Me Time

From rebuilding grandfather clocks to making websites

  
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-5:58

My Ông Nội—that's my paternal grandfather—owned a machine shop in the coastal city of Qui Nhơn, Vietnam. That's where my dad grew up, surrounded by the grinding sounds of lathes, mills and other equipment.

Every Lunar New Year, the family business closed for a few days. And during that time off, Ông Nội would carry out his signature New Year's tradition.

First, my grandpa would change out of his everyday shop garb into set of silk white pajamas. Newly radiant in his pristine outfit, Ông Nội would proceed to disassemble, oil, and reassemble the family's grandfather clock. Every gear was meticulously cleaned. Then, the clock was put back together in perfect working order.

I listened to my father share this anecdote last week. It was the first time I’d seen my parents in a year. We were celebrating Lunar New Year over plates of bánh tét.

My dad felt that the silk-pajama-clock-maintenance tradition was a way to stay busy, feeding Ông Nội's insatiable need to problem-solve even while on vacation.

However, I like to think my grandpa looked forward to this ritual as something more—an annual reset. A chance to get refreshed. Revisit a familiar project. Remember why he liked to do what he did.

The closest thing I have to rebuilding grandfather clocks is rebuilding my personal website. 🙃

In 7th grade, my best friend Sean shared that he was learning to build his first website. On my next trip to Borders bookstore, I remember excitedly searching for a HTML textbook. My mother bought me a copy of HTML 4 for the World Wide Web by Elizabeth Castro that day.

I still remember the slick feel of the book’s yellow and purple laminated cover. Within a week I completed every exercise front to back using one of my dad's old work laptops.

When I was a kid, my brother gave me the nickname “Kiwi.” I was chubby, tan, and sported a buzzcut through grade school. So naturally, my personal brand was born. In 2000 (I think), I published my first website, The Kiwi Connection, hosted on Angelfire.

I sunk hours into constantly redesigning and recoding that site.

Building one version was immediately followed by building the next, like swimming laps in a pool. The Kiwi Connection eventually became Kiwimonk.com (another nickname gifted by my brother when he signed me up for AOL Instant Messenger).

Middle school me now owned a home base on the internet. I posted updates, published "art," collected quotes, and catalogued a portfolio of websites and graphics that I made for friends whom I met on the internet playing games.

As I got older, revamping Kiwimonk became a holiday-ish tradition. New side projects added. My bio rewritten. At one point, the site housed a popular forum among classmates in high school.

Today, I see my personal website the same way it started: a constant work in progress. The site is my evolving artist statement, from puberty to adulthood. It's always been a personal, public terminal for friends and strangers to learn about me and whatever I consider to be “my work.”

Like Ông Nội, I’ve spent “me time” every year since I was a kid to revisit this satisfying, yet un-finish-able project.

Making websites started as a hobby for me.

That hobby tricked me into dedicating time to reflect on my relationship with my work. Maybe something similar was taking place for my grandfather.

I never met Ông Nội, but I gather that he enjoyed his work. It was hard work. The machine shop he founded survived the Vietnam War and is still operated by my family today.

But rebuilding things seemed to be more than my grandpa’s way to make money and provide. It was a passion—or at least something he felt compelled to do.

I’ve felt compelled at different times during work and play. I think we all seek to understand “our things” that itch, that move us, that pull us along. They are the beasts we feed. They are practices that enable us to feel more like ourselves.


Music: Complicate Ya by Otis McDonald

Kevin here! I write about creating, optimizing, and being a person. Subscribe below to join a few hundred folks and get notified whenever I publish new words. 

Making Food

Early encouragement in the kitchen and cooking memorable meals

  
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-6:12

Hi! I recorded an audio version of this week’s essay. Hit play to hear me reading out loud—like a mini-audiobook. I think it captures the vibe behind the writing. 🔊😊

Reply or leave a comment if you enjoyed this storytime
option. ~Onwards~

One of my earliest memories making food is from my older brother's high school prom night. Instead of going out to dinner, my brother Jeff and his friend decided to cook dinner for their prom dates.

So, on a Saturday afternoon, my family set up a mock restaurant in our Colorado basement. A card table was dressed with a table cloth, candles, and our nicest wares. Meanwhile, Jeff and his buddy prepared a multi-course meal complete with a printed menu.

My role for the evening was to be the waiter 🤵🏾. As an eleven-year-old donning black slacks, a white dress shirt, and a bow tie, I showed the two couples to their table, served drinks, and brought out course after course.

