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Ang Lee and the uncertainty of success

February 23, 2013


Recently I was going through some old things I had put away for safekeeping, and I found these:

Business card and interview tape, circa 1993.

Business card and interview tape, circa 1993.

In 1993 I interviewed film director Ang Lee before the US premiere of his second movie, “The Wedding Banquet,” at the Seattle International Film Festival (at the time I was editor of the International Examiner and we were one of their media sponsors). At the time, Lee was an unknown in the U.S., an anomaly as a Taiwan-born immigrant director in the United States, mostly notable for having been the NYU classmate of the more famous director Spike Lee.

Nearly two decades later, it’s Ang Lee who’s up at Sunday’s Academy Awards for Best Picture (his fourth nomination) and Best Director (his third), for “Life of Pi.” And in terms of overall tally, “Life of Pi” (11 nominations) trails only Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (12 nominations).

It’s hard not to root for Lee — an unassuming, down-to-earth guy that sends his kids to public schools, does the cooking and shuttles his sons to cello lessons when he comes home. I have always had a personal affinity for him, partly because he was super-nice to my parents (they were seated next to him at the premiere of “The Wedding Banquet”); partly because he was gracious both times I interviewed him; partly because he’s from Taiwan (he has the same accent as my parents) and is kicking ass but not in semiconductors, manufacturing or medicine. Those are all factors.

But the thing that I perhaps relate to most (and the part that you hopefully find as inspiring) is the part of his story that’s between the lines, specifically these lines:

1984: Graduates NYU, signed by William Morris agency after winning the Wasserman prize with “Fine Line”
1990: Wins prize for two scripts in a contest sponsored by the Taiwanese government. Gets backing to direct his first feature, “Pushing Hands”

From age 30 to 36, he’s living in an apartment in White Plains, NY trying to get something — anything — going, while his wife Jane supports the family of four (they also had two young children) on her modest salary as a microbiologist. He spends every day at home, working on scripts, raising the kids, doing the cooking. That’s a six-year span — six years! — filled with dashed hopes and disappointments. “There was nothing,” he told The New York Times. “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.” 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.

Put yourself in his shoes. 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. That’s the middle of the term of the next President of the United States. Can you imagine working that long, not knowing if anything would come of it? Facing the inevitable “So how’s that film thing going?” question for the fifth consecutive Thanksgiving dinner; explaining for the umpteeth time this time it’s different to parents that had hoped that film study meant you wanted to be a professor of film at a university.

It wasn’t until 1991 that Lee finally got a chance to helm his first movie, “Pushing Hands,” which wasn’t even released in the U.S. But after “Pushing Hands” came “The Wedding Banquet,” the film that would be his U.S. breakout and net him a Best Foreign Picture nomination; two years later, “Sense and Sensibility” would bring him into worldwide prominence; then a string of hits: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and now “Life of Pi” that have made him a common figure in the Oscar proceedings and the box-office charts ($576 million and 11 nominations for “Life of Pi” alone).

Of course, looking at the Ang Lee story now, who wouldn’t want to trade places: what’s six, seven, ten, even more years if you knew it would result in massive worldwide commercial and critical success? It’s common to hear “follow your bliss” or “do what you love and success follows.” Sounds great, right? Except here’s one small detail: You never get to know if it’s ever going to happen. You don’t get to choose if and in what form the success manifests; you don’t get to choose when it arrives.

It’s not as if you say, “Okay, universe, I’m ready for my turn! Any day now!” For some people it happens immediately; for others they get steady bits of success over time; and for others, they have long, long stretches of nothing over years. Another detail that I’ve always wondered about: during this long period at home, his NYU classmate Spike Lee releases three films, including the commercially successful and universally acclaimed “Do The Right Thing” in 1989. Having been in similar situations I can only imagine it stirred a very complex set of emotions.

If you’re an aspiring author, director, musician, startup founder, these long stretches of nothing are a huge reason why it’s important to pick something personally meaningful, something that you actually love to do. When external rewards and validation are nonexistent; when you suffer through bouts of jealousy, wondering “How come so-and-so got signed/is successful/got a deal/etc?”; when every new development seems like a kick in the stomach, the love of what you are doing gives you something to hang onto.

Much is made of genius and talent, but the foundation of any life where you get to realize your ambitions is simply being able to out-last everyone through the tough, crappy times — whether through sheer determination, a strong support network, or simply a lack of options.

On Sunday, as they announce “Life of Pi” as a contender in its 11 categories, make a note to remember it the next time you hit another rough patch — a series of rejections, a long stretch of nothing. Your achievements of tomorrow may be very well be planted with the seeds of today’s disappointments.

