A personal story to inspire your "f*%k it, just go for it" moment

The Set-Up

 
My gig with LOJEL is Head of Customer Experience. Meaning at a macro level I bridge the gap between our customers and the brand. On a micro level, I want every customer we engage with to feel like they’re talking to someone they could have a drink with while delivering a solution they can feel great about. Customer service sucks. My job is to ask “how can we make it suck less?”

We then take those answers and use them to devise solutions that ripple out through our global support network. The real fun for me comes in the one on one conversations and stories I’ve exchanged with our travelers. Details matter. And in my experience, the details are all about how you communicate.

I’ve always romanticized communication. When I was younger I’d obsess over song lyrics, quirky quotes, and pointed poetry; using them as a medium to bottle up and process my own emotions. Later, I’d discover a passion for acting; summoning and uncorking those bottles to sink into the skin of a character. Even after a pivot to corporate existence, I was fascinated with the art and science of brand communication and how I might be able to leverage its superpowers for good. But, amidst materializing these passions, the one niche of communication that I always worshipped from afar was stand-up comedy.

Photo by @chengwaihok

There’s something incredible about someone grabbing a microphone in a room full of strangers to elicit an involuntary response synonymous with the best medicine: laughter. The best stand-up comedians find stone blocks in mundane existence and chip away, reimagine, and refine until they have a cathedral. Using earned skills and applied best practices to perfect structure and delivery with each performance. Stringing together a shared four-dimensional experience connecting personal existence to a shared perspective — while spanning language, culture, history, current events, and all their inherent nuances to trigger laughs on command.

There’s something incredible about someone grabbing a microphone in a room full of strangers to elicit an involuntary response synonymous with the best medicine: laughter.

All art has the potential to be impactful and affect those whose attention it demands. When I was studying acting, my mentor preached that our mission for every performance was to leave it all out there no matter the audience size; because if you impact one person in an audience of one thousand, it’s always worth it. From rocking packed out college festival theatres, to sharing the stage with actors who went on to Hollywood stardom, to performing comedy at empty dive bars for 4 other comedians, I’ve always carried that with me in each performance. Through my travels, I’ve learned that creative expression and freedom of speech are privileges that are hard to truly understand until they’re taken away from you.
 

The Punch

 
When I chose to give stand-up a shot after I moved to Hong Kong, it was more of a bucket list decision. I wasn’t aware it was going to engulf me on a passion level or become my daydream and muse. I can spend weekends watching ten straight hours of one comedian just to wrap my head around their syntax, idiosyncrasies, and career progression with zero fatigue. For me, stand up became an outlet for processing difficult experiences in a cathartic way. The simple process of joke writing made me a more self-aware and active member of my own life. Pablo Picasso said “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” Funny exists, but it has to find you observing.

Fast forward 18 months, through turbulence and a global pandemic and it’s become something I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop doing. I had rough months in 2020 (and I think you’re a lucky weirdo if you didn’t) but I would drag myself to open mics week after week to give that 5 minutes a shot rain or shine and, boom or bust, I took something from it.

It took me 14 months before someone paid me to do comedy. They paid me $25 USD. I think I got paid less than the tickets to see the show cost. But it didn’t matter. I remember being like “holy shit” and privately sending a screenshot of the transaction to the people I love the most on the planet. It was worth more to me than any other dollar I made in 2020. It was a dream realized. I’d enjoyed every second on stage that led up to that one — and even as I’m writing this I’m admittedly tearing up a bit — but when I got that notification, more than a year of passion and failure and struggle was validated. I was actually proud of myself. I was a comedian.

Photo by @chengwaihok

One of the most rewarding things about working for LOJEL these past few years has been to work alongside a team that believes in the power of connection as much as they love to travel the world. We’re a mongrel of international origins who have evolved together to leverage our platform to speak truth to topics that matter to us as a team. All the while embracing the creative and personal grind to foster the identities we perpetually carve out. As someone who once faced the choice between starving artist and corporate sellout, joining LOJEL for me has meant that I don’t have to choose.
 

Unlearning America

 
Psychologists say understanding your identity is understanding what you are not, the ten commandments describe what not to do if you want to be a good person, and being vegan tells other people what you don’t eat.

