Seems a post on toxic environments is more relevant this morning than I would have liked. I can’t quite help you on a world scale yet but, if you’re looking to get your mind off what’s going on, here’s a post that may help your work. Let’s start with a little Star Trek…
I finished reading the two volumes of 50 Year Mission, all about Star Trek. One thing that was interesting is that, on just about every Star Trek show, the environment for writers seemed pretty toxic for the first few years. It was adversarial and antagonistic with writers feeling they couldn’t do their job, professional lines crossed again and again and, from what I can gather, probably a large amount of time spent complaining about the situation which led to bitterness, low morale and plenty of firing and quitting.
None of that was good for the shows. In the early shows, they did well in spite of this toxic environment but the effects are there to see in the stories. With the later shows, this environment created problems that they never really recovered from, eventually leading to low ratings on DS9 and Voyager, the cancellation of Enterprise and the end of Star Trek until the 2009 reboot that left behind everyone involved in the previous decades of Star Trek.
A toxic creative environment is bad for everyone. Star Trek was so fortunate that it carried so much weight that it could overcome this problem many times. Most of us won’t ever be so lucky. If we’re working in a very negative space, our work probably won’t survive. It will be too apparent in the final product and we don’t have the big name or Patrick Stewart keeping us going. It can kill our projects.
So we have to avoid it. The difficulty is that it is something that can come from all ends of the creative chain. Problems and uncertainties at the top can make life very difficult for everyone having to work under that – lack of clarity in decisions or notes, decisions reversed too late, lack of trust in the people you hired to do the job. What much of this comes down to is that those at the top, the ones with the power to make the final calls, need to know that their role is to help everyone else do their best work. Help. Not force, demean into or any other more negative way.
I have been in this position as director of many shows. I have to trust my team to give me their best. I have to help them do that, giving them the right information, the clarity of direction (not just dictation) and, at the right times, the freedom to let them give me something they think might actually be better than what I’m asking for (my big rule for animators, for example, has always been ‘surprise me’). When I get that wrong, and I have at times especially early on, it makes their job more difficult. If it stays difficult, you can be sure that a toxic environment will be created. So you always have to look out for the problems and see where you can help your team do better.
But a toxic environment can also be created from the bottom up. This is often more difficult to deal with because what it usually comes down to is negativity from one or more people that spreads like a slow virus. Maybe someone isn’t suited to the job or has misunderstood the job. Or maybe (and I’ve seen this) they’re just a very negative person who moans out of habit. They complain and mumble and find fault and there is a danger that that viewpoint becomes accepted as normal. It spreads and soon you have a team that spends their time looking for fault, rolling their eyes and being generally unhappy. That’s a toxic environment and it’s no good for everyone, especially the unhappy team.
That can’t be allowed to continue because it will poison your production.
If you’re running a production or leading a creative team in any way, my advice would be to assume first that there are problems you can fix. Look at how you’re doing things and see what you can do to help your team do better. Think of it with that word: help. Actively encourage your team to come to you with suggestions on how to help – better they talk to you than complain to each other about things you never know about. But if after all that it turns out that there are just negative influences in your team, you can talk to them and try to encourage them to do better but it could be a case that you need to separate them from the group or get rid of them altogether.
If you’re on that team, understand that complaining to your colleagues won’t help. Go to whoever can actually change things and explain the situation and ask for help. If you have a very negative person on your team, don’t feed into it. Don’t laugh nervously and agree. If you’re working on something good or something that is giving you some satisfaction, say it. Try to counter that negativity.
Because no matter where you are in a creative process, a toxic creative environment is bad for everyone.
A drive for quality is everything. It’s not just about wanting your work to be better. It’s about expecting it. Here’s the problem – a lot of people won’t tell you when your work is not good enough. They’ll be polite if they’re your friends or colleagues and, if they’re a client, they’ll soon just work with someone else. Responsibility for quality control is ultimately your own.
Where this becomes tricky is when you are across an area you aren’t familiar with. I remember this when making the Dino Dog app, for example. I know if an animator is giving me their best. But a coder? I had no idea. I didn’t know good code from bad code. Having gone through that process, I have a far better sense of what is possible and how but that was a real challenge for me.
Sometimes I’ll see potentially good work that is let down by one aspect (all too often, the visuals) and I understand how that can happen. The person who is at the top is kind of like how I was with coders and their creative person is telling them that it’s good work when really it’s not good enough. That can happen. And the longer it goes on, the more you associate that work with ‘good work’ when, actually, you’re way off.
Some work is simply not good enough and you won’t get anywhere with it. Harsh, right? Yup. But it’s true.
