I recently did a talk for Qualtrics for ExperienceWeek in Provo, UT. Usually I get asked to talk about work or something related to content/brands, but this was different. They wanted me to talk about a particular experience that shaped how I looked at life. At first, I was a bit hesitant. If anyone knows me well, I don't love to talk about feelings. But I thought it would be good for me, so I agreed to do it. Oddly enough, it was a bit of a life changing choice. It allowed me to think deeply about a subject I tend to gloss over and really look at how I got here... the sacrifices my parents made... the hardships and the successes that followed.
I was born in Hong Kong in 1970. My parents, like so many others before them, fell in love with the American dream.
Shortly after I was born, we immigrated to the United States to embark on this new adventure. The goal for many immigrants is to assimilate, and that’s exactly what we did. Through a lot of hard work, my parents began to accumulate the trappings of an upwardly mobile American family. We lived in a nice house in the suburbs of San Francisco. We went to good schools. We took family vacations to Disneyland. I recently came across this interesting series of photos of myself where, as I grew bigger, so did the TVs. My banker dad was following his version of the American dream, which entailed filling our driveway full of fancy cars. This last one was the James Bond car from The Spy Who Loved Me, which honestly, as a 12 year old, was an awesome car to have. At this age, it became clear to me that stuff meant success.
But that all changed when I was about 12. It started with the cars being taken away, one by one. My parents were arguing a lot and the final blow came when the house was foreclosed on. My parents split up. My sister and I... we went with dad. The three of us took refuge in my aunt’s spare bedroom. Not only was it a tight fit for us, but the room was more like a small loft, open to the downstairs below and everything that was going on down there. For my sheltered and privileged 12 year old self, that new reality came as quite a shock. Every bit of security I had known was gone.
One night, my cousins, they’re about 10 years older than me, threw this insane rager of a party. The house was filled with booze. There were drunk people dressed in all kinds of crazy costumes. It wasn’t even a Halloween party. It was just a Wednesday in the ‘80s. I was talking to my sister about it and she reminded me that the speakers for the room were actually inside our room, and they were blasting a nonstop playlist of funk, soul, and disco down into the party below. I distinctly remember lying wide awake at 3 a.m. in my itchy Sears Roebuck sleeping bag, music blaring, the reflection of police lights flashing against the curtains, drunken party goers below, repeating the following mantra to myself, “Never, never, never.” This was my never again moment.
From that time on, I would know exactly what I did not want from the future. Whenever I had to make a decision, going to college, getting a job, getting fired, dating someone, breaking up with someone, getting married, having kids, getting fired again, starting an agency, I would find myself back in my aunt’s bedroom, willing the future me to avoid the landmines of life.
I would go on to graduate from UC Santa Barbara with a fine arts degree in sculpture, and my never again voice had some serious issues with that decision. “What were you thinking?” it said. Listening to it, I threw myself into graphic design. I put away the welding equipment, I got a real job that paid well, and also satisfied my inner voice’s need and desire for security.
I began squirreling money away. I was a serial saver and a famous cheapskate. My parents actually had this long running joke, it was way too long, but a long running joke that whenever I opened my wallet, moths would fly out. It’s a pretty good one. Fortunately, I would go on to marry the love of my life, Jen, who also turned out to be a big cheapskate. That’s her when we ... I think that’s 20 years ago. We raised two beautiful, intelligent daughters, Hanne and Orla, also now well-schooled in the ways of the cheapskate. For a long time, I took a typical design career path and I did this at small agencies and I did this at big companies like Napster, Yahoo, and AOL. After a lot of career success and recognition, I found myself on the branded entertainment team of AOL and I hit the boredom wall.
Squirreling away money wasn’t enough. What was I going to do with it, anyway? My dad had long cured me of the desire to fill our driveway full of expensive cars.
So, I took a chance and I left my comfy job. I remember sitting in my boss’ office telling her that I was going to quit. I could feel the cold sweat running down my back and my heart was just pounding in my chest, [th-thump, th-thump, th-thump. My never again inner voice was pleading with me to turn back, but I took a leap of faith into the unknown and I hung up the design guns and I abruptly switched careers. I have always had a passion for film and storytelling. It was a classic right time, right place situation. I was surrounded by talented people who took me under their wing and I was in an environment that allowed me to take a lot of chances and risks creatively, without the worry of failing too hard.
I would go on to head the Vimeo brand’s studio, where I had the good fortune to create over 60 films in just under four years. These were branded content films, but they were beautiful films. Films that pushed the boundaries of branded entertainment. I got to work with innovative and influential filmmakers. I received accolades and awards. I’d like to just show you a little bit of that right now.
It should have been enough. Why wasn’t it enough? I took this question to a good friend of mine, Kerry. Over a breakfast of runny eggs and bacon, he answered that question with another question. “What do you want to do?” When someone asked that question, I had always heard it as, “What are you going to do to make money, so you don’t end up broke and moving back into your aunt’s spare bedroom with your family in tow?” But I had a discovery moment. I thought about all the things that I had just created. I was just making stuff. The same stuff that could be gone in the blink of an eye. I now heard that question as, “What do you want to achieve in life?”
A good friend and former client, Ashley Davidson, and I had been thinking about doing our own thing for some time. We dreamt of a different kind of content agency. One that could incorporate all of our experiences, and interests, and community activism, design, film, photography, furniture design, and urban planning. What we were attempting to do in hindsight was not design a company, but design a life in which we could do all the things we’ve wanted to do. Things that could not only sustain themselves, but also bring us fulfillment and purpose.
It wasn’t good enough to be good. I had to do good. We wanted to create experiences that would change the world, and so Citizen was born.
Fortunately, we’ve been busy since we’ve opened. We are creating content that showcases the beauty and diversity of America, we’re working with Catholic Relief Services, and we’re actively developing models that bring local communities together through education, collaboration, and design. It feels good to be moving towards passion and away from fear.
That seminal experience when I was 12 years old, which shaped how I looked at life, and as tough as it was, it made everything that followed possible. It took a long time to step out of that room and tune out those voices, but I stand here before you transformed with a new voice in my head, one that will not accept anything less than finding meaningful passion in life. My parents’ American dream did not end that evening. It continues with me. It serves as the foundation for mine. For me, the American dream is not about the accumulation of stuff. It’s really just a simple question. What do you want to achieve in life? I think once you can figure that out, you can truly live the life you were destined to live because your inner passion voice will demand it.
I still find myself thinking about that night in my aunt’s bedroom, but it’s no longer the pain of it that stands out anymore. I now see that as the moment when my journey towards the American dream began, and I can truly appreciate the words of wisdom from the legendary band, Earth, Wind, and Fire: “You’re a shining star no matter who you are, shining bright to see what you could truly be.”