I always get pretty excited to talk about creativity with anyone who wants to broach the subject. There's so much us creative-types can learn from one another: from strategies to battle the fear of rejection to the ways we get inspired. Today I'm starting a new regular feature in which I take these offline conversations online and share them with you.
First at bat: John Carl.
John is a New York based videographer and filmmaker. We’ve been close friends since our college days and it’s been fascinating to witness John’s rise from computer lab assistant to director of photography for shoots with household names like Microsoft, Sharpie and Motorola. (Oh the places you'll go between 20 and 30!) John and I have had plenty of conversations about creativity, entrepreneurship, art and the lessons we’ve learned along the way. So today I wanted to kick off a new interview-style feature on the blog with this chat with John.
HS: Can you share with us a little about your career trajectory? How did you arrive where you are now?
JC: Let’s see. Video by way of photography by way of graphic design by way of music by way of computers—a circuitous path. I never knew exactly where I was going but I wanted to keep my engine on. My cousin Davy says, “You can’t steer a parked car.” I just knew that if I kept doing what I loved that I would eventually find a way to turn it into a career. That’s the short answer.
The slightly longer answer is that I got a camera that could shoot video, a DSLR in 2009 and just started shooting video for fun. After posting a couple videos online, I got a call from Levis about a job and it was a bigger job so it seemed to be the right time to go freelance and start a company. I reached out to some friends and we started a company (DuckDuck Collective). The first year or two were very scrappy. We had to hustle a lot and accepted any work that came our way: weddings, senior portraits, events—not the most glamorous work in the grand scheme of the industry but we were paying our dues. Lynchburg was the perfect place to do that because it was so cheap to live here. Eventually clients wanted more video work and our numbers began to grow. Then on one of our bigger jobs in California we learned that the client had asked the agency why they were hiring “some kids from Virginia” as opposed to professionals from LA or New York. That was insightful and when I realized that even your zip code communicates something about your perceived level of skill. So we decided to move. I wanted to put off LA for as long as possible. It feels a little inevitable in this industry. So off to NYC we went and that’s where we are today. We have new office space, a new camera, lots of other new gear and some new services that aren’t announced yet but I’m very excited about. The business continues to grow.
HS: So why filmmaking? How did you find yourself there?
JC: Filmmaking is the only thing that incorporates all of my interests: cinematography, music, audio, people, technology and most importantly, story. And I get bored really, really quickly so I need something that keeps me moving between all those different disciplines. So I kind of feel like my whole life was leading up to filmmaking.
HS: What does creativity mean to you?
JC: Creativity is a way of turning ourselves inside out. [It’s] trying to share truth or create beauty to make something worthwhile that didn’t exist before. To rip off Dr. Prior, it’s our desire to imitate God. He creates so we want to create to be like Him. When we’re creating we’re most “god-like” in a sense. But I also view it as a struggle: there’s a real terror that comes from staring at the blank page. You have to push through the fear, make something, let it be substandard, then repeat and hope you improve in the process. And sometimes you do; sometimes you don’t. So there’s an anguish and joy that come from it.
HS: Tell me more about the joy.
JC: Well, my love language is words of affirmation so when someone praises something I’ve done I find a lot of joy in that. But the process is enjoyable too. There’s a joy in having done something well after working really hard on it. Sitting down to make a song, film, design, is super enjoyable. I mean, except the parts where you want to throw your keyboard out the window. But it’s mostly enjoyable. Plus I’m not good at anything else. (laughs) I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t create.
HS: How do you combat your tendency toward perfectionism?
JC: Poorly. (laughs) I have a dear friend who recommended this book to me called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (And Rewards) of Artmaking. There’s a chapter on perfectionism and the author basically redefines perfectionism as fear. It’s essentially just overvaluing other people’s opinions and fearing their critique. So you wind up doing nothing. It’s not a good thing. So when I say I’m being a perfectionist about something what I’m actually saying is I’m fearful. Oof. Apparently I’m very fearful.
There’s a story in the book that was pretty transformational for me. It tells the story of a pottery professor who, on the first day, told everyone on the left side of the room that they would be graded based on the quantity of their work, and on the right, by the quality of their work. On the last day of class, he did find several perfect pots, but interestingly, they were all from the quantity side of the room. Those students didn’t concern themselves with being perfect, just with learning the process. So I’ve been trying to learn from that story by focusing on the process of creating to set myself free from the tyranny of perfection/fear.
