Career Spotlight: Luke Niu, MBA Candidate, Product Manager, D1 Athlete & TEDx Speaker
Defining your values, instilling habits for universal performance, and practicing resilience.
Every month, I feature a high performer ‘Career Spotlight’ and interview them on their journey, mindset, and habits.
Last month, I interviewed Susan Shu Chang, Principal Data Scientist at Clearco — to discuss writing, creating, and the importance of experimentation.
This month’s spotlight will be with Luke Niu, MBA Candidate at INSEAD, and previously a Product Manager at Lalamove, and Global Operations at Flexport.
Luke and I go way back. We both attended high school in Shanghai (early 2010s), where we competed in varsity volleyball, basketball, and track and field together. Since then, I went to Canada for school and work, and Luke to Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore, to do a bunch of cool things that he’ll talk about.
I’ve always had a ton of respect for Luke. In high school, it was his approach toward athletics: his dedication, rigor, and discipline toward routine, training, and habit-building.
Post-graduation, he continues to demonstrate this rigor in athletics — competing in D1 track — and going outside his (or really, anyone’s) comfort zone by giving a TED talk on his passions, fundraising by biking hundreds of miles, and giving back to the community.
It’s interesting to observe how our mid-teen passions and interests manifest as we progress through different stages of life. And in this case, what started off as disciplined habits and a healthy mindset on resilience has turned into growth in all aspects of life and career.
I’m grateful and excited to share his process, workflow, and mindset with you all. Often you’ll only just see the exterior of Type A folks — and it all looks so easy.
In reality, there’s a lot of intentional though and iterative work put into the process.
Here we go —
What do you currently do today? What’s your career path and can you walk us through the pivots you’ve made?
I was a Product Manager at Lalamove and recently embarked on a journey to do an MBA at INSEAD.
My career got off to an interesting start:
As a foreign graduate in the U.S, I ended up networking and applying to 300+ jobs over the span of 5 months before I found my first job.
I felt like a total societal outcast in the process.
A huge shoutout to all my friends who let me crash on their couches during the process. I’m grateful for you.
Looking back, I learned a lot about grit. And I’m incredibly thankful for that. I may not have realized it in the moment, but with every moment of adversity comes a valuable lesson.
What’s your background?
I was born in Beijing when China had just opened up to the world.
I lived in a hutong (胡同) with my grandparents. We had a communal shower that was basically outdoors (think: -10 celsius showers) and a communal toilet that was basically a giant hole.
None of it mattered because I felt so loved by everyone in my family.
My family and I immigrated to Australia when I was 8.
Immigration is HARD. I can’t say enough about how much I admire all the parents who left comfortable homes to face difficulties (and often humiliation) abroad — just so that their children can have a better future.
Folks with immigrant parents / grandparents: now’s the time to call them to show your appreciation.
Following that, I lived in Shanghai, Los Angeles, Edinburgh, New York City, Hong Kong — and now Singapore.
What is your life and career philosophy?
I keep a very long log of values that I review weekly.
When I stumble upon something inspiring, I write it down.
It looks like this:
After almost a decade of reflection, I’ve distilled my core values into three themes: Stand Strong, Practice Kindness, Seek Fulfillment.
Doing greater things starts with building strong mental, spiritual and physical foundations for yourself first.
It’s not enough to be just strong. Strength needs to be used for kindness, to help others.
Life would still be meaningless without fulfillment, or doing what you love. Life is too short to be stuck doing something boring.
I’ve never felt like I could achieve all three core values at the same time, but they’re my north stars.
Where do you get your values from?
I derive a lot of my life values from stoic philosophy, as well as books from John Wooden, Dale Carnegie, Viktor Frankl and Marcus Aurelius. These are must reads for anyone.
Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections Court — John Wooden
How to Win Friends and Influence People — Dale Carnegie
Man’s Search For Meaning — Viktor Frankl
Meditations — Marcus Aurelius
Can you talk about your non-work related accomplishments (hobbies, side ventures) that you’re proud of?
I love all aspects of wellness, from intense workouts to meditation.
