Happy Birthday to Me

XX. Yes, I have lived and survived in this world for XX years now.

It could have sounded like a huge deal in ancient times.

Okay. A pat on the back.

I tend to feel melancholy and cranky on days like Valentine’s Day (when I don’t have a Valentine, which I never do), New Year’s Day and of course, my birthday. It is an unbashful reminder of how single I am — XX bloody years, and haven’t dated once. If I died today, I couldn’t even cross off the item that says “Boyfriend.” Because I never had one. Ouch.

But I confess that I fall in love frequently. But the person that I am in love with never seem to respond positively or continuously. A clue maybe? A hint maybe? They simply vanish in my life without a trace. At least tell me what I have done to piss you off so I can score better next time? Maybe, just maybe. I will always remember you, your kindness and your grace.

So, apart from my pathetic love life (or do I really have one?), what have I done (a more posh word: achieved) in this XX years?

I revamped my life last year. Now I am in LA studying screenwriting. It’s a tough business. I am enjoying it even though I am a rookie knowing nobody in the business, and most of the time an underdog.

I used to dream about being rich and famous. I don’t think about the odds too much now. You see, to me now, happiness and doing what I believe is great work is what’s more important.

Now I am officially XX, what I should do to make me a better version of me?

I need to take more risks. I will push myself more out of my comfort zone. My finance is in red. I will start looking for jobs after the Winter Quarter. Most of all, I will spend most of my time writing, not whining about writing, or thinking about writing, but to really write like a professional writer.

I admit that I am not THAT gifted. Nor do I have great story ideas. But I know I have something. Or the school wouldn’t have admitted a Chinese in its screenwriting program that writes in English. I know that seeing my work gets rejected hurts. But now I know better the pain of “what if” will haunt me even more if I don’t give it my best shot, every single time I try. At least I can say, man, I tried; not the “I could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” crap that I used to deceive myself into.

I also learned that comparing with other people only give me more headaches and make me loathing myself more. Why would I do that? The single thing that I care most about now (apart from my lovely parents and my kitty Michael), is —

Whether I am learning, improving every day, and living a fulfilled life.

One can only have so much control in life. Although I consider myself a bit of a control (freak?), now I know that what I can control is my attitude and my reaction to what has happened. And most of all —

how hard I put and push myself to work.

Everything else is secondary. So write on.

Happy xxth birthday.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

The Steve Jobs We Should’ve Known (Better)

The Crazy Ones Apple Poster

Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

Whenever I think, talk or write about Steve Jobs post-2011, I never want to use past tense. So did John Lasseter and Tim Cook as I learnt in Becoming Steve Jobs. They wouldn’t delete Steve’s number from the phone when both men gathered and remembered their friend at Laurene’s 50th birthday in 2013.

From the moment I encountered his Stanford commencement speech at a college English class in 2007, I became mesmerized by the man who thinks like a geek while converses in prose.

As I read books and articles about Jobs, I stumbled upon his meticulously-prepared MacWorld keynotes. Being a math idiot (though I’m Chinese), numbers wear me down. But when Steve presents those sales figures and financial statements, I find myself glued to the seat soaking them all in which all make sense to me and seem insanely sexy. If the Cupertino company didn’t turn around, I think Jobs can always do a great job teaching math — giving America a chance to beat the Chinese kids on the math playground once and for all.

If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.
Don’t settle.

Over the years after college looking for the passion of my life, I’ve probably listened to his commencement speech for about hundreds, if not thousands, of times. But the more I listen, the more I feel nonplused —

Why a man of such empathy and humanity can also be such a jerk
as Jobs is notoriously labeled in more than a few high-profile reports?

I couldn’t understand. I would rationalize that maybe he is kinda crazy, or he is indeed binary, or it has something to do with his being adopted from birth, as they say… I sometimes wish I could just pick up the phone and call him up, like he did calling Bill Hewlett for a job at thirteen.

When the most anticipated one and only book authorized by Steve, authored by the renowned biographer Walter Isaacson came out, I finished it in days. But still, it seemed to rest the case on him being half genius, half jerk.

But,
is that really it?

