In my 20’s, I was acutely aware of the need to know my “voice”. As a director fumbling my way through film school, much emphasis was placed on expressing one’s thoughts with both gravitas and artistic merit, as though my self-understanding lay buried in the pages of French New Wave and Auteur theory.
When thrown the question, What do you want to say?, my mind would struggle to expel some erudite observation, yet filtered through latent religious hang ups about the disconnect between who I imagined I should be and how life had actually unfolded.
My father father mused once that each decade is better than the last. That with the shedding of years comes also a shedding of I don’t give a fuck what people think of me anymore. Emphasis mine. He would never speak like that.
Last night I visited a gallery in Red Hook. Some hipster art event in an impossible location with an exquisitely manicured back yard with a fire pit, and a refurbished factory space hosting a band. I was with two friends, and the three of us dovetailed around each other, exploring the art, music, and hipster folks, each on our own journey.
There was a moment I was standing alone in a room full of people, listening to the band and watching the extroverted few dance up front. I became aware of my body, my ability to relax my shoulders and to dispel any niggling worry about what people must think of me (because people probably didn’t even notice, let alone care).
Instead, I was able to observe the rhythmic energy of the drummer, his movements rising like a dance above the hide, and the joy whirling through the audience. And despite standing alone, I observed my ability to be connected… for their smiles to be transferred to my face. Mirror neurons are what I’m referring to. From this came the ability to focus on what I do have around me, rather than do not have: the things in life that make the present moment satisfying, and the feeling of having enough.
Quite simply, I am who I am. Wonderful and complete. I really like myself.
I don’t believe in the notion of a person being where they’re “meant to be”, or that things work out they way they’re meant to, as though the road were predestined. Rather, the numerous junctures along my life-path led me to where I am today, in New York. One decision after another. All valid experiences. And one node pivots on to the next to create the context of my unique life story.
This is what voice is – understanding that my meta narrative is a valid human experience, unique among the billions, worthy to be communicated to others, in the hope that I may be known, and that they may glean something from it for themselves. In turn, it allows me to appreciate the uniqueness of other people and their stories.
So as I pause in this moment, about to propel myself with abandon into the rabbit hole of my 30s, I’ve discovered my voice does not begin with the reverberations of my lungs. My voice begins in my silence, my stillness; my ability to simply be.
It’s my little bro’s birthday today. When I say “little”, I mean in age, for at 6’5, I am one inch his little bro. But, with nine years life experience on him, I’m hoping I can offer some insight about stepping out and taking charge of his work life.
I remember what it was like job hunting post-university in my early 20’s. The work you’re offered is usually far from where you want to be, with no clear path of the steps to attain your long-term goal anyway.
My first job was working in breakfast television as a production assistant. While it was reassuring to have a staff position, I only lasted a couple of months before I got itchy feet. I packed the job in and took off to Brazil, Europe, Africa.
I’ve always had the sense that time is limited. As time passes, I’ve also come to understand it as one of our most valuable assets. For me, it makes sense to take the risk to explore the world and find something I’m passionate about, rather than stay put and wonder what might have been on the other side.
When I returned from my world travels, it also made sense for me to go freelance, and in more recent years, start a business. The reward of owning my own time, choosing priorities, and being proactive in my growth, outweighs the consistency of full-time pay.
My bro is currently between government contracts and said he was waiting to hear back about the next one. But, he also made $500 this month designing custom drawers for a 4WD and reworking a Harley Davidson. That’s the origin of a business!
So on his birthday, I wanted to share 6 insights I believe are critical in taking a proactive attitude towards success.
1. Present your future-self to the people you meet.
Americans do this well.
I’ll meet a person at a function who will introduce herself to me as an actress. She’ll give me a card with a headshot and tell me about a recent film she was in. I know she works in a bar. That is her main source of income, but at this point, that is irrelevant.
Our common point of interest is making films, and the priority of our conversation should be working out if we have cohesive personalities, values, interests, ideas, sense of humor, etc. She would do herself a disservice if she opened with the line “I work in a bar, but I really want to be an actress”.
Other people often give us more credit than we give ourselves, so put your insecurities aside and just speak freely about your current work and aspirations. You might inspire your new friend.
