You’re Not That Talented, and Other Advice

Lately, I’ve been asked to share a lot of career advice. I was interviewed at aetutsplus.com and on MotionWorks Unplugged, where I shared a few of my thoughts on getting work and being successful. But a few nights ago I was asked by my friend Jay Ignaszewski to sit down with a group of students at the School of Visual Arts, to talk about “the Business of Being an Artist.” It forced me to think about, and catalog, a lot of the important things I’ve learned working as an animator, creative director, producer, director of marketing, software designer and most importantly, as a husband and father who has a life outside his job.

Since I’ve already done the work, I might as well share it with you. I’ve broken it down into 4 categories:

  • Bettering yourself
  • Bettering your professional image
  • Finding work and getting paid
  • Being happy with life and work

So here’s my 20 pieces of advice, but what the heck do I know? You should take everything I say with a grain of salt:

Bettering Yourself:

1. You’re not that talented.

I hate to break it to you, but you’re not that talented. I don’t know you and have never seen your work, but I can promise you that there’s someone who’s a better artist than you. The good news is, anyone who thinks that they can get steady work based on artistic (or any) talent alone, is kidding themselves. There’s a lot more to it than that, and we’ll talk more about it as we go through this list, but you need to recognize that no matter how good you are, there is always someone better. You have to bring other stuff to the table, not the least of which is a passion for what you do. Which brings me to my next point…

2. Ask yourself what it is you want to do.

I have never met anyone who was successful who didn’t know what they wanted to do. Knowing what you want to do (even if it’s 10 years from now, and not a realistic goal for today) will give you the passion and drive needed to reach your ultimate goals. If you wake up in the morning and can’t answer the simple question: What do I want to do?  – then don’t expect to go very far. People want to work with those who are passionate about what they do, and not knowing what you want to do means you can’t put yourself fully into what you’re doing.

As an example – if you answer the question with something like, “well, I could do animation, or I could do editing, or I could do visual fx – then you don’t have a good answer. The question isn’t what CAN you do?  – but what do you WANT to do?

3. Recognize your abilities, and use them to succeed.

On the flipside, just because you’re passionate about something, doesn’t mean you’re good at it. You need to recognize your capabilities and work with them. There are certain things you can learn, like software or color theory, and others that you may never be able to – like creating subtle true-to-life motion.

I know a very talented guy who is a brilliant hand artist. However, he wants to be a 3D animator – has always wanted to be one, for the 15 years I’ve known him. He has spent years studying and involving himself in 3D animation because he’s very passionate about it.

However, his 3D work is OK, but nothing special. As a result, he hasn’t been that successful. I know (and have given up telling him) that if he’d develop a portfolio in story boarding and would start pitching himself in that way to the companies he wants to work for, he’d have a lot more luck. He’d be able to work with and, to some degree, even direct the vision of a 3D animation project.

I know what you’re thinking: But what about advice #2 – Ask yourself what you want to do? Wouldn’t that be not doing what you want to do?

Good point. But let me ask you this – Have you really thought about what it is you want to do? Or did you decide you were interested in pursuing it because it was all you knew at the time? Is your ultimate goal to be an animator, or is it to direct animation? Is it to be a video editor, or to start a company that directs music videos?

Personally, I’m not nearly as artistically talented as I want to be, but I get to direct people who are very talented. As a result,  I take part in the creation of cool stuff – and it’s just as (if not more) satisfying as doing it myself.
There’s more than one path to your ultimate goal, and you can still keep your passion while taking an alternative route to get there. Keep your hands in what interests you, but always keep your eyes on the prize.

4. Shy people get nothing – and that’s what they deserve.

This is probably the most important advice I was ever given. And maybe it’s not true that shy people deserve nothing, but it’s certainly true that they get nothing. We’re not in an industry where shyness is a valued trait. In fact, I can’t think of any industry where shyness is a good thing. Modesty, maybe, but not shyness.

Be willing to put yourself out there… and then get ready for rejection.

