July 3, 2017
When Paul developed writer’s block he would resort to a trick Hunter S. Thompson had talked about using to break through. He’d rewrite ‘The Great Gatsby’ cover to cover. Wait a minute, what! Who does that? There is a special mix of commitment & lunacy in this and I had to know more.
I’m always drawn to stories of non-traditional career paths and after my last few interviews, they seem to be the norm. Paul Jun’s story is no exception to this pattern and what fascinates me is how far one can go when there is a commitment to 10,000 hours in a specific domain.
The first time I connected with Paul was via the altMBA program where he served as a community manager who always sent thoughtful, timely, and informative messages. When we first got to chat, I realized that these polished edges came from a long-term trajectory that began with the commitment to being a voracious reader.
I always say that the key to life is uncovered by asking good questions, but it might actually already be written in a book somewhere before you’ve even thought of the question.
Today, Paul is the content manager behind CreativeMornings; a global movement that works with sponsors to deliver fresh coffee, friendly people, and a speaker once a month in 172 cities around the world! Speakers at CreativeMornings events are based on a global theme of the month and include a variety of people, from local legends all the way to domain experts. Paul is then charged with continuing the flow of content behind this global network. Along with his involvement in altMBA, he has also been a contributor to 99u and is the writer of Motivated Mastery.
I wanted to find out more about what laid the groundwork for this career path and delve further into his worldview. During a recent trip to Brooklyn, we were able to connect in the CreativeMornings headquarters.
[Setting: It was my first time in Cobble Hill on one of the nicest days you could have imagined: sunny, 65 and here is a picture I took to prove it:
I visited Paul’s office in the afternoon after grabbing lunch at a local shop Bien Cuit. The CreativeMornings office is in a building that is sort of nondescript, but inside it was a combination of different businesses all pumping their own creative vibes into the ecosystem. We grabbed a conference room with great lighting and started the interview]
Dean: Paul, thanks so much for meeting with me. I’m really excited to visit you in Brooklyn. This is my first time, really, in Brooklyn.
Paul: Welcome! You’re in a good side of Brooklyn.
Dean: Yeah, there is a really cool vibe here and I love this neighborhood. So, you were mentioning to me that you had a non-traditional path. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Tell me about your path here.
Paul: My path as a writer started when I was in college. I was a terrible student. I literally had like a 1.9 GPA. And there was a certain point in my life that I was very frustrated, lost, always stressed out. One of my mentors, I used to paintball, one of my mentors that I met through there said listen, you need to do something. You need to start drawing, start writing, do something and so at the time, I was playing video games a lot, and he’s like why don’t you write about it and turn it into something productive? So that inspired me to start a blog. He bought a website for me for a year to do it and I just wrote every day. Over time, I started noticing that I would wake up and want to write. And then naturally, my curiosity took over and I would start reading online about ‘how do I become a better writer’. One of the core pieces of advice that Stephen King always said was that if you don’t read, then you’re not a writer. That inspired me to read books and because I was failing in school, I figured why not take this opportunity to dive into self-education. And so I started writing a lot, I was devouring books, I was taking whatever online course I could find that was relevant to the skill sets that I wanted to grow and who I wanted to become. Everything kind of turned around when I took this writing workshop that taught me how to pitch to editors and how to freelance for websites so while I was in school I was freelance writing. I told myself that my goal was to get straight Cs and so that meant that if there were four tests in the year, I might not take one of them and I might not show up. And the reason why I did that was that it was really about opportunity costs. If I don’t do that then what could I do with my time instead? That’s why I invested heavily in self-education and that was the catalyst for where I arrived today. I started writing for bigger publications, some of the jobs that I took (the full-time roles) were about producing content for the organization, and now I am the head of content at CreativeMornings. I’m managing a lot of the social channels like the social media, the newsletter, I’m writing for our blog now trying to get it back on its feet, but yeah, essentially that is how I got here.
Dean: In one of your articles on 99u called, “Seven pieces of wisdom,” one of those pieces of wisdom was to study the work of other artists and domains. I want to know, what other artists and domains are you currently studying?
