My guest today is Li Jin, the founder and managing partner at an early-stage venture capital firm called Atelier. Before recording this introduction, I didn’t know what an atelier was, so I looked it up and it’s right on brand for Li: it’s defined as a workshop or a studio, especially one used by an artist or designer. And on that note, she’s known for her extensive writings about the Passion Economy. Her essays explore how people can make a living from their passions and creative skills. All of her writing is filtered through the lens of consumer startups and the technology industry.
On this episode, we explore Li’s perspective on the future of the creator economy. We talk about what it’ll take to build a middle class for creators and how platforms should enable creator monetization. But then we venture beyond the world of work and discuss the novels of Jane Austen, what Li learned by growing up in Pittsburgh, and why she thinks social media and content creation are valuable pursuits. Please enjoy my conversation with Li Jin.
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Find Li Online:
2:37 – How do content creators get users to migrate platforms and engage in unfamiliar apps?
5:44 – Why is some digital content more consumable than others?
13:07 – What is the driving force behind Li’s background in English literature?
17:34 – Why Jane Austen is so incredibly important to the world of modern creatives
21:56 – What has contributed to the alienation of gig workers in modern economy?
24:57 – Where does Li Jin’s technological optimism stem from?
28:32 – What is an “Angel Investor”, and how do they influence the modern world of content creation?
32:55 – What is the difference between an artist and a creator?
37:44 – How has the modern market created space for content creators?
42:19 – What causes creative burnout in the world of content creators?
50:01 – What are the implications of viral fame in the modern world of content creators?
57:46 – Which aspects of traditional and non-traditional education were most impactful on Li Jin?
1:08:55 – What are some things that both successful and aspiring content creators often misunderstand about the industry?
1:14:20 – What are some of the parallels between the worlds of writing and investing
1:18:08 – How Li Jin embodies the spirit of a malleable fate
David: So one of the things that I thought was really interesting is this video from the CEO of TikTok, where he talks about… Or I guess it was musically. Where he talks about platforms like countries, and you talk about this in your essay about the middle-class, about how getting users there is like starting a new country. Talk about that idea and why you decided to open up your essay with this.
Li: Yeah. I loved the imagery that he used. So the interview that you’re referencing is an interview with Greylock and Alex Zhu, who at the time, still running musically which was later acquired by TikTok. And he compares creating a new social platform, a new social network, like building a new country, and in order to entice people to the new country from their old country, you have to create the possibility of success. Like success beyond your wildest dreams. You basically have to create the idea of the American Dream being within reach for most people. And so, people look at others who are similar to them and they’re like, “Wow, that person is really succeeding on this new platform, I should try to do that too.” And then slowly people move over and then you sequence that with actually creating upward path for most users and enabling success for a lot of people.
And I thought that this was the perfect way to think about new platforms and new networks in terms of social classes, because one of the major pieces of pushback that I got after writing the passion economy and the future of work was this is a really, really nice vision, it’s so optimistic, so positive, but how many people can actually monetize their individuality and monetize their creative abilities. It feels like maybe there’s a handful of folks who are going to be really successful, but most people are not going to be able to make this their full-time living. And I heard that so many times from other readers, and I really wanted to explore this idea of how can we actually build a creator middle-class and not just make it such that these platforms are supporting the livelihoods of a few really famous folks, but are actually creating a very healthy middle band of individuals who are able to be successful on them.
And so, I thought that was the perfect, like opening analogy of, “Okay. Yes, there’s a American Dream and there a few folks are really blowing up and becoming mega famous, but what about the middle class of society? How do we build that?”
David: Yeah. I think that one of the things that really stuck out was how certain mediums have more and more benefits to listening to the same thing or consuming the same content over and over again, so take music. If you really liked Blank Sway by the good old T Swift, you could listen to that song over and over or say Despacito, I’ve listened to that song like 200 times, and I jam every time that comes on, but I would never listen to the same Rogan podcast 200 times and still enjoy it. So there’s actually certain mediums that perpetuate this inequality and others that where the gravity works against it. I thought that was a really good point that you made.
Li: Absolutely. It’s like marginal replay value. How much value are you getting out of replaying the thing? In some formats, the replay value is actually really high, like music or like video games you might actually be getting better at the games so you want to play it more, even though you’ve already played it a hundred times because you’re actually enjoying it more and you’re beating other people. For other types of content, the replay value is really low, like books, podcasts et cetera, TikToks. And so you’re able to spread out your attention to many more different pieces of content and not just, like the winners don’t just approve all of the attention.
David: What else, I guess, would you focus on in terms of creating this middle-class in terms of where our platforms themselves responsible for democratizing access? Because I think that one of the things that I think is important that you actually state explicitly in the essay, it’s like, we can do this, we actually have agency in how we think about different class structures and the architecture of, or the proportion of high class, middle class, low class, and you basically go back to post World War II, America, maybe even earlier, and you say, “There’s actually things that we did after World War II, whereas, we’re going to help people get housing and stuff like that.” And what I see you struggling with in this essay is trying to find the words, the language, the tools to actually think about, “How do we do this? We’re building a civilization on the internet with all of these citizens of the internet. How do we actually build a class structure that is fairly equal?”
Li: Yeah, I think that was really the question of the essay. And I presented 10 possible ideas for how platforms could actually design themselves in order to foster this middle-class on the platforms themselves. And those ideas ranged from having some better discovery, like feed or algorithm that would expose the long tail and like up and coming creators, not just expose users to the most successful creators who are already the most popular. I talked about this idea of universal creative income, which has gotten a lot of people interested, like, “How would this work? Should platforms just be responsible for supporting their creators to some extent? And to what extent is that?”
In general, I’m just such a techno optimist. I believe that technology can improve our lives and make the world a better place. And that’s the vision that I really want to invest in and participate in. In terms of where platforms have a responsibility I think the platforms themselves they do make a ton of revenue, they’re really large. Right now, the reality is that creators don’t see much of that revenue. And so, I think even on the margin, we can shift some of that revenue to creators, such that they feel more incentivized and more aligned with the success of the platforms.
And I would add to that. I don’t think it is the responsibility of any one single platform to cultivate a huge middle-class on the platform itself. I don’t actually think that that works and I think it’s not a good business strategy for most platforms to try and create a middle-class income for everyone on the platform. Like I think for Netflix, for instance, it would be business suicide if they started redirecting users attention to the long tail of movies that no one watches rather than the top hits. Like at some point you do have to compete on the basis of the best content that you’ve got in a world where lots of different competitors are competing for user attention.
