Maker v. Faker

You make till you make it.

Before I decided to become a screenwriter, I had dabbed in and around advertising for some three and a half years.

You see, advertising was my passion until it was not. I used to dream of working in that building where the Big Leagues like Ogilvy and JWT lived. One day, a president from a major advertising firm approached me. It seemed like an exciting opportunity. And guess what, I got to work in that building with other creative people! Three years after I graduated from college, I finally got my foot into the party.

Then came the part where it was left out in the happily-ever-after fairy tale, the level of creativity in my job was minimal at best, even though I got to have my own team.  Everything else – the title, the package, the location – were just not strong enough of reasons to keep me there.  And what should be like the Broadway stage now felt like a prison to me… And the hardest pill to swallow was: I was the one who turned myself in. All I need to do now was to watch Prison Break again and learn to break out of the cell… The rest is history. 

Today I met with the short film director. He once worked in that building too. And that was not the only thing we had in common. Unlike the most ECDs (Executive Creative Director) that I had the fortune and misfortune to meet in Shanghai, he is one of a kind! He won the best awards (from Cannes, One Show to Clio)  in advertising and ten times over. If an idea belonged to his subordinates, he would never call it his own. 

“You are a unicorn, man!” I exclaimed in the quiet restaurant.

“My work ethics is more important to me. I don’t want to cheat or brag about something that I didn’t earn. That’s all.”

He then showed me the spots he did for clients from Buick to Heineken, from Kiehl’s to Sprite. “What ad men here don’t lack is braggadocio. But most don’t have real work to support the statement, or their spines.” 

“And yet, there are more than a few of those live rather comfortably here in the city. With your calibre, you can start your own shop between the blink of an eye.” I added. 

“Yes. You’re right. I disassociate myself from the fakers, who are experts in hosting dinners and parties amongst one another so they can feed their bloated egos to keep feeling important and welcomed… in the cocoon.”

“I know exactly the kind of people that you’re talking about.” I beamed as memory flashing back, uninvited.

“I was one of the judges at an advertising festival. Then I stopped going. Because I saw the money exchanged behind the scene. I had better things to do.”

“You know, I once worked at this local advertising festival.”

“Oh, you did?”

I gave him the look. 

“You know, we call it Cabbage Award because everyone’s a happy winner of something as long as you paid to enter. Quite a spectacle to see how BIG it grew over the years, isn’t it? I always gave away my tickets.”

I didn’t tell him that just a few days ago I tried to reconnect with the founder of this local festival only to get turned down that he didn’t have time to meet after all. [Here in China, if you don’t get a yes, it’s a no.] The founder is a busy guy, because his festival is so in demand right now that everyone uses it as a crucial networking opportunity given how fluid the advertising job market is. Because I had seen how the sausage was made, I was never really impressed except for the founder’s persistence. 

So how do we measure our legacy? 

  • By how much money have we earned?
  • Or, by how many books have we sold?
  • Or, by how many people know our name?
  • Or, by how many souls have we touched?

In the end, who are you fooling if you’ve never given your best shot, never gone through and under your fear, never removed the mask you’ve tattooed on your face, because you convince yourself that the stake is just too high, now is still too early, the truth is way too embarrassing, and the road not taken is too damn hard that it hurts like a motherfucker… Don’t wait until you’ve run out of time and run into your own deathbed. That is a tragedy without a hero. 

Let them have the laugh, the stage, the floor, because if you pan up the camera, you see the puppeteer pulling the strings at them.

But you, you cut loose the strings so you can be the boss of your life. 


Yours truly,
YZ

And more thing, you don’t fake it till you make it. You make till you make it.

 

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

My 2018’s 20/20

Live one day at a time

I remember dreading whether I could be do screenwriting again when I started working at a high-profile production company. In my sometimes ten-hour workday at the office in Beverly Hills, I was either reading or writing about the stuff I just read. When I ran out of materials, I asked people to send me more stuff to read. 

With the 20/20 I have now, it’s pretty easy to see what drove me then.  Fear.  

Fear of not fitting in.
Fear of getting caught as a fraud.
Fear of losing the job.
Fear of writing.
Fear of sending people my specs.
Fear of having written something that isn’t good. That might never get better.
Fear of getting kicked out of the country and losing everything.

As a result, I didn’t write a word for eight months on end. I was preparing for my small claims lawsuit against a former landlady. I was entertaining my family. My aunt fell sick. There was always a new hedgehog popping its head out for my dirt cheap undivided attention.

I believed my writer’s block was earned. It felt real and got more so by the day, by the hour that I postponed, procrastinated from: merely start. 

By August this year, almost all my worst fears came true. My visa fell through. I was let go. I didn’t have more or better samples to show when I took meetings.  I had to physically uproot and wholesale what I’d built in LA and leave the country within two months.

Tick tock. Tick tock.

It was more than just a hard pill to swallow. It was a cocktail of my bruised ego, my crushed pride, mixed with a triple-shot of wrath soaked in broken promises, trust and hope.

Friends urged me to look at the brighter side of things, greater design of the scheme.

You don’t have to tell the whole truth.  Control your narrative so you won’t be mocked or pitied. Have faith in your ability. 

Easier said than done.

At the time, I couldn’t. I was sulking and moping. I couldn’t seem to hurlde even the first stage of grieving. I was in total denial. 

I think what got me through are basically two things:

  • First, take one step at a time; and live one day at a time.
  • Second, rage and regret steal your energy, not your enemies’.

My psychologist friend Barbara said, “As long as we are human, we have ego.” So yes, if you’re wondering, I still have a chip on my shoulder. I learn to live with it. But I don’t plan to indulge on it further.

I’ll end on this note to whomever it may concern: My future success is the best “Fuck you very much.”

 

Yours truly,
YZ

RBYZ: Eternal Optimist (#010)

Meet Christopher Li, the serial entrepreneur who seizes the day before it’s dawn.

It started off as an immigrant story. Born in Hong Kong, our guest came to the US with his family. With intelligence and diligence, he went into management consulting and later became his own boss.

Meet Christopher Li, the serial entrepreneur who seizes the day before it’s dawn.

What you’ll hear:

  • What was his “Fresh off the boat” experience like in the ’70s California being the few Asians on the block?
  • How did he deal with culture shock coming to the US at the age of 11?
  • What values did he pick up from his parents as a first-generation immigrant?
  • What did the experience of delivering newspapers at 6 am everyday teach him?
  • What was dating like for him when Asian women weren’t many in the mostly White neighborhood that his family lived in?
  • What did he see in the face of divorce apart from the fact that it was a very public and expensive failure?  What are the silver linings?
  • Is an Eternal Optimist nature or nurture?
  • How did he tackle the bias of “executive presence” and the glass ceilings as a minority while working in management consulting?
  • How does he look at failures in entrepreneurship these days?
  • Being a result-driven entrepreneur, how does he deal with harmony in the Chinese culture?
  • And so, so much more!

Links from the episode:

 

Listen and subscribe to Rock Bottom with YZ:
A weekly podcast for and about anyone and everyone who has spiraled downward and doesn’t know which end is up.

Listen to Rock Bottom with YZ on RadioPublic

 

Yours truly,
YZ

PS. Click here to see ways to help #RBYZ to grow.
PPS. Christopher is one of the most open guests I have had the honor to interview. Kudos!

One more thing – If you are an American citizen in the US, remember to #VOTE today.