When Michael Chai was a kid, he loved movies. So much so that he once waited an hour to get tickets at the old Cathay cinema in Kuala Lumpur. Movies were a big part of his life. He never imagined that when he grew up, it would remain that way.
But one day in Phnom Penh, on his way to the airport heading home, he noticed a perfect place to house a cinema: the roof of a city mall. Cambodia then had no real cinema. He decided to start the country’s first modern cinema. Despite a lot of naysayers insisting it would not work, and no experience in the movie business, he did it. Successfully.
Today, several years on, Michael runs Westec Media, the largest distributor of movies in Cambodia, which deals with big movie names that include Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and leading Asian studios, as well as helps produce local Cambodian movies. The company reaches over a million people a day through its social channels, and is expanding into other areas, such as an online movie portal and business management software.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, with challenging upheavals in the industry in the last few years, but when you’re fired up with passion, doing what you love, it’s easier to ride the rough times.
Equally poetic is the story of my friend Dr Bob Craddock, from the US Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. As a child, he was fascinated by the Apollo space flights, the moon and Mars. Who would think that would figure in his life later? He became a geologist who studies surfaces on earth most resembling the planet Mars, such as the Ka’u Desert in Hawaii or the Simpson Desert in Australia. By investigating the geological processes that created these surfaces, he gains insights into Mars.
Recently, when a young family member asked me about careers, I said: “Do what you love if you can, because that’s what you’ll do best.” I left engineering to do journalism.
But passion doesn’t often figure in career advice. More commonly, you hear something like this: “Study hard, get good grades, go to college and get a degree.” Then you’ll be set. So we think.
But the real world is not so clear-cut. Recently, deputy education minister Senator Chong Sin Woon said that Malaysian graduates are finding “a university degree is not a ticket to get job”. In fact, some graduates were applying for jobs just using SPM qualifications, because a degree made them “overqualified”. He blamed an increasingly competitive job market, alongside a slowing economy.
A degree is simply not a reliable passport to a good career, or even a job, any more. And that’s true in many countries now. A survey by Graduate Careers Australia found that a third of graduates had not found a job four months after graduating. India and China are also struggling with armies of jobless graduates. An Indian Labour Ministry report in 2013 found one in three Indian graduates unemployed, the Indian Express newspaper reported.
With the burden of tuition expenses and no guarantees of a future job, some young Americans are rethinking whether they actually want a college degree – so much so that enrolment fell last year in the United States, according to a Newsweek report last year. American graduates are increasingly being forced into relatively low-paid jobs, such as bartending and table waiting.
So doesn’t it make sense to do what you enjoy if you find a window of opportunity for it? Sometimes, though, that window opens wide later. Or sometimes, life happens. Through some life experience, you discover your true passion.
That was true for mothers Sharmini Hensen and Shadaitul Mohd Zin (better known as Intan), who, bouncing off personal experiences, became trainers after years in other fields.
Sharmini is now a leading “life coach” in the country, helping people develop personal and leadership skills. The experience of her divorce helped her discover her own personal power and provided the passion for her empowerment and entrepreneurial programme, which helps poor women become financially and emotionally independent.
Intan started a business, Just Speak, to train people to speak English, no doubt helped by her own graceful presentation style. She has trained some 8,000 people across the nation.
When you love what you do, and shine in your own strengths, success follows. And in the process you may rediscover that childlike joy for life that often disappears with the daily grudge of work.
“The best part,” Michael tells me, “is that the [movie] experience is getting better every year with laser projects, Dolby Atmos sound and motion seats.”
That little kid who loved movies? He’s still there in Michael.
Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.