The advice we get when we're graduating from college mostly comes from professors, parents, and other full-blown adults. But what about lessons from those who are finishing up their twenties -- the ones who still have fresh, recent memories of those first few professional years?
If I could travel back to five years ago and catch myself right out of college, what would I say?
I've certainly been busy, working in the arts as a journalist, playwright, and theatre director in Washington DC. I've written five plays and about 250 articles, and I've worked on scores of projects with dozens of area theatres.
But even though I address some of my thoughts to DC artists specifically, these tips aren't industry-specific. They're about getting ahead by trusting in your ever-growing capacity to be creative.
Here's my stab at it: ten tips on starting out in the professional world, from a 28-year-old who's still finding his way.
Everything is useful.
Some of the projects you take up early on aren't going to fall squarely in your wheelhouse. But now is not necessarily the time to concern yourself with whether a creative project will fit properly into the life and the career you think you'll want. 'Life' is just the story you will eventually compile about the ways in which the world has affected you. So if a project sounds interesting, you should probably do it.
Most of my first projects paid off in future relationships. That might be serendipity, but only in hindsight. So stay in the moment. Respecting your early hunches may feel formless at first, but you'll be happily surprised by how often a pure and basic enthusiasm for your work creates ripples in the water. The more you like what you do, the more those ripples are felt.
But some ripples reach further than others. So:
Match personal passion with public value.
You arrive into the professional world with a knowledge of your own passions, but not a whole lot of knowledge of what is valuable to others. Good work embodies both personal passion and public value. And it takes a while to feel out that balance. You'll want to do work that feels personally rewarding, but you also need to do work that excites and supports others.
I guarantee that in order to find this balance, you'll get the equation slightly wrong a few times. You'll end up doing a few projects that you care deeply about but that don't find the right audience. And you'll do some gigs that get the community really excited but that also kind of bore you.
But you'll quickly get better at the balance. And when it's truly great, others will show up to give you their support on top of the personal inspiration you've already found. That can feel pretty sublime.
Give your attention.
You don't always have to give people hours out of your day. But you do have to give them your attention. You must talk to those people whom you don't expect to ever see again. You must do some favors you know won't return investment. And you must be someone who is known as a Good Listener.
People are very exciting. So ask good questions. Listening is a hundred times more important than speaking. Early 20th-century Indian guru Shirdi Sai Baba suggested that before speaking we ask ourselves:
"Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? Does it improve upon the silence?"
This isn't just a lesson in etiquette. It's a guiding principle in doing work that has true value and clear purpose.
Mind the gap.
Finding your style takes time. Ira Glass, the host of NPR's "This American Life," explained this in an interview with Current TV in 2009:
"All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it's just not that good... But your taste [is] still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you."
We all know that feeling. We sometimes take disappointment as a signal to pack up and cut our losses. But Glass continues:
"We all go through this... You got to know it's normal, and the most important thing you can do is a lot of work... It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions... You've just got to fight your way through."
That's something I'm still working at, for sure. Fortunately:
The work is all there is.
Brandon Stanton is the creator of the hugely successful photojournalism series Humans of New York. He gave an interview at TIME Magazine last year in which he lays it out pretty frankly:
"It all comes down to work... Just work. Just work. Don't wait. Everyone's waiting until they have the perfect idea to start working. But even if you only have an inkling of what you want to do, start moving towards it. It's going to flesh itself out through the process of moving towards the goal. And by the time you get to where you're going to be, it's not going to look anything like it did when you sat on the couch thinking about it. If you wait until it's perfect in your head, nothing's ever going to happen."
But what if you get stuck in a rut, or lose your way? Well:
Ask for directions.
Picasso didn't start out by inventing Cubism -- he started with perspective. So, get some.
Try to locate people who have been able to make a version of the career you want to have out of the pieces you're currently working with. Talk to them over coffee. How is it done? And how might you do it differently?
Getting mentorship needn't be a drawn-out affair. You'll acquire some longer-term mentors along the way, but just concern yourself with talking to people. Ask questions of those who are doing work that's particularly relevant to you. Be a reporter. And report back.
Do it because you love it.
Life churns with uncertainty, and an artist's life does especially. I remember doing a 2012 interview for DC Theatre Scene with actress Kimberly Gilbert, in which she said:
"We tend to think of success in this society as a kind of climbing ladder. In theatre that's just not how it works. It's more like a roller coaster. Actors have these long, difficult treks upwards with seemingly little gain, and then maybe there's a rush of new projects. Then maybe there's not... That's the nature of things. You've got to ride the roller coaster... You have to want to be doing it."
So, don't worry if you hit a 'dry spell.' You'll be thankful for that rare opportunity to rest up once a new load of work arrives.
Encouraging others gives you meaning too.
It is your job to care for people. So reach out. Pick the brains of people who are younger than you. Take them to lunch. It's incredibly easy to turn simple acquaintances into deeper friendships rooted in mutual support. So commit to caring for newly-created good ideas -- whether they're yours or someone else's -- and do what you can to help prod them further into being.
There is no 'rest of your life' -- only a best next step.
All I know is: if you're doing the right amount of listening and asking, the best you can hope for is a cumulative clarity brought on by a succession of smart next steps. If you move forward thoughtfully and check in with yourself as you go, you'll be on top of your game.
Read the news!
As a theatre artist, I've found that the best projects are the ones that actively challenge and provoke people on a political level. By 'political' I don't mean 'partisan' -- I just mean 'engaged in issues concerning the public good.'
So, know what's happening. Follow the news, and get second sources. Listen carefully to how different individuals -- and different channels -- tell stories differently. Sometimes you have a simple use for hard facts, but following the news pays back in nuance as well. Juggle opinions. Trade them off. Listen to counter-arguments. Strive to empathize. And out of all that, locate the questions big enough to defy a full resolution.
And for my fellow artists out there: Make the art that asks crucial, unanswerable questions. It'll put you one step closer to making great art -- the kind that can serve, as writer George Saunders recently put it in an interview with the New Yorker, as "a conduit to mystery."