Morning Person: Sharon Ann Lee
Sharon Ann Lee is a culture analyst. She’s the founder of CULTUREBRAIN and the Co-Creator of Maker City LA.In 2011, Sharon spoke at our Los Angeles chapter on a growing trend she calls “DYO (Design Your Own) Success.” Three years later, she has become the embodiment of that mantra, making a living by helping others do just that.
I spoke with Sharon about how she’s found success doing more of the stuff she loves, and less of the stuff she hates, how she’s the Jane Goodall for humans, and why everyone should do an ethnography projects on themselves.
CreativeMornings: Where did you start? How did you first begin doing what you do now?
Sharon: I thought I was going to be a literature professor. I was a Lit major studying transcendental love poetry. At some point, I realized that I would have to go to grad school, go a hundred thousand dollars in debt, take seven years to write a dissertation, then move to Iowa—if I was lucky. I thought of that whole stretch of life, and I was like, “I love literature but I don’t want to do that!”
It wasn’t the work and time, it was the exorbitant cost, bureaucracy of academia and the very real possibility of being land-locked. I didn’t have a trust fund, I don’t work well in strict hierarchical structures, and I have a spiritual connection to the ocean and need to live near a shore. The traditional route wasn’t for me, but I knew I was going to find a different path back to the poetry.
Sharon: I wanted work at the intersection of art and commerce, something where I could stay creative but earn a living. I looked into publishing, and did an internship at Scholastic in New York. Then I got a job at a big ad agency in LA. I discovered that what I loved most about the job was all the creative people I got to work with and observe—photographers, directors, illustrators. I didn’t like working in a big company so I ended up moving to a smaller agency where I did everything from strategy, to research, to client service.
When you’re in a small place, you end up doing more than your job, which was great for me. I was at a small agency that focused on youth culture brands, action sports, and fashion. I was, among other things, in charge of strategy, so I was looking for research in the marketplace that would give us the latest insights into youth culture.
At the time, there were two of reports out there, but when I saw them, I realized that they were written by older people who clearly never left their office—the only way I knew this was because I was the target audience and so much information was missing. As a result, I ended up creating my own report with a partner, purely out of need. I needed it, I couldn’t find it, so I had to make it.
Eventually, it gathered some steam, and my partner and I went off and started our own company. It was the first youth culture trends research and marketing company with the internet as the foundation. We took the whole concept of reporting on youth culture and the diffusion between trendsetters and mainstream youth online. I did that for ten years and sold that in 2008. Now I have this new company, CultureBrain, which is more a refinement of what I love to do, an evolution of building a path to meaningful work for me.
CM: You hit upon that in your CreativeMornings/Los Angeles talk a bit. What were your thoughts in giving that talk?
Sharon: For several years I was thinking about the meaning of success and how it shifts based on values and life stage. Personally, I came to a point in my life where I felt like I had done everything I was supposed to do based on parents, society and others——check, check, check, check. I even had a bunch of press that validated my professional success, but there was still this missing piece, and a nagging feeling that I was on the wrong path.
I had two choices when I came to that point. I could ignore the whispers in my ear and keep powering through while medicating my emptiness with food, purchases and other distractions—or I could blow shit up.
It was 2008, I had a new baby, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and our financial industry was crumbling to the ground. There was lots of fear to go around. Many told me it was the absolute wrong time to rock the boat, that I should hunker down and do what I already knew. But I knew that there was never going to be a convenient or safe time to start over. Also, because I come from humble beginnings, I’m not afraid of losing it all. I’m more afraid of spending my life away on meaningless shit.
CM: How is this new phase of your life and your work different than the direction you took previously?
Sharon: The work I’m doing now is built from the ground up based on my authentic values and dreams. It’s a concept that allows me time to do my personal creative projects and only work with clients who I respect and connect with. It’s really a philosophy that guides me–a belief that I can do inspiring creative work, make a great living, work with talented people I like, and create meaning and value in the world that makes people’s lives better. Also I have a clear vision for my work: create more beauty, wonder, and connection in the world. Before, I was spending most of my time using my skills to sell more stuff for clients without asking the bigger questions. I just don’t do that anymore for anyone.
Over the last year, my personal projects have been the Maker City LA project, a full feature creative habitat for artists and makers. And I’m going to be launching an Academy division to CultureBrain where I’ll be teaching culture and trend analysis, creative classes as well as hosting salons, readings and performances. It’s my fantasy culture clubhouse where classes and conversations spark all sorts of awesomeness.
CM: You have this trajectory where you started off in one place and quickly realized that that was not what you wanted to do, but was there a specific turning point where you realized what you were meant to be doing?
Sharon: It was more like a series of small moments that kept building, and they would always happen in the field while I was doing ethnography.
