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Learning From Past Screw Ups

Have you ever looked back at your past choices and found yourself thinking, "Wow, I really screwed up"? I've been thinking that way a lot lately.

I've been reading Jeff Goins' new book, Real Artists Don't Starve. I'm finding it fascinating and encouraging even as I recognize my own missteps and mistakes in my creative career to this point. What's standing out to me so far is how important cultivating patrons is to artists.

"All creative workers need influencers who will vouch for them to an audience who doesn’t know them yet," Goins writes. "But it is not enough to meet a patron; you must cultivate one."

Patrons, as Goins explains, are the early adopters of a given artist's talent and work. They see something they like and opt to buy work by that artist, recommend that artist to others, and offer feedback and guidance to an artist. According to Goins, "Patrons do not just make the arts possible; they make the world we inhabit— and so often take for granted— possible."

As I read his words on the need for cultivating a patron, I found myself wondering if I've been doing things wrong. I'm not so sure I've done all that well at cultivating patrons. It's so tempting to just spend what little free time I have working on writing a new book or script or working on a new film project. But as Goins writes about extensively in that chapter, there is so much more to the creative life than just doing the work. A couple of the key factors are networking and the cultivation of patron relationships.

Early on in my creative career, I had the opportunity to quit my day job and spend the majority of my time working on my goals as an indie filmmaker. My wife has a good job, so this is how we were able to proceed with my rather spotty, essentially non-existent income. At the time it sounded like a dream come true. I could spend my day focusing on developing, writing, and making the short films I hoped would pave the way to working as a director and writer of feature films with proper budgets and all.

Hindsight is 20/20, as they say.

There's no easy way to put this, and it hurts to admit it, but quitting my day job so soon after college was a big mistake. I should not have done that. So as I read Goins' following words, it was a with a deep sense of stinging regret: "Employers become patrons when we begin to see them not as obstacles to the work we want to do but as a way of funding it."

I saw employment as an obstacle for my creative work. Big mistake!

Don't get me wrong, I did make a lot of short films and I still engaged in paid freelance work as a videographer and editor. The films got some attention, a little distribution, and I definitely honed my skills. But my ultimate goals of connecting with those who could empower me to make feature films has yet to happen. Meanwhile, the paid freelance video work was not my focus. In the process, I asked too much of my wife and put a strain on our relationship. Boy, this is getting vulnerable.

In addition to this, I was not actively seeking to cultivate patrons and connect with mentors (something else Goins addresses) while I was busy making projects. It just wasn't on my mind. I was operating under the notion that I needed to simply make good work and then get it in front of enough people and the rest would happen naturally. I tried to do what I could. I seized the opportunity to show a short film to a major Hollywood producer and another short to an up-and-coming director (I'm pretty sure he's established now that he's directing for Marvel). But I failed to make good impressions with my work and I'm not sure I came across as all that teachable, as Goins points out is so important.

Now, I'm not here to have a pity party. Pity parties don't help anyone! Rather, I'm hoping to process (in public, no less--what was I thinking?) about my past failures and seek to learn from these mistakes. I hope to be transparent and in this processing in hopes that I can genuinely change and grow. After all, as Dr. Robert Clinton points out, "Lessons not learned will be repeated." A good friend of mine is fond of quoting this line. I find it's all too true.

So why do I care about all of this now?

Aside from the fact that I hoped that by this point I'd be making feature films full time (and I'm not at all doing that), I'm about to enter a new season in my life. Currently, I'm a stay-at-home dad who does some creative work and freelance gigs on nights and weekends. But soon, my daughter will start pre-school, and I will begin working more hours in hopes of providing additional income for our household.

The old me would have been freaking out about the demands on my time this would represent and how little I'd be able to work on the creative projects I am ultimately passionate about. However, one thing being a stay-at-home dad has taught me is that I'm far more capable of finding the time and cultivating the discipline to still do the work I'm passionate about than I had previously thought. It means that I might not get as much sleep as I'd like to (and drink way more coffee than I should). I definitely don't watch almost any of these TV shows people keep talking about (seriously, if it's on TV, assume I haven't seen it). I am much more selective about what I'm willing to spend time on. And I have to admit that I have an incredibly hard time maintaining friendships with anyone outside my immediate circle of natural weekly interactions (in my case, pretty much who I go to church with). But ... I'm about to finish my second novel's final draft. And already I'm picking up paid commercial work as a video editor and occasionally shooter even as I'm still a full-time (plus) stay-at-home dad.

So, as life shifts for me yet again, I'm increasingly hopeful and determined that even if I'm spending my days working hard to help earn an income for my family, there will be opportunities for me to still do the work that I find gives me the most meaning. And I want to take Goins' words to heart that the people I do work for can, in fact, be some of my patrons even as I seek to cultivate specific patrons of my writing and narrative filmmaking.

I'm also encouraged by Goins' reminder that, "Yes, artists need patrons, but what we sometimes miss is that patrons also need artists."

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