solution.

It just doesn’t work (although a lot of people try)…

When I left McKinsey, I was confident in the area of business, but I still had low self-esteem. In other words, I was certain I was good at solving business problems (high confidence), but I felt like I was a defective human being… and, as a result, I felt bad about myself (low self-esteem).

The key emotional insight that I’ve only discovered more recently is to realize that it’s NOT the degree of perfection that matters, it’s how you FEEL about yourself regardless of the level of perfection you may or may not have. In short, I was paying attention to the wrong metric most of my life. I was trying to reduce the “What’s wrong with me?” metric when I should have been focused on the “How much do I accept and love myself just the way I am?” metric. That was a tough lesson to learn.

In my process of self-acceptance, there have been two things that have been very helpful to me. The first is having this and other forums to share my ideas with the people like you. My original reason for writing was to free ideas that were stuck in my head. In other words, I wrote so I could stop fixating on ideas and get back to work. Much to my surprise, my writings have found an audience in you and others.

Between the thousands of emails and blog comments, I’ve slowly come to realize that maybe what I have to say IS valuable to others. This has helped to slowly erode the false premise that has governed the last few decades of my life – the premise that my thoughts are unworthy of others, and therefore I do not have worth as a person.

Yes, this premise isn’t very logical, but nobody ever said an emotion has to be logical.

Second, even more than the ability to write, I have been blessed with the ability to receive the many, many thank-you emails from people around the world on how my ideas have changed their lives for the better.

I get so many emails along the following that I’ve lost track: “I didn’t think I could reach that high in my career, I didn’t believe it would work, but I still followed what you said exactly, and I surprised myself and achieved something I never thought I could.”

The only thing more gratifying than accomplishing something you didn’t think you could do is to be thanked for facilitating that process in someone else. It is very hard not to smile from ear to ear when reading a message like that.

As my closest friends know about me, I receive so much more satisfaction from helping and watching others succeed than from any of my own successes.

I’ve also been deeply moved when people thank me for helping them develop the courage and peace of mind to deliberately NOT go into consulting (even though they were “supposed to”).

But, best of all are the messages several of you have sent thanking me for just being me. Those have been more touching to me than I have words to express.

Your kindness and heart felt appreciation has given me something near perfect SAT scores, high GPAs, two degrees from Stanford, 7 consulting job offers, 3 live television appearances, 5 book publishing credits, and numerous other accomplishments have not.

You’ve shown me that I have “worth” just for being me.

While I am comfortable being described as successful or accomplished, I’m entirely uncomfortable seeing words like kind, generous, high integrity, stronger character, and trustworthy used to describe me.

That’s because those are words one uses to describe somebody with inherent worth and couldn’t possibly be applicable to somebody worthless like me.

I now realize that how I’ve been seeing myself my entire life was wrong.

For someone who went through life feeling like he was a “nobody”, it has been quite the revelation to discover that I was actually a “somebody” all along. That discovery has been the greatest gift of all… the gift of self esteem and self acceptance.

Your collective kindness and appreciation has helped me to realize both.

I am and will be forever grateful.

Thank you so much.

facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedin

{ 167 comments… read them below or add one }

Howard January 26, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Dear Victor, just want to let you know, your website is the most valuable thing on my way to those jobs i want. really, I appretiate this

Reply

Victor Cheng January 27, 2014 at 11:30 am

Howard,

You’re welcome.

Victor

Reply

Shohan January 28, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Hi Victor,
What you shared is very personal here! and thank you for that. I have been reading your articles but I know that I will not apply for any of the big 4. I like to follow your advice because it helps me to apply for jobs in other kind of industries, to improve myself on different area and I really appreciate how you share about your life. I always find this helpful. You are a great man Victor! :)

Reply

Victor Cheng February 10, 2014 at 2:01 am

Shohan,

Thank you for your kind words and good luck!

Victor

Reply

Hector February 26, 2014 at 3:22 am

It’s great to see stuff from the inside while in life we end up focussing on only what the person has externally and thinking that they are lucky etc. Very rarely do we get a chance to see the actual journey, given that we are programmed to see only a persons’ destination. It takes a lot of courage….

Reply

Maxime Defoy March 3, 2014 at 9:56 pm

Dear Victor,
The World would be a better place if others (including me) wouldn’t be afraid of showing themselves as transparent, honest and helpful as you are.
Someone’s NOT giving up…
A thousand thanks,
Maxime

Reply

Olkan March 9, 2014 at 11:47 am

Victor,

It was very interesting to read even you used to have a self esteem problem like me.

