Welcome to Influencers!
Today, we have with us Jon. For those of you who were listening last episode, there were several hints to suggest who Jon is. He grew up in Silicon Valley, Los Altos, California. He is Chinese, not Korean. And as a hint, he has travelled with the Biebs, been sandwiched between Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, done magic with Jesse Eisenberg, and danced with Channing Tatum.
Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
Stay Focused On The Craft with Film Director, Jon Chu
I’m incredibly excited to be interviewing Jon Chu who is one of my favorite former dinner guests. Jon, thank you so much for coming on.
Thanks for having me.
For the listeners who were guessing who you are, who are you and what have you done?
My name is Jon Chu. I’m a film director. I’ve been making movies for the last ten years. I did two Step Up dance movies: Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D. I did a Justin Bieber documentary called Never Say Never and also Believe. I’ve done a big action movie, GI Joe: Retaliation with The Rock and Bruce Willis. Most recently, I did Now You See Me 2, which is a magic heist movie with Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and lots of other people that are really amazing actors. I just finished my latest film, Crazy Rich Asians, which we shot in Singapore and Malaysia. It’s the first all-Asian cast for a Hollywood studio movie in 30 years. That should be coming out next year.
When people discover what you’ve accomplished and what you’ve created, what’s the most common question they have?
I get two questions a lot. One is, “How is Justin Bieber?” That’s pretty much every day of my life. If you go on to my Twitter account, you can see all of that. I did the Virgin America Safety Video. If you’ve ever flown Virgin America, there’s a big dance number safety video to tell you how to put on your seat belt and things like that. I get a call or an email almost every other day from someone who’s flying Virgin America saying they saw it and how did that come to be. Everyone thinks it’s really random that I did it. It was really fun.
Correct me if I’m wrong, you also did the only dance action movie or series. You did The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers.
The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, LXD, the dance company, just a series that we did on Hulu. It was one of the first original series they ever did. They were 15, 20-minute episodes, all dance, very little dialogue, with some of the most amazing dancers in the world. People wanted us to perform as well so we did a TED Talk. We performed at the Oscars and a lot of different places around the world.
You’ve legitimately gone to the Oscars, not just faked your way in?
I’ve had two of the most amazing experiences at the Oscars. One, when I was in college at USC. It was at the Shrine Auditorium where I was living and I snuck in and made a fake pass by zooming in on some press person’s pass, remaking it on my computer, going to Kinko’s at the time, and laminating it and getting in. Getting kicked out a couple of times first but then reprinting it and going to a different side of the building and getting all the way into backstage. I watched the Oscars in 2001 from backstage. It was pretty amazing.
The second experience was when LXD got invited to perform all the scores for all the nominees of composers. I got a pass to go there. We were in the lobby before it started, I saw Steve Jobs. He passed me and I bolt after him because I worship Steve Jobs. One of my friends had been in a lot of his iPod commercials so he approached. I wasn’t ready to approach, I don’t know what to say. He grabbed me right when he was talking to him, pulled me over and he said, “Steve, this is my friend Jon. He really wants to meet you.” I’m like, “Hi. We’re from the same town, Los Altos. My parents have this restaurant called Chef Chu’s.” He’s like, “I know that place, so we’re neighbors. You’re a local kid.” I’m like, “Yeah.” I didn’t know what else to say so I just said, “Your products, your stuff has really given me a tool to be creative and have a voice when I didn’t know what to do when I was a kid.” He was like, “That’s great. Thank you so much.”
I said, “Even your commercial was so compelling to me. I’ve memorized it.” He’s like, “Really?” I was like, “Yeah.” He said, “How does it go?” I was like, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers,” and I paused and he leaned in closer so I kept going, “The round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. They have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do,” and then he continued with me, “is ignore them because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.” We said that last part together. I was a little bit drunk because I drank a little bit too much of that champagne there. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have done that.