Paul: For this new role, I moved to Brooklyn (I’m originally from New Jersey). I moved to Brooklyn about eight months ago and my younger brother came to visit me. He’s a photographer, film background now, and he gave me his camera and he said, “Use this to explore your neighborhood because I know you and you could sit in your room all day and just work and not really explore a city.” I was very overwhelmed when I moved here. I just didn’t know what I was really doing and so photography completely took over my life for the last six months. As a writer, I see everything in words. If I hear you speak, I can literally see the words pop up in my head like subtitles in a movie. Everything that I see, even like this basket of fake lemons [Paul reaches for and grabs a fake lemon on the table], I visualize it in words. Photography is making me realize that light is not just light anymore. Patterns are different to me now, I look at buildings in a totally different way than I ever did before. It’s making me see things, details that my eye is not trained to do. Strangely, it feeds back to my writing. It kind of inspires me to really paint that picture of what I’m seeing more clearly and more succinctly and to leave the excess details out and to keep the core details in. So right now, photography is my source of play. When I first moved here, I noticed that I was really just focused on work, work, work, and I’m someone who strongly believes in the concept of play. And one night, I realized that I wasn’t really doing anything for the sheer joy of it. So yeah, I’m just tapping into photography now, taking as many workshops and courses that I can, studying other photographers on Instagram, trying to just understand how did they capture this? What are they seeing that I’m not? How can I learn from that? How can I sharpen my own eye by studying other photographers that I really admire?
Dean: Do you have any tricks or ways that you can eliminate or reduce writer’s block when you’re trying to produce or come up with content? Is there anything you do that helps you get over that?
Paul: When I first started writing, writer’s block was something that I used to battle every morning. I would ask myself, “who am I to be a writer?” I really had some serious imposter syndrome because I was a terrible student. I was an athlete my whole life and so all of a sudden after pretty much failing my way out of high school, it was like, “Oh, now you want to be a writer?!” So it was just like, who do you think you are! One of my favorite writers is Hunter S. Thompson and I was watching a documentary on Netflix about when he was a young twenty-something-year-old writer and writing for Time. He said that he would escape into a closet and he would rewrite the Great Gatsby. The reason why he wanted to rewrite the Great Gatsby was because he thought it was beautiful writing. It was tight and it was communicated very clearly and so he wanted to feel through his own fingers what it was like to write a beautiful sentence, a beautiful paragraph, a beautiful chapter. So, the times that I had writer’s block, I rewrote the Great Gatsby.
I rewrote the Great Gatsby
Dean: How long did that take?
Paul: It really depends. The days that I told myself that I had writer’s block and I would open the book, pin it down with my forearms, and just start typing away on my laptop, I would go for about a good three hours until I got exhausted, went to the gym for a break, and then came home to do some reading. In my total seven years of doing this, I’ve rewritten the Great Gatsby twice. What’s funny is that when I was rewriting the Great Gatsby, I couldn’t tell you the difference between like adverbs and all the terminology that’s involved in English, but writing something like the Great Gatsby (which I think is a masterpiece), rewriting that and really feeling just the cadence and the tone and the flow of what he was communicating or the picture that he was painting was insanely valuable to me. It felt like I could almost be a master for like an hour. That really kind of soaked it in for me and it really kind of kept me accountable because rather than telling myself that I had writer’s block and not doing the day’s work, I at least committed to putting words to paper because even though they weren’t mine, I could still feel that tension and feel like I was exercising that muscle.
Dean: Paul, what does the status quo represent to you? Maybe in the sense of a persona or in your day-to-day work. What is the status quo that you’re fighting against?
Paul: I think I’ve always wanted to follow the path of least resistance. Ever since I was younger, it was like what’s a path that someone has walked? What’s the most efficient way? Let me just commit to that. And I think that’s very easy, and yes it’s efficient, but in the last few years, I’ve been deliberately challenging and being curious and open-minded about rules or processes that people think are just natural. It’s like wake up, show up to work for eight hours, do it this way, and you’re done and you’re happy at the end. And I would just challenge all of that with kind of a healthy skepticism and be backing it with all of the insights that I’m reading in these fantastic books that I explore. And seeing like how does that relate to my life and my personality and my character? The life that I want to lead. If it seems like it was kind of unconsciously adopted for whatever reason, I’ll just remove it and I won’t allow myself to be bogged down by that and I’ll start inventing my own rules for my creativity and my day-to-day life.
Dean: What’s the most remarkable thing about CreativeMornings?
Paul: Oh yes, I love this. For CreativeMornings, I think the most remarkable thing is that it’s run purely on generosity and the founder, my boss Tina Roth Eisenberg, she calls it the engine of generosity. That’s something that she truly believes in. When I first heard that language, I understood it, but it was really hard for me to believe. I was very cynical about it.
Dean: What does that mean in terms of the actual inner-workings of CreativeMornings?