I would be in a dressing room with somebody trying on jeans, or in a car where somebody would be test driving something asking questions about products and I would just ask them about real life stuff too. Those moments were rare intimate exchanges between two strangers. As a researcher, I have this neutrality that most people in our own lives don’t so it was an opportunity for people to really open up.
They started telling me things beyond whatever it was that we were there to talk about: love, loneliness, what really made them happy, what they worry about…Those were the moments where I was most excited and felt connected. This is what I want to be doing, exploring the bigger questions about our lives and what it means to be a human living in our world.
I didn’t want to be just talking about lipstick or cars. Going back to my first love, literature and the arts, I wanted to be able to mash my passion for culture and understand the ideas that really move us as people and communities. It’s not exactly a description you can find on a job board. My whole life I knew that I never easily fit into an existing box, so I was destined to make my own thing. Not fitting in has been a real blessing.
Photo from CreativeMornings/Los Angeles by Lisa Kelley.
CM: Does anyone really stand out on this path as someone who helped or shaped you along the way?
Sharon: That is actually something I’ve been working on all year. I post notes of people who inspire me on the wall. It started with a few and I now have close to 100. I even turned it into an art installation in the Academy, I call it my “wall of master teachers.” If I had to chose three: David Bowie, Ray & Charles Eames, and Yayoi Kusama—who I was for Halloween!
Wall of Master Teachers at CultureBrain Academy.
CM: David Bowie shaped who you are today?
Sharon: Yeah! Bowie is my greatest muse. When I was in high school, all my friends were into Duran Duran, Sting and the like. Every inch of my walls were covered with Bowie images and the oddest ones. Ashes to Ashes, Boys Keep Swinging, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Hunky Dory, Pinups, Ziggy, etc. My Korean immigrant parents were really puzzled. On the outside I looked like the typical Asian overachiever student but on the inside, I wanted to be Aladdin Sane. David Bowie’s exquisitely odd permutations were the life rafts I grasped onto while swimming through the hazards of high school, suburbia and Tiger parents.
CM: How does Los Angeles shape you and what you do?
Sharon: Los Angeles is a huge part of who I am—I’ve lived here almost all my life—but also for what I do. The whole place is set up for complete freedom of thought. It’s the Wild Wild West here. You can be a complete lunatic and think crazy thoughts without anyone batting an eye. It creates this air of total freedom for a creative person.
Because of this freedom, artists, iconoclasts and outsiders who think weird thoughts come out here. It’s the biggest group of creatives in the world because it hosts the freedom seekers plus all the creative people working in entertainment, fashion, art and the universities. On top of that, it’s an eclectic global city with over 200 languages spoken. You get the whole world in LA county. It also has the biggest culture distribution network in the world–Hollywood. LA has this particular combination of creative people + giant global media megaphone that no other city has. It’s a system that has the ability to take a bizarre, outside idea and make it mainstream overnight.
To give you like an example, back in the 70’s when the wellness and the health trend was just starting people start doing a bizarre activity in LA called “jogging.” It was mostly done by runners for training and it started to become a leisure activity.
CM: Out of this world.
Sharon: In the early days, it was viewed as weird, but in LA, there are lots of crazy things happening so it’s no big deal. But when Farrah Fawcett (original Charlie’s Angel) and Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man, decided to don stylish jogging suits and try jogging, they ended up on the cover of People magazine. The very next year, there was a photo of Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, Gordon Parks, this crazy mix of artists jogging in Central Park! ..And then the whole world.
LA does a lot of heavy lifting starting ideas and trends because you need a hospitable garden that wants to grow odd ideas and many world changing ideas start out as little oddities.
CM: What are three things you believe in right now?
Sharon: I’m trying to create more beauty, wonder, and connection through all my works. These attributes pull us all together and connect us to our own humanity.
- Culture is the secret force that connects us as human beings.
- “Delight” and “play” are essential to a fulfilling life
- Kindness is the best religion.
CM: I love that. It seems that as you dug deeper into yourself, you found a strong connection externally to the world around you. What would you share from what you’ve learned with someone just starting off on their path——maybe someone who similarly doesn’t really know where they fit in?
Sharon: The goal is to understand your true self before launching an action plan. Deep realizations about yourself don’t come all in one sitting. Be your own ethnographer for a month. One of the people that I admire most in the world is Jane Goodall. Imagine Jane sitting in the forest, looking at those chimpanzees with compassion and curiosity. Take on her kind tone and attitude while observing yourself. Be gentle and curious but never judgmental. This is very hard for us to do because we’re always talking shit to ourselves.
Take a notebook and notice every time you get excited about something. It doesn’t have to be a big moment or work related.
Just like, “Oh, I notice that every time I see this kind of movie I get super jazzed and want to do a happy dance.” Just write it down each time—no judgments. What happens over the course of the month is you start seeing some patterns. It gives you a peek into your authenticity and things that energize you. When your whole body lights up with joy, it’s really trying hard to tell you something—it’s saying, “hey, this is important, please pay attention.”
