“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs
Adrianna Tan is a traveler, entrepreneur and geekette of all trades. She used to write and photograph in the Middle East and South Asia, and has travelled to more than 120 cities in 30+ countries over the last 5 years. She now lives between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and is also constantly found in the great metros of the Indian subcontinent. She set up and runs the design agency Pen to Pixel, and is also deeply involved in building communities in Singapore, through tech, events and politics, and also various charitable organizations.
Did you always know that you were going to be a writer?
Actually the first person to figure that out was my father. When I was 6 or 7, he told me, “You’re going to be a writer.” I was like, ”How’d you know?” “Ah, I know it. Here are all these books you should read, on ‘How to become a better writer’.“ I think him seeing it first helped. Writing and books were a big part of my childhood, and I had very few toys and kiddy things. I was just in this world of books. That has always been an important part of my life.
People say you write with maturity beyond your years and a refreshingly unpretentious voice. How did you find that writing voice?
I don’t think I would have a writing voice at all if it wasn’t for a couple of people who have been instrumental in dragging that voice out of me. SCGS really valued literature above anything else, and it was good in the sense that because so much value was placed on it, the teachers actually actively recognized the girls whom they thought had the ability to write further.
My form teacher set up this program with one of the best poets in Singapore, Edwin Thumboo. She identified 5 girls whom she thought could be writers and made us go to him every Monday at NUS. We had to go see him with the poems we’d written. Going to him helped a lot, because although he couldn’t really do much in terms of content, he focused a lot on trying to establish a voice for all of us. Before I started this program, well, I could write. But not in a distinct way. And he just kept making me rewrite things over and over again. And that was a big part of why I write the way I do now. I think it was a slow process. I rebelled a little, because, you know, when you’re 15, you think you know better. He was the one who said, you need to write from your experience, you need to write in a way that’s really true and honest.
It’s always refreshing to be around people who don’t just want to be nice. There are so many people out there who, if you show them any piece of writing from anyone, even if they didn’t like it, they’ll be like, ”Oh, it’s actually quite nice.” So around people who are really honest, it makes you wake up and go, “Okay, I need to be better at lit, better at writing.” My JC lit teacher made me feel that I should never be happy with something mediocre and that I should always expect to be a lot better.
After JC, I think what helped was the traveling. It was one of my biggest teachers and still continues to be. On the road, you learn so much. Travel is pretty much, as someone said to me, you know, “All of life’s experiences, distilled into the week or the month.” If you travel a certain way, it can be like that. Places wise, I go anywhere. The more untouched and the scarier it is, the more I’m drawn to it.
Have you always wanted to travel?
Yeah. Well I mean, it was always something I wanted. But I didn’t know how it was going to be possible. When I was younger, I would read job openings in the Classifieds and go, “I don’t want to be any of these things!” The only thing I could picture was me in a little hut, somewhere in a mountain. It didn’t really make any sense back then, but I’m thinking it does now.
What’s travelwriting to you?
I think it’s like photography in the sense that everyone can do it, but few can do it very well. I don’t want to just hear about which places you went to or which restaurant you ate at, you know, or see endless photos of your meals. That’s not travelwriting. I want to hear a story, you know, whether it comes in the form of a photo essay, or a travel book. I guess the best travel writers have been able to tell great stories about their journeys and about the people they’ve met. Even if some of it might have been embellished, at the end of the day it’s all about the story.
How did Pen to Pixel come about?
Well, writing was fun but I started thinking that I wanted to write about stuff I cared about, rather than writing just for money. So I decided to keep writing as a sort of a hobby and keep working at it on the side, while trying to make money through other means. My other passion has always been tech. Even in university, I was working in the Apple store to fund my travels. And on my travels I would write. Tech is like an extension of my life. From the time I was 12, I was already fiddling a lot with computers. I was just very curious, and would take apart perfectly good computers and try to put them back together again. I would install all kinds of stuff. I’m just so reliant on tech and it has sort of impacted pretty much everything that I do. I knew I was going to be a writer since I was a kid, and the website was where I found my audience. It’s got me to events and conferences; it’s got me a job in Dubai. It’s like my platform I guess. Pen to Pixel came about because I really didn’t know what else to do. It was an obvious alternative to writing, and I just knew that if I had to work in a job where I needed to apply for leave and have only 21 days off every year, I would just die. I cannot do that. I cannot go to the same place repeatedly every single day. I need freedom and I need space to do my own things. Before I realized this thing about myself, when I was still in school, everyone just thought I was being lazy. But now I know that I just learn and do things better amidst organized chaos.
