All my dreams are dead? Talk to me about changing careers.
April 18, 2016 2:23 PM   Subscribe

For the past decade, I've been working at a career as a documentary filmmaker. I've been successful enough to keep going, but I'm starting to fantasize about moving on to do something else with my life. If you've left a creative job, how did you know it was time to quit?

I have to either double down my commitment and work even harder, or I have to walk away and do something else. I've always been someone with a good work ethic and an ability to stick with things for a long time, but as I look back on my younger years, I can see that this isn't always a good thing. On several occasions, I've stuck with things (relationships, hobbies, jobs) long past quitting time. At the same time, I have a lot invested in my career, and if I can get more traction (money) out of it, it's possible that a lot of the angst I'm feeling will fall away.

There are aspects of this work that I really love, but I think it's the fear of failing that really keeps me going. I'm in my mid thirties, and I've worked internships, had a full time production job, worked freelance, and created my own independent feature that has come out to good reviews. However, even though I've done all those things, I don't really feel successful. I have new projects that I want to work on, but dealing with the fundraising process is making me want to curl up and hide. I can see how my career has progressed from where it was a few years ago, but I don't really see where it's going.

Two complicating factors:

-I have a lot of anxiety issues, and I have a hard time parsing what is my anxiety getting in the way of my happiness, and what is my gut telling me it's time to move on. Right now, I really don't know.

- I have a small child. Full time momming isn't for me, but I don't really want a full time job either. Working 25-30 hours per week is perfect, and I am very attached to the freedom freelancing gives me to create my own schedule.
posted by ohisee to Work & Money (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Anxiety really is killer, so I sympathize. If you'd be happy without fundraising, perhaps you could take on more work and hire someone who would handle all the fundraising aspects so your anxiety doesn't get in the way of something you love to do.

Another option is starting your business. Have your documentaries focused on a particular subset of issues? An acquaintance is a former filmmaker who began creating and selling a product that is related to a particular cause they had worked within. Think former documentary person of environmental issues creates printer paper from sugar cane pulp (FYI this is not my friend's example, but is similar). You'd be able to utilize your knowledge and contacts but in a different way, and being a social entrepreneur might be a way to keep the flexible schedule while not having to rely on fundraising.

Regardless of your path, addressing the anxiety independently of your job will make a huge difference in your life - including celebrating your successes and recognizing that you are successful.
posted by A hidden well at 3:14 PM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't know that anyone can tell you if it's time to go. I know that for me hitting rock bottom creatively and emotionally was really important in figuring out the path ahead. Having a young child at that time made decision making especially difficult. Moms face such competing pressures about either leaning in or leaning out. But once I figured out that, despite career failures, I really did find my creative work vital to my identity, it helped me figure out a new approach toward balancing money-making work, family needs, and personal creative needs. Namely, I had to consider, in the following order:
  • Am I being kind to myself? I can't make decisions based on anxiety or depression, negative self-talk or a place of self-abuse. I need to consider whether the voice in my head is external--the voice of my mother, the voice of people on the internet--or whether it's my own voice, advocating for my own needs, and struggling to be known. I have to do this before anything else, or else I become a mess of resentment and anger. I need to put my oxygen mask on first.
  • Am I being kind to my family? Are my child's needs met, physically and emotionally? Are we financially secure? Am I being a good partner?
  • Am I being kind to the world? Am I creating work that will make a positive impact on the world around me? Am I being creatively honest? Is what I'm saying relevant, important, true?
In the end, I realized that what matters to me is creating good work, regardless of whether it hits it big. And beyond that, it meant working on being present with my kiddo and within my family, not miring myself in negative self-talk for not meeting other people's metrics for success, as an artist or a woman. It's meant taking on occasional freelance, to help our family out financially, but not letting that work eclipse either my family or other work that's meaningful to me. It's scary. My life is not what I thought it would be. But it's good, and it's happy, and I'm happy with the work that I'm making. I figure I'm pretty lucky in that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:31 PM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm making a similar decision in a smaller way (it is a side business for me). I just never was willing/able to do the marketing to get it to do more than just bump along. But I think the decider was that even if I magically had the work show up, it isn't as exciting as it was when I started. So, the question I would ask in your place is if you got the fundraising, how much would this project mean to you? Is is nice or thrilling? If it is just nice, then maybe it would be OK to find other nice projects that don't require as much pain and suffering to get going. For me, there is a lot of work around letting go of a dream and not getting caught up on how much I already invested (the sunk cost fallacy)

On the other hand, If it would be thrilling, try to think creatively about how you might be able to finesse the fundraising. Can you find a partner who is really excited about the project and better than you at that part? Or, can you refocus into a niche that might be less sexy but easier to get going?
posted by metahawk at 4:19 PM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Errol Morris worked on commercial film gigs between his personal projects.
posted by ovvl at 6:27 PM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

... and created my own independent feature that has come out to good reviews. However, even though I've done all those things, I don't really feel successful.
This jumped out at me. I'm not in your industry, but I bet a lot of people would consider this successful. I wonder if part of making this decision might be to think more about how you think about success. Otherwise you could find yourself in a new field, do very well by external benchmarks, and still not feel successful. (Not at all saying that external measures or other people's opinions should be your measure of success, let alone happiness, but it might be worth interrogating a bit).
posted by une_heure_pleine at 6:47 PM on April 18, 2016

Man, do I relate to what you're going through. I don't have any concrete answers, but I can at least describe what I went through, and how I reached my own decision.

For many years, I pursued my dream of writing and directing movies. And I kept having near misses and minor successes. They were always enough to keep me going, but never enough to make me feel like I had actually achieved the career I was working towards. I stuck with it for nearly fifteen years, and that whole time, I always felt like I was two years away from really breaking through.

At a certain point, I got tired of chasing a constantly receding horizon. As it happened, this was when my first child was very young, so perhaps there's something about the demands of parenting that forces you to really think about where you're spending your limited energy. At any rate, I took a step back and asked myself why I was still sticking with screenwriting after all those years. Here are the things I concluded I was seeking:
• The pleasure of the creative process itself, independent of any outcome.
•  A connection with an artform that I love.
• The opportunity to learn and challenge myself.
• That moment of communion when even one other person responds to my work.
• The ego gratification when a LOT of people respond to my work.
• A chance to impress other people with my success.
• Validation from the world that I am good at something.
• The maintenance of my self-image as a guy who sticks with things.
• Money to pay for the necessities of life.
• Even more money to pay for luxuries.
• Artistic immortality.

Obviously some of those goals were admirable and some were embarrassing to admit I wanted. Some I had already achieved even at my low level, and some would have required incredible success to have the smallest shot at.

I thought long and hard about which of those goals I really wanted to pursue, and which I could realistically achieve through screenwriting, and which I might realistically be able to achieve somewhere else. I also looked backwards, and paid attention to the endeavors where I actually had gotten some of the things I was seeking.

Ultimately, I concluded that I was better off focusing on writing for print -- still a creative field, but one that didn't require somebody else signing off on a huge budget before I could complete a project.

It was the right decision, but it wasn't an easy one, and I spent a year or so in real mourning for the dream I had spent so long pursuing. In addition to that emotional labor, there was a lot of regular labor -- I had to build up new expertise and contacts. I felt like I was trying to turn around a massive oil tanker at sea.

Ultimately, things did turn around. I'm finally happy with where my career is now, not just where I imagine it will be in two years. I definitely made the right choice for me.

I don't know what the right choice is for you, but I wish you the best of luck in making it.
posted by yankeefog at 4:10 AM on April 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

You don't get into the life boat until the mother ship is sinking. Lots of people have jobs with which they are disillusioned but keep soldiering on because they have nowhere better to go.

I know a guy who jumped from making documentaries to running a charter boat and building catamarans. He had the advantage that he loved boats as much as film. I think there is some biographical commentary on his sight which would be more helpful than anything I could add.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:22 AM on April 19, 2016

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