Monday, February 10, 2014

Thank You, Part VI

Growing up, I thought my father had the world's most consistent routine. Sure, he had been a reporter in St. Louis and Minneapolis. But by the time I entered the world, he had settled into one career: college administrator. He drove the same two miles every morning to the same building and spent 35 years protecting and bolstering the reputation of the same institution. His commute was so automatic that I would sometimes have to gently remind him that my baseball practice was not, in fact, on campus.

I could easily create the illusion that my own life has been different from my father's--full of uncertainty, risk and volatility. The recounting of life is, after all, editing. Go back to 1989, the year I lived abroad, and cut to the 19-year-old me crouched on a rooftop in Jerusalem, listening to gunfire as the Palestinian intifada burns below. Cut to the next summer, as I haul a soggy backpack down Dublin's damp streets, jobless and homeless. Dissolve to a blizzard on the Indiana Toll Road as I white-knuckle it 500 miles to Minnesota in 1993, my five-speed Isuzu I-Mark stuffed to the roof with two guitars, four bags of clothes and one terrified cat. Cut to the morning of Feb. 4, 2008, as I kiss my wife and son goodbye and head through the back door into a new life with a mortgage, no income and no knowledge of the economic apocalypse just around the corner.

All of this would be true, and yet it would also be a horrible lie. The Jerusalem rooftop was half a mile from the real action, and the events I witnessed were orchestrated every day at 2:00 for the CNN cameras--including the rubber bullets. That summer in Dublin? I was with two good friends, we had beds at a youth hostel, and we found a decent flat (and some odd jobs to pay the rent) within a week. The tense drive to Minnesota? Maybe it wasn't exactly a blizzard, and my grandparents awaited on the other end, ready to house me in their cozy suburban house until I found an apartment.

As for that February morning six years ago, I won't say my first day of self-employment wasn't terrifying (it still feels like the only truly risky thing I've ever done). But I've come to feel the secret forces at work that soften the uncertainties. In fact, I've consistently found myself receiving far more from my clients and colleagues than simple economics can account for. There's the agency that gave me my first Conk Creative freelance project--and has given me work nearly every month since. There's the stalwart client who invites me to employee events as if I'm one of the tribe (and the CEO who let me use his cabin for a writing retreat). There's the colleague who threw me into a meeting with two guys who wanted to make a war movie, then had the nerve to trust me to write it. There's the colleague who not only sends me consistent work, but always manages to pick me up when I go through all-too-frequent periods of self-doubt. And there are too many more to mention in one post.

My father passed away unexpectedly in May, and his death illuminated a life far more intricate and complicated than I could have comprehended as a child. When he died, I expected support from friends and family. What I didn't expect were the comforting words and heartfelt cards from people I work with, some of whom even attended the funeral. I've learned quite a bit in six years of self-employment, but perhaps the most valuable is that clients and colleagues can also be friends. They're the reason I always know that deep down, despite some frightening unknowns, the support around me is real. It's fear that's the illusion.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Thank You, Part V

You're probably friends with one of these people. In fact, you might be one of these people. I'm talking about the ones who get in a car, start driving, and then after five minutes say, "So where are we going?"

I used to make fun of people like this. Then GPS and Google Maps came along, and it was clear that instead of them having to adjust to the world, the world was apparently adjusting to them. They actually had it right. There was no reason why you shouldn't be able to get behind a wheel, know nothing about your destination, and still have every reasonable expectation of getting there safely and on time.

By now, the analogy is obvious. Five years ago, I actually did become one of "these people." Not only do I now routinely enter my car without knowing where I'm going; in a bigger sense, this is how life itself now operates. My father, who had the same steady job for 35 years, used to automatically drive toward work even if he was supposed to be taking you to a Saturday Little League game on the other side of town. If there's an opposite problem, I have it. This morning, I got in my trusty 1998 Honda knowing vaguely what I needed to do for the day, but I started driving without knowing exactly where and how I wanted to do it. (Of course, with me this literal "destination angst" really comes down to "which coffee shop do I want to park myself at for the first two hours of the day?" A first-world problem if there ever was one.)

