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Ang Lee and the uncertainty of success (jeffjlin.com)
343 points by iamwil on Feb 28, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 105 comments



I knew Taylor Swift growing up.

Like Ang Lee, for around 6 to 8 years Taylor acted in musicals, sang at festivals, entered competitions, and recorded demos. She was bad at first (sorry Taylor!), but she kept working at it. Every day, she was writing another lyric, or taking another guitar lesson, or auditioning for another play, or switching voice teachers. The reason I knew her was that I went to school with her (she was maybe in third grade when I was in 7th), I acted in plays with her, and I ran sound and make background tracks for her when she was 10 or so. I knew her mom and dad and brother too. I got to see her bildungsroman firsthand.

Then came her "overnight" success. And the press talked about her like she appeared on planet earth overnight. She was a sensation. All at once, you couldn't walk outside your front door without hearing about Taylor Swift. It was surreal, having know the awkward girl from a few years earlier.

But what no one talked about was the years she forewent hanging out with other girls in middle school, watching TV and doing her hair with girlfriends in high school... all of the stuff that normal kids do. Playing sports, going on dates with boys... all of this was sacrificed. For Taylor, and Ang Lee, great sacrifice was made.

Success requires an obsession of sorts. You have to say, "I am going to accomplish this, come hell or high water." Failure is not an option... it's not even a word in the dictionary. There is only success. The buck has to stop with you; there's no room for blaming other people, making excuses, or avoiding harsh realities. Whatever it takes to be successful, whether that's hiring a speech coach, taking more classes at the university, learning etiquette, doing odd projects, finding a tutor, seeing a therapist, waking up at 6am to exercise... there is no limit. And that's just the point -- there is NO limit on what you have to be willing to undertake to achieve the goal.

I've grappled with what I'm going to say for years, but I now acknowledge it as a truism: If you stick with it, you'll be successful. It doesn't matter where you come from, who your parents are, what you know, who you know, or how you look. All that is required is a choice -- a commitment to excellence.

Therefore, there's only one rule in making it to the top: don't quit.


> If you stick with it, you'll be successful. It doesn't matter where you come from, who your parents are, what you know, who you know, or how you look. All that is required is a choice

I'm going to present a different picture of the world. I think it's a more accurate one. Not necessarily more useful.

There is no such thing as a guarantee of success -- at least, for a definition of success that includes broad recognition and financial rewards. No choice you can make, no enduring commitment, no talent you develop or have inborn can guarantee that "whatever it takes" will actually be enough in the end.

Determination, focus, talent, and years of effort may make you a success. They will markedly improve your chances, possibly even make them quite good. And shedding them or neglecting to cultivate them will all but guarantee failure.

But they're still no guarantee. And that's why the central message of the article about the intrinsic rewards is so important. Because in the end, the only reward you can keep for sure is the one that you take for yourself in terms of being satisfied with how you spend your time and the work that you've done.


Yes. There are probably some other NYU film classmates of Lee who tried just as hard and didn't make it.


There's a surprisingly good book by Seth Godin (sorry!) called The Dip about this dilemma.

http://www.amazon.com/Dip-Little-Book-Teaches-Stick/dp/15918...

The key thing, he says, about successful people is they quickly and accurately either choose to abandon something very very fast, or to pursue it through the depressing dip to sucess.


Hm. Does he prove that unsuccessful people didn't do that? If not, then it's just the usual selection bias.


> There is no such thing as a guarantee of success.

It's true there is no guarantee of success. But if you quit early there would be only guarantee failure.


The same is true for the lottery, if you don't buy a lottery ticket, you're guaranteed not to win. But that doesn't prove you should spend all your money on lottery tickets.


> But if you quit early

The problem is we never know when "early" is. It could be past our patience, financial means, career window, or lifetime.


I would say sometimes qutting is good option. Not absolute quitting, but quitting from current plan. Being open to bending and open to modifications in the 'way to success'.

I remember Bruce Lee said, "Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless - like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."


