Spotlight Series: Steven Ngo

Everyone who comes across Steven Ngo immediately notices his energy. Then they become impressed by his accomplishments. From building communities, to simply bringing joy to others through his music, his ideas and execution bring people together. In this article we probed a little bit more into what makes Steven who he is.

We know you have a packed schedule, and are convinced that you are great at prioritizing things. But there must be things that you just have to let go. How do you choose between what to let go and what not to let go?

I like to think of life as seasons, similar to a sports season. There is the regular season when you are playing consistently and things are generally steady. Then, there is the playoff season when you really need to put the pedal to the metal and work hard – because it is the playoffs. Then, there is the off-season, which is a period of relaxation and recuperation. Recognizing which season you are in is important.

In terms of priorities, it comes down to what your three key priorities are. To me, my three key priorities are my career, my relationships and my personal health. You constantly need to manage the limited energy that you have and ask how does the particular request or commitment fit into these three priorities?

Can you elaborate a bit more on this?

When you ask yourself “what makes you happy”, most would say that it is either money, friends, health, or family. But it isn’t just any one of those. I believe that there are three pillars to happiness.

The first pillar is the career and finances - you need a strong career and the financial stability in order to be happy. The second one is family and relationships, and the third one is health. If your life is lacking in any one of these three areas, you won’t be happy.

For instance, you can have all the money in the world, be in the best shape of your life, but if your relationships are lacking, you are going to be a miserable person. If you have strong friendships and great health, but your career and finances are lacking, you will not be happy either. You need all three pillars.

I like how you focused on “knowing what makes you happy”, but given the activities that you take on, you must receive a lot of push back in certain situations. How do you stay motivated, and focus through that?

My motivation comes from my parents. My mom was an immigrant and my dad was a refugee to Canada. They struggled hard during my childhood.

I remember when I was a kid, my friends had the latest Game Boy and I really wanted one too.  When I asked my mom to buy me one, she said: “We have no money.” I was so frustrated and remember promising to myself that when I make money in future, I will buy all the games that I want. Mind you, I do have a collection of games now, but I really don’t care for them anymore. Seeing how hard my parents hustled during my childhood inspires me daily to work hard and cherish what I am so fortunate to have.

In terms of stay focused, while it is important to keep your long-term goal in mind, it is the process that is most important.  It is the small steps over time, which can lead to instrumental success.

What would be a lesson that you would like to share with us which you hold dear to you heart?

The Slight Edge philosophy underlies many of my daily actions. It is the reason FACL Western and my other non-profit, HUM, was founded in the first place and how I was able to do relatively well in law school and get to where I am (see The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson).

When people generally think of success, they imagine grandiose events like winning an Olympic medal or launching a multi-million dollar start-up.  However, success is the small, little things over time that accumulate into that grandiose moment.

The Slight Edge is about the little things that are easy to do and also easy not to do. For example, if you do not brush your teeth for a day, it might not be a major issue. But try not brushing your teeth for a week, a month or a year even. You are not only going to have terrible breath, but will have some serious issues with your dental health.

The small things in life work the same way. You do a little extra work here and there, spend an extra hour in the library studying or do an extra rep at the gym. These little things add up over time and compound into extraordinary success or extraordinary failure.

Where do you learn lessons like this?

I’m an avid reader. There are over 7 billion people in the world, and there is at least one person who has gone through what you are going through. At every cross-roads in my life, I try to read books on that subject matter.  This was influenced by my uncle who forced me to listen to audio books for 6-7 hours at a time on our road trips together.

How do you squeeze time to read books given your busy schedule?

It really comes down to energy. When you have the energy, you will have the enthusiasm to do things and you will do things faster. In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with distractions whether it is social media, emails or your news feed. These distractions draw away from your energy. The key is to manage that energy and nurture it.

We are well aware of your community building activities, but we also know that you constantly participate in activities that improve yourself. Given your busy schedule, why?

Imagine yourself as a glass of water. There are many external influences that may tint that glass of water.  If you do not consciously monitor what goes into that glass of water, the water can become muddy very fast. To avoid this, I try to flush that glass with positive news, books and surrounding myself with good people. This is how you stay insulated from the world around you. By improving yourself, you can then improve and support others in the community.

How do you start up an organization?

There is a difference between an idea and executing an idea. An idea that has not been executed is simply a dream.  I often hear from people that “I had that idea too” or “that was exactly that I was going to do”.  

The difference between dreamers and leaders is that leaders execute on their ideas.  When you start executing, you will receive push-back from peers around you and even your family. You need to expect this going in.

Whenever I start a new venture, I tell my teams that there are three types of people you will encounter. First, there are the "champions" who will instantly love your idea. Secondly, there are "fence sitters" who are simply unsure and are waiting for more people to jump on board. Lastly, there are the “haters” – they will hate your idea no matter what you tell them.

The key to starting up an organization is to find the champions, and ignore everyone else. Once your idea gains sufficient momentum, the fence-sitters will join your cause and it will become unstoppable. I recently started a new non-profit organization with a friend called The Living Room Series and the exact scenario played out.

How do you manage time then?

Time management is outdated. I think the key in today’s world is attention management. While the smartphone has revolutionized the way that we work and interact, we are constantly bombarded with notifications from the same device.

Being able to block out things that detract you from your day and focusing on the task at hand will help you do well in the future.

Now that we know a bit more about you, could you tell us what your typical day looks like?

There is really no typical day. Things can change drastically, but I believe in principles and routines.

I follow what I called the “book-end” principle. I make sure that the start and the end of my day is 100% structured.  As long as I follow this set routine, the day will generally go by quite smoothly.

Once I get up the morning, I do not check my email, social media or notifications. This can be the worst thing you can do when you get up. Instead, I turn on a meditation app called Headspace and meditate for 10 minutes. After the meditation, I do 10 push-ups to get the blood-flowing and listen to something inspirational like Darren Hardy’s Daily Mentoring program while I get ready. After washing up, I check my emails to see if there is anything urgent and make my way to work. During my walk to work, I would listen to a podcast or an audiobook. Once I get into the office, I simply let the day happen.

This one’s for the curious folks: how much sleep do you get?

About 5-6 hours on average.