When you ask someone you barely know on a date and they blow you off, it’s often meaningless in the bigger picture. For whatever reason, you’re just not what they want – at least not at first glance. It’s not a reflection of who you really are, deep down.

With putting your work out there, though, it’s the opposite. It’s very personal. You’re baring your soul and showing who you are as an artist. And the rejection can be truly painful (believe me, I know). And the fear of that pain often translates into shyness – which can keep you from ever doing anything that will improve your life or advance your career.

Well… Suck it up. To quote the Dread Pirate Roberts: “Get used to disappointment.” It’s going to hurt, but you can turn it into a positive experience. If your work is rejected, ask the person who rejected it why. What needs improvement? This is a fantastic opportunity to better yourself, and, if you play it right, it may keep the window open for a second chance at a later time. They might just say, “when you have more to look at, send it my way.” Now, you have an actual contact at that company – one that you can exploit, when you are ready.

But if you can’t handle rejection, find another career. This one is not for you.

5. Act like the person you want to be, not the person you are today.

Like with being shy, I’m not saying you should be someone you’re not. I’m saying you should behave like the person you hope to someday be. Carry yourself with professionalism. Talk about your work like it’s important to you. Don’t say that what you’re working on now is a waste of time, but that, eventually, you’ll be doing important things.

In fact, what you are doing now is important for later, and you need to recognize that while it’s true you’re not where you want to be, the things you do now are going to make that happen. If you keep that in mind, when you talk to potential employers or industry contacts that you make, they will see that you believe in yourself, are confident and passionate, have your head on straight, and are worth a second look.

Call it mental dressing for success, if it helps. But recognize that your brain needs to wear a suit and tie, even if you’re just wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

6. Always be learning.

No matter how busy you are, you should always be learning new things. I don’t know how the heck he does it, but my buddy Jim Geduldick, who has a full time gig and is a father, somehow manages to keep on top of tutorials and the latest industry trends. If could learn a quarter of what he seems to learn each day I’d probably make a lot more money. But I do my best to read or watch the most important content so I can do my job better. At the very least I make an effort to never go a day without learning at least one new thing.

That one new piece of info has often come back as a godsend when I needed it most.

Better Your Professional Image:

7. Get an internship

This advice is for anyone who wants to break into any career they are not in or are not having luck getting started in. To get work in our industry, you’re competing with people who have at least some experience. And thanks to websites like creativecow.net, videocopilot.net and many others (check the links on the side for a bunch of good ones) even teenagers are learning the tools and techniques that once only the pro’s knew. That’s a lot of people to compete with.

What really makes someone stand out (in addition to a good reel, which I’ll talk about next) is experience. Working at a studio, for little or no pay, may seem like a pain in the ass, and bad for paying rent, but ultimately it has serious payoff potential. And a lot of interns get hired by the companies they work at, if they use that time wisely – to make connections, show their professionalism, take initiative…etc.

To break into this industry after college, I worked at Sesame Workshop for a year, as an intern, with no pay. It sucked not getting paid, but there is no question in my mind that it was the right thing to do. I didn’t love a lot of the work I did as an intern, but I used that time to talk to producers, writers, directors, and even administrative assistants (who by the way, know EVERYTHING that goes on at the company). During that time, I learned a lot about the business of production, and even some technical things like laying and wrapping cable that I use today.

Most of all, I was able to put Sesame Street on my resume. Who has not been touched by Sesame Street, in some way? It carries real weight.

And, yes, eventually I was hired to work there, through a contact that I made as an intern (she was an intern the same year as me, and thought of me when a position opened).

8. Never call yourself a Jack-of-all-Trades.

Most people forget that the second half of the phrase “Jack-of-All-Trades” is “Master of none.” Unless a company is looking to hire a generalist, you want to avoid talking about how you are equally talented in all areas. Very few people are truly talented in even one area, let alone four or five. The message you broadcast when you call yourself by that title, is that you are not that great at anything.

When people send me cover letters that use that term, I throw them away. If I weren’t so environmentally conscious, I’d print up those emails and throw them away as well.

