Rejection is inevitable. If you long to create, if you are burning with an idea, a song, a voice--then you will be heartbroken. Parents are usually bad teachers in the arts because this is a lesson they cannot shield you from--we are doomed to fail.
The moment you set foot on this path is the moment you are setting your sails to choppy seas and rocky shores.
Whether you long to publish fantastical literature like The Sandman or offbeat serials like Bebop, it is not that the odds are tipped against you, and they are, but the fact that the world will not listen until you make them.
Actors learn this first hand. Day in and day out, at least pre-COVID, we get on the bus, the train, the Uber to waltz through 100 degree heat and black ice to show up sweaty and tired to present our work to someone who likely doesn’t want to be there. Then, we go home or back to work and wait for an email that never comes.
Writers must do the same thing. No one will read your unpublished work anymore than a blank page tells a story. Rejection is the norm.
Artists must develop a balanced sense of humility and confidence. Confidence that their work is good enough, and humility to understand that they can improve.
“A lesson any writer can use. Don’t be afraid. That simple; don’t let them scare you. There’s nothing they can do to you. If they kick you out of films, do TV. If they kick you out of TV, write novels. If they won’t buy your novels, sell short stories. Can’t do that, then take a job as a bricklayer. A writer always writes. That’s what he’s for.” -- Harlan Ellison
The rules are often far simpler than we realize. How do we get stronger? We lift more weight than we did the day before. How do we do that? By showing up to the gym.
How does an actor get more work? They audition more. How do they learn to deal with rejection? By being rejected again and again.
How does a writer get published? He writes. He finishes it. He sends it out. It comes back, and he sends it out again. Then, during the process of waiting, he writes something else.
If theses rules look familiar it is because they appeared in Heinlein’s Business Rules and were also featured in Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass.
The rules are as follows:
We long for a secret, a connection. We rely on cliches such as, “It’s who you know,” but deep down we know that hard work creates luck and whether or not we have done the work to make the luck.
These rules extend far beyond just writing. How do we increase sales? We have to reach out to clients, follow the lead, make the ask, and try again.
How do we book a gig? We audition again and again, we work on passion projects, we share our work, we shout at the rafters, “Come see my work,” and we keep doing this again and again, storming past gatekeeper after gatekeeper, because, as the Marquis DeSade pointed out, and Charles Bukowski, and Harlan Ellison, and Heinrich von Kleist, “I don’t stop writing, because I cannot.”
We share our work because it is like air we must breath. “If it does not come pouring out of you,” then you are wasting your time.
How do you get paid? Become famous? Pack presceniums? Amass an empire? These are not questions we can answer, truthfully, because they are all predicated on the work, and the courage to share.
Today, people go viral with a rip-off of a dance they saw on another medium, and yet we wonder why no one will read our story.
There’s no such thing as an original idea? Bullshit. Sure Cormac McCarthy wrote it better on the back of Moby Dick beneath the wings of King James under the foundation of Shakespear, but fuck it all you are the first person to arrive, the first reader to read, the words you are putting, in this order, at this time, in this place.
It may not seem like an act of bravery, but to face the blank page, the empty stage, the unknown lands from whose bourn no traveler returns, and to do it repeatedly takes courage. We can relent, or we can persevere.
If this seems like me mesmerizing myself, in a way, it is. I have no delusions that often the words I write are meant to reinvigorate me here, and hopefully, although lesser than, inspire you.
These are all things I must do better at, and also struggle to overcome. I write, and often do not finish. I finish, but do not publish or produce, let alone share. I audition, and fail and forget. I get cast, and still feel the weight of all the failures rather than the joy of creation.
Yet, each day we must strive to beat the demon of resistance back. Each day we must be willing to face the blank page, the gatekeepers, the system of Sisyphus, and we must press on.
In his Masterclass, Gaiman shares a story of the advice Harlan Ellison gave a you writer: what you’re writing is shit, what you need to write is really, really good stuff. Or, as Steve Martin said it best with his biography, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
Recently, my reading has slowed--it’s been difficult to focus on one book, or one idea even; however, Skip the Line by James Altucher grabbed my attention immediately.
Almost everything I read gets filtered through the lens of, “How can I apply this to acting and/or writing,” and given that Altucher experimented as a comedian, public speaker, author, and investor these tips were spot on, not just for me, but any career. And that is how good advice should be. It shouldn’t be specific to one industry, you should be able to apply it across genres.
Skip the Line is an answer to the often misquoted “10,000 Hour,” a number of professors like to float in front of their students as the only way to, “Be the best.” But what if being the best is not your intention? Is it really necessary to “Be the best” if you’re not a golfer, pianist, or trying to get into Harvard? Does it even matter? Is being in the Top 1% of your field good enough, or Top 5% for that matter as Tim Ferris likes to push?
According to this book, yes to both and there are hacks to get you there. Furthermore, what even is, “The best?” How can you say one actor is better than another or one genre of music or one flavor of gelato? There’s no marker because it's all personal taste, therefore, how do you skip the line and push past the gatekeepers and sandbaggers blocking the way?
Here are the seven key takeaways from my favorite book I’ve read in 2022:
Every skill is made up of smaller skills. For example, to be a good actor you need to be decent at memorizing, a good orator, a student, have a pension for improv, observant, thick-skinned yet sensitive, brave, daring yet grounded, and a little stupid. While the last is god given or self-inflicted, the rest are things we can work on.
Every skill set has smaller skills that make it up. Be it sales, writing, comedy, trading, or any other craft or skill there are small abilities that make that job easier for the performer.
Our task is to figure out what those skills are in a given field and then master them. For example, Tim Ferris is known for his ability to quickly master difficult tasks such as memorizing languages or learning to cook at a master's level.
In his book, The 4-Hour Chef, a book that is more about learning than cooking, Tim tackles the same concept. When a person is learning a language they shouldn’t be trying to read ancient Greek, the Aneid in the original Latin, or Tolstoy in Russian. We must start with the basics. Every language has its top 100 used words. Likewise, verbs, phrases, and tenses that can accomplish most tasks. Therefore, when picking up a language it is better to learn the essentials than try and master the grammar and/or more difficult nuances of the language.
Cooking is the same way. In fact, every skill is. While there are intricate complex dishes and sauces Gordon Ramsey will willingly scream at you for, there are also basic combinations such as pork and time, tomato and basil, that can carry the chef through almost any meal.
Therefore, whatever the skill is we must learn the Top 100 words to speak the language of that ability.
This one, admittedly, I need to work on. In every field, we should be looking for someone who knows more than us (a mentor), a student who knows less than us we can teach, and our peers to challenge us.
This is a combination of several learning ideas into one. Every business class ever recommends, perhaps a bit self-servedly, to find, and hire, a mentor. While it doesn’t have to be a real person, books, courses, and audio all serve the same lesson, it certainly helps if someone is there to show you the ropes and help you not make the same mistakes they made.
Once you get your feet wet, you should then be practicing the Feynman Technique, that is, teach someone else what you know in the simplest form possible. Einstein was famous for saying if he couldn’t explain relativity so a child could understand it, then he himself didn’t understand it.
When we teach something to someone else, be it in the form of a class, a lecture, or a blog, we are interacting with the ideas in a unique way. Thus, by arranging the thoughts into our words and metaphors we move the information from surface level to a deeper part of our consciousness and test whether we fully understand the concept or not.
Lastly, we need rivals, co-creators, and conspirators. We need allies. We need friends. We need enemies. We need peers. It is our equals who push us, who challenge us.
If you ever played a sport this is what your coach was trying to get across to you at practice, why competition is a necessity. Not only do our skills get tested and pushed, but our connections with those teammates grow.
No one makes it in a vacuum. The self-made man is a bullshit artist. When we look back at art movements, music scenes, and creative explosions of the past we see connections and networks of creators interacting, challenging, and lifting each other up.
Find someone who knows more than you, teach what they know to someone who knows less, and challenge yourself by connecting with people who are your equals.
As Leo Bloom put it, “Where did we go right?” This idea is beautiful and simple: how many things have to go right for your idea to work? If the number is high, it's probably not a strong idea. If the number is low, then you may be on to something.
For example, let’s say you wanted to write a best-selling book on the acting business. How many things have to connect for your book to be a smash hit?
First, you have to write it (1). Then, you have to edit it (2). Thirdly, you will need to shop it to publishers which is no small task. Then, it has to be printed (4), marketed (5), and pitched to bookstores (6). This is not even navigating the political aspects such as getting on the New York Times Bestseller list or creating the content around a book to make it go viral. So we are already up to six connections and we are barely getting started.
Does this mean you don’t write the book? Maybe. But if you really want to, or believe you have a solid idea, what are some alternatives to skip the line? For example, could you self-publish? Yes, but still risky. Could you write a blog? Yes, and also free for the most part. Could you do a Youtube course, start a podcast, or share your ideas via social media to test them out? Absolutely.
Then, perhaps if the idea takes root, the blogs can become a book, you already have a following, and your pitch is easier because your connections are less.
The point here is to think about how many things have to go right for my idea to work at the level I desire. Let’s take another example, the traditional “Move to Hollywood and Become a Star.”
What are all the things that have to go right for you to “Make it?” One, you have to move to L.A. Two, audition (a lot). Three, join a class. Four, get an agent. Five, hope your agent is good and has connections. Six, be likable to enough people. Seven, be attractive enough to fit into the Hollywood mold. Eight, gain traction with casting directors. Nine, meet the right director. Ten, appeal to the right demographic. And so on and so forth.
Does this mean you shouldn’t be an actor? No, it simply means that being an actor on someone else’s terms is not the best strategy. What are other ways around the traditional system that can catapult you to where you want to be? Can you self-create and be happy? Do theatre? Write? Produce? Go the commercial route?
There are endless ways we can get around the gatekeepers and the stepping stones, but we have to think about them before the challenge arises.
This one has already become a part of my daily practice, although I typically make it to seven ideas rather than 10. Creativity is a muscle, and we have to work it out. How do we do that? Mental pushups, or ideas.
