99U: If curiosity is the antidote to fear, is vulnerability the key to creativity?
Last year, I was asked to do a 99u talk on my relationship with creativity, curiosity and fear.
After a month of sheer panic and a lot of help from the most inspiring women I know (Emma Reynolds and Liz Kreuger), I did it! People laughed, empathised, felt inspired and were absolutely wonderful. It was the most terrifying and humbling experience.
Here's what was said:
I don’t know about you, but I’m terrified. I’m a product of the internet so this whole "talking to a room full of real humans" thing doesn’t really make sense to me.
Here’s a little backstory for those of you that do not know; I was born and bred in Hong Kong to a Chinese Mother and a German Father. Imagine those two cultures coming together. I grew up being a very, very repressed kid. Vulnerability is… First of all, a word that I couldn’t even say properly until I had to do this speech, secondly, it was something that was seen as weakness and so I never allowed myself to show it… It’s so stupid. Over time, it evolved into many things that I deemed were weaknesses too, such as asking for help, having emotions or simply saying, “I don’t know“.
I went to a very small art school called California College of the Arts. That was probably one of the first times in my life I felt completely liberated and allowed to indulge in my creativity. They had something called an “individualised major”, which meant that you could design the structure your classes to help you become the creative that you want to be.
I was never really offered so much freedom in choosing what I wanted to be and learn in life. I went from only being able to choose one creative subject a year to essentially being able to explore every creative outlet… Which actually lead to a lot of anxiety. I didn’t have an excuse or anything else to occupy my time with. I was finally left alone with me.
I realised how out of touch I was with myself and had a lot of work to do. I met some incredible people that helped me become more self-aware. All of my friends, professors and advisors were all creators that I respected so much. It took some time to adjust to an environment where every one was so open and that’s when I started to learn that your emotions could manifest into wonderful things.
The most vulnerable people are the strongest.
See, in my “weak” moments I get really frustrated with myself and all I can say is, “I don’t know what I’m doing” - That freaks me out. I hate it. And I try so hard to stray from that because it sounds so irresponsible. I want to be a real person. I am in control and I want to know.
I’m afraid of fear before I even allow myself to feel it.
When you hit a really low point in life, you’re so sad and broken, all there is left to do is be yourself. You’re too exhausted to try to be anything, but yourself. It’s in those moments that I AM a real person. When you stop resisting these thoughts and allow yourself to feel, you are acknowledging yourself. If I don’t listen to myself, I can’t expect other people to do the same. If I don’t listen to myself, whatever I do wouldn’t be authentic.
If it isn’t authentic, it’s meaningless.
I came back halfway through my studies and started working as a product designer. From there on I went on a shopping spree of jobs in fashion, publications, galleries, design, social media and so on. By that time, I had been trying to curate an exhibition for almost two years in Hong Kong, but was having little to no luck in getting anyone to even pay attention. So I turned to the modern day online laxative for all feelings and started a blog called TwentyBliss.
I started it by ASKING QUESTIONS because I HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING. What a bizarre concept! I started asking people what their twenties meant to them and how they felt about being a creative in this era with the rise of the digital space? Why are we afraid to put ourselves out there? Why are we so precious with our work? Basically, questions I was asking myself. People wrote back honestly and I could never thank these strangers online enough. The following grew and it became a community of young creators.
This all happened very quickly. I remember setting up TwentyBliss in February and launching it in March and by July I was at the opening of my first TwentyBliss exhibition that I had curated.
People started asking me when the second exhibition would be... Will you ever come to L.A.? Do you plan on turning it into an agency? How do you intend on monetising your content? …. WHAT? All I could say was… YES! I am going to do all those things. People were asking me questions, I WAS SO VALIDATED! I AM A REAL PERSON.
Last year, I entered an entrepreneurship programme and have never ever felt so transparent. I was the only person doing anything creative amongst a sea of apps that were going to change the world. I somehow managed to pull through to the final round and was sat in a small room with five other people waiting to present our very last pitch to three really savvy businessmen.
The first guy presented some hybrid of WeChat and WhatsApp that could revolutionise the way we talk to each other. THEY LOVED IT. The second guy that went before me was a med school student with an app concept that could cure cancer someday… Um... Yeah. THEY LOVED IT. By the time it got to me, I BOMBED my pitch. I’m not saying that to be harsh on myself, I truly bombed that pitch. One of them didn’t have anything to ask me and pretty much just scoffed at anything that came out of my mouth, the other two each asked me questions that really were just sarcastic statements.
I knew I was out of the programme, but there was a mandatory ceremony for press purposes to find out who would graduate to get their mentorship and investor meetings. The moment of truth. I sat there and waited for my name NOT to be called out…
Have you guys ever watched America’s Next Top Model and Tyra Banks starts talking really slow? “We’ll find out who is still in the running to becoming America’s… Next… Top… Model” - Yeah, that’s what it felt like at the time. I'm just sat there waiting in slow-motion.
A massive screen in the auditorium descends dramatically from the ceiling. All of our names are on there. And then, I watched my name dissolve into nothing. I never imagined my feelings would be depicted so accurately by some shitty Microsoft word art.
After that, I went through a period where nothing I did made sense. I was getting rejection after rejection for proposals and just hitting walls left right and center. I came close to shutting down TwentyBliss entirely so many times. I was a mess. I was so afraid of everything. As I should be.
Fear isn’t something you overcome. I think it’s just something you learn to walk side by side with.
You’re never going to get rid of that disgusting feeling that comes after you try so hard and fuck up. It sucks. The fact that it makes you want to throw up though is a clear indicator that you care. That’s how you know that you’ve got to try again. And again. And again.
I had completely lost sight of myself, of TwentyBliss and what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what to do, so I started asking questions again…
TwentyBliss has now had five exhibitions in Hong Kong, an international exhibition in L.A and Vancouver and was named one of Hong Kong’s Most Valuable Companies of 2015.
I’ve just launched a new website for it that’s separate from the blog where it will serve as a creative collective and soon provide resources in the form of a curator kit. People will be able to apply and host their own TwentyBliss exhibitions from wherever they are in the world.
TwentyBliss started as a part of me and it should continue to be. It’s something that I love, something that I’m allowed to grow with and something that I’m allowed to experiment with. People are constantly growing and changing and TwentyBliss will always have room for that.
So what have I learnt?
If you don’t know the answer; start asking questions.
Share with intent; if it isn’t authentic it’s meaningless.
Seek inspiration, not validation.