Photo from CreativeMornings/Los Angeles by Lisa Kelley.
You need to spend time understanding who you truly are before you forge a path. If you’re making plans based on other people’s perception of you or the perception of yourself that you want to project based on some external force, you’ll always end up in the wrong place. You’re happiest and most fulfilled when you’re in sync with your true authenticity. You can fake it for a while and eat carbs to stuff those feelings down, but eventually it catches up with you.
Do a research project on yourself. In this age of the quantified self where we’re data-mining everything, we need this kind of neutral, compassionate monitoring about our truest feelings, joys, and dreams.
CM: I want to do this right now.
Sharon: You’ll be my test study. Give me feedback, tell me if it works.
CM: Typically, I ask about your work-work and your side projects, but for you these seem to be one in the same.
Sharon: I do trend presentations for clients and high level brand strategy, while, in my own projects, I mix all those things with ethnography and art to make something that serves the creative community or just inspires me personally.
My personal projects and art starts with an observation, awareness or random inspiration but the driving goals seem to be the same for me.
I want to create more connection in the world through beauty and wonder. And I want to make it easier for the people who generate creativity in our communities to do their work.
Maker City LA is one of those projects where I thought, what if a creative person had every tool that they ever wanted under one roof? Wouldn’t that be awesome.
My Academy project was born out of an experiment I conducted teaching trend analysis classes as a way to inspire innovative thinking in a client’s team. I had no idea if it would work or be relevant for anyone but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life. There are only a handful of people who do what I do (professional macro-trend analysts), and most of this small community is made up of quirky ladies. Maybe it’s because it’s a cross between researcher and cultural psychic? Everyone has their own secret sauce and they tend to be pretty secretive about their process. I actually want more people to be interested in and trained in this work so I’m open to sharing and teaching the process that I’ve developed in the past fifteen years.
The Academy division of Culture Brain.
CM: Awesome! Do you want to dig in to a bit about what Maker City LA is about?
Sharon: It really started with a question of what if a creative person, especially a younger creative person who doesn’t have a ton of resources, had access to every tool they needed to be successful in this world? I pinpointed the places creatives need help in making their work, and a main area of need is affordable space and access to labs and tools.
There are so many talented young people who come out of the best institutions who suddenly have no access to the tools they need to make their art. When all these kids graduate from school, they are saddled with debt and locked out from their labs.
Their schools are like, “See you later! You can’t use our stuff anymore! So, they have to go get a job to survive and they may or may not be able to find equipment they can borrow. This moment, when thousands of our best young creative minds are forced to stop making their art because of a lack of access to tools, is a great loss to our economy and culture.
It also blocks out certain socio-economic groups from continuing their creative work. Our creative communities need diversity to flourish. I think we need to make a special effort to create more access and cross-pollination.
CM: There’s this trade-off.
Podcasting Studio at Maker City LA.
It’s not like before when all you needed was paint and canvas. If you’re an architect you need access to a laser cutter, a 3D printer. If you’re a fashion designer, you need access to sewing equipment. Most modern creatives need access to some professional level equipment to make their work like a shooting stage, editing software, fabrication tools, kitchen equipment, business resources, etc
Everybody needs lab access and, institutionally, there’s nothing available. Basically, all these talented young creatives stop making work because they don’t have affordable access. Maker City LA was about solving that problem. How can we get people the tools that they need to keep making their work? Different pieces of this concept exist out there in the world, but everything’s so separate. I wanted a little version of all that under one roof—one stop create and collaborate. That’s the experiment.
The concept of Maker City LA is that you have a fine artist next to a YouTuber next to a chef next to a fashion designer next to a product designer. I think there’s great value in witnessing other people’s creative processes—even if it has nothing to do with what we’re doing. We learn a great deal by watching other creatives make their work.
We want to eventually share our learnings with São Paulo, New York, Seoul, Berlin, etc—all the cities that have these resources to pull together for their creative communities. My dream is that once we know more about how it’s all going to work, we teach other cities how to do this and link them all together. So if you’re a member of one you can easily go to any of the locations… so it’s like a big, global creative club membership for real working artists—not like those expensive, douche-y private clubs. Artists and creatives are already a global community so it would be fantastic to have a soft landing in a welcoming community when we travel.
Sharon flying by a backdrop of hand-crafted paper sushi.
CM: Very cool. Our last question is possibly the most important question: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Sharon: I had a cup of instant chicken soup.
CM: For breakfast?
Sharon: Yeah, I was running out the door. That was an anomaly. Normally I have two fried eggs and some sautéed kale. But tomorrow it might be the leftover fried chicken bits my kids didn’t finish for dinner.
CM: Pretty solid.