Giving Thanks

“I think I kind of lost the thread of what you were doing with your life.”

Three years ago, I was catching up with a friend over lunch when she spoke these words to me. And reader, I agreed with her. I had recently left a lucrative job at Microsoft to try my hand at the world of startups, but things hadn’t exactly worked out like I’d hoped. So for awhile, I was adrift as I applied to jobs, trying to figure out what direction my life was heading in. At one point, I even created a “dream board” where I wrote all the different paths I could pursue onto index cards, tacked them onto a bulletin board, and ranked them based on their likelihood of success and the emotional satisfaction/financial benefits they might bring me (it’s an illuminating exercise that I’d recommend to anyone).

After much consideration, I’d decided that I wanted to give the corporate world at least one more shot. I felt like I still had much to learn, and I enjoy solving business problems and making an impact as part of a team.

When you live in Seattle, one of the most obvious places to work is Amazon, whose corporate headquarters is based in the South Lake Union neighborhood. I knew very little of what it was like to work there — only that their business prowess was formidable, their scope was sprawling, and their standards were incredibly high.

Over the course of several months, I applied for several jobs at Amazon. At most companies, when you are deemed worthy of an in-person interview, they bring you in for a full day’s of conversations with employees. Amazon is no different. I remember sitting in the lobby of one of Amazon’s buildings, waiting for a day of interviews to begin. I watched as hundreds of employees passed by, pressing their badges against the security turnstiles and stepped onto elevators that would whisk them up to their offices. It was a normal day for them, but for me, all I wanted was to see what was past those turnstiles, to understand what it was like to work at this company that had captured the loyalty of tens of millions of Americans.

I’d dedicated many days of preparation to every interview I participated in, and I was turned down more than once. But eventually, after a great deal of perseverance, I was hired.

I know that lots of people have different opinions about Amazon and certainly working there can have its ups and downs. But as I reflect on the past 2+ years of my life, I have so much gratitude for all the hyper-intelligent people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve been able to have, and all that I’ve been able to learn. Regardless of how things play out from this point, I have a much deeper understanding of my capabilities and what I want out of my life, as well as more resources to make those things happen. I have started to find the thread of my life again.

But what comes to mind today, on Thanksgiving Day 2019, is all the people that helped me to get to where I am.

As I was going through the process of getting hired, I realized that the one thing that was most important to my success was to find a group of people who believed in me. I was so lucky to have found them: people who dedicated time and resources to helping me prepare for my interviews; people who made connections with others that would prove invaluable in the future; people who helped me talk through all the different options and possibilities (Notably, my wife falls into all these categories and more. She’s  never stopped believing in me, even in my darkest hours). Everyone gave freely without expecting anything in return. In doing so, they earned a friend in me for life.

So as you reflect on the state of your life, as many do during this contemplative holiday period, I hope you’ll remember the people who’ve believed in you. Those who have cleared the way for you, supported you, and made sacrifices to get you where you are right now, even when you could give them absolutely nothing in return. And if you have a chance, maybe give them a call or a text and let them know how much they mean to you.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

The forces you cannot see

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Note: Today, I’m heading to Iceland for eight days of much-needed vacation. I’m hoping to return this blog to a more regular schedule upon my return. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter and Instagram for travel updates and photos.

The past couple weeks have been the busiest of my entire professional life. As a result, you may have noticed my newsletter/blogging schedule has been lighter than usual. I’ve been finishing up some projects at work and also hosting four weekly podcasts. It’s a lot.

The most challenging of the podcasts has been Culturally Relevant, my weekly interview show. While it’s the proudest I’ve ever been of any of my podcasting work, it’s also been a monstrous challenge to juggle booking weekly guests with all of my other commitments.

One of the things I’ve been grateful for is how willing people are to talk to me about their work. In just the past couple months, I’ve had a chance to chat with award-winning filmmakers and best-selling authors. On a recent occasion, one of my guests (who you will hear on a future episode) shared with me how incredibly busy they were, juggling massive prestigious projects while running themselves ragged. Nonetheless, they were committed to taking the time to talk to me.

