I recently met with somebody who was interested in pursuing a writing career. In our conversation, he asked me how “risky” it was to pursue a future in screenwriting and he worried that maybe he was headed down a dangerous path, even though he was passionate about writing.
I explained to him that writing was something he could pursue while also maintaining another job to pay the bills, that it didn’t have to be risky, and that I believe you should always follow your passions.
Then he asked a question that revealed what he was really worried about.
“But…how do I know if I’m good?”
It’s a question lots of comedians also struggle with, so I thought I’d share my answer with you.
First, that’s an impossible question to answer because I don’t believer you’re ever “good” or “not good.” Creative careers don’t ever have a single moment where you magically become good – instead you will go through a gradual process of improving and getting better.
Also, comedy is a subjective art – lots of people may think that Dane Cook is good, but lots of others may disagree. Comedy isn’t math – there is no definitive answer.
Since you’ll never really know if you’re good or not, it’s an unproductive question to ask yourself.
That said, if you really want an answer to the question I’ll give you one.
Unless you’ve been working at something for a long time (10,000 hours maybe?), you’re not “good” at it yet. That’s just the way things work.
In my conversation with the would-be writer, I asked him how many scripts he had finished writing and said that if that answer was less than 10, I could pretty much guarantee he wasn’t good yet.
It reminded me of something a literary agent told me years ago. When writers approached him looking for representation, the first thing he would ask them was how many screenplays they had written and if that answer was less than 10, he wouldn’t even read their script.
That’s because he knew if they hadn’t written a lot of scripts yet, they wouldn’t possibly be as good as they would be after they had put in the work to complete 10 scripts. He would tell them to go finish more scripts and then contact him.
While writing (and comedy) require some natural ability, they are also art forms where you will definitely get better as you put more time into your craft. No matter where you start, you’ll be better after writing 10 scripts or performing 100 times than you are after your first script or performance.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint – remember?
With that in mind, I told the would-be writer that rather than trying to figure out whether or not he was “good,” he would be better served to figure out if he was getting better.
He should focus his efforts on writing more screenplays and not worry about judging the quality of his initial work. Instead of trying to figure out if his third screenplay was good, he should concentrate on whether his sixth screenplay was better than his third.
That’s something that creators actually find relatively easy to judge – you might not be able to figure out if your work is good, but you probably have pretty accurate instincts when you compare it to your previous work.
And the more work you do, the better your work will get.
With the “Am I getting better?” mindset in place, I then suggested he think through the time and effort he was prepared to commit to chasing his dream. Again, no matter how talented you are, it takes a lot of time and hard work to build a creative career and I think it’s important to go into it with some idea of what you’re prepared to commit to making it happen.
I suggested he think about how many years he was willing to work on his writing or how many screenplays he was willing to write before seeing any real success. That number could fluctuate and he could always extend it, but setting an initial time frame would alleviate some of the inevitable pressure and frustration that can come with trying to “make it.”
And the question to ask himself during that time frame would be whether he was improving, not whether he was good. (Here’s some other ways to measure your career progress.)
For example, if he decides he’s willing to put in three years of work on his writing, then all he would have to worry about during that time was whether he was getting better. He would know he had decided to put in three years with no promise of anything coming out of it, and he could just focus on doing the work during that time.
It’s almost like going to college – you do it with the hope and assumption that something good will come of it, but you have no guarantee and you don’t expect to suddenly be qualified a year into the experience. You understand the benefits won’t come until you graduate…or later. Or, unfortunately, they might not come at all.
That’s just how it works.
At the end of the time frame you’ve set for yourself to get better, you can assess where you’re at and figure out if you’re still passionate about what you’re doing or if you feel like you’re making enough progress to continue. That will still be a tough decision for you at that time, but at least it will be one that hasn’t been hanging over your head on a daily basis until that point.
It also gives you a point where you can walk away knowing that you gave it a good shot and that you left on your own terms – or that you’re continuing to pursue your dream because you’ve seen enough progress in your career or your talent to warrant that you push on.
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