I always wanted to be like you. We both have that creativity, that yearning to make something. But unfortunately for me, I can’t create something as amazing as what you’ve done. It took me 7 years to figure out how creators win; it will only take you 10 minutes of reading.
A creator I respected once approached me at SXSW and claimed my success was only because I was “lucky” enough to work with the big names. Tim Ferriss. Seth Godin. Andrew Warner.
That fucking hurt. Their comment caught me off guard, raised my defenses. But why? They were right: I wasn’t as talented as those guys. But I can’t help feel it was more than luck. Or was it? Maybe my current success is just returned karma for all those years of bad luck—metaphorical heartbreak and literal broken bones.
Coming out of college, I had a degree, but no experience. It was enough to get me a job at General Electric, but not enough to get me something that left me fulfilled. It reached the bottom when I was asked to give a client presentation and froze entirely. My manager had to step in and complete the presentation. I had thought the job wasn’t good enough for me, but maybe I wasn’t good enough for it. How could I change the world with my creativity if I couldn’t even give a client presentation?
It wasn’t long before I was out of a job.
Buying a one-way ticket to Bangkok, and traveling from there to Bali, wasn’t the obvious solution. In my mind, I was being creative. I was doing what I needed to stoke my fire.
And then I dislocated my shoulder in Bali.
Sitting in a hospital bed, alone, you have a lot of time to reflect on yourself, and whether it’s worth it. Whether you should throw in the towel and take a cubicle job.
I could hardly afford my rent, much less the healthcare required to repair a dislocated shoulder. I needed help from my parents, and there is nothing more humiliating than that.
I had to make a choice. I could keep pursuing something bigger and risk losing everything. Or I could settle in and get an office job: steady salary, no anxiety about rent, food, health.
I couldn't settle. I moved to San Francisco to start my own business.
I went to the same place every week, and it wasn’t an office. It was a coffee shop. The banana-and-Nutella crepes it served were the only steady thing in my life. Everything else was up in the air. I was insecure. Even scared.
I don’t know what I expected, but the following period was a wake-up call. Creativity didn’t happen.
Everything I was doing was important: emails, phone calls, more emails. Anything to find a client. Michael Ovitz, founder of Creative Artists Agency, had a similar period. “There wasn’t a day when I didn’t walk in the door and get hit by a rush of anxiety,” he wrote in his memoir. “What idea can I come up with today to pay the overhead?”
It’s not like I had absolutely no confidence. I was convinced that I had the skills to be a good marketer. But that didn’t mean people hired me. At some point, after so many fruitless emails and phone calls, I started to have doubts. Was there something wrong with me? Was I the problem? Although self-doubt was eating at me, I didn’t give up. I had rent to pay and some sort of dignity to maintain.
And so I kept on networking with people I had no right communicating with. Hundreds of emails, phone calls, and interviews. Conferences, events—anything to be in the right rooms. Rejection after rejection. They mostly found out what I already knew: I wasn’t qualified to work for people of their abilities. Still, just being able to chat on email with a guy like Andrew Warner? It meant something. It didn’t mean I could afford surgery the next time my shoulder popped out, however.
Confined to the mandatory think-tank that is a hospital room, I thought about painting. I loved to paint as a child. My brother was years beyond me in terms of ability, however. His paintings were obviously superior. What’s the point of trying to compete with talent like his?
I quit painting.
There’s a popular Hollywood storyline, where some poor guy starts at the bottom and—through nothing but hard work—he reaches the top. Don’t buy it. Those things are essential, but nobody can do it without help. That applies to me as much as anyone.
It’s easy to acknowledge Rajesh Setty simply for bringing me on for a few projects. I helped build sites for his company, Audvisor, as well as for his book Gratitude. But that only scratches the surface of what Rajesh did for me in the long run. Not only did he provide great networking opportunities, he taught me just how to network. This is so important, and I wouldn’t be here without the connections I made. I learned much of this from Rajesh.
One person I met through networking was Sam Ovens. He invited me to a mastermind he hosted, and I remember him telling me, “I think you’re ready to stop playing small and have a proper go at this.” I was a little surprised; I thought I was already having a “proper go”! There aren’t many people who will call you out like that.
He encouraged me to identify a niche, which was huge advice. My worldview was huge, which isn’t bad, but it makes it tough to focus. Thanks to Sam, I realized podcasters should be my core industry.
Sometimes it’s important to thank people for giving you something less tangible. I am grateful Hiten Shah gave me a second chance. Hiten was someone I looked up to and he appreciated my work. He offered to introduce me to a company I was interested in working for and when he did, I dropped the ball. It was a low period, but that’s no excuse. I carried the guilt of letting him down for years, but recently I was able to reconnect. I apologized, and he didn’t make a big deal about it. I hope I have the same understanding if the same thing happens when I’m in his shoes.