What I would like to see though come to fruition is all of these platforms providing a path for every creator on the platform to monetize to some degree. So I don’t think it’s ever going to be the case that Instagram provides a middle-class income for the majority of users on Instagram. And their a hundred percent of their revenue comes from Instagram. I just don’t think that it’s going to happen because of the dynamic that I outlined. But I would like to see every serious creator on Instagram being able to monetize Instagram to some extent, which is not the case today on Instagram or most platforms. Some of them are monetizing outside of the platform and the platform just exists separately as a way to distribute that content, but the platform isn’t really supporting or enabling that monetization in a core way.
David: Talk about that techno optimism, what underlies that, and I think that there is a techno optimism that is definitely worth having in terms of the ways that… For example, we have abundant food and transportation has gotten easier, but then also, one of the things that scares me is the downsides of technology. And you’re basically weighing the trade offs and you’re saying, I’m going to see technology as the vehicle to prosperity. What underlies that?
Li: I think it’s just reality. Like I think it’s an indisputable fact that technology has made our lives better, like collectively societies lives better. If we distill it down into what it does, technology results in productivity gains for us as a species and that productivity gain can be distributed to all the members of society and result in a higher quality of life. Now people can argue, yes, but the gains that we’ve had from some productivity and from technology have not been equally distributed and I don’t argue with that, but I do think that it is just simply true that technology has made all of our lives better and has the promise to make our lives much better in the future.
David: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to be pedantic on this, but I think that, for example, take something like television, right? So I’ll give you a super conservative sort of old guy argument, right? Like, “Oh, we used to read books and stuff and now what technology is doing is it’s giving us limitless access to bad television and ridiculous movies and over-processed food,” and actually we’re way healthier, many hundreds of years ago. And in terms of maybe what we consumed or something like that, I mean, even the way that you said I’m a techno optimist, that sort of implies that there are techno pessimists out there. And so what do you think that your fundamental schism is with those people?
Li: I think maybe the underlying schism is a belief that more choice makes people better off, that’s my belief. And the folks who counter that with saying, “Okay, but we’re not reading books anymore, we’re watching television or TikTok instead, they’re sort of, of the belief that fewer choices made us better off. If we restricted our choices to only the choices that were good for us, only the good for you foods are only books and nonfiction, humanity would be better off in that circumstance. And I believe that consumers always benefit from more choices rather than less.
David: I really want to hear about your English lit background in college. What is behind this obsession of yours? I think it’s really cool.
Li: Well, it’s interesting that you say that especially with the last question, because when I was growing up I spent all of my time reading novels and my mother would tell me, you’re wasting your time reading novels. When I was growing up, I would only read nonfiction. So there was even this hierarchy of novels were worse than nonfiction and I was consuming vapid literature that didn’t contain any facts or substance, and that I should really be switching my information diet to more serious topics that would actually benefit my life. So I think every generation always condense the sources of entertainment of the next generation, but that’s just a fact of life of aging and these new forms of entertainment and knowledge coming up. So I just don’t think that there is an objective, like, “This is good for you, this is bad for you.”
David: Well, what was the first novel that just rocked you?
Li: For background, I moved to the US when I was six years old. So, before that I lived in China, I was born in Beijing. Chinese was my first language. It was only after I moved to the US when I was six, that I learned English. I learned in first grade. I was put in ESL classes. And I think that was such a pivotal moment for me because it really brought me to where I am today. My ESL teacher who taught me how to speak and read English has just unlocked this entire world to me. And by the way, English is a lot easier to learn than Chinese, I can say that as someone who has learned both, I tried to learn both.
You can learn to read English in a matter of months because it’s a phonetic language, whereas Chinese students, they go to school and they probably spend grades one through four, trying to learn how to read and write Chinese because the language is not phonetic and every character is unique and there’s no tie between how the character looks versus how it’s spoken and what it’s meaning is. So you just literally have to memorize all of the characters.
So anyways, I moved to the US when I was six, I learned English very quickly because I just… I don’t know, my brain is like a sponge for languages back then. And thereafter, I started just reading like crazy because we were too poor and we couldn’t afford key books. So we would go to the library, I would check out a ton of books, always hit the maximum of it. And so, I read everything. I think one of the first novels that really captured my imagination was Harry Potter. I’m of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter. I think Gen Z’s love to make fun of Millennials for how Harry Potter obsessed we were.
But I remember just growing up with Harry and every year there would be a new Harry Potter book that came out. And the last book came out when I was, I think, 17 years old, the summer after my junior year of high school. And so that was… I really consider that moment to be the end of my childhood. Like the end of Harry Potter was the end of me as a child because we had graduated. So I grew up with Harry Potter that then led me down this rabbit hole of English Literature. I read a lot of historical fiction, read a lot of Victorian novels, everything by Jane Austen, the Brontes, especially Charlotte Bronte. And then I went to college and I studied English Literature as my major for two years before my parents told me that I needed to switch to something more practical.
This is actually a recurring thing in my life. There’s like battle between the creative side versus the practical necessities that have been just sort of forced upon me by external factors.
David: That was an amazing answer. We’re going to spend the rest of the podcast just talking about that answer, that was amazing. Okay, so many questions. I’m trying to figure out where to begin, but Jane Austen is coming up in conversation all the time. I was at a bookstore in Austin over the weekend, and I was with my friends and I said, “Dude, you can pick three books for $50 or less in this bookstore, and I will buy them and I will read them.” And one was Jane Austen. He said, “You got to read Jane Austen.” The other was Houellebecq and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Why is Jane Austen coming up in conversation all the time? What am I missing?
Li: Recently, there’s been a trend of Netflix making historical dramas. And that has sort of revived the interest in this period of history, like the costumes, the characters, the guys, they’re all very compelling. And so, people are picking up Jane Austen, again, and returning to more historical fiction because it’s kind of like an escape from where we are today. Jane Austen’s England versus today in the world they’re so different, but also similar enough that it’s still just as appealing today. Like the men, that she writes about the women, the love stories, the unrequited love, I mean, those are just the universal things that everyone loves. But they’re done in a much more genteel manner in her writing and it’s much more beautiful. I think it’s a really great foil to… Today is like a hookup culture and only fans and all of that stuff, and it sort of is this fantasy world that we no longer inhabit but we’re paying for.
David: Yeah. I think that there’s something very aristocratic in that answer and even what you said before about your internal struggle between the practical and the creative and what I gather from Jane Austen’s world, and there’s a lot of downsides with the aristocracy, especially that the late aristocracy really got associated with decadence and a certain kind of decadence that was just free flaunting, and we’re just going to live an ornate gold and just riches and just have our peasants do all the work for us, but there’s also something about aristocracy that is really what you’re saying here of a noble leisure and worthy pursuits that I actually hear you grappling with in that answer.