2. People always want to put you in a box. That’s fine. Just give them 9 different boxes.
In my early 20’s, there was a brief time I was a “slashie” — writer/ director/ producer/ actor/ model/ TV presenter/ photographer/ cinematographer/ editor. I’m young; the world’s an exciting place; I want to try it all!
However, it gets darn confusing when you throw so many variables at someone. They’ll leave the conversation with less of an idea of how you might be of interest to them than when you met.
The fact is, in your early 20’s you’re probably going to have many different “hats”, or boxes, as you experiment and find what you enjoy doing. This is good! Even established entrepreneurs and businesses continue to diversify and experiment with new ventures. Just make sure you present each skill or business or idea with clear parameters.
Create different business cards and portfolio websites for each venture. You as a person are the umbrella to bring all those facets together, but you decide on a person-by-person basis the relevant identity to present. On social media like LinkedIn, present only your core role.
You’ll see I’ve reduced this website to two core facets: my direction of moving images and still images. Many of my other “slashie” skills and experience are now utilized under my umbrella role as a director.
My business advisor Monica Davidson gave me this advice, and it’s been instrumental in refining the presentation of my skills over many years. If you’re in Australia, I recommend her workshop for creative businesses: freelancesuccess.com.au
3. Create an online portfolio website.
Less is more. Present only your best work.
Search Engine Optimization aside, I think the initial value of a well thought-out website is not traffic from random strangers, but comes from the people you meet In Real Life.
You meet someone, they like you, you give them a business card. It looks good and stirs their interest. They look up your website. They’re impressed by a clear and simple demonstration that you can execute in detail the task you were discussing in person. Having this forward-facing entity establishes credibility and a history. They’ve already met you, and now trust you enough to hire you or buy your product.
This is essentially refocusing the old adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” to understand that the people you need to know are already in your address book, not the cold-calls you think you have to make to powerful people.
In short, make a list of 100 people who have some level of mutual friendship/ acquaintance/ concern for you. Also list 40 goals you want to achieve, big or little, business or personal (it’s important to be specific). Then match the dots. Who can help you with what goal?
Your 100 people have their own network of 100 people, giving you potential access to 10,000 people. You only need 1 person to open the right door, so you have good odds.
Pride and fear keep us from asking for help from friends, but all successful people are able to ask for help. Whatever you truly want in life, it will always involve relationships. Instead of cold-calling strangers, it’s better to be “doing life” with your friends. Friends are naturally prewired with a desire to help you anyway, and you them.
This tip comes from Bob Beaudine who wrote “The Power of WHO!” (gotta say that like an owl). A random book I perused while subletting a stranger’s apartment in New York City.
5. If you want different results, try something different.
This one is simple, yet people continue with the same activities, expecting opportunities will magically shift in their favor with the passing of time. They won’t.
I mean, they might, but you’ll probably be dead by then. Rather than wait, take a calculated risk.
The important note here is that it doesn’t have to be seismic life-shift that turns your world upside down, like quitting a full-time job. Beginning small is the key! And, like Jullien Gordon in his talk “Side Hustlas” at TEDxMidwest delves into, start your venture as something you hustle on the side — in addition to your other job.
This brings us down to the question, “Why are you doing what you are doing?” Maybe you are simply doing your job to make money. That’s great! However, in the long-term, even that money to sustain your life has to funnel into a more intrinsic value system to carry a sense of fulfillment.
6. Know Thy Self.
What do you want to do?
If you don’t know what you want to do… how do you find out?
I’ve always known I wanted to direct, yet it took a good portion of my 20’s to feel grounded in my craft. There’s always more to grow into, as well as the deeper question, What do I want the films I direct to be about?
I’ll leave this post with words from the late British philosopher Alan Watts, who asks “What makes you itch?”:
What would you like to do if money were no object? Do that. Become a master of it. Then you will get a good fee for it.
Happy birthday, bro! My prayer is you take that risk and try something new, that time be on your side, and that you sense fulfillment in what you do.
I’ve been reading Hugh Mackay’s “What Makes Us Tick?” recently. Here are some of my favourite quotes:
If we lack self-knowledge and are unable to resolve our own internal conflicts, we’re less likely to be able to express ourselves clearly. If we’re not in touch with ourselves, it will be harder for other people to get in touch with us.
The greatest barriers to connection are within us.
