Leap of faith

Even when I fall, I know they will catch me.

I had insomnia last night. It’s been this way for a few weeks now. I would force myself to bed around or a little before midnight and tossed and turned till probably past one-thirty or like yesterday two-thirty. 

I plugged in my iPhone and kept listening to Michelle Obama’s new book Becoming. By now, Michelle had left her high-pay law firm job and became an assistant at the Chicago City Hall. Her salary got cut from 120K to 60K. 

Michelle described in detail how she realized her two Ivy League degrees (Princeton B.A. and Harvard Law J.D.) didn’t bring her happiness or fulfillment. And worst of all, she realized that she didn’t even want to be a lawyer to begin with.

She was faced with an age-old economy challenge: sunk cost.

  • Do I keep on staying to pay off my staggering student loan and maximizing the ROI of these expensive degrees and the years of hard-work?
  • Or do I stop the bleed right now and pivot even it means I may suffer financially and lose face in front of my friends and relatives?

 

I faced an eerily similar challenge four years ago. I was the youngest department head leading my own team at a prestigious ad agency. I remember walking past its building as a fresh college graduate fantasizing what it would be like to work there… Three year later, my dream came true fast and furious. I was earning good yuan, helping my family with the mortgage, helping myself with a wardrobe of designer clothes, never giving a thought about dining at fancy restaurants because now I had my own expense account… Most of all, I enjoy the look of my peers when I told them about the firm I worked for and the title I held there. In short, I understand why men buy Porsche. This job was my Porsche.

And yet, slowly, I felt hollow and shallow… I was dying inside.

The inciting event for Michelle Obama (then Michelle Robinson) to change was the sudden deaths of her father of 52 years old and her college roommate Suzanne of 26 years old; plus her ideal boyfriend Barack Obama’s constant questions about her being, her status quo. 

Though much less traumatic, my hinge moment was the call from my firm asking me to visit Sichuan two months after the earthquake. Apart from giving out relief goods, I saw kids using fly and maggot -infested ditches and holes the way we use toilet. My heart broke when I saw they couldn’t take naps lying down because their little beds were in crumbles.

I then flew back to my perfect cosmopolitan life in Shanghai with a mission. I launched a fundraise to buy safe table, chairs and mats for these kids. I was asking for 200,000 RMB, roughly 36,000 USD. The campaign took two months of my free time. But I did it.

I celebrated by calling my dad after the meeting. “Dad, guess what. You are wrong.”

“Tell me more.”

“The kids will have safe equipment within a month.”

He was proud and elated, but he simply replied, “Good.”

I then added, “Dad, I just realized that I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”

“Now don’t get cocky.”

But he knew what I meant.

When I quit my ad agency job to apply for film school, he and mum didn’t stand in the way. 

When I decided to come back to Shanghai to prepare for my artist visa, they welcomed me back with open arms. 

I don’t recall they ever say “We told you so” or “Have you considered something less risky?”

My parents saw something in me when I pulled off my first stunt. That is, getting hired by Wimbledon Tennis and finding a friend of a friend who let me stay at their place in Southfields, London for free, and snagged an interview by Shanghai Sports Channel when I was merely an exchange student to Liverpool John Moores University as a junior in college.

You see, everyone has moments of truth and dare. But more often than not, it became moments of shame and chicken-out. But honestly, how would you know if you never give yourself a chance?

Now, here is another new realization: four years ago after I submitted my application to UCLA Film School, I then asked myself just how realistic and practical this pivot was.

I became so scared that I developed stomach cramps. My fear grew even more severe when I landed LA. Facing a group of already-professional writers, I cringed at my writing, at my stories, at myself. I turned into my own enemy. It was a single-looping tune of “You will never ever belong. Period.”

And yet, right now, less than two months after I got back in Shanghai, I’m already stacking my writer portfolio. If I count the hatched and soon-to-be hatched eggs in my basket, I have four short film credits, two feature credits, several honors as visiting professor and lecture. And counting. 

I add “And counting” because I know Snowball Effect conceptually and practically. Once your stuff is out there, you will get more momentum. More momentum means more opportunity.  Sure, I’ve had and still have people doubt my worth and my value. But unlike my Old Self, I now focus on the lovely people who gave me their leap of faith when I was at the point of ‘0 to 1.’

And since I had let my ambition cloud my judgement and common sense before, I know that this time, I need to listen to my heart to produce good work, which will turn into good karma. 

And because of the lovely people whom I handpick to surround and buttress me, I can keep having my faith, for the next big leap… 

Even when I fall, I know they will catch me. 

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Five days later

Five days, 120 hours later, I shine like a new penny. 

Five days ago, I was let go.

Five days later, I let it go.

Five days ago, I was depressed.

Five days later, I’m decompressed.

Five days ago, I was full of dread.

Five days later, I’m full of dreams.

Five days ago, I recoiled in fear.

Five days later, I allow myself to dare.

Five days ago, I played victim.

Five days later, I’m my own hero.

Five days ago, I stuffed down a whole pint of mint chip ice cream.

Five days later, I’m content with the organic salad and Paul Newman dressing.

Five days ago, I couldn’t drag myself out of the apartment.

Five days later, I beg my trainer to kick my ass till I’m out of his hair.

Five days ago, you tell me five days later I would be happy and free. I might ask you to fuck off.

Five days later, I look back at myself from five days ago. I have trouble recognizing that person.

Five days,
120 hours later,
I shine like a new penny.

Make it count.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. I’ve decided to quit my free UCLA Extension course. And I do it out of love.

Just another blow

Then I saw an update from a former professor. His 28-year-old stepson killed himself. I read his wife’s post, the note from a mother who just lost her son.  I said a prayer. For the lost soul. And for myself. 

A friend said he would resign soon. We had a chat.

“What are you trying to be?”

“Writer.”

“You’re just buying time here. You can actually write from anywhere. You’re better off in China, with your package.”

“But I don’t want to go back. Not yet.”

Why wouldn’t I stop the bleeding when I’m in critical condition?

I video-chatted with my parents, I told them that my days in America is numbered, after all. I sounded optimistic. I had to, in front of my folks.

Then my head started to spin. I reached out to a great friend on FaceTime.

“Is it about your ego?”

“No.”

“Then what? Really ask yourself. Why can’t you picture yourself back? It’s your home after all.”

I gave it a thought.

  • I can go back and teach screenwriting, storytelling.
  • I can keep working on my personal projects as a writer.
  • Is it the sunk cost I am worrying about?
  • Is it the promise to myself, from three years ago, that I don’t want to break?

Then, suddenly, I said, “I want to take a pill and be gone.”

“Are you thinking about suicide? Because I don’t want to be the one who has to identify your body.”

I pictured him, standing over my motionless cold body, dried-eyed with disgust written all over his face…

“I’m sorry that I know you.” He said. “You’re thirty. Do you know how young you are, how much potential you have?”

“Actually, I do.”

“Then why are you talking like this?” He demanded an answer. He was livid.

“You can quit. But never check out.”

Knowing when to quit. Knowing when enough is enough. Knowing when to accept things as they are…

“It’s a reality you don’t want to face. You came to the United States as if you already had a green card. But let’s face it, you’re just another foreign student on a student visa with an expiration date.”

I nodded. It was 11:40 PM. We had been talking for well over an hour.

“Because you know what, the Sun always rises the next day.”

“Yeah. But so what?”

He paused for a moment. “Here is what I’m going to do. I will reach out to some attorneys who handle artist visa for Chinese students. You don’t need to listen to me. But hear them out and see about that.”

“Thank you.”

The Sun did come out today. It’s California after all. I dragged myself up. I have a lunch meeting with a director. I can’t afford to call in sick.

Then I texted my friend: Thank you for yesterday.

My heart still aches. But I’m breathing. Later I logged onto Facebook to reach out to a friend for my podcast interview…

Then I saw an update from a former professor. His 28-year-old stepson killed himself. I read his wife’s post, the note from a mother who has just lost her son.

I said a prayer.
For the lost soul. And for myself.

 

Yours truly.
YZ

Take a deep breath

But when I meditate in the morning, the message is always something different. Today it says: When we let go of all expectation, there is peace.  So I took a deep breath. And settled in. 

I re-started meditation in May.

Today I was told that I am on a 83-day streak. My longest was 91. So eight days away to set a new record. I hope I would just keep going.

I was doing meditation even when my Chinese family of four was here from December to February.

But my auntie fell sick only six days before their trip back to China, right on my 30th birthday. Her face was so swollen that she could barely open her eyes and she was running a fever. I stayed with her in hospital for the first night trying to get to the bottom of the cause.

Long story short. Auntie’s symptoms were relieved. The family went back to China on time. My dad and I even went to the Staples Center for the LA Lakers v. Dallas Mavericks game on Friday night when auntie was discharged late that afternoon, two days before they flew back on Feb 25.

Then, the insurance coverage. I was the middleman for the Ronald Regan Hospital and the Chinese Insurance Company. Roughly a month later, the insurance company confirmed that they would cover the staggering $36,000 hospital bill. By then, I was bone tired.

  • Yesterday in the mailbox, I got a Final Notice from the hospital, staying that they still hadn’t got the rest of the money wire. I have until Aug 8 to fix it.
  • The communication gap between the insurance company and the hospital bureaucrat is appalling. As if sending me those bills, the niece of the patient can solve the problem for her. The insurance company already paid for the 1st half. Shouldn’t she keep talking to the insurance company?
  • I had to stop myself from digging into this rabbit hole, from getting worked up.

Since my family’s left, I felt a huge void.
Plus, I was anxious about the work visa (H-1B) lottery result, my work prospect with the company, whether I was a liability or an asset, and when my boss would send the office manager to break the news to me.

As of June 1, I’m not allowed to be paid anymore. My parents once again showed me just how diehard they are to keep investing in me, regardless of my poor ROI.

If I were the hero of my own movie, I feel the stakes keep rising.  I need to prove my worth to the immigration board next year to get the artist visa (O-1)…

But every morning I switch on the coffee maker, sit on my couch, and meditate, I get a different voice.

Today it says:

When we let go of all expectation, there is peace.
– Kim Eng

So I took a deep breath and settled in.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Drip by drip

By denying me the snazzy title, the to-do list, the caring boss, the paycheck, the work visa, the relationship… everything that I want, could very likely be the best things that can ever happen to me, all at once. It’s not 20/20 hindsight yet, but I have a hunch.

A friend contacted me about a gig: interpret a dozen of non-Chinese films for a Chinese movie critic who is a judge at an international film festival. I would help him to understand what those movies are about to write reviews and score them.

I definitely want the gig. Here are my rationales:

  • I’m curious about what movies get selected and the process on the whole.
  • I want to make connection with this Chinese movie critic.
  • For someone doesn’t have an income right now as a full-time foreign student, I can always use some extra bucks.

But by taking this on, I’m contending with my own projects: My scripts. My novel. My podcast.

I feel stressed.
Actually I can’t remember the last time I was ever chill.

Earlier this year, I was more than just stressed. I was depressed. I felt I was not going places. My work didn’t amount to anything. I was not valued in the office even though I was hired by the big boss when I was still in film school.

Here, Simon Sinek might say this is the typical Millennial Syndrome because the Millennials want things to happen right here, right now.

In my defense, I was asked to read scripts. I read so fast. Soon I ran out of materials. I went after books on Amazon. Then office manager told me the (outsourced) finance manager need to see the producers’ green-light notes before I could order them online. [Translation: Stop doing what you are not told to do.]

So I stopped reimbursing and used my meager salary looking for new materials for the firm. I wrote treatments. I tried pitching to the producers. But their hands were full. Their desks are loaded with more important projects. [Translation: projects that would generate revenue; projects that have higher ROI; projects that they found themselves and appeal to their own tastes.]

As this route led me nowhere, I was dejected. I grew cynical. I thought about quitting. But I had nowhere else to go. My screenwriting mentors asked me to hang on because I was right next to the Hollywood mojo.

Watch and learn, kid!

And yet, I couldn’t see the value of this 9-to-6 job.  I was utterly unfazed after the bedazzlement. I finally came to my senses: it was just like any other jobs I’d held over the years. Who said Hollywood was all dream and drama?  For a few months, the closest drama I’d got was: I was dying of boredom. (Melodrama of course…)  I wanted to create my own stuff. I knew I had ‘the Right Stuff.’  I didn’t want to disappoint. But to be frank, I was disappointed. After the recruit, my boss scarcely bestowed his wisdom like he did in the class.

I wanted to stand on the desk and scream at the top of my lungs in a place everyone was talking but nobody was listening—

Gimme somethin’, sire.
Anythin’!
And I’ll make you proud!

The dream of working for the producer came true fast. But the reality hit me, faster and furious. Finally I realized that I was both the Boy and the Emperor. I had no clothes on. At least I was honest about being naked. This was nothing but day-trading. This was bullshit.

But after getting the H-1B work visa rejection letter from the immigration board, I had an epiphany.   I, not anybody else, had to fight for my artist visa next year, to maximize my chance. Instead of half-assing my effort betting gold on others, I have to do the work and ship fast.

In those darkest days, I came up with a podcast idea called Rock Bottom with YZ. Hence the namesake of this blog. Then the machine started running again:

  • I began my first novel. 47,000 words and counting. Half way through.
  • I picked up screenwriting, after abandoning it for a year.
  • I returned to the world, after being a scared and hurt hermit.
  • I did a lecture on storytelling, mading an impression and some new contacts.
  • I joined a Chinese TV Pilot writer team, not caring who takes credits.
  • I’m about to collaborate with two artists on a short about immigration.
  • I’m going to collaborate on a book project with my Chinese writer pal.
  • ….

The list goes on.

I was stressed that I didn’t know what to do a year ago.
Now I’m stressed that I have only 24 hours a day minus 6-7 hours of sleep with all the things I want to create and collaborate.

I know I’m closer.
I know I’m getting there.
I can feel it in my gut.

I just need to take a deep breath and repeat my mantra: Drip by drip.

By denying me the snazzy title, the to-do list, the caring boss, the paycheck, the work visa, prospect of a romantic relationship… everything that I want, could very likely be the best things that can ever happen to me, all at once.

Bring it on.

It’s not 20/20 hindsight yet, but I have a hunch.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Never judge a book by its cover

We had to dash back, because the class had started. Scanning his baby-shit tee again, I beamed. Good to meet you, Ex-Wall-Street-Wannabe-Filmmaker from Ireland.

I talked with the classmate from the screenwriting class during recess yesterday evening.

The lad is from Ireland. He was in finance for 13 years. Eight years in London. Another five on Wall Street. Still carrying a gruff Irish accent, he dons the same weathered baby-shit brown tee to the class. I would’ve never thought in a gazillion years that this lad in front of me used to be in suit and tie all day long for the most part of his adult life.

“I never wanted to be in finance.” He cut to the chase. “Money was good. But I was miserable.”

He pulled me in right away. A storyteller he is.

“I went there to make just enough money so I can live off later to write my own films and get them made cheap. I know my stories would never go through the studio pipeline. I have savings.  Now I want to apply for film school to get ahead with my pursuit.”

Wow.

“How do you like your film school experience?” He marched ahead with the big question.

I explained that if he wanted to write lots of scripts, UCLA Film School is a no-brainer. Because of its quarter-system. When I was there, I wrote one full-length feature script every ten weeks, along with other classes like Howard Suber’s Film Structure, and miscellaneous classes like producing, acting. I did feature and TV pilot in one quarter plus other classes and TA. It was sheer madness. But I learned about my limits and potentials.

He was concerned about the odds of getting in. Wall Street has its mark on him.

“There are thousands of applicants, right?”

“But you are a very good writer.”

I think he’s playing a good hand. Of course, there is luck and other x-factors. But how would you know if you don’t try?

We had to dash back, because the class had started. Scanning his baby-shit tee again, I beamed.

Good to meet you, Ex-Wall-Street-Wannabe-Filmmaker from Ireland.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Maybe there is a better way

All this time what I have dreaded impossible is actually doable. Because I just need someone who believes in my potential. One person at a time. And then, the Snowball Effect. 

Yesterday afternoon, my colleague and good friend and I went through the storyboard for his shooting this coming Saturday. At first, he just ‘donated’ me a writing credit for the short, because it would help me with my O-1 (Artist Visa) next year. But I wanted to earn it.

Frame by frame, I gave him new angles, ideas and recommendations to play with. I saw his eyes lit up. We were on the same page the whole time. Just by sitting there talking, it rekindled my love for screenwriting.

I told him I felt like I was in a silo when I was developing these feature-length scripts. I have no one to talk to unless I’m in a workshop or when I do a script exchange. I want to be part of the creation, from script to screen. It is never meant to be done alone in the first place.

My friend then said his director buddy approached him. The director wanted to do some projects, not those assignments to pay bills, but stories that can nourish his soul. They narrow it down to this theme: immigration. My friend mentioned my name and my story.

I was flattered and humbled. I pitched him my ideas on the spot.

“Hey, hey, hey, hold your horses.  How about the three of us grab lunch next week and start hashing out the story?”

I was thrilled. Maybe, just maybe, I would be able to apply for O-1 next year after all. I will emerge from an unproduced writer to an aspiring writer with a few body of works.

All this time what I have dreaded impossible is actually doable. Because I just need someone who believes in my potential.

One person at a time.
And then, the Snowball Effect.

 

Yours truly,
YZ