So how do you avoid that? First, your own drive for quality has to be very strong. I feel that comes with doubt as part of the package. Yes, people like to list the virtues of confidence but, if you’re sure your work is great, will you ever aim for better? If you go in doubting the work is good enough, you will challenge yourself and others to look for better. But the other thing you need to get, to avoid the cases where you simply don’t know, is a second opinion. A real second opinion. And like I wrote right up there in the first paragraph, friends and colleagues will be polite. You need to keep asking until you get an answer that is hard to hear.
Hearing your work or that of your team is not good enough can hurt. But it’s what will help you make that work better and that’s what you need if you are going to do well. Push hard for that second opinion, especially if the first opinion was “it’s great”.
Here’s a thing about your creative endeavours, whether it’s that project you’re pushing, that job you’re hoping to get or your whole career – you need to keep up the momentum. It can be so hard to get any kind of movement at all. So when you do get it, even a hint of it, you have to keep pushing and keep that movement going.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Nope. Absence makes the heart (or the mind or whatever) forget. People move on and they notice other things and other people and, soon, that momentum you felt you had is gone.
It’s not easy, especially when you have to bury yourself away like a hermit to actually get some work done, as I’m sure many of the writers will understand. But you have to get out there and keep up a presence in whatever form you can. Even if it’s just a blog post about keeping up a presence.
Get out there and build that momentum. And when you get a tiny bit of movement, don’t let up. Stay out there as much as you can and let people see your newest work, hear the stories of what you have coming soon or even just see your face around. Keep that momentum going.
You know what advice I LOVE? It’s the advice that has me nodding my head and thinking, yeah, that confirms everything I have thought about my work and my life and the world. This advice makes me feel good about myself and I should remind myself to keep on doing what I’m doing and everything will turn out just fine. Oh look, a butterfly! Isn’t life wonderful?
The problem, however, is that the advice we really need isn’t always as fun to hear. It’s the advice that challenges us, means we might have to change something in how we do things, makes our life harder. Seriously, who wants harder?! Certainly not me.
But that’s the very advice we might need sometimes. Here’s the thing – improvements require change. And change is hard. Keeping that change up is even harder.
I saw one of those videos about how finished is better than perfect. That’s good advice. You’ve got to finish and deliver and faffing around forever, no matter how lovely your unfinished work might be, is no use to anyone. Some people really need this advice.
I was just about to share the video when I thought of some people I have encountered over the years who would watch this and nod their heads and think, yeah, this confirms everything I have thought about my work and my life and the world. I’m going to just throw this work down, shove it in an email, might even stick some words in that email and I’m going to hit send. Finished is WAY better than perfect. When actually, the advice that those particular people need is the harder advice to hear – that they need to spend more time with their work, really push themselves to get it better and better and build up their own sense of internal quality control. Because while finished is better than perfect, great is much, much better than sloppy.
Different people will benefit from different advice. We are not all the same. Not even close.
So listen for the advice that is harder to hear. We may not like hearing it but it might be exactly what we need to hear.
The world is divided into two groups of people – those who will read that heading and say “Hammer Time!” and those who will say “Collaborate and listen!” As it happens, this post is not about MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice. It’s about creative careers.
Here’s a thing: creative careers aren’t easy.
I started as an animator many years ago in the days when everything was pencil and paper. I remember seeing older people in their thirties, maybe some in their forties, travelling the world as they moved from production to production in search of animation clean-up jobs or whatever. Even back then, I got this feeling that I didn’t want to be that person. At some point, I was going to want to settle down. To stop having to chase that next job.
I looked ahead and, even just starting out, I knew that continuing exactly what I was doing probably wasn’t going to lead to a place I wanted to be.
I worked hard over the years. Not always focussed. Not always knowing where I was going. But I still amassed a good set of skills and, now, each role I can play in this business helps inform and support the other roles. So I have been very fortunate. I need the work and that is often dependent on productions, just as it was back then. But it’s easier to do from here, settled with my kids, and I can often create my own work in many ways.
And yet it is still true for me that a creative career isn’t easy. Even now, I have to project ahead and look at the path I’m on and try to figure out where that will lead me in the next 10 years. Or 20. I have to stop (no, not Hammer Time or Collaborate and Listen). Stop that day to day, to-do list to to-do list motion that just keeps me on a fixed path. Stop and review – where I am, what I’m doing, whether it is working, where I want to be and how I might get there.
It is a little time out to assess directions and I think it is hugely important. Probably in every career but definitely in ours.