While I appreciated the kindness, I also asked why our conversation was important to this guest. After all, they hadn’t heard of me until I’d introduced myself with an invitation to appear on the podcast.

“Because one of my friends is a big fan of yours and he said I should definitely come on.”

We moved on to another topic, but I was still very moved by this offhand comment. It made me realize that there are people rooting for me who I don’t even know about — people who are willing to vouch for me and use up their social capital, for no reward other than to support what I’m working on.

I think we all have invisible angels. They are the forces we cannot see that protect us, elevate us, keep us from danger. Sometimes you are able to thank them personally; other times, you might not even know they did anything for you. You will never meet them, nor understand the full extent in which their actions shaped your life. You can only hope that by putting some of your own positivity into the world, you’re paying it forward.

I appreciate all my invisible angels out there. And I hope that I can be that force for good for the people in my life (and and maybe those who don’t even know me) that need it most.


Some interesting links from the past few weeks:

(Featured image by Victor Montol, used under Creative Commons)

Why it’s the best/worst time to start a podcast

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I recently created a new podcast called Culturally Relevant, where I interview fascinating writers/filmmakers/artists to talk about big ideas. I’ve never worked harder on a podcast before, nor have I ever been more proud of something I’ve made. I hope you have a chance to check it out and subscribe.

Getting this show off the ground has revealed to me just how different the podcast environment is today than when I first started podcasting over 10 years ago. In many ways, it feels like it’s the absolute worst time in the history of mankind to start a podcast. It is also, coincidentally, the best.

Let’s start with why it’s tough out there.

Big money has come to podcasts: VC money and other forms of investment have come flowing into podcasts. Gimlet Media recently sold to Spotify for over $200 million. Luminary has entered the game with over $100 million in investment in the hopes of becoming the Netflix for podcasts. We are a long way from when podcasting was the sole domain of hobbyists. Many podcasts are now extremely well funded, giving them the means to have high production values and longer lead times on their episodes. They also have marketing budgets in the tens of thousands that allow them to advertise on other podcasts and even other forms of media. If you don’t have a big budget to produce and market your show, it can feel like you are David going up against 10,000 Goliaths.

Celebrities have caught wind: Celebrities and TV personalities have begun converting their massive fame into podcast equity. People like Adam Carolla and Mark Maron led the way, and now folks like Dax Shepherd and Conan O’Brien have also realized there’s an audience for them in the podcast world. It used to be that when I landed a big interview with someone on a press tour, I’d be so thrilled to have a big differentiator for my show. Now, you can literally listen to Alec Baldwin interview that same person. And most people? If they only have time for one show, they’re probably going to go with Alec.

Discoverability is a challenge: Related to the previous two points, it’s very difficult for a small new show to get discovered. It used to be that if you netted a few hundred subscribers in your first week, you might show up in a “New and Notable” section or even a “Trending” section on Apple Podcasts or another podcast app. That might lead to more subscribers, which might get you into the “Top Podcasts” chart. It was a virtuous circle that could drive up subscriber numbers for even small timers. Today, you need to multiply that initial subscriber number by about 10x or 100x to get noticed. Furthermore, there are now more podcast apps in the game, meaning that you have to impress multiple algorithms, not just one.


On the flip side, it’s not all bad out there. The initial modest success of Culturally Relevant has shown me that there are reasons it’s actually great to get into the podcast game right now.

The audience for podcasts has never been larger: According to a recent study, about one in three people in the US listen to a podcast every month. That’s the highest it’s ever been and it looks to get bigger in the years to come. Sheer audience size is not just about numbers; it also means people are more familiar with basic elements like how to find and listen to podcasts. They’re less likely to turn up their nose at the idea of checking out one of these things and that means it’s easier to recommend something to people that they’ll actually try.

It has never been easier to make a podcast: Between the high quality microphones everyone is carrying around with them in their pockets and apps like Anchor that allow you to create and publish podcasts on your phone, there has been a proliferation of services and support for podcasters in recent years. This means it’s never been easier to create a maintain a show using cheap online tools. There are also countless resources on YouTube and blogs and websites (like this one!) that will help guide the way.