I've learned in five years that some things about the self-employed life will never change. You'll never know, as a former boss used to put it so well, "where the next dollar is coming from." Even next month. But somehow you learn to trust yourself, and that's the hardest part. After five years, I still wake up wondering if I can really write, or even think. I worry that if I'm totally on the wrong track. That I've just gotten "lucky." That my clients might all go away tomorrow. Or, worst of all, that none of my clients are real, and are actually all part of an elaborate joke being perpetuated by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

For someone who helps people hone their own messages, I have a hard time explaining a focus that encompasses everything from concepting movies and TV spots to writing brochure copy about spark-ignited gas generator sets and the impact of federal poverty guidelines on health care reform. And I have a hard time relating a business model that involves one office for marketing and two others for screenwriting. I'm not sure what my son thinks that I do, because whatever it is, it's probably never going to show up as an option on some "what do you want to be when you grow up" worksheet he sees in school. All he knows for sure is that I leave around 8 a.m. and come home at 6 p.m. I started doing that on my first day of self-employment, even though I had nowhere to go and no work to do. I thought I did it for him, so that he wouldn't be scared and think that anything was wrong or had changed with Daddy (see: "projection").

What do I know after five years? That I work for good people who do good things and have a bigger perspective and purpose than just selling widgets to make a lot of money. My only rule is that every client I work with has to pass the following test: Are you a basically rational person? Do you listen? Do you have a sense of humor? What I've found is that people who score a "yes" on all three are loaded with lots of other good traits. And that's what I'm so grateful for after five years. That I have that. And when you have that, other things just seem to fall into place.

After driving for 10 minutes this morning, I ended up today at the St. Paul CoCo (a.k.a. my "second" screenwriting office). I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down to write this post. I didn't bill any time or make any money by doing so. But the sun just came pouring through the window, and on the sound system, Paul Westerberg is singing, "I Can't Wait." 'Nough said.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Thank You, Part IV

When I was a kid, I used to sit down one morning every December and read my father's collection of Christmas letters. He started writing them before I was born, so it was a compelling snapshot of a life in progress ... not only mine, but of each member of our family. If you could turn each paragraph written about you into a single image, stack those images like a deck of cards and flip through them, you could see an animated representation of your character, and the pattern and trajectory of your life.

Having entered my fifth year of self-employment, I now have a new "Christmas letter pattern" in the works. I don't mean my own family Christmas letter, which I model closely on my father's. And I don't mean the family photo I take every year in front of our house on James' birthday (that one is to literally create a flip book one day that will show James growing and his parents shrinking). I mean these digital thank you notes that I started writing on January 15, 2009.

Before writing this one, I went back and read the three previous entries. The flip book pattern that I see emerging is a combination of fear, shock and wonder. I will never forget the day (really the middle of the night) when I decided to "go it alone." I will never forget the odd combination of fear and liberation that ensued the moment I handed in my resignation letter a few days later. I will never forget the shock of having people offer me advice, office space, free services, and (most important) paid work in that first year. And I continue to be filled with wonder at where this whole thing is leading me.

As a writer, I should avoid cliches. But I can't avoid the metaphor of walking a tightrope with no net. That's still how this feels, and I think it always will. But rather than using that as an image of panic, I now realize how much that feeling focuses you. With so much at stake, you have to figure out what you can and can't do. Or, to use another cliche, you have to know what you know, and know what you don't know. You have no choice but to leave what you don't know to other people, be as confident as possible about whatever talent you do have, and strike a balance between the two.

Most important, I find new and surprising avenues of gratitude each year. Friends become clients. Clients become friends. And I experience unexpected support for other endeavors (I can't get through this without vaguely referring to "Memorial Day," nee "Souvenirs") that have gone farther than logic or probability would dictate. I sometimes feel that this tightrope has taken me into a strange land filled with the realistically impossible, or the pragmatically fantastic, or some other clumsy oxymoron. And I'd just like to say "thank you" to everyone who has gone there with me, and formed the invisible safety net below.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Playing with Type

No, I'm not talking about fonts. I'm talking about taking well-known personalities and letting them play with their image. There are basically two ways to go if you want to entertain: Have them play against type, or have them poke fun at their existing type. I did the latter with Joe Mauer, and this is the new spot for Anytime Fitness that was just released on YouTube today.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Self-Congratulatory Marketing

I tend to pick on certain brands, but it's only because they're ones that I actually "use," so call it flattery by criticism.

Lately, I've observed a trend that I'm calling "self-congratulatory marketing." I walk into Chipotle (as I do, let's face it, at least once a week) and see that the popular quick-serve restaurant is temporarily wrapping its burritos in gold to celebrate its 18th anniversary and promote its mantra of "food with integrity." As part of the effort, you can also pick up a fake, semi-Onion-style newspaper at checkout called The Gold Burrito Digest.