If you quit while you still have passion, it's too early. If you spend your life following a passion, and never achieve "success", was that a life wasted? What is the alternative?


True.

There are many great examples, but to take only one consider Larry Page and Sergey Brin who tried and failed to sell PageRank to Yahoo, Altavista etc.

The world does not remember them as two engineers who failed to sell their novel idea to BigCo and make a lot of money, but as the founders of a great company called Google.

You can fail as many times as you like. You only have to win once and the world will remember you for it. Only way to guarantee a defeat is to quit. If you can keep at it, you probably should.


I have the flip side of this story. I was good friends with two musicians in the early nineties. I went to their rehearsals, hung out with their friends, and saw most of their gigs when they played out in clubs. Videos, demo tapes, meetings with managers. They spent the better part of a decade trying to make it, and while they became absolutely phenomenal musicians, they never became famous -- for the simple reason that the music industry is full of amazing musicians, only a few of whom will ever become stars.

And this isn't just the case in music. I've been privileged to know several very big writers -- people who can sustain large houses and art collections on the strength of what they've written. But for every one "star" I know literally dozens of hard-working writers for whom the career has simply not clicked. The heartbreaking thing, in both writing and music, are watching the ones who almost make it, who pour all of themselves into a project and who, for whatever reason, just don't break through for their audience.

There's a thing called "sunk cost fallacy," where you've put so much of yourself into your chosen vocation that you literally can't imagine quitting. But the sad reality for most of us -- and why inspiring stories like Ang Lee's can be more damaging than helpful -- is that knowing when to quit can put you ahead of the game.


But what no one talked about was the years she forewent hanging out with other girls in middle school, watching TV and doing her hair with girlfriends in high school.

Ah the old "I knew Taylor Swift" card, hear it all the time. I will say the funniest thing about being from Wyo is how everyone in a 50-mile radius of my town/school apparently "knew" and were best friends with Taylor Swift before she left.

But yeah I agree, certainly a lot of sacrifice. Her entire family moved to support her dream and it fortunately paid off. You don't hear about the 1,000s of other families that move to Nashville and fail. So no, sticking with it is not a guarantee for "success", not in the slightest. Depends on how you define success of course.


Ha. Not from there, but every Icelander I've met "knew" Bjork, but that may be because it's half the size of Wyoming and is much, much more isolated.


Just for clarification, I think Wyo is this case is referring to Wyomissing, PA


I'm impressed that people on an online forum with visitors from all around the world think that abbreviating the name of some far out small town makes sense.

I get NY and SF, but "Wyo" for anything other than Wyoming?


The likely explanation is Taylor Swift is famous and some people are familiar with the full name of the town she is from.


Agreed, but I can only guess that Wyo is not a usual shortcut for Wyoming. Although I made that mistake as well.


Gah, I even Googled to make sure, guess I didn't do a good job. Thanks for that.


The problem is that there are a ton of people that do exactly that. I live in New York and over the past year I've dated a string of actresses, some moderately successful (several year soap runs, broadway), some less so (off broadway, guerrilla theatre, etc. . .) All of them have been outrageously dedicated and talented. Still, for all of that there is no guarantee of success at the end of that multi-year struggle.

It's a good lesson to learn that risk isn't a word that means "work really hard for several years and you'll get your pot of gold." Risk means that you could pour your heart and soul into something, be extremely talented, do everything right, and still end up with nothing. To think otherwise is to fall prey to the just world hypothesis.


Exactly. I live in NYC as well, and over the past year I've dated a lot of fashion models. All of these women are gorgeous and successful (signed with major agencies - doing runway, magazine, and mixed media work). Some still struggle to make rent. Models don't have long careers, and while they're all outrageously beautiful and talented, there's no guarantee of success.


I thought the usual exit plan for models was to use their beauty and talent to attract a wealthy husband. That said, I did know one who used her modelling money to put herself through med school, but that woman was a bit of an outlier in the brains department.


