Lose Battles, Win Wars: Lessons from Game of Thrones, Nikki Durkin and Miley Cyrus

career, moving to los angeles, personal stories

I’ve been procrastinating by watching a lot of GAME OF THRONES on Youtube. Sometimes it helps to watch Joffrey die — repeatedly — to remind yourself everything’s going to be okay.

“So, fuck you to those people.”

Yes, an actual GRRM quote. Badass.

(Sidenote: Procrastination is underrated. It can be used as part of your productivity once you study your own cognitive dissonance. Cal Newport has also pointed out that procrastination is often a signal from your mind that it’s not fully committed to your process or your goal — for a reason.)

In my tear of GoT clips, I rewatched this video of Tywin Lannister talking about how Robb Stark never lost a battle.

robb stark never lost a battle

 Of course (spoiler alert)… we know how that ends…

red wedding

 It’s possible to win every battle, yet still lose the war.

This idea resonated with me, especially after reading Nikki Durkin’s fantastic article My Startup Failed, and this is What It Felt Like in the Medium. Nikki said:

 ”The startup press glorify hardship. They glorify the Airbnb’s who sold breakfast cereal to survive, and then turned their idea into a multi-billion dollar business. You rarely hear the raw stories of startups that persevered but ultimately failed — the emotional roller coaster of the founders, and why their startups didn’t work out.”

The same thing happens to Hollywood in the media… But what stuck with me is this line from Nikki:

“And yet I failed. I won many battles but I lost the war.”

Glorifying the Hardship

Glorified hardship is a Hero’s Journey motif ripped out of Joseph Campbell’s notebook and pressed into our noses so aggressively, we begin to believe perseverance = success.

The framework for these stories is deceptively simple, and part of the allure: “I faced X challenges and nearly gave up after Y. Instead I persevered and ultimately, achieved Z (and you can too)!” For example:

  • MAD MEN got picked up by AMC and Matthew Weiner gets garlands thrown to his feet… only after writing the pilot on spec 8 years previously, and getting passed on by both HBO and Showtime.
  •  Grantland tells an oral history of the making of SWINGERS, a film written by Jon Favreau after a recent break-up and his frustration in not landing acting roles. Much of the movie was shot on 100-foot shortends of film (you could shoot a minute’s worth, then have to reload) because it was all they could afford.
  • David Resin writes the canonical THE MAILROOM, an entire book about agents and development executives’ rising to the top of Hollywood, only after surviving the harrowing trials of agency mailrooms.
  •  JK Rowling and Harry Potter.
  • Louie CK’s development hell at HBO.
  • Jon Hamm nearly leaving Hollywood.

We gobble it up. We send these stories around, we share them on social media (myself included) to remind ourselves: “hey, they did it. They beat the odds. They lost battles but won their war… and if they can do it, so can I.”

Which is certainly one way of looking at it…

But for a moment I want to offer a slightly different point of view.

What if the “war” you’re fighting, the one that exists in your mind and can be won with one decisive victory, what if it only looks like a war from you’re currently standing?

What if the war you think you’re fighting is in reality, just another battle?

Killing Robb Stark didn’t end the war with the Lannisters.

Frank Underwood is the POTUS. We certainly hope the war isn’t won yet.

So when it comes to our own battles and wars, why are our expectations any different? Why do expect to arrive somewhere… and then everything will be better?

“If I just do / have XYZ… THEN, I’ll be happy.” If I just:

  • earn $100K a year
  • get an agent
  • star in a show
  • make my movie
  • air a television show
  • publish my book

…I’ll be satisfied. The war will be over. I’ll finally earn what I deserve. Or, get the respect I deserve… Right?

C’mon. Look at the people around you. Older people, more experienced, more successful… what really happens after winning their “wars?”

  • earn $100K… then back in debt and need $200K…
  • get an agent… then frustrated when agent doesn’t find work
  • star in a show… then pray for a second season
  • make my movie… then recoup costs…
  • air a television show… then deal with network notes…
  • publish a book… then fight the publisher to market it…

Are we doomed to an endless cycle of battles, where we can never be content with what we’ve earned?

Honestly… yes, some people are doomed. We all know someone who’s always out there cool hunting, shopping for the newest phone, the fancier car, the flatter television… because they think “if I just had that, THEN I’d be happy.”