I was never the fastest in track and field, but I had the fortune to join the USC D1 track team with a few Olympians.
I attribute it to my ability to always run until my body caves.
One time after practice, I went to a bathroom to throw up, but instead I fainted on the floor. After I woke up, I ran down to the gym for weight training (not recommended).
I’m also passionate about philanthropy, especially crowdfunding.
I genuinely believe that if you have a cause that you care about, you can raise enough money from your social circles to make an impact through social media.
I once had the opportunity to raise money for Tibetan schools and bike through the Himalayas to visit them. It was a wild experience, but I learned that fundraising wasn’t rocket science. With a good network of friends and a strong will, anyone can raise money for causes they believe in.
You’ve got a lot of accomplishments in different domains. Can you speak to common themes or motivations that connect these disciplines?
One common theme is my willingness to throw myself in situations where I am deeply incompetent or unexperienced compared to peers.
It’s similar to Amy Cuddy’s principles of faking it until you make it.
When I lived in Australia, I was the worst English speaker.
In track, I started slower than my peers.
As a non-technical Product Manager, I made initial rookie mistakes.
Being in those situations feels terrible and embarrassing, but it also forces me to better myself at an uncomfortably fast pace.
What habits, behaviors, and mindsets do you attribute your success thus far to?
The most important lesson that I’ve learned about success is John Wooden’s philosophy that success does not mean winning.
Success means putting everything you have got in the process and believing that your best effort is enough, regardless of outcome.
It’s important to set an insane standard for what your “best” looks like. Most people give up when they’ve hit 60% of their best efforts.
If I’ve prepared for a job interview or exam to a point where I feel like throwing up if I take another look at my prep materials, then I know I’m ready and stop worrying about the outcome.
What tools do you use for self-development and growth?
I use Google Sheets to track the micro-details of everything I deem important in life.
Without obsessive goal setting and tracking, you won’t know how well you are doing. I have trackers for: life tasks, personal finance, workouts, job applications.
For example, this is my “life tracker”.
Step 1: I start out by mapping out my 2021 OKRs (Objectives + Key Results)
One of my objectives is to “Build the foundations to start my own business by 2022” and I wrote down key results that would get me there.
Step 2: Further break down my Key Results by writing actionable tasks.
After writing down the tasks, I would plan my days out on iCal to execute them.
Step 3: I evaluate my performance for the tasks every week.
I’d leave different colored emojis to evaluate myself on how I am doing. The goal is to get as many greens as possible, but the task is more about framing my mind on what is important for the week AND knowing when I am falling behind.
Is this slightly crazy and tedious? Maybe. But I believe success is often the result of getting finer details right.
If you are interested in getting templates for trackers — respond to this email and I’ll share them.
How do you think about resilience?
To me, the opposite of suffering is not enjoyment, it is resilience.
Suffering is allowing external challenges to do harm upon you, building resilience is making the choice to overcome your weaker self to face the challenges head on.
Resilience is built with all the little habits.
For example, when I wake up in the morning, I tend to feel weaker. I call this version of myself “Weak Luke”.
My first goal in the morning is always to kill “Weak Luke” with a tough workout, cold shower or good meditation session so I can move on with my life.
What advice would you give early career folks and students?
Your personal values will be your greatest asset in the happiest and toughest times of your life.
If you know what your values are, no matter what challenges you face, you can still trust yourself and go in the right direction.
Compile a strong set of your values and review them at least twice a week. Start by writing down whatever you find inspiring from any source - articles, books, movies or mentors. Write them down on a notebook or any note-taking app. Doesn’t matter, but do it NOW.
Having a strong set of values gives you both the confidence, and strength to say no to temptations that look great and easy on the surface.
I attribute my best decisions to my value tracking system. When I realized that I didn’t see a future with the first job I found in New York, I debated whether I should leave the role and risk getting deported with my expiring visa, I found a quote I wrote for myself on standing strong:
Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.
I quit the next day. It was one of the best decisions of my life.
Appreciation & Support
Luke — thank you for putting the time and effort into this collaboration. I know you’re incredibly busy with school so I appreciate your partnership here.
For those wanting to connect: