The Habits of Successful Men: Aaron Christian, filmmaker and podcast host
Author: Nick Carvell
Commercial director, award-winning filmmaker, podcaster, voracious reader, life advice sage: Aaron Christian, 36, is probably the closest you’ll get to a modern day Renaissance Man. In fact, he has so many different areas of expertise and interest that he’s what the more jargon-loving Millennials on LinkedIn might call a “slashie” - a freelancer with multiple jobs all progressing along nicely at the same time. In short, he’s one of the busiest men you’ll ever meet, not to mention one of the most interesting and well-networked in the capital.
Having started out as the first-ever Video Editor for the then-foetal style site Mr Porter in his twenties, Aaron left the role after three years to go freelance. In 2014 he founded his own production house, AC Studios, creating content for luxury brands such as Gieves & Hawkes, Belstaff, and Orlebar Brown, not to mention contributing video and photography for magazines including GQ, Esquire and W.
However, this work has always been punctuated by personal projects that give his creativity and inspiration free-reign - and, as a man of Malaysian Indian heritage, give him the opportunity to shine a light on others in the South Asian creative community. In 2017 he founded @TheAsianMan, an Instagram account dedicated to celebrating - as he puts it in the bio - “the stylish brown man in all his forms”. Two years later, he directed The Internship, a short film where a young Asian man gets offered a dream work placement at a prestigious fashion magazine - but, to do it, he must convince his family who see creative internships as an extra financial burden.
This is something he now explores each week in the podcast he kickstarted when lockdown descended earlier this year alongside his brother, Reuben Christian, and his friend, Almass Badat. What is this Behaviour?, named after a now-viral clip from the 2012 Indian version of Big Brother involving a heated exchange over a bin (type the phrase into YouTube, you’ll see), sees the three hosts in conversation with South Asian people going against the grain. In it, they hope to shake negative cultural stereotypes and “inspire other brown people to choose more meaningful career paths”. We suggest you download it wherever you get your podcasts immediately.
Here, we speak to Aaron about how he got started in film, as well as the books that have helped him keep on track with his career, the apps that help him stay organised and the habits that allow him to maximise the hours in his day.
TOS: What got you interested in film?
AC: It’s probably best I answer this from two angles! As a consumer of film and entertainment I would say it was Disney films when I was really young and Spielberg was a big influence when I was a little older; getting lost in different worlds when I was in the cinema was captivating. As a creator of film and cinema it was probably photography. I tried a few photography courses for university but didn’t get into any of them – so I ended up studying film with media studies.
What is a film that changed your life?
It’s tough for me to name one single movie that made me want to become a filmmaker. When I was young, the culture of cinema and watching home movies always gave me a great feeling of joy. I have memories of watching Raiders of the Lost Ark at Christmas with my cousins or binging Home Alone on VHS over and over again with my siblings while we were being babysat. Thinking back to a movie that actually made me think of film as something more than just pure entertainment, as a medium to really tell a story that helps explain your worldview, then it would be La Haine. I have incredible memories of deconstructing that with my classmates in Sixth Form.
How do you make time for both your commercial work and your personal work projects?
When I first left Mr Porter to go freelance, I needed to figure out my ‘why’. I asked myself what I wanted to do as a filmmaker and what I really wanted to say. These are both things that it’s taken me a while to really understand and get to.
In the early years, I believed I would fit neatly into the commercial director world. I loved fashion and luxury advertisements, and felt I could still get creative while earning a living at the same time – which didn’t make me hate my career choice! However, I learned early on that if I was to do commercials then I would have to commit to really pushing myself on personal projects, as that would give me an outlet for my inspiration when clients would push back my more creative ideas for safer options.
After that, I spent a lot of time figuring out my purpose. That has helped enormously in understanding what personal projects to pursue. Of course, doing this inevitably allows your commercial work to cross over with your personal work, so you don’t end up needing to make time – my commercial and personal work became one. When you’ve really understood why you work on things that you're super passionate about, they become a joy to work on and you don’t really need to “make time” for them.
You have so many strings to your bow (films, Instagram accounts, podcasts and commercial work), how do you separate your 9-5 life from your 5-9 life?
Being organised is key. A combination or Evernote, Trello and Things really keeps my life in order. I then spend some time over the weekends organising what I’ll be doing in the week so I can see everything that’s coming up. I’ve recently started to work with teams so I don’t get overloaded, but, if you are doing the same, my advice is to always align yourself with people who have similar goals and values. This ensures that you’re all working in unison.
Has anyone in your industry given you advice that has helped you be more productive and/or efficient?
I’ve been interested in extracting as much out of each day from a very young age; it’s a part of my personality that most of my close friends and family tend to make fun of me for. I’m the type of person who congratulates myself silently when I can cross the road a little earlier and save .4563 seconds to get to the Underground. Or I try timing making my coffee brew while I brush my teeth - this saves me a whopping 2 minutes in the morning, FYI. [Laughs].
However, I would say that reading those early Tony Robbins books did instil an understanding in me that we are all given the same amount of hours in a day, and so using the gift of time effectively is extremely important, not only to live a better life for myself but hopefully to be of service to others too.
You now host a hugely successful podcast, What is this Behaviour?, with your brother Reuben and friend Almass. Why did you start this and what inspires you when it comes to episode topics?
After spending time on figuring out why I wanted to do what I do, I realised one of the areas I really wanted to work on was doing something in front of the camera – owning my voice a little more. I knew I had access to such great people and I wanted to be able to share the advice I’d heard from these individuals. I spent a long time figuring out if there was a way I could create a podcast that would actually cut through the noise, as well as build up my own skills and add value to me as an individual.
For a while, nothing felt 100 per cent right. However, I felt there was a growing movement within the South Asian community of creatives starting to happen. Being one myself, and having spent years trying to help my community be seen, I felt focusing on that area of my culture would be best. I pitched the idea to my brother and he spoke to Almass as we felt collectively we could amplify the conversation.
What’s great about us three working together on the pod is that each of us is inspired by topics in different ways. For me, it’s finding guests that are incredibly talented within their field and finding out what got them their – and how they overcame obstacles along the way. I’m also really enjoying speaking about subjects that I thought were just very personal, and getting feedback from listeners that our episodes are connecting with them on deep level.
Can you recommend a couple of books that have helped you in business and in life - and why?
First, The Element by Sir Ken Robinson. This book (and accompanying TED talk) changed my life. It made me realise that we have all been given amazing gifts and if we can find the time to unlock them and align them with our purpose we can lead much more meaningful lives. It’s hopeful, joyful and inspiring.
Second, Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team by David Mead, Peter Docker, and Simon Sinek. I’ve spoken about it so much in this interview, but essentially it will help you find your purpose again and help you to lead a life filled with purpose. We don’t know how long we have, so we might as well spend it doing things that bring us and others joy.
Thirdly, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Christopher Voss and Tahl Raz. This will help you negotiate better rates (especially useful if you are a freelancer) and earn based on the value you bring, not just the hours put into your work.
Finally, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, which basically explains why only certain ideas become popular. At its heart is an explanation of the key theme of “stickiness”, and how to make it work from you. An oldie one but a goodie.
Which successful man has inspired you and what lessons have you learned from him?
Jeremy Langmead, my boss at Mr Porter, was someone I had admired from afar since I was young – and he ended up giving me my big break. He always conducted himself professionally and always encouraged the people on his team to stretch themselves. He didn’t instil fear, but still cultivated that sense in you that you really wanted to impress him. He also showed me you could be very successful at what you do without being rude or egotistical, and still treat those around you respectfully.
What is your life goal?
As cheesy as it sounds, I’ll provide you with – yes, I know you’re bored of this by now! – my ‘why’: to discover, reveal, connect and celebrate underappreciated people and places, so that I can progressively shape the way people see the world.
Most of the time that will be through the medium of film, but I’m beginning to explore new mediums.
What is the definition of success to you?
To have lived your life in ‘flow state’ as much as you possibly could have. ‘Flow state’ is colloquially known as ‘being in the zone’ - it’s when a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process. Of course, that will mean many different things to many different people.
Do you have any habits as a part of your morning routine that help you get ready for the day ahead?
I prep my to do list on Things the night before. That sets me up to be excited about what I want to achieve the next day. Then in the morning I’ll try and meditate for 10 mins. Then a coffee. Always coffee.
What’s one habit that helps you relax in the evening?
A shower, lighting a candle and then leaving my phone in another room.
What’s a bad habit you can’t give up?
My sweet tooth.
What’s a habit you’re proud to have given up?
Consuming sugar every single day. I still have it, but I’ve learned to go days without needing a sugar fix.
What habit would you like to cultivate?