Get your brain used to the idea of creating ideas in the same way the body adapts to workouts. Progressive overload is your friend.
Use your phone, or better yet, a pen and pad, and write out 10 ideas a day. They can be anything from business ideas, script concepts, plays, posters, art, music, or the next hot item on Amazon, but the point is to force yourself to actively think about creating new ideas and track them.
Will they all be good? No. But you are not Stephen King, your job isn’t to publish every idea that comes to mind but to get the juices pumping daily.
Once those ideas get flowing, then allow them to co-mingle and encourage them to have intercourse.
This is a classic concept in screenplay pitches, “It’s Conair meets Alien,” or, “It’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but with Baristas instead of ninjas.”
All great ideas are someone else’s ideas plus someone else’s, or as author Cormac McCarthy put it, the sad truth is that all books are written with other books.
Whether it's the muse or some awesome 1990s sci-film, that spark of inspiration is less about a divine lightning strike and more about letting your brain play.
Find the jeu, as they say at Pig Iron, and let your imagination play with concepts. Are all of them good? No.
But every now and then great ideas come by seeing the similarities. For example, a few years ago there was a slew of Sherlock Holmes meets H.P Lovecraft stories that seemingly spawned at the same time--and they worked. Cthulu versus the World’s Greatest Detective? Brilliant. That’s idea sex.
Not every movie needs to be produced, but we need to test out the ideas. Not every story needs to be a novel, every blog a book, or every clever phrase a t-shirt.
Ideas come and go, but we must play with them to see if they work. If we have a great concept for a film, let’s go with the “Conair meets Aliens” idea from before, do we immediately sit down and write? Maybe, if you just enjoy writing screenplays.
But is the idea any good? How can we find out? Well, that’s the point of a pitch deck, a synopsis, a logline. Get the idea down on paper, and test it on your friends, networks, and co-workers. Gage their reaction. Does it interest them? Do they glaze over?
Once we start having the ideas, then we need to test them to see if they have merit. Will most of them fail? Yes, they will. But this is a test, not an investment.
Going back to the movie idea, why would someone invest millions of dollars into Con-Alien if the audience doesn’t exist for it?
Good ideas are always a little scary, in improv that’s called, “Following the fear.” When we were kids we learned not to say things that would get us in trouble, and while in polite society that is usually a good idea, in the arts or the idea space that gets you nowhere. When we are afraid to do something that is exactly when we know that’s what needs to be done. It’s dangerous. It’s exciting. It’s alive.
We must be willing to follow the fear, and be ready to fail. In the business world, there is a concept called, “Adaptive Leadership,” or what do you do when you are faced with a problem that has never been seen before?
While there are several steps to the process, one of the key metrics of Adaptive Leaderhsip is developing a capacity for failure. When we don’t have the answer key, the manager's handbook, or the How-To guide we are going to make mistakes. The key is learning from those mistakes and failing forward.
Tied to the first idea on the list, being the only is better than being the best. Carving out your own market rather than competing will always yield better results.
Be it in a new space, writing a blog instead of a book, or teaching on TikTok instead of in the classroom, we must always be on the lookout to be explorers on new frontiers.
Take my favorite example to complain about: casting. You can move to New York, get an agent who has a dozen other people who look like you, take a million classes to prove you are more dedicated than the other guy, go to auditions where everyone looks like you but with better hair and tighter abs, and do this day in and day out letting someone else decide for you what you do and do not get to do, or you can find your own path.
So many people want to be actors and stars, and proving their passion means something that they put on blinders and take up the tailpipe. We think, “This is the way it is.” There is nothing wrong with this process if it works for you, but it's a slippery slope to the 1% this way and it's always on someone else’s terms.
Furthermore, who benefits? Not you. Think about another example, sports. Is Tom Brady the best? Sure. But what about all the other QBs who sacrificed their bodies, backs, and brains to get left on the chopping block? And who benefited from it all? The audience.
This is why reality TV works so well. It takes a mimetic process and lets it play out, occasionally poking the bear when things get stale. Why write a drama when humans will willingly participate in the process and let us watch it all for a grand prize?
This is why it is better to find your own way. Whether you like them or not, social media stars and Youtubers, streamers, and other content creators jumped on this bandwagon. They found their niche, their audience, and their platform and they made you compete with them, and not the other way around.
Now that this market is flooded, where do we look next?
When it comes to being good at something, you have to do the work, but there are shortcuts we can take by thinking hard and not just working hard. We live in the economy of ideas, but once people build their nest on the mountain they don’t want you coming by and ruffling their feathers.
Furthermore, what’s on the other side of the mounting once you reach the top? Another mountain.
Therefore, just because we win capitalism doesn’t mean the race is over. It goes on.
But what this book offers is a way to look past the bad advice we all receive early on--the naysayers. When a person says you can’t do something, what they are saying is “they” can’t do it--unless they're your parents and you are five, that’s a different story.
Advice is a form of nostalgia in which people dust off their past and try and make something of their mistakes. Skip the Line is a great example of passing on lessons learned to help someone else.
I wish I had read it sooner.
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.