“Yeah, I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.” — Peter Gibbons, Office Space
For whatever reason, explaining this to my high school friends gets two reactions: confusion or their head exploding.
I’ll say it here in plain English — a creator, whether an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, marketer, performer, animator, designer, CEO, videographer, or author, can make a living. And anyone — really anyone — has the chance to work on projects they care about and projects that matter to them. They’re not the foolhardy risk-takers you’re taking them to be.
You don’t need to major in accounting, medicine, or engineering to secure a future — chances are, even your safe options won’t do you justice.
It’s a new world out there, and if you’re anything like I was when I was 16, you’re missing out.
How To Be A Slave
“Never let the guy with the broom decide how many elephants can be in the parade.” — Merlin Mann
If you’re not working on projects you care about, you’re risking something that’s greater than yourself. You risk working with people you don’t respect. You risk working for a company whose values are inconsistent with your own. You risk compromising what’s important for a paycheck. You risk doing something that fails to express — or even contradicts —who you are. And then, there’s the shittiest risk of all — the risk of not doing what you want to do, on the bet that you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.
I know, I know. Dramatic.
But it’s important to think about these things because it’s easy not too — especially as a college student.
It’s easy and convenient to think that a degree is all you need. Good grades, a solid ACT score, a good major, and then, high-paying jobs will fall straight into your ass.
But life is messy.
When everyone is making the same bet, there’s more competition. And when there’s more competition, there’s fewer winners. Those winners range from soul-sucking middle-management at T-Mobile to soul sucking stockbroker at Goldman Sachs.
The money’s different, but the sad man in the uniform is the same.
When you’re fresh out of college, thousands of dollars in debt, and you’re begging (on your knees) for a job on CareerBuilder.com, you’re also competing against 30 year olds who are willing to put their dick on the line (and take a cut in pay) to keep the house and kids.
You’re not going to win by playing by the old rules.
Here’s Why The Adults In Your Life Are Wrong, and Why Times Have Changed
“We are the stories we tell ourselves” — Joan Didion
In the 70s (when your parents/dinosaurs were around), people who wanted to work on what they care about, barely could. If someone wanted to be a creator or an artist or a writer, they had to be picked by an executive, by an adman, by an audition, and that rarely happened.
Now, we get to pick ourselves.
The pre-90s were filled with gatekeepers stopping you from doing cool things — you didn’t have access to the studio, the music equipment, the sound-editing board, and the publishing platform unless you were “in” and a fat man in an Armani suit okayed you. Now, even your Macbook comes pre-packaged with free Movie software they didn’t have 10 years ago.
At any moment, anyone can access more knowledge, more tips, more advice, more art, more guidance than the entire Library of Alexandria ever had. Don’t know how to write well? It’s there. Don’t know how to convince a Venture Capitalist? It’s there. Don’t know how to properly put on a condom? It’s there, and I’m not linking that for you.
The tools used to be in the hands of only the top music, film, fashion and business executives. Now, with software, the tools are essentially free. And with the internet, you get a distribution platform.
It’s not just for cat videos anymore. With the internet, came opportunity.
Yet most people don’t make it past Facebook.
You literally just got a license from God to do whatever you want — so use it!
Rethinking What College Means Now
“I went to college for four years” — Kim Kardashian
One of my friends, Edward Druce, dropped out of high school. If you were like the 16 year old me, you would have called him the fuck out.
But, plot twist, he is absolutely killing it.
I’ve worked for UnCollege. I’ve done industry research on how college defines us — from mental misconceptions to career opportunities.
And yet what I’ve found is that where you go to college does matter —if that’s all you’ve ever done. For the first job, G.P.A.’s will be called into question and kids with Ivy League degrees will be called first, because the degrees they have are shiny and pretty and filled with rainbows and butterflies.
And ultimately, we’re lying to ourselves when we see a kid who got into Stanford, nailed straight A’s, and dismiss them — because that, by itself, says something.
Being not the greatest student, I know how hard that is.
But, looking at the authors I’ve worked with and the people that are happy with what they do, where they went to college matters next to none.
And instead of investing in their degree, they invested more in themselves. They started nonprofits, they worked for Fortune 500 companies, they started businesses, they made art, they marketed, they staged shows, they made music, they made movies, they held Youtube channels, they wrote, they published, but more importantly, they did. And that speaks louder than any G.P.A. or degree could in a heartbeat.
In fact, for many, it spoke so loudly that if their ass had no degree, it didn’t even matter. They were in. (Enter all the college dropouts you hear about in the news, plus the ones you don’t)
When the game is degree vs. degree, it’s easy to lose. But when it’s degree vs “dude who started his own art show”, the equation tips.
