Julia L. Xu
Figuring Out After I Thought I Had it Figured Out
Hi, I’m Julia! I am a startup business consultant, helping startups with all things business, from business strategies, financial models, operations management, eCommerce development to social media growth. I'm an entrepreneur myself, and as a consultant now, I'm empowering other entrepreneurs to accomplish their dreams.
WHEN I REALIZED I DID NOT HAVE IT FIGURED OUT
Last year, I moved to Manhattan and joined Alibaba as Chief of Staff and Global Business Operations Lead, but it didn't take me too long to realize that despite the glamorous title and the well-paved career track ahead, I was on the wrong path for myself. Although I had followed all the typical prescriptions for success so far in life: I attended an Ivy League school, worked for McKinsey, then Disney Corporate Strategy, then Alibaba - I was not happy. Instead of feeling like I had figured out my life, I felt more lost than ever. I may have achieved the career goals that I had set for myself when I was a college student, but I no longer knew who I was or what I wanted.
I thought I had figured out a perfect path to success, but I suddenly realized that I was only just starting to figure out what I really wanted in life. I began to seriously question myself, and to listen. It felt like the Disney movie moment, when Moana felt a calling from the ocean, or when Elsa heard a voice guiding her towards where her roots were. I heard my own calling to get back to being my true self, who I always believed to be that fearless and entrepreneurial me with boundless energy, who hustles hard and embraces uncertainty.
So three months ago, I quit my job without having another one lined up. I gave up a big bonus only a few months away, and most importantly, a secure and prestigious career path that I had strived for my whole life. I decided to take a leap of faith and throw myself into the unknown, trusting that I could only really figure things out if I let myself explore without any constraints, labels, or backup options. Instead of believing in security, I decided to believe in myself.
“THE GLOOMY CLOUD MOMENT”
I still remember that moment when I made this life-changing decision. I call it the "Gloomy Cloud Moment." It was a typical January evening in New York right after a long Christmas break, and as I was biking through Manhattan after work just like any other day before the break, I felt the same pang of dread come up - but this time, it was more overwhelming. The long period of self-reflection and sense of freedom over Christmas break had made the thought of coming back to a pre-paved road disconnected from my aspirations more unbearable than ever.
I started having flashback memories of that positive and fearless girl I used to be before I went onto the corporate path. Over the years, that unfulfilled feeling of not being able to do what I love had accumulated and turned me into one of those people I used to despise. Those who are filled with negative energy and just complain about their lives every day without taking action. Even my mom had asked me, "Julia, who have you become?" I couldn't help but ask myself, "Is this how I want to live my life, feeling confined in a job while I know deep down inside that I can do so much more? Ten years from now, when I look back, would I regret not giving myself a chance to figure out who I could truly become?" As I talked myself through this thought process, suddenly, staying even one day longer at the job seemed impossible. The moment I realized I needed to quit, dark gloomy clouds came over the sky, and it started to rain. It was a perfect movie moment of revelation. I knew I was on the wrong path and needed to get off.
THREE PATHS IN LIFE
I believe we will, at any point in life, find ourselves on one of three paths.
THE GLOOMY CLOUDY DARK PATH
The first is similar to my bike path in Manhattan that day. It's dark, it's gloomy, and you want to get off it as soon as possible. That’s the “Gloomy Cloudy Dark Path”
You know you're on this path because you, like me when I was on that path, needed 3 cups of coffee just to get through the day. You may even feel that you have lost your sense of empathy towards most things in life, because the only way for you to carry on is to stay numb. You may find yourself easily irritable, and often hear your friends say that you're not acting like yourself. You may continuously wonder how life could have been if you were to take a different path. You may not even remember how you got on to this path in the first place, but you know it in your guts that this is not right for you.
However, despite knowing that you are on the wrong path, there may still be a billion reasons for you to keep going. Perhaps you think that you already committed too much. Perhaps you need that stable paycheck. Perhaps you want that big promotion. Perhaps your parents have high expectations for your career. Or perhaps you are frankly just too afraid to change. But no good reason can justify anyone staying on the dark path. Life is too short to be miserable.
When I realized I was on the "Gloomy Cloudy Dark Path," nothing could have kept me. Big-name title, high-paid salary, stable career path… None of that seemed to matter anymore. I know that I would rather struggle financially temporarily than feel unfulfilled every single day of my life. Because in the end, what you choose to do determines the way you live your life. You may choose a career path or a job because a salary is more lucrative or a title is more prestigious. But if it's not something that genuinely sparks you awake, why would you be content with spending most of your waking moments pursuing it?
THE SUNSHINEY PATH
The second path is quite the opposite - and it's where I believe I am today. I call it the "Sunshiney Path." I quit my job and became a startup business consultant, so that I could learn from all types of startups before I commit to building my own. I'm accumulating knowledge and connections in the industry that I'm looking to pivot into, while using my skill sets to empower other entrepreneurs.
On this path, you love everything about your life. There are bad days, yes, but on the whole, you wouldn't change a thing about where you are in your life. You abound with natural energy, and you feel aligned with your work. You go to bed excited for the next day and pleased with your current one. You jump out of bed the next morning, ready for what arises. You live, breathe, and dream about how to make it to where you want to be.
I am now stuck in my apartment during this global pandemic in the most infected city in the nation, but I don't feel trapped at all because I am working on something that I'm genuinely passionate about. I remember I used to go to work every day in that beautiful modern building in Chelsea but would look out the window at the Manhattan skyline, and couldn't help wondering what's out there in this whole wild world beyond that office. Now, because I'm doing what I love, even though I was not able to step foot out of my apartment for over a month, I feel freer than ever.
You may wonder, before I took this leap, was I ever worried about not getting a single client? Was I ever scared about not making any income after giving up on what I had? I cannot even count how many times I woke up in the middle of the night, having a panic attack questioning myself about what I have done to my life. But the next day, I would just get up and keep going. Despite all my fear of uncertainty, I was able to figure things out mostly. Within the first month of officially opening up my consulting business, I signed dozens of clients and was able to even surpass my past corporate income. No matter how hard things may be down the road, I know I am now on the right "Sunshiney Path" for myself.
THE GOOD ENOUGH PATH
Then, there's a third path - this one is in the middle of the other two and is the most dangerous. It's called the "Good Enough Path." You go down it with a shrug, thinking things are fine, but you also feel a call on your heart to do better and do more.
You know you're on the "Good Enough Path" if you are not thrilled by what you are doing, but also don't really think about making it better. Some days you feel happy about the small achievements you made, but some days you just want to bang your head against the wall and get done with it. However, you often quickly come around, and overall, you are okay with accepting the status quo and tolerating the things you don't like in your life. You imagine there is more out there for you, but you think, "Eh, I'll get around to it one day."
I found myself on this path when I was joining Disney Corporate Strategy out of college. At that time, I thought I had finally found my dream job. I'm a huge Disney fan, and with this job, I would be able to work on the most important strategic initiatives for Disney as an in-house consultant. In fact, I ended up building the global financial model for Disney+, the video streaming service launched last year, and first handedly saw how Disney turned an idea into reality.
When I first joined, I thought that Disney was the happiest place on earth, but I didn't realize that even Disney is just another corporation that needs analysts to plug numbers into Excel and put texts onto PowerPoints. So for two years of my life, all I did was Excel and PowerPoint. I rebuilt the Disney+ global financial model over and over again, which was this crazy large file that would crash your computer every time you tried to open it because of the hundreds of tabs and scenarios it carried. I would live-model in a room full of extremely senior leaders for 8 hours straight, where extreme speed and precision was the bare minimum requirement. I would model until 3 am in the office, and roll back into the office at 7 am to present to the CFO. I got so good at figuring out complex formulas and functions that I even got named as the "Excel Gal" in my group. I thought that my life was mostly bearable - even though I was working like a slave, I knew I was learning and had lots of friends to vent to at work to keep me going. It was "Good Enough," but deep down inside, I always knew I wanted more.
So those are the three paths in life: The “Gloomy Cloudy Dark Path,” the “Sunshiney Path,” and the “Good Enough Path.” To assess each path, we have to trace our steps back to how we got on the path in the first place.
HOW DID YOU GET ON YOUR PATH?
The decision that led you to your path will either be the decision you celebrate or resent, depending on what it is.
I chose to go into the corporate world after college for several reasons. I had to admit, the biggest driver for me was the societal and peer pressure. Everyone seemed to be growing up and choosing big corporate jobs after college. Getting the job most well-sought-after seemed to be the easiest way of proving oneself. Ambitious and competitive like I was back then, I wanted to slap as many big-name labels onto myself as possible. McKinsey, Disney, and Alibaba were all git companies that made people's eyebrows go up. I got so focused on trying to get that golden trophy that I started to lose sight of my initial dreams. I felt like I was on this corporate treadmill - there was no way out, and the only way that I would be considered as a success is if I got an even better title at an even bigger company.
And that exactly was the reason I ended up resenting it - I wasn't choosing the job because it genuinely excited me. It wasn't an authentic choice for me, as Julia. I began to resent how I chose things like societal pressure and money and prestige over myself. Whenever you sacrifice your own inner compass for something else, you WILL resent it. It's not a matter of if, but when.
But, if you listen to your heart and choose your path based on your inner voice, that's a decision you will never regret. You chose yourself. You chose what was right for you.
During my senior year in college, my entrepreneurship professor gave a speech to our class, where he said that if you feel called to take one of these corporate jobs just because it sounds prestigious and pays well, you will change your mind down the road. So save yourself the grief and soul searching, and just do what feels exciting to you NOW. I tried to reason with him when I took my first corporate job, but just called him recently to tell him that he was right, and knowing that I am meant to be an entrepreneur, I have now left the corporate world for good.
So ask yourself: why did I choose THIS college? THIS job? THIS career path? Answer honestly, even if you don't like the answer.
You need to make a change if you're on the dark path - but, I'm sure you already know that.
What I want you to know is you also need to make a change if you're on the middle path. Because life in the "Good Enough" lane will leave a lot of wasted potential on the table. It will weigh on you one day.
IF YOU’RE NOT HAPPY, CHANGE YOUR PATH
MAP OUT YOUR IDEAL SELF
To determine how to change your path, I recommend you do what I did: I mapped out my ideal self: a fearless "Girl Boss" who runs her own business empire that not only fulfills her own passion but also does good for the world.
So what does your ideal self do? What is the day to day like? Where do you live? How do you serve the world? What value do you offer?
Then, back up your ideal self with what you're good at. I was clear on my talents and skill sets from my past corporate experience. You too know what you're good at, no matter where you are in your life. So start filling in that gray space!
TRACE BACK TO YOUR PAST
Maybe you can also find a clue about your ideal self from what you did naturally when you were younger.
Born in the US and raised in China, I was always the "weird" and "different" one. I was the one who demanded individual speaking rights in a Chinese high school where everyone was only heads-down studying, and no one dared to speak up for themselves. I founded the Organization of Public Speaking in Beijing High Schools, inspiring critical thinking, and promoting communication among thousands of Chinese high school students. Just based on that, you can probably already tell that I'm not the type of girl that follows traditional social norms, and I have the guts to stand up for myself and strive for what I believe in at a very young age.
In college, I got obsessed with social entrepreneurship, which is using business as a way to conduct sustainable social impact. I started a nonprofit called Tink Knit that financially empowers single mothers through knitting, enabling them to make an income at home while taking care of their kids, winning the McKinsey women's impact award. Based on what I did back then, I knew that creating social impact and positive influence is critical to my sense of fulfillment. At the time, aside from taking a full course load, I was spending 40 hours a week on running Tink Knit, trying to figure out everything from operations to marketing to business on my own from scratch. Eventually, I was leading a team of 50 college students and managing dozens of single mothers at once. Despite all the workload and stress, I remember waking up every day feeling fired up because I was working for myself, and I was striving towards a goal that I believed in.
Now looking back, I realized that perhaps, entrepreneurship was in my blood.
What I learned from my experience is, sometimes you just can't change who you are. I loved starting new things from scratch, creating visions that serve others, and building organizations that can last beyond my own footprint.
As you continue to put your mind map together of your ideal self, some light bulbs will start to go off. You will recognize different themes and trends about the path you REALLY want to be on.
Here's where I have to tell you: if your dream is to go into a corporate job and that authentically aligns with your dream self, GO DO IT! No one has the same definition of success. In my story, I learned very quickly that the corporate life was not for me because the real and authentic call on my heart was to run my own business. I was never going to find a job I liked enough to be on the "Sunshiney Path" until I just followed my own heart.
You have to do this soul searching for you. They don't teach this in school - in fact, they teach you to go into the assembly line of high paying, prestigious corporate jobs. They tell you that's what "having it all figured out" is. But it isn't. And you'll too have to figure it out for yourself after thinking you had it figured out because you don't have it figured out until it's figured out specifically for YOU, with your definition of success and happiness.
After you map out your ideal self, make sure you talk to people. Have you ever asked a question out loud, and hearing yourself automatically brought the answer to your head? I had over dozens of calls with my friends and family every time I wanted to make a major change in my life. I did my round of calls when I was first considering leaving Disney, and I did it again in less than a year when I decided to leave Alibaba. Every time I do so, I get the same answer loud and clear. You need to talk it out so you can hear the answers to your own questions about what you should do.
Then it's time to shift into action. Who can help you get there? List out all the different people who have done what you want to do - whether you know them or will have to cold email them - and see if you can chat with them to learn more. Research. Ask for help! Set a plan into motion that adjusts your path towards the sunshine one.
After I quit my job, and before I even started doing startup consulting, I spent an entire month networking, trying to get advice and figure out the best action plan. You have to be shameless here! First, I went back to Disney and Alibaba's offices to hit up every single person that I used to work with, including my old bosses, telling them what I’m up to. Next, I reached out to all the entrepreneurial people I knew. I also attended all the startup events I could find, LinkedIn stalked the people who I wanted to learn from, and tried to fit in as many coffee chats as humanly possible. I'm pretty sure I ended up having over 100 networking sessions that month while I was also traveling and moving into my new apartment. I felt like I gave myself a mini business-school crash course just through talking to all the entrepreneurs in different industries, and I ended up meeting so many awesome people that now became my mentors and friends for a lifetime. That hustle was well worth it, and I highly recommend that you do the same.
THE FUTURE IS FOR THE FEARLESS
It's a rite of passage to find out that the path you thought you needed to go down isn't at all the one that is right for you. Don't worry - it happens to everyone at some point in their life. Quitting was the hardest decision I've ever made but also the best. So honor yourself and don't push down the feelings of dread or dissatisfaction just because you think you need to be in the path you're on. There is so much more waiting for you.
Just as the saying goes, "Dreams don't work unless you do." Changes and uncertainties are often daunting, but only by taking that first baby step can you get one step closer to your dream. Don't forget who you are, and don't let go of your dreams. The future is for the fearless.