I can confidently tell that you have helped me alot and still helping. This story also made me think a lot and increased my awareness. I alway think that you up high there and never need my compliments or confirmation of your work. However that was not the fact. I appreciate, thank you very much. You are doing such an amazing job.

Olkan

Reply

May Kue April 16, 2014 at 6:21 pm

Victor,

Thank you for sharing. You are very much appreciated and the things you’ve shared, mentored and weighed on has had immense value. This was a wonderful example of your humility and reminder to us, we’ll, at least me, that despite your success, you still struggle with your “gift”. Once again, thank you for your candor and showing your vulnerability.

Sincerely,
May Kue

Reply

Chelsey April 17, 2014 at 9:56 pm

Victor,

I began reading your emails for career advice, but I discovered (as it seems you have) that your advice broadly applies to life. Like so many people who become skilled in one area, I think that your passion and insight into consulting has enabled you to connect with others in such a special way. I really do hope you decide to do work/seminars on self-esteem. Communication is such a gift and its good to see you using it to inspire others. Keep up the good work!

Reply

Lindsey May 5, 2014 at 11:39 pm

What a beautiful and touching message! It is unfortunate that so many people walk through their entire lives without seeing their inherent value in just loving themselves. Our identities are not in our accomplishments, but in those who love us. Learning that allows such a freedom to allow others to feel the same. Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing such a profound insight.

Reply

serena May 13, 2014 at 3:23 am

Hi Victor,
Just wanted to add to the chorus of thank you’s..your personal insight is what resonates the most with me when you’re not promoting anything, just talking to us. Please do consider writing more about developing softer skills such as confidence and self worth because without those the hard skills don’t mean as much.

Reply

Elena May 13, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Hello Victor,

thank you for sharing this personal story with us. I truly appreciate your e-mails and other supporting documents you provide. This e-mail made me realize once again that I am not the only one struggling, other people successful people do as well. I am really happy that I found your web-page as it helped me to move into a consulting job and find something I enjoy doing and work with great people.

Please go on with the helpful work.

Elena

Reply

Darren June 10, 2014 at 11:02 am

Hi Victor,

Thank you so much for sharing such a personal story.

Your emails have helped give me a new perspective on life and career. Academic and career achievements, ambition, hard work serve for nothing if they only mask deeper/emotional issues that you speak of.

It has taken me a long time to realize and most importantly accept this. In some strange way though, I feel that I had to focus on some things that don’t ‘truly’ matter to realize what really matters!…most importantly being at peace with yourself. It sounds like you may also have had a similar experience and reading you emails only serves to confirm I am finally on the right track to finding that peace within myself.

Thanks again Victor!
Darren

Reply

Victor Cheng June 19, 2014 at 6:13 pm

Darren,

A friend of mine once said sometimes the only to find the right choice is to pursue what you THINK is the right choice. Whether a choice is right or wrong, the act of taking it often brings the clarity that merely contemplating will not.

Victor

Reply

Jumoke June 16, 2014 at 5:24 am

Dear Victor,
Thanks for sharing your secret weakness with us, it makes you a truly great person. I wish you more success in life.
Thanks
Jumoke

Reply

James June 18, 2014 at 7:10 am

Hi Victor,

Just want to quickly say that this article resonates with me on so many levels and, as like many of your e-mails that I receive, provides a wonderful view point on emotions and dilemmas that I have faced in my studies and search for a career. With your help I have gratefully accepted a management consultancy position in London. Congratulations on your fantastic website (it’s unrivaled here in Britain).

Many thanks,

James

Reply

Victor Cheng June 19, 2014 at 6:14 pm

James,

Thanks for sharing and congratulations on getting and accept the job offer!

Victor

Reply

Jessie July 1, 2014 at 6:32 pm

Inspiring!

Reply

Yessen July 13, 2014 at 8:53 am

Victor,

I’m form Kazakhstan and I have learned a lot from your site and look over my shoulder program.

Many thanks for that and all the great work you do!

Sincerely,

Yessen

Reply

Bowen Li August 17, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Hi Victor,

Thank you so much for sharing something so personal with us, and thank you very much for all the lessons and help you have been providing us.

Sincerely,
Bowen Li

Reply

Mike August 20, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Victor,

I read your emails almost religiously because wealth of information that shared in priceless to me not only in professional growth but my personal. Although I am a Soldier in the US Army the advice you give second to none.

Regards,

Mike Y.

Reply

Victor Cheng August 24, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Mike,

Thanks for your kind note. Also, thank you for your service. I for one very much appreciate it.

