I recently gave a series of talks to seniors at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael about the big shifts in my career path and about my creative process as an artist and writer. They all wrote letters to me explaining how my presentation affected their thoughts and feelings about their transition out of high school into the next phase of their lives. Many had questions and comments that I respond to here.
Clicking on a question or comment takes you to my response.
“What mediums do you prefer to work in when you draw?”
“Have you ever used a digital art tablet for your work?”
“How hard was it to go through medical school despite not wanting to be in it?”
“Were the transitions between occupations difficult for you?”
“I feel like everyone could relate to your trailer restoration because high school is one, big rebuilding project.”
“Do you feel satisfied with your life? Have you ever asked yourself that?”
“I want to join the Army but I’m not sure that’s what I want to do.”
“Have you ever worked at Pixar?”
“It’s amazing that you save your drawings. I wish I had saved mine but I throw them away because they look ridiculous.”
“Do you ever think about making a kids cartoon show?”
“How long did it take to write Tanglewood?”
“How long have you been working on your next book?”
“I’m sure I want to do finance. I know it’s me choosing it, not my family. Do you think I’ll wind up changing careers no matter what?”
“Did any of the path changes in your career happen on short notice?”
“My worst fear is making a decision I will regret for the rest of my life. Do you regret any changes you made?”
“Thanks to you I am open to considering many college classes I could take.”
“How did traveling to India change your life in a positive way? Would you go back?”
“I have many talents and high aspirations but I am also a perfectionist who procrastinates way too much.”
“What tips do you have for people who want to enter a creative field?”
“What mediums do you prefer to work in when you draw?”I always start with paper and pencil, usually the red and blue pencils used in traditional hand-drawn animation (the brand is called “col-erase”). The drawings I showed in class were made with those pencils. I like the raw, pencil sketch look, so I may leave it at that. But for illustrations that need to have a truly finished look, I’ll scan my drawings and then use the scanned sketch as a base layer in Illustrator, or Photoshop. The cover for “Tanglewood” was created exactly that way.
“Have you ever used a digital art tablet for your work?”All the time. Art tablets are essential because they give you access to control and subtlety that is only possible using your hands. Using a mouse to control digital line art or digital brush work is like drawing with a river rock. Even a small tablet (5 inches by 7 inches) is a bazillion times more effective than a mouse. Small tablets cost under $90.
“How hard was it to go through medical school despite not wanting to be in it?”Surprisingly, not that hard. The advantage of having a rigidly established curriculum is that you don’t have to think, all you have to do is grind and cram. Everything got progressively more difficult to tolerate after the four years of school, during the five years of my internship and residency. By the time I entered my own practice, I could no longer ignore the dissatisfaction with the work or my disappointment with myself for denying my true ambition. It took four more years after that point to extract myself. You may wonder how it’s possible to turn away from something after investing 13 years into it. My answer to that is a line from one of my favorite movies, “The Fifth Element”. The line is: “Time not important. Only Life.”
“Were the transitions between occupations difficult for you?”The transitions were difficult because they took time and I am an impatient person. The first transition was the most grueling — to go from medical doctor to graphic artist required working as a doctor by day and developing my artistic skills at night, essentially leading a double life. My wife and I already had two young kids when I entered that phase, so it was tough.
However, because I truly wanted to make that transition the challenges were more fun than they were exhausting or scary. Even though I was tired, and had no idea whether any of my effort would pay off, I was much happier than I had been before I took it all on. And I found, within myself, a deeply held belief that I could cross the divide. I based that confidence on my ability to tolerate working very, very hard, and for very long hours. Arguably, I had my medical training to thank for that.
Now, even at the time I knew, deep down, that hard work will not guarantee achieving a goal, so getting through that first transition was a bit of a mind game, best summed up in the cliche, “Fake it till you make it.” The funny thing is, once you make it through major transitions, instead of a heaving a big sigh of relief, there’s more of an “oh shit. now what?” kind of feeling. You all know this feeling because you’re living it now: Hooray! I’m finally gonna graduate high school! Oh shit. Now what?
Whether you’re heading toward something you love or away from something you dislike, you have to be philosophical to survive all transitions. It helps to be more attached to the journey than to the destination. Having a goal is essential, but while grinding toward it and away from whatevery you’re leaving, it helps to understand that the past and the future are purely abstract, and that reality exists only in the immediate Now. We can’t freeze time, but we can choose to turn all the knobs that control our awareness of Now up to 11. The biggest mistake we all make is locking up our awareness in the past and the future. Memory is for the past. Imagination is for the future. Awareness is for the present. Focusing on the Here and Now helped me tolerate letting go of my past and minimize fretting about my unknowable future.
“I feel like everyone can relate to your trailer restoration because high school is one, big rebuilding project.”If you experienced high school aware of that rebuilding process then you are as prepared for the future as you can be because the rebuilding never ends. Life is one long string of changes, and every change shifts the ground underneath. Whatever was standing there will develop cracks or, when the shit really hits the fan, all that will be left around you is rubble.