Li: Yeah. I agree with that. I think another book that explores the parallels between Jane Austen’s world and our current world from the perspective of wealth and the economy is a book called Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. And he explores how wealth inequality today is high just as it was high in Jane Austen’s worlds. And in Jane Austen’s literature, people are so obsessed with marrying rich, that’s the only path for a single young woman to be able to level up herself in society. And people never talk about work or jobs, or working for money and getting a job to earn money. They just talk about inheritance and how much you’ve been bequeathed and how many pounds this person is entitled to per year from their estate. It’s all about how much access to capital they have versus converting their labor and their skills into capital through working.
And I think people see parallels to that today where capital is actually like a source of great wealth generation, more so than laboring for one’s entire life. There’s so much wealth inequality now, and there’s an entire class of jobs, especially gig jobs. That the way that they were promised to folks was you can be your own boss, you can do work on your own terms, you can make a lot of money per hour and do work on your own schedule and be completely in control of your destiny. When in reality, people are laboring away for a very menial, essentially menial hourly wage, and they have no upward path at all.
And I think this even has connections to the GameStop situation. Like people don’t know how to achieve that upward economic mobility other than placing bets and hoping that it pays off.
David: Yeah. I mean, I think that another thing that I would add is just a certain alienation in sort of the Marxist sense of people in a lot of these gig work jobs being detached from the work that they do, the people that they serve. It always surprises me and this is in great contrast to something like Spotify, which is a platform where the individual matters very much to me. If there’s an artist like Jon Bellion or Porter Robinson, who I just adore. I mean, they mean as much to me certainly as family sometimes in terms of their work and what they do.
There is the alienated gig labor where somebody drops off my groceries. I don’t even see them, I don’t interact with them, I sometimes don’t even know how they got into the building if they have no idea who I am either. And this is what really worries me about the gig economy, whereas on one hand you have all these people who… I was talking to my Uber driver yesterday, I said, “Why do you like driving for Uber as a trucker for 42 years?” And he said, “I got a ton of freedom. I get to be with my kids.” And on the other hand, he said, “I drove 12,000 miles in the last couple months.” And that is a certain kind of just get after it labor that we are putting into these people and they are not having equity in the global platform and I think it’s time that reopen up a lot of these conversations about what it means to do work without alienation and have some upside that people feel in terms of the collective growth of this economy.
Li: Yeah. Exactly. I completely agree with that and I think the initiatives that these companies are making with regards to automation and automating away the labor and replacing it with self-driving cars, self delivery, delivery robots, et cetera, it just highlights how much alienation there is in those kinds of jobs. Like the human is actually not a critical part of that service at all and in fact it would be better off if a human didn’t provide it.
David: Totally. So given these questions that I think are really important, and I don’t mean this as a criticism at all, just truly out of curiosity, what then puts you in the position as capital in terms of how to deploy your time and talents?
Li: Yeah. So in terms of where I’m focused on these days, as an investor, I’m focused on backing new platforms that are empowering people to have happier work lives and to do work that they find meaningful where they have more ownership and autonomy and feel more motivated and fulfills in doing that type of work. So it’s really an antidote, I think, to a lot of the gig models of the past, where people were totally alienated from whatever they were creating, didn’t have any sort of ownership or agency to even dictate the terms of their labor. And instead I’m backing new platforms where people are given the tools to be able to monetize their creativity. So, that’s where I’m focused on these days. And that’s where I have the most optimism around technology. Like when I was growing up, there was no path that I could see or that my parents could see for me to monetize a lot of my creative interests.
I spent a ton of time reading fiction, writing fiction, writing poetry, painting, spent a ton of time online in various forums making crafts. I started my first business when I was in middle school and making handmade envelopes. Envelopes that you would mail letters in because I read so much Jane Austen and thought that people actually wrote letters. They consumed a lot of envelopes back then. So I made handmade envelopes and I could only manage to sell them to my best friends and my parents. And they were the only folks that bought my envelopes and they did it just because they were supporting me. And I would pour, maybe, three hours of my own labor into handcrafting every single envelope. I would cut out paper to be the place where you would write the address, cut out another piece of paper for the from address and make this very detailed design of an envelope.
And after three hours, I managed to sell it for 50 cents or something. And then I realized this is a really crappy business. Fast forward 20 years, I tell one of my investor friends about this business that I’d started, and he goes, “No, that was actually not a terrible business. You just didn’t have the discovery mechanism to be able to surface what you’re making to the entire world. Like there would have been someone out there who would have loved your charming, beautiful envelopes and would have paid a lot for them, there was just no discovery platform at the time.”
And I was like, actually, you’re probably right. And that’s what I think is the promise of a lot of these platforms that I’m investing in. Like previously before the internet, before these platforms existed, there was just no way for people to utilize their creativity in a way that had any economic value because they couldn’t connect to the person in the world who would actually value it and now they can, so I think that’s amazing.
David: Yeah. And they can do it with a global market.
Li: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
David: I mean, the internet brings a gift and a curse. The gift is global markets and global customer bases and the curse is global competition. So when it comes to hand crafted envelopes, you’re going to be competing with people from all over the world, a lot of times.
Li: That’s true. That is very true.
David: Just want to sort of bring you back into this creative tension between productivity and creativity. I think that there’s a lot in this and where do you find yourself on that balance now?
Li: Well, yes. I think my life mission is to remove that tension for people, for future generations so that they never have to make the decision of, “Do I choose a creative life or do I choose a productive life? Do I choose between making art and making something that I can use to express myself versus choosing to make money, to support myself?” I don’t think that those two things should be at odds. And so my mission through my investing and through all of my writing and speaking, et cetera, is to help enable the ecosystem of companies that can actually make those things really aligned with each other and complimentary to each other rather than opposing.
And so, in terms of where I am now, I think I’m trying to live a life that shows that they can be harmonious with each other. So I am both an investor in startups and that’s how I monetize. And I’m a creator of content, but I don’t charge directly for the content, I monetize it through venture capital. So this is like a new business model for creation and creativity that I don’t think has really been explored that much before. Actually, one of the greatest business models for writing and blogging is venture capital. And so, there’s now a lot of intermingling between the writing world and the angel investor worlds. I think this is happening across content creation. Verticals as well, like there’s a lot of crossover now between social media influencers and angel investors.
And the influence that you gain through creating that piece of content can be leveraged into deal flow and access and interesting opportunities to invest. So that’s how I’m aligning them today. There’s also a few things that I do on the side purely for fun that don’t get monetized at all. Like-
David: Like what?
Li: Like I paint. I do oil painting. I’ve been painting ever since I was five years old, by the way. Backstory there, is that my mom in Beijing put me into dance class with a bunch of other little kids. And every time the teacher said “Right,” I would do left and vice versa. Like I couldn’t tell left and right apart. I’m still really bad at telling left and right in fact. I have to think about it.
