What Being a Semi-finalist of Forbes Next 1000 Has Taught Me: Something Way Larger than the List Itself
In April this year, I received an email from Forbes that made me jump off my chair right away and ran to my husband’s desk to burst the news. It said, “Congratulations! You’ve been identified as a potential candidate for the Forbes Next 1000 list, coming out in June. Now, it’s time to get to know you and your business a little better,” and continued with a request to fill in a questionnaire and to share a profile photo. The last line echoed the honor, “Thanks and congratulations again!”
This email and the action it required immediately became my top priority. I felt so happy as it seemed all of my hard work, particularly in a hard year with Covid-19, was more broadly recognized. I answered the questions passionately, dug for the most recent profile photo, and sent it over to Forbes. Three weeks later, I was advised that the image I shared would work fine. And the rest was me continuing to work on different projects and hoping to see myself on the list.
I received no updates or notification. That was when I knew I didn’t get to the final. I didn’t expect even to be a semi-finalist, let alone getting to the list, so this was indeed already gratifying and beyond my imagination, I thought. Yet I didn’t share it. Yet the little voice in me mumbled “if only”. Yet another voice told me it was just that the list was not something I belonged to. I wondered why and I searched for the answer. It turned out to be a quest that was meant for me, at this stage of my now-no-longer-new adventure.
I revisited the introduction about the list. It said, “The Next 1000 celebrates a group of intrepid entrepreneurs and creatives who have been able to pivot, grow, or launch their businesses during the pandemic.” So growing the business during the pandemic sounded true to me. Yet something was missing.
Then it was “This first-of-its-kind initiative will spotlight bold and inspiring entrepreneurs on their way to great success.” So I was repeatedly told by my friends, family and clients, and way before I entered this territory, by the leaders I worked with, that I was bold, fearless, courageous, and truly inspiring. Yet something was missing, and those last two words of “great success” didn’t find their way into my mind. It kept being challenged and pushed back by a story, one that was forgotten at some point, one that had its pieces reassembled and woven from a long journey of self-discovery and becoming, one that finally made sense.
And the story emerged again.
There was this little girl born in Hanoi. As a child, she had every reason to be unhappy. She grew up in a broken family. When she was three, her dad left for Germany as an “exported laborer” when Vietnam just opened up with “doi moi. Her paternal grandpa tore and burnt the letter she wrote to her dad, who lived on the other side of the earth, instead of sending it on her behalf; she wasn’t allowed to have his address. Her paternal uncle shoved her mom, sister and her out of his yard and told them to live in the train station. They beat and cursed her mom who worked a few jobs at that time to make ends meet. She was sheltered in a small house, its roof made out of dried palm tree leaves so wobbly that rain could easily leak through. Her neighborhood was rampant with drug use, curses, arguments, and fighting. The village school she went to had bullies everywhere. Her day wasn’t a typical day of a kid her age. When they played, she was busying carrying bottles of beers with her two little hands under the burning sun, fetching baskets of eggs on the old bike back to her grandmother’s little convenient store under the heavy rain, or helping her do accounting in a worn notebook full of names, items and numbers. In a bigger context, her country, Vietnam, was a poor one.
Sometimes, she buried herself in her own room, sobbing and yearning for love, for happiness, for being caressed in her dad’s arms and told that she was good enough, that he loved their family and that he would protect her as he promised. This, however, was just a dream: her dad didn’t return. So she made herself a promise that she would be in charge of her happiness. She also wanted to make her grandmother and mother, the women who raised her, proud. And snaking under those desires, she wished to prove her dad wrong, wrong to leave her and wrong to think she was just a girl.
As her life unfolded, she happened to manage happiness in big organizations throughout most of her years in corporate. It turned out she was not only a positive, optimistic and energetic person, per the feedback of the world around her, but also the Chief Happiness Officer of that world, building happiness at home and at work.
However, life gave her another challenge. At 32, she thought she had everything and she should have been the happiest. As the Head of Employee Happiness at an e-commerce company in South East Asia, her job was all about wellbeing. She had a beautiful apartment and a dedicated domestic helper that only Singapore could offer. Most importantly, she had two adorable kids and a loving husband. But when she went back to work after having her second child, she spread happiness at work, but she wasn’t happy herself. She created nursing rooms for mothers but her own use was questioned. She set up programs to advance women but she was discriminated. However hard she tried, she always had four strikes: an Asian (sadly, right in Asia), a woman, a mom and a mom of young kids.
She had a break down. And she sobbed, the way that little girl in the old alley of Hanoi sobbed years and years back.
“Could I feel happier? Could a mother have it all, happily?” She wondered. To find out, she quit her job and embarked on her own quest for joy.
In this mom’s version of an Eat, Pray, Love experience, she connected more deeply with her family, and nature, and with her childhood passions in writing and painting. This journey also brought her to the brain science. But, just when she was ready to go back to the working world, her husband’s job relocated her family to America. With everything new and without a support system, she had no idea what to do.