Good story, thanks. Though I'd say pursing a dream as a child/teenager is different from doing so as an adult with a family to support. As Ang Lee wrote in his letter/essay (someone linked it below) it felt 'undignified for a man' to have his wife bring in 100% of the income while he stayed at home.

Just pointing something out that I think is a key difference. Not to take anything away from Taylor Swift as everything you said is 100% true - but I think the stress in Ang Lee's case was probably (significantly?) higher.


Perhaps part of the point is that having children (or choosing the noble path of actually supporting them) is also a choice.

If you really, really want something bad enough, sacrifices can be made.


It helps tremendously to have whole-hearted support from someone who believes in you:

> It got so discouraging that Lee reportedly contemplated learning computer science so he could find a job during this time, but was scolded by his wife when she found out, telling him to keep his focus.

Jane (his wife) was supporting the family during those fruitless script-writing years. She believed in him perhaps even more than he believed in himself.


Oh man, I don't know. I've seen tons of people enter the feature and TV writing business, and devote their entire 20s to trying to make it. A few have been successful and have ended up with amazing careers / filmographies. But many others didn't, and dead-ended in their mid-30s with no other skills.

TV writing is a young person's business, so basically you are up or out. Because there is always someone right out of college who is pretty good and will work for almost nothing. And feature writing is totally unpredictable. Getting your movie made, and made well, is like oil drilling.

If you aren't really good, it's a tough decision to make - to spend 10 years in the industry trying to make it.

And then, if you are really good.... I think producing and writing are reasonably opportunity-rational paths, where you get a ton of swings at the bat. But if you're an actor or a director, you can be really great and still goose-egg your 20s.

Tough business.


The sad thing is that there are probably at least hundreds if not thousands of girls that did this....and still there is just a few successful singers.

I will go along the lines of having a life purpose and work to get it, the person you will become because of this will be the reward, not neccesary the destination.


I suppose that makes sense. So many of her songs are fuck you to ex boyfriends even in her 20s.


There is something to be said about creating a product people can relate to.


Well, Adele apparently got a lot of money for being dumped as well. (she also probably dumped a couple, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to be profitable for the men)


Amalgamated breakups worked out ok for Gotye, in "Somebody that I used to know".


Well said! I just had to reply since the vast majority of replies on your thread don't agree. I agree 110% with you. It boils down to will power, and applying yourself consistently in the right direction!


I agree with your statements, but I would like to add that you need to define 'success' before you can know you have achieved it.


clarity of purpose is a vanishingly rare stroke of luck

and even then we just don't hear much about the countless midwestern girls who sacrifice it all to the talent circuit but never amount to anything


survivor bias. you just don't see all the other people "sticking to it" and never making it.

you're discounting luck, chance, etc.

one bad decision or just bad luck moment and you're toast. and for female singers - if your genes made you butt ugly, no career for you, no matter how great you sing.


I'm not saying she's ugly, but Susan Boyles made a huge impact at the "Britain's Got Talent" show when she was nearly 50. Today, her voice makes her millions. Even women can be successful at any point in their life. I don't know what it takes to be successful (different people have different definitions of that term), but being pretty is not a necessity.


Sorry to burst your bubble, but she's hardly a celebrity in Britain anymore. Like most of the winners on these "talent shows", she has been milked of all profitability and is now forgotten by the wayside.

Of course, all she had to put up with was a total nervous breakdown.


" and for female singers - if your genes made you butt ugly, no career for you, "

Music is not limited to the payola crap pumped on most stations you know

And I'd say it probably gets better with music sharing over the internet, the ones complaining are usually the executive heads.


Do you know how sharp the fall off in income is as you move down in popularity from "Guaranteed Billboard Chart Topper"? I suspect by "career" the GP was referring to financial success, which, if you're an ugly woman, is almost totally impossible (Something that's not nearly as true for ugly men).

Yes, thousands upon thousands of people still make amazing music with very little concern for profit (and I'm as grateful as I suspect you are for their passion) but they do it for a pittance based on love of the craft.