David: You put your hands up and then you have an L, if you look left.
Li: It’s embarassing to do that as an adult!
David: Oh, I have a lot of friends who still put their hands up to do left and right. I mean, I have a lot of these things too. I’m good with left and right. I struggle with Bs and Ds. And also, when I’m talking, we’ll say the wrong words all the time, so I feel you.
Li: Oh, same. Same. And the North, East, South, West thing, I always have to do the Never Eat Shredded Wheat.
David: Ah, I’m a never eat salty waffles kind of guy.
Li: Salty waffles, interesting, but what about sweet and salty bacon and waffles?
David: I don’t know. That was my thing. Never eat salty waffles.
Li: Right. So anyway, so I got put into this dance class when I was five years old. I was just so terrible, I would do the exact opposite of everything the teacher told me to do. And after a couple of classes, the teacher was like, “Your daughter is hopeless, she can’t dance.” So across the hallway, there happened to be an art class and so my mom puts me in that instead, and it turns out that I’m actually quite good at it and I really enjoy it. So that was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with art, which continues to this day. So during my free time on weekends whenever, I do oil painting, largely landscapes, still lives, sometimes portraits.
And for me, I don’t monetize it at all. I probably could if I wanted to, but I don’t, it’s just a joy to do it. It’s kind of like self therapy and a way to exercise a completely different part of my brain. And I always come out feeling really refreshed and way more creative than when I started.
David: You know, this is one of my concerns about the creator economy. I have a lot of them and I say that as I think almost the perfect or ideal example of what you mean when you talk about the passion economy, like I believe in this and I’m fully with you in terms of where this is going and overall how good it is for society. But one of the things that does concern me is, is there a certain joy that you get from oil painting that you’ll never be able to get from non-fiction writing because it’s so intimately tied to your work?
Li: I think it does add an additional element of pressure to know that something will be consumed by the public and it means, I’m serving someone with this work. I think that’s the difference in my mind between an artist versus a creator. An artist derives joy from doing something for themselves. Like I would be fine if no one ever saw my painting, if I never posted them on social media, if no one ever purchased them and thought they were terrible, I would still be happy just in creating it for myself versus I think the word creator at least as it’s used today, it suggests that you’re not just making it for yourself, you’re making it for an audience, or at least there’s an aspiration of making it for an audience and you’re trying to serve other people.
And I think that adds additional pressure. If you don’t end up pleasing those people and they think it’s terrible, there’s a disappointment. If people aren’t willing to pay for it, you won’t be able to make ends meet that could potentially suck some of the joy out of creating whatever it is, but I think most people’s create our journey starts with first approaching something as a pure creative endeavor and then layering on monetization afterwards. So I think at its core, that is still showing the creation process itself.
David: What do you think the second order effects are of either from gig workers to creators, to just classical entrepreneurs, of more and more people seeing themselves as businesses, you know, the classic Jay-Z line, where he says, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” What are the second order effects to that?
Li: I think we’re already starting to see that today in terms of all of the major consumer social UGC platforms, announcing various creator monetization programs and announcing that it’s… One of their top priorities for the year is figuring out new ways that creators can monetize. And that didn’t use to be the case, it didn’t use to be the case that folks on Instagram thought of themselves as creators and ask the platform for new ways to monetize. I think a lot of people just thought of themselves as users before, but this shift of realizing that this is actually potentially a path to be an entrepreneur and to create a business, has pressured the platforms into offering additional ways for them to monetize. I think it’s going to have a lot of implications for how we educate students in the country.
David: Talk about that. I agree, that’s where my mind was going.
Li: Yeah. I think traditional education is really built around traditional jobs and HBS is filled with the user person in mind of the middle manager at the really large corporation. And how can they be a successful middle manager and have the skills speak of middle manager? I don’t think there is really established training for how to be an independent creator on the internet and what the steps are and skills need are, and the sequencing of what you should do when, in order to have a great career as a digital creator, because I think that’s all being forged right now it’s very nascent.
And I think that’s going to emerge and is already emerging on platforms like Teachable and Wes and Gagan’s new start up, like people are using them to teach these new skills to enable other people to become independent creators.
David: Yeah. You know, what’s interesting, there’s a great chart of the American auto industry, and basically what it shows is the number of companies in America that were producing cars. And so when the industry was young, there was an explosion of companies that were doing this, and then it basically falls off a cliff where you end up with only a handful, right? You end up with General Motors and Ford, and then like Tesla, was a huge anomaly in terms of a new company that was making cars, that’s American. I wonder if education necessarily looks like this. Because you basically with the internet, with digital technologies, you have an explosion of new places where you can learn.
So you have all these individual creators like you and I who teach, and then what ends up happening is you get a consolidation over time and a re-bundling where then you end up with a place like a global Harvard or something where, who knows what that looks like, but maybe 40 years from now, you end up with big centralization and education again, but maybe this decentralization, this fragmentation as like human nature has to respond to big changes.
Li: I like to say the means of creation are being democratized. It’s much easier for people who used to be non-producers to become producers. So years ago I probably would have never taught an online course because it would have just been too daunting. I wouldn’t even know how to put it together. And now with new platforms that support course creators, it’s just much easier for a lot of us to create courses. And so you have an explosion on the supply side of various options, and then you have an explosion on the consumer side because these options are actually a lot more accessible and cheaper than preexisting traditional educational solutions.
And so there’s basically more supply, more demand than before and I do think that we’re going to reach this tipping point where consumers feel overwhelmed with how many options are available to them. And there will be some sort of intermediary that curates or surfaces or matches the right options to the right individual. Like people are already saying, “I’m subscribed to way too many newsletters.” And there’s like 50 newsletters that I’ve accidentally subscribed to and I don’t even have time to read all of them. I think there’s an opportunity for maybe the platforms or maybe the writers individually, bundling themselves or curating themselves into more digestible options for consumers. Because I do think that that’s where this is going. Like everything is becoming unbundled, everyone is coming out with their own individual creator offering, but on the consumer side, that’s not necessarily the best user experience.
David: How much have you looked into creator burnout? Because there’s something really weird about being a creator versus a media company where basically… There’s a saying from complexity science that more is not more and more is different, and I’ve always really liked that. That’s what emergence is, right? You end up… This is what’s hard about recreating the human brain, that there’s certain emergent properties in the brain that when we just go down to the level of its building blocks, something fundamentally changes. And we can’t just go from the building blocks to the brain. And when it comes to being a creator, what happens, is you do more, is you end up with a media company, but people like following people. So then you end up with these weird media companies that are still centered around one person, but then there’s ghost writers and there’s big teams in the background.
And major, major authors have a ton of ghost writers and 15 people working for them, but a lot of people just don’t know, they’re like, “Oh, how does this person do so much?” Which isn’t the way it works at all. I was counting how many people in some way work on my team to do all the things that I do, and it’s about 25 and that isn’t a full staff of 25, but that’s just different consultants and contractors. I mean, it’s ridiculous and it’s extremely stressful. And it then leads into a certain creative burnout where also you end up where you started off to be creative and then you can no longer be creative because you’re just managing the system itself. But how much have you looked into this?
Li: A little bit. But definitely not super super in depth then I think it’s a really interesting topic, and I think it just gives more attention and more thinking from me. I definitely agree, which is… So two things I want to say, one, is I definitely agree with your point that I think as creators grow they’re not just doing everything themselves, they’re also building out a team, but that is sort of antithetical to what consumers want, which is a relationship with the individual. Like they want to purchase them like a person. They want a relationship with that person.
Li: And so everyone who’s talking about how creators can become billion dollar businesses, I feel a little bit skeptical towards that, because I think actually the creator doesn’t necessarily scale to being such a large business because at some point they become not as personable and a little bit more distant and alienated away from the end customer and they can see that actually there’s a huge team and it’s not really so and so that’s leading the charge on all of these things, they’re just stamping their name on everything.
So, I’m not entirely sure how many creators can actually become the helm of a billion dollar business, that’s one. Secondly, on the topic of creator burnout, I think that there’s a lot of things going on. I think people tend to overemphasize how much of the creator burnout is due to the process of creation and the exhaustion from having to constantly produce. Like that is what’s visible to end consumers. We see people constantly streaming on Twitch for 20 hours a day, constantly coming out with new TikTok videos, and that does look exhausting and I’m sure it is very exhausting for the content creators.
But I think there’s another dimension that leads to burnout, as well, which is very unique to the digital world. And that’s the fact that these creators are by definition, creating for an audience in real time, and they have open channels of communication to their audience. That’s very different than being a film star, working on a film with no audience feedback and no one clamoring for your attention for months and then the film gets released and you get a bunch of fan mail.
Today, I think creators are not only overwhelmed with the process of creation, they’re also overwhelmed by demands for their time from all of the DMs, comments, all of the attention that they’re getting is also overwhelming. There was an app a few months ago that got really popular in the App Store called Hype Simulator, I think. And if you downloaded it, you could basically simulate the experience of being super famous and it would like blow up your TikTok notifications or your Instagram notifications and simulate what it was like to be like Charli D’Amelio, and you would get thousands of follower notifications, tons of comments that you could respond to, et cetera. And like the other night, I got tagged in this Twitter thread by Mr. Beast, and I basically went through my very own personal hype simulator experience.
And eventually I had to mute the notifications on that thread because it just got to be way too much. I think that that tweet from last night has now 8,000 likes on it and some hundreds of comments. And it was just exhausting, to every time I open up my Twitter app and see a huge slew of comments and notifications and whatever. I think that part is also very exhausting for creators to constantly be interacting with one’s audience to be creating for them in real time and have that feedback loop in real time. Like one person is not able to support the attentions of some new people. And I think that’s also contributing to burnout.
David: Yeah. There’s an idea that you came up with that I really like, which is a hundred true fans and you build upon Kevin Kelly’s a thousand true fans. And I think that one of the things that you’re getting at here is it’s actually a really beautiful contrast to what you just said, that if the story of the last 15 years online, the Facebooks, the Uber’s, the Googles was about trying to reach everyone, trying to go for as much scale as possible.
I remember being at Facebook in 2014 and they had this board in the back, which was alive ticker of how many people were on the platform. And it was just more is better. And a hundred true fans is just the antithesis of that. It’s basically saying, “Who are my people? Let’s go small. Let’s go local again. Let’s find this small group of people that just adores me.” And then that combined with people’s willingness to pay four figure sums on the internet, you take those two things and you really have a new path that is calmer, and more contemplative, and closer, and truly communal, and not just the community buzzword that we throw around these days.
Li: Precisely. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re capping the registrations for my new course at 150 students. At some point live doesn’t scale. You can’t actually physically handle way more students than that. And by the way, so I’m teaching the course. It’s all about building for the creator economy, it’s geared towards builders, practitioners, founders, operators, who are working in the creator economy or adjacent to creators. And it’s all about frameworks and metrics and just tactics for how to better serve creators. So that’s creatoreconomycourse.com. And it’s going to be alive cohort based course, and so, yeah, it’s basically the idea of a hundred true fans and action because we’re capping students at 150, the course is priced at 1250, so it’s… I can very much see firsthand that this could be a path for a lot of people to be able to monetize a very small group of customers.
And so the things that we’re optimizing for through this course is not reach scale, like how many people can we possibly get this content in front of, instead, it’s like, “For this small group of high quality individuals who fit our target customer persona, are we going to be able to, A, help them achieve the goals that they want to out of the course? And B, are we going to be able to facilitate real connections between all of the students in the course?”
David: Yeah. I mean, I think that one of the problems is just the metrics of the internet, right? Like it’s so much easier to know how many downloads this podcast got versus one person who just said Li shaped and re-shaped my entire worldview from this conversation. There’s no metric for that. And so therefore we don’t go for that in the same way as we go for how many downloads can we get? And I think it creates some pretty toxic outcomes, actually.
Li: In some ways, the views and reach and scale of your audience, it is a proxy for something. It is a proxy for influence. And I think that for a lot of creators, that’s what they’re optimizing for. Just, can I influence the conversation in the biggest way possible, to the biggest number of people possible? But that’s not necessarily the best way to monetize if that’s what someone is optimizing for. Like building a business, building relationships with people that I don’t think aligns that well with gunning for region scale.
David: Totally. What do you think the second order effects of Charli D’Amelio and just 16 year old millionaires? What does that mean for the world?
Li: Well, A, it means I’m a fan. I really love her. I think she’s amazing. I also love Addison. I won’t list through all the TikTok’s person I love. I think it’s really, really fascinating. So one, she just passed a hundred million followers the other day, like not long ago. A hundred million is a staggering number, that’s basically one third of the US population. So if you group all of the Charli D’Amelio fans in the world together, like that’s a huge chunk of people who know who she is. So she probably has more name recognition than a lot of mainstream celebrities from a generation ago did at their peak, which is just staggering.
Secondly, I think it’s also really interesting in terms of what the implications are for platforms, for social platforms. So people often cite the survey where it talks about how I think this was a survey commissioned by LIGO. And they found that some large percentage of young kids actually aspire to be YouTubers rather than astronauts or whatever. Like YouTuber was the top aspirational profession for little kids of this last generation. And I wonder if with Charli D’Amelio theme, like the next generation aspirational career is going to be TikToker. People then will think of TikTok as, okay, this is the platform that, if I’m successful here, then that means I’m a real celebrity, or real creative. So I think it potentially implies some sort of turnover of new social platforms and redefining what fame can look like.