That’s the choice they made. We can choose differently.

The Gospel According to Miley Cyrus

I heard Eben Pagan say something that stuck with me (and I’m paraphrasing): “I’ve met enough people to know that I won’t stop evolving in my lifetime.”

Or if you prefer, in Miley’s words: “it’s the climb,” aka my pump up song circa 2009:

See, now that I’ve wizened up at the ripe age of 28, I’m mature enough to read the deep, philosophical meaning between the words of Miley’s seminal hit. This wasn’t the case when I was 24.

At 24, I moved to Los Angeles, and the war in my mind was a simple one:

“I’m moving out to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter, but if I just live in Los Angeles for a year, THEN I’ll be a happy.”

Of course, what happened? The “just” continued to balloon. Happiness was on the outer edge, always just out of reach:

  • If I get a paying job, I’ll be happy
  • If I can write this script, I’ll be happy
  • If I can stop waiting tables, I’ll be happy
  • If I can get this job, I’ll be happy
  • If I can make this amount of money, I’ll be happy

This went on for two years. Breakdownville, next stop.

Permission for Happiness

At some point, between bombing out of an internship and looking for a job waiting tables again, I stopped and looked around at my mentors over the last few years. That’s when the gravity of the problem sunk in.

These men and women, FAR more intelligent and successful than me, who already achieved massive success: landed million dollar book deals, won Emmy’s, wrote bestsellers, produced screenplays…

They were saying the same exact shit to themselves as I was!

The scale, obviously, was different. But the structure was the same:

  • If I just close this deal, I’ll be happy
  • If I meet the right man/woman, I’ll be happy
  • If the network just greenlights this project, I’ll be happy

Contrary to the success stories spun by the media, there are no storybook resolutions.

There is no “war to end all wars,” (a phrase used to describe World War I, ironically). If that’s what you’re waiting for, to give yourself permission to be happy, you can stop waiting.

Instead, be happy with the climb. That’s all there is. That’s where you have to find happiness.

A Confession

All of which brings me to a confession:

The goal of becoming a screenwriter is less important to me today than it was when I was 24.

Not that becoming a screenwriter is unimportant… but it’s de-prioritized in my life. Which is far harder to admit than it should be, BECAUSE of the glorified hardship I read about. The stories of artists overcoming impossible odds, driven by a singular goal and powered by grit and Easy Mac, their vision so compelling they wouldn’t — no, couldn’t — let anything stand in their way. That I don’t feel that same commitment makes me feel like an imposter. I feel guilty…

Which is completely INSANE.

It is insane to feel guilty for having a different set of priorities when you’re 28 and when you’re 18.

When I was 18, all I cared about was girls and becoming successful (so I could say “screw you” to everyone in middle school and high school.) Now that I’m 28, yes, I care A LOT about my career… and I also care about family, money, my health. When I’m 38, those priorities will all shift again.

I’m starting to see what drives me isn’t so much a singular goal (“become a screenwriter, write a book, make X amount of money”). Those are the nails that help hold parts of my life together, but it’s not the hammer.

The hammer, I’ve realized, is: I love the climb. I love learning: about the craft and the structure of story, about marketing, about psychology… how to connect the dots between two people or two ideas and to make a connection that only exists because I willed it to exist. I love television and books, and I also love the contracts and the language on the backend to make those exist in the world, and the game we have to play between author an agent, and agent to publisher (or in the television world, agent to producer, producer to studio, studio to network…) to make it happen.

As long as I’m learning from people who are more better than me AND I know I’m providing value to them too, I’m happy.

I think to ignore that would be setting myself up for heartache. Changing priorities, contrary to the stories of success we love, isn’t failure. It’s human. It’s important to acknowledge that goals change. When we don’t, we commit all our resources to one battle, sacrifice everything for that goal “that’ll finally make me happy” — our relationships, our health, our sanity…

Which is how we win battles…

And lose wars.

How to Survive 80 Hours a Week as a Hollywood Assistant – Part Two

career, personal stories, quitting, zen assistant
work hair

In the last post, I wrote about Bobby’s Shitty Assistant Job (SAJ), and what he could do to reduce the number of hours he worked.