Rebuilding is the normal state of every phase of life, and adulthood is no exception. We mistakenly believe the goal of adulthood is to develop a stability where nothing changes. The only state of being where nothing changes is Death, which isn’t what you want. The way to think about stability is that it can’t apply to everything in your life at the same time. Earthquakes and hurricanes, real and metaphorical, are always going to happen, along with mosquito bites, stubbed toes, and people who bring unwanted drama into your life.
When those slings and arrows hit, having something or someone stable nearby helps ease the pain while you assess the damage and rebuild, or add-on, or, in extreme cases, run for your life. People who run for their lives have to cling on to something stable, even if it’s just an idea or an ideal or a dream or a wish. That fact underlies every immigrant’s real-life journey.
Stability is important, but it’s possible to have too much as well as too little. The trick is being willing to commit yourself while knowing you might need to find a way out — exactly like driving on a freeway. You don’t want to be going a steady 70 only to find that you’re surrounded by four 18-wheelers and one of them starts to jack-knife.
This question is difficult to answer honestly and thoroughly. I’ve always observed that Luck plays a bigger role in our lives than most people will admit. Think of the three things that determine your life circumstances more than anything else: 1) Who you are born to; 2) When you are born; and 3) Where you are born. Those three facts put you where you are, right this second, more than anything else. And did you have any say in those? Nope.
Many of an individual’s life details are determined by timing, much of which is driven by coincidence. There is no substitute for being in the right place at the right time. You will find that adults spend lots of energy trying to predict the location and timing of a right place and a right time. Business enterprises are obsessed with that prediction because you can make a lot of money if, for example, you hear news of a Gold Rush out in California and realize that everyone who runs to it will need to buy a shovel. Whoever had lots of shovels to sell back in 1849 was either very smart or very lucky. Probably both.
Some would say that part of what defines artists is their inability to be satisfied unless they pursue their art. I think that’s true, and maybe, if I keep at it, I’ll be as lucky as that dude with all the shovels. But even if I won’t be that lucky, in the big picture, I am satisfied with my life because the ability to pursue my creative aspirations tells me that I’ve been luckier much more than I’ve been unlucky. Of course, it ain’t over until it’s over, and I have no idea how my life will turn out when all is said and done. Nobody knows the future, which, to me, is reassuring, because it means that anything can happen.
“I want to join the Army but I’m not sure that’s what I want to do.”Most people who talk honestly about how they came to know what they wanted to do will admit they didn’t figure it out until they were close to 30. And even after 30 people’s careers will continue shifting this way and that. There are people I know for whom the best thing that ever happened in their work life is they got fired, not because they were a screw up, but because they just didn’t fit well into their job, or into their whole career. All of them wound up grateful they were forced to reconsider how they ought to spend their lives.
The military is an interesting situation because it’s one of the few that demands a commitment for pre-determined period of time. What I’ve observed in my life, and in others’ lives, is that people can put up with just about anything for five to ten years, even if they hate it, before they just can’t take it anymore. We’re all more resilient than we think. But that’s as much a warning as it is reassurance. As soon as we can tell we’re on a path that won’t lead where we want, we shouldn’t wait until it becomes intolerable before we take action to shift direction.
The thing to watch for is when you start wondering “What if [fill in the blank] ?”
Do not ignore the “What if…” question because it’s the most valuable question in the history of human civilization. Everything in life that works well — including personal relationships — exists because people dug into that question until they figured out what they needed to fix, solve, change, or invent. But you can’t get to the “What if…” question until you’re already on some path, and can conceptualize alternatives based on what you would like to change, or must change. The Army is as good a start as any.
“Have you ever worked at Pixar?”No, I have not. But Pixar played a very important role in my life. “Toy Story” ignited an irreversible, willful determination to change my career, or die trying, so to speak.
I think its effect on me was not only the timing of when it came out — which was the year after I had finished nine years of medical training, and I no longer ignored my dissatisfaction being a doctor — but also the nature of that movie’s particular story, which is all about transformation. Most great stories are about transformation, but “Toy Story” went further by portraying the truth about how life can truly suck, while also showing that humor and kindness are as necessary to survival as oxygen. It was a beautiful story, beautifully told.
I left the theater wanting, more than anything, to create something capable of making others feel as good as I did at that moment. Simply put, I felt life is worth living no matter how stupid or awful it can be. That feeling wasn’t new. I had recognized from a young age that movies are capable of inducing such a feeling. And, well before I saw “Toy Story” I believed that the greatest achievement of mankind is our ability to reveal Truth through Fiction.
But “Toy Story” was the movie that broke through all my resistance to being a false version of myself. After I saw it back in 1995 I was determined to become a maker, an artist, and a storyteller because that’s who I am. I had no idea if I could succeed, but I didn’t care. I knew I was done lying to myself about what I wanted to do with my life.