It has never been easier to make money from a podcast: Between Kickstarter, Patreon, and selling ads, it’s now a real possibility for people to make a living off of podcasting. Short of that, you can use the money you make and reinvest it back into the show, thus growing your listener base,  getting more money to reinvest back into the show, and so on forever. The ability to monetize is a potent tool for podcasters looking to level up their production value, marketing capabilities, or just increase their quality of life.

So there you have it! While launching a new show has been a time period of great discouragement and rejection, it’s also been encouraging to see how the podcast environment has improved for newcomers out there. In any case, if you enjoyed this article, I hope you have a chance to check out Culturally Relevant. And if you like that show, please consider sharing it with your friends. As I’ve indicated above, it’s one of the most important ways for people to find a show like mine.


Since I’ve had a particularly intense podcast schedule recently (I’m basically producing four podcasts per week), I’ve been slacking on these newsletter updates. I want to try to keep to a weekly schedule but once every 2-3 weeks is more realistic until my schedule dies down. That said, here are some online links I’ve found interesting lately:

[Featured image by TheMachinePhotography is licensed under CC BY 2.0 ]

The Sweet Smell of Succession

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HBO’s Succession is one of the most compelling shows on television and it’s returning for a second season on August 11th. And I’m launching a new podcast to recap it with Tara Ariano! You can find the podcast at successionpodcast.com, where we’ve already recapped season 1, and you can support the show at successionkickstarter.com.

For those who aren’t aware, Succession chronicles the power moves of the Roy family and their patriarch, Logan Roy. Logan is the founder of a a gigantic media conglomerate called Waystar Royco which has generated obscene wealth not just for himself, but for his four children. While they each defend against outsiders that would threaten to infiltrate their circle, they must also contend with their biggest obstacle: each other.
Succession’s portrait of the Roy family is funny, biting, tragic, and heartbreaking. It offers so much fodder for discussion and we’re looking forward to breaking it all down with you.

On a personal note, this marks my first real collaboration with Tara Ariano. I first encountered Tara’s work over a decade ago, when I became a huge fan of her website, Television Without Pity, one of the first TV recap sites ever. TWoP managed to combine snark and insight into an irresistible package. It was essential reading for show watchers and showrunners alike (Famously, the site was referred to obliquely in an early West Wing subplot). It’s not an exaggeration to say that sites like Television Without Pity paved the way for some of the work I’ve done with my own TV recap podcasts.

Tara and the founders of TWoP also went on to create the Extra Hot Great podcast, a weekly general interest TV podcast which is a exceptionally well produced. Extra Hot Great manages to capture what makes television wonderful and transcendent but also, occasionally, truly terrible. Still, the podcast itself is always a delight and continues to this day.

In any case, I couldn’t be more excited to work with her on this new venture. I hope you have a chance to check out our first episode at successionpodcast.com. You can also support the show via Kickstarter at successionkickstarter.com.


Some other interesting links from the week:

The medium is the message: On Disney’s new Lion King

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One of the things that’s important when you’re about to embark on a creative endeavor is to ask what medium you should use to tell your story. Should the story you’re telling be a film? Or would it benefit from listeners being able to binge-listen it in the form of a podcast? Should it be animated, so that abstract concepts and fantastical ideas can be conveyed more easily? Or maybe it only needs to be a well considered essay or novella.

Each medium has specific strengths and weaknesses. Figuring out how to navigate them is an essential part of the storytelling process.

Sadly, that seems not to have been something the creators of the new Lion King considered. This new version has photorealistic animals and surroundings but while it’s impressive as a technological feat, it falls short when for one basic reason: The lions can’t emote.

The hand drawn animation in the original Lion King gave the characters a memorable expressiveness. I still remember the horror on Young Simba’s face as the wildebeest stampede began, threatening to take his life and the life of his father. Jeremy Irons’ delicious performance as Scar was greatly augmented by that character’s over-the-top facial animations. All of this is lost in the conversion to the photorealistic 2019 version.