The real point here is that you should pitch yourself tailored to the specific job you are going for. Let them know you are good at and passionate about that one thing. If you get the gig, other opportunities will come up for you to use your other skills during that time.

9. Keep your reel original and fresh.

Since just I mentioned (in #7) some great websites where you can get great training for free, I’m going to advise you not to ever use the free project files from those sites in your reel. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use the techniques you learned there in building your reel – I’m just saying don’t put those project files on your reel. If you’re working, and have a client need, then – sure – use them to make money – as long as your clients are happy, that’s great. Just don’t expect to get hired if you are putting those projects on your reel as an example of your abilities. People hiring recognize other people’s work – partially because 100 other people have submitted the same visual, and partially because they have watched the tutorial themselves!

So how do you create original work for your reel, when you aren’t working or aren’t creating original concepts for clients?

One great way is to enter the 5 second project challenge at greyscalegorilla.com, Nick Campbell’s website. Every few weeks he has a contest where he pitches a concept or phrase, and people create 5 seconds of animation to illustrate that. I’ll let Nick espouse on on the reasons you’d want to enter the contest, but the long and short of it is, challenging yourself to create new work regularly is a great way to fill your reel and give yourself the chance to learn and create something new.

10. Have someone you trust.

As artists, we get very attached to our work. By nature we love what we do, and usually love what we create. That doesn’t mean it’s actually any good, unfortunately. For that reason, it’s really important to find someone you trust, and who you will forgive when they break your heart by telling you the work you just spent a week creating is pure crap.

For me, that’s my wife (and business partner). While she isn’t an animator, she understands what I do, and has a great artistic eye. Technically, she is much more artistically talented than I am, but in a different way. I show her almost everything I work on, to hear her opinion about it. And while she can sometimes be brutal, ultimately it improves my work tremendously.

For the record, I can be pretty resistant and even get angry when I first hear her critique, but if I take a step back and come back to it in a few hours/days/weeks, I almost always see she was right and that I was not being objective.

So,  make your work better – find someone who won’t tell you how awesome your stuff is unless it really is great.  You’ll know it’s too good to be true if they tell you your work is perfect (it’s rarely, if ever, perfect – we’ll talk more about that in a bit).

11. Share information.

I’ve come across some people out there who believe that if they share the techniques they use to create cool stuff, they are giving up their edge.

They’re idiots.  Or maybe they’re right.

If those cool tricks are all they have, then, yeah – they will lose their edge. But it will happen sooner or later anyway when someone else figures it out and shares it with the world.

Why do you think it is that big studios are willing to break down really cool effects shots for sites like Studio Daily? Aren’t they afraid that other studios will use their technique? Of course not! By showing people how to do cool shit, you’re showing everyone that you know what you’re doing. It gives you real credibility and makes people want to work with you. Take it from someone who has been sharing “secrets” for years – people want to hire people who know what they’re doing. A good reel is great, but a good real, some name recognition, and some credibility is powerful stuff.

Make tutorials if you can. Or, assuming it doesn’t violate confidentiality, keep a blog of what you’re working on. Motionworks is a great example of this. Also, check out the Tiny Inventions blog to follow the exploits of a really brilliant animation team.

Finding Work and Getting Paid:

12. Make your opportunities.

When you’re not getting work, it’s hard to move forward. But don’t spend your time on the couch, watching TV. The people who have had the most success in their careers have never waited around for the next big break.  They either looked for it or created it themselves. Even if things are going well, but you want to do more, you need to take action, even when there isn’t an open door.

My work with Red Giant Software (I am the Director of Marketing there) came about because I saw what I thought was a lack at the company (very few tutorials, not much messaging or community outreach) and convinced them to let me take a crack at it. They weren’t looking to hire anyone (and in fact they initially said no thanks, until I wrote up a solid proposal) but I did my best to identify a need at a company I really REALLY wanted to work with.

The point is – look for needs. Every potential client has a need, they just might not know it yet. But talk to them. Look at the work they do, see what they might be missing, and try to fill that need.