“The reality is that in the real world, the things you learn in school vaguely apply and in the real world, past your first job, no one cares about what GPA you have or where you graduated. People want experience. They want to know that they can give you a job and that you can accomplish it. They want to know whether or not you can do what they’ve assigned. In the “real world” you don’t get directions for a lot of things anymore; they give you that job because you need to figure it out. You need to go and figure out that problem and there isn’t a 10-step process for you to follow anymore. If all they wanted was someone to follow rules, then they’d hire a robot.” — Jonathan Chen
Google’s own research have shown that GPA and test scores are ‘worthless’ for hiring. And employers — well, they know this. They know the guy with the art show probably has his shit together.
Ultimately, that’s where the green light is. When they see real world, tangible results, and it says “hey, that guy has his shit together”, they’ll give you the go.
For your parents, college was the only investment that mattered. Now, college or no college, invest in yourself.
[Side note: If you have the money or want to pursue a licensed profession — go to college. It’s a time where you get to be a kid without the responsibilities of being an adult, and that’s fun. Yeah, the job and debt ramifications aren’t ideal — but it’s still a blast and it’s still a time for personal growth if you let it be.]
Suck City, Free Work, and Apprenticeships (or How To Invest In Yourself)
“Always be yourself…unless you suck” — Josh Whedon
The geniuses. The little Mozarts. The born-again Darwins. It’s easy to think that genius isn’t for us and for…well, other people with large foreheads and Walter White glasses.
But the brave new world for creatives changes that. It doesn’t take genius, luck, or an act of God — though a little can’t hurt.
Now, it’s up to us to play the hand.
With the Long Tail and Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans Model, there’s a niche (roughly 1,000 people) out there waiting to be filled. Before, you either catered to millions or to no one. Now, as Kelly would say, all it takes to make a living is to find your 1,000+ true fans…or work with someone who has.
And this…changes everything (cue dramatic music).
But here’s the truth.
A lot of creators out there suck. They don’t know what they’re doing. We’re all in this boat, and we’re all shaking at the paddle.
My friend, Andrew Edstrom, put the solution nicely [emphasis mine]:
“1000 true fans is flawed because at first most [musicians] produce music that absolutely no one on the planet wants to hear. You don’t know what people want to hear, all you know is what you want to play, so you make a bunch of music that you want to play but no one else wants to listen to. You may love writing 8 minute power ballads that change key, genre, and tempo every other measure, but good luck finding 1000 fans with that. What I’m saying is, beginners produce art for niches that don’t exist.
So no matter what niche of music you plan to occupy, you need to master these basic elements before anyone in the world is going to listen to you. That’s where music lessons (apprenticeship) comes into play. Instead of learning what crowds consistently don’t like through years of playing to 1 or 2 people in an otherwise empty bar and then surveying their reactions, you can learn from someone who already knows what works and doesn’t.
After you’ve mastered the basics, you will understand what the difference really is between different niches. After you put the time in doing your apprenticeship, it will be obvious to you what niche of music needs to be filled by someone. That’s when you winning over 1000 fans begins.”
There’s a way to find the intersection of what you love and what people will pay for. And that’s apprenticeship — working under someone who’s already done what you want to do.
Finding this intersection — and doing it through an apprenticeship — is the most important advice I’ve ever received. I’ve learned more in one month of working under someone that four years of high school. And whether you find an internship where they don’t treat you like the house bitch or you go my route and tap into Free Work (pitching high-profile people to work under them, free of charge), what matters is that you’re learning under someone who’s brilliant, and yeah, “has their shit together”.
It’s not about the money — it’s about the craft, the art.
But bottom line, it’s about what you love to do.
I’m not sure the bank middle-manager really loves his job. Or the 4th grade gym teacher. Because even if he wasn’t being paid, I don’t think he would be typing Excel files or screaming at little people shitting their pants. And seeing how easy it is to slip into a cubicle-coma, that scares me. Not holy-shit-it’s-Freddy-Krueger scary. But still scary.
Closing Thoughts: Bentleys and Dreams
CAROLYN: Lester. You’re going to spill beer on the couch.
LESTER: So what? It’s just a couch.
CAROLYN: This is a four thousand dollar sofa upholstered in Italian silk. This is not “just a couch.”
LESTER: It’s just a couch!
He stands and gestures toward all the things in the room.
LESTER: This isn’t life. This is just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that’s just nuts.
—American Beauty, 1999
Back in ‘07, my plan was to become a doctor.
I was 13. And brown.
But I’d nearly forgotten that old dream. Not because there’s anything wrong with pursuing medicine. It’s actually pretty damn brave. But because there is something wrong with loving the idea of something, rather than actually wanting to do it.
When I thought doctor, I thought about the Bentley that came with it. The saving lives part…?
I’ll take one Bentley please.
Somewhere along the line, we hear relatives, teachers, and guidance counselors tell us about what’s important, about who to trust, about what matters, and think — we know what we want. We’re invincible, after all…
But life is messy.
What matters now is that in this brave new world, we’ve been given the chance to reinvent ourselves. We’ve been given the tools and the access. And once you go past the daring cat videos and Sharkeisha Vines, you’ll start to realize it’s exciting, it’s unreal, and it’s insane.
All we need to do, is move.
“…most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.”
― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World