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.

1 comment… add one

  • Your website and writing has restored my full faith in my move to LA. I’ve been worried about leaving a good thing behind here in Denver, but you really have helped me re-obtain the courage I always knew I had to make a big move and make it work. Thank you!

Leave a Comment