I recently watched a video about Tom Brady who is arguably the greatest NFL quarterback of all time. At 40 years old, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down like many have predicted. Brady is easy to hate. Just ask anyone who isn’t a New England fan.
The easy thing to do is resent people who are more successful than you are. Attributing their success to luck, inborn talent, or some other advantage they have that you don’t is easy because everything but their shining moments are hidden to you. But when you peek behind-the-scenes, you see that people who are truly great are that way because they are willing to prepare better and more consistently than everyone else. You see that there is no special advantage or talent. There is just the constant willingness to spend more hours doing boring work.
In the video, Brady reveals his obsession with watching game film. He has spent tens of thousands of hours absorbing every aspect of the game from formations to body language. His eyes catch nuances most people miss, and the new knowledge taps into his deep intuitive understanding of the game.
Dominating your field at the highest level requires preparation at the highest level. Preparing at the highest level means putting in more boring work than anyone else. It means practicing the fundamentals until they become muscle-memory, then practicing some more. It means shaping your routine and your life around the perfection of your craft. It means committing to more discipline than normal.
To resent greatness is to admit defeat before running the race.
To admire greatness is to understand that mastery is created, not given. Anyone can create it with enough time, humility, and discipline.
4 months before getting hired, I had never been paid to make a video.
Video cameras were always intriguing to me. But beyond making skateboarding videos as a kid, I didn’t have any real video production experience until I decided to pursue it full-time in the middle of 2017.
At the outset, all I had was a little Canon T6i (great starter camera) and a vague idea of how the industry worked.
Newton’s first law of motion states that an object at rest remains at rest, or if in motion, remains in motion at a constant velocity unless acted on by a net external force.
This is why starting from scratch is so difficult. When you are at zero, there is no external force pushing you towards progress. That force is driven solely by your self-initiated effort over time.
Every creative field contains a Feedback Loop. The bigger and better your portfolio, the more clients you will attract. And the more clients you attract, the more opportunities you’ll have to add to your portfolio. Before either of these pieces is big enough to feed the other, you must add to them separately and, unfortunately, for free.
At this point, I had no customers, no leads, and nothing in my portfolio. My only option was to take that very first, daunting, lonely step forward and put out a video.
I Started Cranking Out Videos
I started vlogging because it seemed like a fun way to document my story, add to my online portfolio, and practice making videos. My first piece was mediocre at best. My second piece was slightly better, and the improvement continued with each new video.
Having a mediocre portfolio is better than having nothing at all.
As long as you keep adding to it, it will slowly become less and less mediocre. It didn’t matter that I had no paying clients yet. I kept putting out videos. This is a long-term game and there are no quick fixes.
Because I was staying busy working on my craft and developing my style, when I met somebody new I could confidently tell them that “I make videos.” This sounds better and inspires more self-confidence than saying “I’m planning to start a video company.”
For several months I put out at least 4 videos per week. I built up a solid backlog of content on YouTube and Facebook that I could point to as proof that I was creating things.
Vlogging consistently helped me chisel my own style. Since it was fun and I was ultimately doing it for myself and not for clients, the process helped me develop a video format that worked for my personality. My own creative freedom was in the driver’s seat. I used a certain type of music, certain types of transitions, and told my story in my own way so that it was discernible and unique.
I Contacted a Mentor
The core of success in any creative field maps from the two pieces of our aforementioned Feedback Loop: paying clients and a killer portfolio.
I’m a learn-by-doing type of person. I learn best by watching someone do what I want to do and then jumping in to try it myself. Naturally, one of my first steps was to reach out to somebody in my field who had a good handle on these two pieces and a well-oiled Feedback Loop.
I used these two things as a compass to locate a mentor.
Signs of a killer portfolio:
At least a couple thousand Instagram and Facebook followers
Plenty of good reviews on the business Facebook page
Customer logos and testimonials on the website
Branded videos on a Vimeo portfolio
I searched around for “video production companies in Charleston, SC” and found Vive Media. They checked all the boxes. Looking at their online profiles, it seemed like they were doing what I wanted to be doing and were a couple years ahead of me. Perfect!
The abstract goals I had in my head began to find their form in a real, practical model.
When I first reached out to Matt, the founder, I was not set on being hired — I simply wanted to build a mutually beneficial relationship and put myself around somebody who was a couple years ahead of me. I knew I would soak up habits, mindsets, and tactics that would speed up my development, and I knew that in time I would identify a spot to provide value for him.