If we only consume and never create, there’s every chance we’ll become jaded in our response to the arts, increasingly hard to please, too worried about the “meaning” and “value” of the work. Create something yourself and such questions either dissolve or evolve into a more sympathetic appreciation of the power of the arts to connect us to ourselves.
The narrow focus of the creative process admits no distractions and that’s therapeutic in itself. Creativity is all about exploring the self; the therapeutic benefit of learning how to express yourself.
Perhaps it reflects an unfulfilled desire. Given I’ve really only had about one or two failed relationships, I wondered how on earth I settled on making a film about love.
The film turned over in my head as I lay in bed the night before the shoot. The culmination of five months of hectic development and preproduction boiled down to an uncanny stillness, like the serene lapse in activity just before you board an international flight: with all preparation finalised, you just enjoy the inflight movies (assuming you have enough legroom). That things are moving smoothly can be unnerving.
In the darkness I reflected on my choice of subject and style over various years and projects – in my writing and storytelling, my photography, films, in my poetry. I realised beauty was a recurring theme in my worldview, and henceforth, my creative outlets. It’s something I look for: a desire for life and relationships… to be wonderful.
One of the film school staff criticised this aspect of my work during pre-production. We were talking about image creation. One of the images in my film was a minimalist, pristine backyard: glass railings around a deck with an infinity pool on Sydney Harbour’s southern headland. My Indian protagonist was standing at the glass railing on the edge of the cliff, looking out to the ocean.
She challenged me to put my Indian girl in shabby clothes rather than make her look beautiful. The teacher made the generalisation that my photographs are “too beautiful” and I should look for contrast instead. I think I was more intrigued by what seemed to come across as an evaluation of my instincts rather than an embellishment to a film – someone who had seen my films and photographs and found them wanting. Superficial perhaps.
I understood what she meant, though felt misrepresented. In my film, I was constantly trying to pull the drama of the love back into the characters’ weakness rather than strength. I hate untested romance; I hate sentimentality devoid of actuality.
The analogy I gave to my actors was that as the son of a rich white man, the Australian male character was the “King”, with all the power, wealth and security that Sydney’s eastern suburbs entail. As the immigrant about to be deported, the female character was the powerless peasant girl.
To stay where he was and expect her to come to him would present him as selfish and arrogant, given her circumstances. The king had to step down from his throne, leave his “crown” and entitlements, and meet her where she was. He would win her, not by being the all-conquering Australian male bulldogging his way through, but by exposing his heart and insecurities and by making himself as vulnerable as she was. For when she is deported and they are thousands of miles apart, their strength to continue to pursue love had to come not from his money or privileged position, but from their emotional investment, the entwining of their hearts (to borrow from the film’s title) and the knowledge that each had sacrificed their world to pursue the other’s.
I am not unaware of the ugliness of this world. I have seen marriages fall apart, the powerlessness of teenagers hating and destroying themselves, youthful idealism die, careers blow like chaff.
I’ve travelled to places where people live in extreme poverty and are torn apart by conflict. The Brasilian favela that I lived in during 2007 was unpretty, yet filled with beauty. It was a hard and dangerous life and the police were the enemy, but it contained people who made the time a delight. I don’t want to romanticise the favelas much more than that, for as an outsider I can dip in and out of these experiences… suffice to say: beauty can always be found if you choose to see it.
Insights about oneself are interesting because they often counter expectations. Beauty as a recurring theme in my work is one I’d personally reject to some degree in a media culture super-saturated with the portrayal of perfection… in body image, lifestyle, relationships, finance, property, attitudes.
Yet the pursuit of beauty is not a bad objective. It just depends on what you prioritise as “beautiful”.
It’s like a man’s love for his woman (he says in his grandfather’s voice…). It’s easy to say he should love her above all else, but what action does that love take? She’d like you to have a healthy body, but I think maintaining a buff bod is a little further down the list of importance than connecting with her emotionally. I know people who have damaged their relationship because their pursuit of the perfect body has tapped into their partner’s insecurities and pushed her away.
Even moments of death, when your world is ripped apart, can contain beauty, should you maintain that perspective. This poem about my grandfather’s passing last year reflects the paradox of such events.
I think we need beauty – true beauty. The capacity to choose to remain tender whilst heartbreak rages.
The pursuit of beauty carries with it the ability to transcend the world’s present state – not to deny the existence of its imperfections, but the optimism to strengthen our passage towards the dream: the way things could be.