Recently I took on a side project that resulted in utter failure. I was brought in to lay down guide vocals for a film so that the actors would have tracks to choreograph their scenes to. I was given six days to learn ten songs which they wanted to record all in one day. That should have been my first *abort* clue, but sometimes I see red flags more as pretty decorations than as signs that should be heeded. I was really busy working on a few other things but I reasoned that I could learn the tracks in the car, grouted in between the tiles of my life. That was a fat stack of wrong. The day came where I stood in a recording studio and proceeded to waste both hard drive space and tape (they were recording analog as well for some reason). Eight hours later, I left the studio with a kind of grime on my body that you almost convince yourself can only be scraped off with tree bark peeling off your skin after you run your car into a tree. It’s hard to admit to failing at something–failing people, their time and yourself. But that’s exactly what happened.
Fortunately, failure has a way of teaching valuable lessons. So where did I go wrong? I never should have taken the project on to begin with. I knew deep down that I was too busy to give it the attention it deserved but the fat guy that is my ego sat right down on those doubts to silence their warning yaps. As a freelancer, it’s very difficult for me to say no to things. Not only do I enjoy new challenges but there seems to be a script running in the root file system of my brain that says that the only way to succeed is to always take on everything. Also, I think a lot of us have that “Hero Syndrome,” where we want to come to the rescue because we want people to like us and then tell other people, “Hey, that dude/lady is COOL!” Then everyone high fives you. Then Rodney Dangerfield shouts, “We’re all gonna get laid!” and “I’m Alright” plays as the gopher starts dancing. Needlesstosay, this is all terarded. Taking on too much not only stresses you out more but eventually dips your energy scales into “Diminishing Returns Land,” a land where failure-dragons swoop in and burn all the crops of your labor, and the saline content of the water supply causes your kidneys to harden because your are drinking from RIVERS OF YOUR OWN TEARS. That’s not metaphorical–those things actually happen.
The trick to avoiding Diminishing Returns Land (again, this is an awful place: termites of impotency devour your chewy productivity centers from the inside out) is to stifle (or at least, ignore) the knee-jerk response to try to please everyone. When presented with a project, ask these three questions:
1. Is this in the wheelhouse of things I normally do?
NO! – Not a deal breaker, but definitely see questions 2 & 3.
YES! – Well, that’s a start.
2. Would taking on this project REALLY change my life?
EH, NOT SO MUCH – The longer I live the more I find that it’s rare that any one thing or job will change your life. Real,
long-term success seems to be the aggregate sum of your tapestry of work.
DAMN SKIPPY! – You will know on a deep level if you’re ultimately being offered the keys to a pile of success and better-looking sex mates.
3. As objectively as possible, do I really have the time to give this project the attention it deserves?
NEIN! – Then why are we still talking to ourselves about this? Do we have multiple personality disorder? Maybe we do…oh shut up. No, YOU shut up!
YES, YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES! – Then spread your wings and fly! Fly free, you delicious bastard!
I know, I know…we’re all still basting in the affirmation juices of Yes Man, but learning to be honest with people and say, “I would really love to take this on but I’m afraid my current workload wouldn’t provide me with the time and energy to do your project the justice it deserves,” will not only spare you the self-flagellation usually reserved for religious types but the job-offerers will also appreciate your sparing them a failure that could also affect their jobs. This also goes for the pro bono work that many of us freelancers do for our broke friends. It’s good to help out others, but not at the expense of your mental health and career. You can use the aforementioned line. If they get mad at you anyway, well, then they’re dicks. The other tasty side benefit to turning down work is that it makes you more attractive. Just like dating, people want what they can’t have and not what’s too available. It’s like my good friend Alex (a high-powered Entertainment Industry fat-cat with a tiger’s heart and moxie where his blood should be) always says: “No” is a very powerful word.
Image: Chris Hardwick/Nerdist