The Myths of Setting Goals in Post Production

If you work in post production, you’ve probably described yourself a number of ways. Curious. Goal-oriented. Driven. Ambitious. And as 2018 approaches, the urge to revisit your goals as a professional naturally rises. There’s not much to back up the usefulness of the idea of New Years resolutions, but we do them anyway. Humans love patterns and milestones because we’re weird and adorable, and my experience in post has led me to believe that my peers are even more gung-ho about that stuff. We make lists and charts and binders and we live for it.

For your career potential and your generally happiness as a person (or at least the parts linked to work), it’s important to continually check in with yourself. Are you growing in the ways you want? Are you heading in the right direction? Are you generally satisfied with your work life? If not, how can you reposition yourself in the coming year to be more closely aligned with what you really want? I think most serious and successful people in our industry have this sentiment ingrained in their head sooner or later: stasis is generally not good because too much is changing. The feeling is that if you aren’t learning, you’re being left behind in some way.

However, lately I’ve stumbled upon a lot of post production professionals who seem to be taking this much more deeply to heart than is useful. Hardly anything in our work life (or our personal life) is so black and white as an “if, then” statement: “if you don’t take that indie project, then you don’t care” — “if you aren’t learning, then you’re not trying” — “if you’re feeling burned out, then you don’t want it badly enough.”

I’ve always been goal-oriented. I love tangible achievement. I love working toward something. I REALLY love making a list and checking things off, especially if they relate to the big picture of life. But like, whoa: when you’re so narrowly focused on Achievement(TM), you could missing valuable experiences or making yourself unnecessarily unhappy. Goals are supposed to guide you toward fulfillment, but not at the expense of your day-to-day happiness and overall wellness. I see high-achieving, goal-oriented young professionals in our industry beginning to burn out far too early

MYTH 1: Every day is wasted if you aren’t learning new things at your current job.

Here’s a scenario from my life. I worked in corporate video for a few years, and I made it a goal to try to incorporate something new into each project I took on. I was the only video person in the company — in the marketing department of the company — so I didn’t have anyone to mentor me. I did a pretty good job at keeping myself engaged. But one summer, business was a little slow and there was less video work to do. Instead of producing and editing, I was creating and stuffing mailers to sell the training DVD I had authored to companies who might need it. I felt a growing anxiety every day: I was wasting away doing menial work instead of plugging away at the next Big Creative Project. I hated that place and hated the work. I felt like a fraud. I felt like my entire summer was wasted.

Your job might not be so drastically unengaging, but you might hate it all the same. The resent that can build as you work away on a project that isn’t creatively challenging you often becomes more of an issue than the lack of creative challenge itself. We all have to accept that not every day, week, or month at a job is going to engage us at the level we want to engage in order to ascend.

It is GOOD to realize your needs. It is GOOD to understand that you want more out of your work life. It is BAD to be miserable every single day about it. And it is BAD to become so anxious and unhappy about your lack of growth that you become unpleasant to yourself and everyone around you.

So I spent like three months doing envelope stuffing work. I was still getting paid the same, and that pay continued to allow me to use some of my nights and weekends on other kinds of creative work which I enjoyed a lot early in my career. It allowed me to spend time positioning myself better, because I needed that time. That position still went on my resume as several years as an editor.

A job is work, a means to an end. You are not defined by your job. Sometimes it’s easy to find a new one, sometimes not. Sometimes you’re in a financial position to leave it, often not. If your job pays you and is not abusing you, then you are objectively okay. Always remember: you are not your job, and you are in control of what happens in your life. Sometimes it’ll take time. Give yourself time.

MYTH 2: Radically redirecting your goals is a sign of being a flake.

I was so dead-set on heading one direction in this industry for so many years that when a newer, better opportunity to shift into something better aligned with who I had become popped up, I rejected it outright. I thought I was self-aware when in reality I was hyper-focused on a ten year plan I created when I was 20 years old. You know what’s great about ten year plans? Like basically nothing. When I created mine in 2007, I had no idea what the end of 2008 was going to bring to the US economy. When I was 15 years old and decided to be an editor, I had no idea that part of that path would include a series of jobs I had little interest in later on, and the work I shifted into didn’t even exist yet.

And don’t take this to mean that having goals, long-term or short-term, is bad. It’s really good. You should always have a goal, and most everyone in the industry does. It helps you pitch yourself to people, and it informs the specific decisions you make about your career today. Go read the blogs about goal-setting (including mine). But don’t be afraid to put it down the garbage disposal when you realize you’re better off heading a different direction.

The great thing about this industry is that it’s so easy to evolve. There are so many new opportunities for technology and storytelling emerging all the time. It’s impossible to know what we’ll be capable of in a year or two. Who would have predicted the rise of OTT video? Or VR? Or the ubiquity of screens through iPads and iPhones? Plus, we learn new things about our industry and ourselves all the time.

Being able to assess and radically redirect your goals as needed is a skill many of us don’t have, because hardly anyone is taught how to evolve as a professional. At least in my experience, previous generations have valued finding a path early and sticking with it for 40 years until retirement. But the reality is that it’s incredibly common (and becoming even more common) to change careers a couple times in your life.

Our industry is so vast that a complete change in direction can (and often does) happen even within its boundaries. This is really cool. Embrace it.

MYTH 3: Staying with one company long-term is bad.

I recently heard from a young woman that she was considering leaving her job because she had simply been there too long, and that seemed like a bad idea to her. She was still being challenged and groomed for promotion, and she liked her workplace, but after a few years she was feeling restless. She was worried she wasn’t “putting herself out there” more, or was missing valuable experiences that come from job-hopping. It was almost like people wouldn’t take her seriously if she had three years at one single facility on her resume.

Over the last decade, our industry (and many industries in general) have shifted toward the “gig economy” where everything is short term, and there’s a lot of it. It seems like this has become so much the norm that young people who do experience more traditional workplaces — ones where they go every day, get promoted, and have ownership in the company itself — are being caught off guard. So much of the conversation among post production professionals also revolves around New York and Los Angeles and film and television, where (in the US at least) the jobs are generally long-term freelance. People are going from project to project, in different kinds of situations with different sorts of teams. The insight and testimonials from people like that are useful and fascinating, but they don’t directly apply to the huge number of other opportunities in post production in those cities and elsewhere.

Staying with one company for the long term? It’s not bad at all if you’re still getting what you want out of your every day life. Sometimes people seek complacency, and sometimes people seek active growth. If what you want is the latter and your company of three years is still offering that to you, you’re in a good situation. (If you’re sick of looking at the same people and you want a change of pace and scenery, I certainly can’t argue with that though.)

MYTH 4: If you aren’t using a large chunk of your free time to further your career, you aren’t serious.

One of the most annoying things that is parroted in our industry is the idea that you need to be actively learning and using all your free time to funnel knowledge and experiences into your career. I bought into this to an extent when I was younger. Although I enjoyed saying “yes” to every possible side gig (paid or not) that came up, there was a nagging part of me that also guilted me into doing it. If I wasn’t cutting some short film, what was I going to be doing? Hanging out with a friend in the hot tub? Watching TV? Going for a run? How does that help my career?

Side gigs and night work are something we all do, and we tend to do more of it earlier in our career. And that’s totally fine. But don’t buy into the idea that you have to attend every single networking event, screening, mixer, and panel in order to grow as a professional. What you really need to do in order to be a successful, long-term post production worker? Learn to say NO. Learn to bring balance to your life whenever possible. And learn that the people around you who are going at it 24/7, seemingly running circles around you? They aren’t more serious than you. They just have different priorities — and to be honest, those priorities will make for a less sustainable future. Working ‘round the clock is unhealthy no matter how much you enjoy the job.

The hours are already long in our industry. When you do have free time, it has a tremendous value. You must assess the best way to use it. Sometimes that will be a night gig. Sometimes that will be laying in bed. Both are valid career choices in moderation.

MYTH 5: If you need to take a break from the industry, you’ve failed. 

The post production industry is really hard. There are points in the year that are especially rough. If you’ve had a difficult or slow year, with a lot of extra expenses or decrease in clients, it can be hard to weather the tough times. Early in your career, it can be especially difficult: you don’t make that much money to begin with, so the time you have in between freelance jobs or to look actively for something better is very minimal. And for anyone else regardless of pay or success: burn-out is a real thing that happens to a lot of people and must be actively managed.

Weathering the storms and surviving day-to-day — whether that’s literally making enough money to eat or just being able to be happy enough with work not to let it seep into your personal life — is a difficult and important aspect of our industry. The work can fluctuate in frequency or difficulty, deeply affecting your emotions or your bank account. Your most important priority always needs to be taking care of yourself. For some people that might mean hanging out longer at a gig that isn’t really allowing them to grow, and accepting that as a valid choice. For others, it might be a break entirely from the industry to get financially stable. And for someone else, it could mean going back to school to add new skills or redirect entirely.

“Taking a break” from your career comes in many different forms, and mostly all of them can come across as “giving up” to oneself. But that is rarely the case for anyone, and it’s hardly ever the reality. If you go to grad school for a while or work a desk job or stick around being compacent somewhere, there is no reason you can’t pick your career back up when you feel ready and able to move forward. Too many people in the industry feel they have to move forward endlessly — by choosing a period of self-care that involves pressing the pause button, you are moving forward in your strategic thinking that involves a long-term career.

Look, what I’m trying to say is don’t buy into this idea that you have to be this ruthlessly ambitious ladder climbing insatiable person in order to succeed in post production. If you’re constantly keeping your eyes on some distant, abstract prize, you miss all the little experiences along the way that really make you who you are as a person — as a whole person who isn’t just defined by their work life. It’s incredibly cheesy to say it’s about the journey and not the destination, but fight me, I’m saying it anyway. Don’t let yourself get swept up in the idea you are not “enough” because that means something completely different to everyone. You need time to learn and grow as an individual, and to meet lots of different people. A diversity of experiences in every way will make you a better storyteller or problem-solver.

Take some time to yourself. Think about where you are and where you want to be. Talk to a peer and a mentor to see if you’re making good decisions. Make small, incremental changes if that’s what it takes. Make a huge, sweeping change if that’s what suits you. But don’t spiral into unhappiness because you aren’t “there” yet. You’ll get there. I promise.