Eight Career Essentials
Ok, so you’ve decided to take the leap. You have this thing that you want to do, and damn it, you’re going to do everything you can to make it happen.
A creative career is not like other careers. There’s no concrete path to success, and the proverbial ladder is one you have to make yourself. It is a completely different employment game than most people play. As such, it requires a different playbook. Here are some things that I really really REALLY wish someone had taught me before I chased my dream:
#1 – You must have a detailed plan.
It is all well and good to enjoy visions of superstardom and mega success, but you have to connect the dots between points A and B. You therefore must have answers to these kinds of questions:
What do you want to do?
How do you learn how to do it?
How do you get involved?
What kind of financial investment is required?
Do you know anyone working in the field?
Where is the best place to live for this work?
Should I go to school for it or dive in?
These questions may not apply to you, but whatever your situation you�re at point A now, and you need to know as much more to get yourself to point B. It comes down to two things: knowing where you want to go, and how exactly you expect to get there.
Coming up with a detailed plan involves something that should come easily, learning as much as you can about your field. The key isn’t just to make informed decisions, but to make them ahead of time. Life, being what it is, will probably get in the way or offer opportunities you could not anticipate. But such things only emphasize the need for a roadmap and a compass. Life is endlessly distracting. Without a clear idea of what you want a lot of seemingly good ideas can put you seriously off course. A good plan lets you spot opportunities and filter everything else. It also keeps your eye on the prize. It constantly informs you of where you are going. It also allows you to endure a lot of necessary crap, again, because you’re definitely headed somewhere better.
So ask yourself this question: how exactly can I do what I want to do? Your answer is your plan.
#2 – There must be daily progress.
Many creatives are motivated by a dream, and end up treating that dream as a destination. In his book Rebel Without a Crew, Robert Rodriguez advises aspiring filmmakers to stop aspiring and simply BE filmmakers. ‘Aspiring’ means ‘not yet’. It offers a wonderful excuse to procrastinate. That alone is bad enough. But what is worse is a strange culture of wannabe-ism that exists with a lot of creatives. You might know such people. They start a thousand projects that always seem to fizzle. They can’t quite find the time, or the money, or…something. They might be brilliant, but until they finish something the world will never know. As a waiter I met the producers of the film Kissing Jessica Stein. I mentioned I was also a filmmaker when I wasn�t serving pasta. They asked me if I had a reel. I did not, and they left before I could get any further information. Even if I could get a card or a phone number, I was just another shmoe looking for work. It was a perfect opportunity, and it literally got up and left.
Professionals do not have time for people who merely want to do things. It’s very simple: writers write. Actors act. Painters paint. What makes paid professionals so special? They all do it every day, because they all recognize that the dream is not a place, it is a way of life. Don’t have time? Make time. Don’t have money? Spend someone else’s, or find a way to do it cheaper. A creative lifestyle is not something you can wish into existence. It takes work, and time, and momentum. And unless you take an opportunity to do your work, no one will give one to you.
Besides this, daily progress yields massive immediate benefits. You gain an ever growing sense of accomplishment. Any portfolio you’re building expands. Perhaps most importantly, you exercise your creativity, thereby increasing your skills. Better skill, better chances of paying work.
So take this as good news. You don’t have to wait for anything. You can be what you want to be right now. You can do the work you want to do right now. So go have fun. You know you want to.
#3 You must be persistent
Why are there things like telemarketing and SPAM email? We all hate them. Even at its best, it only enjoys, maybe, a 5% success rate. (Don’t quote me on that statistic, but it is pretty low.) But companies employ such tactics because that 5% generates enough income to make profits.
But whereas they annoy the world into generating sales, the main lesson is simply not to take no for an answer. This is an important trait for obvious reasons, but when building a creative career it is crucial
. The world will tell you no in a great many colorful and subtle ways. And no matter how good you feel about your career today, there will be days when you are convinced a vast conspiracy is in place to keep you from succeeding. In situations like these, one must exercise persistence.
