Quitting the 9-5: How to find purpose outside of corporate with Connie Liu

19 minute read

Listen to this episode on Spotify here.

Connie Liu: (00:00)
So grew up in San Diego, I’m the daughter of two Chinese immigrants. So I’m the youngest one of three. And went throughout my childhood, grew up going to public schools K through 12. So got really good at this like bubbling in answers, memorizing facts type of education went to a very traditional school that really encouraged you gunning for the top schools. So that’s exactly what I did. I got lucky enough to get into MIT and then that’s where I decided to go into engineering. So the pitch that really got me as an engineer was I got to create things that matter that could really impact people’s lives. And that was something really important to me about engineering, whereas like throughout high school and throughout my childhood, it had always been pitched as like you can build robots and cars.

Connie Liu: (00:54)
I was like, I’m not interested in that. It was when it was about impact that I got really interested. And I started getting involved in projects where I could make products that could help people who are blind or people with Alzheimer’s and being able to be involved in that space and see the impact that my ideas could have was incredibly empowering to me in a way that made me question all of the education that I was brought up in. I never felt empowered by my education. I just felt like I could do things that other people had done before and be able to like get answers right. But get answers that already existed right. That wasn’t as exciting to me. So got really passionate about how do we get education to be about real problem solving.

Anjana Melvin: (01:43)
So you didn’t actually have a great experience with education growing up, it was the fact that there was something wrong with it that got you passionate about it.

Connie Liu: (01:51)
Totally. And I think it was only in retrospect that I realized that it was like that. During it, I was so good at playing the game that it didn’t really come up to me that there was any problem with it. It was only when I was introduced to an alternative that I was like, that’s really messed up that we have to do something and get good at something that’s so, so different than what actually makes you successful in the real world. And spend like 12 years of your life playing this game that has no relation to the game that you actually play in the real world to like, do all the things that you want to like make impact, or be successful.

Epsa Sharma: (02:27)
That just kind of left a little spark in me because truthfully, yeah, you are following this path, following this game, you’re following this like initial trajectory, but was there like a certain project or certain experience at MIT that kind of like flipped that switch for you?

Connie Liu: (02:44)
Yeah. During freshman year I got to work on this project called Finger Reader. It was a camera mounted on a ring to help blind people read on the go. So then they would be able to trace a line kind of like when you’re a kid, when you trace the line that you’re gonna read then the camera would be able to convert that image to speech for them. So I got to spend every day talking to people who are blind and understanding what challenges they face every day, and then convert that empathy that I felt into a real, physical thing that could really impact their lives. And that was such a powerful translation and like action for me to be able to take something intangible, like empathy or an idea, and then make it a reality. And I wanted every young person to feel that impact of translating an emotion into impact in the world.

Anjana Melvin: (03:40)
What is, I guess, when did you find out that the game in the real world is different than the game that you were taught to play growing up?

Connie Liu: (03:49)
I think it was in college. And I remember there’s this one diary entry I found from my freshman year of college where I wrote “I don’t feel like I am very creative and can solve any real problems.” And I remember reading that and being so shocked to read that because I feel like by being like, if I checked all the boxes and did everything right in school and still felt like I wasn’t equipped for the real world, then there must be something fundamentally wrong about how we’re teaching kids. Because if you’re doing a hundred percent of what you’re told and still not getting to the point that you should be of like feeling equipped and having that agency to do something beyond just like test taking, there’s something very concerning about that gap. So I think like coming across this diary entry and then kind of reflecting on my education was a big piece of it.

Anjana Melvin: (04:49)
Turns out the mitochondria being the powerhouse of the cell is not really enough to get you through the rest of your life.

Epsa Sharma: (04:56)
No! Turns out all those random sat words that I have stuck up here only have slight impact on my life.

Connie Liu: (05:02)
I do pull them out sometimes, just to shock people.

Epsa Sharma: (05:05)
Actually, same to stir the pot in the conversation a little. Connie, I’m super curious I see education and engineering, huge impact on your life because you’re just like reflecting on your education that led you to engineering. And I obviously also perused your LinkedIn and I know that you’ve had some engineering experience, but then you kind of dove into teaching. Could you kind of like describe the path from engineering to teaching and how that switch kind of happened for you?

