Every writer I subscribe to publishes some kind of yearly review, such as Maria Popova’s wise reflections on the anniversary of her blog or Kevin Kelly’s 68 bits of unsolicited advice, which he wrote to celebrate his birthday.
The words in these essays jump off the page and straight into your heart. There is an unmistakable undertone of truth and humility, of honesty and reflection.
I turned 33 years old recently on this floating rock of randomness, chaos, and beauty. This year feels ominous, but I feel better than ever despite, in the last year, overcoming burnout, healing a ruptured Achilles, undergoing a root canal, and changing careers—oh fuck, and the ongoing pandemic, financial collapse, and a potential war with Russia. But still, we write.
Below is a compilation of ideas I had to change my mind about, beliefs I still ruthlessly hold, and wandering thoughts on creativity, careers, money, health, sanity, and craft.
1. “Writing is thinking.” I continuously beat the drum, urging people to write. Not to publish publicly or to build a Substack, but to critically think, to unravel ideas, to become aware of patterns, to wave the hornets from your mind. It is clarity-inducing and life-saving.
2. The challenge of being a writer is that everyone thinks they can do your job because they can read words on a screen and wrote five-page essays in high school. Most people don’t feel that way about code, which is probably why coders make 10x more than writers.
3. Hire an editor and listen to them. Common writing wisdom says to write every day and read every day. I’d add: The relationship with an editor is as important as your relationship with a dentist, lawyer, tailor, doctor, barber/salon, barista, and the guys at the local bodega. A writer and an editor are two different things. Don’t try to be both.
4. Early in my adolescence of writing, I typed the books I admired – a tactic I learned from a documentary on Hunter S. Thompson’s life. As a young journalist, Thompson would escape into a closet and retype The Great Gatsby because he wanted to feel the cadence and delivery of a beautiful sentence. That book is full of them. I borrowed his tactic whenever I lied to myself about having writer’s block. I still think it’s great practice.
5. Nothing has shocked me more — and helped me become aware of patterns that needed unraveling — than reading old journals and seeing past versions of myself. At the beginning of 2022, I read all of them and teared up for the first time in a long time because I realized I finally was out of the rut. The last few months of the journal were filled with different thoughts than those from the past five years. Five damn years of the same issues written in different tones and lengths — weight, money, career, dating, NYC life, all things adulting — how could I have been so stuck? What was the source? Journaling is potent self-healing. It’s a conversation with yourself that only gets more enriching over time. It is one of many tools to use.
6. I’ve had a commonplace book for 12 years. It is the most resourceful thing I own as a writer, strategist, and artist. As a human being. Start one now. The ability to pull references, quotes, ideas, stories, studies, examples, and metaphors from your studies instantly makes you look like a genius to other people. But really it’s about you doing your homework, knowing your shit, and being able to connect the dots because you are a learner. It is a pantry of knowledge that adds to your flavor.
7. Don't let anyone call your work "content" — unless that's what you're making.
On some real talk
1. Your parents didn’t leave war-torn countries so that you can be a growth marketer at a tech company for the rest of your life. Make your money and do what ya gotta do.
2. It’s never really about the thing — peel the layers back and get to the source.
3. The truth always comes out three drinks in.
4. A mind with no purpose is like dying coals, eager to consume anything for fuel. The low-hanging fruit of cynicism, pessimism, and self-destructive habits become the daily pattern. Always return to the grand question: Why am I here? What is my purpose?
5. To remember someone’s birthday, add it to your calendar and repeat the event every year.
6. It is more fulfilling to complain than it is to solve the problem. This is why a lot of people stay stuck. It is safer to be stuck than to change. There is no growth in safety. Leap.
7. One pattern/thought I hear from people I admire throughout my career: This is all made up. Meaning: no one has it figured out; creative ideas are not like tech products where something travels from A to B, instead creativity is about the various conversations and ideas being mashed together to create something new.
8. If you’re going to talk about depression or other extremely personal events, be thoughtful about it, please. Take your time; figure your shit out in private before going public. I deeply admire the way Tim Ferris opened up about suicide. I see too many people in my industry readily using their trauma and depression and anxiety as marketing magnets.
9. Children of immigrants make good hires because we’re all brainwashed to tie our self-worth and identity to our work. We will overwork, overdeliver, and not complain. In my bubble, my friends and I are unlearning this, talking about it more. It gives me hope.
10. Some people have book smarts. Some have internet smarts. Some are street smart. It is very rare to meet someone who has all three. If you meet someone that has all three, hire or befriend them.
