Field Notes:
Young Guns in Hong Kong

Date: 02 Oct 2020
Location: Hong Kong
By: Felix Ng (Anonymous)
Ever since we started Anonymous, there has always been one question on my mind, “How do you make a living doing the work you love?” After a few years of working, life can feel like a hamster wheel — especially if you work for yourself and never seem to have time to pursue other projects. Here is how we buy time back.

In 2014, I was invited to speak at an Art Directors Club (ADC) New York event at Apple Store Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. This was part of a series of global events organised by ADC in partnership with Apple, for recipients of the ADC Young Guns Award to share their work and learnings.

The ADC Young Guns Award is a prize given to art directors and designers around the world aged 30 and under, and I was one of the recipients awarded in 2011. There were two speakers for the event: Chris Cheung Hon Him and myself. Chris is a Hong Kong-based technologist and new media artist, who had just won the award in 2013.

During the event on 14 March 2014, Chris shared about the work he does at XCEPT, a collective he co-founded that produces digital installations and audio-visual performances.

Note to self: It is never a good idea to speak after a technologist, especially one who can mesmerise the audience with videos of virtual reality and animated installations. So unless you have an equally compelling keynote, speak first.

Presenting in a show and tell format has always seemed a little old school, especially when the audience would have already seen our work online or googled us beforehand. So, I always try to come up with talks that share things which can’t be found online and might be useful for the audience. And because I couldn’t speak Cantonese, my talk had to convey an idea a non-English speaking audience could understand easily.

90-10 : 50/50

These numbers are the simplest way to explain how we work.

With any brief, our approach is to apply 90% of the effort into the research and thinking, and 10% into the execution. 50-50 is how we structure our time equally on working for brands and working for society with purpose-driven studio projects.

During the Q&A, a member of the audience asked: “Why do you not spend 100% of the time working on commercial projects instead?” I took a minute to find the simplest way to answer this question and said in the limited Mandarin I knew “钱是赚不完的”, or translated as “You can never earn all the money in the world.

Use money to buy time back

We have just one life, and spend almost half of it working (maybe ¾ for those running your own businesses). Our entire adult life is spent trying to make a living and contribute meaningfully to our friends, families, and the world. We crave to be part of a community, to be accepted, needed and to feel useful.

There is work that we do for others, to help them achieve the goals they have. But there are also things in the world that we want to contribute to, that may not have financial returns.

These can come in the form of the art we make during our free time, or volunteering for our community, offering time to help a friend, neighbour or a good cause. These are things we do, not because we gain financially from it, but because it is our way of contributing to the world around us.

Some of you probably think “How do I find the time? My days are filled with work to make a living and what I make is barely enough to keep the lights on.”, or “I just need to make enough money now and one day, I can do the things I love.”

This is something I wish was taught in school: financial literacy. It took me a very long time to understand what money is. Growing up in a competitive environment like Singapore, you get the sense that money is scarce and that you needed to work and compete with others for it. Now, after running a business for over a decade, my perspective has changed.

Money carries different meanings for everyone. To some, it is a way of keeping a lifestyle. To others, it is a pursuit of a number and a goal in itself. My perspective is that money is a stored value of time. And time is the fuel of life. You trade your time in exchange for money, to spend on things you want and need. But if you could want and need less, money provides you with something more. It gives you the freedom to choose. You gain the ability to decide whether to do or not do something. You have the freedom to choose if you should take on a project or a new job and how you make life decisions.

What I have come to realise is that money is a way to buy time back. It allows us to use time in ways that we want, on things that are more important or may not have financial returns.

And here is how we do it:

  1. Work on projects where you can provide the highest amount of value to the greatest number of people.
  2. Invest part of that money into income-generating assets.
  3. Use the remaining funds to buy time as you work on projects that are important to you, learn new skills, and travel to connect with people you can learn from.
  4. Your new skills and knowledge plus the people you meet increase your value.
  5. If you maintain a simple lifestyle, and with the returns from your income-generating assets, you have a buffer of funds which buys you time to choose how to spend your time. And because you invested time into learning new skills, and connecting with people, your value increases and opens up new opportunities.
  6. Repeat.

This is in no way the only path or even a roadmap that would work for everyone. It is only a guide of what worked for us, and how we work on projects where we can deliver the highest possible value for, and contribute meaningfully to the world around us.