David: Going back to your earlier point about China. Because I think in China, astronaut is still quite high. What does that say about the cultural differences? And people do love to say, “Oh, the astronaut is better. That is how our society should be.” Make the case for the fact that it’s good that we aspire to be influencers.
Li: Yeah, I will. I will definitely make the case because I actually don’t think that there is a objective hierarchy between the two. And the reason why I think that is because we are now at a point in our world history when probably one of the most common daily pain points and frustrations that we have collectively on a daily basis, is boredom. Like that is the most pain that we feel in the developed world on a daily basis.
So I think being an influencer, being a creator, entertaining people, filling their day with some sort of content that uplifts them, that gives them a laugh, that makes them feel less lonely and more connected, I think is a tremendously impactful thing. Obviously, if the earth was about to melt down and we needed to find a new planet to inhabit, my answer might change, and I’ll probably say being an astronaut is a really great job and people should definitely prioritize that. But just in terms of… From a utilitarian perspective, boredom and loneliness is such a huge problem collectively among the entire human population of earth that I think content creators are doing all of us, a huge service.
David: Yeah. I mean, I’ve thought a lot about this. And I think that there’s something deeply right about the influencer path being the one that at least as a career strategy that we should aspire to. And there’s a lot of times where like the incentives of the individuals are at odds with the incentives of a global society. And maybe at the global level, it’s better if we have more scientists and stuff, but this is very much the calculus that I made.
I remember calling my dad one day after college and I just had, “I have it figured out, it’s going to take 10 years, but if I can build an audience that is around the ideas that I like, then I basically have forever given myself optionality in terms of the different things that I launch.” And I think my intuition on that was very right. And maybe that’s what young people are seeing.
Li: Yeah. I think so. People love to disparage founders and new startups that are working on social consumer things as frivolous, or like not meaningful or not useful. But I actually think that there are some of the most useful products ever. Basically the entire human population now is on these social platforms. We’re all connected to each other on these social platforms, like in terms of just share usage, these are some of the most of these products by humanity. And I don’t think that working on a new social network is any less valid or meaningful use of a founder’s time than working on something related to hard sciences.
Like just to give an anecdote, a few years ago, I went back to my grandparents’ house in China, in remote, like rural, super, super rural village, China, this is my dad’s family where my dad grew up. And I went to go visit them. And when I got back to the US and the next time I saw my mom, I was like, “We should video chat with them.” And so, we got WeChat. We got on WeChat and I video chatted with my aunt from that village and got my mom on the phone, and literally they were in tears because they had not seen each other for the past 20 plus years, but they video chatted and they were both in tears at this reunion.
And I remember my aunt saying something that just really touched me, which was, “I never thought that in this lifetime, I would ever get to see your face again and now I can on this app.” I mean, that moment was just all inspiring for me. Like that probably made a bigger impression on her and had a bigger impact on her life, than whatever, like a startup that’s working on something in the hard sciences. So I think social networks are incredibly life-changing for folks. I mean, we love to talk about misinformation and things like that and how influencers are wasting their time and infecting the brains of our youth, but no one talks about how intrinsically they’re just connecting people.
David: Yeah. I feel like every day I have a conversation through DMs or get an email from somebody who says, “Dropped out of college, started learning on the internet. I’m learning so much more than I did in school.” And most of these messages are from people who have very little access. I just hired a 20 year old kid who lives in rural Australia. Dude is awesome. Went to a couple of colleges, dropped out, found my stuff, and now just uses the internet to learn super motivated and talked to another guy today, same thing. And to just watch people use these tools to give their minds nutrients is really a beautiful thing. And I think that for the most part, the direction of where society is going is us working to get way better at actually building these social networks. And hopefully we look back at the last 15 years and we say, “That was version one, it wasn’t very good. It was like the airplanes that always used to crash after the Wright brothers started flying. But you know what? Air travel is pretty safe now.”
Tell me, for you off this path of traditional versus new, you’re just this weird smorgasburg, of you went to Harvard, you worked at one of the most institutionally reputable venture capital firms in the world, and then you’re also very online. So what about the traditional path? Do you like? And you would say, “You know what, I got a lot from that.” And then what are some of the things that you look back on and you say, “Shouldn’t have done that, I could have gotten my own route, it would have been really helpful”?
Li: At the time. I never thought about it as choosing the traditional path versus choosing an off the beaten path chuck. At every turn, I think I just chose what I thought was interesting and optimized for surrounding myself with really interesting smart people. So was Harvard a very traditional institution? For sure. But what I really got out of that experience was just being surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, who just opened my mind in so many different ways. Same with working at a16z. But I think your observation about me is correct, which is that, I am this weird smorgasbord of different things. I have definitely always had a very creative streak. I have always been very online. I just have this impulse to pursue my interests and do what I think is most interesting at all times. And so, you’ll see me try out TikTok and try to become TikTok famous, at the same time I’m doing podcast, and a newsletter, and a clubhouse show and investing.
I just love doing as many interesting things as possible with as many interesting people as possible. That’s what guides my decisions rather than some sort of meta framework around, like, “How do I balance traditional versus new?” And like, “How do I balance making money versus doing creative things?”
David: I love that answer. When you write, what is your process for writing? Do you work with an editor?
Li: Usually no. Usually I don’t. I mean back at a16z I had an editor, but now on my own, I usually do not work with an editor. At least not an editor that I pay, I got a bunch of my friends to read my stuff and give me their feedback, and then I added it based on that. My most recent piece, I did work with an editor from HBR, but I looked him in pretty late in the process. So usually it’s just me working independently on my own, sending things to friends, getting their feedback, working but then continuing to iterate on it.
And my writing process, I think is really unconventional, which is that I literally just sit down and write it through in once a day. I don’t do bullet points outlines, and then flush things out. I literally had to start top to bottom and just write in prose and full sentences and full ideas, as if I were writing the finished piece top to bottom. And then obviously once I’m done with that, I’ll go back, and iterate, and get feedback, and continue to incorporate it in, but I can’t do bullet points or outlines first.
David: So you’re getting epiphany and spend five to 10 hours on this thing kind of girl?
Li: Yes. All of the things that I’ve written have been written on the weekend where I had a huge long day ahead of me. And once I got inspiration, my first draft is basically 85% of that. The inspiration will strike, I will have to put on paper, I write the whole thing through, and once a day I don’t stop, and then I iterate and then it becomes the finished thing. And by the way, I can only ever write while lying down on my stomach in bed. I can’t write sitting up.
David: That is a killer anecdote. Oh my God. I actually, I have something like that too.