How would you define success in business?
I think, of course, on a monetary level, success is important, especially when there are other people involved.
But if you manage to strike the fine balance between making money, solving a few problems that make some lives better, and at the same time, raising the level of a craft you’re passionate about, then that’s great.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to build the company to a level where I can give back to the society that’s made me, and also to get to a point where I can hire young Singaporeans and young Indians to work in an interesting company, doing something they can be proud of, and to be able to pay them way above market rate for the talent they have.
Who inspires you?
Steve Jobs was special. I don’t know if we’ll ever have someone like him again. He’s just proven that if you want to be great at something, at your peak you’re untouchable but at your lowest you’re completely fallible. I think, for me, his personal philosophy has been even more attractive than his business, although he’s great at what he does on a business level. You know, from the stuff he says, it shows that he has thought very clearly about a whole set of things that people normally don’t care about. For example, on his deathbed, he refused to wear a certain oxygen mask because he didn’t like the design, and although I don’t think I’ll ever be that extreme, but, you know, that just shows his level of dedication to what he does, you know, of taking complex things and making it simple and beautiful at the same time. And also, I think his speech in Stanford University in 2005 is probably something that every young person should hear.
What do you have to say to young Singaporeans out there?
Although we’re told that Singaporean youths are apathetic, I don’t think we are. I think we have a lot of young, talented people who don’t necessarily know how to take their ideas to the next level. And that’s mostly because, honestly, we have very few role models. But that’s changing. So I think what I can tell them is don’t expect a proper “path”, that’s the first thing they should remember. I mean, it’s good to have something to work towards, but I think for a lot of us in this country, we freak out when we don’t know exactly what the next step is going to be, when there are no model answers, and when there are no hard and fast rules. But if there were, then life would really be quite boring. And, you know, behind every great writer whom we romanticize to be so lucky to just wake up every day and write their book in their pyjamas, lies a lot, a lot of hard work.
Although some people crave normality and stability, I don’t. I just know that it’s not me. I feel like a fraud when I’m normal, like “there’s something very weird about this”. I don’t want to get to a point where I’ve any regrets, so I make sure I do something crazy every year to keep myself grounded. It’s like my therapy from normal life. I guess I’m a bit of a risk taker, and I thrive on it. I’ve alwaysbeen, sort of, given the liberty to pursue things that made sense to me. Sometimes it made sense to only me. So, in that sense, I don’t have any regrets because I’ve consciously chosen everything I’ve done and the paths I’ve taken. When I started going away, I can’t say I knew exactly what I was doing. I had some vague idea, but I went ahead anyway, and that gave me more clarity. Like, I just knew I had to go to India. I didn’t even know why; hadn’t even been there. Knew I had to go. So I went. And you know, it was only because I went to India that my writing career got started. I randomly met someone over there, who said, “Let’s do a story together.” And it turned out to be the cover story of a magazine. If I had just stayed home, I would never have had this opportunity. So many people tell me, when they find out what I do, “Oh, you’re very brave.” Actually, I don’t feel particularly brave at all. I think it’s important to not force yourself to be someone that other people think you should be, and whatever it is that you want to do, don’t doubt for a minute that you can really make it happen.
And I highly recommend everyone, especially younger people, to travel when they have the chance to, before they settle down into jobs, marriages, kids, and mortgages. To just see the world as much as they can. Because there’s so much they can learn from the process.
“A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.” – Seneca
Profiled by Ng Wenyan