How Anna Akana uses comedy to tackle tough issues.
In a moment where destiny and healing collided, Anna Akana laughed.
For five years, drugs and alcohol had numbed her pain but not lessened it. Losing herself in grief had been the anthem of Akana’s life since her 13-year-old sister’s suicide.
She didn’t see that trajectory changing any time soon. Then one day thanks to comedienne Margaret Cho, she forgot her grief for a moment.
“Margaret Cho is the entire reason I'm here,” Akana told Jay Shetty during their interview on his podcast, On Purpose with Jay Shetty. “I saw her perform comedy on Comedy Central and I was like, ‘Oh my God, she looks like me. I can do that!’”
That 30 minutes of comedy gave Akana relief from the constant grief, and she took it as a beautiful gift.
What was likely a blip on the clock for most viewers was a lifeline for her, and it changed the course of her life forever.
Not only did Akana grab the lifeline, but she knew she had to return the favor. Today, she has taken the YouTube world by storm. While others may have tried to gloss over hard topics or their pain, Anna meets them head on. She uses her channel and her comedy to speak candidly about suicide, depression, and mental health.
Wrestling Through Trauma and Finding Her Voice
Up to that time in Akana’s life, the defining moment for her had been the day her 13-year-old sister committed suicide.
“That moment has shaped pretty much my entire life from that point,” she told Jay Shetty. “It's very much like a before and after catalyst.” Discovering her gift of humor provided a way forward.
Akana recalls in vivid detail the blur of pain and guilt that followed her sister’s death. As the 17-year-old big sister and person her sister had talked to last, she struggled to find her footing and deal with her guilt and grief in ways that would eventually bring healing.
“For a long time I was just very much in denial,” she told Jay Shetty. “I did a lot of drugs. I drank all the time. I dropped out of college. I worked a dead end job. I just had no direction whatsoever in life. And it was just so depressing that I was like, okay, how am I going to spend the rest of my life?”
Enter Margaret Cho
Even on her darkest days, Anna Akana knew she wanted to do anything she could to prevent another family from going through what hers was enduring. As a young adult, she wrestled with what this looked like.
Through the fog of drugs and alcohol, therapy began to have a positive effect.
It was Comedy Central, however, that lifted the fog completely. The ability to laugh again despite the pain she was experiencing turned something on inside Akana.
“I remember thinking ‘Maybe this is my purpose now to help people not get to this point where you know, they feel so lonely and so upset that they do kill themselves,’” she recounted to Jay Shetty.
Channeling her inner Margaret Cho, Anna picked up her guitar and turned on a camera.
Not Shy About the Hard Stuff
One of the most groundbreaking aspects of Anna Akana’s work is her view of normal. She told Jay Shetty so many people get worked up over having suicidal thoughts, but in reality it is a part of life for many.
“I think it's really normal, and I feel like it's unfortunate because we act like it's not normal,” she explained to Jay Shetty. “I think two or three times in your life if you feel like you're really suicidal, that's a normal thing. We as a society really shy away from that. We don't know how to deal with it. We don't want to deal with someone else's discomfort on that level. We don't have the tools or feel equipped to handle that in any way.”
She believes that taking the stigma away is half the battle. Jay Shetty couldn’t agree more.
“I love how you are normalizing it,” Jay Shetty applauded Akana. “I've not had many people say that before at all, and I think that that's a really unique approach in just saying ‘It's normal, you're going to think about it. So don't overthink the fact that you're going to think about it, figure it out.’’’
“I love that advice to people who are dealing with it too. You’re just letting people know that their presence matters,” Jay Shetty continued.
Akana believes that presence and a listening ear can make all the difference in the world. Like Jay Shetty, she is committed to showing up. Sometimes that means listening without freaking out or passing judgement. Other times, it comes in the form of nudging the person to get professional care.
The fact that she discusses topics that tend to be off limits in our society and approaches them in such a funny and safe way, is huge. She is literally changing lives. The power of her influence has not gone unnoticed by Jay Shetty.
“Your work has led to people messaging you saying that you've stopped them from committing suicide,” he commented. “I'm sure that people have messaged you and said, ‘Anna, you got me through this tough time where you helped me through a breakup or my divorce.’”
Anna acknowledges that those encounters with people are plentiful. For her, they are the driving force behind her life’s work, and they never get old.
Setting Herself Up For Success
At the age of 30, Anna Akana’s list of successes is lengthy. She has a strong work ethic and is passionately focused. She utilizes her laser focus off-screen as well by planning her days with intention. Using methods such as habit tracking, journaling, making lists, and practicing daily affirmations keeps Akana on track.
“I've been vision-boarding every single year of my life,” she explained to Jay Shetty. “It's the reason I am able to achieve so much. You're constantly reminded of your long-term goals, and that way every day you're executing whatever little action you need to take to get there.”
Be Who You Are
To the untrained eye, Anna Akana’s strong personality and performance could come across as just that – a show. However, there isn’t a lot of fluff or fake about her. Authenticity is the name of the game for her, and it draws people to her. Her ability to talk about tough stuff in an entertaining yet disarming way is why they keep coming back.
Being authentically herself means she is unapologetically Asian, a crazy cat lady, open about her bisexuality, and not afraid to admit she is sober. Walking through the grief of losing her sister has helped her gain perspective on what really matters. Being true to herself ranks at the top of the priority list.