My advice is that you start this early. Not all the time. It might only be once every few years. But do it. Stop. Take a look at where you are. Take a look at where you want to be, keeping in mind that it might not be where you thought you wanted to be the last time you did this. And consider how best you might get there.
People know I don’t buy into the cult of failure we have had over the last few years. A fear of failure is what pushes me to do better. It is what keeps me from giving up too early. And it comes as a package with a strong desire to succeed. Just as I can’t see a fear of heights being all that much of a bad thing (it has so far kept me from plummeting to my doom), I have never seen much of a reason to invite failure openly.
Failure is too easy. Anyone can fail. Anyone can put their hands up, declare their work a disaster and go do something else. That’s why so many unfinished books stopped at three chapters. It’s why some would-be screenwriters have folders full of movie openings and no finished work. Working hard, sticking at it to do something right? That’s the hard part.
The problem, the one which I think gave the cult of failure its good intentions early on, occurs when that fear of failure prevents you from trying altogether. That’s when it beats you. If you’re trying something you haven’t done before (and you should), it comes with the risk of failure. You need to accept that. I’m not so convinced about embracing it, but accept it. Because the possibility of failure should never stop you trying.
But as soon as you get started, you’re going to need a drive for success to make it work, to give it the absolute best shot you can. That’s whether you’re writing a story, selling a show, running a business, making anything. Imagine that feeling of finishing that last page of script and knowing you wrote that, you finished it. Picture getting it to a point where people read it and think, wow, I need this. Think about that moment your show gets greenlit. Or its first broadcast, finished exactly the way you want it. I remember when learning to drive being told that I should look where I want to go. We tend to veer in the direction we’re focussing on. There’s probably some sense there. Definitely when it comes to goal setting, I think having that clear target and focus is crucial.
So once you get moving, look to the success and leave that threat of failure far behind.
In the world of media, I have seen a lot of unrealistic expectations over the years. I see people with what might be the beginnings of an idea who expect others to throw a fortune at them to take it off their hands and actually do the work to turn it into something good. These people tend to wonder what is wrong with the entire industry when that doesn’t happen. Oh you’ll regret it when I’m rolling in money and this is the biggest property on the planet.
I also see a lot of more humble people daunted by how intimidating the industry can be. Gripped by that fear and a sense that they don’t have what it takes. Afraid to sit down and really develop their idea because it may end up awful and it will all go horribly wrong. I’m not a writer. I’m not a creative. I can’t draw. How will I get anywhere?
And this may come as no surprise to some of you but, regularly, I see these two things in the same person. Because the fear of sitting down and doing the work can often result in a defensive need to offload a project long before it’s ready. Someone take it! Now!
This is a fun business to be in with lots of wonderful people doing wonderful things. But the truth is, it comes with hard work. Sitting down and just doing the work, often on your own before anyone else believes in it, comes with the territory. It’s what you take on when you decide this is what you’re going to do. You have to work hard to prove what you’re doing has any value or has a place in a world saturated with high-quality media already.
It’s not an easy path to walk down.
But if you do, if you put in that work, you will find people who like what you’re doing. You will get to know why something you tried didn’t quite take and you’ll be better prepared next time. You’ll find the enthusiasm grows as you get closer, as you help others on their projects and as you get to be a part of the process. Then, when you find champions for your own work (and if you stick at it, you will), you realise you can do it. You have probably already been doing it. It’s not easy. It’s unlikely that someone will ever dump a truck full of money at your house for your concept, even when you put in the work. But it is still rewarding. It is still worth it.
So do the work. Keep your expectations realistic and do the work. Enjoy it and keep doing it.
A lot of people have passion for their own work and the desire to create something wonderful. The dream of really really take ownership of their work. And yet, more often than not, those people achieve much more when working for someone else than they do on their own projects. They might tinker away at their projects once a month or so. Or just wish that’s what they were doing and then feel bad that they haven’t actually achieved anything. Sound familiar?
So how do you focus yourself on your own work when you get a bit of time? For me, there are several ways of doing it but what they really come down to is replicating the pressure of having a job. When you’re an employee, usually someone tells you what they need and when they need it. And once you have a goal and a deadline, you have a target and you get to work and great things happen.
When you have your own projects, you probably know your big end goal. But you may not have broken it into smaller tasks yet. And I’m willing to bet you have no deadline.
So set a deadline. Better yet, get yourself a deadline. What’s the difference? If you set a deadline, you can shift it. You get busy and so you put it off for a week. Two weeks. Months. But if you acquire some sort of external deadline, that’s likely to be fixed. An application to a funding body. A submission to the Cartoon Forum. A trip to a conference or a market. Set up a meeting for that market with someone important and then put that date in your calendar. Congratulations – you just got yourself a deadline.