Connie Liu: (05:32)
Yeah. So when I decided to — during my senior year was deciding whether to take the more traditional engineering route or take kind of something, a little left field, and I didn’t know anyone very close to me who had ever become a teacher, I only knew the engineering route, but I think at the end of the day, when I came to this crossroad it really was like I’d done engineering internships, so I knew what that would feel like. And I knew that, like, it was fun for me. I loved it. I felt like I could make impact, but I felt like I brought like 80% of myself to that work. Whereas every free moment I got during school, I would be like running some after school program in a school in Boston or like biking over to Harvard to go take their education classes because they were better. And like every moment I could find I was thinking about, or like wanting to engage in education and I knew I could bring my hundred percent to education. So I, I knew that if I wanted to make the impact that I imagined it had to be by bringing my all to it. And I, and I figured that would be more true down the education road. So I figured I’d take a risk now. Because if I waited till later, I didn’t know if I would still make that choice because then it would be taking a pay cut or like taking a very major change in lifestyle. Whereas now it was just the first thing I was doing. So it didn’t really matter like how much I was paid or like what pivots I would need to make.

Anjana Melvin: (07:16)
So in 2019 you were awarded Forbes 30, under 30 for education. But when you were an engineer, did you have any big career goals that you wanted to accomplish? And did you feel like you were giving those up when you switched to teaching?

Connie Liu: (07:31)
I think for engineering, the thing that I loved was being able to make these products for people with disability or disadvantage. And that I really, really loved doing like my story about finger reader. I loved being able to like speak one-on-one with a person and understand what their needs are and then convert that into like something that could exist into the world. So for me going into teaching was less so giving that up though and more so empowering a whole generation of people to think like that. So I saw it as a way to leverage my impact rather than like me turning away from a potential impact I could have.

Anjana Melvin: (08:18)
Yeah. And that’s really what success is. It’s not about what you accomplish as an individual, but how many people you bring up with you. So not all, but some of us are trying to find the fastest way to get out of our nine to five jobs, but we all have that fear of failure. It’s a big step. So what were your fears or hesitations before you took the dive into teaching and how did you work through them?

Connie Liu: (08:42)
Yeah, I, I think the major thing on my mind as I was deciding to go into teaching was, I didn’t know if I would actually, like it, because I knew that I would like being, I knew I liked like running after school programs and like education as a concept, but I didn’t actually know if I would like the like day to day nine to five of teaching. So I think that scared me because I also didn’t know anyone who’d done it. So I couldn’t compare experiences or like compare how we thought about the world to get more data about that. So then it really was just to like jump in, try it. And even like, I remember on the first day of school as a teacher, I even remember telling myself like before I got there, like if I really, really hate it, like I can always go back to engineering. And I think like having that as a safety net made it so… Like I knew that this was the best time to take a risk of right after school. And then I also knew that like, if I really tried, I could always make it back to what I prepared for. So why not take a risk? And I think I would encourage all people who like have a nine to five to think that of like, if you don’t like your current situation, then just like, go try something new and they’ll always take you back. Like, you’re not like, yes, it will be a little difficult. And like, sure, you might have to do interviews again or like have to jump through a few hoops. But like the amount you learn from even like trying something new and even if you fail or hate it, is going to be much more valuable than you staying in the same place, despite already having the information that you’re like, not where you want to be.

Epsa Sharma: (10:35)
Totally. I think it’s just taking that leap of faith and knowing you need to take it, but just like doing it and thinking about all the pros and cons, I think can get into your head. It’s like, I’m in actually like a position really similar where like, I’m like, I should totally leap into something more creative, but the whole, like there’s a lot that I’m thinking about, but I’m actually gonna pick your brain a little curious, obviously like success in a traditional nine to five and success in a classroom setting are like, there’s different layers that how you use to define success. So can you describe like, okay, your nine to five, your engineering job, what are things that you would deem: Yes, this is successful, this is a failure. And then how would you compare that to your teaching job? Like, yes, this is a success. This is a failure, like an improvement.

Connie Liu: (11:20)
Yeah. That’s a really good question. I think for engineering, it was a little more clear, like your code runs or it doesn’t, your doodad that you built or like mechanism you built works or it doesn’t. So at the end of the day, you like, know if you’re successful or not because it like truly just works or not. Right. For teaching it’s more relational and for entrepreneurship now it is as well of like, you don’t have a clear, like was today successful or not. You just know if you like made some amount of progress. I guess how I would define success now is I think in, in my mind I just set like larger picture. I think the larger picture goals are really helpful for like paving the road of where I want to go. And then the day-to-day of like how many steps I take on that road then becomes a little more clear if I’ve defined, like —I remember for the first year of Project Invent, I defined I want to be in 10 schools for the first year. And I remember for six months we made zero progress. Like truly zero schools wanted to do it. So it was harder those day to days. But then I knew that I had like a larger goal that I was trying to move towards. So then it was okay. What’s another thing I can try towards that and not seeing each failure to, like, we tried a lot of things that still resulted in zero schools. Like I would cold call principals. Or like ran a teacher training that like a few teachers came to, but then none of them decided to run project and met like even though those are failures, I knew that I still learned whether a path would work or not. So then I still made progress with the intention to go towards my goal and still learn something. So I still treated that as progress and that’s how, like I was able to get to the right path.