225 organizers came together
Paul: So what the engine of generosity means is this. Our HQ team is six people, so we have two Community Managers, we have the founder, I run the content, and we have two people managing partnerships, but we have 1500 volunteers in 170 cities in 63 countries around the world. And every month, roughly 40 hours a month, they put on an event for their city, for their creative community. They don’t get paid for this, they have families, jobs, obligations, hobbies, and so when I really thought about it, I was like, “How?” It’s just so mind-boggling because I believe in the power of volunteering, I did it whenever I could, but to stay consistent with it … some of our hosts have been hosts for years, since the beginning. CreativeMornings Berlin was the 7th chapter and it’s the same host and he’s been doing it for 6 years. And you’re doing it purely off the generosity of the community and your work and just the feeling of watching people feel like they belong to something. I thought that was so astounding because me, personally, if I hear something like that, I’m going to call bullshit on it. And I’m going to think that it’s just the buzzword, you know, one of those words that you throw up on a wall and you say it’s your value. But actually seeing it in person … we had a summit last year where 83 of the chapters, 225 organizers came together … met in person, hugging and talking about the future of CreativeMornings. That’s when it sunk in for me. People so strongly believe in the power of community, what it does when you’re surrounded by the right people, that they’re willing to put in this labor every month, finding venues, getting free breakfast, free coffee –the whole thing is free– and finding a speaker, and coaching them, and helping them deliver an inspiring talk. You’re doing this out of the pure goodness of your heart? That to me is remarkable. It gave me a lot of hope for the future of creativity in general and how people can go to a new city and just find their people.
Dean: How about for altMBA, from a coach’s perspective? (I was a student at altMBA 6.) What is the most remarkable thing about it?
Paul: I would say the culture. ‘People like us do things like this’. That’s how Seth Godin defines culture. Almost four weeks ago, before altMBA started, we had our initial coaching call. It’s amazing how people from every time zone, spread all over the world, that don’t even know each other, can come together in a room for six hours on a Saturday, learn about the coaching philosophy, learn about how we coach students, what it’s for, what success looks like, and work together so well as if we’ve been a team for like five years. The camaraderie and the trust, the openness, the kindness, the professionalism … I don’t find this anywhere else. It’s astounding. It just says a lot. I think a lot of people, myself included, are risk-averse when it comes to remote work, but after I joined a remote company, I realized that it is possible to build a company and do good work even though you’re spread out all over the place. What that really just means is that you have to be better at communicating, better at being accountable for your work, knowing what’s on your plate, and taking ownership of what you do. I think the culture that we’ve created at altMBA, both for the students and for the coaches, is exactly the kind of culture that people are craving. They crave this in the workplace, with their friendships … this level of trust and vulnerability and wanting to help each other. It’s rare and I think that’s why people are coming to the altMBA because they know that they are just going to get this in a very amplified, intense way in four weeks.
Dean: With your exposure to the different students at altMBA and obviously in other aspects of your life, for my readers and their careers, what do you think is something that they can do to stand out in their careers regardless of what stage they are? What’s a trait or something you see that has really made someone stand out in your eyes?
Paul: Three things. Three very specific things. I think first, it’s really important to have a personal platform. Whether it’s a blog, whatever you want to call it. It’s this: Can I find you on Google and when I find you on Google, is it clear what you stand for? Can you show me the work that you’ve done and what it represents and does it tie into your mission and what you want to represent in this world? I think having a blog has been such incredible leverage. It’s what got me my first job for a software company. It’s like not only did I have a blog, but I also had proof of freelance work for other big publications.
Dean: It’s better than a resume!
Paul: Yes in a million ways, because my resume was so sparse. All I had was a list of dead-end jobs, which I didn’t want to include on my resume. What for? It’s not relevant to the job that I want to get. And then I was just finishing college. So I didn’t have my bachelor’s degree yet, I didn’t have any job related to the job that I did want, and so the leverage that I had was that I had been building a platform for five years. I had proof that I can grow my own email list. I wrote three books. So now I know how to start projects. I know how to take ownership of them. I know how to figure out how to make a project come to life. Everything from budgeting to marketing to hiring editors, designers, etc. Skills that you don’t have. Even if it’s just a site that says who you are, like one of those ‘about.me’ sites, at least have that, but if you could expand it to showing who is behind this image, this avatar, what does this person represent and how can I find you, I think that is just very important. I mean if I can’t find you, then what do you want me to leverage for trust?
The second thing is advice that I always give, but that people have a hard time taking. Read books. I think reading books as a habit will help you stand out if you’re 20-years-old or 50-years-old. Reading for me, personally, has sharpened my critical thinking, introduced me to new ideas and concepts that I was just so ignorant about. The one year when I was failing school and writing, I read 115 books front to back. That year, I swear to God, was one of the most transformative years of my life because I read philosophy books, I read psychology books, science, art, culture, everything. I would read books on management and I wasn’t even in the position to be a manager, but it allowed me to develop empathy.
Dean: Was it like a full-time hobby? Reading books at that time?
It helps me shed dead skin.