“It’s amazing that you save your drawings. I wish I had saved mine but I throw them away because they look ridiculous.”You only saw drawings I chose to show, and that fact is very relevant to your comment. You didn’t see the bad ones because I didn’t show the bad ones. I’m the only one who knows everything I’ve ever drawn. I have thrown away plenty of drawings because they were bad, some of them I should have thrown away a lot sooner than I did.
The way to get good at anything is by doing it over and over. Chuck Jones, one of Bugs Bunny’s directors, said, “Everyone has 10,000 bad drawings in them, so the sooner you get those out of the way, the sooner you’ll draw something that’s almost good.” Point is: Draw even if you wind up wanting to burn it. Compose music even if it winds up being listenable only to people who have total hearing loss. And so on.
It all boils down to discipline, hard work and the ability to keep going even when you totally suck.
Keep going. One day, you’ll suck less.
Keep going. One day, someone may say your work doesn’t stink as much as it used to.
Keep going. One day, someone may say your work is almost good.
Keep going. One day, someone may say your work is actually good.
Keep going. One day, someone may say your work has changed their lives.
If you’re lucky, those moments will happen while you are still alive.
Wanting to make art takes a very thick skin and an ability to believe in the value of your vision during many years of dissatisfaction with your ability to manifest that vision so that others can see it, or hear it, or feel it, too.
We live in an age where we all want fame tomorrow at the latest. I know I do. But I also know that needing to be famous tomorrow will drive you insane more than it will drive you to create something that works.
A more reasonable approach is to strive to create work that others will embrace at some point in time, even if it isn’t during your time. It’s extremely difficult to hold onto that philosophy while being consumed by the need to succeed, but you have to. It’s the only way to get through all the years you will spend getting where you want to be, but not yet being there.
“Do you ever think about making a kids cartoon show?”I do, although I think about creating live-action television shows more these days. Part of the reason I don’t think as much about creating animated shows is that the animation production industry has become complicated by economics that require studio work across continents, which is painful.
The animated television shows I like most, and that have the kinds of story lines I like best are not ones we’ve been able to create here in the USA. I’m a big fan of Japanese Anime television shows, like “Soul Eater,” “Squid Girl,” and, going back a bit, “Cowboy Bebop” and “Neon Genesis Evangelion”. Those are amazing shows, and there are many others just as good, but there is no way any US production company would support making shows like that. Not yet, anyway.
If you’re wondering “Why not try making it in Japan?” the answer is: it’s nearly impossible to break into a genre that was invented by a different culture, and which is tightly associated with that different culture. Japan didn’t invent animation but they turned it into something we never could have created here in the USA.
However, with Netflix and Amazon in the picture as production companies, the future might look very different. My goal with the stories I write is to write for the emerging transcultural experience. How many of you grew up influenced by more than one culture? Many of you did. And that experience is growing, world-wide. One of the advantages of the US as a cultural entity is that we are fundamentally a multi-cultural nation, despite all the loudmouths that want to pretend otherwise. As a writer I see the transcultural, cross-cultural, and multi-cultural experience as forces that are already influencing storytelling, and, even though the visual artist in me wishes I was born in Japan, the writer part of me is glad to have been born and raised in North America. We are highly skilled at storytelling because we understand what elements have universal appeal. That’s why Hollywood movies dominate the worldwide box office.
Other countries and cultures have rich storytelling traditions, and we’re entering an era when those other countries and cultures must face the challenge of preserving their traditions, or reinvent them, in the face of growing demand for North American inspired fiction. In recent years South Korea has become excellent at visual storytelling, and, even though their movies and television shows are heavily influenced by genres originally developed in North America, they’re doing a fantastic job turning those genres into their own, unique, story forms.
“How long did it take to write Tanglewood?”About nine months to write, three months to edit and revise, and two months to do the artwork and prepare the files for publishing in both Kindle and printed versions.
“How long have you been working on your next book?”It’s titled “The Neighborhood”. I’m about six months into it. I think this one is going to take a little longer than “Tanglewood” because it has more moving parts.
“I’m sure I want to do finance. I know it’s me choosing it, not my family. Do you think I’ll wind up changing careers no matter what?”I think the current statistic is that in the US people change careers an average of five times during the course of their adult working lives. So, you probably will.
But those career shifts are not necessarily radical ones, such as the ones I’ve made. For example, if you go into finance, you may start out in investment banking, but then shift to international banking policy, and wind up becoming a special agent investigating companies that violate the rules and regulations of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Even if you enter a field confident that its a profession you like, you probably have no idea how many different ways your future expertise can be applied. As you discover those different applications, your path is likely to shift. Also, everything is changing so rapidly that no one truly knows what jobs will be needed in the near future, and you may wind up using all you know to invent a job that doesn’t currently exist.
“Did any of the path changes in your career happen on short notice?”When I decide to do something I tend to jump on it right away. How quickly changes happen depends on circumstances. The more easily you can cut and run, the faster you can alter direction. But the realities of life make redirecting the course of a career like turning an oil tanker. It can take more time and distance than you think, so when I say I jump on path changes right away, I mean that I make an immediate mental commitment to cause the change.