Walk down the corner to Starbucks, and you'll see what that often-ridiculed-yet-still-popular brand is doing to celebrate its 40th anniversary: a refined logo, a Tribute Blend coffee, and CEO Howard Schultz's new book, Onward.

Don't get me wrong: It's smart marketing to use a company anniversary as an opportunity to do something different, attract some earned media attention and generally shake it up for loyal customers.

But there's something about these two promotions that strikes me funny. There's just a little too much "me" in them, and not enough "you." Chipotle is merely drawing attention to its ingredients, but not offering customers anything more (maybe every 100th golden burrito is free?). Starbucks probably thinks that it's rewarding customers by giving them some new product offerings, but there's not a clear sense of, "Thank you for making us who we are." It's all about them.

It's a little like saying to your spouse, "In honor of our 10th anniversary, I'm going to remind you of all the reasons you married me." Really? Is that all?

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Competitive Catch-22

Rather than write a traditional post on this topic, I thought I'd represent the point a bit more dramatically.

[A cold corner office. A CEO turns his computer monitor to face a marketing director, taps the screen.]

CEO: Why aren't we doing this?

Marketing Director: Doing what, exactly?

[The CEO frowns, folds his arms.]

CEO: I explained this when you were hired. When it comes to marketing, I want us to be different, to do things no one else is doing. We need to be pioneers, outside-the-box thinkers. First adopters, not copy cats. Creative. That kind of thing.

Marketing Director: And you think what this competitor is doing is ground-breaking and creative?

CEO: Take a look for yourself.

[The marketing director leans in, examines the work.]

CEO: Well?

Marketing Director: You're right. It's very good.

CEO: Then why aren't we doing it?

Marketing Director: Actually, we talked about it.

CEO: When?

Marketing Director: Ten months ago.

CEO: We did not.

Marketing Director: I brought it to you personally, almost this exact idea. And it had a lot of support. Sales loved it. But then one person derailed it.

CEO: Who?

Marketing Director: You.

CEO: Me? That's impossible. Why would I shoot down an idea that everybody's talking about?

Marketing Director: No one was talking about it back then. You said it was too risky. I think you also said it was, quote, weird.

CEO: Business is founded on risk!

Marketing Director: You said it was unproven. Our policy was "Appropriate Risk," which meant waiting for tangible "proof of concept" in the marketplace before engaging resources.

CEO: Exactly. That's smart policy.

[The marketing director turns the computer screen back toward the CEO.]

Marketing Director: Well, I guess we have our "proof of concept."

[The CEO stammers.]

CEO: You've made your point. Now go and do something just like this.

Marketing: Only different, right?

CEO: Exactly. And then think of the next idea before somebody else does.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Thank You, Part III

About three and a half years ago, while still working at an agency, I did a small side project for a friend. When the project was done, I had to put together an invoice. And this forced me to pretend, just for the briefest of moments, that I was self-employed.

Mind you, this was something I had never actually considered possible or realistic. Aside from "being a lawyer" and "visiting Branson, Missouri, "owning my own business" was, in fact, the one thing I knew I never would do. I was far too risk-intolerant, not to mention pathologically under-confident.

The next thing I remember is typing "Conk Creative" in the upper left-hand corner of the blank word processing document. I did it without really thinking. And then a strange and magical thing happened. You know that movie-like feeling when you meet someone and instantly feel as though you've known him or her your entire life? It was like that.

"Conk Creative." Just like any story or character, it now existed simply because I typed it.

Six months later, I turned in my resignation letter at the agency. Two weeks after that, I woke up with no clients, no income and no clue. It's difficult to describe how terrifying and liberating that felt. And it's almost disturbing to realize how closely related "fear" and "freedom" are on an emotional level. I felt as though a cliche had been proven correct: There's nothing more terrifying and liberating than walking a tightrope with no net.

But here's the thing: Doors have flung open in the last three years that would have remained shut had I stayed ... let's see, what's the real opposite of self-employed? ... "other-employed." What you realize is that you do have a net below you. It's called "family." It's called "friends." It's called "colleagues." Sometimes it's called "complete strangers" and "people you never thought you'd meet."

I haven't negotiated that rope perfectly, and indeed, the real challenge will always be learning how to maintain balance. Today, I'd just like to say thank you to everyone who has broken my fall and gotten me right back on the rope.