Cesaria Evora is far from beauty canon, I'd say.


Very inspiring, though this makes me think that we also have to worry about survivorship bias. How many people stuck to their guns, focused, worked really hard for years, and nothing ever happened for them (at least nothing close to their dreams)? Probably many, though I'm sure it's still the best way to maximize your chances of getting there; by giving up, you are assured of not making it; but even doing your best brings no certainty.

That's why you have to love the journey, not just the destination.


How many people have worked on their own startup in the valley for 5+ years and had nothing come of it? Before I made the leap to working on a startup full time, I searched for a while for an example where 5 or more years resulted in complete failure but I couldn't find one. Not a single data point among hundreds that I read about/heard about anecdotally. I'm very curious, anyone care to share an example where they worked on their startup for 5+ years and it resulted in failure?


I can give you two I know about personally. An ISP that couldn't afford the transition to a post dial-up world, sold its user base off for a pittance. Not really worth the six years.

The other was a fairly niche data processing startup in a several billion dollar niche. 10 years in and they missed the boat migrating their front end to the browser and moving their back end off of windows.

Couldn't even sell off the source code in the end.


The companies failed, but did the founders end up worse off than if they had been random engineers at Microsoft?


I guess define "worse off". But I would say in both cases they ended up about the same...but I will grant they learned lots of intangibles from the experiences.


How did the end up about the same? Were they paying themselves the same salaries they would have been getting at Microsoft the whole time? Were they living more frugally than they would have been had they been working at Microsoft?


I think in terms of the kind of job position they could get going into a Microsoft after their startup, they ended up about the same as if they had been at Microsoft the whole time.

So it wasn't wasted time in that respect, and they'll be bringing in unique and different skills that they probably wouldn't have developed had they been at MS the whole time.

But...there's things like the lower pay they probably had while doing their business, and the intensity of running a failing business is very very hard mentally and physically.

Near the end, one of the guys shut down...hard...now that he's moved on he's recovering. But I think that kind of experience trails along with you for a long while.


One way to tell- if you asked them, would they say that they should have spent their time doing something else? What do you think they would say? (Or if you could just ask them, that would be even better!)


I think that's very dependent on the person and how they internalized the experience. One of them I know thinks that it was wasted years off of his life. Another feels like they learned more in those years than they did in the rest of their career combined, and it's armed them to be more effective in future endeavors.


Observational bias. The ones that failed you will be far more hard pressed to find 'data points'(dym information?) on.


Yes, I know there's a strong selection bias in who I hear about. That's why I'm extremely curious to find even one data point on the other side. If you have one, please share!


I don't have any, but I do wonder if this is another reason why there's a bias towards younger founders (or at least the perception of one). You start a company at 25 after a few years of unfulfilling work, put your nose to the grindstone for 5 years, and, in this unusually terrible hypothetical, end up with nothing but lost time and opportunity.

But hey, you're 30. There's time for a comeback. There's no age limit on making a comeback, but I don't think it would be an outrageous claim to say that bouncing back at 30 is easier than bouncing back at 50. Of course, as is the case in most things, attitude matters. A lot. You can look at your 5 year struggle as a massive loss, or as an incomparable learning experience, and that could be the deciding factor in how successful your next venture is.


I feel in a lot of ways that starting over at 50 must be easier than starting over at 30. At 30 you possibly have kids, a spouse, and are just getting started in a mortgage. At 50 the kids are off to college, the house should be paid off or close to it, and now you have many peers in the same situation as you (ie, access to capital). It's no wonder the avg age for entrepreneurs is mid 40s


Yes, in the real world outside of the sexy tech startup scene, most entrepreneurs are over 40, often over 50.


In a lot of ways, I feel that my own path has had that trajectory.


Thanks for sharing that. Do you think you could have better spent your time elsewhere outside of tech startups?


Not entirely. I wished I was able to shorten the time I spent at various stages learning some of the hard-earned lessons.