Persistence is useful in two main ways. Normally, it is the engine by which daily progress generates. But more importantly, it keeps you active when you might otherwise get discouraged. When building a creative career, the most important work is the work done when all odds seem stacked against you. The second most important work is the work done when everything is just fine.
This might seem like a small discussion for an important topic, but it really comes down to one rule that is inviolate: finish what you start. Obviously life will present exceptions to this rule, like famine, pestilence, or death. But unless such things get in the way of your work, you have an artistic and moral obligation to follow through. In fact, it may help to think of a creative project as a religious vow.
Also remember that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, so don’t apologize for aggressively promoting your work. People respect tenacity.
#4 You must have an emotional support system
Sometimes persistence fails, and when that happens you will want to find a nice sized rock and move in underneath. Since that is not practical or advisable, you will more wisely seek the support of friends and family instead.
Pursuing a creative career generates a similar reaction from friends and family to being gay. In other words, the degree of acceptance unfortunately depends on individual circumstances. Now obviously, everyone wants the best for friends and family. But the trick is finding people who understand and have faith in the choices you make. A creative life proceeds at its own pace, and often does not compare favorably with “normal” career tracks. Not surprisingly, life will seem pretty frustrating after one too many years waiting tables, or temping in an office, or living without health insurance and generally not getting by. Also not surprisingly, many of the closest and most well meaning people will try to help by giving you “advice”.
If the advice makes you feel better and encourages you, you should include the source in your support network.
But advice is only useful if it helps you continue your career. NOT “take a break and see what happens”. NOT “try something else for awhile”. NOT “do this and do what you want on the side.” That last one is particularly evil, because it relegates your passion to a part time hobby. But the worst one, the unforgivable one, is any suggestion that you should give up.
First of all, NEVER give up. Secondly, any advice that encourages delaying or abandoning your ambitions is bad advice. Of course, I am using the word “advice” to cover broad ground. Some of the less understood among us face open condemnation and scorn. Still, particularly in the case of loved ones, all…suggestions come from a place of caring. Even people who hate our career choices want us to succeed. They just have a different idea of what that is. So try not to resent the givers of bad advice. They literally don’t know any better.
Fortunately, there are those who do. As such, they rank among the best people on earth. Why do I say this? Because such people will know you at your worst and lowest moments. And while you are sitting with your head in your hands, or looking at the world through the bottom of a shot glass, or pulling your hair out, they will tell you, without lying or vocal tonality often used with children, that you have a gift that will come through for you.
I often refer to faith as an ‘F’ word, because so few things in this world earn it. But as a creative, you need the faith of others as much as you need faith in yourself. Mind you, I say that only to mean that you need to know people who will treat you as a success when the entire world paints you up to be a loser. Those people, and only those people, are the ones you should lean on when you have moments of doubt or emergency.
The good news is that the more active you are in your field, the easier such people are to find. But you should still be mindful. Find people you know you can count on, and be prepared to go to bat for them as well. It will make a huge difference, sometimes THE difference, in your pursuits.
#5 You must treat your creative work as the business it is.
This may turn off many creatives, who equate the word ‘business’ with power ties, sucking up, stupid meetings, and selling out. But remember, the goal here is to be a paid professional. Businesses and professionals, by definition, provide a product or service for money. Without a transaction for your work, you’re just an artist. Chances are, you are also a starving artist.
In my opinion, starving artists spend so much time trying to eat that they don’t consistently create art. Why? Because they’re always working for someone else. Or recovering from said work. Or looking for said work. Or, just sitting in a room wishing they had food. A real danger in creative life is to find one’s self living in a constant state of waiting and wanting. In this case, the starving artist waits until finances stabilize, even though they want to get to work on a project right now. And in that way, even though most of us refuse to join the rat race, we ironically end up consumed by it, usually by way of the service industry.