At that moment, Bob Iger came around, the head of Disney, and he was like, “Steve, have you met Jon? He’s one of our filmmakers. He did the Step Up series. Have you heard of that?” Steve was like, “No, never heard of that, but we’re neighbors so he’s our local kid.” That was really nice. Then his wife came over, Laurene, and she said, “Our kids know Step Up.” That was my one interaction with Steve Jobs. I knew he didn’t like pictures. I knew he could be mean if I asked him for a picture, but I couldn’t help myself. Moments later, I was like, “Can we take a picture? It would mean a lot to me.” He totally said yes. He’s like, “Whatever you need.” We took this picture and I was so happy. I posted it on my own Twitter, because I didn’t have a lot of followers at that point, and then all the Mac blogs picked it up. It was a confirmation that he was at the Oscars. Suddenly it went crazy that Steve jobs was at the Oscars and I felt so horrible that I did that. I do have a picture that I treasure very much. It was one wonderful experience you can’t take back, it’s amazing.
One of the things that I noticed consistently about your career is that you might be afraid to do something but you do it anyway. I think that’s an incredibly admirable characteristic. All of us have fear, but you seem to take that extra step. That’s probably one of the characteristics that really has led to your success.
Thanks. I feel like I wish I had less fear because all the fears that you would have of going into that situation, I definitely had and felt, but maybe that champagne helped a little. There was always something that just pushes you to that in some way.
There is a condition where people don’t have fear. What happens is they end up getting injured constantly or frequently and generally they die at a much younger age. Fear is a really, really healthy thing because it gives you some perspective. The key is really in what you do, which is you have the fear and then, “I’m motivated enough to go beyond it.” Your industry is incredibly difficult. There is tons of competition. Everybody wants to be a creator. What are a few tips that you’d give to people wanting to succeed in your industry?
One, I would say, stay focused on the craft. I know there are a lot of distractions in this town. I think there are a lot of ways to keep yourself busy that aren’t real work. I think there are a lot of ways to make yourself feel like you’re doing stuff here when you’re not. Going out and being social and all that stuff can be great. Of course, community is really important. At the same time, in LA there is a way that when you become social it just is a distraction. The best advice I always got was you are what you do every day. If you’re partying everyday then that’s what you are, you’re not anything more than that. If you’re writing every day, then you’re a writer. You don’t need someone to give you that validation that you’re a writer. You just are. If you’re a director, you direct something every day of your life. It can be as simple as a video you’re making with your family. It can be as simple as organizing a trip out, all those things. You are what you do every moment of your life.
I would say anybody who’s coming out here, stay focused on that. It is very clear from both the actor side when we read people for auditions, to the writer side or people that we read, the cream does rise to the top. If you’re good, you will be found. It may take longer because of circumstance or luck or whatever, but if you stay consistent, if this is in your blood and you’re here doing the work, you will be found because. Because there is such a lack of that spark; everyone is searching for that new person. There’s nobody better than the new person here that has that spark. You may not get a job because of one thing or another or it’s just not right, you just don’t look exactly the part or this or that, but when it fits, it will fit and you will get your chance and you better be ready.
I’m not saying that I have accomplished all these things in any way. I just know for myself when I start to get in that lull or when I start to think about what I need to be doing here, that’s what I always come back to. It has always kept me centered. It has always allowed me to stay on the forward path. I just want to be a better storyteller. That doesn’t mean I want to be on the red carpet and win that award. It means that I just want to be a better storyteller, whether people recognize that or not, it doesn’t matter. Whether that’s a big movie or a wedding video that I edit or a commercial or in-flight safety video or around the campfire with my friends, to me that’s my job. It’s continuing to refine and figure out human beings so that I can tell stories better in whatever medium that may be.
I love this descriptor because I’m a big believer in what we call concerted effort. A lot of people would go to play golf and they’ll just swing and they’ll consider that practice done. A handful of people will go and will take notes on every swing that they take and check their grip each time and look at it from the perspective of mastery. If you look at the people who operate at the top level, at some point in their life they really took that process into the level of mastery and they really care about it. In an era where people see 21-year-olds with 50 million followers on YouTube or Instagram or something because they do crazy stuff, they confuse that for being a professional. Nothing to take away from that person’s content, it’s incredible that they can do that. But if you look at literally everybody else who has become successful, they have clocked in and sweat and cried and embarrassed themselves and failed so many times in the process to achieve a level of effectiveness. There’s no shortcut to it.