David: I do all my final editing on my phone, Google Docs, shirtless in bed, slouched over, kind of leaning to the side. It just, it really helps me just be really informal.
Li: It really helps, right? Yeah. It just really helps. I don’t know how people can sit at a desk to write things. I have to be lying down in bed. I think it might be a relic of my college experience and how I would write in college, like lying down sprawls in bed, in my dorm room. And now that’s like the only position I can write in.
David: So how do you have such crisp anecdotes? Because one thing that’s very unique to your style, is a paragraph with two or three anecdotes of like, “This is exactly what I’m talking about. This is what Patreon does. This is what Tiago Forte does. This is what Teachable does with their exact revenue numbers.” So then you must go back and do that later, right?
Li: Oh, yes. For sure. I get the broad concepts in place and then I’m like this would be a good place to slot in an example, and I have to go hunt for an example. So then I like go hunt down someone who I think would be able to give me a good anecdote or supporting data. And I work that in after the fact. And it’s all a very iterative, like I spend… My whole day, my whole week is comprised of founder meetings. And so people are constantly seeding my brain with new thoughts. And so the pieces come together after all of these impressions have been made. And so when it comes time to draw on anecdotes, I very clearly remember who would be interesting to go talk to.
David: What’s the best thing you learned at Andreessen Horowitz about what it takes to produce good media?
Li: Well. I would actually first say that I also have a background in journalism. So I wrote prolifically for my college newspaper. I was the executive editor of a startup, a student magazine called the voice. And then I also worked in the newsroom at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during college too. So I-
David: Why Pittsburgh?
Li: That’s my hometown. It’s my hometown newspaper. Yeah. So I think that training was actually really, really incredible. You see a lot of journalists like filtering in and out of VC. Now a lot of VCs actually have a journalism background. I do think the skillsets are pretty similar. So that experience taught me to, A, write really quickly because I was always writing on deadline. B, always just love telling good stories and drawing insights out of people in order to tell the best story possible. I think journalism also teaches you how to establish relationships and cultivate trust with folks, which is really important for writing. And then I think at a16z in terms of what that experience taught me, I think the bar that they held themselves to from an editorial perspective was just really, really high.
It was never sufficient just to do content marketing or to package differently what someone else basically had already said. We always wanted to be adding to the conversation and being on the forefront of the conversation, introducing new concepts that no one had ever heard of. And so that’s still the bar that I hold myself till today.
David: That is really well said. So how do you actually do that? Like at a16z, are there sort of internal conversations that are happening? When do you know that you’ve gotten there and maybe you could take an idea of building a middle crap class for creators? Like at what point do you know that that is sufficiently frontier enough. I actually remember you sending me a Google Doc of one of your articles. And I was very surprised at how polished it was at that phase. And I could sense this sort of drive because the process from you telling me about that article to when you actually published, it was probably a solid three and a half months.
Li: Yeah, it was. Yes, I remember that piece. I think that was the a hundred true fans piece.
David: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Li: Yeah. I stewed on that one for a long time trying to find examples and backup data to prove that this was actually happening and it wasn’t just theory. When do I think something is frontier enough? This is actually something that I’ve had challenges with and grappled with myself. Because I’m existing in my own head, I think everything is obvious. I’ve often been pushed to publish things that I thought were obvious and then the moment I published people are like, “Whoa, this is amazing.” And then I’m so glad that someone told me that it wasn’t obvious and that I should publish it. I think having conversations with folks, testing out ideas with them.
There’s a group of people that I just often talk to who are also writers and I’ll circulate ideas by them and tell them I’m working on this new piece, it’s about the creator middle class and I’ll talk a little bit about it. And based on that reaction, I can get a good sense of like, “Okay, is this new? Is this going to be interesting enough? Or has the world already heard it a million times before?” So I test ideas with other people because otherwise I feel like I don’t have a good grasp of what’s interesting.
David: Yeah. You know maybe one heuristic is just, does it open somebody’s eyes in three to five words? The Creator Middle-class, damn, I got to read that. The Passion Economy, ooh, that’s pretty interesting. A Hundred True Fans, I actually understand what that is immediately. Sounds like it’s a play on a thousand true fans, but let’s see what this is about. And I think this sort of instantaneity of your writing might be a good heuristic for you. I think of writers as sort of machine guns and snipers. You’re sort of a sniper. I’m a bit more of a machine gun. I just throw everything out and see what sticks.
Li: Well, I think everyone’s actually a machine gun, but I just have a different filter of when I hear publish.
David: Talk about that.
Li: Like I have a ton of Google Docs, Evernote notes, like drafts in myself, stack of things that never see the light of day, because I’m like this just doesn’t meet the bar of giving someone that aha moment. I think all writers have that. I think we just expose different parts of the iceberg. Like the sniper is what you see above the water, but actually beneath the surface there’s a ton of stuff that I produce constantly where I’m jotting down ideas and notebooks and whatnot, I just don’t publish most of it. So I think different writers differ in how much they decide to publish.
David: One of the questions that I have for you is, you’re teaching a course on the creator economy and I guess within that is the assumption that there’s things that even people who spend a lot of time thinking about it, who aspire to be a part of this industry are actually missing about what’s happening. Maybe they don’t have the right frameworks in place, and what are some of the things that you think are misunderstood even among experts?
Li: I think one is that there… The term creator economy and all of the attention that’s now being paid to create our monetization, creator tools, et cetera. It actually belies a lot of the heterogeneity of this industry. So one of the things that I’m going to be talking about during the course is that actually there is no one single monolithic identity of what a creator is. Creators are like workers, there is so much variation in them. And just like we don’t talk about the worker economy, I think we need to stop talking about creators in generalizations and start focusing on what are the sub categories of the creator economy that share more in common with each other.
And those subcategories, I think can be split and defined in multiple different ways. You can define it by platform like YouTuber, a TikToker, podcaster or whatever. You can define it by industry vertical. Like you’re a writer, an expert in productivity, a fitness influencer, a nutritionist, whatever. You could also define it by content type. So written content, video content, audio content, whatever, focusing on the creator economy is just too high level and people really need to distill down, especially for company builders, distill down into who exactly you’re serving because creator is not it, it’s way too general.
The second biggest misconception I think that people have right now is, well in general, there’s a lot of new startups that are trying to build new monetization tools for creators and presenting them with different options to monetize their audience in all new different ways. Whether that’s like selling a thing, selling a service, selling access to them, tipping, donations, doing merch, whatever it is, without realizing that actually all of the different components of this creator monetization universe, all of these different tools are actually competing with one another. Like all of the different monetization methods that are creator has is in competition with each other for the creators time and attention.
