This is a bright guy sitting across from me in my office. Early 20s. Funny. Charismatic. Clothed and framed out of Elvis Costello's 1978 closet, and so suffused with post-ironic, post-modern, geek-cool that every word he speaks is loaded with world-weary wisdom and nerd-fighter hopefulness at the same time.
He's here for advice. We've never met before. Lately, I've been asked to do this more and more. I usually say no -- if I didn't, I'd be doing it all day. But when I say yes, it's because the young artist is serious, has a creative practice already, is doing good work, and isn't really just asking me to make introductions in the business for him/her.
This fellow is accomplished. A peer. He's been working as a writer and director since he quit college to take a job at a cutting edge web-video comedy site and is now, before his 25th birthday, making six-figures a year. And he's talented.
So when he reached out online and asked for a half-hour to help talk through a career dilemma, it was an easy decision to say yes; I was looking forward to it. I've made the same ask to more experienced people throughout my creative life, to experts in various fields, to mentors. And I've gained a ton through that kind of exchange. When the timing is right, it's a pleasure to give back in the same way. What I always hope is that the young artist has an agenda, specific questions, a reason to want to make the connection.
This young man has all that. He is on time, clear-eyed and has given thought to what he wants to discuss. He lays out the career dilemma, and it's a familiar one. He's trying to decide, essentially, how to manage the balancing act between creative freedom and financial comfort.
I listen to everything he has to say. Try to process all the details. He tells me that he loves the work he's doing--making digital content for a network, half-hour shows, short segments, mini-series, that he has tremendous creative freedom within the form, but that the company is trying to lock him up for a long time. And that his ultimate goal is to make movies. I ask him some questions about his lifestyle needs. He answers honestly -- that he's gotten used to the money, that it's enough, he doesn't need more, but he's not really ready to walk away from it. We get granular about the work--and he says that the freedom to make what he wants to is ideal. The only drag of it is that the company has proposed a very long term deal, and he's afraid this will stop him from making the movie he wants to make. He's already written the script, can shoot it for a budget. We discuss what would happen if he quit the current gig. He says he'd have to work at Starbucks. I ask him if waiting to make it is going to kill him, if he can somehow do both at the same time. He allows that he can, that the company might give him an out, that they are sympathetic. That he doesn't really want to leave. Just doesn't want to be committed for more than a few years.
I understand the position he's in. And my advice is that he makes sure the term of the new deal is short--two years, that he bank money during that time, reduce lifestyle so he can save, and then, if he wants to leave to make movies only, he should.
He thanks me. Says that this seems exactly right. But it's clear something is bothering him. Finally, right before he stands, he says it. "I just thought...I hoped that you would tell me to fucking bag it, to quit no matter what, to work in a Starbucks if I had to so that I could make my movie right now. I wanted you..."
He wanted me to be the version of myself that he knew in six second bites, the version that encourages people to chase their dreams, that calls people out on their excuses. He had this idea of what he needed to hear based on an imaginary dialog we'd have, one that he had already had with me in his mind.
I see the disappointment on his face. Instead of begin jingoistic, ignoring the realities he laid out for me, I had tried to actually listen, to figure out what would be best for him in this specific moment. I had been reasonable. He needed me to be unreasonable, unyielding, deaf to his real life. I wasn't. So I was a let down.
He's as nice as could be when we shake hands before he leaves my office. And afterwards, as the late afternoon sun starts to fade, I sit there and try to make sense out of the situation.
What this bright young man was looking for was permission. As together as he is, as active and creative, he still doesn't understand that he's the only person he can look to for permission to be exactly who he wants to be. My job, in this sort of exchange, is to take him at face value, to avoid ladling my values onto his predicament, to use my experience to give him the best advice based on what he tells me he wants. That's all I can do, all I can be.
When I am making the Six Second Vines, I am talking, primarily, to myself, to who I was when I was a blocked artist, and I am talking to you, too, if you need a little push, a little encouragement, a little bit of evidence that it's possible to do what now seems impossible.
And I am talking to this young man too. But what I am trying to tell him, you, and, most importantly, myself, is that none of us need anyone else's benediction, recognition, permission to live exactly the creative life we want to live. Only we know what steps we need to take; only we know how drastic, how desperate, how urgent those steps are.
You are the only one who can yourself permission. I am the only one who can give myself permission. And this young man is the only one who can give himself permission. And that is great news. That is freedom. If we let it be.
We just need to listen to ourselves, to speak honestly to ourselves, to permit ourselves. And then, we are off and running.