Every day that you’re here, you’re learning, you’re getting better. I look at my career in the last ten years. I’ve done nine or eight movies now. That’s a movie every year and a half basically. I still think I’m in my chapter one, learning phase. I didn’t go to grad school for film so each movie are very different genre, very different format, and I’m learning in each one. I have different crews on a lot of them as well to see who I work best with. Different crew members bring different creativity to the table. It’s been a really great journey. I continually try to focus in on getting better. It’s not a sprint to get there. I’ve had the red carpet, I’ve had the moment of working with movie stars, but in the end of the day you come home and I’m still picking up my dog’s shit on the floor sometimes and I’m still back at square one. Now what story are you going to tell?
I’ve found, by doing this for ten years, the consistency of starting at square one again, that’s the only thing I know is going to come back. Every time I accomplish something or fail at something, I’m going to be right back in my room in silence saying, “Now what?” I’ve learned, instead of being scared of that, just to embrace that and get excited for whatever that journey may be and say, “Whatever is going to influence me to tell my next story, I am open to and I’m going to have my satellites on to find right now.” It has never failed me. Life always gives me a message of what I should be making a story about or what I should be pursuing. The unknown in general is scary. I remember being younger with that unknown was so daunting that it almost freezes you. It makes you not do anything and instead pretend like you’re doing stuff and just stay busy. I accept that blank slate every time with open arms. I think that shift in me really helped me get through some of the down times that took years to get a movie up and running again.
What’s something completely unexpected about reaching this level of success?
I think the reality hitting that success is relative and also a perspective, that success is imaginary because it’s either about your view of others or about your own view of yourself. I’m not sure anyone ever feels successful when you actually look at the people, even if they’re proud of what they’ve done. I’m not quite sure anyone truly feels fulfilled because I don’t think it can. To me, the biggest surprise has been once you feel like there’s a moment where you’re like, “I think I might have made it,” you still feel like you’re so behind and there’s so much more to do. I’m sure that a lot of people will say that.
I feel also in an industry like yours, it’s always about what you’re working on next. The celebration periods happen four times a year or five. You’ve wrapped something, you celebrate, you launch it, and then maybe you get to go to an award show or maybe you’ll do a press junket and you’re probably completely exhausted, you’re saying the same sentences over and over again to everybody. You’re underslept, your family hasn’t seen you in forever, and then you just have to go to the next project.
People look at what you do and they’re like, “You get to talk to people from all around the world, you get to travel.” You’re, “No, every day I have to figure it out. I have to work. I have to create.”
“I hustle constantly.” Here is the issue. I share with people, “I just spent three months and over the course of those three months, I think I was home eight days.” People are like, “Wow. It must be so amazing going to all these places.” It’s incredible going to all these places, but it’s also incredible seeing your family. It’s also incredible having dinner with friends. It’s also incredible being able to work more than four hours in a day because you don’t have a flight and you don’t have to deal with checking into your hotel or your Airbnb and the person’s late or the air conditioner doesn’t work. There’s a certain amount of stability that really allows a person to feel comfortable and productive. When you don’t have that, it’s exhausting. I have a life that I engineer and design. If I didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t. But it’s not 24 hours of glamour. I spend most nights answering emails, passing out with my laptop on me. There’s nothing sexy about it.
