Newbie Tip: Put In the Time or Get Out

“I replaced the headlights in my car with strobe lights, so it looks like I’m the only one moving.”Steven Wright

When it comes to your career, you’re so close to it that you might not be able to discern just how fast you’re going. But if you estimate your rate of advancement solely by your perceptions of everyone else around you, you’ve got bigger problems than how quickly you’re moving up the ladder.

When I started my first TV gig in Los Angeles back in ye olde Y2K, I was pulling down next to nothing as a logger/transcriber on an MTV series. Another guy, fresh from a major film school, had the same gig, working at a cubicle next to me on the graveyard shift from 7pm-4am. Great guy, very personable, big dreams just like we all have, but he seemed to be infinitely more frustrated by the job than I was. About midway through every shift, he’d start to get upset, and at some point not long after, he’d throw himself back from the desk and loudly announce how he’d gone to school to be a director, and that this was “bullsh*t, man.”

I can remember thinking, “The guy just got here and he’s upset that he isn’t directing? And he’s working in reality television when what he really wants to do is make films?”

We all move at different speeds, and I’ve got to tell you, there are a lot of people out there who are happy to start at the bottom and put in the time to rise up through the ranks if you aren’t. I took a shine to reality television early on — a huge surprise to me — and wound up working my way up to the Supervising Producer level in about eight years. One talented coworker of mine managed to land her first Supervising Producer job in half the time it took me to get my own — but that was her timetable, and comparing yourself to others in terms of your own rate of advancement in title or pay is a sure way to drive yourself crazy.

In the middle of my first decade, I lost a fair amount of time by chasing paychecks and trying not to pigeonhole myself as a reality-competition or celeb-reality guy instead of building a long-lasting relationship with a particular production company, which often results in a faster rise to the top. What I gained in that tradeoff, though, was broad experience in nearly every subset of the genre, building a resume that sports credits on docuseries, reality competition shows and more.

As for that guy who wanted to direct? Well, I haven’t heard from him in years, but I do see that he’s gone on to direct and DP a number of shorts and independent projects that have received some pretty solid festival play over the last decade. He knew what he wanted, but he also knew when to get out, which is the other point of this entry. If you’re deeply unhappy with what you’re doing, it’s a good idea to crank up your idea engine and figure out how to get started on the road to where you want to be. Why break your back climbing a ladder you don’t want to be on?

2 thoughts on “Newbie Tip: Put In the Time or Get Out

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  1. This is a great post. Something that pertains to me and my situation specifically. My question is what if you aren’t sure which “ladder” you want to climb? What if it’s ALL intrigues you? TV writing, producing, Film writing, producing, acting, then what? That’s been my issue. When you don’t know exactly what you want to focus on or what the realities of these jobs are and mediums then it’s easy to use the one measuring stick that makes the most sense… Pay. Then you end up chasing money because you don’t know enough to distinguish between the mediums with out it considering it.

    1. Chris, what I find is that if you pick something generalized enough to start out with… like an office PA gig that puts you in daily contact with people who do a lot of different things, it’ll help you sort out what you want to chase. I know a former story PA who fell in love with editing, and I know an editor who decided to get out of the bays and try his hand at story and field production. If it ALL intrigues you, get on the producer track. It requires you to know at least a little something about everything.

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