Starting today, I’ll be going on a three-month sabbatical from my full-time job at Amazon. Everything is fine – my overall health is okay and there are no family emergencies. Rather, I’m using the leave to focus on some personal projects, on my home life, and on improving my diet and exercise.

At this point, I’ve been at Amazon for 2.5 years. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, there’s a saying that’s common among employees that Amazon years are like “dog years” in that every year you work there feels much longer than it actually is. In my experience this is true, but only because of the sheer quantity of material you are able to learn, the responsibility that’s vested in you as an individual employee, and the amount of impact you are able to make. Overall, I’ve gotten a lot out of my time at Amazon and I feel extremely fortunate and privileged to work with such talented people who have been very understanding of my need to take this personal leave.

Beyond all the things I plan to do, it has been a challenge to maintain my job and all of my extracurricular activities. I’m hoping to use the next few months to take a step back and re-prioritize everything I’m working on so that I can return to work with renewed focus. But I’m also hoping it to use it to reconnect with old friends and meet new prospective collaborators (on that note: if we haven’t spoken in awhile, and/or you have a creative project to pitch me, now is the time to get in touch!)

There’s an old blog post I’ve been thinking a lot about recently over at Tim Urban’s Wait But Why, about visually dividing your life up into years/months/weeks.

Seeing life divided up like this can be both invigorating and terrifying. It’s scary because you realize how limited our time is and how each week is an inevitable step towards the bottom of that chart. But it can also be exciting, as Urban writes:

Both the week chart above and the life calendar are a reminder to me that this grid of empty boxes staring me in the face is mine. We tend to feel locked into whatever life we’re living, but this pallet of empty boxes can be absolutely whatever we want it to be. Everyone you know, everyone you admire, every hero in history—they did it all with that same grid of empty boxes.

The boxes can also be a reminder that life is forgiving. No matter what happens each week, you get a new fresh box to work with the next week. It makes me want to skip the New Year’s Resolutions—they never work anyway—and focus on making New Week’s Resolutions every Sunday night. Each blank box is an opportunity to crush the week—a good thing to remember.

“Every blank box is an opportunity to crush the week.” Let’s make the most of them. I’m going to try my best to do so during this leave and beyond.

If you want to follow my adventures over the next 11 weeks, I’d recommend:

A few other links from recent days:

The Top 10 Films of the Decade

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I recently invited film critic Tasha Robinson from The Next Picture Show podcast to join me on Culturally Relevant to count down our top 10 films of the decade. It can be difficult enough to count down one’s top 10 films of a given year, so asking a fellow critic to count down one’s top 10 of the decade is downright sadistic.

Nonetheless, I was grateful to Tasha for participating in this exercise with me. It was a clarifying experience, as it forced me to look back on the decade and consider not only which films I enjoyed the most, but which films I felt represented my decade in filmgoing. What films contained the ideas, the techniques, the themes, and the characters that I feel will make an indelible impression going forward?

I’ve listed my choices below, but you should listen to the podcast episode to get the full discussion, plus hear Tasha’s choices too.

Without further ado, here are my top 10 films of the 2010s:

10. Nightcrawler (2014) – No other film better captures the spirit of vulture capitalism that has come to define this decade. In Nightcrawler, a sociopath shows that by using some ingenuity and a take-no-prisoners approach he can accumulate wealth and power and destroy his enemies. It’s a chilling tale of how our society can shapes its contributing individuals and hone them to value profit above literally all else. Jake Gyllenhaal transforms into Louis Bloom, an always-hustling, cutthroat businessman, and Rene Russo is tremendous as the woman who ends up becoming vulnerable to his machinations.

9. The Raid 2 (AKA The Raid 2: Berandal)  – The Raid 2 is the Godfather 2 of action movies. It takes the scope of the first film and blows it up, while amping up the ambition and carnage of the action scenes tenfold. It’s rare in this day and age to get an action film that strives to be epic, where the emotions are meant to be as large and complex as the action choreography. I don’t know that this film achieves what it sets out to do but I’m so glad it tries. It’s my favorite action movie of the decade and that’s why it’s on my list at this spot.

8. Avengers: Endgame (2019) / Avengers (2012) (it’s a tie, which is cheating, but it’s my list, so…) – We are in the era of the extended universe, which is dominating both our box office and our cultural conversation. No other films have done a better job proving that you could have all these disparate characters combine into one movie, and do it in a way that was satisfying, enjoyable, even a must-see event. I still remember when the idea of any one of these characters getting their own films at all was a pipe dream, let alone teaming up. When Avengers proved it was in possible, I was in awe. When Avengers: Endgame proved you could tie it all up and bring this thing to a close, I was in tears. Lots of people are unhappy with what Marvel films have done to the cinematic landscape but regardless of where the MCU goes from here, I’ll always be grateful I was able to take this incredible journey with them this decade.