-Victor

Reply

Daniel August 27, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Victor,
Thank you for this personal perspective – I relate to what you say. Just so you know, I keep all your emails in a special file that I review and use on a regular basis (I don’t keep any other emails like that). Truly GREAT advice. Many thanks.

Reply

Sarah W September 1, 2014 at 4:36 am

Hi Victor,
Thanks so much for sharing all this knowledge and those insights. I do totally understand what you have gone through since I have done the same…This experience is so valuable for you to understand and help others, and for others for bringing out the best out of them. So just do as I do: feel thankful for this experience/history as it makes you much deeper and wiser ;-) and capable to help others. Thank you too Victor!

Reply

Nikhil Desai September 16, 2014 at 8:30 am

Hi Victor,

Let me tell you.. I have outgrown to aspire for any lucrative consulting offer with any of the top 5 consulting jobs… but that hasnt stopped me a bit from following you and your invaluable newsletters…. Whatever you say and share is so profound and something that I can relate to… all of us as humans go through these.. but few have the ability to express this in words as you do.. and when you do, there are a bunch of us who get enlightened… I should say that you are doing a very noble job…I wish you all the best and pray that you touch many more lives as you move along… Thanks,

Reply

Victor Cheng September 16, 2014 at 11:49 am

Nikhil,

Thanks for sharing your kind words. I’m glad you find what I write helpful. Life is a fascinating journey.

Victor

Reply

Chap September 16, 2014 at 12:58 pm

Thanks Victor,

One to two years ago, I saw your ad and I subscribed to your emails. In a way, you brought me hope because my career is in the doldrums. I did not know about the world of consulting until then. It was something I look forward to (and still look forward to). Maybe that will help my career and attain my financial objectives. Of course, as you correctly pointed out, that does nothing to the emptiness inside and I find that helping my friends, relatives and other people in need that have bigger problems than I have without asking anything in return (I believe in paying it forward) really helped a lot. Thank you.

Reply

KNF September 16, 2014 at 3:42 pm

After your initial email on self-esteem, I read through lot of articles on internet. But your story brought everything in perspective. I am not sure this will be right place to put a question. Sometimes in exercising self-acceptance, I get feeling that I am not exerting enough effort and trying to find an excuse in the name of acceptance. I understand there is a fine line, but I am struggling to find answer. Any suggestion on this front. Thank you for being such a genuine mentor. I look forward to read more and more from you.

Sincerely,
KNF

Reply

Victor Cheng September 17, 2014 at 3:56 am

KNF,

First off I want to acknowledge your effort to seek the answers you are looking for. When I think of self acceptance, I do not think in terms of effort or working harder. Rather, I think of it in opposite terms — in letting go and deliberate avoiding the effort that goes into self judgment, self criticism and self shaming. It takes a lot of effort to continually look at one self and find it lacking.

Self acceptance isn’t tightening your fist and working harder, it is letting go of your fist entirely and accept that what you are, who are, the good, the bad, the ugly is you… and you without any changes are worthy and okay.

The premise behind self acceptance is that all human life is precious. When you see 100 new born infants, do you judge some as worthy and others as not worthy? Do you deem some as worthy of a good life, while others are not?

Most people I know see all infants as precious. Some may be bigger or smaller, one gender or another, on color or another, but fundamentally all have worth. We accept babies for the precious creatures that they are.

If you buy into this perspective, than realize that all of us are those babies 20, 30, or 40 years later. We are all STILL precious, STILL worthy… just the way we are.

Don’t try harder to find self acceptance. Instead, STOP trying so hard to self judge. Just let go, surrender, and accept yourself flaws and all.

And in case you find that difficult because perhaps you find yourself falling short of everyone else, just realize everyone else is thinking the exact same thing too – not realizing that you are just as flawed as they are. It is the flaws that make us human. Accept your own humanity (aka your perceived imperfections), otherwise you for all practical purposes and attempting to be a deity – that is striving to be flawless and perfect.

Victor

Reply

KNF September 17, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Victor – Thank you very much for taking time out to write such a detailed reply. I have no words to thank you.
Sincerely,
KNF

Reply

Aziz September 18, 2014 at 10:22 pm

There are people out there, people like me, who see other people preparing for consulting and feel super intimidated because we know we’re not good enough. And then we log onto caseinterview.com, with a very realistic hope that we are. You have selflessly helped a lot of people and therefore created a life worth aspiring to, one that has been meaningful on a professional as well as a humane level.
Thanks for everything!

Reply

Leave a Comment