At the very least, try to set up an appointment with someone at a company you want to work with to just hear about some of what they’re doing. Most won’t have the time to talk, but you never know who might say “sure, come in, let’s talk.”

13. Learn to network – in real-time.

The internet is a great way to have lots of superficial business relationships that often lead to nothing. Meeting someone in person is a quantum leap in relationship building. If you want to really get to know people in your industry, then make an effort to be in the same room with them. There are a lot of ways to do that – local user groups for example.

I co-run After Effects New York with my friends Jim Geduldick and Dennis Radeke. Every month we bring 100-300 AE users together to watch and participate in a presentation related to the work we do. It’s over 2 hours where you can meet and hang out with people who do what you want to do. And often there are people at these meetings looking to hire.

The benefit of meeting them in person is that people like to put a name to a face. And if you played it right, they’ll have good feelings associated with both. People are much more likely to help people they know and like vs. people they have never met in person.

14. It’s NOT just a few hours of work.

Recently, Stu Maschwitz tweeted about an article called “Simon’s Pie Charts” on 27bslash6.com. It was a hysterical article about a guy who wanted a designer named David Thorne to do some “spec” work for free. It wasn’t a lot of work but that wasn’t the point. When the client got upset and said: “Come on, man, it’s just a few hours of work” –  David responded: “Actually, you were asking me to design a logotype which would have taken me a few hours and fifteen years experience.”

That is one of the most important sentences you will ever read. It’s not just a few hours of work; it’s also all of the years of schooling, or practice or research or whatever it is that goes into you being able to do your job better.

Your time has value, and if you don’t treat it as such, you will never get paid well for the work you do. If you don’t value your time, why should your client?

As a side point, I have never met anyone who did spec work where it eventually turned into a full-blown paying project. Walk away from that stuff, and do it fast.

Your time has value. Charge for it.

15. Nothing can ever be perfect – Get over it and move on.

No one wants to put bad work out there, but there’s only so far you can take a project on a limited amount of time.

Again, we come back to the issue of time. In school, you have a lot of time to get your project done for your senior thesis. Or maybe you’re just working on a personal project with no real deadline. You could tweak that sucker for months making just minor changes.   When you’re not working for a client, you have all the time in the world.

But in the real world, that’s almost never the case. Most motion graphics projects’ turn around time is just a few days. That means it can rarely be perfect. Maybe you can get it to 80%, and maybe, with revisions, to 90%. But you will likely never get it to 100% of what it could be.

I once saw an animation project that was 7 minutes long. The first 5 minutes were brilliant. The last 2 were painful. The artist used up all of his time making the first 5 minutes near perfect, and had to rush through the last 2 to finish the project. He couldn’t budget his time because he just couldn’t let go of his work if it wasn’t perfect.

There’s a reason they call them “Starving artists” – they can’t turn their talent into a financially viable skill. If you want to get paid, recognize that you have to become less attached to your work. I’m not saying do crappy work. I’m saying do the best you can given the amount of time you have.

16. Don’t do a lesser job for less money.

I once had a potential client ask me my rate, and when they heard it, followed up with – “can you do it for less money and not make it as nice as you normally would?” I then showed them craigslist where I was sure they’d be able to find someone that would fit their idea of what the budget should be.

If you believe in what you do, then pass on work that cannot be done within a budget that makes sense. Doing bad work for less money may seem to make sense in the immediate, but in the long-term, it will hurt your reputation and ability to get better work. Refusing to do unreasonable gigs sends the message that you’re a pro.

Besides, while they tell you that you can do lesser work for less money, they really expect you to do full work. Trust me – Go through this scenario once and you’ll see that they want to pay you only a little, but expect a lot. They hired you because they liked your reel. They want, and expect, what they saw on that reel – not what the budget calls for. Do you really want to work with people that have unreasonable expectations?

17. Don’t take a low “starter” fee.

Another trick potential clients use to get you to take less money is to call it a starter salary. In other words, do this job for less money, and if we like your work, we’ll pay you more on the next one.

That next one never seems to happen, or the next one also has budget constraints that you are expected to conform to.