There are two points I’m trying to drive home. First, that any career, creative or otherwise requires full time focus. I spent years working full time, thinking I could quit when my ‘real’ career took off. Did it? No. I was a full time waiter who talked a lot about movies and writing. I wrote one screenplay. One. I also spent one day helping one independent filmmaker make one short film. A funny thing about my screenplay: I wrote it during a leave of absence. I took a month off from my job. I wrote my script in four days.
Am I suggesting you quit your job? Yes, actually. That is the goal, and therefore the ideal. Unless you have a trust fund or some other means of support, however, that is probably not wise. But for a creative person, a job is 40 hours a week when you are NOT creating. This imposition must be minimized, controlled, or manipulated into serving the career you want to have. So if you can work secretly at your office, do it. If you can live off part time work, do that. Whatever you do, your creative work should take priority. If you expect to make a career out of your work, you must be married to it. And you’re not going to have a good marriage if you spend too much time ‘at the office’.
The second point I’m making is that your work needs financial support. On the surface, this might contradict my first point. But life is expensive. Even if you live completely off the land in some Walden-esque Eden, you can’t paint without buying brushes, paints, and a canvas. (And if you plan on living off the land somewhere, I’m surprised you even have a computer to read this web page.) Likewise, you cannot expect to effectively pursue your craft while living under the crushing weight of poverty. It is therefore within a creative’s best interest to learn financial responsibility and prosperity. I put it like this because simply saying “pay your bills and save money” sounds like a no brainer. But how many people, much less creative types, actually do? And how good would life be if you did not have to worry where rent was coming from this month?
I am about to say something very ’80s Republican: it is ok to want money. Our society has a strange relationship with money. We hate everything about it except keeping it and spending it. And even though we always want more, we’re not supposed to like it. I’m not even going to bother analyzing why this is, but suffice it to say I find it backward.
The major effect this has had on our lives is that as our capitalist world gets more capitalist, people are increasingly financially ignorant. Did you ever learn to balance a check book in school? Did a teacher ever tell you the difference between a checking and savings account? Has anyone explained how exactly credit cards perpetrate their evil upon the world?
I am not suggesting you turn yourself into the next Warren Buffet, although people who have certainly are not complaining. But give your finances the respect they deserve. Do you operate on planned budgets, or do you pay things as you go? Do you save any of the money you make? Do you know how much money you make after taxes? Will your tax return money be spent covering bills, on toys, or on something you need? Do you know, at any given time, how much you are spending on what?
Part of financial awareness is also knowing how much money you need to maintain your lifestyle. Creativity, like everything else, has basic operating costs. So without some sort of base income, your creative life cannot function. This is particularly important because, especially as you begin your career, you will be doing a lot of work for free. The universal catch 22 is that you can’t get paid work without experience, and you can’t get experience without working. This is what we in the industry refer to as ‘paying dues’, and while they can be pretty steep, it is fortunately money (or in this case, time) well spent.
This all boils down to two things: time and money. You must make time to pursue your craft, and you must be financially savvy for your craft to eventually produce a functional income. And if you put the time in, you will eventually see firsthand how it turns into money.
#6 You must be a professional
Being professional is more than just showing up on time, being nice to people, and being prepared. Supposedly, we learned how to do all of that in school. Now we’re big kids, and we have a life. Not in the social “I have things to do” sense, but in a much more “I’m doing this and putting my ass on the line because I don’t want to live any other way”, um, way.
Creative people have enough stigmas about being flighty and lazy and generally fun but stupid. Therefore, it is not enough to behave like a good employee, who shows up on time, is nice, and generally ready for the day’s work. If you really want to impress people, you must be a paragon. Creative careers are among the last places where your good name is just as important, or even more important, than your talent or skills. The only place where anyone has room for a diva is on VH1. Make no mistake, your reputation precedes you. If you are a pain in the ass, people will know. I have seen many otherwise talented people lose work because of bad behavior.
Ironically, the best mindset I can suggest is one of nobility. Besides birth, what separated the noble class from the rabble were their manners. Being impolite wasn’t just rude, it was uncivilized. So, you may call yourself a noble professional if you:
* do your work to the best of your ability at all times.
