Even if you’re not the most avid reader, chances are you’re familiar with the work of Donald Lau. For 30 years, Lau served in the unique position of “Chief Fortune Writer” at Wonton Foods—America’s largest fortune cookie producer. Sadly, Lau has been forced to is step down due to an affliction that has stymied even the world’s most prolific scribes. “I have writer’s block,” says Donald Lau, “I used to write 100 a year, but I’ve only written two or three a month over the past year.”
The job of fortune cookie writer is an important one in American culture. Fortunes can deliver a glimmer of hope, a giggle or even an important warning. “When they eat their fortune cookie, I want the customers to open the fortune, read it, maybe laugh, and leave the restaurant happy,” Lau says, “so that they come back again next week.” Knowing the importance of his job, Lau has been training a new writer, James Wong, the nephew of Wonton’s founder. “I passed the pen to him,” says Lau. “It’s his responsibility now.”
Being that his fortunes will be hidden in the 4.5 million cookies produced by Wonton Foods every day, Wong sees the job as a huge personal responsibility. So he uses his 10-year-old daughter for inspiration. “I think about what I need to talk to her about,” he told TIME. “One thing that came to me fairly recently is based on an old Chinese proverb: failure is the mother of success. That’s something that I really want my daughter to embrace.” And nobody wishes for Wong’s success more than the millions of Americans who wouldn’t feel satisfied after a large Chinese meal without reading their fortunes.