What I Know About Entrepreneurship, That Hawker Stall Uncle Taught Me First.

Have you ever sat and observed a hawker stall operator? Me, I have a love-hate relationship with them. I love the food, don’t get me wrong, but that’s besides the point. I like having meals at hawkers stalls because, well, I feel that’s where the spirit of entrepreneurship lies.

I don’t like to call myself one, for “entrepreneur” is a title, a person, I aspire to be. An as an “asprireneur”, if there’s every such a term, I like to think the best entrepreneurs are born on the streets. A combination of street smart and resourcesfulness. A fixer of broken things. A spotter of gaps, holes and opportunities. An entertainer, ever ready to entice anyone with their new hairball of an idea, the master plan for world domination, the no-brainer-where-have-you-been-all-my-life solution to a daily problem. A seeker of the goldmine, as much as the adventure itself.

Yup, I relate to that, for whatever “entreprenreur” skill I have, I may have read it somewhere, but it was honed and tested on the streets.

But skills, is not just what entrepreneurs are made of, are they? If you look harder, you’ll chance upon the battle scars, the frown lines that stayed even on a resting face, a deep, silent sigh, quiet to most ears. I observed those subtle signs. The heaviness in their breath, the distance in their gaze, the uneasiness of their hands which rarely met idleness.

And all that, I get to see first hand, at hawkers stalls. Business owners, enterprising souls, committed to perfecting their craft, for the promise of their tomorrows lies in that happens today. The past, good or bad, is in the pass. A misstep in their recipe, a delay that met with an impatient customer, a miscalculation of cash that led to a sudden dive in their income… those are in the past. Optimistic, they have to start the day new. Learn from yesterday, do better today, and hope for the best tomorrow.

It’s a cycle I’m too familiar with; one I had found myself in the loop of during some seasons of the year, over the past 15 years.

So when I saw that uncle sitting upright on his chair, looking up with a friendly smile, hoping that the new customer would visit his stall, only to walk pass, I, too, bit the bottom of my lips. If you’re fast enough, or if you intention enough, in just a split second, you’ll see the disappointment, masked behind layers of dried sweat with a mix of grease. He would then look up at the ceiling, wipe the surface of his already clean stall, and forced another smile, waiting for the next potential customer to come.

This often happened repeatedly, but don’t think for a second that it builds up into some kind of immunity. It doesn’t. He might become better at hiding the disappointment, but trust me, the missed opportunity for the 8729th time that month, it still hurts like the 1st. Once in a while, he would reach into his pocket and take out a stack of cash, carefully folded, licked the tip of his thumb and counted them. It’s not that the count ever increased, but with each flip of a note, it’s like winding up a clock, just for a bit, maybe by a couple of minutes. The moment that wad of cash was placed back into the pocket, and when no new customers visited the store, the clock would start ticking, counting down before he had to make that hard phone call again, to ask for help. Which in fact, was just buying some time, to wind the clock a couple more rounds, on borrow time now. The only difference was, he then had to work twice as hard, so he could wind the clock twice as much, all the while hoping no mistake were made, no unplanned calamity slapped him across the cheek, no phone call bearing bad news, no mornings when a prolong cough or an unexpected fever got the better of him.

If there’s a string for the uncle, and for the majority of hawker stall operators, that string is often thin, ready to snap at any time. A prayer might help strengthen it a bit, but even if it did anything, it just loosen the grip for a while, allowing the string to rest from its tension, before being stretched again. Put it under a microscope, and you could see interwoven among the thin threats, were sheer perseverance, laced with whatever good thoughts he could muster, bundled with tears of silent desperation.

As I took a hard swallow, my attention came back to my unfinished food, the busting sounds of shuffling movements and clanging of plates and banging of utensils and bursts of laughter and intervals of shouting. And of course, the uncle still sitting upright, eye brows raised, “smiles” up, eager to delight the next customer. In between, he snuck in a quick chat with his neighbors, but often, they were too busy serving their customers. Continue observing, and you’ll see a slight gaze of jealousy, wishing he, too, could be as busy. He would then look down at the floor, reaching into his pocket, as if by habit wanting to count the notes again, only to realize he just wound the clock a few minutes before.

Sometimes our eyes would meet, and I smiled back. He would “mouth” if his food was good today, and I would give him a thumbs up and a nod of approval. Then, you’ll witness another kind of smile; a smile different from the ones he used to welcome new customers. The lines around his lips, around his eyes, what they called the crows feet, are more prominent this time. The glitter in his eyes, it’s not the same. With the nod I just gave him, it’s like a pat on the back, which I sometimes would give a real one when I brought the plate back to him.

I know it will cheer him up.