Today, I’ll cover the second part of Bobby’s question: what if your boss is unable to lessen hours and you’re being paid less than minimum wage?

(Although Bobby doesn’t say it, I’m going to work off the assumption that either: there’s no room for growth at the company, or he doesn’t want to grow within the company.)

That, by definition, is a SAJ. And there’s something so debilitating about feeling stuck in an SAJ that it just saps all the energy out from you, and makes you start questioning your contributions to society:

  • Is this all I’m good for?
  • Am I stuck here forever?
  • What would my parents and friends think?
  • I thought I’d be a millionaire by now — how’d this happen?

These questions send us into a downward spiral of blame and shame. It can take years to realize you’re stuck in a “sick system” (which Todd A eloquently expands upon here), where the only solution is quitting.

I covered quitting thoroughly in Fighting Broke. Today I’ll drill deeper into exactly what to do before you quit an SAJ.

First, though, I want to highlight someone’s downward spiral of blame and shame: my own.

Rock Bottom: Watching Pokemon Battles for 8 Hours a Day

In 2012, I bombed out of an internship for a Multi-Channel Network after a week. The day-to-day involved watching Youtube videos all day, which sounded cool…

Until you watched 62 Pokemon battles and 37 “card unboxing’s” (this is a 7-minute-video of someone buying a packet of cards, ripping open the tin foil, and showing the camera what’s inside).

I thought quitting this internship would be the best feeling in the world.

But it left me feeling worse. At least with that internship, I could tell people I had forward momentum (even if it was a lie). Now, not only was I lonely and broke, but I was aimless, too, like a 5-year-old spun in too many circles before swinging at the pinata.

I went back to the restaurant where I got my second job in LA waiting tables. It was Saturday morning when I walked in, and servers were taking down chairs and wiping tables. I asked the manager if she was looking for help.

“Why, who’s looking for a job?” she asked. “You?’

“Actually, yes,” I said.

“Oh. Okay. I’ll put you back on the schedule next week.”

On one hand, this was a major relief. There are a number of other reasons for taking a shitty job. Paying rent and eating are two. Others, depending on where you are financially, emotionally, and in your career include:

  • “The economy’s bad. I’m just happy to take any job”
  • “I’m willing to start from the bottom and work my way up”
  • “This is a good stepping stone to get where I really want to be”

Besides, we reason with ourselves, many people found massive success only after massive failures.

  • Steve Jobs was fired from his own company.
  • J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury published Harry Potter.
  • A personal example from my life: before my father built 3 successful restaurants, he sold 2 failing ones.

Aspiration Is Great, But It’s Not Actionable

But on the other hand… it’s hard to shake off the feeling of failure in the moment, when you’re headlong into the downward spiral. The game feels rigged, like a backwater carnival game.

Thinking about people who’ve succeeded after failure is great for aspiration, except it’s not actionable. It doesn’t haul you out of your depression. It doesn’t slap any sense into you, or tell you what to do next.

Instead of aspiration, I’d rather someone tell me EXACTLY what to do next. What’s the first step to make TODAY?

To bring it back to Bobby:

What are his options? If he wants to quit, what can he start doing today?

Fortunately, there are ways to test this:

How to Discover How Employable You are Today

1. Create a list of skills people will pay you money for (1 hour)

Note: this isn’t a list of your passions. These aren’t ideas that will turn you into a millionaire by the time you’re 30.

These are skills that people will you money for TODAY.

For example, while my friend Michael was an assistant, he earned a side income doing graphic design, bouncing at clubs, and as a personal trainer — all jobs he found on Craigslist. Today, his personal training business pays more than his assistant salary did.

I know another assistant who supplements her assistant income by driving a Lyft car on weekends.

Do not discount anything: waiting tables, bartending, catering. If there’s a reasonable expectation that someone else will pay you money to perform some service, include it in your list.

(Disclosure: if your reservations against this include:

  • I’m too good for that kind of work
  • I didn’t get a college degree to do THAT
  • Fine, I’ll do it, but I’ll have a shitty attitude about it because this is just a stepping stone for me

…then honestly, anything else I ever write probably isn’t going to be for you, and there are other blogs you should go read.)

