3 lessons I learned from Ang Lee

Do you know who And Lee is? He’s the man behind Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A few years ago I had the privilege to attend the annual conference of the prestigious C100 Committee in Los Angeles CA, as a guest of Wan Ling Martello, my former SVP, now CEO zone Asia at Nestle. Ang Lee gave a talk about how, as an introvert, he was able to break through the cutthroat environment that is Hollywood and find success. I will share with you the 3 lessons I learned from him.

But first, I invite you to read this beautiful essay he wrote about his modest beginnings.

For anyone out there fighting for their dreams and feeling like giving up, this is a must-read!!


In 1978, as I applied to study film at the University of Illinois, my father vehemently objected. He quoted me a statistic: ‘Every year, 50,000 performers compete for 200 available roles on Broadway.’ Against his advice, I boarded a flight to the U.S. This strained our relationship. In the two decades following, we exchanged less than a hundred phrases in conversation.

Some years later, when I graduated film school, I came to comprehend my father’s concern. It was nearly unheard of for a Chinese newcomer to make it in the American film industry. Beginning in 1983, I struggled through six years of agonizing, hopeless uncertainty. Much of the time, I was helping film crews with their equipment or working as editor’s assistant, among other miscellaneous duties. My most painful experience involved shopping a screenplay at more than thirty different production companies, and being met with harsh rejection each time.

That year, I turned 30. There’s an old Chinese saying: ‘At 30, one stands firm.’ Yet, I couldn’t even support myself. What could I do? Keep waiting, or give up my movie-making dream? My wife gave me invaluable support.

My wife was my college classmate. She was a biology major, and after graduation, went to work for a small pharmaceutical research lab. Her income was terribly modest. At the time, we already had our elder son, Haan, to raise. To appease my own feelings of guilt, I took on all housework – cooking, cleaning, taking care of our son – in addition to reading, reviewing films and writing scripts. Every evening after preparing dinner, I would sit on the front steps with Haan, telling him stories as we waited for his mother – the heroic huntress – to come home with our sustenance (income).

This kind of life felt rather undignified for a man. At one point, my in-laws gave their daughter (my wife) a sum of money, intended as start-up capital for me to open a Chinese restaurant – hoping that a business would help support my family. But my wife refused the money. When I found out about this exchange, I stayed up several nights and finally decided: This dream of mine is not meant to be. I must face reality.

Afterward (and with a heavy heart), I enrolled in a computer course at a nearby community college. At a time when employment trumped all other considerations, it seemed that only a knowledge of computers could quickly make me employable. For the days that followed, I descended into malaise. My wife, noticing my unusual demeanor, discovered a schedule of classes tucked in my bag. She made no comment that night.

The next morning, right before she got in her car to head off to work, my wife turned back and – standing there on our front steps – said, ‘Ang, don’t forget your dream.’

And that dream of mine – drowned by demands of reality – came back to life. As my wife drove off, I took the class schedule out of my bag and slowly, deliberately tore it to pieces. And tossed it in the trash.

Sometime after, I obtained funding for my screenplay, and began to shoot my own films. And after that, a few of my films started to win international awards. Recalling earlier times, my wife confessed, ‘I’ve always believed that you only need one gift. Your gift is making films. There are so many people studying computers already, they don’t need an Ang Lee to do that. If you want that golden statue, you have to commit to the dream.’

And today, I’ve finally won that golden statue. I think my own perseverance and my wife’s immeasurable sacrifice have finally met their reward. And I am now more assured than ever before: I must continue making films.

You see, I have this never-ending dream.


Now back to the talk he gave at the C100 annual conference.

Ang Lee shared with us that in order to succeed in Hollywood connections are crucial. Then how do you make connections if you are not a people-person? The first secret to his success is perseverance and hard work. And the second secret is surround yourself with the right people. He owes a big part of his success to his assistant who has a personality completely opposite from his. Therefore they are complementary and form a powerful team. While his assistant focuses on building relationships, Ang Lee can devote his time to what he does best, his art.


The 3 lessons I learned from Ang Lee:

  1. Success requires perseverance, but if you believe in your dreams, you must not give up.
  2. Don’t waste time doing something you abhor, especially if you are not good at it. Better use your time and energy doing something you are passionate about, something that energizes you.
  3. Surround yourself with people that have complimentary skills to yours. That way you can focus on what you do best.


Thank you Irene Shih from http://whatshihsaid.com for her translation of Ang Lee’s essay 🙂

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