Film Independent Thu 8.10.2017

This is How We Do It: The Discipline of Celebration and the Trouble with Success

Each month in This Is How We Do It writer Cortney Matz mines her own frustrations to explore issues of productivity, coming away with (more or less) helpful thoughts on finishing that pesky screenplay, short film or whatever else may be vexing the artistic mind. Warning: this is not an advice column.


Work hard, but play hard too

I took the road less traveled that led me to here

And I’m not sure it’s anywhere

Now I’m reaching, I’m grabbing—still I have this fear

That I won’t know it when I get there

As I listened to my friend Ronnie Steadman sing this song he wrote, I had one of those haunting moments where you really click with what someone is talking about. Ronnie’s words have followed me around lately as I muse on the concept of success: What does it feel like? And: How will I know when I have it?

Have you ever mentioned a project you’re working on only to be surprised when the person you’re talking to reacts like you’ve really accomplished something great? To you, it’s just a step along a path to an ultimate goal. But to them, it’s an impressive milestone. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Well-meaning person: “You wrote a whole screenplay? That’s amazing!”

Me: (kneejerk) Yeah, but it’s just a first draft. And I doubt it’s any good.

Or like this:

Person: “You finished principal photography on your short film? Wow, that’s huge!”

Me: (again, kneejerk-y) Yeah, but I didn’t even get all my shots and have a ton of ADR ahead of me.


Person: “You signed [insert household name] for the lead? I’m… speechless! Well done!”

Me: (powerless to stop myself) Yeah, but it’s contingent on funding. Which I don’t have.

These “yeah-buts” are relentless in any creative endeavor—each step follows a hundred others, with a thousand more to follow. We hear more metaphors about eating elephants and climbing Everest than anyone should. We keep our eye on the prize of putting good art into the world and we enjoy small breakthroughs.

But what will it take to know we’re succeeding? Really—I’m asking.


A-B-C (always be climbing)

I bet when you think about increasing productivity and getting things made, you probably don’t think about partying more. Having more fun. Relaxing. Those kinds of things. But! I’d like to suggest that celebration is as vital to a satisfying career as any productivity tool.

This goes beyond Oprah’s gratitude journal, although the reasoning is the same. Here’s why the talk-show-host-turned-multi-hyphenate-billionaire advocates daily gratitude:

…in the process of building a television network, I got so focused on the difficulty of the climb that I lost sight of being grateful for simply having a mountain to climb. Only when I began feeling gratitude for the opportunity to serve a new audience in a new way did a shift happen. Viewers started saying the most amazing things—things that aligned exactly with my vision of what OWN can be.

The phrase I like there is, “I lost sight”—it’s easy to lose sight of the life we really want when climbing a mountain that seems to grow as we get further up it. We’re on this rocky, thorny, not-even-slightly traveled road, wondering: When will I get there?

I’m talking to you, stoic independent filmmakers who have set your face for the horizon and won’t stop to have fun until your nose is touching the skyline. If you’re truly devoted to filmmaking, it will be your life’s work—and you never really finish your life’s work until you’re dead. So don’t wait until then to celebrate the achievements you’re stacking up with every passing year. It won’t be as fun, I’m pretty sure.


The fine line between incentivizing and procrastination

Maybe you feel you are already pretty great at this stopping-to-smell-the-roses stuff—so great, in fact, that your day is too full of celebration to have much time for anything else. I would suggest that if your play is getting in the way of work, it’s not really a celebration. In fact, you may not even be truly enjoying those distractions but rather going with an established flow you’ve already allowed to take over your life. It’s the path of least resistance.

True celebration makes you want to work for it. It’s something that will only be enjoyable after a task is completed. It is inextricably tied to the thing being celebrated.

If you are currently “celebrating” another page written by going to get more coffee, that may be fine if it truly helps you focus instead of scattering your productivity with too many trips to the kitchen. But I consider that to be more of an incentive—helpful for hour-by-hour attention management, but not necessarily the satisfying reflection on all that you’ve achieved.

True celebrations are for genuine milestones. When your first draft is complete, your project is now in a totally different place than it was before. When your principal photography is finished, you are no longer in the production phase—you’re in post. When that famous name is attached, your attractiveness as an investment catapults. These are significant achievements along the way of your grand plan that must needs be recognized and honored. Do it with time, do it with money, do it with friends, do it alone. But do it on purpose.

This takes work, and I don’t call it a discipline for nothing. A truly celebratory event is so particular to who you are and the circumstances in which you find yourself. But I believe it’s worth the effort. In fact why not build this into your timeline? Development, Pre-Production, Shooting, Post, Distribution… each phase has a plan. Why not include the part where you party?


“The shift in perspective may just propel you into a new atmosphere of creative productivity”

What makes you feel successful? Renting a convertible for the day and running errands? Dropping dollars you wouldn’t normally spend for drinks at a swanky new place? Treating someone else to an experience they can’t afford? An hour of undistracted gardening?

Make a list. Really—I dare you. And when something happens in the course of your project that makes someone else say “wow” do something about it. Don’t let that moment get away, even if it is two weeks before you can really give it the attention it deserves. Don’t let the “yeah-buts” overwhelm the simple joy of that success. Look at it, admire it, pat yourself on the back, and go celebrate. Then hit the road again, feeling like the accomplished thing-maker that you are.

The shift in perspective may just propel you into a new atmosphere of creative productivity.

(By the way, if you’d like to hear the whole song I quoted above, you can hear Ronnie perform it (with me singing backup) on YouTube.)

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