7. OJ: Made In AmericaOJ: Made in America is a towering work of documentary filmmkaing. No other documentary I saw this decade did a better job at unearthing footage that consistently made me say, “Wow, I can’t believe they got that.” But it’s not just the footage itself – director Ezra Edelman assembles it all in a compelling way that makes the outcome feel sadly, inevitable. There’s a reason the OJ Simpson case continues to retain such power up until this day. It symbolizes how we in America remain intensely divided and how the legacy of our past and present crimes around race can manifest themselves in our justice system in surprising and unfortunate ways. [Hey, at least I didn’t put Twin Peaks on my list.]

6. Before Midnight – I know it sounds naive and maybe even silly of me to say, but I I learned a lot about love from Richard Linklater’s Before series. Before Sunrise (1995) taught me about young love and how exciting and dynamic it is. Before Sunset (2004) taught me about the disappointments of middle age. And Before Midnight (2013) taught me about the miracle of companionship and what it takes for partners to survive in the long term. The film series spans 18 years in the lives of its characters as well as the actors portraying them, and it is a huge accomplishment in showing the evolution of a relationship on screen. Before Midnight puts a capper on the whole affair, bringing the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion while never straying from the grounded realism that made the series so memorable in the first place.

5. Parasite – I think one of the main themes of 2019 films has been this notion that we as a society need to grapple more with privilege. How much of it do we have, and what are its impacts and implications? This is something that Parasite does wonderfully, telling the story of a lower-class family who goes to work for an upper class one and all the tensions that result. There are twists and turns, and more than a handful of shocking moments. Beyond this, the film is impeccably composed with frames that are bursting with meaning. It’s the one film from 2019 that I feel pretty confident saying we’ll still be talking about 10 years from now.

4. Gravity – I think when we look back at this decade, Gravity is going to be one of the films that we will see as the most technologically groundbreaking. The film is nearly entirely CGI, but even to this day, I find the illusion to be complete. If you look at how this film was made, it’s a miracle that it works at all. A lot of the film was created with Sandra Bullock harnessed into a high-tech moving platform while LED lights were blasted at her to simulate the lighting conditions what the CG images would end up being. Bullock’s performance, as a woman who believes she has little to live for down on Earth, helps keep this space movie grounded.

There’s a line in the movie where the astronauts have lost communication with Houston and they start prefacing all their communications with “Houston in the Blind” because even though they can’t hear any responses they have faith people are listening. Director Alfonso Cuaron has said in interviews this is how he felt making this film, hoping blindly that his vision for this film would work on a fundamental level. We can all be grateful he took that leap because Gravity is thrilling filmmaking that manages to make us ponder mankind’s place for the universe.

3. Get Out – Jordan Peele has said that in the aftermath of Obama we were living in a post-racial lie — the idea that racism had somehow been solved because we had a black president. I think our real-life politics soon showed that that lie was temporary, but Get Out illustrated it in through a tense horror film that is thematically rich and interesting. The idea of white people wanting to take over the bodies of black people has so many parallels and so much resonance with modern day society that it’s literally scary. That’s the visceral terror that Get Out brought to life. It’s also a film that has made so many cultural contributions, including the concept of The Sunken Place or the quote, “I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term,”— the words of a performative ally. Get Out also represents this decade in low-budget filmmaking and a vindication of the Jason Blum method of production, in which you place many bets on low budget films, and not all of them hit. Get Out of course hit, landing over $175 MM in domestic box office, and it showed you could still get folks to the theater with an ambitious idea and flawless execution.

2. Under The SkinUnder the Skin is one of the most visually arresting movies I’ve ever seen. Jonathan Glazer has created a story that feels dreamlike and terrifying. But the film was also innovative from a filmmaking perspective. Glazer pioneered new camera technology to be able to film strangers in tight enclosed spaces, much of which was done with Scarlett Johansson literally just walking around and picking up guys on the street. Johansson herself delivers a bold, chilling performance as a woman whose body is used for ends beyond her control. Under the Skin is one of those rare films that makes you reflect on how cruel and inhumane our society might seem if viewed from the outside.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road – I can’t get away from it: Mad Max: Fury Road is still one of the most bold, spectacular pieces of action filmmaking. The stunts are jaw-dropping, the pacing is propulsive, and the performances by Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are transformative. It’s relentlessly watchable and chilling in its depiction of a future in which natural resources are hoarded by a handful of malevolent forces — a plot which feels strangely relevant today. George Miller has created a masterpiece and action filmmakers will spend the next decade trying to best it.

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 ]