It took me seven years and two failed startups (one of them through YC) before I finally had a hit (the Ruby on Rails Tutorial). I think part of what made it work was intentionally taking a medium risk for a medium reward. My first two startups were all-or-nothing (which turned out to be nothing), whereas the Rails Tutorial, even had it "failed", would still have produced a five-figure annual income stream. (It succeeded, so it's six.)


This has its own sets of biases. Working on a startup with nothing coming of it only works until you're tapped out. How many founders do you know would just remain broke when they run out of money vs doing the rational thing which is getting a job or whatever to get back to supporting life's basic necessities?


Ang Lee was, even after 5 years of failure. I have heard of quite a few people in other industries (namely entertainment and art) that just failed to make it and would have been better served having spent that time pursuing something else. I've never heard of an example in tech startups though.

I would love to run a controlled experiment. Unfortunately we can't force people to do anything, so we never really can eliminate people's choices as a confounding variable.

I can give you one data point from my own experience. We committed to creating a company for two years no matter what happened. After a year and a half, there's no question it was the right choice. If I had chosen to do something else like high frequency trading, programming at a large company, or grad school, the likely outcome would not be on the same level as where we're at now. Even our worst case scenario, selling for a talent acquisition, ends up ahead of those other options.


> would have been better served having spent that time pursuing something else

This is just the gamble that success requires. It's easy to say that objectively they may have been better doing something else in retrospect, but perhaps they felt some satisfaction trying. In any event, it's impossible to know whether someone is going to succeed in advance, or remain unsuccessful.

It appears the decision to persevere, like the decision to "give up", cannot be made rationally. I'd love to be shown otherwise though.


Genuine question, how do you know when to continue/slog and when to stop?


When you run out of passion, or will.


Agreed. If you don't do things for yourself first, and measure success with an internal yardstick, you'll run out of steam.

But as long as you like it and want to do it, lack of success should be easier to take.


Yep, well put. I was thinking this too which sort of made it all the more 'tragic' - though perhaps that isn't a good word as this story isn't tragic...but it almost certainly could have been!

Good for Ang Lee!


Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Shrek, Pirates Of The Caribbean series) has a long running website on screenwriting. His site reminds me a lot of PG, actually, since he has a lot of essays thinking about the concepts behind the movie business.

He's talked there before about the time he spent preparing to become a screenwriter. His initial plan was to take 10 years to learn the craft.

http://www.wordplayer.com/forums/forulttrs/lt18.That.Big.Bre...

"Since Ted and I were going to be working and studying screenwriting for ten years, that took some of the pressure off. It doesn't make sense to kick yourself after failing at something for four years, when the path you're on is designed to take ten. This allowed a period of time to undertake an analysis and exploration of the business, the techniques, the craft, the history, etc. Step by step, from style to format to character to concept to theme, etc. In other words, we gave ourselves room to practice."

He's also got a fantastic column on why you should give up at screenwriting.

I think a lot of people here can apply it to startups.

http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp34.Throw.in.the.Towel.ht...

"That's what I'm really trying to do here (and you're smart enough to see it). And I'm not quitting. Oh, no, I'm not even warmed up. This is important, and I'm gonna give it my best shot.

Because what's at stake here is pretty damn big... oh, just, let's say, your life. A wasted life, potentially, or at least wasting the best years of your life. Days, months, years of effort endlessly trying to do something that you'll never be able to do well. And how many sunsets will you miss before you finally give up? How many walks in the moonlight are forever gone? How much laughter with friends are you willing to sacrifice? How many times will the kids not get the attention they deserve because 'Daddy's trying to write something' that nobody wants to read?

Oh. Gee. Did that one get to you a little? Feel a little twinge in the pit of your stomach?

Good."


Thanks for the Terry Rossio links. Good stuff - just ate two hours of my time.


I read the story. It is very touching. That said, I think stories like this send a very dangerous message. The reality of the matter is that for every person who stuck to their passion and ultimately "succeeded," there are thousands who lived the rest of their lives in obscurity and never "made it."

