An Exclusive Ideagen Live ‘Inside the Boardroom’ Presentation with Desney Tan

Ideagen’s Inside the Boardroom highlights the world’s leading speakers from Fortune 500 Companies, the Public Sector, and NGOs share their journey of success, life lessons, career advice, and answer your questions about how to become a successful leader. 

Desney Tan: Students and young professionals often ask: “What do I have to do to be successful?” “What do I have to do to have a good life?” It’s an amazingly important question. It’s a profound question and one that is presumably top of mind for you guys, hence your presence here. Thank you for being here. Unfortunately, my answer is often, “I don’t know”. I don’t have any answers. We don’t have any answers. No one has any answers. But, I think what we have today is even more valuable than *the* answer. What we’re going to do is share a bunch of stories, not because the stories are particularly interesting, but because the lessons we’ve learned through the course of our lives and our careers may come in handy to you guys as you embark upon your journeys. We’ve got very different stories, but you’ll see some fairly common threads in here.

Before I start I have to say two things. First of all, it’s always tempting to look at someone else’s life and say “how do I get that job?” or “how do I have that life?” My simple answer is “you can’t.” These are our jobs, these are our lives - you can’t have them. The truth of the matter is you should not want them. This is not about having our lives or our jobs. This is about creating *your* lives and *your* jobs.

The second thing I’ll say, as you look at most of our lives, is that it’s very tempting to imagine the journey as a straight line. You plot your goal, and you spend your life going after it. Life is actually a set of winding detours and off-road adventures. And, as buttoned up as many people may seem to have it, look more closely and you’ll find that we’re all winging it as we go. We’re flying by the seats of our pants, and, if you do it right, you probably will be, too.

So, with those two things... The quick background on my life. I grew up in Singapore, the elder of two kids. Dad was an architect, mom was a homemaker. We never had a lot of stuff, but they worked awfully hard to make sure we were never wanting.

I was a pretty precocious kid. Mom and dad spoke English at home and decided I had to learn Chinese. And so they stuck me in Chinese school where everything was taught in Chinese. This was fine, I did plenty well, but it wasn’t really my idea of fun. And so very early in life I became a fairly truant kid. I would sneak out of classes. I would not attend school. And so my parents, getting worried, did what any parent would do, they handed me a tennis racket and stuck me on a tennis court.

In retrospect, this was brilliant. The tennis court is the largest most legal cage you can put a kid in. And so I spent half my life growing up on the tennis court and eventually got quite good at it. By the time I was a tween I was traveling Asia, traveling the region, playing semi-pro tennis beating up on 17 and 18-year-olds. Looking back, this was a pretty key moment in my life because it is the first thing I can remember doing in which I achieved mastery. Mastery turns out to be an amazing concept and an amazing thing to strive for. As Abe Lincoln put it, “Whatever you do, whoever you are, be a good one.” As much as I hate to disagree with Abe, I often augment that with being “the best.” And don’t stop striving until you are the best, and then keep going some more.

Now, there’s a bazillion things you could choose to be a master at. I’ve had a fairly simple formula for myself. Purpose - find value either for yourself or the world around you, dream the dream (nothing is impossible). Muhammad Ali put it really nicely. He said, “Impossible is not a fact, it’s merely an opinion.” Don’t let others ideas of impossible get in the way of your dreams. You’ve got to be courageous, and foolish enough, to go after those and make them reality.”

So, moving along. The not going to school thing ended up catching up with me. By the time I was 13, my parents decided this wasn’t going so well, and they decided to send me to the U.S. to continue my education. I had an aunt and an uncle in Louisiana, and so this is where I ended up.

Stay tuned for Part II of the Exclusive Ideagen Live “Inside the Boardroom” Presentation by Desney Tan...

For more information on Ideagen and Desney Tan, visit:

Twitter: @desneytan

10/28/2016 12:31 pm ET