Creative Rebellion Essays: The power of persistence

“Burnt oak” — photo by John. S. Couch. Color edit by JC Caldwell.

I really wish talent was enough. From childhood, we’re told that talent and hard work will get you to where you want to be and it’s not entirely wrong — working hard at your craft is important. But there are other factors outside of our control like opportunity (being born into wealth or poverty; having access to resources or people who can help); and timing (ideas that are too ahead of their time don’t work).

Humans are tribal. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we have unspoken “clubs” that require proof of worthiness before one is allowed in. We are often allowed into the club through the recommendation of a friend, being vouched for, or through the external acknowledgment of a large audience or validation from an authority figure. The club can be a company you want to enter or an organization that you want to be associated with.

I get it. I’m much more likely to hire someone if someone I trust recommends them. The trials of getting into a social group are essentially a filtering process — how serious are you about your work? Has it been validated by people or organizations I trust? And ultimately, the filtering is there to help reduce risk and allow for trust.

As an example, you may be a brilliant writer. But writing the book or screenplay is just the first part of the journey. You have to find a great editor. You need to get it to a publisher or a studio, in which case you need representation — an agent or manager or lawyer. And, of course, getting an agent puts you into the cycle of needing to be vouched for in order to even be considered. So from the get-go, there are obstacles in the path. Most people give up or they go the self-publishing route, which is empowering but also requires that you literally do everything from designing the book to marketing and PR. If you have the time and temperament, then go for it. It may work. Or your hard work may just go into a vast void. Of course, you may get lucky but luck isn’t a controllable entity.

“Fortune favors the prepared mind.”

– Louis Pasteur

So what can you control? Persistence. You can simply not give up. Yes, it’s the hammer in the toolkit of success but it’s been my experience that accomplishing your goals is an endurance test and you increase your odds if you just keep at it.

I’ve been mentoring a very smart, precocious, and driven Stanford AI student. She reached out to me via Linkedin. Now, like many of us, I get a ton of unsolicited sales emails but when someone genuinely needs help or advice, I will respond to those as best I can. This Stanford student is working on some really interesting tech (which I can’t go into) and already has meetings set up with major studios and a talent agency. She said the talent agency came through a professor but the studios were simply a matter of her reaching out via Linkedin and asking questions. Here is a perfect example of a prepared mind increasing the probability of success by being courageous enough to simply reach out to ask for help and then not give up.

PERSISTENCE, NOT BUGGING — THERE’S A HUGE DIFFERENCE.

I remember early in my career when I was looking for a job. I would take meetings, have lunches, and afterward, I’d be happy, feeling that I’d know one way or the other how things were going to be. Weeks would go by. I’d call, leave messages, get strung along until it all just faded into nothingness. If I happen to run into the person who ghosted me, it was always awkward but polite as I was never officially told “no.”

And that’s the problem. Humans need resolution. When you’re on the hiring end and if it’s a no, say “no.” If you don’t know, then say that. It’s uncomfortable for a moment but the person pursuing the job or the opportunity will very much appreciate it. Especially if you can explain to them why they weren’t right for the job. Be polite and direct.

Back to persistence. Remember that what you truly want to do will be met with resistance. I’ve found that it’s helpful to look at it as a game of sorts. The less you can take putting yourself out there personally, the better. Do your best work, try to enjoy the process, don’t worry about how you may be perceived, as long as what you are doing has integrity and comes from a good place. Trolls abound and they always will.

IT’S ALWAYS EASIER TO CRITICIZE THAN TO ACTUALLY CREATE.

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”

Marcus Aurelius

The takeaway is to find satisfaction in your work, whatever it is. But keep your passion alive for the thing you feel you were meant to do: launching a new business, working for the company of your dreams, or finally getting that degree.

Whatever you do to make money, just make sure you are also doing something creative for yourself for an hour or so a day. Making money as an artist, actor, poet, dancer, writer or creative person isn’t easy. But don’t worry about that. Just engage in creativity as part of your daily routine, without worrying about monetary gain from it — thinking about making money from creativity has an odd effect of ruining the fun of doing it.

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”

– Kurt Vonnegut (addressing a beginner’s college class on writing, excerpt from Pity the Reader)

GO MAKE SOMETHING. BE PERSISTENT. EXPECT NOTHING. BE THE LAST PERSON STANDING.

What I’m watching:

The Office I’ve been binging this old series (again) with my teenage daughter and wife. Our daughter got us re-addicted to this hilarious series, which was based on the original British series by the acerbic and brilliant Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (who are also producers on the US version).

What I’m reading:

Music for Chameleonsby Truman Capote. A series of short fiction and non-fiction stories by the brilliant, late writer. It’s hard to tell where the line between fabrication and reportage is in his writings. Capote was at the vanguard of writing non-fiction like it was fiction (ala In Cold Blood), which cleared the way for Norman Mailer’s nonfictional style as well laying the groundwork for Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism and Thomas Wolfe.

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John S. Couch is Vice President, Product Design at Hulu.