It’s like having multiple jobs as a person. At some point you think about what job is giving me the higher ROI? Which one do I enjoy more? And you spend more of your resources there, and so with more monetization methods, creators are going to have to prioritize between them and they’re not going to just constantly stack them on top of each other because there are opportunity costs. And so, one of the things that I’m going to be challenging folks to do is thinking through the creator psychology of how do they actually decide which tools to use and how do they stack rank the priority of different types of monetization.
And then thirdly, and then I’ll finish, is creators are not solely profit maximizing.
David: That’s what I was going to say.
Li: They’re not solely profit maximizing machines. They’re very different from businesses in this way. And that’s why I think the creator is this completely independent persona that’s different from a consumer and different from a business. They’re kind of like elements of both, but they’re completely new thing. They care about things that are beyond the numerical business objectives of revenue and monetization, they care about creation, about doing things they enjoy. They care about how they’re perceived by their audience like when they monetize through a certain channel. They think about, what is the brand impact that this is going to have on me? What is the impact that this is going to have on my audience? Is this going to be accruing to my brand or detracting from my brand in the future? Like what are the long-term implications of this?
They’re very cognizant of all of these different considerations. And like startups that are just focusing on maximizing revenue for a creator are not necessarily going to be the most successful.
David: Bingo. Exactly. I think that’s so important. And I think this is a huge wide space for you. You could basically say like, accounting in the creator economy, where, if you take something like return on invested capital for Berkshire Hathaway, it is, “What is our ROI financially?” Whereas for a creator it would be, “How much free time do I get? How much time do I get to spend with my kids?” And the problem is that because that is qualitative, it can be seen as subjective, but it’s qualitative and it’s objective, and so it’s really hard to measure that. And so traditional accounting basically breaks down in the creator economy, if you take seriously that finances are only one part of the stack.
Li: A hundred percent. And there’s so many creator monetization tools that people turn down and refuse to use because they have a detrimental impact on their brand.
David: What have you taken from writing into the world of investing in terms of, let’s just say discovering a company. I mean, I don’t know how you think about investing, but how much to the extent that you are doing your due diligence on a company that seems like it’s very much like writing an essay, right? Because maybe your end product is some kind of internal memo that’s one to two pages on, “Hey, this is our thesis for why we should invest.”
Li: Yeah. A hundred percent. I think it’s a very critical skeleton busting. At least for me, I do a lot of my thinking through writing. Like I crystallize ideas through the process of actually writing it out. If I struggle with writing, that means I actually am not thinking clearly about it and I don’t fully understand it. So my practice is, yeah, writing down a memo, writing down the pros and cons of different deals and seeing if I can succinctly describe what I find compelling or not so compelling about an opportunity and basing decisions off of that.
This is my personal bias, but I like working with founders who are good writers themselves. I actually think writing clearly is a good proxy for sharpness of thinking, being able to think strategically, being able to communicate well in general, it’s actually a pretty critical skill for entrepreneurs.
David: Couldn’t agree more. I want to go back to something that you said earlier, and I think it merges with what you said just now, well, which is education. If you’re a principal or for your kids, what would you think about in terms of how to do education differently in a way that isn’t geared towards a middle manager but geared towards the creator economy that you’re so passionate about?
Li: I think that if we leave kids their own devices, good things come out of that. I mean, I feel like everything that I love doing as a child, ultimately, even though my parents thought I was me wasting my time, ultimately they’re being utilized in some way now. Like all of those hours I spent reading novels and fiction like that’s part of what makes me the writer I am today. Like I probably wouldn’t be writing at the level I am if I had been reading non-fiction.
Spending a ton of time online that’s all I do now. That’s all anyone does now, so I almost wish I could just turn back time and be allowed to do more of what I love to rather than being forced to go focus on other things. So I think what kids are doing naturally of their own volition is probably going to have value in the future.
I mean, I think the book a few years ago, the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, the parenting book written by the Yale law professor. I think that had a really good insight, which is that, children often don’t enjoy things before they’ve mastered it, but once they’ve mastered it and are good at it, then they really enjoy doing it. There are certain activities which only become enjoyable after you’re good at it. And until that point, there needs to be an external force, like the parents pushing them to do that thing. It’s like you have to practice the piano and then at a certain point, they realize they’re good at the piano and then they just love playing. There’s probably other skills like that too.
David: Yeah. Tyler Cowen has this great line where it says, “All thinkers are regional thinkers,” basically implying that we’re all influenced by where we came from. And so how does being Chinese shape your view on the world? Your lens on education? I don’t necessarily think that, “Oh, I learned so much in those six years,” but I presume that that Chinese culture stayed with you, it’s still a part of you and it still shapes your worldview.
Li: I think the biggest way in which it’s shaped my worldview is to realize that all things are possible and that if you try hard enough, you can alter the course of your entire life and the entire world too. If you just went with the natural course of fate, I would have grown up as a Chinese girl in Beijing. My parents would probably be super wealthy right now and I probably wouldn’t have to work, I’d probably have two kids at this point. Like that would have been the natural course of my life if we had just stayed in Beijing. Instead, they decided to do something crazy and transplant themselves to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when I was six years old to completely blow up their lives, just like completely changed the course of our lives as a family and every subsequent generation thereafter.
And the fact that I’m here speaking English with you on this podcast, the fact that I’m investing now, I’ve been in Silicon Valley for the last eight years doing what I do. It’s just also improbable, it feels like the opposite of fate. And my takeaway from all of that is like, people can just literally have their lives be whatever they want them to be and it doesn’t actually take that much effort to completely change your life and to potentially influence the entire course of the world.
David: Mm-hmm (affirmative). How about being from Pittsburgh? I mean, Pittsburgh, steel city, it’s got a industrial vibe. I have some friends who I was living with, who went to college in Pittsburgh and it sounds… I’ve never been to Pittsburgh. It sounds like Pittsburgh has a level of soul. It’s like a really unique American city.
Li: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
David: What did Pittsburgh give you?
Li: It’s definitely a very blue collar Midwestern place. It’s considered to be the Eastern most city of the Midwest and other people consider it to be part of Appalachia regardless, it’s definitely the opposite of coastal age. So this is where I spent my formative years in the midst of all of this, in the midst of folks who were very blue collar, surrounded by all of these industries that were kind of disappearing, like manufacturing, steel, coal, et cetera.
And I think it just gave me a new perspective that has stayed with me even as I’ve migrated between Boston, New York, San Francisco, DC. I think Pittsburgh is representative of the experiences of much of America. It exposes me to a completely different America than I think you would get if you lived your whole life in California or New York or any other coastal place.
David: You’re like a phoenix rising up out of the ashes of the industrial city going into the digital environment here.
Li: Yeah. I like that. It’s a very vivid picture.
David: That was an awesome podcast. Li Jin, thank you very much.
Li: Thank you so much, David, for having me. I really enjoyed it.