All that said, there’s definitely a limit to discovering quality through quantity too. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. If you’re truly just focused on quantity that would be bad. You need time, occasionally, to focus on quality too, on making things without spiraling into perfectionism. Moderation and balance is the key. Give yourself permission to do both types of projects.
HS: Can you share a little about your creative process?
JC: Well. There’s what it has been and what it should be. What it has been is that it usually starts with feelings, when I’m feeling strongly about anything (happy/sad/angry/pensive, whatever). I haven’t been approaching it as a process; I’ve approached it with a product view. What do I want to end up with? Doing it that way it’s easy to go off the rails. For example I’ve recorded tons of songs that are half to two-thirds done but I haven’t shared them out of a fear of not being good enough. So I’m actually trying to learn to love the process or even develop one in the first place. Art & Fear talks about this. The author says your responsibility is not to make people love your art or gain approval. Your job as an artist is to love the process. Judge your value as an artist by how you’ve grown in the process. Give yourself permission to fail and you’ll get better. That’s hard. I’m learning to sacrifice my ego, be humble. I don’t know why I ever started believing I was the type of person that would only put out good work. That’s dumb. Focus on the process. Oh yeah, so back to the process. It generally starts with having an emotion or an idea, then there’s a “dark night of the soul” full of self-loathing, then giving up or nearly giving up, then pushing through, then eventually I like what I’ve wound up with (quasi). It’s about learning to love obstructions.
"I don’t know why I ever started believing I was the type of person that would only put out good work. That’s dumb. Focus on the process."
I saw a documentary by Lars von Trier, called the Five Obstructions. He asks a filmmaker to remake the same film with five different obstructions. And over the course of the film he learns to love the obstructions. It’s fascinating. When he “cheats” on one, Lars punishes him by assigning him to remake his film with no obstructions at all and the filmmaker hates it. The point is, we actually love and need obstructions. Even though it’s really fun to complain about them. Whatever the limitation is: money, time, right team, etc. The point is to not let any of it be an excuse to stop. Stopping is the enemy. Whatever the twist or obstruction is you have to embrace it and keep pushing.
HS: Do you ever feel creatively blocked? How do you power through that? Any strategies or techniques?
JC: Of course. All the time. The way I power through is just trying to get inspired by other people’s work, Pinterest, Vimeo, real life experience. For whatever reason my life is really dramatic so I have a lot of real world inspiration for creating things.
HS: What is your advice to a young creative who wants a career like yours?
JC: Do whatever it is that you want to do often and don’t wait for somebody else to come along and give you permission to do that thing. No one is coming. No one is coming to give you your big break. Big breaks are an illusion. Getting lucky is hard work. There’s an agency I do freelance at sometimes and on the wall when you walk in it says, “The harder I work the luckier I get.” I love that. I spent a long time being bitter about my college education. I was dissatisfied about all I was not getting taught about graphic design. But at the end of the day when you enter the “real world” no one is responsible for your success other than you. The greatest skill as a creative [can have] is to know how to teach yourself and acquire knowledge. Especially now, with the internet, there is no excuse for anyone to not know anything they want to know. Any information you want to learn, any creative skill set you want to acquire, you can find it online or in a book and often learn it faster and better than in an academic setting. Even if you’re going to an amazing school, the students who do well are the ones who are self-motivated and self-teaching. The ones who do poorly are the ones who are lazy and expect spoon feeding. I think one of the biggest predictors of success is how well you can teach yourself new things and how well you can motivate yourself to do that.
HS: Parting thoughts?
JC: I tried to have a full time job once and it was by far the most unhappy I’ve ever been. I was a tiny cog in a massive machine. I worked in a cubicle. We discussed things like “printer policies” and had to passive-aggressively label our lunches in the fridge. I hated my life. I took a risk though and quit. It has been, without a doubt, one of the best decisions I ever made. So to anyone thinking about going freelance: do it. DO IT.
John Carl is co-founder and president of Duck Duck Collective, a video production company based in Brooklyn, New York. Connect with him on Twitter @JohnCarl. Have something to add to this conversation? We'd love to hear from you. Just hit that "comment" button below.