Now put that in whatever diary you use to keep track of what you’re doing, whether it’s your phone calendar or a series of scrappy post-its stuck to your computer. Break down what you need to do into smaller goals and create smaller step deadlines between now and your fixed deadline. Never lose the pressure of that big deadline. In fact, if it doesn’t feel pressured enough, get more deadlines to meet. Become a gatherer of deadlines.
Then meet every one of them. Before long, your project will have turned from an idea to a developed pitch concept and, if you keep at it, hopefully much more than that.
Recently, I was exploring an art piece in collaboration with an artist online who really inspired me when I was exploring pixel art for fun. A case of mutual admiration, which is always fantastic. One thing he said to me in a mail was: you really put a lot of love into your pieces. A lovely thing to say and it meant a huge amount as it was, but it was one of those little sentences that opened out into something much bigger as I realised that all the people I admire and all the people who I have loved working with and the people I want to work with in the future share this one thing: they put a lot of love into their work.
You can see it. You can feel it. You might not use those words but, on some level, you know. The love shines through in great work. The love even shines through in work that isn’t so great technically but is approached with honesty and passion. It elevates work.
Find something to love. To really love.
When you find what that is and you try it, no matter how raw you are at the start, you will put more into it than just time or hard work. You will put a little or even a large piece of yourself into everything you do. And people will feel it. It will count. And they will love it too.
I think it might be pitchforks and torches time when it comes to gender in toys. My main reason for this is: it affects so much more than just toys. It spills over into so much more. How many of us were surprised when it came out that the reason focus was taken away from women villains in Iron Man 3 was down to a perception that women don’t shift toys? After #WheresRey and Black Widow and so much more, this is just a common story now. It’s barely a story.
I know how it happens from first hand experience. I have had that discussion with distributors, with producers. Of course most will tell you it’s not down to them. I have to wonder if toy companies and toy stores even know how much they are blamed for every bad gender decision in kids’ media? People in media, people like us, will eventually remove themselves from the decision and it comes down to: “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” Oh those silly toy companies.
Not only will they get the blame but, importantly, they will be shown to be right. They will demonstrate that gendered products sell more. Of course, there is confirmation bias in here and they have created an environment in which this can be shown to be true. After putting boys on all the Lego boxes for years and realising they have a problem, nobody should be surprised that Lego Friends sold well. It just patches a problem they created themselves. This isn’t just Lego of course – they just provide an example most people know. It runs through the whole toy chain right down to people working in toy shops. Yep, lady who shouted after my girls “but that’s the boy’s aisle!”, I’m talking about you.
It is a toy culture the industry created. And so it desperately tries to sustain it, knowing nothing else. Having made the ‘rules’, the huge hits that have to cross gender in order to become such big hits (such as Dora and Peppa) are branded exceptions so these big sellers won’t shake insiders’ confidence in that culture. And you know, the people working in these companies are all real people too. They aren’t just the cartoon villain scapegoat at the end of this media chain. They’re looking at their figures from their gendered strategies and afraid of messing with that in case their jobs end up on the line. I feel bad for anyone in that position, just as I feel bad for people in media who genuinely want better gender representation but they know that they have to stick with certain strategies because that has been shown to work, at least in the conditions that we have all built. We’re all just people here.
And I guess that’s what it really comes down to. Us as people.
So here is a question for you, no matter what end of the industry you are in: do you personally believe that placing clear gender limits on children is beneficial to kids and society in general?
Not your company, not your financial bottom line. You. A single individual.
If you answer yes, if you think that what we should play, who we should be and how we should think of ourselves and others should be limited by notions of gender, I can do nothing else but hope that someone will shine a light on the wider gender problem, the pressures and limits on girls and boys, the toxic environment illustrated by comments on Ghostbusters trailers or the Rogue One IMDB board, and hope that you will one day change your mind.
But if you answer no, if you believe that, actually, it would be better for everyone if we shouldn’t impose limits on children and people based on gender, then let’s all acknowledge that and pull together on the same team. From here on the inside. Let’s call out the bullshit where we see it. Let’s push media that is gender inclusive. Let’s create characters that don’t all conform to basic stereotypes. And let’s fight for them when we’re told “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” so that we don’t pass on the wider problems to the next generation. So we give our girls and boys every chance to be strong, happy and to do what they want to do, and can all do.
Where cultures have been created, cultures can be changed. Just because you think it works one way doesn’t mean it won’t work in different, better ways. Anyone in this generation should be well used to that with the amount of change we have seen in our lifetime. We don’t need to fear that change. We just need to make it happen.