When I was reading the story and Ang Le said he started taking computer science classes at the local college, I though, "that's great - he finally came to grips with reality ad went from being a daydreamer to being a harsh pragmatist." I was therefore dismayed when he then said he tore up his class schedule and went back to his passion.

A lot of people glamorize his choice with things like "his dedication and commitment paid off" but what if t had not? Would we hear about Ang Le today?

In hindsight his choice was the right one. But hindsight is 20/20. If you really want to maximize your chances of success in life, be flexible and ready to change course often.


>The reality of the matter is that for every person who stuck to their passion and ultimately "succeeded," there are thousands who lived the rest of their lives in obscurity and never "made it."

How do you quantify this? What is your data? I think it's easy to claim there are "thousands" who faded into obscurity, but is it truly the case?

And for that innumerable set of folks that never made it . . . did they really stick to their passion?

I'm inclined to agree with the top-rated comment on this one:

>If you stick with it, you'll be successful. It doesn't matter where you come from, who your parents are, what you know, who you know, or how you look. All that is required is a choice -- a commitment to excellence.

I've had my 7 years of fat followed by 7 years of lean. There is a very real correlation between attitude/commitment/hard work and success.


>>How do you quantify this? What is your data? I think it's easy to claim there are "thousands" who faded into obscurity, but is it truly the case?

I think all those art majors who graduated from college and still work as baristas at Starbucks is sufficient evidence for my claim.

>>I've had my 7 years of fat followed by 7 years of lean. There is a very real correlation between attitude/commitment/hard work and success.

I'm a fitness buff too, and I have to say your analogy doesn't really hold. Success in fitness is very much about dedication, because your result is a direct result of the amount of work you put in. Whereas success in career is affected by a ton of other factors that are outside one's control. Primarily, luck. When there's 200 spots open for a job that 50,000 people are applying to, it doesn't matter how hard each of those 50,000 people work to get it. Only 200 of them will.


Persevering seems to be a very personal choice and there's no correct decision for everyone. It's easy to look at someone who hasn't achieved the level of success they desire and to write them off while encouraging them to take a safer, more conventional path. The trouble is that such a decision all but guarantees their ambition won't be realized. It seems that those who are just happy doing their thing are the ones most apt to persevering. They also seem like the ones who would feel more disappointed by giving up than by having not "made it" yet.

At what point would you call it a day? Is there some point you can determine it's worth giving up? I'm curious to know how you'd make such a decision.


I think the biggest difference here is that he's not dreaming alone. His wife is extremely supportive on his career and was as committed as him in his pursue to be great in film. In the essay he wrote he tore up the schedule after his wife told him: "Don't forget your dreams." because she found out he'd been going to computer classes and got upset by that. He was not the only on in the pursue of the big dream, they both were, so he doesn't get to make the decision to give up on his own. It's a great, great fortune to have someone who stands by you in the long, frustrating journey, and it made all the differences.


What I think is fascinating is not Ang Lee's determination to last those 6 years, thought that is impressive.

It is that his wife and family supported him for all those years (granted, it seems he was providing childcare). And believed in him, to the point of scolding him when he considered switching to a more immediately lucrative career.

We should all be so generous to our partners.


Yeah, that's awesome. What's so unusual about it to me is that when he was discouraged she didn't tell him to do something easier that would make him feel more immediately satisfied (by making money, providing for the family, etc.); she told him to keep doing what was making him unhappy in the short term. I think that takes a damn strong relationship.


I find that to be the most heartwarming part of his entire tale. The fact that his wife encouraged him to stick with his career aspirations even when he was ready to give up, and even when it was not in their family's short-term financial interest, shows the depth of her love for him.


It takes an inhuman amount of confidence or blind faith to convince yourself that you are good enough to make it in the film industry. To hold that belief for 6 years, while seemingly spinning your tires and growing your family is just something else. Ang Lee is something else too, though. After seeing Eat Drink Man Woman one evening, he instantly became one of my favorite directors.

As a former film school graduate myself, I must admit I took the other route and settled for a safe, but rather mindless career in marketing. At 31 I think I still have some fight in me, but alas not everyone is Ang Lee.


I really respect Asian men who try and make it in Hollywood because its an upill battle.


What's really impressive is that he wasn't relegated to Asian or Asian-influenced films. He broke out with Sense and Sensibility, of all things.


Yes, all those fat/average-looking white men stealing their roles.


Geez, you're only a year older than he was at the start of his Herculean effort. Get writing!


It's an interesting perspective on the man in light of all the ruckus about his film and the bankruptcy of Rhythm & Hues (who did the Oscar-winning effects for the film and ultimately fired 250 people in the past month):

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/feb/26/ang-lee-visual-ef...

He's got talent, that's for sure. I suspect much of the flak should be thrown at the industry rather than at the filmmakers.


Here's the author trying to explain how long Ang Lee spent working towards success:

"Imagine starting something now, this year, that you felt you were pretty good at, having won some student awards, devoting yourself to it full time…and then getting rejected over and over until 2019."

This reminds me of the "Story of Longitude" where John Harrison spent decades of his life in search of his prize (the first "X-Prize"?), and everyone is betting against him. How could a self-educated clockmaker beat the best minds of the day? Anyway it's a great story, which I've read a couple of times.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longitude_(book)

A few years ago when I was thinking up a name for my mobile "hobby start-up company", I took inspiration from Harrison and called my company h4labs (http://h4labs.com). His fourth clock (H4) won the prize. As a software developer, I image myself more as a craftsmen. I'm taking one idea and I'm going to refine it over several years. Hopefully, by my major forth version, I'll have something really worthwhile.

[Edit] Btw, here's the book: http://www.amazon.com/Longitude-Genius-Greatest-Scientific-P...


Thanks for narrating the story of John Harrison. I would say that what he found was the GPS equivalent of his time.


here is a very personal essay the oscar winning director Ang Lee wrote about those 6 years in the desert (translated):

http://whatshihsaid.com/2013/02/26/ang-lee-a-never-ending-dr...


Awesome, thanks. These two articles are just amazing.


iamwill, this is a really awesome post. I shared it on FB and Tweeted it. I wanted to add one thing:

My sister won the Miss Hong Kong Pageant a few years back and is one of the top celebrities in Asia. One thing I learned from her was that success is all about determination, focus, and a lot of work; talent is in fact overrated.

For her, there have been ups (winning the pageant she was at the top), and downs (a year after winning the pageant, she was given the standard actress contract and was basically at the bottom), then ups again (she had to work her way up to the 'acting' totem pole).

Success in my view is what you make of it as well. Dave Chappelle talked about it when his dad confronted him about wanting to be an entertainer. His response was if he could make a living comparable to a normal white collar job (I think he used the example of 50K a year), then he felt in his mind that he achieved success. It's probably why he went to Africa! (Unless you believe in the Oprah Conspiracy lol).

DHH and the guys at 37signals have it right in my mind too. There is a huge difference being -10K in debt and having 10K in savings. Another huge difference between 10K in savings and having 250K in savings. However, there really isn't much difference between 1 Million and 10 Million and above (First Class vs. private jet... one Mazeratti vs. 5 Mazeratti's). For the majority of us, success is hitting that 250K mark. At that point, you don't need to worry about rent, food, bills... etc.

Lastly, a piece of advice I learned from Derek Sivers was what do you want? He broke it down to Fame, Fortune, Freedom, excitement, quiet, comfort.. To some all they want is Fame. To others, all they want is the money. His advice was to choose only one and go for it. A nice little byproduct is that you might get the Fortune and end up getting the Freedom as well. But know what you want and set yourself to achieve that goal!


> It got so discouraging that Lee reportedly contemplated learning computer science so he could find a job during this time, but was scolded by his wife when she found out, telling him to keep his focus.

Tragic...we came so close to having Ang Lee be a programmer!

