How to Do Things When You’re a Nobody

From a TEDx Salon talk I gave at Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS on 22nd March 2017.


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“But you’re not an expert in anything! You’re a nobody!”

So a little while back, I got this invitation to speak at TEDxUTP Salon. My first reaction when I read the email was this: I felt incredibly honored, but I also felt a confusing mix of excitement and fear. So like any other computer geek, as I was wondering what to do next, I decided to ask Google: “How to give a TEDx talk?”

It turns out TEDx has a speaker guide, which I immediately went through, and by the end of it, had one word on my mind.


See the thing about TEDx talks is you’re supposed to be an expert in something, and hopefully you have some revolutionary new idea to share.

Now me, I’m a writer/blogger at my own website: Which means that my core competency isn’t terribly impressive; it’s staying home a lot to read and write articles. And if I’m being very honest with myself, also means that none of my ideas are original either. Everything here is influenced, if not directly learned from something I’ve read before.

“But you’re not an expert in anything! You’re a nobody!”

Of course, there was no way I was going to say No either. How could anyone who was once a proud student of this very university, say no to an invitation like this?

It’s good to be back.

Anyway… I went back into my little world of thoughts, and tried to figure out; What do I at least not suck at…?


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But I couldn’t decide; so like any good university student, I went back online to see if there was anyone I could shamelessly copy.

I stumbled upon Tim Urban’s TED talk article from last year. He’s the guy who runs the wildly-popular Wait But Why blog. And in the world of bloggers, he’s as big time as it gets. But surprisingly, as Tim was preparing for his TED talk, even he felt way out of his league too. And as he was hanging out with his other super-accomplished TED speakers, guess what he discovered? Almost everybody felt equally terrified; and unqualified.

“You’re not an expert in anything! You’re a nobody!”

It turns out that most people have at some point in their lives felt undeserving of their success. Now this isn’t new information. It’s called impostor syndrome, and a frequently-quoted study from ten years ago estimates that 70% of people will go through it.

Personally, I think that figure is way too low.

So I’d like to ask all of you. How many of you have ever felt that you don’t really deserve the success you have. That you’re actually terrible at your studies/job, people are crazy for looking up to you, and you worry someone is going to expose you.

My message to you is that you’re not alone.

Maybe you’re a nobody. But I’m a nobody too.


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Of course, being an engineer — this is where I kill the warm fuzzy feeling in this room, and get back to solving problems.

We know that everyone feels inadequate (at times at least), but how do you get past that? Because not only does impostor syndrome feel horrible. It sometimes paralyzes you; it makes you afraid to grab that great new opportunity.

“Because you’re not an expert in anything! You’re a nobody!”

“So why organize that event? Why give that talk?”

At this point, the common piece of advice that gets thrown around is “Fake it till you make it.” If you pretend you’re an expert, and work harder than anyone else — maybe they won’t find out.

But I think, there’s a better way.

And here, is where I quote the next great blogger on my list.

The author Mark Manson says that self-acceptance is the way out of this mess. Or in his typical laid-back style:

“We’re okay. We can be better. But we’re okay.”
 Mark Manson 

To be clear, I’m not suggesting self-acceptance as an excuse.

Here’s self-acceptance gone wrong: “I’m terrible at writing, so I’m not even going to try. I’m just going to copy someone else.”

What I’m suggesting is self-acceptance as the first step to progress: “I’m terrible at writing. But it’s okay, I can learn to get better at it.”

Acknowledge not only the good parts of you, but also the bad ones — and still choose to be kind to yourself. In the words of Vulnerability expert and TED superstar Dr. Brene Brown:

“… because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.”
 Brene Brown 


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So how do we take the next step to get out of our heads? Because honestly, I’ve always been the kind of guy that gets stuck in analysis paralysis. Maybe it’s a side effect of being a blogger, but I spend way too much time reading and analyzing; reading and analyzing; mentally masturbating — as opposed to actually doing things.

But a couple of years ago, fresh out of a relationship — I decided I wanted to try something new. So I signed up for, of all things, a men’s dating workshop.

Yes I did…

“Eh, last time we don’t have Tinder la. It’s not as easy as just swiping Right on your phone okay…”

Anyway… one of the activities during the dating workshop was to go out at night and practice having conversations with women.

Now I don’t know about you, but the idea of speaking to strangers scares the hell out of me. And the goal wasn’t even to score a date, or get a phone number. It was just to get comfortable saying hello. Still terrifying for me.

But my coach taught me a great lesson for taking action. He said that whenever an action seems too difficult to do, break it down into a series of smaller actions that aren’t so scary.

So for example: if my terrifying goal was to walk from here to that pretty lady over there, tap her lightly on her elbow and say, “Hello.” Then the less scary micro-steps would be to just focus on taking one step with my left foot (not so scary); then my right; then my left. Until I got there…

And everything worked out just fine…

I wish.

No, that did not actually happen. I screwed up and I failed. But what I did learn was the power of micro-steps to achieve larger, seemingly-impossible goals

Most of us here want to do something significant and meaningful in our lives. That’s why it’s so terrifying.

However, research has shown that huge goals can paralyze us with fear. But small wins can drive us forward. It’s not the end result that motivates us. It’s progress.


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If you think about it logically, and compare yourself to someone brilliant like Elon Musk — then we are all nobodies.

And yet, we are all somebody to the people who love us. We should start to accept ourselves too, despite all our weaknesses.

And we can all make progress towards our terrifying goals. By taking small actions that don’t seem as difficult, but keep us moving forward. Because maybe, in those small times, we find that elusive quality that all of us nobodies really need:


Thank you.


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Picture from Pexels.

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  • taking one step with my left foot (not so scary); then my right; then my left. Until I got there…
    And everything worked out just fine…
    I wish.

    like a funny comedy scene ok, damn nice and honest.
    btw aaron, MM is very good, and i recently signed up to his blog.
    wouldnt have known him if it wasnt for you ok.
    much love to you and i keep recommending your blog to others as i feel there is no one quite like you here in the malaysian scene. (would insert emoji here but idk how 2 do it on the web).

    cheers .

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