Would she be part of the 43% of mothers leaving their careers after kids in this country, like what was said in the book “Lean In” she read a few years before? She wanted to be a caring mom and loving wife, but she didn’t want to lose her career and the connection with a broader meaning. And she certainly didn’t anticipate that this change of geography would catalyze a change in her brain. With so many puzzles and with the help of a coach, she decided to be her own CEO. And the brain science she chanced upon earlier became her secret weapons, assisting her in this new challenging yet fulfilling journey. She also became a happier hence better mom, wife, daughter and global citizen along the way.
Telling me this last line, the story gently retreated to a corner of my mind, letting me wonder, reflect and reconcile. It reminded me that it had taken me a long and emotionally challenging journey to get there. When I was younger, I was deeply wired to achieve and I was generally happy and full of zest and gratitude for life in that striving. But an underlying force was there too: to prove myself to my dad, and later, to some others along the way who said I couldn’t. Since I became a mom and particularly in the past few years of churning the wheel of life, I was still wired to achieve, and I still achieved in happiness, but a much deeper sense of happiness that came from freeing myself from proving and instead, getting more intimate with my purpose. It also reminded me that “great success” to me now meant so much differently.
Success is not just about revenue and impact, but about wholeness. Besides being a business owner, I am a mom and a human being. My success formula therefore includes raising authentically happy children, cultivating a solid and loving relationship with my husband, nurturing my creativity (oh, yes, I dreamed to be a writer when I was small and this dream is still alive), having a healthy body, a peaceful mind, and a beautiful soul, fully utilizing my unique talents, really connecting with and living what I was born for, and making contribution to my community based on my strengths and passion.
Success is also not about constantly chasing after the numbers, the hypes or external standards but going deep sometimes to rise high later. This therefore could mean slowing down for conceptualization, innovation, tuning into the offerings of life seasons — spending more time during the summer with kids is among them, and tending to what’s most critical at a point of the bigger picture of work and life, and loving and being kind to ourselves when doing so.
Success is not just about “next” but also “previous”. Much of my achievement so far has been fueled by visualizing a future that is grounded in my own Happiness Infinity (HI) Zone, an inspiring vision that makes me wake up each day feeling motivated and excited. It has also been powered by a lot of positivity hardwiring and sinking into and celebrating accomplishments however small they are.
And my “previous” in 2021, the year of the pandemic at its peak in America, was my business grew by 37%. But beyond that pure number, I helped more people and I was creative in the way I approached my work. I was named to Business Insider’s premier list of the most innovative career coaches. I also had a book deal with one of the biggest and most well-respected publishers in Vietnam and have been working on the manuscript since then. Equally importantly, my kids’ brains were healthy and happy and with more inner strengths gained, they were ready for the new schools (which involved me training my brain after crying and wanting to give up one day while disinfecting groceries in the kitchen when my son was constantly distracted by virtual school). My husband and I got to the next level of mutual understanding (which involved training my brain and having a good three-hour talk that unearthed lots of things we resented about each other but didn’t speak about, apart from occasionally learning to converse with each other more effectively). As a family, we bought our dream home in a dream neighborhood and created many beautiful memories together through our new hobbies — camping trips and board games. Forbes Next 1000 wouldn’t measure resiliency and pivot of a mom entrepreneur this way.
A further “previous” would include healing my emotional pain, bringing my own beloved family to visit my dad and his family in Germany, finally feeling love towards him and saying “I love you” — which, to me, is a big thing that no list will capture. It would include a few occasions where I was overwhelmed, fragile and cried over the same deep wound from childhood but it was from a different level of how my brain works — which, to me, is a big thing that no list will capture. It would include I have learnt to look inside each time I encounter “shiny objects”, undo my accolade accumulation pattern and challenge myself on what’s really important — which, to me, is a big thing that no list will capture. It would include learning to become a more compassionate and loving mom, wife and human being each day — which, to me, is a big thing that no list will capture.
So well, I don’t belong to the Forbes Next 1000 list, I belong to my “next” list, which is based on my “previous” list with a true sense of clarity about what I stand for and confidence that I would get there. It’s continuing my current mission of bringing brain-based happiness to humanity and additionally, empowering a group of purpose-driven and heart-centered women / mothers (and selected me who support equality) who join me in making our world a happier place while honoring their own success measures and being truly happy themselves. This includes delivering the happiness talks for my community this October and November. It’s renovating our kitchen and making our new home a nest that helps us all create more fond memories, hatch our dreams and unleash our potential. It’s turning in my current manuscript by the end of this year. It’s throwing a meaningful celebration for my husband as he soon turns 40. It’s planting some daisies in our front yard, having a blast with friends over a holiday, and preparing for the coming festive seasons. It’s finishing that middle grade science / fantasy fiction with my son and the picture books with my daughter, both on the overarching themes of happiness, purpose and talents. Also among this “next” list is birthing a book about my “previous” 5-year journey.
Most importantly, I feel I belong to my story.
And this is what truly matters.
So let’s celebrate with me, would you?
P. S. This is not the profile photo I submitted to Forbes but one that also belongs to my list that I hold dear.
*Amy Nguyen is working on a book about her journey of training her mom’s brain to have her all from more peaceful parenting to more solid relationships to successful career pivot and entrepreneurship. Subscribe to her weekly Happier YOU Letter for weekly happiness-fuelled stories and brain-based tips to uplevel your happiness in both work and life.