I found him on Facebook and sent him this: “Hey Matt, I’ve been checking out Vive Media online. I just left my job and am beginning a deep dive into photo/video. It looks like you’ve built up a pretty cool company and I’d love to hear your story. Can I buy you a coffee this week or next?”
I was honest with him about what I wanted and I had a clear ask that wasn’t too forward. I didn’t go straight to asking to work with him or to teach me anything. It’s a long-term game.
We had coffee, I told him what I was up to, asked about his company beginnings, and we decided to keep in touch. I kept focusing on creating my own content.
While his professional portfolio was miles ahead of mine, he didn’t have any YouTube videos that were more personal like I did. The next time we met up, he asked me about my YouTube strategy and how I approach documenting my story.
I didn’t need to sell him on my understanding of this topic because I had already demonstrated my value by consistently creating videos using my own unique style. My portfolio, while new and not generating income yet, spoke for itself. Visiting my YouTube channel told him everything he needed to know. It showed that I was someone who knew how to consistently document a personal story using videos.
I let myself create what made sense to me, and the result was a unique body of work that resonated with a small group of people.
I positioned myself to offer value — then did it again and again and again.
I was by no means the vlogging “industry guru,” but I was 90% ahead of the average person by simply doing it (as opposed to talking about it or planning to do it). I had successfully positioned myself to provide value for someone who was several years ahead of me in my industry.
The second time Matt and I met up, he told me enjoyed watching my videos, noticed my unique style, and had a desire to create that for himself. I gave him all the tips I had from my experience documenting my story on YouTube. He mentioned that he wanted to document some of his projects behind-the-scenes to show people his process and connect with them on a more intimate level. I encouraged him to go for it.
During every meeting I made it very clear that, while I wasn’t actively searching for an apprenticeship, I was determined to learn as much as I could and that I admired his work. I offered to assist him for free on any projects he might need a hand with.
Several days later, he asked me if I wanted to help him shoot a YouTube video. I happily agreed, and we had a blast shooting the video.
Weeks later he asked me for help on a video interview project. Again, I happily agreed because the more I can work around someone who has more experience than I do, the better. This time he paid me for my time.
By working together, we each discovered more about our own strengths and weaknesses and how they complement each other. For example, Matt has a better eye for production quality but I’m strong when it comes to interacting with people and asking good questions in a video interview. These two strengths work very well together.
I continued offering to do anything he needed help with. It turns out he had a big project coming up that required a lot of emailing and scheduling. He also wanted some more behind-the-scenes content (similar to my vlogs) done for some of his bigger projects, and needed assistance with shooting and editing.
We eventually turned our working relationship into an official paid part-time apprenticeship.
You can’t just go up to someone who is more successful than you and ask them to be your mentor. This is a cost to them and, frankly, a waste of their time.
If you want an apprenticeship or a mentor, you must carve out your own way to be valuable to them. Luckily, you have an advantage that you might not be aware of: a low opportunity cost. Zak Slayback has a great article on this concept as it is applied to the professional world.
Having a low opportunity cost means that you can justify spending your time doing lower-value tasks more than a person with a higher opportunity cost can.
Because Matt had several years of running a video production company under his belt, his portfolio, relationships, and tacit knowledge in the industry earned him a higher opportunity cost than mine. That means I had a unique opportunity to do lower value tasks for him like scheduling and assisting on shoots.
My low opportunity cost paired with my consistency publishing content turned my creative hobby into a paid apprenticeship within 4 months.
If you take any piece of advice away from this story, it should be to create your own content. Remember, this is a long-term game. Don’t rush to be paid if you’re not quite there yet. If you focus on consistently doing your thing, opportunities will reveal themselves to you. You will carve out your own style and people who value what you create will notice. The Feedback Loop will start rolling. Just keep creating.
Our cave-dwelling ancestors had it much easier than we do.
Their problems and solutions were clear. If their family was hungry, they knew they needed to hunt for food. If they succeeded and ate a fulfilling meal, they were happy and satisfied for the day. End of story.
We, on the other hand, have much more complicated struggles. Many of us in America don’t know what it’s like to literally go hungry or have to fight for food and shelter. And since our brains are wired to solve problems, we end up facing dumb problems.
Rather than making an easy instinctual choice to fight for food instead of go hungry, we spend our time deciding which college we should spend our parents’ trust-fund money on, or which expensive toy we want for Christmas.
The choice to hunt for food is motivated by necessity. There is a self-evident purpose behind it — to survive. It produces a test that demands strength and discipline.