I was late for work barrelling down Sunrise Highway on the South Shore of Long Island when the reality of the path I was on came collapsing down around me. I was in the first years of my career, had advanced from entry-level to upper management fast — and by most comparisons, I was doing great with the hand I’d been dealt. Still, I trembled at the thought of the suburban existence on the horizon. Everyone else seemed to be speeding up. It works like this: You grow up on the island, go to college, make a jump to NYC, get a job, assume the role of yuppie and party, find someone to marry and retreat back to the suburbs to raise a family in a neighborhood just like the one you’re from. You work 48 – 50 weeks a year in your 20s and try and use those few weeks a year to start to see the world. I wanted out.

Psychologists say understanding your identity is understanding what you are not, the ten commandments describe what not to do if you want to be a good person, and being vegan tells other people what you don’t eat.

This was after two solid years of sound fitness, two dozen self-help bestsellers, putting myself through 12 months of therapy, and picking myself up each time I fell down. Society kept telling me I was broken for some reason and everyone wanted me to pay them to fix it — I was American — and I was sick of it. No turns in sight; the next exit not for miles — I screamed my head off on the highway.

But somewhere on that drive, I thought about these guys from around the world I met in Vegas, living out in China. Traveling the world and building a brand that they believed in. I sent a text. I asked if they knew of anything for a native English speaker in China. They said they needed me. If I was serious, they could look into bringing me over.

Photo by @chengwaihok

About a year later, I was in a taxi on my way from east Zhongshan to the city of Zhuhai in Guangdong, China to meet the person I texted on that drive a year before for drinks. I had just explained to the Chinese driver that I was on my way to see a friend who wanted to have some beers, which I wasn’t super happy about it because I was going to travel back to New York the next day to see family and friends, and I was already exhausted, but this friend insisted celebrating my trip. This was special for me because I said it in a language I didn’t speak the year before. I said it in Mandarin Chinese — and I didn’t even think about it.

He laughed at the right moments too, so I was pretty positive I said it correctly. By then, I had come to understand a lot of conversational punchlines in Chinese culture as dramatic sighs of self-defeat or exhaustion. Their humor is also often directly inquisitive — asking someone why they think something can get a big group laugh. English too, but not in the same way. I think cultural language, which to me is four-dimensional, can be picked up faster than spoken language in a new culture.

Photo by @chengwaihok

A lot of Americans will go abroad to “find themselves”. But for me, if you really go deep into another culture you’re reinventing yourself; creating and adapting extensions of your personality both internally and externally to better connect with the people around you.

After a year of celebrating new rituals: Spicy hotpot, late-night Chinese barbeque, family-style lunches, shots of baijiu, KTV, destinationless electric scooter rides, the smell of rice fields at dusk, the considerate nature of new friends, the feeling of hugging so many friends passing through goodbye. After a year of having no American friends, but instead learning how people from around the world think and act. After a year of visiting five new countries for work and play, I still didn’t know who I was.

But I did know I now knew what it meant to be something besides American. And no one can ever take that from me.
 

Stomping Eggshells

 
When was the last time you did something that scared the shit out of you? It usually starts with breaking chains we’ve accepted as binding; leaving a comfortable work situation, ending a long-term relationship, moving to a new city, jumping out of an airplane — basically anything people would agree you probably shouldn’t do more than once a year.

A lot of Americans will go abroad to “find themselves”. But for me, if you really go deep into another culture you’re reinventing yourself; creating and adapting extensions of your personality both internally and externally to better connect with the people around you.

So what are we talking about here? Proverbial Robert Frost sets in: “the path less traveled.” You can go this way, or that way. It’s easy to get romantic about, harder to recommend with confidence. But there’s something to it for sure. Innovation by definition is “the path less traveled” actualized. But, for all its merits, we’re actually quite change-averse when it comes to innovating our own existence — I mean did you really meditate as much as you wanted to in 2020?

We’re constantly in this tug-of-war between accepting ourselves and personal development. It’s always an uphill battle; but the summit — The. Damn. Summit. — is enough to find us climbing.

Photo by @chengwaihok

I’ve always been inspired by risk-takers, the all-inners, the people who took the path less traveled. But if my life was composed of chapters, they would be titled by the decisions I made that scared the shit out of me.

From exiting sports to try acting, to first taking to the stage as an actor, to abandoning my acting education for a marketing management degree, to accepting I was terrified of a suburban dystopia, to reading self-help books, to going to therapy, to sending a text on a morning commute, to leaving everything I had and moving to China, to grabbing a microphone and trying to make people laugh.

I’ve cocooned many times in my life. But each time I’ve found a crack in my own shell and was able to break through into the unknown — and that’s made all the difference.

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