I do another lap on the sidewalk outside Bad Robot. I try to tell myself that I’ve earned this, that my pitch is good, that I can do this. I try to calm my nerves, try not to think about what a big deal this is. But of course, it’s a huge deal. The biggest deal of my life. It’s my lifelong dream, inexplicably thrust into my lap. I’ve wanted to pitch Bad Robot before Bad Robot was even founded. I’ve wanted to pitch a company like Bad Robot all my life, a place that values story, and mystery, and all the geeky ideas that I love.
When I left Hollywood at the age of 24, I assumed I was leaving this dream behind as well. But now, against all odds, I stand outside the production house I most admire. And they are waiting to hear my idea. A fancy black car, so fancy I don’t even recognize the brand, pulls up. Oh my god. It’s JJ Abrams. There’s his wife. They’re talking! I shield my gaze and power-walk away, trying not to look like a creepy stalker. Act professional, act professional, act professional. Do one more lap. Then it’s go time.
My story is the classic Hollywood myth, the one everyone hopes for but we all know doesn’t actually happen. You know how it goes: A regular Joe Schmoe goes about his daily life in Small City, USA. The phone rings. It’s from Santa Monica. Schmoe answers to find Hollywood A-list director JJ Abrams on the line. Is Regular Joe interested in coming down to pitch? It’s a dream too good to be true, a dream that never actually happens. Except it did. It happened to me.
I’m lucky. I’ll be the first to admit it. There are lots of talented people out there. They’re working on cool projects. A lot of their projects have more youtube views than mine. When my project dropped, the timing was perfect. Stars I didn’t know existed aligned in ways I never could’ve predicted. I’m a lucky son of a bitch.
But luck favors prepared. And, really, I’m not just some random Schmoe. I’m a random schmoe who’s been working his ass off on pet projects for the last six years. Pet projects that took months of my life. Pet projects that led nowhere. Until, finally, one did.
Is there a guaranteed recipe for success? Of course not. But every successful creative has to do four things. They sound simple, deceptively simple, but each of these four steps are some of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Do these and, when luck shines, you’ll find you are prepared.
#1 – Start Something
Standing outside Bad Robot wasn’t the scariest moment of my creative career. The most terrifying moment of my creative career was posting the casting call for “The Monday Knights”, my web series. I couldn’t sleep the night I pushed the Craigslist “post” button. I had butterflies in my stomach for days afterward. For some reason, that was a huge point of no return for me. By involving other people, not friends or family, I was making an irrevocable commitment to see the project through. Come what may, I was putting myself out there.
It’s easy to write a sentence. It’s easy to write a paragraph. But to truly start something, to say “So help me God, I will finish this project by end of the year!” takes some true balls. It’s incredibly scary to commit to a project, because then you’re on the line. But the second time, starting a project will be easier. And the third time will be even easier. By the time you get to Bad Robot, heck yeah you’ll be nervous. But you’ll have confidence too. It may be your biggest rodeo, but it won’t be your first.
#2 - Finish it
Think starting something is hard? Try finishing it. This is a test of endurance and concentration. Anyone can start something. Virtually everyone has. But finishing a project is crazy difficult. I don’t just mean throwing a couple of splashes of paint on a canvas, stepping back, and saying “I finished my first painting!” I mean, every step of the way, with every stroke, asking yourself: Do I truly believe this is valuable? Is this the best I can do? Most of the time, the answer will be “no”, and at some point you’ll go back and redo it.
You won’t be great all the time. You won’t even be great most of the time. You will be great on rare occasions. Creating something of value is being willing to stick with a project long enough to let all those great occasions add up and start to congeal. You will get stuck along the way. You will panic. You will get frustrated. You will walk away. The test is: Will you come back? Will you finish what you started, even though odds are nobody is going to see it, and if they do, they probably won’t care? If you can finish your project in the face of these horribly depressing certainties, and spend the time to make it great, then you’ve passed the second threshold.
#3 – Stand Behind It
All these steps are hard, but this one may be the hardest. Standing behind your work is painful. After all, your project is something you poured your heart and soul into. Your ego is tied to it. When you put it out into the world, if someone doesn’t like it, what you hear is “I don’t value you.” I’ve seen many creatives finish something, and either shelve it or just toss it out there without a second glance. Their logic is “My work speaks for itself”, but what they’re really saying is “I want to disassociate myself from it, in case people don’t like it”. I’m guilty. I used to do this all the time. I’m a little better today, but I still have a really hard time standing behind my work. Even when the vast majority of comments are positive, each negative one is a dagger to the gut.
