On Professionalism

80% of success is showing up.
-Woody Allen

I seem to be rounding a bend of some sorts in my life. Every area of my life is going well without life-threatening obstacles for the first time I can remember. Most importantly, all of the things that are going well are the things that I actually want to be doing. As Will Smith says, “No Plan B! Plan B just distracts from Plan A.”

My dream, my one and only dream, is to make a “Funkmeyers” TV show. I think I’ve actually had this dream for quite some time, but it no longer feels like future tense. I want it right now. If it takes longer than that, that’s fine. But I’m ready.

This readiness is due to my increasing acceptance of the realities of professionalism. Of doing professional level work. I’d like to talk about that, what it means, and to help you figure out where you’re at in your own artistic maturation.

On Professionalism:

In the past, I had a very cut-and-dry one-take policy. That means I write something, shoot something, edit something, record something, paint something, and that’s that. The end. Done. Finished. Nothing I made was at a professional level but I didn’t care. A lot of things I like are not at professional levels and more importantly, I was happily exploring. I was in a creative phase of exploration, figuring out who I was.

I think it’s an interesting twist of fate that the Internet allows us each to so easily distribute our work that it can make us think that we should be better than we are. We compare ourselves to the production values of Kanye West or James Cameron and think that if we just put in more work or buy better gear, we can trick people into thinking that we’re good like them. Except that we can’t.

The downside of this approach, of trying to be good early on, is that striving for quality is often (though granted not always) diametrically opposed to striving for quantity. And striving for quantity is what helps you learn early on. And learning is what’s important, really the only thing that’s important, when you’re still new to things.

In Eric Reis’ now (sadly) played-out concept of the Lean Startup, he outlines a way to build an idea based on small experiments, each designed to specifically learn one thing. This methodology is based on the understanding that for an idea to take off, what it most often needs is interaction with the outside world. Ideas need to get out of the echo chamber of your own head and out into the world, where they can be responded to and learned from and iterated upon. The key really is iteration.

Even people like Steve Jobs, commonly seen as some kind of design/control-Nazi are iterators upon further inspection. The iPhone comes out of the Newton. Each version of Mac OS X and iOS improve incrementally. A breakthrough idea builds one iteration at a time. Do you realize that the first iPhone had no copy/paste?! Shit takes time. Oftentimes, much of this iteration occurs behind closed doors but be certain, it’s no magic trick. It’s a lot of hard work and there’s a lot of work that gets scrapped.

Throwing Away Work

It felt almost heretical to me for a very long time–this idea of throwing work away. It’s like, geeez, I did it. Failed experiment or not! Just put it out. Just put it out. Just put it out. Just keep moving. This served me well for a very long time. I discovered through my success with Elastic Illusion that production value is not the most important thing in the world. A breakthrough idea executed only moderately well is better than a breakthrough idea not executed at all. And the reality was that I was at no level to even understand what excellent execution means. And if you should know anything about me by now, it’s that I’d rather be bad and in the arena than on the sidelines. The sidelines is the true danger zone. Entire lives can be lived on the sidelines. These are the lives poets often warn of.

When One Pain Becomes Greater Than Another:

What happened to me in large part over the years is that no one gave a shit about anything I made. I had a hit here and there but the vast majority of things have had a minuscule audience. Even that was all well and good for a very long time. Why? I hope you can answer that before I do… If you can, give yourself points. If you can’t, deduct points accordingly.

The answer is that I was still learning! The act of creation was still an enormous learning process for me without thinking about production values or marketing or the scope of my audience.

And then one day, I woke up and most of my dreams had faded away. I wanted to be the next Reggie Watts, the next Marcel Marceau, the next Terence McKenna, the next Jay-Z, the next Woody Allen, the next Monty Python, the next Electric Boogaloos, the next Werner Herzog, the next Tim & Eric, the next Tony Robbins, the next Eric Bogosian, the next Bashar, the next Larry David. I kept trying to be all of these people and each one has gradually faded away. Some faded because I failed miserably, some faded because I got bored, and some faded because I did it as well as I wanted to. But fade they did.

There is now just that one dream left. To make the “Funkmeyers” TV show. And I want it to be good. I now care. I am clear on what I am doing and I want the level of what I am doing to be that of my idols. I no longer want to imitate them. I want to be one of them. I want them to be as inspired by me as I am by them. And so now it’s time for things to get good. The time has arrived.

Are You Ready for Professionalism?

That’s the question and hopefully by reading the above you already know the answer. Are you very clear on what you’re doing? Do you know exactly what you want? Or are there still a lot of things you’d like to explore?

If you still have a lot of things you’d like to explore, I’d say it’s important to get things out into the world, to figure out what you actually like. Often, the reality of a dream is very different from the fantasy. You might not actually like the day-to-day. As I mentioned before, you will naturally build momentum as various dreams fade away. Embrace this process. Enjoy it. Don’t worry how many people are viewing what you create. Don’t forget that only ten years ago, most people’s early works were seen by almost no one. And now, even though your things are on YouTube, they are likely to still be viewed by almost no one. Funny! The more things change, the more they stay the same!

My First Forays into Professionalism

Jenny and I have started working well together for the first time in our lives. I can hardly believe it. The reasons and that journey is well worth an essay of its own, perhaps called “On Flexibility,” but that will have to wait for another time.

Thus, having begun overcoming the hurdle of being able to work together at all, I find myself tiptoeing into professionalism. Trying a script. Making a shot list. Storyboarding. Shooting with another person. Getting wireless lav mics operating. Watching various ideas fizzle. Balancing rigidity and flexibility. Trying to stay open while still remaining productive during shooting. Navigating staying on time and budget while paying people for shoots. I feel professional as I say these things. It’s new for me. I am happy about it.

An analogy that came to me recently about my current predicament is from Jake Gyllenhaal’s “Jarhead,” where his character is in basic training. They are crawling through the mud underneath barbed wired with live rounds being shot just over their heads. They are ordered to under no circumstances raise their heads, no matter what anyone says. It’s miserable and scary and confusing and muddy. As they are moving along, one of the cadets lifts his head and immediately takes a bullet to the head and is killed. Dramatic though it may sound, I feel that the momentum in my life is at about that level.

I’m a little cadet, I’m crawling through mud, and taking my eyes off the ground for even a split second will lead to a bullet in my head. This is no time for anything but determined focus. That is my current phase of learning.

When this focus is combined with the qualities of determination and perseverance that I’m always rambling on about, an unstoppable force is created. A will that no knows no limits.

If this unstoppable force is then coupled with a willingness to change, to remember that everything is just an experiment, that work can be thrown out, that obstacles can be moved through, even if that means taking a breather, nothing is too big or too grand to achieve.

Biggie said it best:

I’m just, tryin to stay above water y’know
Just stay busy, stay workin
Puff told me like, the key to this joint
The key to staying, on top of things
is treat everything like it’s your first project, knahmsayin?
Like it’s your first day like back when you was an intern
Like, that’s how you try to treat things like, just stay hungry

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