You are not in love with the final product, even though that’s a big part of the love, I’m sure. You actually have to be in love with the process. You have to be in love with getting your hands dirty. You have to be in love with that hustle, that email at 2 AM, because you know the result, the story you’re trying to tell, the message you’re trying to communicate requires that. Our crew even when we’re working on something, when it’s hard and people are trying to struggle through it, love this process. Love the forming of ideas because that’s where the real pleasure comes from. Of course the end results can be great, people are going to judge you good or bad, whatever, that’s theirs. The actual harvesting of the ingredients and the seeds to create this thing that comes out of that, I live for that. The late nights when I’m in high school editing with my friends and we’re up at 4:00 in the morning eating bad fast food. Those are memories that I will always remember and always go back to when we’re working hard on even the bigger movies.
There is something I love about the all-nighter. I know it’s miserable, but there’s the bonding element and the quiet hours where I can get something done, a commitment to the project that I miss it. I really enjoy it, especially in retrospect. I think it was Tim Urban who does Wait But Why. In his TED Talk, he goes, “I got this call from TED and I was so excited because I always wanted to have given a TED Talk.” He’s like, “To give a TED Talk, prepare for a TED Talk, ugh. But I’ve always wanted to have given a TED Talk.” I think it’s one of those things that can be a little grueling but it’s so satisfying at the end.
I’m going to switch gears a little. Normally, we ask people who come on, “Is there a quote that inspires you?” I literally got chills when you were sharing the quote from the Apple commercials. I think I’ll jump right into, is there a book that’s really influenced you or a specific lesson that you’ve learned that you’ve come back to?
In terms of a lesson, I always think back at my family because they came to United States when they were nineteen, twenty years old, not knowing a word of English, decided to start a business, figured it out, had five kids, I’m the youngest of those five, gave us every opportunity, never let us work at that restaurant. They wanted to give us everything that they couldn’t have. They instilled in us this idea that America is the greatest place in the world. The reason they took this trip, they left everything to come here is because this is the land of opportunity. You can be anything you want, but you have to work hard and you have to love what you do. You have to study about it and you have to go after it with all your heart. The fact that we had family made us the richest people in the world, that by having this base, this place, we were never going to go hungry and you’re always going to have somebody and a shelter for you, so don’t fear anything.
When I was going off to film school where most families may make you feel like, “What are you doing? You don’t even come out with a degree that helps you.” They were like, “We did everything in our lives to get you here, so throw it all at the wall.” When I had to pick movies and every time I still pick a movie and I struggle with, “Should I do this movie? I will be able to buy a house if I do this movie. This movie, it probably won’t make a lot of money and I don’t know if anyone’s going to go see it. I don’t even know if people are going to like it.” They’ve always said to me, “Jon, you’re never going to go hungry, you’ll always have shelter, and you have your family right here. Don’t ever make a decision based off what you have to have.” That to me pivots my whole life in a way that I think is the only thing that got me here.
As I have a new child, only two months old now, that foundation of a compass of how I see the world and how I want to live my life, I want to pass that on. It’s definitely not easy to look at somebody and say, “Go out to the world, experiment, try all these things, and we’re going to give everything to you.” I really respect my family for bringing me up in a world where that actually was possible or that actually was an option. Especially now being older, seeing other people in the way they see the world and the way they were raised, it wasn’t in that same ideal, and it’s definitely an ideal, it’s not perfect, I really feel blessed and lucky to have a family that put that into our brains and our hearts.
That’s really wonderful. Imagine you get a random message from a complete stranger and they want to meet you, what would have you accept the invitation? What is it in that message that actually had you say yes?
It’s usually been something personal. I get a lot of people saying, “I’m an actor, can I be in your movie?” Or, “I wrote a script, would you direct it?” When it’s transactional like that, I don’t respond to it. I’m sure relationships start transactionally, a lot of relationships do actually, but in terms of cold call, I’m not interested in an immediate transaction. The relationships that I’ve had through just cold reaching out have been from something of a more personal level. It usually has some specificity to it so that it’s not like, “I just want to pick your brain. I wanted to talk about whatever.” That also makes me feel like, “Who are you and why do we need to have this session?” When it’s something personal, I’ve gotten ones from my hometown or that they’re working on a project and they just need a couple pieces of advice of how to do this or that, or knowing how to talk to their parents about what they’re doing, anything like that, I usually respond and start a conversation. Depending on how that conversation unfolds is whether that relationship grows from there. I got a video from somebody who wanted to meet and they made a whole video about it. That was impressive, so I’m sitting down with them pretty soon.