Many of the problems we have now don’t come with a binary answer and solving them doesn’t require any real test of our abilities. No wonder we grow up with a foggy sense of purpose and no clue what to do about it.
I never knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Hell, I still don’t. But I’m a lot closer to figuring it out than I was yesterday. And I’ll be closer still tomorrow.
At face value, my career trajectory looks disjointed, scrambled and without purpose. But each part of my past is a puzzle piece that has developed my unique skills and abilities. The purpose behind it lies in the way I chose to act when I made decisions each day. The puzzle pieces fit together perfectly because I am the one holding them together.
Your life will unfold unexpectedly. Let it.
Instead of frantically searching for your One True Purpose, make small choices each day that align with how you want to act. Jump onto good opportunities and don’t be afraid to let go of old ones.
Be a kid.
Children are driven by pure curiosity because they haven’t been normalized by society. They haven’t been taught to concern themselves with how what they do appears to others. They are completely self-absorbed in their quest to find answers to their questions.
They haven’t yet learned what they are supposed to do or how they are supposed to act, so they simply act. They are not burdened by the opinions of others. They do not worry about the consequences of their actions. They are naively free to pursue their own selfish curiosity.
Can I climb that tree? What is that little bug on the ground? How many caterpillars can I catch at one time?
You still ask yourself these questions, though their context has changed.
Pick a question you’re curious about and spend time finding the answer. It doesn’t matter if it makes you money, if you’re terrible at it, or if you don’t know where to start. Be naive and let your childlike curiosity drive you as far as it may, past stability, beyond certainty, and into irresponsibility. I learned about being irresponsibly curious from T.K. Coleman.
Be an adult.
In Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Nathaniel Branden writes, “I came to tell you that no one is coming.” Once you accept the reality that nobody is coming to save you, your psychology will shift and you will begin to take full responsibility for yourself.
From basic sustenance to your larger-than-life purpose, everything in your life starts and stops with you. If you want to reach your larger-than-life purpose, focus first on purposefully creating basic sustenance for yourself. This is what it means to be an adult.
It’s imperative to be curious and follow your dreams, but if you do this without developing a solid foundation from which to selectively evolve, you will start over completely every time you try something new.
Build a foundation first. Start by doing what you need to do to survive. Just like your cave-dwelling ancestors did, find a way to provide yourself with food and shelter. If this means moving away from your parents’ house and getting a crappy job to pay rent, do that, even if it’s something you hate to do.
You will develop a clear sense of purpose — to become self-sufficient — and you will develop a sense of confidence. Just like how the caveman feels satisfied when he brings food home for his family, you will feel satisfied that you’ve created some personal and financial stability for yourself.
When Casey Neistat was 17 years old, he took the only job he could find as a dishwasher. In one of his videos he advises young people to get a job doing something they hate because when you’re working a job you hate, you’ll spend the entire time thinking about what you’d rather be doing.
While you are building stability like an adult, you will be lighting the fire of your inner childlike curiosity which will guide you towards your next opportunity.
Nobody can give you purpose. You have to create it for yourself. Assume the responsibility for creating your own purpose. If it doesn’t exist now, don’t expect it to magically appear one day. Create it day by day.
No matter how pathetic you think your set of skills and accomplishments are, you have value inside you waiting to be put to work. You are capable of working and solving problems, and one of the best ways to live purposefully each day is to end that day having solved a real problem.
If you want to know why society seems to shun you, or why you seem to get no respect, it’s because society is full of people who need things. They need houses built, they need food to eat, they need entertainment, they need fulfilling sexual relationships. You arrived at the scene of that emergency, holding your pocket knife, by virtue of your birth — the moment you came into the world, you became part of a system designed purely to see to people’s needs.
The world is full of problems. People need things fixed. Laundry and dishes need to be done, trash needs to be taken out, businesses need to be turned around, and the entire geopolitical system has some serious kinks in it.
Start inside your sphere of influence and fix something you know you can fix. Don’t worry about being paid for it, only focus genuinely helping another person solve their problem. You should be able to do this in your spare time if you follow the previous piece of advice.
When you solve a small problem, you develop the confidence to take on a slightly larger problem. When you solve a problem for somebody else, they will want you to solve more problems for them. If you keep solving problems, eventually you will create an opportunity to earn income doing it.
Don’t search so hard for your One True Purpose. Just make purposeful decisions each day. Remember to be an adult, don’t lose your sense of childlike curiosity, and use your time to help people solve problems.