As the world evolves after Steve’s death, I fear that we would put up the “Business as Usual” sign as if he never mattered — Apple keeps shipping popular products and extraordinary financial results under Tim Cook’s precise operation and Sir Jony Ive’s savvy designs.

When I heard there was this new book about Steve, I was curious, albeit suspicious. After spending days staying up reading, I found myself too reluctant to race through to the last page. I lingered, I pondered, I devoured and weighed every word. I just didn’t want it to end. I echo with what Jim Collins says about Steve Jobs —

I wish I could have seen Steve Jobs 3.0.
Seeing him from age fifty-five to seventy-five
would have been fascinating.

Nonetheless as I close the book, I find this really is the best and only book capturing the Steve Jobs, bar none.

The two authors care enough to print out the full text of the Think Different ad copy, the fifteen-minute long 2005 Stanford commencement, and Laurene’s poignant remarks at Steve’s memorial service.

For the first time, I understand why I was drawn to this extraordinary human being from the very beginning. He won me, and the countless others, over not with his glibness, or his so-called RDF (Reality Distortion Field), but his beautiful soul and his relentless faith in humanity.

A few years back where there was nil Apple Store in China, I would advocate Apple products to my friends like an evangelist. Most of them would say the price was way out of their league. If the book came out earlier, I could have rebutted —

Look, you don’t have to buy its latest products to feel the Apple experience.
Read this book will do.

In every Pixar animation, the Good always overcomes the Evil in the end. For the first time, this good book doesn’t quote Steve swearing without offering its readers a fuller context and the authors’ perceptions; this good book doesn’t simplify Steve’s Shakespearean character by referring to the he’s-just-being-an-asshole cliché. Like Steve who cares deeply about his consumers — “we’re stupid if they can’t use these devices,” the authors empathize with Steve’s tremendous layers in return.

Avatar (2009)

With the help of the thoughtful authors,
for the very first time,
I
see the man as his closest friends and confidants see him.
I always know he’s
special,
now I know
why, and how come.
It’s not his second act that fascinates us,
it’s his
evolution over the decades
becoming the
Steve Jobs we come to admire.


The man who set out to “put a dent in the universe” and ultimately did change the world to “a planet with better designers.”

Steve’s is a growth story. But the truth is, we all are.

Postscript —

I probably should burn the stark pale Isaacson version on my bookshelf which Tim Cook and Jony Ivy have vocally disapproved.

Apart from the disservice the book has done to the man, I never feel anything in the lines except the matter-of-factly tone. It seems to me a mere thrust-to-me task to rush to finish against Mr. Jobs’s drastic deterioration in health. Isaacson didn’t bother enough to dig out the ‘why’ behind Steve’s brash and boorish behaviors but simply linking them to his being an abandoned child from birth.

I adore Becoming Steve Jobs. I feel the fervor oozing out of the words. I find the writers care enough to list facts and guide us to see what they see, to conduct thorough interviews with Steve’s colleagues and frenemies, and to feed readers with intimate anecdotes they have with him personally over the decades of reporting, which, eventually, helped to complete the dauntingly complex jigsaws.

Kudos to Mr. Brent Schlender and Mr. Rick Tetzeli.

And one more thing —

Toy Story (1995)

Mr. Steve Jobs,
you’ve got a friend in all of us.

What I’ve learnt from my yearlong film school application

sec3b1al-de-hollywood
Via Richard Lund

A post with a title like this is, or should be, written by people who are already admitted. I have applied to four top film schools and by far have been rejected by two. (*Usually this is the cue where people stop reading.) While I am still begging to hear from the rest two schools, I think I can use my time more wisely writing about my yearlong application than becoming an expert in refreshing email inbox.

Those who know me often assume that if I were to study a master’s degree, I would choose some business programs like MBA and what not. That was what I thought, too. But instead, I quit my job last Spring and applied to film schools for the Screenwriting MFA program.

#1 Brace yourself

Let’s admit it, applying to film school is hard.

Unlike business schools where a few pages of short essays plus sterling GRE/GMAT scores and strong recommendation letters would do the trick, film school requires “a bit” more than that, especially for those who don’t have portfolio handy, like myself.

When I started writing the hundred-page feature-length screenplay in English, I had written nothing longer than my undergraduate English thesis. It was also the first time I wrote fiction. One evening during the application period, I screamed at the top of my lung from a nightmare and almost gave my parents heart attacks. During the dark-tunnel waiting period, I caved in and binged watching TV shows while I still had to work on GRE which was just three weeks away…

Fast forward — after receiving two rejections and one waitlist, I tried to smile, “it would be fine.” Then a week into the suffocating no-news, I bawled like a psychopath. In my sleep, I would grind teeth till my nerve hurt.

Sure, there are people sweeping all top film schools they’ve applied. But, let’s face it, there are only so many seats (around 30 each) at each school. Most people will have their share of heartbreaks.

So the question for you is this:
Are you ready for all these?

#2 Do your damnedest

I confess I didn’t prepare for a worst-case scenario — like the one I am in right now: two rejections, one waitlist, and one up in the air.

What if no school wanted me?
What if I had to do it all over again next year?
(*Most Screenwriting MFA programs only crop applicants in the fall.)

Would I be ready physically, and psychologically?

These are what I feared most, right from the beginning.

But when I realized that I can only do the best I can, I feel liberated. Bear in mind, arts is subjective. And then, try not to apply to too many schools, because you only have this much of energy in stock. Plus, every school wants things quite differently as you browse the sites. When your Personal Statement sounds like it can also fit to other schools with minimum tweaks, the committee will know. Do your research and limit to the schools that attract and fit you most, and then, work.

So regarding these ultimate questions, I don’t have answers just yet. All I know is I will (and will have to) come up with solutions when that day comes.

Thinking way ahead paralyzes us —
The reality looks all too daunting
while the dream seems all but a joke…

Stop yourself right there! Your job, your job right now is, repeat after me, to finish your application by the deadline. And you can only polish your work when you have completed the first draft.

When you submit your work, your job is done. Let the judges do theirs.

#3 Keep your body active, too

When we have those daunting blank pages to fill, we tend to dissuade ourselves from working out.

As I observe my patterns through my morning journals and books like The Willpower Instinct and Procrastination, I find whenever I feel blue, I never feel better by binge-watching TV shows or stuffing my mouth with chocolate. But, I always become more peaceful after a fifteen-minutes jog — although sometimes I would try talking myself out of it by blaming the polluted air, the rain, or the cold weather.

But here is the thing — if you really want to feel pumped up and get your creative juice flowing, get your body active first. Your mind will thank you later.

#4 Show up every day no matter what

We’ve all been in this quagmire: we want to do our best, but we’re also afraid seeing our best rejected.

If doing our best earns us half the chance to win, investing less or not trying at all takes us to nowhere but the What-if Wanderland.

I used to consider other writers potential competitors. But truth is, we are in competition with no one but ourselves. We human beings have an insatiable stomach for great stories. With so many great writers, fiction and nonfiction, we first write for ourselves. Then the story would appeal to its own “target audience.” That is, I think, one of the best things about the writing business.

Unfortunately, writing can be a sonofbitch, too. I can look for inspiration reading books for days and letting my ideas fermenting in my head not typing a word out… till I was in the vicinity of the deadline. Lee Kuan Yew once said, “I do not yet know of a man who became a leader as a result of having undergone a leadership course.” Reading helps, but writers can only become a better writer through writing.

Even if you’re sure you’ll be rejected,
write something
to have them reject you with at least.

#5 Always look for the brighter side

I was sure that I would be granted admission after the smooth interview. Instead, I was put onto the waitlist. On the same day, I was rejected by the other school I thought I had a shot.

For a few days, I thought this whole application, my fun-less life included, was nothing but a joke. I pictured myself as a laughing stock wherever I went. I thought I was too stupid too naive taking people’s words literally as I quote, “would definitely recommend you to the admission board,” “the board regards you highly,” “your personal statement really stood out.” I was elated and shouted out to the world (via social media) about the interview and felt sure that my name was on their roster already.

But waitlisted? It’s like getting tied up to a burning car loaded with dynamites. You know you’ll wind up getting blown up, you just don’t know when.

12-Angry-Men-The-Jurors
Twelve Angry Men (1957)

It’s possible, but not very probable.

 

This time, I decided not to cave in chewing my heart out; I reached out for advice.

A friend who once got off the waitlist and went to her dream school encouraged me —

“If this is a marathon you are running, it is this last 50-Meter dash that counts now. Shoot them another note about your latest projects and new plans. Re-state your passion for this trade and for the school. When I learnt it was my GMAT and TOEFL scores hurting my chance, I completed an online English program and lay out my sixteen-months study plan as per the school’s program. To this day, I don’t know what got me back in the game in the end. The truth is, you never know.”

Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t.
But it never hurts to try, eh?

A sage mentor and friend of mine reminded me —

“You have a reasonable chance of admission. If applicants who have been admitted to multiple places decide not to accept their offer, then spots open up for the waitlist. We don’t know how many from the waitlist customarily make the final class. It seems it will be several weeks to learn that. In addition, some people who have been waitlisted will accept admission elsewhere, so the waitlist can rapidly shrink. In all, I believe you’re in a pretty good spot.”

Those words pulled me back to senses. I realized the waitlist wasn’t as bad as it sounded considering the odds I was up against. I then wrote back to the school with a heartfelt thank-you letter and waited, patiently — totally out of my character. Two weeks later, I learnt they began accepting students on the waitlist.

I might have a shot after all.

#6 Miracle does happen

2004 ~ 2015: Thanks mum for safekeeping.

As I was polishing this piece, I was finally off the waitlist and will go to U.C.L.A.’s Screenwriting MFA program — at long last.
(*By the way, I got rejected by the last school.)

Four applications, three rejections, one waitlist. And now, finally accepted.

My mum said it would be super humiliating having nowhere to go if nothing panned out. I suppose it could, but it doesn’t have to.

Even if I failed this time, I am already brave enough to quit my job and put my dream to test.

We lose by default if we let our dreams rest and rot. Our failures are only temporary if we refuse to let it be indefinitely. There are no what-ifs in life. You did it, or you did not.

Go big, or go home.


*A bit about myself

I was born and bred in Shanghai by a working class family; neither of my parents speak English.
I graduated with B.A. majoring in English.
I had four full-time jobs in four years after graduation.
By 25, I became the youngest director at a prestigious agency leading five people; I resigned eight months later — one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made.
I fell in love with books long before I found my lifelong fascination with words.
Whenever I am at sea, I turn to Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech for answers.
Like Jobs, I ask myself what I want to do with my life constantly.
Unlike Jobs, I wasn’t lucky enough to find what I wanted to do with my life when I was younger.
I have been doing projects from home while preparing for the school applications and saved enough for the first year’s tuition and fees.

When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

About a fool

Mulan (1998), Walt Disney Feature Animation

I sent a rambling note to seek help from friends.

They definitely would freak out, I thought in horror.

Hours later when I cooled off, I sent another text before hearing back from them. “Sorry, I didn’t know what I was thinking when I wrote it. I must have been demented then.”

Well, here is the thing — No, I DID know what I was thinking at the time. And no, I was NOT demented.

But why do we think we are making a fool out of ourselves at the time?

Because we are ashamed, ashamed of our true self.

We don’t have guts to admit to our friends (and sometimes foes) that, we are what we are, then and there. We are afraid to be exposed, to be stripped off, with nothing to hide.

We are afraid that people would call our names — Hey, you idiot, freak, faggot, weirdo…

That hurts. We feel the impulse to hide away and escape from speaking our minds, ever again.

But there is another soothing voice in our head whispering — It’s okay. Be yourself. You are the bravest person I know. And I am damn proud of you.

“Really? You really think so?” You still can’t believe what you’ve heard.

But slowly, you crawl out of your safe haven, showering again under the sunlight.

How does it feel?
Not as bad as you thought, eh?

Good. Then repeat what you’ve been doing. Go create something. Go make a ‘fool’ out of yourself again. Because, a fool or not, that’s in the eye of the beholder. And that’s no business you can change.

But just remember, I, will always be there for you, if you listen, from within.

Mulan (1998), Walt Disney Feature Animation