If you take a starter salary on a gig, expect that it will never go up. You’ve just told the client your time is not worth as much as real pro’s, and they will never look at you as anything more than someone who is willing to compromise on price.

Like the spec work scenario, I don’t know of anyone for whom starter salaries worked out well.  Maybe you know of someone who got paid more after the fact. But if you do, it’s the exception that proves the rule. Everyone talks about the 1 in a million shot. No one talks about the other 999,999 times it didn’t work out.

18. It’s OK to take less money for a project – on your terms.

All of that said, it’s sometimes OK to take less money for a gig – if you really want it, and you’re thinking bigger picture.

I once got a call from an animation company about working on an animated project for a major network TV show. The team of traditional animators had run into a problem that only AE could solve. The problem was they were mostly out of money for the project.

Normally I’d say no to anything like that. However, I really wanted to work with these guys and I knew the piece would be great for my reel, and give me some real cred. So with the understanding that this was not even close to my real rate, we finished the project.  I figured even if I never worked for them again, I’d have something cool for my reel.

As a matter of fact, though, I continued to work with them for several years after that at my normal rate. Once they were able to budget for it ahead of time, they could afford me.

19. Not everything you do will be a showpiece.

On the flipside of doing good work for bad money, there’s doing “bad” work for good money.

By no fault of your own, not all of the work you do will be beautiful. Clients often have no artistic ability, but just as often think they do. To some degree, you can try and convince them of your vision, but sometimes you just have to give them what they ask for – not what looks best. You have to be willing to accept that some of what you do will never be appropriate for your reel. Corporate work pays well, but it usually is pie charts and graphs and such. A toothpaste commercial can only look so good.

And it’s not worth the argument if you want to get paid. Just make it the best pie chart ever, and call it a day. Don’t be that starving artist we talked about. Your job is to give your client what they want, not to satisfy your creative urges.  Sometimes you get to do both, but usually not.

Being Happy with Life and Work:

20. Relax, folks. We’re not curing cancer.

To quote my friend Andrew Kramer, when he visited After Effects New York:  “If you spend too much time with After Effects and not enough time with your family or significant other, you’ll eventually be spending ALL of your time with After Effects.”

At the end of the day, remember that this is the business of video and animation. You’re not curing cancer. In the grand scheme of things, none of it is  important enough to risk your health or ruin your family life. If you really want to be happy in the work you do, take a break and spend time with the people that matter.

In fact, I have a friend who is a medical researcher in the area of oncology (he is literally working towards a cure for cancer), and he goes home at night and spends time with his family. If he can do it, so can you.

So have fun. Enjoy yourself. Value yourself and the work you do. Learn to let go. And remember to take a breath once in a while.

60 thoughts on “You’re Not That Talented, and Other Advice”

  1. My favorite part about this is number 20, and how you made a point to acknowledge that a guy who actually works to cure cancer makes an effort to spend time with his family.

  2. yoh’ im an artist , this is really helped me a lot, i found this article very interesting , esp. about the question ” what is it that i wanted to do?” for me, there’s nothing else but to draw, to be a great graphic artist someday,. Do you think this answer is enough?

  3. This is probably one of the best articles I have read in awhile, and just what I needed. Thanks for taking the time to share with us.

    “Relax folks, we’re not curing cancer.”
    “You’re not that talented.”

  4. Aharon
    You’ve been one of my main mentors since 2006 and I’m proud to say that I’ve built my own career from your advices, and for the First Time, I would like to thank you. I’ve never been able to finish Jr.high-school and at the moment, I’m a father of two and VFX and motion graphics freelancer in a foreign country where I had to learn not only the software but also the language from scratch. I’m a Brazilian living in Japan.
    Thank you Master!

  5. Very inspiring and honest article. I understand your messages. I am starting at 29…Just watching tuts online and no confidence of myself still in AE. cant make my own effects yet. earning my living as a photoshop and html designer. … Indian… wish if can make more tuts for newbies like us. .. easy to understand, not much lengthy….although I understand you are a busy man.

    Thank you
    TC

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *