In the latest edition of Schoolin’ Life, we chat with tech maven, yoga student, and side hustler Melissa Wong.
Photo credit: Ren Yagolnitzer
Quick bio: who are you, what are you into, what do you spend your time doing?
I am a curious, inquisitive person. Whether it be a speaker series, workshop, or gathering with friends, I like to stay busy learning! Fortunately, living and working in Brooklyn lets me do just that.
I work for Kickstarter, just completed a 200 hour yoga teacher training, and am hungrily learning more about the art of facilitation. These days I wake up, eat, breathe and subway thinking about my passion project, Up Speak: an organization which facilitates intimate career support groups for women navigating similar professional terrain.
As someone still learning about what kind of work I find most meaningful, I created Up Speak to provide a collaborative space for kindred spirits to help hold each other inspired and accountable to their goals.
When you were in your 20s:
What expectations did you have for yourself in the decade?
I’m in my late 20s so I’m not in the clear yet!
I recently went to a Lady Boss event and was comforted by one of the speaker’s stories. She said she’s been working for 30 years: the first ten years she was just figuring out what she wanted to do; the second ten she spent getting good at it; and it has only been in the last ten years that she’s finally getting real traction. I hope that by the time I exit my 20s I will have passed that first milestone of refining what it is that I am not only good at but feel great doing.
What was your first job like?
My first real job was hostessing at my dad’s seafood restaurant in San Diego which was just up the street from my high school.
Working at The Fish Merchant, I got my first taste of what it’s like trying to please people and the idea that “the customer is always right”. It was a formative job in that it spurred me to work part-time throughout college, building a resume in hospitality. It also allowed me to save enough money for backpacking travels during my summers. I have dedicated a large part of my 20s to traveling and eating!
What was your first apartment like?
My first time renting an apartment on my own was in a different country where I had to trust other people to translate what was going on. I was teaching English in a small city in Spain and was only going to be there for 9 months. It was admittedly a quirky, pretty hideous apartment but I still sought refuge there from a city that made me feel like an outsider.
That said, I just had dinner with the girl I lived with during that strange, transitional time and feel fortunate that I made a lasting friendship in the unlikeliest of places.
Did you experience any big life changes?
Yes! Let me try to count them… I’ve lived in many different cities in different countries. I’ve only had one 1 year lease, instead opting for sublets that don’t require rental agreements. I’ve had several serious relationships. My parents got divorced. I’ve had over 10 different jobs.
I realized along the way that it is harder for some people to brave moving outside their comfort zones and harder for others to stay put where they are.
I happened to fall into the latter group but felt a shift a few years ago from simply wanting to drink in the world, to wanting to have experiences that had more long term impact. Now I’d much rather travel to a new place and be involved in a project there, then just be an observer floating through. I’m happy to take on the challenge of finding newness in the everyday.
In what ways did your friendships change?
When you move around a lot, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold close everyone you care about. The tradeoff to having the freedom to move and experience new places is that it will never be possible to have all the people you love in one place. That has been a reality I’ve had to accept over the past decade.
Fortunately for me, my best friend and I have lived parallel lives. We haven’t gone very long without being in the same city and able to see each other on an everyday basis. She has been a grounding force for me through all of life’s changes, a constant that I feel incredibly grateful to have had during periods of growth and self-discovery.
What did you learn through your romantic relationships?
I think a lot of people today put so much pressure on their partner to be their everything — their best friend, their fiery lover, their roomie, their travel companion, and on and on. These shoes are too big for any one person to fill!
I’m still trying to be able to distinguish between these high expectations society has created for us and what my real hopes and needs are in a partnership. It’s a constant education. When it comes to what it means to grow with and alongside someone else, to understand how we as individuals and us as a couple can symbiotically flourish, I’m still very much a student.
How did your relationships with your family change?
I feel lucky that I’ve had strong family connections that have supported and anchored me throughout all of the fluxes in my 20s. After my parents divorced, my younger sister and I found a silver lining in really cultivating individual relationships with both our mom and dad. Now that we are all adults, we’ve had to navigate what it means to have these relationship ”2.0s”. It’s a process but we’re getting better and better at it!
How do you feel you changed emotionally?
I like to think I’ve become both more self-aware and also self-assured. I’ve gotten clearer on what makes me feel like my authentic self and accepting of who I am. I have also had more practice at being attuned to what someone else is feeling or needs. Turns out, empathy grows with experience.
In high school, I remember feeling irritated once when my mom read a tragic headline in the newspaper and started to cry about it. I didn’t understand how just reading something about people she didn’t even know could elicit such an emotional response.
How did you change intellectually?
If college is there to help you “learn to think”, my 20s was about getting more “street smart”. Moving away from academia toward the workforce I wanted to do more and conjecture less.
I’ve learned the importance of presentation, confidence, and connections throughout my professional career. These are invaluable skills that they just don’t teach you in college.
More recently, I’ve shifted my thinking about the malleability of thought patterns themselves. I always thought that one’s propensity toward certain thoughts was largely inflexible. I’m coming around to the idea that your mind is like a muscle — you can actually train it to form different pathways, to choose alternate ways to view your reality. It’s an incredibly empowering feeling to know that we have more control over our thoughts than we think.
Welp, now I get it. After doing, seeing, and feeling more things, it’s easier for me to put myself in someone else’s shoes and really physically process what they must be going through. Just the other day I was fighting back tears after reading a news headline…
In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
After being a student for so long, it was difficult to emerge into the working world and find my footing. Without grades to validate my worth, I felt a palpable dip in self-confidence. I didn’t know how to market myself because I didn’t know what I had to offer aside from being a critical thinker who could write essays and talk about ideas. I was one of many educated young people trying to find the uniquely shaped hole in which I could curl into perfectly. The “How to Conquer Your Quarter-life Crisis” book that my mom gave me upon college graduation, unfortunately, didn’t help.
It was challenging to enter a workforce that seemed to only want to employ people who design or engineer products. I’ve had to work hard to identify and embrace the interpersonal, intangible skills that I possess and to find the best home for them. The good news is, I truly feel like I am just inches away from getting there. *Cough* Did I mention my project Up Speak?
Who was your biggest influence and why?
The person I consistently seek input and feedback from is my amazing best friend Elisa. We’ve been through so many stages of life together (ever since the 3rd grade!) that we know each other in a deep-rooted, historic way. Aside from sharing many values and interests, a strong element to our relationship is that we make decisions in different ways. If I am the “Why?”, she is the “How”. She is someone I look to when I need clarity about which way to move, as she’s a genius at breaking an issue down to its most important elements. She’s a crazy smart, modest, go-getter and someone who I plan on rocking my chair next to in retirement!
Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?
One of the most challenging things I’ve had to do is admit to myself that the life I was living didn’t feel like my own. I quit or changed my job and moved away from friends not once but twice in order to maintain romantic relationships. Separating myself from people I loved but who ultimately were not going to be my “forever guys” was incredibly difficult, but it was necessary to find a path that felt like my own.
Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
When I look back at my former selves, I feel empathy for them. I think this is the biggest reason why I don’t have regrets. If I’ve ever done something that didn’t have a net positive result, I can flip back to that time in my mind and still understand why I chose to do what I did.
Plus, I’m happy where I am now and I think there’s truth to acknowledging that all the little moments, even the false steps, contribute to where you currently stand.
Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?
I remember a night when Elisa and I had a most depressing dinner that ended in laughter. That night, we picked some greens from the house’s garden and took some eggs from the chicken in the front yard to frugally make dinner. I was crashing her house sitting gig in Berkeley after having returned from a year in Spain. I was jobless and she was working part-time. We were both single and feeling unlucky in love. We got quiet at one point, chewing in silence, and then lamented that we were feeling so pathetic and lost. Since the only other option was to cry, we just laughed really hard about it.
Yeah, that’s how I think I’ll remember my 20s — constantly trying to figure things out but having a lot of fun doing it!