I know it will cheer me up.

I look at the uncle, reaching out to wipe his table again, before tucking the corner of the cloth back into his apron. I saw his uneasiness, his restlessness, and somehow, it mirrored what I felt within. It’s familiar, that feeling. It’s common, him and me. Though I may not have been one good enough to cook for others, we are both servants to other humans, both bringers of delight, both smiling that hopeful smile, as we wound our own clocks.

That parallelism, the feeling of being grounded, the emotions so familiar that when I close my eyes, it would still make my heart skip a beat or two.

That’s the silent desperation most entrepreneurs face, but few would say it out. For some, it’s a sign of weakness so it’s better to hide it. Others, sometimes it’s ego, so it’s better to hide it too. But I like to think, just like that uncle, we just don’t know how to express it. We lack the companion who can relate to, to share that feeling of anxiety, of restlessness, of hopelessness, of depression.

Of course we all don’t feel that way. Some are just better at dealing with those dark emotions.

Perhaps for the others, we just need other ways to express that pent up emotion.

Like writing down in a long ass article, maybe.

Hey, wanna know something? If you look back over my social media timelines, you’ll notice I used to write. Not fantastic pieces, but enough to make a struggling writer strike a note or two among his handful of audiences, patient enough to spare him some of their precious time. After all, aren’t we all born singers, just lacking an audience?

And indeed you do look back, you’d realized it has been a while since I wrote anything. Sure, I produced some marketing pieces. I created educational content. I published some quirky, funny anecdotes. But it has been a year or more, that I haven’t “written”. Not like this. I didn’t have to count the days, but I know it’s months too long.

I’ll not get into the story of why I stopped, but I’ll tell you of the times when I took up the pencil, grab a piece of paper, and while the hand was aching to move, to write down that pent-up shit, the heart held back. It’s a mix bag of emotions, really. Melancholy, loneliness, hopelessness, hopefulness, and questions of self-worth thrown in just in case. Sometimes while waiting for my therapy session to start, I did question my existence in that room, sitting on that chair. Was that my ego talking, commenting that I shouldn’t even be there? Or was it a little cry for help, the denial that it is depression all along? Should I be honest about the craving for pain killers I had been suppressing, or the many times I caved in to the cravings?

Therapy really did a number on me, so let’s just pin that thought for now. But I can say it was a nett-positive, and I highly recommend it.

Truth is, writing like this, about the uncle, about the winding of the clock, about the moments time stood still as thoughts become words, and words mold the thoughts… it is soothing. Writing, I always believed, is either an extension or expression of the soul. It’s what the inner “you” wants to say when there’s a right audience, but never got to say. Suppression is never healthy. Ask any who had been denied and they will tell you what’s truthful, sometimes with their hands shaking as they recall their deepest moments of silent desperation. And don’t trust the laughter that sometimes slipped out; it’s often a defense mechanism in an effort to shift the direction of the conversation. #guiltyascharged

But don’t get me wrong, the end is hardly gloomy, really. As a matter of fact, it’s a strong, guiding light, shining bright. Sometimes the weather gets foggy, and we lose sign of that light, but it’s there. I have seen people who had been there, as they reach back into the fog to guide others. Kind souls, these mentors are, really. And when you asked them of their moments of silent depression, they don’t brush it aside. They acknowledge it, often with a certain kind of calmness you’ll only see next to wisdom herself. They knew. They felt it, and more than just overcoming it, they arrive at a better place within themselves.

They made peace with it. Peace.

You and I, and that uncle at the hawker stall, we’ve seen that peace. Sometimes, we even feel her presence. It’s that last thin line of amber light before the sun sets for good. It’s the moment when the thick clouds shift, revealing that bright, beautiful star in the sky. It’s that “click” you feel, when someone look at your lovingly. It’s that pat on the back, that tight hug you get when you weren’t sure you did a good job, but those closest felt you obviously did.

Piece those moments of peace together, and wear it on your sleeve, like that uncle did. And maybe, just maybe, one day when you wound that clock, you will watch it go on, on its own, longer than it usually does.

Maverick Foo

Co-Founder of KICKSTART by night, Talent Development Consultant, organising workshops and conferences by day, and full-time single dad in between, Maverick is pretty much a renegade. An ex-monk who's always first to ask "why not?", Mav enjoys hacking the way things are done, and pretty much happy with the success rate of 50% (coz sometimes mom is right after all...). When it comes to business, give him a million bucks and he'll most probably get a new set of gadgets, drive home an Audi R8 and reload his Starbucks card. But give him little to nothing, and see how he starts switching on the little brain-matter between his ears. Challenge ACCEPTED!

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