It’s hot, steamy, and humid, as it should be in the Florida panhandle, even in November. It’s 2005 and I’ve just won a screenwriting fellowship, and am winding my way towards a beachfront home to spend sixteen days breaking stories with a group of screenwriters. Suddenly my phone rings – a friend I know casually. He’s calling to congratulate me, and then he adds something strange:
“I’ve started lots of scripts, but I peter out. Where’d you learn to finish stuff?”
It takes a moment to think of an answer, and I’m surprised to recall where I learned how to finish:
High school track.
It’s weird for a creative to talk about high school athletics, but I was a weird kid.
A successful creative life involves multitasking. I’ve had three projects produced – a TV film, and two independent feature films – as well as numerous award-winning short films, commercials, and music videos, and currently have half-a-dozen projects with different producers around Hollywood. Effective multitasking, I’ve found, involves the ability not just to start projects (anyone can start something new), but to finish them. This ability is one of the things I learned most from track. My coach always used to say, “the finish line is ten feet past the finish line.” The lesson: finish, and finish well.
Finishing is a huge aspect of what I do as a filmmaker, but there are other nuggets of wisdom that I learned on the track that apply to my career, and to all who strive for success.
1. Don’t Look Back.
In one of my first races, I made the mistake of looking behind me to see if anyone was coming up behind me. My coach laid into me for that. “Run your race,” he said. “You’ll know if someone’s coming up on you.”
Most successful professionals are relentless about what’s right in front of them. You have to be relentless too. Keep moving forward. You can look back once the race is finished, when you’re evaluating what you did wrong and how you can improve. In the midst of the race, keep looking forward. There’s a great line from one of the Star Wars films – “Your focus determines your reality.” Don’t look back; keep your focus ahead of you, where it needs to be.
2. Catch That Guy.
My coach told me that in every race, everyone angles for the front of the pack, but sooner or later they start to fall away. As a result, don’t race the guy next to you (since he might not last long). Instead, focus on the guys ahead of you, and catch them one by one. One guy at a time.
In any career or profession, you’ll have peers and colleagues. They’re not your competition. Let them push you, but focus on the people ahead of you. Let the people who have the job you want set your pace.
3. Practice Every Day.
I ran every day in my first two years of high school, for miles at a time. It was exhausting to show up for practice every day, to log my miles, to do the work without any assurance of how it would pay off, but I trusted my coaches. In my sophomore year, I ran the 800 in one of the last state championship-qualifying meets of the season. I was doing well, and then hit the last 200 meters, and suddenly felt a surge of energy and strength. It was as though I’d discovered fifth gear. I vaulted ahead, hit my personal record, and qualified for my first state championship meet. I wouldn’t have gotten there if I hadn’t logged the miles and done the training necessary.
When I first moved to Hollywood, I had a wife and young daughter, and was holding down a full-time job. But I knew that I had a lot to learn in order to be competitive in my industry, so I committed to writing every day for two hours. I would leave my house by 7:30, get home at 7:30, spend time with my wife and new daughter, then write from 10-12 or so. Malcolm Gladwell has famously referred to the 10,000 hour benchmark. I have no idea how close I am to that milestone, but I know that two disciplined hours every day adds up.
4. Cheer Your Teammates.
As a classic mid-distance runner, I ran two events – the 800 Meter and the 4×400 relay. I loved the 800, but my favorite event was the 4×4. I usually ran leadoff, and after finishing my leg, I would run back and forth across the field, shouting encouragement to the rest of my team. That was my favorite part – cheering on the rest of the guys.
It can be easy in any field to get insular, only focused on your own success. But I have found that my progress has come hand-in-hand with that of friends and colleagues. Can you cheer for others, or are you the only one who can succeed? If a friend succeeds, are you insecure and jealous? Do you bad-mouth them or take them down a peg? Can you genuinely celebrate their success? Can you be a cheerleader?
5. Run to Win.
That being said, most industries are competitive (including mine). But most of the filmmakers I know don’t see themselves as competing with each other, as much as they are competing with themselves. They’re not fighting with each other; they’re confronting and seeking to overcome their own inadequacies. Trying to set their own personal records. They believe they are capable of greatness, and that’s what they’re striving for. They’re working hard, balancing multiple projects, putting in the time – training like they’re racers who want to win.
I am haunted by how good I could be. As a result, I am constantly striving to improve my craft, and can thankfully say with confidence that I’m a better filmmaker now than I was five years ago. But with each new project I strive for greatness, to learn something new, to get better. I want to be on my game, pushing myself as hard as I can, running to win.
What could you accomplish if you applied these lessons to your life?
Don’t Look Back. Are you looking back when you should be looking forward? Are you resting on your laurels rather than pressing ahead?
Catch That Guy. Who’s setting your pace – the guys around you, or the guys ahead of you? Who do you want to catch? Whose success do you want to emulate?
Practice Every Day. Are you working every day at your goals? Are you training every day to improve?
Cheer Your Teammates. Who are you cheering on? Who could you be?
Run to Win. How can you do your best work? How can you surpass previous victories?
And lastly… finish. Lots of people start – projects, relationships, careers. But finishing – persevering, sticking it out, being faithful to the end – is the sign of a professional, an expert, a success. So whatever you’re working on – finish.