Prioritize Your Gut, Not Your Resume
Under the influence of stardom, it is easy to sway from authenticity, but Anna Akana is forever working to stay true to herself. She believes she has her intuition to thank in large part for that.
Trusting that intuition, Anna has grown as a person, honed in on her message, connected with long-lost friends, and navigated relationship woes. She does admit that “adulting” has taken some adjusting, however.
“I sort of lost that voice along the way by constantly denying it,” she told Jay Shetty. “I think overworking was a big thing because my intuition would be like, ‘You're tired. You need to stop doing all of this stuff. You need to recharge. You need to go out in nature.’ And I'd be like, ‘No, I have to stay up until 3:00 AM and answer every email in my inbox because that's what makes me a professional.’”
Akana and Jay Shetty agreed that learning to trust in their own intuition is one of the most powerful skills a person can develop. Shetty made the point that trusting your intuition doesn’t always result in everything going your way or you being happy.
“One thing that really helped me strengthen my intuition is I looked at all the best decisions I had made in my life, not based on the result, but on how I felt when I made that decision,” Jay Shetty explained. “That's a really important thing. I think people think their intuition is right when they get the result they want. That's not true. Intuition is about when you feel you made the right decision in the moment.”
Both Akana and Shetty pointed to very specific markers for success that were present, encouraging them to trust their gut.
“I started to notice that anytime I do anything that’s spiritual and everyone is against it, and most people don't agree with me, it is usually the right choice,” Jay Shetty said. “So I started to recognize that my intention even had a pattern. My intuition had its own philosophy and ideology.”
“I think it’s about getting quiet and still and really asking yourself what you're supposed to do,” Akana agreed.
Doing the Hardest Work With Jay Shetty
When Jay Shetty asked Akana about her video, “One Step To Self-Love,” she acknowledged that this was one of the hardest subjects for her to tackle. Even for someone as confident and successful as Akana, self-love did not come naturally.
“I always thought I did like myself,’ she admitted to Jay Shetty. “I was like, why wouldn't I like myself? I'm good. Like I have my stuff together, my career is fine, I help all these cats, I do all the things. But then I hated being alone, and I could not stand being alone with myself. If I was alone, I had to distract myself with something like TV or I had to disappear into a book or I had to be doing some kind of activity that I could justify as productive.”
Some deep digging and harsh truths from an ex challenged her to look at the reality. The ex had told Akana she was hard to love because she didn’t love herself. It stung, but it also resonated.
Akana told Jay Shetty she tackled the problem head on. She began to journal, discussed it with her counselor, and she stopped giving negative messages and voices space in her head. Instead, she filled that space with affirmations.
“I really discovered how mean I am to myself and the shit I say to myself,” Akana told Jay Shetty. “I would never let a friend talk to me this way. So, I started doing a lot of very specific affirmational work.”
Akana pushed past the guilt of loving herself well and started treating herself with the same care and dignity she would a partner.
The Future Sings
After 10 years of stand-up comedy, Akana is now taking her talent in a different direction. Her dive into music is multifaceted. Her desire to challenge herself to learn and grow has driven Akana to hone her craft and become a talented musician.
These days, Akana feels the medium of song fits her passion and focus better than that of humor.
“I think the differentiation between comedy and music is, comedy is like, ‘Hey, let's forget that for a while. Let me make you laugh; let me poke fun at some stuff,’” Akana explained to Jay Shetty. “And music's like, ‘Hey, let's sit with that feeling and let's really indulge it and feel it and let it pass through you.’”
“I love that transition and that makes so much sense,” agreed Jay Shetty. “It's almost like comedy was part of your cure and your growth, and now you're switching over. I really identify with that. I think you're so right about having to feel stuff and having to heal it through feeling rather than just making a joke or putting it to the side.”
Akana’s new music comes out soon, and she is hopeful that its message will not only entertain, but connect with people on a deeper level.
For some, the nice story often told about the boy saving starfish by throwing them back into the water is just a feel good sentiment. It’s easy to nod and tell ourselves we will do better should the opportunity arise.
Akana isn’t waiting. The urgency of grief paired with her intensely passionate personality has lit a fire under her. She does not take her voice or her influence lightly.
“My words and my actions have power and I have to wield that incredibly responsibly,” she told Jay Shetty, “Because you can save a life with it. It's crazy.”
Given how highly successful and approachable she is, it’s safe to say Akana could have built her name and career on any number of things. There are most likely days where talking about another topic would be more pleasant or enjoyable, butshe doesn’t let that stop her.
“It's just kind of become my main thing in life,” she said. “If I can just help one kid not to commit suicide, then at least I also feel a redemption punch in my punch card of guilt-free zone.”
We will forever find Anna Akana positioned on the beach of life throwing young people a lifeline via comedy and music while simultaneously ushering them back toward the water when they stray too far up the shore.
It takes a special person to connect with people at their most vulnerable times of life. Akana has that gift in spades, and the world is a better place because of it.
Listen to the entire On Purpose with Jay Shetty podcast episode ON “How To Trust Yourself More & The Importance Of Using Your Voice To Help Others” now in the iTunes store or on Spotify. For more inspirational stories and messages like this, check out his website at jayshetty.me.