For example, when I was a doctor, but knew I wanted to make the radical shift to arts and entertainment, I didn’t just stop being a doctor that day. I couldn’t just abandon my patients and give up all my income from being a doctor, but I immediately stopped taking on new patients and within a few months I had shrunk my practice down to about 2/3 of what it had been. That freed up enough time to take one course in game design and programming at the College of Marin. I continued to cut back on my practice over the following year, and took more classes.
While I was taking a course in graphic arts and information design the course instructor offered me an internship, which eventually turned into my first paying arts job. (That moment is an example of being at the right place at the right time without seeing it coming. Although coincidences played a huge role in that opportunity, it’s important to see that the coincidences depended on my decision to change and taking specific actions based on that impulse).
At that point I told my remaining patients I was leaving the medical field, but still continued seeing a handful of patients until they were prepared to move on. In child psychiatry you don’t want to just drop patients without adequate warning, so the process of ending my medical career took a couple of years while I was doing other things. It was complicated.
Then there are the realities of working in the arts world, where circumstances can change without much, or any, warning. My first graphic design job lasted only nine months. Then I had to scramble to find freelance work, which I did, in games. Those were short-term gigs, which is typical when you work as an artist on games. Then I began working as an art director in design departments at start-up companies during the internet bubble that ballooned during 1999-2000 before it burst.
Start-up companies are notoriously unstable. One company where I worked had already gone through a few million in initial financing and had secured a deal to get $20 million more, and everything looked golden. They had a huge party to celebrate the imminent arrival of that $20 million. One week later the founders said the wrong things to the venture capital firm that was going to hand over the $20M, and the venture firm pulled out their investment. The whole place was shut down by noon, that day. Total time from my first day to that sudden shut down was 5 weeks. That sucked. But then one of the guys I worked with took a job at another start-up and within two weeks he hired me as a creative director. That lasted a few months before I realized the company wasn’t going to make it, which was when I decided I needed to go to school to really learn animation.
When I made that mental leap, I researched schools for about a week, decided that Vancouver Film School was the place I wanted to go, and within six months me, my wife and two kids were living in Canada.
I mentioned in my talk that nothing you do is ever wasted. You may spend years doing things for reasons you hate, or wake up one day only to realize you’ve been too scared to try things that matter most. Fear is always the biggest enemy. Every opportunity teaches you something you can use to combat the fears holding you back from being the full, unlocked version of yourself.
Go easy on yourself. Wishing things could have been different is common, and normal, but that’s not the same thing as regret. Regret should be reserved for only truly irreversible, horrible things, like driving drunk and killing a child — that’s the kind of thing that deserves regret. Choosing a career path and changing your mind? There is nothing there to regret. Maybe you’ll wish you could have years of your life back because you spent them feeling dead inside, but the good news is you’re alive enough to not want to feel dead inside.
The problem for young people now is that adults talk to you about career choices the same way we all used to talk about life and death. Career paths are not the same as life or death decisions unless your career choice is in a statistically dangerous field, like working for the Bomb Squad. But hey, if defusing bombs to save people is your thing, then you’re choosing passion, and choosing passion is choosing to be yourself, which is the same as choosing life. That’s the irony of working on the Bomb Squad.
From one angle, a college education is just a piece of paper that represents the potential for a possible opportunity. And from that same angle, a job is just a paycheck. Figuring out who you are is more important and more difficult than figuring out what you want to do. Your goal is to wind up doing work that can be shaped by who you are, and not wind up doing work that beats you into a shape which is not you.
You will make mistakes. You will make choices you’ll wish you hadn’t. Use those misadventures to understand yourself better. As long as you know who you are, even a little bit, you’ll have nothing to regret, and you’ll have a clearer understanding of what you’re fighting for.
I did the whole pre-med thing, but, because becoming a doctor was not my choice, I got sneaky and took many oddball courses just to expose myself to new stuff. Southeast Asian Religions was awesome. Modern Architecture was amazing. Logical Flaws and Cognitive Errors taught me how language and imagery can manipulate people into believing lies. That particular class may have been the single most important course I took as an undergraduate.
And, even though I took all the pre-med classes because I promised my parents that I would, I decided to major in Comparative Literature, which made me the weirdest person in both pre-med and in comp lit.
Even if you’re going for an engineering degree — which has a very dense list of required courses — and have little room in your schedule for electives, take as many weird classes as you can. The weirdest class I ever took was Modern Dance. Me, wearing tights, five days a week for an entire school year. I didn’t do it just to be around a bunch of others who were also wearing tights, I did it because I wanted to know more about how people move. You probably don’t think much, or at all, about how people move. Spend a day watching the ways people move and you’ll see why people become animators, actors, dancers, and detectives. Movement tells a story, and everyone moves differently because everyone is telling a different story.
“How did traveling to India change your life in a positive way? Would you go back?”This is a monster question. I’m working on a long essay that will explain it thoroughly. My two months working in India was the most complicated mental journey I’ve ever gone through. Basically, the experience stripped away all my defense mechanisms — those mental tricks we all play on ourselves to keep from going nuts. Like Denial. Good old Denial. Without it we’d be constantly freaked out by the fact that death is life’s only known destination. Who the hell wants to think about that?
In India, if you spend any time at all in the streets and aren’t living inside a wealthy tourist bubble, denial stops working. For reasons I explain in the essay, in India death is integrated into the fabric of daily life. On one hand, knowing that death is a constant presence is just an awful way to spend your mental energy. On the other hand, making peace with and accepting death makes every moment that much more important, and makes you want to do as much with your life as possible. In a nutshell, that’s why I threw myself into becoming a writer. I realized that my journey to and through the arts and entertainment world would be incomplete unless I pushed it as far as I could using myself as the only resource to build a world.
Also, being in India taught me that our culture here, although full of material wealth, has been degraded by consumerism. Our attachment to things is killing off our ability to see what we’re capable of achieving. We are blinded by a constant barrage of everything we are supposed to be acquiring, and consumerism seduces us into defining ourselves by what we have rather than by who we are. What you learn, in India, is that consumerism, as it continues to spread into every country’s economy, will not solve poverty at all. It will only make it possible for those who have to have much more.
Would I go back to India? I think I would, although the idea of going back makes me nervous. If you go to India with an open mind — which is the only way you should go anywhere — then the YOU that you know will disappear, and you will come back as another version of YOU. You’ll still be yourself, just, not the same you. That sounds crazy right? But it’s the truth. If you’re a westerner, and go there, and avoid traveling in a tourist bubble, you’ll see what I mean.
“I have many talents and high aspirations but I am also a perfectionist who procrastinates way too much.”It’s not easy to want things so badly that you can’t help being aware of all the obstacles. Not all obstacles are outside ourselves. The worst internal obstacle many face is our tendency to get in our own way. The good news is that by knowing when you’re your own worst enemy, you can, over time, neutralize those issues.
Perfectionism and Procrastination are common internal obstacles. Here are a few tips on how to manage them:
- Perfectionism cuts both ways. There’s a phrase often repeated during the process of creating movies: “Perfect is the enemy of Good.” It means a thing doesn’t need to be perfect in order to work well. However, it’s also true that perfectionism is necessary to turn good art into great art. The difference between a good painting and a great painting is that a good painting winds up in a garage sale while a great one winds up in a museum. Good books don’t sell nearly as well as great ones. In general, the more collaborative an art form (such as film), the more that perfectionism can be a danger, while the more individualized an art form (such as painting or writing), the more perfectionism can work in your favor. But in every endeavor, creative or not, you have to be careful because perfectionism can stop you from finishing anything.
- Not all procrastination is bad. Sometimes the mind needs a break in order to solve problems we’ve buried ourselves in. Like me, right now. I’m in the middle of writing my next novel, and I’m working through a part that has me a little stuck. I should be working on that problem right now. But instead I’ve decided to take a few days reading every word of every letter you guys wrote, and replying to some specific questions and comments in detail. It’s true that part of my motivation is I want to show you the courtesy of reading and thinking carefully about your letters because you all took the time to put down your thoughts, which, by the way, were all amazing and made me feel great. It’s also true that I’m spending time writing a bunch of stuff that possibly no one will ever read. This whole document is a product of procrastination, but it’s not bad procrastination because even if no one reads it, by answering your questions and thinking about your comments, I understand how I think better than I did before. So, even though bad procrastination exists, and most procrastination is bad procrastination, sometimes the best thing to do is to be distracted. I think of procrastination as a brain mechanism that evolved to help prevent us from burning ourselves out. But when it goes on too long, procrastination needs to be kicked in the groin so it will fall to the side and stop blocking our path.
- One way to fight procrastination is, when you feel the urge to do nothing, ACTUALLY DO NOTHING. Do not read, do not watch videos, do not play games, or do anything you like to do. Stare into space but do not close your eyes and do not go to sleep. Gaze off until all that’s left is you, doing nothing. Why is this good advice? Because actively doing nothing is how the brain clears out its trash. Only by doing truly nothing can you find the zen state of Nothingness. Nothingness is where all new ideas emerge, and where you find energy to do the actual work necessary to make things happen. I know, it sounds like a bunch of bullshit, but it’s not. Doing nothing to arrive at a state of Nothingness takes a lot of practice. It’s also a skill that we’re losing because everyone is addicted to distraction.
- Avoid going into debt as much as possible. I hate to start out this list by acknowledging that money matters, but it does. Creative fields are too chaotic to predict income, so you have to keep the other side of the financial equation under control. Debt may be impossible to prevent, but minimize it.
- Embrace a frugal lifestyle. Owning less makes it possible to do more.Creativity is about doing, not having. If having is more important to you than doing, do not go into a creative field.
- Accept that sacrifices will be necessary.
Nothing worthwhile is easy. The artist has to be both selfless and selfish, so you must be prepared to give up more than you get back, and prepared to disappoint people who wish you were someone you’re not.
- There’s no way to make effective art without first making an ugly mess.
The more you can tolerate a mess, the more likely you’ll get through the part where you hate everything you’re creating.
- Your work is going to be bad before it gets good.
There is a common progression to creative work after someone commits themselves to developing their ability. Early on you’re going to make things that are more imitative than original. That’s OK. Studying and imitating successful art helps you understand how successful art is made. Another quality of early work is that it’s often riddled with cliches. Cliches are not inherently bad — cliches exist in all art because they are part of that art’s grammar and language, and are what make popular art popular. The best way to manage cliches in your work is to understand what cliches you like and which ones you hate. But be prepared to find that some of the cliches you like will hang like a blinking neon sign saying “THIS WAS MADE BY A BEGINNER”. You can’t avoid being a beginner, and the only way to not be one is to keep going until you are no longer a beginner. How long does that take? Plan on being a beginner for five to ten years.
- Genius is NOT a requirement to succeed in a creative field.
This is a common misperception. People will say, “You’re no [name of genius person in your field of dreams]” all the time. That may be true, but it’s irrelevant. The vast majority of successful creatives will tell you that the reason they succeeded is that they worked hard, and were lucky enough to find people who helped them understand how to make their work better.
- Passion for the work itself is required to succeed in a creative field.
Passion isn’t just a feeling. Passion means you are willing to work your ass off.
- For every person who thinks you’re a fool ten others will admire your courage.
When someone calls you a fool for trying to make it in a creative field what they’re really saying is they aren’t willing to take the chances you are willing to take. Your creative ambitions will make some people very nervous, not just your parents. People naturally avoid the idea that courage and foolishness can look very similar. It’s easier for some to think of you as a fool than to think of themselves as not having the courage to risk looking foolish. You may, eventually, decide that your creative ambition is foolish, but that conclusion must come only from you, and never from the opinions of others. You’ll find that the people who think of you as having courage will root for you to succeed even though they would never take the risk themselves. In a real way, when you take on the challenge of trying to succeed at something that’s a long-shot, you give other people hope, which becomes a nice little side benefit to taking on all the uncertainty of your creative aspirations.
- The weirder your life is, the more interesting your life story can be.
Being interesting has value. Don’t forget that all creative fields require creating work worthy of attention. The best description I’ve heard of life’s basic goal is: Either tell good stories, or to live a life worthy of becoming a story.
- Learn how to create in your medium using as few tools as possible.
Less is more. Complexity stifles progress.
- Learn to see, to listen, to analyze, and to design in layers.
All art is created in layers: elements are laid on top of one another and add up to create the final effect. Develop your ability to identify elements that live in the background, in the middle ground and in the foreground. Layers are easier to identify in visual art and in music than they are in literature. The layers in storytelling are more abstract and difficult to detect, but they’re designed into the work by the writer. Layers in literature are all “sub-something” such as subtext, subplot and subtheme.
- Develop your tolerance to spending lots of time, by yourself, practicing your craft.
Ever hear of Carnegie Hall? It’s a world famous performance venue in New York City — mostly for music. Only the best are invited to perform at Carnegie Hall. There’s an old joke: A man is visiting New York City, and is lost. He stops someone and asks, “Hey, buddy, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?’’ The guy answers, “Practice, practice, practice.”
- Persistence is essential.
What every successful person in every creative field has in common is that he or she never gave up.
- Be willing to fail. When you fail, don’t give up.
Give up only if truly forced to, and re-define ‘giving up’ as ‘putting my ultimate plans on hold.’ Then be as sneaky as possible to work your way back to the path you want to be on.
- You have more time than you think.
No matter how little time you think you have, and no matter how fast everything in the past seems to have gone, you have a lot more time than you think you do.
- As long as you’re alive, there’s still a chance you can succeed.
People forget this simple truth: “It ain’t over until it’s over.” Just be careful you don’t use that simple truth as an excuse to delay trying.
- Society at large and the Universe as a whole do not care about your ambition.
Get comfortable being the only person in the world who cares about your goals.
- The will to be talented is more important than being born with obvious talent.
Talents can be hidden, discovered late, and then developed. If you have the will to be creative but don’t think you have enough talent, focus on your willfulness, and keep searching for your talent.
- Make a distinction between being an artist and a being craftsman.
Strive to be both because you cannot survive as an artist without being a craftsman. However, you can survive as a craftsman without being an artist, so aspire to being an artist, but always embrace craftsmanship.
- Some people don’t have wings but can still be happy working close to the birds.
Most paying jobs in creative fields require craftsmanship and practical skill much more than they allow for artistry and visionary ideas. There’s more opportunity in creative fields for people who are good at taking direction and making someone else’s vision a reality. I know you all leave the movie theater before the end credits run all the way through, but next time you go to a movie, force yourself to stay and watch the entire list of credits. All those jobs you don’t recognize, they’re all craftspeople of one kind or another. I know property masters, set decorators, set carpenters and makeup artists who are happy in their jobs simply because they’re still making movies even though they never get to make their own movies.