As the group polished off their mains (shrimp linguine), my mother prepared her strawberry crêpes for dessert. She asked if I would assemble and plate the crêpes. So with her guidance, I rolled each thin crêpe around spoonfuls of strawberry compote and sporadically drizzled melted chocolate on top.

“Good job, Kiwi,” my mother said as I put the finishing touches on our final course. As of that moment, I felt like her plating specialist. I contributed to the dish. I helped make that fancy dessert. I helped make the food.

Crêpes were served, and our dinner guests left for the dance. While cleaning up, I found a $20 tip on the table.

My journey making food started with my mom delegating kitchen tasks.

From plating crêpes to rolling California rolls to frying chả giò (Vietnamese spring rolls), I helped with certain dishes on certain occasions growing up.

Living on my own in college was a turning point. Making food became my responsibility. I had to feed myself, and I welcomed it. I made extravagant Super Bowl weekend breakfasts with my crew, compared chicken enchilada recipes with my roommate Sean, and delivered homemade chili to a girl whom I never conjured the courage to share my true feelings with.

When I moved to New York for work, making “home food” took on even more significance without me taking notice.

New friendships were sealed over Wednesday yellow-shell taco nights at my apartment. I called home to catch up with mom and ask about her coconut chicken curry recipe. And, there was that sweaty summer day when Yoko and I took a crack at homemade hot wings after we started dating.

“If you could eat anything right now, what would you eat?”

I ask that question to my (now) partner, Yoko, almost every night before we fall asleep. 90% of the time she answers, “Ramen.” Meanwhile, I spout off new foods we might bring to life in our kitchen: tamales, saag paneer, lasagna, elote, spam musubi, pizza, bánh xèo...

When Yoko and I cook together, I joke that we move in the kitchen “like a dance.” (Pronounced: “like a dawnnnncee.”) She typically chops. I run the stovetop. Our limbs weave quickly in and out and around each other as we grab utensils, add ingredients, and season our food.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi popularized the term “Flow.” He describes flow as:

“A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

If that's flow, then flow for me is making food. Whether frying eggs in the morning or heating casserole stew at night, I never regret making time to make food.

“No one in the world has ever eaten this before.”

Sometimes when I sit down to eat, I reflect on the distinctness of enjoying that food in that moment. No one has ever eaten a dish with precisely this many grains of rice, this many granules of salt, and all of these other ingredients in their exact quantities.

Every once in awhile, I do think our kitchen produces a legitimate, first-of-its-kind meal. Has anyone else made Aachar Parmesan Popcorn (Aacharmesan™)? Or a hot dog pizza with sesame seeds on the crust (like a bagel)?

There's endless creative potential with cooking. On top of that, making food is impermanent. You make it. You serve it. You eat it.

Hopefully what's left is a meal worth remembering.


Song: Hello Mr. Prince by Otis McDonald

Kevin here! I write about creating, optimizing, and being a person. Subscribe below to join a few hundred folks and get notified whenever I publish new words. 

Drawing My Friends

On making art and feeling feels.

Fifteen months ago, I was walking through the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona. Yoko and I were at the tail of our Fall vacation. My lower back was bothering me, but Yoko had rallied us to get out of the Airbnb and on our feet that morning.

She thought I would appreciate Miró’s artwork. Google had informed us that bedrest was counterproductive for back spasms, and the museum was only a 25 minute walk away.

That afternoon, I stared at bright, irregular shapes across a number of Miró's paintings and sculptures. Those shapes stuck with me for weeks. The faces, too. Simple yet expressive faces (or at least what I saw as faces) gave objects personality.

I left with a coat of calm, creative feels inspired by those friendly shapes.

Fast forward to last March

When we started quarantining in Brooklyn, my anxiety swelled to a distracting hum.

Yoko and I were both privileged to hunker down in our apartment and work from home. But new fears, constant ambulances, and the unknown of what would happen to me, my family, my friends, my neighbors and my city roiled beneath my surface.

So, I started drawing on my iPad.

I itched for a new form of creating. A medium that didn’t involve a mouse or keyboard. A form of expression that didn't require words to capture a mood.

Drawing and illustration has been a marvel to me. What artists can produce with strokes of pens, pencils and programs often feels unbelievable. And up until last year, I couched my own drawings as "doodles" or "diagrams." They were part of my process at work, never "making art."