P.S. “Life of Pi” is an adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name. It recently surpassed sales of 3.1 million volumes. Of course, first it was rejected by five London publishing houses before being picked up by Knopf Canada.


Post a comment
  1. karteek #
    March 1, 2013

    its inspiring story. it gives strength to face the hurdles while achieving our goal 🙂

  2. March 1, 2013

    Inspiring. Thank you Jeff

  3. March 1, 2013

    Nice story. Very inspiring and human. Thanks for writing this.

  4. February 28, 2013

    Thanks for writing such an amazing article. It resonates with so many of us who walk on the patch of doing what we love. Struggle is an inherent part of any path. But you’d rather struggle on the path you love.

  5. Slow #
    February 28, 2013

    I’d point out that nine out of ten aspiring musicians and writers never make it and among those who even manage to make a living out of it, only one in a thousand make the big time so if you’re in it for the fame, don’t bother. I recall the advice of one writer: don’t even consider becoming a writer unless there’s no way you can stop yourself from writing.

  6. Samp #
    February 28, 2013

    I’ve always loved his work after coming across Eat/Drink/Ma/Woman while on a visit to China some years back. As mentioned in the article, I was surprised to see how humble he was in an interview with his Life of Pi cast. The variety of his stuff makes him formidable! Hope to see more great stuff from him!

  7. February 28, 2013

    Wow, that was well worth the read, thanks for putting that up, it made my day.

  8. February 28, 2013

    This is beautiful! Thank you for sharing this 🙂

  9. eas #
    February 28, 2013

    Great post, Jeff. It reminds me that you should really write more 😉

    I’ve recently been reflecting on the long-build some things can take. I started getting more involved with my alma matter, Reed, about 8 years ago. In some ways it feels like it was only 3 weeks ago that I could really be sure that what I’d been working on, in one way or another, for most of that time, was really going to succeed.

    • Sanjay Gokhale #
      February 28, 2013

      A friend forwarded this to me saying, this reminds him of me. And after reading it I realized that while I am flattered I don’t serve the complement because this piece is far more wonderful than anything I am ever likely to come up with. Well thought out, well written.

  10. February 28, 2013

    Thanks for this Jeff. Much appreciated.

  11. February 28, 2013

    Great article! Do you mind if I translate this post into Traditional Chinese and post it on my blog? (Of course i’ll provide the original link to this post)

    • February 28, 2013

      I would be flattered if you did! Thanks!

    • kukui #
      March 2, 2013

      Hi mclee, did you translate it? I am interested in sharing it with my Taiwanese friends. I will post a link to your blog 😉

  12. Shalaka Bhuskute #
    February 28, 2013

    Fantastic Jeff- incredibly inspiration and left me tearing up (in a good way 🙂 ).

  13. February 28, 2013

    This was awesome to read. Someone (i.e., you) needs to write a compendium of people with curious trajectories who didn’t fully succeed until slightly later in life.

    • March 1, 2013

      Interesting idea…there are quite a few of them aren’t there?

  14. Chris Allison #
    February 28, 2013

    His wife displayed an exemplary model of marriage by sticking with him and not letting him back out on his dream.

    • March 1, 2013

      Yes, it really becomes apparent that he would not be where he is without her. There’s a lesson there for all of us.

  15. February 28, 2013

    Great article, and a now bookmarked reminder for my days in the trenches – thanks Jeff!

  16. dentish42 #
    February 28, 2013

    Reading between the lines, i would say, if success is your only reason for doing something, maybe you should reconsider.

    On the other hand “because i love it” seems to be more appropriate.

    I think where a lot of mix up happens is the practicality of survival and love of what you are doing.

    Balancing the two well would seem to yield the best quality of life.

  17. February 28, 2013

    Reblogged this on Sarah Writes Here….

  18. February 28, 2013

    This is the kind of writing that leaves a mark. Really resonates with me and my own situation…

  19. Mei Ann #
    February 27, 2013

    This is such a needed reminder. Thank you so much for this.

  20. February 27, 2013

    great article. Know exactly what you mean.

  21. February 27, 2013

    As an entrepreneur who’s yet to see the light of success, I can identify with this just too well. Persistence is everything.

  22. LuoLuo #
    February 27, 2013

    Thank you sharing! Helped me!

  23. February 27, 2013

    You’re awesome. And your post describes exactly what it feels like sometimes to pursue a career in the entertainment business. As an actor, what you talk about here; THIS is the hard part. The acting itself is easy.

  24. February 27, 2013

    Thank you for sharing dude, please continue to do so.

  25. February 27, 2013

    Great piece but as a total aside, I always wondered who that Asian guy was in Harvey Danger with the awesome haircut that I then sported. Now I know and thank you for that.

    On another slightly less aside… were you upset they always bleeped Harvey Danger on radio? Ahh… the 90s. We were so innocent then.

  26. hometuitionjobadmin #
    February 27, 2013

    this can be applied to startup as well. gaining traction and making it takes time and great patience. never give up and lose focus. inspiring!

  27. February 27, 2013

    Fantastic post and insights. Thank you!

  28. February 27, 2013

    Jeff, this is so timely and inspiring. I don’t know how many conversations I have with my creative/artistic friends who compare their success or lack thereof to their colleagues – some even get beaten down into depression because of the uncertainty you write about. It is amazing that Ang Lee has such a loving and supportive partner in his wife Jane. Considering his genius, I am glad that he is being recognized during his lifetime so he has the support to keep creating in his unique voice.

    • March 1, 2013

      Absolutely — the instinct to want to compare is something everyone does, and it can be really insidious. There’s that saying “if you compete with nobody then nobody competes with you” but it is easier in theory than practice 🙂

  29. February 27, 2013

    Reblogged this on errlog.

  30. February 27, 2013

    Best article I have read in a long time, amazing, Thank You!

  31. charlescearl #
    February 27, 2013

    Today I heard a John Steinbeck quote for the first time: “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”

  32. February 27, 2013

    I heard a John Steinbeck quote today for the first time: “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true”

  33. February 27, 2013

    Thank you for sharing this. It speaks to me. Great! Inspiring.

  34. Richard Mattson #
    February 26, 2013

    A deeply felt piece, Jeff! I learned of it in a conversation with your SO today and am so glad. To add poignancy, what about the Ang Lees who fold at five years. Or, just as sad, the Ang Lees who press on and on and on and their dreams remain forever out of reach. Deeply felt, Jeff! Thank you for writing it.

  35. rena #
    February 24, 2013

    Thank you for the wonderful article. Oh man, I wish this was also written in Mandarin so I could show my “what are you getting a BA in English for!” parents.

  36. February 23, 2013

    Wonderfully written, Jeff!! This really hits a chord with me. I really can’t imagine 6 years of running in place. After a year of essentially being unemployed I already feel as if I have failed myself and all those that have ever supported me and helped to achieve my degrees and academic success.

    We live off of AB’s paychecks and he makes no gripes about the fact that I stay home everyday while he works 13-18 hour shifts every-friggin-day. Much like Ang Lee’s wife he discourages me from applying to jobs for the sake of having a job and instead has been encouraging me to seriously consider things like a career in photography. He tells me, “Karen, if you wanted to be a stay-at-home wife and that’s what would make you happy I would have no problem with that.” It’s a wonderfully romantic gesture, but one that certainly would not make me happy and at this point in our lives is not very practical either. So I’m left with this predicament/fear you mentioned which is,

    “You never get to know if it’s ever going to happen.”

    How do I know that what I’m attempting to accomplish will amount to anything? Would I be better off just applying to whatever bioscience company here being a lab rat with decent pay and benefits?

    And if we take a step back there’s the question of is this really what I want to do? Do I want to do it enough to stick through it while former colleagues and co-workers continue to advance in their work places and lives. Would I have applied to more jobs and done more for myself if I *really* wanted to do what I say I want to do?

    So while,

    “Your achievements of tomorrow may be very well be planted with the seeds of today’s disappointments.”

    I just don’t know if I’m even planting the right seeds.

    • L #
      February 28, 2013

      Geez, I was hoping someone would leave a good reply for you Karen, because I feel the same way!

      • March 1, 2013

        From all of these comments it seems there are a lot of us in this very same position. If only there was someone to tell us what the right next step is 🙂

        • March 2, 2013

          If you’ve set a goal for yourself, and that goal is something you really want to achieve, then it is the right thing to do.

  37. Albert #
    February 23, 2013

    That card is utterly awesome.

    • February 27, 2013

      I concur!

      • February 27, 2013

        On an another note, the images leaves some EXIF header information about author’s GPS location. Not sure Jeff’s aware of it.

        • February 27, 2013

          Thanks for pointing this out — fixed now!

  38. February 23, 2013

    I love your writing, Jeff.

    • February 23, 2013

      Thanks Scot! A bit rusty, but….

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