Was it like, “I named my Chihuahua after you and I sewed bed patterns that look like you. I’m your biggest fan. Please don’t leave me, please?”
It wasn’t about a fan-ing over anything. It was about their own project and what they want to do and how the things that they saw mine reflected that a little bit and wanted to actually sit down. It was a really well-produced little short that they made to try to get to meet me. I thought that was clever and fun.
I want to go a bit more into the human touch. Is there a non-profit or an organization that you’re really committed to or support, some cause?
Yeah. I’ve always been a big supporter of Invisible Children. I’ve always been a supporter of Charity Water. In fact, with Charity Water, I went to Ethiopia with a group there and it was amazing to see the work that they’re doing there, the direct contact with the communities. It was beautiful. I didn’t fully understand the importance of clean water until actually seeing it for myself and seeing the people who were affected and people who need it.
I often ask people to share a very human secret, something that demonstrates that no matter how successful we are, we are incredibly similar to one another. Some people have shared that they suffer from anxiety. Quddus, who you know, shared that when he was a child, he was concerned that he wasn’t well endowed enough because his only frame of reference was his dad and his dad is, let’s just say, very well-proportioned. He was scared to have sex and so he was a very late bloomer as a result. You know Quddus, he’s an open book. He also shared that he peed himself on television while interviewing Justin Timberlake. That probably sets the bar pretty high. Is there anything you feel comfortable sharing? There’s no requirement of course.
The reason I connected with films when I was a kid was the idea that, remember Batman in the 80s, we all went to a theater and everybody cheered for Batman, booed for the Joker, and it was this collective experience. Then we went home and talked about it and bought the toys and had the music. It felt like it also allowed me to then go create more stories. As I continued to watch movies, they always were a community thing and they always made me feel that you’re not the only one in this struggle. Happy endings or not happy endings, it always felt like movies show everyone that we all feel lonely, we all feel out of place, we’re all trying to figure this thing out. We’ll maybe never be able to fill that void because we are separated by physical walls.
But for those few moments when we all dream together in the dark, watching this big screen and we go through the same emotional journey together, we are connected and we understand each other in ways that we can’t in other parts of our lives. We can express those things that we feel deep down but we can’t put it into a physical form for us to deal with except when you watch it on somebody else and you feel empathy. I think it’s the most beautiful, lovely way of communication that we have between human beings, between cultures, between people all around the world. When I look at everybody in my real life, to me, it feels like we’re all just trying to connect, whether it’s through this podcast or through music. I really come to value more of connection with people than I ever have. Even when you’re working late at night on your project and you’re alone, you’re doing your thing, that’s all great too. Ultimately, the only thing that really fills any of that void is each other.
I’m not the most social either but one of my goals is when I see other people I produce who are very social and very connected with people, I envy that. That’s something that in my life I feel that I struggle with a lot, of continuing to try to connect, connect, connect. Take the time. Take the extra effort to connect because it does take effort. It does take work. At the end of the day when we’re on our deathbed, and I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot, I’m sure you’ve said this a lot, that we won’t remember all the other stuff. We’re just going to remember who we had in our lives.
It seems like doing all these movies in the short amount of time, being in the business, being able to get these jobs, I’ve been able to win every time, but it really has not been. I’ve pitched. I have a folder of pitches and I have binders on my wall of all my old pitches. I have more than a hundred different pitches that I’ve gone out for. I spent a lot of time on these pitches with images and videos and things. You imagine all these over 100 that I’ve done, I’ve made nine. I look at my journey, I don’t see the nine movies. I see the hundred things that I failed at. I remember specifically there’s one. My first movie that I was attached to, I was supposed to do, and I didn’t get it. At the end of the day I got it, but then for two years we worked on it and then the studio did not green light it. I remember driving and being fine about it, and then suddenly pulling over. Everyone was hyped about, “You’re attached to this big Hollywood movie. You’re a director.” I remember being so alone and just weeping in the car. It was the first time probably in fifteen years I’d ever cried. I felt more alone in that moment than I ever felt. I didn’t understand how I could feel this low. I was never a depressed child, but this moment I felt nothing can be lower. Every day I had to pick myself up out of that.