* make yourself an asset to a project in ALL ways. All creatives are expendable, temporary employees, working because they want to work. Be thankful for your position.
* commit to your projects with loyalty. One always finishes what they start.
* avoid the soap box and too much gossip. One will inevitably form opinions and develop a personal philosophy about one’s work. Likewise, activity in anything will generate all the juicy tidbits that make gossip. But it is easy to get drunk on such things. An outspoken artist is generally regarded as a blowhard, a know it all, and wrong. Too much gossip makes one nosy and childish. A dignified creative is confident with their sensibilities enough to realize that other people like and enjoy other things. He also understands that most fruit on the grapevine is bitter. * know your place. You’re not in charge unless you’re the one in charge. And even then, you might not be the one really in charge.
* treat schedules with biblical reverence.
* refuse to let personal bullshit affect your work.
These are among the many guidelines you simply do not break. Most of it boils down to politeness and personal responsibility, but in an age so bereft of such things, it bears repeating. These things are perhaps most easily accomplished when understood as part of a mindset, a general outlook. Creativity is fun, but only if you commit to it seriously. And no, it is not always serious business, but professionals have obligations to the people they work with. Fuck around all you want on your own time. But if you’re involving other people, you have a moral obligation to do the best you possibly can, and be the best you possibly can. It is only civilized.
#7 You must be resourceful
One of the best things about producing, film or theater, is the basic pleasure of making something from nothing. Part of the fun is this often comes from shamelessly pulling a solution straight from your ass. Behind the scenes, it is surprising how often things get done in this fashion. But such things happen because somewhere, somebody refused to take ‘no’ for an answer.
Follow me, if you will, on a hippy visualization exercise. Picture a lovely road. Scenic and pretty and with nice flowers and little girls in pig tails waving to you from the sides. Now, picture a giant, ugly concrete block squarely in the middle of this road, blocking your path. If the road is your creative career, this block is the simple word ‘no’.
Now, any thinking human being will notice that you can just walk around the block and keep going. If you thought this, congratulations, you may continue to enjoy your hippy visual exercise without further interruption. If you also noticed that one could go around or underneath said big block, you really have the right idea. Resourcefulness, fundamentally, is really about looking at obstacles like a big block in an otherwise open road. There is usually plenty of room to get around it.
A creative career being pioneering in nature, you will hear ‘no’ in every possible form and variation. Most of the time, it’s bullshit. Think of it this way, if it is possible within the laws of physics, you can find a way to make it happen. And what is surprising is that it is often a simple matter of asking. In my limited production career, I have done quite well by these two rules:
* It never hurts to ask.
* Forgiveness is often easier than permission.
Self help books will talk about emotionally charged words, like passion, or tenacity, or genius. But honestly, resourcefulness is more about a permanently open mind. It doesn’t take much passion, tenacity, genius, or even effort, to understand that every problem has multiple solutions. And if you can’t think of any, get a second opinion.
One of the best lines (about resourcefulness, anyway) in any movie of or play comes from Ed Harris in Apollo 13: “I’m not interested in what it was designed to do, I’m interested in what it can do.” Similarly, after watching Dawn of the Dead with a girlfriend, she lamented that, if the zombies attacked her house, forcing us to hole up in her room, she had no means of self defense. I told her that, actually, she had a decent shower curtain rod in her bathroom. She replied that she hadn’t thought of that, and immediately felt better about her ability to fight off flesh eating zombies.
Resourcefulness can be one of the most powerful weapons in your mental arsenal. Without the luxury of money, power, and connections, it is the great equalizer. And the best part is that work done resourcefully is often better than work done comfortably. So keep your eyes open and your wits about you. They can and will make your career.
#8 You must have standards
This one is simple. Harlan Elison gave this advice to Ron Moore, Executive Producer of Battlestar Galactica: “Don’t be a whore”. Not every job is worth taking. Don’t forget standards and decency. Not every job is worth taking. Learn when and why it is sometimes best to say ‘no’ to other people. Not every job is worth taking.