A Simple Way to Figure Out Your Creative Career Path

A Simple Way to Figure Out Your Creative Career Path

Every now and then, I hear words of wisdom worth sharing. Here are the most recent.

The other day, I was out at dinner with a friend of mine. She is a fellow director, and we were discussing our various projects as well as the multitude of side hustles that each of us has undertaken over the years to make our lives work both creatively and financially. I was discussing/bemoaning the fact that my career is often hard to talk about, because it seems so impractical (and takes way longer than an elevator ride to explain). I am a director working in both narrative and commercial spaces. I am a cinematographer as well. In fact, that is the only one of my trades that I studied in a formal school setting. I’m a commercial photographer and this has been the area of my highest acclaim. I’m also a screenwriter. In fact, this came first and is still the basis for everything that I do.  

But, rather than do any one of those things primarily and simply dabble in the others, the circumstances and timeline of my creative career has meant that there have been times in my life when I was only one of those things at a time. The result is that I’ve specialized in each of them individually. This gives me the added benefit of being able to legitimately claim each title and discuss my accompaniments and awards in each unique area. But, it can be hard to talk about in an elevator pitch situation because touching on so many different specialties in a condensed time period without providing context makes it seem like I’m just making stuff up. I’m not. I’m telling the truth. I’m just old. And I’ve been around the block enough times to have lived a lot of different lives.  

Yet, when it comes to building a successful business, it can be helpful to limit the number of offerings you provide in order to project a more unified brand message. Meaning that, despite my ability to do all of the above listed activities at a professional level, it is in my best interest to only foreground the most important one (or two if they are easily related). Mentioning my skills in one might dilute my perceived stature in another. I remember this every time I find myself in a conversation with a client in one world, and realize that I’ve gone off on a tangent about a job I’m doing in a completely different field. My varied experiences give me a lot to talk about. But such disparate stories can confuse my clients as to what they should be hiring me to do. So, somehow I need to find a way to pick one main title to lead with.  

But which title would that be? The reason why I’ve specialized in each of those things at one point or another is because I am truly passionate about each. I don’t consider any of them to merely be hobbies. They are all as important to me as breathing. Trying to figure out which is most important to me is kind of like a parent trying to specify which is their most important child. It’s next to impossible. Unless it was my parents. I’m pretty sure they would pick my sister.

My director friend had a similar quandary. She is a director, but is also an Emmy-winning producer and is very accomplished in multiple fields. But she passed on a bit of advice that someone had said to her that really resonated with me. She said that your creative journey is sort of like going on a long hike. Along the way, you have a winding path where you’ll need to climb several rocks of varying sizes and degrees of difficulty to keep moving forward. But, ultimately, your final destination isn’t the rock. Your final destination is the mountain. You may have to climb several hills and rocks before you can reach the mountain top. But the mountain is the real goal.

She said that the necessary struggle for people who are creative in multiple areas is to figure out which skill sets and accomplishments are your rocks and which one is your mountain. There’s a sense of accomplishment being able to scale a tall rock. That’s something to take pride in. But which ultimate goal will give you the satisfaction of climbing Mount Everest?

It’s not like this is the most complex analogy, but, for some reason, that really made a lot of sense to me. If I’m being honest with myself, the mountain has always been clear. I’ve had the same big dream since I was a child. My path in life has led me to develop several other dreams and passions along the way. And developing a career with those skills and passions seemed like a massive climb at the time. Making those individual climbs was a valuable experience as it developed my creativity and skill set. This helped me grow as an artist. And, more importantly, feed myself. And it’s not like that time hasn’t been wasted. The skills I’ve learned climbing rocks all feed into my larger dream. Like climbing the rocks on the way up to the top of the mountain, you can’t get up the mountain without first climbing the rock. But you just have to remember that once you’ve scaled the rock, you still need to keep going.

Okay, I’ve belabored that point long enough. I don’t mean to dwell. But, it really has been a positive way for me to try to contextualize my journey as I make moves to decide what’s ahead. And, I imagine, many of you reading this article will be in a similar position. You’ve got a breadth of skills and aren’t quite sure which to prioritize. Well, now you know a simple equation. What is your rock? And what is your mountain?

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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