Epsa Sharma: (13:23)
Wow. I feel like there’s such a shift.

Anjana Melvin: (13:28)
You went through a lot of shifts there early on in your career, so let’s go to Project Invent, like you were working on it while you were teaching. When did you decide to like quit your full-time teaching job and then go all in to Project Invent?

Connie Liu: (13:43)
Yeah. So throughout teaching, I was running this class called Design Engineering for Social Good. And it was essentially like the class version of Project Invent. So students could choose problems that they were passionate about in their community and then learn, I would teach them like design thinking and engineering skills to be able to build solutions to those problems. So it was very much a problem solving class that like existed in a STEM Maker space. But like core to the program is just like problem solving in general. So started that program. It was nine students at first and then it grew into a hundred at the school. I started teaching it on weekends at a neighboring school. And as it continued to kind of grow organically, I decided to apply for a grant to, and I think that was very on a whim of like, I actually didn’t believe Project Invent would be a nonprofit or like would be anything bigger than this school.

Connie Liu: (14:46)
It was truly just like a nugget of an idea. And I knew this group had money to give out called 4.0 schools. They like fund early education initiatives. So I threw in an application like truly not even believing most of the things I typed about, like this is going to be national. It’s going to be in so many schools. But I just wanted to like throw my name into the ring and see what happens. They ended up giving some money and then that became like my token of like, okay, someone else besides me, like, I’m not crazy someone else besides me believes in this idea. So I better make it happen. Cause I wrote it down and promised them I’d do it already. So it very much was like do the baby steps to be able to like see where something can go and also be willing to like travel that wave if it comes.

Epsa Sharma: (15:40)
When was that? When did you apply to that grant, again?

Connie Liu: (15:43)
It was in 2018. So for like time points, I graduated 2016 taught for two years and then applied for it mid my second year.

Anjana Melvin: (15:54)
And you said you had set like a runway for yourself of one year. What were the goals that you’d kind of set for yourself in that one year to get done, to see if this was really something you wanted to pursue?

Connie Liu: (16:04)
Yeah, basically in that one year, basically I like looked at my bank account and said like, how much runway do I have in that one year? I wanted to get to a fundraising point that I could pay myself and hire at least one more person, get to ten schools, and like at least still make sure that I’m happy doing this before I like continue to grow it. So I would say those are the three big things.

Anjana Melvin: (16:34)
Gotcha. And what advice would you give to someone who is exactly like at that point where they’re like debating if they should pursue something but are not so sure?

Connie Liu: (16:44)
I think it’s especially for people who are in like a more typical nine to five, you can also do part-time for a while. Like I spent the whole final six months of teaching, like testing out pieces of my idea. So I wasn’t going in cold on no paycheck and also not certain if it would work, I was making sure to use the time when I was still getting a paycheck to be able to like start testing the idea. So even I would be able to like have more confidence going in that it was something that could work. So it’s not like you like quit your job, and then like the first day of unemployment, you’re like, what idea can I build? Like, I think that might set you up for a little bit more failure. Cause then it’s a little more urgent of like, shoot, I need to come up with an idea. Like I don’t know what’s going to happen and there’s more uncertainty. Whereas like I had a lot of uncertainty when I left my job of like, I didn’t know when I would be paid again and I didn’t know whether it would work, we still had zero schools, but I had like gotten some letters of intent from some schools. And I had like created a curriculum and seen how many people sign up. I created a website and saw how much website traffic was coming in. So I had some data of like, there’s some interest I can, I can work with that.

Epsa Sharma: (18:07)
Okay. Is that, is the data and like knowing there was buy-in what was like keeping you pushing forward? Cause I feel like putting all this energy — I know now you’re in, like you said, I think it was like 50 schools?

Connie Liu: (18:17)
Yeah we’re in 70 now.

Epsa Sharma: (18:22)
Oh wow, nice. But when you did have like the zero, but you were seeing that like data come in aside from that, what else was like pushing you forward to be like, okay, I still have to keep adding value to this or keep pushing this idea out there.

Connie Liu: (18:37)
Like when it was still at the zero and trying to get to the 10 point?

Epsa Sharma: (18:42)

Connie Liu: (18:42)
I think I got like, despite the actual metric that I cared about not making any moves, there was still data from teachers of like teachers I was interacting with. Or like people I was calling that there was interest in this. It’s just how to make it fit. So I remember like the key thing that I changed probably like nine months in is we stopped talking about it as an “after-school program” and started talking about it as “teacher professional development.” And that’s when school started like paying and being willing to let their teachers spend time on it.

Epsa Sharma: (19:19)
More buy in.

Anjana Melvin: (19:19)

Epsa Sharma: (19:19)
Oh you rebranded it, haha!

Connie Liu: (19:23)
Yup! Haha. So it like ended up just being like, I could tell that people cared, like then I would listen to like what excuses, that’s a bad way to put it…

Epsa Sharma: (19:36)
Or what hesitations they had.

Connie Liu: (19:36)
What reasons, yeah what hesitations people would give about like why they couldn’t do it now. And then could tell that like, it wasn’t fundamentally, like what was wrong about the design of the program. It was like, I had confidence in that because I’d seen students go through it. So then it was just, how do we get more teachers to be willing to do this? And like after school program ended up not being the best sell, especially in high school, but teacher professional development did.

Anjana Melvin: (20:07)
I really like how you rephrased that or like changed your pitch to fit that. It’s not that it’s completely relatable, but like Epsa, Sydney and I, our other co-host, we like — it’s funny because we spend so much time on this podcast and we believe in it so much, but it’s just like, okay, what do we do when we’re only getting like 70 listens, even though our speakers are really, really cool. And we know that they provide a lot of value and I think it’s very easy to start something and believe in something so much. It’s a little harder to keep it going. What would you say keeps you motivated and how do you, you know, like stay dedicated to your work? I mean, now that now that you quit your other job, you kind of have to, but I guess how do you stay motivated?

Connie Liu: (20:52)
Yeah I mean, this is a really good example. Of just like trying to, like the creation of something is very different than the sustaining of it. Like being able to create something and believe in it and then put it out into the world and like 50 people pick it up and then you’re… I think it very much was like I came in with more confidence about the program because I’d seen the impact that it already had on certain students, like getting even those like one or two of the like 70 listeners to share with you the impact that it had on them reinvigorates that belief that you have in it that like gets you to want to try new things, like be able to, I don’t know, like share it on different platforms and like be confident when you do that, that like, yeah maybe not as many people as we thought are picking up on it, but we can, like, we just need to try harder, be more creative. And I think like for Project Invent in the first year I just would present at a lot of conferences and try to share this with as many teachers as possible. And there were, like one example was like, I drove down six hours to a conference in LA, ended up pitching to two people and like super unmotivating. But I like learned a lot about like I didn’t take that as like, oh no one cares about it. It’s like, oh, at conferences, people really care about the title of what you do. And you need to put jazzy words in your title. It was a six-hour learning but…

Epsa Sharma: (22:22)
Yeah, you need clickbait.

Anjana Melvin: (22:25)
I think I would have cried if that happened to me.

Epsa Sharma: (22:27)
Yeah. But no, that is, it really puts it into perspective. You have to be strategic in how you lure people in because you have everything they want to hear and you know, what would impact them, but it’s just like getting that initial buy-in. But I’m also kind of curious too, like we’re talking about impact and like, yeah. sometimes when we have like minimal listeners, it is hard, but we know like those that do listen really do benefit and gain from it. And like will mention it to us offhand. But for you since starting Project Invent , or since having this be initiated into schools, have there been any, I don’t know, students or projects that have really stood out to you that have just been memorable in your experience that you hold near and dear to your heart?

Connie Liu: (23:11)
Yeah. I mean the first project when I was teaching that really got me to start Project Invent was one called Stria, it was a smart belt to help blind individuals cross the street safely. So usually because they’re blind, they veer; we use our vision a lot to like walk in a straight line. So their community partner ended up getting hit by a car twice because of this problem. So they created a invention solution to it. And being able to see how much those students grew and like the really powerful relationship they ended up building with Jimmy, who is their community partner who like shared all of this about being blind, was so, so powerful that very much was the jumping point. Like that empathy that kids build through this program, I think really keeps me going.