When I started coloring in my first shapes using the Procreate app, I wanted to channel the vibe I inherited from that afternoon with Miró's work six months earlier. For whatever reason, I also found myself pulling ideas from those painfully cute Japanese characters like Gudetama and Sumikkogurashi.

That's where I was at. I wanted chill. I wanted colors. I wanted friends. I wanted calm self-expression.

I titled my first drawing “Still Hungry.”

I remember feeling lighter as I filled in the oblong shapes with hot dog colors. My mind had transported above myself for a half hour or so.

So, I kept drawing—whenever I was in the mood to capture a mood.

Or a feeling.

Or an experience.

Or a meal.

I drew on good days.

And so-so days.

Reflecting now, it was less about what I made and more about how I felt while making it—engaged, calm, untethered but connected to my current state.

Since March, I've drawn about 50 of these mini-artworks. I call the collection, “Friends With Shapes.”

I printed a few Friends With Shapes for the first time last week.

Yoko's late father had held onto a gigantic Canon Pixma Pro 100 printer for years without using it. Canon weighs almost 45 lbs 😅. He had hunted down this deal for a free printer when he purchased a DSLR.

He believed Yoko and I would make use of it someday. We finally gave it a home in my office setup. I used the Canon last week to print a 13x19’’ version of my latest friend, titled “Electric Feels"—my most ambitious drawing yet!

The drawing was inspired by watching Song Exploder on Netflix, specifically the episode where Alicia Keys and Sampha co-write the song 3 Hour Drive. I felt something watching that! I loved how they connected. They explored. And they uncovered a song they didn't expect.

Looking at this latest print on my wall brings me joy.

It reminds me of dancing in clubs with Yoko before we started dating.

It reminds me of the music my brother likes to DJ.

It reminds me of being in the flow, outside of yourself, when the unexpected connects.


Kevin here! I write about creating, optimizing, and being a person. Subscribe below to join a few hundred folks and get notified whenever I publish new words. 👋

Sailing Through Last Year

Reflections on navigating 2020 with People & Company

👋 Kevin here. You got this email because you subscribed to my writing at my internet homebase kiwimonk.com.

I wrote this piece for the Get Together newsletter, and I wanted to share it with you as well. If this strikes a chord, please reply or comment. I want to know!

More writing to come this year. Tell your friends. Appreciate ya.


My friend Gary Chou shared with me that “climbing the ladder” is a faulty analogy for navigating a career. What's a better analogy? Sailing. 

Caveat: I've never sailed 😬. But... making decisions about work and in my case building a small biz has felt akin to what I imagine it's like to sail open waters. You develop a sense of where you're headed. The seas change. Winds pick up in certain directions. You adjust, and do so continually.

2020 felt like sailing unpredictable waters with my team in separate boats. We clung to out-of-reach destinations, recruited new crew mates and savored both painful and beautiful days along the way.

Changing Winds

The partners at People & Company, Kai, Bailey and I, met up in Osaka at the start of 2020 to lay out our “WOOP”: the Wishes, Outcomes, Obstacles and Plans for the year. The north star that emerged was to "Build the business." 

We were on the heels of publishing Get Together.  There was an uptick in inbound interest for our community strategy sprints and labs. Bailey and I moved into a new Chinatown office. And, we set the clearest goals in our partnership's short history around revenue and book sales.

A few weeks later, we were wrapping two days of client strategy sessions in NYC as COVID swelled. I remember asking myself, "Is this one of the last times for awhile that we're gonna work like this? In-person, in the same room… Is how we work about to change?”

Alongside the majority of people on planet Earth, our daily lives did change. From a business standpoint, the hardest part wasn't adjusting our approach with clients or going virtual as a team. The hardest part was letting go of those goals we set together in Japan. 

We had the privilege last year of working with clients across sectors and around the world—each connecting people in innovative ways. From government partners like GIC (Singapore's sovereign fund) and Export Development Canada to startups like Substack and Special X to nonprofits like Future Now and the Surfrider Foundation. We offered guidance and facilitated finding clarity.

But as Bailey put it at our EOY retro:

“We had set a bar for success. People & Company had a revenue goal. For the first time in awhile! And like two Straight-A students, Kevin and I drowned ourselves trying to reach that bar.”

As it became clear we would fall short on our revenue goals we took it as failure, even during this pandemic. We didn't stop to ask, "Are those goals the right goals right now? Do they need to change? Do they capture what we're really after?"

It's taken time and a reframe to say that we are proud of last year—the 2020 iteration of P&C. We made six-figure revenue. We sold almost 5,000 books. We worked with 30+ clients in different capacities. We are in business and grateful to remain partners. 