- Education has two components: learning how to think and learning how to do.
In contemporary culture we often forget that learning physical skills is a form of education. Creative fields require both types of education.
- Sometimes trade school is a better choice than college or university for a person with creative ambitions.
There are several advantages to having a skilled trade — such as being a welder or an electrician — over having a skill learned in traditional classrooms. Trade skills can be applied anywhere in the world, so the market for them is huge. (There is currently a worldwide shortage of welders, for example). It’s relatively easy to phase in and out of skilled labor jobs without sacrificing your value or reputation — almost all jobs in the trades are time-limited, so starts and stops are normal. All those flexibilities can enable a creative person to work for several months non-stop and then afford to use the rest of each year to do what he or she wants. I know a guy who worked on fishing boats in Alaska three months of each year and could afford to live the other nine traveling the world. As he got older, he began using those nine months off to create large-scale vehicle modifications to bring to Burning Man. He and his crew built a fishing boat out of a school bus, drove it across country, and then held an event where they drove around the festival casting nets to catch “fish”, which were people who chose to run after the boat. Cool project. And, as you might guess, a project that required a team that included a carpenter, a welder, an electrician, an auto mechanic and a boat maker.
- Treat your audience with respect by making your work as clear as possible, even if your work is about strange, personal stuff.
Creative fields are competitive not because everyone wants to be a rock star but because the rules to breaking in are vague and change constantly. And, the truth is that there is only one rule: The audience decides what will succeed. Ultimately, even if you create for your taste, and not for the audience’s, you depend on them to understand your work, and depend on them to embrace its value.
- Be honest with yourself about how much you need to “do your thing” versus how much you want fame and glory.
It’s OK to do your thing, and it’s OK to want fame and glory. However, it may not be possible to have both. If fame and glory is more important to you than carrying out your personal vision, that means you’ll need to create according to known audience tastes and trends. Many artists succeed by catering to a large, existing, and dedicated audience (example: Horror Movies). The risk of catering to a known audience is that an artist can wind up never pushing themselves to their limits, and end up feeling stunted. Not all artists can tolerate that stunted feeling, and instead must be willing to expose their hearts, minds and souls, risking that no one will care about their work. People argue about which path leads to greatness. The reality is both paths can get you there. The best of all possible worlds is what every artist prays for: that they do their own thing, and it turns out their work has an audience who didn’t even know how badly they wanted the thing until the moment they experienced it. That’s what happened to George Lucas with “Star Wars”.
- Real relationships are more valuable than infinite connections.
The single most valuable external asset you can have is people who believe in you, in your goals, and in your vision. They do not need to understand you, they just need to believe in you. Those people are not easy to find, but you must find them. Having one person in your life who believes in you is worth more than knowing hundreds who say they know somebody who knows somebody who might be able to arrange a meeting.
- Don’t confuse learning digital techniques with learning art.
Although you don’t need to go to art school to be an artist, a real arts education has value that is difficult to find elsewhere, and that is likely to speed up your creative development. It’s trickier these days because you’ll also need to know digital techniques used in your creative field. If you are determined to enter a creative field you will be tempted to attend schools that advertise an education that specializes in the digital arts. Investigate these digital arts schools very carefully. You need to be sure they teach the art aspects of the field, not just the tools side of the field. Over the past fifteen years digital art, digital audio, and digital film schools have cropped up everywhere. Most of them are for-profit, are expensive, and primarily teach how to use software, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, Final Cut, Maya, Pro Tools, Logic, and so on. Very few offer instruction on the real skills needed to develop your creativity, such as how to see, how to hear, how to critique, and how to take a concept all the way through the torments of the production process and come out the other end staying true to the original vision. The bugaboo is that many traditional art and music schools are behind the times when it comes to teaching students how to apply digital tools and techniques to traditional media. It’s a real problem, and there’s no avoiding this basic fact: The more you can teach yourself how to use the digital tools, the more you can use the time and money you spend on your creative education to learn the actual art.
- Look for digital tools available for free. There are many.
I’m not talking about illegal, cracked versions of professional packages, I’m talking about tools that have been created by programmers within the “open software” movement. That movement has done a good job making freeware and shareware digital tools. Also, some professional software packages make a free “educational” or “learning” version available. Those educational versions lack certain features, but usually the lacking features are advanced capabilities, and all the basic functionality is enabled. The basic functionality of this kind of software will keep you busy for a long, long time before you understand it. Don’t worry about learning how to drive an F-1 racecar before you know how to drive a Toyota Corolla like a pro.
- Know how digital technology is both a blessing and a curse.