Anjana Melvin: (23:57)
Yeah and going off of that, I was actually listening to a speech by Jay Shetty and he was saying that the fulfillment is when you identify what you love, what you’re good at your values, your qualities, your skills. And when you use that to make a difference in the lives of other people, and that’s when you’re going to feel the most fulfilled. And by what you just said, Connie, you seem to have found both what you’re good at and how to use that to help others. But many people don’t really know what those things are for them yet. So how did you identify what your unique skills were?

Epsa Sharma: (24:29)
For me? I feel like the one thing that has like carried me through all of these phases of like pivoting to be a teacher, like moving into being an entrepreneur, I was very much like trusting your instinct of what sparks your interest and just like following that down as much as you can. For example, like me applying to that grant, even though I didn’t believe in project invent as a idea like it just didn’t really cross my mind. It was very much just like, what if it was national? And then once they approved it, I was like, oh shoot. Now I have to build it. Like, I actually didn’t intend to build an organization or like go down certain paths. It was all not pre-planned. It was all very much like this is something that sparks my interest. I’m going to try it out. And that’s the only way you like I guess like get enough data about what you’re uniquely good at or like that other people recognize, like just putting your name out there. So I know that like, one thing I’ve had to get very comfortable with is I guess, like being more willing and open to share about my own experiences and seeing what about that resonates with others? Because I feel like that gives you a lot of data too, of like you reflecting your own experiences back on people and like how you reflect about things gives you a lot of data about like, what might, what is special about me to other people? So I can know that.

Anjana Melvin: (26:10)
What have other people said about you?

Epsa Sharma: (26:11)
Yeah. Super introspective.

Connie Liu: (26:14)
I think, well, I, I think one thing that people have mentioned is like, I create environments for people to be creative really well. So I think I brought that into my teaching very much of like, I want students to be able to feel like they all have ideas that matter and like no idea is a bad idea. I think creating those environments is something I really loved doing and that I’ve been reflected back of being good at.

Epsa Sharma: (26:27)
That’s awesome. I love that your friends were able to identify that in you. I think that shows the most because sometimes we don’t even know we do. We do, we go on with life. We don’t even know like our own strengths until they’re like really pointed out to us. Yeah. Cool. We wanted to wrap it up with asking about kind of bringing up friends and peers into the equation because we’re, at that time where we are comparing ourselves to our friends and just kind of like seeing this trajectory of this path we’re on.

Epsa Sharma: (27:13)
But since starting Project Invent what are some differences that you’ve noticed about yourself when you now talk about your career and goals in comparison to how now your peers described their careers and stuff?

Connie Liu: (27:26)
Yeah, that’s a really great question. I feel like for me, because in order to do a lot of the like moves I did and take a more non-traditional path, it just took a lot of reflection. So I think like one big thing has just been confidence about where I fit. And like what, I guess like confidence and ability to get things done, because I think especially with entrepreneurship, like every day, you just have to do things that you might not think you’re good at, but like just by necessity, you’re the only one in the room. So you better get it done. So I think like entrepreneurship taught me a lot about just being just like getting your hands dirty. And even if it’s not something that you typically think you’re good at, you just jump in and then you learn a lot about you either like find out you’re pretty bad and you work on it or you find out you’re like surprisingly good at something. So I think that’s one piece of just like confidence that, that has been derived from like self-reflection and from just like being the only one in the room and having to jump into certain situations. And I think I, I feel like I put a really high standard that on like how happy I need to be through work because I think like I do a lot of work and life mixing together, of like not having very strong lines between like these are the only hours I work. And in order to like sustainably do that, you just have to be working on work you love, at least for me. So that has always been a really big priority of just always doing things that like spark me.

Epsa Sharma: (29:21)
I think that line is a, is a good one to kind of like identify and like figure out. I feel like all of us have that like separation of like when to stop, when to keep going. And a lot of it does relate to like, how passionate are we about what we’re actually doing, the energy we’re putting forth.

Anjana Melvin: (29:36)
I’m just curious, where do you see Project Invent in the next five years?

Connie Liu: (29:40)
Our goal is to be in every high school in the U S and every student to graduate with a Project Invent experience. I don’t know if that’s a five-year goal, but that’s the ultimate goal. That’s the ultimate goal.

Epsa Sharma: (29:52)
Manifest it. Put it into the atmosphere.

Connie Liu: (29:56)
Yeah, let it be heard. Yeah.