On careers, industry, and creativity
1. The goal of every job is to be less naive; to be aware of formulas and patterns, cultures and politics, personas and priorities; to gain connections, make friends, and see clearly so that you can spot opportunities before anyone else. If you’re a creative person building a career where you get paid for your thinking/imagination/artwork, I suggest working in the following environments within the first ten years:
An agency will expose you to a variety of clients. You’ll learn to speak the language and understand how to scope and price work. You’ll also work through the most toxic environments and with narcissistic masochists and the occasional sociopath.
A start-up will allow you to wear multiple hats, learn a ton, shift directions, and be underpaid and overworked.
A mission-driven org will fill you with meaning because your work is being used for good; the challenge will be maintaining that feeling if your output outgrows your compensation.
Freelance will teach you to juggle everything all at once. Sometimes the jump to freelance is exactly what people need to light a fire under their ass.
Working in tech will be comfy and good money. You’ll work with a variety of complex personalities and people with fancy titles who don’t deserve them. Hopefully, you befriend coworkers in other countries and learn their culture. You’ll feel the bore of bureaucracy. The god complex of the talentless. The pedantic, robotic work-speak that pervaded the tech culture. The lack of taste in tech is a gigantic opportunity. You can learn how other teams function and how products grow — all experiences for when you, someday, build something.
2. The strongest ideas grow in conversation. Learn to create environments where conversation flows.
3. Brainstorming is a waste of time. Brainwrite instead. Ask each person to come up with 10 ideas. You’ll have far more interesting ideas and potential connections versus brainstorming one idea and bouncing it within the biased walls of the Zoom call.
4. Working hard is for people who don’t know what they’re doing. Working smart is about finesse, mastering processes, constraints, deadlines, and tricking your brain into doing the work. Creative people need time to be inspired, to digest experiences, to mind-wander. Focusing on the “time spent” on an idea and grinding through at your desk isn’t helping anyone. Working smarter will nourish the imagination. Solutions often come when we least expect it.
5. No one works eight hours. People have the capacity for three, maybe four, hours of work where their quality of attention is solid. If discipline is fuel, then get into the habit of setting boundaries and understanding when your mind is primed for flow state to make the best use of those hours.
6. The moment you mix money into your hobby, you’ve turned it into a job, and turning it back into a hobby will be challenging. Cherish your hobbies and protect them from extrinsic motivations. As the legendary Bill Cunningham said, “If you don’t take the money, they can’t tell ya what to do.”
7. The pursuit of mastery is the key to a fulfilling life. I believed this when I was growing as a writer, using it as a compass for ambition and still today as I question my purpose, my career, all of it. Keyword: pursuit. Mastery is a continuous, evolving life force that lives within each person. It is the source of purpose and of being of service to people – to be useful. Naturally, it is also painful to commit to, it grows slowly, and isn’t on a linear path. Read Mastery by Robert Greene and Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Both are powerful ideas for understanding the fundamentals of mastery.
8. Portfolio portfolio portfolio. What have you shipped? What were your responsibilities? What did you create? What did you write, design, or code? Did you lead, manage, or build? Nothing speaks more clearly than a portfolio of projects. When people are good talkers but have no portfolio, be on high alert.
9. What are you excellent at?
What are you passionate about?
What does the world need?
At the center of these three questions is your life’s purpose. The essence of your creativity.
10. I wrote about NFTs, of course. There is a lot of hate circling it. New things are misunderstood and hating on things you don’t understand can feel meaningful these days. My only sincere hope is that it enables artists to escape the tyranny of tech and advertising and unimaginative marketing clients. For example, illustrators have to do editorial, advertising, or agency work to make a buck. Bigger clients are painful to work with but pay well; smaller clients can be fun to work with but pay little. A body of work as NFTs can free an illustrator from these games.
11. I still struggle with this, but: get your name on the project to get credit. There are arguments that doing so is pure ego and to let it go, that it doesn’t matter in the long run; there are opposing arguments that it makes different audiences aware of your name, yielding new work or collaborations. I don’t care about awards (it’s a pay-to-play game), but there is a benefit in getting credit. One regret that was hard to shake off was not getting credit for projects that I helped build. At the time, I was like yeah, so what, who cares. But I realized I was burned when I didn’t get credit and those two projects garnered a ton of industry attention and admiration. The way out of this spiral of ego was focusing on gratitude for the experiences that made me smarter. I know of many garbage agencies that remove credit, especially from the contractors, to flex that the full-time employees did it themselves. You can delete a name off the credit list, but you can’t delete the experience earned.
12. If you aren’t hearing “No” a lot, you aren’t charging enough.
13. The shinier a company is on the outside, the more toxic it is inside.
14. The loudest “leaders” in creative industries are the ones most full of shit. They have to maintain their illusion because they don’t ship things anymore, so their reputation is the product.
15. "The height of originality is skill in concealing origins." — C. E. M. Joad. Case in point below.
Left image by legendary NYC photographer, Joel Meyerowitz. Most people would not be able to make this connection. You have to be a student of photography (or a good art director) to know the origin of an image like this.
I have a bone to pick with this one. Left image by photographer Alejandro Cartagena, a series he shot over the years called Carpoolers. On the right is blatant stealing by an unimaginative brand. The fashion industry has sapped creativity from many artists, proving their irrelevance and lack of imagination, always getting caught red-handed for stealing. The image above is an unfortunate act of depravity that has been going on for decades; what’s fucked is that it goes unpunished, that “professionals” would commit such a blatant act of stealing. I would love to see the moodboard for this one. They could have just hired the guy (my guess is he would have said no). This is one example I am picking on out of the innumerable failures that happen in this industry weekly. Please, dear artist with a modicum of self-respect, don’t ever fucking do this. Walk away from the project.
16. On the note above, the only solution, truly, is to just make better work. Make more art. Ship things that touch people. You can either fight and prove that your idea was stolen, or you can get back to making art. The latter seems like a better long-term strategy. It is insanely painful to have your work stolen, misattributed, your name spelled wrong, etc. Happened to me and close friends numerous times. Fighting is exhausting and the outcome is never as good as it seems. The true artist puts their focus on the process – the flow state – and realizes that a life like that is the reward.
17. Creativity is purely about practice. If you have a disciplined practice, you will be creative. Because I was an athlete for most of my life, comparing writing or photography to shooting a basketball 1,000 times a day helped me become an artist.
18. I believe in training your body like an athlete so that you build the discipline and mental fortitude necessary to be an artist. The thinking goes like this: If I can drag my ass to the gym and deadlift or do the stepper machine for 30 minutes, I can finish a shitty first draft.
19. Subscribe to people you deeply admire (blog, books, podcasts, etc.) You will inadvertently start speaking like them, using their language, mimicking their cadence and tone. Nothing wrong with that. Eventually, you need to find new heroes and then find your own voice in it all.
20. The best projects make you seethe with envy because you wish you had done it — the craft, attention to every little detail, how it is framed, and talked about. That’s how you know something was made with love.
21. Any client who demands excellent work in an unrealistic timeframe deserves mediocre work at best. Avoid working with people who’ve never made anything worth talking about.
22. I used to firmly believe that adversity and pain were the bedrock for producing great art. I don’t think suffering is required to be an artist, nor would I wish suffering upon anyone. I don’t think it can last. From Macbeth: “Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it.” Watch the film Phantom Thread with Daniel Day-Lewis.
23. The greatest builders and artists are observers. . And they use creativity and imagination to make something that changes people’s perceptions. Pay attention.
24. My bud Sean Blanda wrote one of my favorite articles ever called The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex.
“The bullshit industrial complex is a pyramid of groups that goes something like this:
Group 1: People actually shipping ideas, launching businesses, doing creative work, taking risks, and sharing first-hand learnings.
Group 2: People writing about group 1 in clear, concise, accessible language.
[And here rests the line of bullshit demarcation…]
Group 3: People aggregating the learnings of group 2, passing it off as first-hand wisdom.
Group 4: People aggregating the learnings of group 3, believing they are as worthy of praise as the people in group 1.
Groups 5+: And downward….
The Complex eventually becomes a full-fledged self-sufficient ecosystem when people in group 4 are reviewing books by people in group 3 who are only tweeting people in group 2 who are appearing on the podcasts started by people in group 3.”
Be group one or two.
25. Job descriptions — if they’re written by someone who knows what they’re talking about — are about 20% accurate. You figure out rest when you’re in it.
26. If you’re unsure about the job/company, ask for a two-month freelance period. You get paid your salary as 1099, and if it genuinely doesn’t feel right, you can leave without the headache and it costs the company less. Consider it dating.