Paul: I was so adamant about just growing my skill with writing. This was like my second year of writing and I was committed. I was like you know what, this is my path, so I would ask myself, “What are the things that would help me master this?” It’s write every day, it’s read everyday. If those are the only two things that are asked of me and I can commit to it and that will show me that I can go down that path of mastering writing … then I’m going to do it. And so I would read 50-100 pages of a book every day and I learned so much. It was incredible. On top of that, I was writing about what I was reading. One of my favorite quotes is from David McCullough, he’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author. He said, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s hard.” That really stuck with me. I’m like, here I am writing a post about human nature, or decision making, and if I’m writing it and I read it a few days later and it’s not clear to me, then that just shows to me that there’s something missing in my knowledge base. So I would figure out what are those gaps and how can I fill them, and I would fill them with books. Reading is something that people know is good for you, right? But it’s just so hard to commit. And there are all these blog posts on big publications like “Warren Buffett sits in his office and reads all day” and like Seth has quoted before, “Successful people read.” I am so strongly for it and if there’s any one thing that you can really do to start standing out, it’s to really dig into books. Explore topics that you are completely unaware of and have no understanding, and then understand it, figure it out, and be able to teach it to someone else and see how that knowledge starts integrating into your daily work. So as a writer, I didn’t major in English. I majored in Journalism for one semester and I had to stop. I ended up majoring in Psychology. The theory was if I’m writing to people and if I can truly understand the human condition, and if I can have empathy and understand all the different psychological insights, then it will not only make me a better writer, but it will make me a better person.
Naturally, number three is that I think you should write every day. Not necessarily a blog post that goes out in public, it can be a journal of a couple hundred words, but writing is to me like shedding dead skin. It’s a way to reflect. There’s a great book by Meredith Moran called Why We Write and she interviews many authors, both famous and non-famous, and just asks the simple question, “Why do you write?” And people say things like, “It helps me sort chaos into order,” “It helps me understand,” “It helps me shed dead skin.” There are studies on this where a group of people lost their job and they split them up into groups. Some people did creative writing and talked about nothing, some people journaled about their pain and adversity, and another group didn’t do anything. The group that journaled about their pain and their adversity were likely to find new jobs faster, recover from stress more quickly, and just adapt. I wrote a piece that’s on 99u that’s called “Great Artists Write” and my argument is that no matter what your craft is, writing will benefit you enormously.
Dean: Who is the most remarkable person that you know and why?
One month, he is making soap…
Paul: I would say … my friend and mentor Eddie. He’s the gentleman who got me to first start writing. I would say that he’s one of the most remarkable people that I know because his story is just absolutely incredible. Born in the Bronx at the time when the Bronx was absolutely terrible, had a very tough childhood and upbringing, went through his series of pretty tough moments, and he just completely flipped his life around. He has a great partner and two kids, he’s now in Atlanta, and when you ask him, “What are you doing?” he’ll tell you that he’s a 42-year-old child. He’s just pursuing all of his hobbies and interests. One month, he is making soap and then he realizes that this isn’t for me, and the next month he’s volunteering for underserved communities and figuring out business ideas for how to help them. I think someone like that is a great model because it shows that no matter how tough your life circumstances were, that you can always adapt and become the person that you’ve always wanted to be. Hopefully, throughout this journey, you have great mentors to support you and uplift you, but yeah, I think for all the people that I know, his story is one that has always amazed me; where he is, how wise he is, and how compassionate he is.
Dean: If you could just look at yourself from a third-person perspective and put humility aside for a second, what is your secret to being an outrageously remarkable content machine?
Paul: (laughs) I think my one superpower, and I didn’t even know that this was it until my boss said it, is self-awareness. I think I can certainly agree with that. I think self-awareness, in the way that I exercise it, can be both a gift and a curse. It can be a gift in that it helps me be very aware of my internal narrative, of the mistakes that I’m making, and to look at it from a very humble lens and to be able to go okay, what can I do better next time? But it’s also often for me a curse because I’m really hard on myself. The way that I grew up, all of that adds up to my desire for ruthlessness and mastery. I crave greatness so badly that I feel like I’m never going to get it, which is why I run at the speed that I do. Because I feel like if I don’t, no one is going to do it for me. And so I think the only reason why I was able to get to where I am in such a short period of time is that I’m able to correct my mistakes, I’m open to feedback, and I’m willing to change my mind instantly. There’s this quote by Marcus Aurelius, one of my biggest influences ever, he said and I’m sure I’m butchering it, “I would gladly change my mind if someone shows me what I’m doing wrong because to not do that is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” After I read that, I realized that was my compass. Be self-aware in what you are doing, be open to the feedback of others that are smarter than you, and change your mind and just be a better person through that method.
Dean: Paul, thank you so much.
Connect with Paul Jun on Twitter & check out his writing at Motivated Mastery. Here’s info about CreativeMornings near you! Interested in learning more about altMBA? It’s not for everyone, but for those ready to level up.
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