Writing now, my toxic stubbornness around our goals feels silly. But sometimes we fall in love with destinations. And it's hard to acknowledge that perhaps we need to change course or stop off to resupply along the way.

Taking Care of the Crew

Like countless others, our team canceled plans, postponed weddings, kept distance from family and friends, and grieved lost loved ones. These were heavy moments. I personally hit a wall—feeling roasted by the time we reached Thanksgiving.

We also experienced joy. We jumped rope, made food, welcomed new family members into the world, settled into new homes, and connected with new communities.

The number one rule at People & Company is this: "We are people first." I wrote two years ago: "Our personal wellbeing and the wellbeing of those we care about is more important than this company."

Today, I'd remix that statement to say, "Our personal wellbeing and the wellbeing of those we care about fuels this company." At least at our scale, People & Company grinds to a halt when our batteries are low. And doing our best to take care of each other, draft off of one another, and not only recharge but also maintain reserves is essential for whatever we do next.

This ship is nothing without its crew.

Adding crew mates

One of the goals we did achieve was to have more humans at our 2020 holiday party. For all of the different organizations we've gotten to work with, our team remained tiny leading up to last year. The 2019 P&C holiday party involved Kevin and Bailey sending a selfie to Kai from a two-person booth at a sushi restaurant. 

Our thesis is to build *with* people. Those progressive acts of partnerships enable us to make a bigger impact with a community and often lead to a more fulfilling personal experience. So this year, P&C practiced what we preach. We built *with* more people. We brought on a dozen+ contractors, launched our podcast correspondent program (shoutout to Mia, Maggie, Marjorie and Whitney!), invited pod listeners behind the scenes, signed on new vendors, and even hired our first part-time employee (sup, Katie).

Bringing more people into People & Company became one of the most purposeful aspects of work last year. I felt physically isolated. During a nine-month stretch, I saw Bailey in-person twice and Kai zero times. Not once did I see my immediate family.

But I collaborated with more people this past year than the prior three years with P&C. And at a time where a lot of companies tightened budgets, it felt defiant to compensate more freelancers with more money than we ever have.

I'm proud of that. Paying people to do work they want to do at rates they're happy with is rad. Especially, at this time. Hiring folks is a fulfilling aspect of navigating the small biz world and part of why we set the revenue goals we did. 

We may set sail for a certain destination but the crew is what determines whether we enjoy the journey.

In my experience, building a business hasn't been a linear path or even a winding one. There's more uncertainty. It takes navigating unknowns and responding to forces at play. 

Sailing through 2020 was a next level course for me in navigating change. Setting and sticking to an initial direction, even if you expect to iterate, sometimes just doesn't work. We learned that for ourselves and in our work with our clients 

In facing such uncertainty, we were reminded how much your crew matters. So this coming year we're remixing how we partner with individuals and teams. The most valuable service we can offer is being a consistent, long-term partner—spending time with leaders over time, not merely dropping in for intensive moments. (More on that soon.) But if you'd like to partner with us in 2021, you can expect us to go deeper together than one-offs. And know that, as a crew mate, we will expect your attendance at our 2021 holiday party. 

For myself, my team, you and the communities you care about, I wish you a safe passage and a supportive crew along your own journey this coming year.


Special thanks to Bailey and Katie for their edits. 🙌

More on all things People & Company here. We published a book Get Together, host a podcast, and coach orgs on how to connect people.

P.S. New year, new home for the newsletter on Substack! I write about creating, optimizing, and being a person. Subscribe below to join a few hundred folks and get notified whenever I publish new words. 👋

Essays on creating, optimizing, and being a person.

Welcome (back!) to Kiwimonk.

Kevin Huynh here. Expect relatable words that connect the dots between creating, optimizing, and everyday feels. I’ll probably write about:

  • Experiences building a strategy company

  • The art of remixing leftovers

  • Kanban boards tracking fun home projects

  • What it’s been like to publish a book

  • Family, as a kid of Vietnamese immigrants

For the last twenty years—since I was a 7th grader—kiwimonk.com has been my homebase on the internet. Thank you if you’ve tuned into my work, projects and writing.

If you groove with anything I share, don’t hesitate to comment or respond. Subscribe below to join a few hundred other folks and get notified whenever I publish.

P.S. For seasoned subscribers. I recently moved this newsletter to Substack. Hence, the new look. Appreciate ya 🙌

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