On money, debt, and crypto
1. Getting into credit card debt was one of the worst experiences as an artist and an adult trying to adult in a new city. At the time my debt grew, I was burned out, underpaid, and developed bad habits. Compounding debt + job insecurity + survival mode + coping is a recipe for disaster. I could have suddenly made triple the salary and still would have been miserable. Why? Because I had to change my beliefs and perception. I was aimless, angry. It took me 8 years to get perfect credit and 8 weeks to lose it all. If you’re in this situation, seek financial help, talk with friends, do your research, and act immediately. I didn’t raise my hand for help because of a mix of things, but at the core was being a first-generation Korean American from a family that did not understand or talk about money. At the core was shame and fear and embarrassment. The debt grows. And you get lost in it.
2. Have heart-to-heart conversations with close friends about money, careers, goals, relationships, dreams, salary, equity, rates, contracts, all of it. It’s so important to talk it out, to find commonality among people you trust and admire, and to have greater context so that everyone does better.
3. Grow your base salary, but don’t level up your lifestyle.
4. Studying crypto in 2021 taught me more about finance and traditional systems than any book or podcast or blog. To learn something, you need to have skin in the game.
5. Money is a story you tell yourself.
6. If you can’t pay your credit card balance in full every month, you are overspending and prone to debt. Get rid of the credit card.
On all things life
1. I recently caught up with my tattoo artist in Los Angeles. I sit for eight to ten hours per session, and it can feel like a long therapy session because we talk about everything. I haven’t seen him since January 2020. I caught him up on pandemic life, job burnout, rock bottoms, ah-ha moments, and rebuilding myself. With a monk-like response, he said, “So much can happen between our ears.”
2. If you’re trying to befriend someone and you’re putting more effort in than they are, there’s a reason for that. I have a limit of two asks. If they have kids, be more patient.
3. Be kind to everyone — they will either be your boss or the reason you get work (or don’t get it).
4. The things I’ve learned to cherish deeply: my friendships that hit the 20-year milestone, my mornings, being in nature sitting by a fire, outdoor cooking, a monthly massage, hobbies that no one knows about, vegetables, big meals with old friends, long walks in the city, phone calls and walking, writing letters, and people with a strong moral compass and point of view on life.
5. If it isn’t in the Google calendar, it ain’t happening.
6. Inventing chaos and turning events into catastrophes is something only you can do. And it happens when you’re exhausted and burned out or have no purpose. Your mind is like a kite trapped in a hurricane, yanked around. The danger is taking the stories spun up in moments of chaos and using them as identity and justifications for self-defeating habits and bad deeds. The craziest part? It feels good. You’re busy. But ultimately you stay stuck.
7. The greatest gift in life is learning. Learning helps us see clearly. Read books to have a discussion with yourself, the author, and their ideas. Listen to podcasts that feel like you’re getting access to brilliant minds. Listen to how they talk, deliver ideas, and respond.
8. Everything that starts with you ends with you.
9. Always return to fundamentals, even when things are going well. It’s all a cycle.
10. If someone sends you work, reserve some money for a thank you gift. Donate to their choice of charity. Send flowers. Buy dinner. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent people jobs that paid them thousands of dollars and didn’t even get a thank you text. This doesn't break the friendship — and I have definitely made this mistake early in my career — but it is thoughtless and we can all do a little better in showing appreciation.
11. Self-awareness is a habit. It is humble consciousness. Imagine yourself floating over yourself. Observe your behaviors. Measure it against higher values and morals. Do better.
12. Study new trends and cultural moments as deeply as you can, then get out. Avoid drinking too much of the Kool-Aid. Learn how it’s made, but watch out. It’ll drag you down.
13. Being very online feels good because you think you’re in the know. But suddenly days are “ruined” because of some external things that you can’t control; something to be angry and scream about. Rogan and Spotify; Coinbase and politics; Basecamp and whatever; The Wing and some luggage company; a boss saying bad things in Slack; a tone-deaf celebrity — ask yourself why you care so much about this bullshit. Stop getting distracted.
14. Sanity is a skill for the future. Those who can stay sane, avoid the mob, and choose to be happy will live well. Work at having equanimity.
15. Develop the habit of checking in on yourself. Who do you want to become? Is this next opportunity bringing you closer?
16. Self-delusion is potent fuel. Use it wisely.
17. A lot of the chaos in the world is caused by systems we’ve built that are now outdated. And change is hard. For example, people complain about the education system, but the system is working as intended. It was born out of the Industrial era, inspired by the efficiency of factories. How do you process millions of students? Like widgets getting put into a box, sent down the factory line with tests and scores. I subscribe to the best definition for creating change, by Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
20. Lastly, falling in love was the last thing I expected during the pandemic. Dating in NYC is hard. But meeting someone unexpectedly, connecting and committing, continues to be the balm for living in this chaotic world.