What I found actually was, “Why am I waiting for something?” I have a camera. I can edit. Suddenly there was YouTube. YouTube had not existed before that. YouTube was not around at that point. I started saying I’m going to go back to just making stuff for myself, by myself, bit by bit. That creative outlet helped me get my momentum back, find myself again through that in a way. I never tell those stories, I never talk about that, because that’s just one of the things on the journey and that’s how I see it as well. I want people to know that we will all have those days. I’m sure someone is having that day right now, but life is long. The person who said life is short is bullshit. Life is long, you’re going to have many ups and downs and we get through it and we move forward. I’m sure, even at this point, I’m going to have more of those moments. I’m going to embrace them with every part of my soul because I know that if I’m lucky, I will continue to have ups and downs like that because that’s what living is.
Last two questions, if you could be any comic book hero, who would it be? You can pick a comic book hero you’ve brought to life.
I would love to be Batman. I just think he’s really cool. I have always loved Batman.
Everybody says Batman, it’s hilarious.
I know. Everybody loves Batman. He’s not cheesy like Superman, he’s a realist, and yet also he’s part 007 because he gets everything, has everything, gets to create with a gadget guy, and he has a secret lair. Everybody wants a secret lair.
The issue with Batman is you essentially guarantee you’re going to be miserable for the rest of your life. He’s a really unhappy guy. He’s cool and he’s the dark brooding type, but there has to be a happier hero out there like Mr. Fantastic is married with kids. He’s totally in love with the Invisible Woman. He gets to work on his science.
The Robert Downey Jr. version of Iron Man is probably the better version of Batman because he seems like he loves his life. He has all the things that Batman has, the access, the social life, the gadgets. I don’t think that’s a bad life either, but the darker guy is cooler, I don’t know why. There’s something cooler about somebody who’s a modern realist.
Imagine I invite you to a dinner. It’s just going to be a small group. Which three living people would you want to sit and meet with and why? This is the last question so no pressure. If it’s bad, everybody will remember.
That’s hard. I haven’t really thought of that. I would love to sit with Jony Ive.
He’s a designer for Apple, an Industrial Designer, the designer of all the products, the feel and the look, since the iMac really, genius. He’s an amazing artist. To do something that is not only beautiful and art-worthy but for the masses is pretty incredible.
He has redefined design for the past twenty years continuously. Everybody copies it. Everybody sees it as the gold standard.
He’s dictated this cuddle technology before it ever existed, the idea that you could touch the thing that was a part of something else than just a box with a screen. It would be the inspiration for some of the things that you would create. I think that’s pretty cool.
I would love to sit down with Bruno Mars. I think that guy is the truest form of an entertainer in many, many years, definitely of our generation. I think he’d be really fun to talk to and get to know because I think his spirit for life and where that stuff come from, I don’t know and I would love to hang with him.
The third person I would say maybe John Williams. Another amazing musician, composer. I was just watching a documentary about scores and it reminded me how much he perfected it. I’m just remembering all the stuff that he’s created; all these from ET to Jaws to Star Wars to Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park. It is so unheard of to have that kind of influence on pop culture and how we feel. I love music and I love scores and I never met him. I think it would be a really great conversation. With Bruno, it would be really fun.
Jon, this has been an absolute pleasure. I just want to thank you for bringing to life many of the characters that I grew up with and really honoring them. From a perspective of seeing my childhood heroes in terms of GI Joe being brought into a live action storyline, so much can go wrong and you did a great job. I really appreciate that. Thank you so much for taking the time. I will see what I can do about getting those three people to come and hang out with you.