This might be acceptable and potentially even interesting if this movie veered in an entirely different direction with the story. Instead, many sequences are remade almost shot-for-shot, only with lions that can’t express themselves and with musical numbers that remove much of the fantasy and visual magic that helped propel the original tracks to become 10x platinum (the highest selling soundtrack ever for an animated film). Unfavorable comparisons are inevitable.

Siddhant Adlakha breaks it down well over at his Patreon page (free for now):

What this film is, though, is an exercise in nostalgia. Not the wistful tinge of memory — rather corporate nostalgia, as a tool of commerce, wherein bare-minimum familiarity is a benchmark for trade. As someone who enjoys Disney and Universal theme parks, the concept of manufactured nostalgia isn’t lost on me (sign me the fuck up for the obnoxiously expensive Galaxy’s Edge), but where the new Lion King departs from its ilk is how nakedly it puts Disney’s soulless corporatism is on display. Watching it is no more or less ethical than watching Avengers: Endgame, though it feels far more ugly.

The Lion King (2019) is a film that flattens expression. Its pursuit of “photorealism” has rendered its characters zombies, unable to emote even as much as real animals. Twelve-year-old JD McCray performs admirably as young Simba, his otherwise sprightly voice breaking and quivering as he discovers Mufasa’s body — the most hard-hitting scene in the original. Though here, in the “live-action” re-creation, the lion prince’s discovery is met with a deadpan expression, and a prodding akin to curiosity rather than desperation.

Jon Favreau is a supremely talented filmmaker and what he’s accomplished here hasn’t really been done before. I hope that he and the incredible visual effects artists that helped to make this movie are next able to apply their talents where form and function work more hand in hand.

A few other takes on Lion King worth considering:


The next episode of my new podcast, Culturally Relevant, is out now! I chatted with The Farewell director Lulu Wang. Then, my wife and I review the film from a Chinese-American perspective. If you are so inclined, check it out and leave a review. I have a lot planned for this season of the show and I’m excited to share it with you all.

Plus, in the podcast, I recommend and discuss some of the following pieces:

Announcing Culturally Relevant, a new culture podcast

When I first started podcasting 12 years ago, it came out of a desire to preserve interesting conversations that I had with other people and to put them out into the world. On a fundamental level, I believed that when people can have access to meaningful dialogue about topics they’re passionate about, it makes them feel less alone.

In addition to creating an intangible camaraderie, podcasts also open people up to new perspectives and interesting arguments. If I started podcasting from the position of wanting to find people who affirmed my opinions, I’ve tried to get to the point where I seek out those that challenge my own. Only in the crucible of a blistering, incisive argument can your own point of view be truly tested and validated, I’ve come to conclude. And podcasts are an amazing vector for all of these interactions.

In the intervening years, I’ve been fortunate to meet dozens of fascinating and talented individuals, including filmmakers and writers and authors and artists from all walks of life. But despite all the podcasts I’ve created, there still hasn’t really been a vehicle for the full breadth of these conversations. That’s what I’m hoping Culturally Relevant will be.

Every weekly episode will feature an in-depth conversation about an interesting topic, whether we are discussing a creator’s own work or reviewing something else. I hope it’ll be a mix of the casual and the formal, deliberate and off-the-cuff. I have absolutely no idea if it’ll work but I’m hoping you’ll join me for the journey.

Spider-Man: Far From Home spoiler video review

I was really grateful to Ben Pearson for joining me to discuss Spider-Man: Far From Home. We delve into what this movie does to Peter Parker’s arc, the reliance of these movies on the legacy of Tony Stark, and the possibilities of future MCU films.

Also: I ran into some difficulty with my video in this one. My Sony A7III ran out of battery while I was shooting the first half of my video. Despite the camera’s promises to recover the file after I booted it back up, it didn’t work and I lost the entire first half of my side of the video. Making things even worse: I was monitoring the battery life the entire time and it plummeted suddenly from about 18% to 0%. This genuinely shook my faith in the camera system. How can I record interviews with this thing if the camera might die and take my video with it?

In any case, I’m grateful to Daanish Syed for stepping up and helping me out with some photoshopped images that I used to fill in the video above. Check them out. I hope you enjoy them.