But standing behind your work is important. Sometimes your work is good enough that other people will champion it for you, but often, especially when you’re starting out, you’ve got to be your number one fan. And being a fan doesn’t mean spamming your friends on social media, but it does mean speaking about your work with pride, showing it off, and generally having confidence in yourself and what you’re doing. Ask yourself “why am I proud of this”, and then don’t be afraid of the answer. If you can articulate this with confidence, people will respect you.
#4 – Do It Again
So you just poured your heart into a project. It took you months, maybe years. You probably worked a day job while you did it, so you’ve had no free time. You didn’t see your friends. You gave up your hobbies. Your relationships suffered. Then, when you released your project, no one cared. Sure, you got a few compliments. Your friends probably saw it and gave you a high five. But the earth-shaking ramifications you were expecting just didn’t happen.
Give yourself a pat on the back. Seriously, you’ve earned. Take a couple weeks off. Turn your brain off. Don’t think about your project. Enjoy your friends and family. Then force yourself back onto that horse. It’s time to start creating again. Time to devote your entire being to another creative process that no one will see, and no one will care about. Another exercise in futility.
Except it really isn’t. Every project gives you two things: Experience and a showpiece. Experience is HUGE. When I started my web series, the Monday Knights, I knew nothing about shooting on DSLR cameras. I knew nothing about sound. I knew little about lighting, camera tracking, and setting up efficient 3D renders. When I go back and watch the last episode and compare it to the first, the difference is huge. I learned so much just in the process of doing, that the later episodes were a high enough quality to get me my next job. Which brings me to my next point:
You get a showpiece. You can point to something and say; “I made that”. It may not go viral in the immediate future, but sometime down the line, somebody is going to ask, “Why should I hire you?” Now, you have something to show them. When I first started creating, it felt random and futile. I wrote screenplays. I submitted them to competitions. I never heard anything back. I pitched and wrote a book “The World of Warcraft Guide to Winning at Life.” Blizzard, the producer of World of Warcraft, sued and successfully stopped the launch of the book. All 30,000 copies were dumped into a landfill, minus my 20 author copies. Just when I thought I had broken through, I was back to square one.
Then I Kickstarted the Monday Knights webseries for $5,000. As I mentioned, the quality got better as the series went on. The senior production at agency Sincerely Truman was impressed with the amount we achieved for $5k. He hired me on as a producer. Working for the agency, I pitched the idea of doing a passion project about Star Wars, addressed to Hollywood director JJ Abrams. They gave me freedom to run with it. Five months later and over 1 million youtube hits, we had a viral hit on our hands. JJ Abrams called me. He invited me to pitch Bad Robot. Suddenly, all the work I’d previously done came marching back in to support me. It was like the ending of “Usual Suspects”. All the creative projects that never went anywhere suddenly formed a larger picture that I just didn’t see before. The Monday Knights got me my job at an ad agency. The ad agency gave me the resources to make a kick-ass video addressed to JJ Abrams. JJ Abrams asked me to pitch him, and I knew how because I’d written so many treatments and screenplays. Then, when they ask for a writing sample, I show them the World of Warcraft Guide to Winning at Life. All those projects that I thought were a big waste of time came back to support me.
Bottom line: Creating is never futile. Your immediate effort on any given project will likely go unrewarded, but the end result is a piece of who you are. You are a creator. Over time, your creations will add up to something more.
#5 – Be Nice
Whether it’s editing a Hollywood blockbuster, or editing a movie on iMovie, everyone has access to creative tools. If you want to write, paint, make movies, or design, the barrier to entry has never been lower. The 21st century is full of creators. With the proliferation of social media, everyone has a voice. The result is that we’re savvier critics, and we feel much more entitled in our opinions. The Internet is littered with barbarous attacks on creative works.
This is why I try to come at other people’s creative from a place of love. I try to offer criticism that’s actionable and supportive. Always look for places where I can give praise. Pour positive energy into the world, rather than negative energy. I do this because I know praise and recognition are often the only rewards we creative get. Attitude may not be everything, but it’s at least 60% of any job interview, project, or promotion. Your outlook on life will get you much farther than your creative ability. If you have both, you’ll be unstoppable.
I’ll never forget my phone call with JJ Abrams. The call lasted nine minutes. Three of those minutes he spent praising my “Dear JJ Abrams” video. JJ Abrams, praising my video? Craziness. And he said something that really stuck with me. He said, “You know what I liked best? There was no hidden agenda, no name-calling. Your video came from a place of love. It just felt good.”
And this, I feel, is the closest thing I have to a secret. Be nice. When someone creates something great, tell them. And then make something beautiful and give it to someone you admire. Tell them you love their work. Love is a rare commodity. Let it loose and see what comes back your way.