Listeners, stay tuned because we have an anonymous interview coming up.
About Jon Chu
Jonathan Murray “Jon” Chu is an American filmmaker, best known for directing the movies such as Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and Hasbro franchises Jem and the Holograms and G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
Chu is an alumnus of the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. There, he won the Princess Grace Award, the Dore Schary Award presented by the Anti-Defamation League, the Jack Nicholson directing award, and was recognized as an honoree for the IFP/West program Project: Involve.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Today, I have the absolute pleasure of hosting Alex. You have no idea how excited I am about this guest because he is like one of the X-Men. He has a superhuman skill that I’m not going to tell you which one. Alex, thanks for coming on.
Jon, thanks for having me on.
Let’s give the listeners some hints about who you are. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Oxford, Mississippi.
Was there a certain teacher or incident or experience that led you down becoming superhuman?
Not a particular teacher or anything. I really just discovered this skill incidentally when I was in college. I just started learning about it and getting better and practicing this skill. It’s really not something that I’m particularly good at from an innate level, it’s just something that I learned about and practiced. I think it’s really something anyone can do. Anyone can develop this superhuman skill if they just put a little bit of effort into it.
You ended up winning a major award, right?
Yeah, that’s right. For this particular skill, I started to do competitions and eventually won the world championship in this sport, if you can call it that. That’s my major accomplishment to date.
It’s funny because there are people who do have more of an innate skill. Tthey’re genetically prone to it. Correct me if I’m wrong, a lot of them have a characteristic called synesthesia, is that right?
Yeah, that’s true. There are certainly people who come to these competitions who may be synesthetes and that can give them an edge. It’s funny actually that historically, the people who have won these competitions tend to be pretty much normal. They don’t have any innate skill that people would say is superhuman.
For those of you who don’t know what synesthesia is, Alex, please correct me if I’m not defining this right. I know that you’re also a medical student so you probably know the technical definition. Synesthesia is a condition where multiple senses are experienced from a single input, is that right? It’s like you said the word ‘car’ and somebody will both see an image of a car in their head and they’ll also smell the car in that moment or similar as that.
I think you could probably say that anyone could do that. If you say ‘car’ everyone has all these associations immediately tied to it, whether it’s smell or visual or any kind of other sense. The way that I understand synesthesia, and I don’t have synesthesia so this is just my experiences or hearing others talk about it, is basically it’s a mixing of senses. If you see something visual, that will immediately make you taste something or smell something. It tends to be for odd things. People with synesthesia might see a number and it will give them a particular taste or a particular visual image or they’ll hear someone’s name and they will immediately have a particular taste or smell associated with that. It’s this melding of senses in a way that normal people don’t really exercise.
Let’s give the listeners a little bit more about who you are. If there is a movie about your life, who would play you?
It might be Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone. Maybe not these days, but people always used to tell me that I looked exactly like Macaulay Culkin when I was a kid. Maybe if we could get him that might work.
Have you ever used your skill to win a bet or perform some crazy stunt that nobody was expecting?
I haven’t really used it to win a bet, per say. The skill does come up often in conversations for various reasons, so it usually impresses people. I can’t think of any time where I’ve use it actually to win a bet unfortunately. Maybe I should get on that.
Was there a momentary experience that made you feel like you arrived to some degree? Not that any of us ever truly, truly arrive.
If I’m interpreting arrive correctly, certainly it felt for me was winning that world championship that I mentioned. I have been in this sport, so to speak, for a while and I had been a minor character. Then finally with enough training and practice, I eventually won this competition. That was a big life-changing event for me for sure because it just made me known to a lot of people who otherwise would have no idea who I was.
Do you have a hint or a riddle you would give people to figure out who you are?
One way to put it would be that I’m even better at moonwalking with Einstein than the original guy who moonwalked with Einstein. He won the US championship for this sport and then I eventually did the same and won the world championship.
Listeners, you have between now and the next episode to figure out who Alex is. If you guess correctly, you could win an invitation to me The Salon by Influencers. Good luck.