DISCOURSE: June - TJ Lee
Welcome to DISCOURSE, my monthly blog series in which I shoot and interview a different individual each month and have a discussion on creativity, innovation, passion, and heart.
TJ Lee is one of my favorite people in the whole world. Don’t let her cute and bubbly exterior fool you; underneath that genuinely fun-loving surface is a brilliant mind and an adventurous heart, and you’ll have a hard time finding anyone more ambitious. Right now TJ is traveling the world and living her dream. Read on for the juicy details...
Tell me about what you’re doing now and what got you to this point.
Right now I am traveling the world with 75 other people who call themselves “digital nomads”. The plan is to go to 12 countries, one month in each. After that we’ll split off, but I plan to travel some more. I applied to this program in September of 2015, and I got in right away. The idea of the program is that every person has their own job. I was hoping that I could go with Mozilla (the company I used to work for); however, they said no, there’s too much liability. So they offered me a promotion in exchange, but I was like, “fuck it, I’m gonna go chase my dreams!” Currently we’re in our 5th month, and we’re in London.
What made you decide to do this?
I’ve always wanted to travel. The first time I traveled by myself was after graduation when I solo backpacked around Eastern Europe. After that experience, I told myself that I had to integrate traveling into my life, so my plan was to work a full-time job for 2 years and save up, so that at the end of that, I could travel around the world for 6 months to a year. Travel has always been on my mind, but I just made a drastic jump, way faster than I thought I would.
You mentioned that in this program, people are working and doing different jobs. What are you doing?
My main goal was to start a YouTube channel. In so doing, I got more into photography and videography, and I’m also becoming more of a freelancer, so I’m picking up photo and video editing projects. Even though YouTube is my main passion project, I feel like my job is a freelance photographer/videographer.
How do you find people to work with?
Because I’m traveling with 75 other people and a lot of them are business consultants or entrepreneurs, they’re constantly in need of creative work, such as when someone has their own blog and needs some photos of themselves and they reach out to me. So right now my client base is strictly within the group, but it’s awesome because there’s always a need for photos and videos. But I’m starting to realize that money is not an issue for me this year because I saved up, so I’m always vacillating between the mentality that I should be picking up projects and making money versus wanting to work on personal things.
Tell me about some of your favorite photos you’ve taken while on this trip.
I went glacier hiking in Patagonia, Argentina, and it was so surreal. It was somewhat of a surprise to go there. This was kind of the first time I used Lightroom to edit landscape photos. In a way, I feel like this trip is making me more of a professional photographer, because I’m using more professional editing tools, and I’m focusing more on tonal details, and I’m watching all these tutorial videos from other photographers to try to improve. For this series of photos, I used my Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. It’s definitely my baby, and I love it so much.
Which countries have you stayed in so far and what’s coming up?
I’ve been in Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, and I’m currently in London. After that it’s Croatia, Czech Republic, and then Serbia, and then 4 countries in Asia.
Ok, so no Australia, Africa, Antarctica...?
No, but you know what, those are definitely on my personal travel list in the future.
Talk a little about what drives you and what you’re working towards.
Right now I’m in a weird transitional phase. I was a marketing professional who was trying to climb the career ladder as well as start a career consultancy startup. I was doing things that what most people would consider success to be defined as, especially in a large city like San Francisco. And breaking out of that to become a person who makes YouTube videos... it’s a weird transition. But the whole point of this was to prove to myself that it could work; it’s also to show people that maybe the career you have now or what you’re working towards now is not what you want to do, and you really do have to have the courage and ballsiness to pursue the life that you really want. And for me, it sounds so silly, but I’ve always wanted to have a YouTube channel and make videos. Ever since I was in middle school - and you can actually find videos I made in middle school on Youtube, they’re super embarrassing - it’s always been there in the background, it’s always been a piece of my past, so instead of this thing that I created in my future, I just went back to something I really liked and continued it. What I’m doing now is showing people that hey, you can do the same. There’s another path that you can take. It kinda sucks, and you may not make any money at first, but it will get better, and at least you’ll feel fulfilled, like you’re on the right track. “Lost in the right direction” is the way I like to put it.
Would you say that you were not happy or satisfied in marketing?
I’m not sure if I would say that. I loved the company I worked for. I was stressed as hell, but I still loved the company and the people I worked with, and I was good at it. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever, nor was it what I felt like I was meant to do. No matter how many marketing courses I took, conferences I attended, or articles I read, it never soaked in for me the way picking up a camera and filming/editing videos did. They were two very different things, and that was very clear.
That’s very admirable, because people can get stuck in a difficult work situation, sometimes because they have to, in order to make money and whatnot. But it’s great that you were able to (and had the means to) break out of that, and now you’re pursuing what you want to be doing. Maybe in the future that will change, but you should do what you feel called to right now.
Definitely! A lot of people out there are really scared because they may not have enough money. My advice would be to start saving slowly, like 20-30% of your paycheck towards whatever goal you want to make. I think I’m also very fortunate to have had a job in which I could just drop everything and go travel. I hope people follow their calling, like you said, no matter what that might be. I like your bedsheets!