I gained something from working with everyone featured in this story, and I’m fortunate. I encourage everyone to make connections and accept the help they offer. Everyone needs a hand as they climb.
As a child, I left myself with a “what if.” What if I had kept painting? Would I create the next Mona Lisa? Probably not, but at least I'd know. Over a lifetime, those what-ifs can pile up until they overshadow the little confidence you have left.
Sitting in a hospital bed, I decided not to quit again (despite my parents’ best wishes, maybe). Perhaps I would fail. But more importantly, perhaps I would win. Win or lose, I would give it my all so there would be no “what if.”
I felt that if I kept pushing to help creators, kept grinding, that something would come of it. Maybe in the form of karma, maybe in the form of a paycheck.
He gave me a job, but it wasn’t what I expected. He wanted me to replicate a bunch of Mala bracelets he had ordered. It was humbling, holding a degree from Carnegie Mellon and doing intern-level tasks. But it was a chance to make an impact. For me, it was everything. I scoured Google, found his actual invoice for the first order, contacted the vendor and got all the details for creating exact replicants.
When I outlined the steps for Andrew, he was stunned. He loved my mental process, and a relationship was forged.
That was the first of various projects I would do for Andrew over the next year, working from an “office” in a closet at my parents’ home. I noticed that Andrew didn't want to deal with the sponsorship side of the business. I figured I could help him out and, hopefully, help myself out.
I sold $70,000 in ads in just one day, more than Mixergy had sold for all of 2014. Maybe I got lucky. And maybe Tim Ferriss’s people just happened to notice, and then Seth Godin’s. If that’s the case, I can live with it. After all, Andrew—a genuine creator—benefitted from hiring me. And I benefited from benefiting him. When a creator wins, everyone wins. I can live with that.
Especially if it leads to an email from Tim Ferriss.
Andrew told me before my meeting that he wouldn’t blame me if I needed to quit my role with Mixergy to work with Tim. I promised him that wouldn’t happen (ambition is great, but loyalty is essential).
I saw where the meeting would be, and I was blown away. His team chose, out of San Francisco’s hundreds of cafés, the same coffee shop I lurked at for weeks during my toughest times. The man behind the counter shouted “Banana Nutella” as I entered, remembering my face and order. I told him, “maybe later.” The memories of those dark days, and the anxiety they represented had come rushing back. I might need that crepe to soothe my despair.
Three-hours of discussion later, we had set up the next steps in our relationship. Apparently I hadn't humiliated myself.
Do you ever get that feeling, that everything has come full circle? I admit having that feeling when I met Tim. I went into the cafe more confident than I had been in the past, but the little voice was there, reminding me how badly I could screw this up. But I didn’t.
I had learned something. Maybe I wasn’t good enough to be a creator, but maybe I was good enough to help creators reach beyond their peaks, beyond what they feel is possible.
For every George Clooney, there was a guy like Michael Ovitz, making sure he got the best roles. People whose names you don’t know, but who still make a difference behind the scenes. But Ovitz didn’t just help the biggest names. He packaged screenwriters and up-and-coming talent with the big names to make sure his whole team got paid. He worked with brands to connect them to the talent they needed.
Maybe I could be that guy. When the creators win, everyone wins. Maybe one day I can even help you win.
I knew things had changed when I reached out to someone on Seth Godin’s team...and they responded.
A decade earlier, when I first moved to the U.S., I learned about marketing by reading his books and blog. And now he’s considering letting me write ads for him? Someone once said to never meet your heroes. I don’t know what they are talking about. I'm working with my heroes and living my dream. I couldn't have even dreamt that story a few years earlier, and now I'm writing it.
Embracing my role—boosting the work of creators like you—has freed my own creator. When you win, I win.
When you earn more by monetizing your audience, you can invest more in growing that audience. And the bigger your audience gets, the more you earn, and the less time you need to worry about growing it yourself. Let us worry about that; you need to focus on creating.
As for me, here’s one way where I've come full circle: I’ve begun painting again. I don’t have any goals for it. I’m just creating, and it feels great. It won’t be displayed at a museum. There’s no one style or media. It probably still won’t be as good as what really talented individuals can do. But I don’t care anymore.
I always wanted to be like you, good enough to make the world a better place through my creativity. Now I know the creators who reach those heights don’t do it alone. They need someone they can trust. Someone who will give them good advice and put them in the right place, with the right people, no matter what they need. Because if you’re distracted, it means you aren’t creating.
And that means the world is missing out.
When the creators win, everyone wins. Are you winning? The world is waiting for you to live up to your full potential. What will help you reach that potential?
We might be able to help. If we should be so lucky.