This list isn’t about forever. It’s not about why you moved to Los Angeles, or what you’re going to be doing 10 years from now. It’s about paying rent — this month. Eating dinner — this week.

Here’s some other places to start for inspiration:

Dig DEEP into what value you can provide, and come up with, at a bare minimum, 10 things you can do to earn money.

2: Use Craigslist to aggregate job results (1 hour)

Using Craigslist to search for jobs based upon these skills. Instead of constantly revisiting the site, however, create an RSS feed that’ll aggregate your desired jobs and have it feed into your reader of choice (read here for how to create an RSS feed from Craigslist).

Now, instead of combing through CL ads everyday, you can open your reader and jobs that match your skill sets will automatically appear.

Which brings us to the last step:

3. Apply for these jobs — going direct whenever possible (3 hours / week)

Do they have an office? Drop off the resume in person.

Option between a phone call and email? Pick up the phone.

Move down the list of jobs that you’re both interested in + have the skill set for, and apply in the most direct manner possible.

At this level, when you’re looking for work to hold you over and don’t have a strong network to rely on yet, there’s no magic bullet or elegant solution. It’s a matter of brute force, and kicking open as many doors as possible.

Yeah, this can be really hard. The excitement about having back my old job of waiting tables lasted until I returned to my apartment. Then my heart started racing as I realized I had just taken a step back — TWO WHOLE YEARS.

I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I holed up in my room, had a difficult conversation with my girlfriend Amy about moving back to New York, and was ready to quit. But step by step, shitty tips after shitty tips, I was able to rebuild, and get traction again…

I’m not saying, “it gets better.”

I am saying, “you can make it better.”

Go see exactly how employable you are. Build a inch of traction — and go from there.

Still to come, I’ll cover part 3 of Bobby’s question: freeing up more money when you’re a Hollywood assistant.


Photo Credit: Evil Erin

How to Survive 80 Hours a Week as a Hollywood Assistant – Part One

career, zen assistant

Bobby writes:

What if you are working 80 hours a week as an assistant and you don’t have enough time to pursue you’re own creative endeavors? I’ve tried talking to my boss about less hours but he says he’s unable to lessen the hours. I get paid less than minimum wage and can barely afford rent let alone save money for the equipment I need to buy. Any advice?

Bobby’s question is written as one problem, which I will eloquently sum up as:

I have a Shitty Assistant Job (SAJ). What can I do about it?

Bobby’s question is written as one problem, but if we examine it, we see he’s actually conflating three separate problems. To find a solution, we need to untangle the problems. It’s like trying to fix an “unlikable character” in a script — you can’t just add a Save the Cat moment, you have to find the root of what makes him unlikable.

In this post, I’m going to break down the three problems I see Bobby’s having, and give tips on how to tackle the first problem. [click to continue…]

Here’s What Shapes Your Brand as a Writer


Last week I asked what happens to a writer who’s given the benefit of the doubt.

What happens when a writer spends time not just on the work, but the packaging around the work?

The work is the screenplay, the treatment, the body. It’s the art that was commissioned, or created on spec.

The packaging is the person behind it, and everything they bring to the table. [click to continue…]

Does Your Writing Speak For Itself?


“Just write quality work. That’s the only secret to success.”

“Let your writing speak for itself.”

“The cream always rises.”

Wouldn’t that be nice?

If your screenplay, your treatment, and your craft was judged purely on merit. If the executives or agents reading your material saw the work for precisely what it was. That those commissioned to do rewrites or hired on staff earned their position because of their ability to write that story.

Of course, it doesn’t work this way.

Perfect, meticulously crafted pitches don’t always sell.

Meanwhile, kernels of an idea hastily molded into outlines don’t either… but sometimes they do.

When they do, it’s because the pitch (or the script, the treatment, the logline, the bible) came from someone who’s been given the benefit of the doubt. When you’re given this gift, then merit is read into your work.

So a large part of our work as creatives and writers is to create the environment in which we’re given the benefit of the doubt. Creating that environment takes you away from new projects or honing your craft — high value, high opportunity cost activities.

But creating that environment is worth it.


Photo Credit: jesuscm

Inspired by Seth Godin’s The Benefit of the Doubt