Oh thanks! They’re about to be changed, at least the ones on the inside...
What are some values that you live by?
One mantra that has stuck with me since high school is “inspire by doing”. A lot of things in life give people reason to complain because they’re wrong, but the only way to solve anything is to do it yourself. I had wanted to travel the world and go on these adventures... so I had to do it. You can write a ton of shit on something, but unless you go out there and do it yourself, you’re not going to inspire anyone.
There’s something else I’ve been thinking about recently, and I don’t even know if I’ll believe it forever: money is just money. It really does come and go, especially when you’re young. So if you can, put money towards something that you love, or figure out a way to not stress so much about it that it blocks you from doing what you love.
A lot of times that can be easier said than done though right?
Absolutely! I think a lot of things are easier said than done. That’s the problem. A lot of people are stuck in their 9-5 and they have money, but they’re spending it on things that don’t necessarily get them closer to their vision of what they really want. There are people who really need it, and people who don’t know how to value it. It’s such a spiral.
Maybe that’s why money is such a taboo topic in polite social gatherings.
It totally is. That’s why I just realized that money really is just... money. People here have been saying that to me, and I was like “oh yeah, that’s true.” I’m also struggling with my need to make money every single day I wake up. It’s hard to deal with.
Especially when there’s the very real possibility of it running out.
Yeah, absolutely. There are a some people on the program who are on very thin ice, because they can no longer afford to pay for travel, so they need to go home.
It’s such a struggle, because the crazy thing is... people actually can make and save more money outside of the States. When I was living in South America, that was true for me, because the system is so different. Like, you could live for $400/month in Thailand, and that includes your own studio, food, activities... it’s so insane. If people can travel, I say do it.
A lot of times, people struggle with what they put online, because they want to be honest and they want to be real, but they also want to be tactful and present themselves in a way that makes themselves look good enough while still being honest, and that’s hard.
Yeah. You know on YouTube there’s a thumbs down feature, and as someone who’s just starting out, thumbs downs on my videos really got to me... until recently, when I was just like, “meh”. The worst thing someone can do is thumbs down something you make... so what.
If you could sum up your Instagram to someone who can’t look at your feed at the moment, what would you say?
It makes you want to travel, and experience beauty from other places. That’s how I feel when I look at it!
What sources do you draw inspiration from?
One of my favorite Instagrammers is @taramilktea; she does incredible flatlays, beautiful travel photos... her feed is just so pretty. And shoutout to the all the Instagrammers from SF! Hey!
Also, I get inspired by a lot of fashion Youtubers for sure, because they make videos that are aesthetically pleasing, and I try to get ideas from them on how to make my videos. There’s a writer named Austin Kleon (author of Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work); I actually carry his books around with me, because it’s such a simple way to encourage creatives if they’re ever in a block, and to remind people to keep putting out their work for the world to see. He’s definitely a major inspiration, and I’d highly recommend reading his books!
What is your definition of a good life?
Endless shin ramen and KFC... and also just making sure that I’m still creating, whatever that may be. Who knows, I might not be creating videos later, but yes. Ramen, KFC, and never stop creating.
What are you doing right now to work towards that?
I think the goal always is to have a good life. I think even if you think you’ve achieved it, it can always be better. I’m certainly creating a ton. I don’t have endless ramen and KFC yet, but I’ve been finding and eating some form of fried chicken in every city I go. Everyone in my group knows I love it, so the food part is definitely going strong!
What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve faced in your life, and how did you overcome it?
A challenge that was really big before this trip was striving to win the approval of others. I had a hard time getting over how people thought of me and what I was doing, and I think sometimes it comes back for me a little bit, like what I said before about dislikes on my videos, but it was definitely the hardest in college and that’s when I overcame it. I think a lot of people can relate. It’s hard, man!
Yeah, especially with social media and seeing all these numbers and feeling the need to measure up.
I know people say numbers don’t matter, but when you’re a creative and you want your work seen, numbers do matter! You want to get it out there to as many people as possible, and that’s not a shameful thing at all.
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to discover who they are?
This may sound so silly, but it’s so important, and I do this with myself all the time: ask yourself a ton of questions, because a lot of people don’t have enough self-love, and part of self-love is trying to understand yourself, and realizing which of your friends are leeches, and which ones you actually want to hang out with, and if you’re honestly loving what you’re doing right now, and if you’re not, what you are willing to sacrifice... you’re going to find the answers in that journey, and no one else can give them to you.
Are there any things in life that you regret?
I used to say yes, like “the last guy I dated”, or “that time I skipped something in college”. But now, I think all of that led to where I am now, so... NO RAGRETS! Very thankful.
Note: these shots were compiled from different adventures TJ and I went on in 2015, before she left for her trip. Gear used in these shoots:
-Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II L lens
-Fujinon 35mm 1.4 lens