Digital art, film and audio tools have made many traditional processes faster, more robust, and more flexible. And they’ve enabled smaller groups of people to do work that used to require many people, more time, and equipment no individual could afford. Music is a perfect example: you used to have to hire an orchestra or band, rent a studio big enough for all the instrumentalists, pay a recordist and an engineer to capture and lay down the tracks — and all that was before anyone played a single note. Now all you need is one software package that already includes a synth module, a sampler, a mixer, and a visual editor. That one piece of software covers all the components of the entire process. You’ll want to add a MIDI keyboard as a control device, but you don’t have to have one. You can run the whole works off a laptop, and literally compose songs while you sit at the kitchen table, or while crammed into a narrow seat on an airplane. That’s the blessing of digital technology. The curse is a three-headed demon from hell. The first demon head is that anybody can use this kind of software. It’s not hard to figure out if you’re determined, and when tools get easier to use, the competition to get attention by using them grows by leaps and bounds. Seriously: there are 14-year olds who know how to use GarageBand better than you, and no one needs professional software to write, record, mix, and publish a song. The second demon head is that the flexibility of digital tools makes it so easy to change your mind that the creative process can quickly turn into a downward spiral of experimentation, bogging you down so that you never finish anything. Experimentation is essential to creative process, but it takes a lot of experience using the tools to know when you need to stop yourself from going down rabbit holes. The third demon head is the whizz-bang capabilities of creative software. Whizz-bang features are a sticky trap that can bring new users to a grinding halt. One of the hallmark skills of an artist who truly understands his craft is knowing how to create a lot of impact using as few resources as possible, staying away from gimmicks. The whizz-bang capabilities of creative software cannot turn mediocre crap into great stuff. There are definitely polishing tricks you can pull if you know the whizz-bang capabilities, but they only work if the piece is fundamentally great without the polish.
- Social media is a valuable tool, but, like all tools, using it is not the same as knowing how to use it.
You may think you know how to use social media because you’ve grown up with it, but that’s like saying you know how to draw because you’ve held a pencil in your hand a billion times since you were born. Nobody yet fully understands how social media works or why it works. Virality is not a science, and is unpredictable. Social media can work against you as well as work in your favor. Everyone dreams of “blowing up” on youtube or facebook or twitter or instagram or snapchap or on whatever platform is coming next. But blowing up applies to bombs destroying neighborhoods during wartime as well as to balloons festively floating at a party. Take time to truly understand what each social medium is best for, and learn when saying or showing nothing is better than showing something just to show anything. I’m still figuring it all out. I can tell you this much: social media works best if you already have lots of fans, which is as useful as saying that the best way to become incredibly famous, is to already be famous.
- Start a blog. Make it look good, and make it interesting.
Use a blog first and foremost to figure out how you want to present yourself to the rest of the world. This process has two steep learning curves, one technical and the other personal. It will take time to figure out how to make a blog, and how to create content that expresses your uniqueness. The payoff for all that effort is that a blog is a great medium to test your material or your presentation with a manageable number of beta users to provide you feedback. In other words, a blog is not just a branding exercise, it’s also a great way to work out the kinks while you go through your “lame years” as a creative presence. Blogs are better than social media for exposing your creative development process, which will be full of kinks, and, at times, be totally lame. Social media is no place to work out kinks and to be lame. Social media is not designed to provide feedback; it’s designed to fuel feeding frenzies.
- When you can afford it, buy your personal name as a domain name.
Get that domain hosted at a site that offers full support for blogging software (I use Bluehost as a hosting service, and WordPress for blogging software). If your name is already taken, come up with a name that you like, that is easy for people to remember, and that you never, ever have to look at to be sure how it’s spelled.
- Remember and understand the phrase, “The finger pointing at the Moon is not the Moon.”
It took me a while, after I first heard it, to understand how profoundly true this weird statement is, and that it has practical application. It’s easy to talk about what you want to make, and to point at things that contain the idea or have aspects of your vision. However, the process of actually creating the thing you envision is a bazillion times more difficult than describing or ‘knowing’ what you want it to be. You’ve already experienced this problem: You’ve been assigned to write an essay about some book, or some topic, and you ‘know’ what you want the paper to say. You sit down and begin writing it, and then it hits you how hard it’s going to be to turn your thoughts into clear sentences, and how difficult it is to express ideas so that anyone reading your paper will get what you’re talking about. In creative process, especially in processes that involve multiple people working together, people “point at the Moon” all the time, and you’ll be thinking, “Wow, the Moon sure is cool! I’m so glad you pointed it out! It feels like we’re almost there!” Looking at the Moon can be awe-inspiring, and result in a feeling of deep satisfaction. The problem is, when we feel the satisfaction of looking at the Moon and the gratitude that someone pointed it out, we can fall under the delusion that the work we need to do is halfway done, when, in fact, we’ve done nothing. What you need to do is figure out how to make the Moon, or how to be the Moon, not to look at it, and point.
- Advice is cheap. Wisdom is expensive.
This last tip acknowledges that everything I’ve said can be thought of as “The finger pointing at the Moon.” (see the tip immediately above this one). I’m not modest, and I know there’s valuable wisdom in what I’ve written here, but you should question everything and learn for yourself what works and what doesn’t. I’m just a guy who tells a convincing story about my life. Some of what I’ve told you will be true for you. But not all of it. Your life is the only complete truth you’ll ever know.