I guess it's a small consolation that he's one of my favorite directors ever.


I cannot believe I wasted time reading this article.

The picture of the tape and the business card sucked me in.

I was hoping that the author will be sharing in detail the travails of Ang Lee during his early years and how he managed to pull through. Instead the author spins his own story of how Ang Lee stayed the course.

The reality of how Ang Lee felt ( 1984 - 1990 ) and kept himself motivated or if he was even worried about "success" remains a mystery and I am still curious to know more about this wonderful director and his early years...


Success, like failure, is an event. Not the destination itself. My work discipline is the same when I succeed as when I fail. I don't suddenly become smarter or dumber. Success after all is what happens when you have a well-oiled system working for you.


Wait a minute, isn't 6 years of work to become an amazing success very quick and impressive? It takes most people a lot longer than 6 years to achieve a lot less...

What I struggle to imagine is the distorted sense of self and entitlement required to have the opposite perspective, which seems to be the author's view - that 6 years is too long to work hard at something and become good at it???


One thing I've always wondered is what film and TV writers do all day during their years of obscurity. It would be interesting to hear more details about their process during that time, but that part of the story is never told.


Most of them work some sort of crappy day job. I know one guy that the day he finalized a script sale for millions of dollars was working as a temp and borrowing money.

The ones that succeed go home after that crappy job and spend hours writing. The ones that don't, don't.


I'm pretty sure pg has an essay about this using writing as an example. It goes something like "If you want to be a writer, you need to find time to write." Or something like that. I know for startup founders, and most other creative professionals, it's the same story: Find a way to work on the projects that matter to you. Maybe that means you get passed up for promotion at your current job, but you're not at your current job to climb the ladder anyway.

Edit: Found it. http://www.paulgraham.com/love.html


If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing. 2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things. -Scott Adams http://dilbertblog.typepad.com/the_dilbert_blog/2007/07/care...


“I sent in script after script. Most were turned down. Then there would be interest, I’d rewrite, hurry up, turn it in and wait weeks and weeks, just waiting. That was the toughest time for Jane and me. She didn’t know what a film career was like and neither did I.”

Blimey me, that's some solid hustle. That too when you have young kid. Seriously inspiring. Time and again it has shown that determination can change fortunes.

EDIT: I got # of kids wrong


It's been said Hollywood is the only town where you can die of encouragement.

I've known a number of people (including myself) who have had film projects with interest from some of the biggest names in town. But what counts isn't interest, or someone thinking it's great, but someone signing some checks. And that can be incredibly elusive.

Even then, the results aren't always satisfying. There are some screenwriters who have sold scripts for some of the largest amount on record who refuse to watch the movies that eventually resulted.

I've read the average time from start to a produced film for a screenwriter is 7 years. And during those 7 years, you don't know if you're going to be a success or if you're just delusional.

Having been around the edges of the business for a good while now, I believe people who say the existence of each and every film is a miracle.

It's a crazy business.


Thanks, that was really helpful. How different is it from a startup then? There are edge-cases like YouTubes and Instagrams of the world. But in general it is 3-5 years at minimum where you know whether your startup is going to be successful or not.


Probably not all that different as a trial of self-belief, though the money for screenwriting is a lot lower until you finally "break in".

You might make some money along the way if you option a script, but probably not more than a few thousand or so.


He only had 1 kid at the time, and has 2 now.


My bad. Changed it.



I loved Ang Lee's own words: http://whatshihsaid.com/2013/02/26/ang-lee-a-never-ending-dr... (which is a link within this article).


I'm surprised he didn't mention his interview with the comedian Stewart Lee: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHC13MYcrR4


Is White Plains the Palo Alto of the Northeast? There seem to be a disproportionate amount of intelligent people doing new and exciting things from that town.

Edit: spelling


It's the seat of Westchester county, which has a million people in small cities jammed next to each other. I think a lot of that gets rounded to White Plains rather than explaining the geography. Also, it's rich, which doesn't guarantee but definitely helps with success.




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