Resilience is the ultimate psychological skill for filmmakers looking to succeed in this business. And today, we'll learn how to build it.
In the first seven episodes this season of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast, we've covered a ton of ground in terms of taking control of your psychology. And I hope you've found it all super valuable.
There's one last psychological topic we haven't touched yet, one that I'm confident will help push you further in your projects and your career.
Quite simply, we're going to talk about what to do when times get tough. Those times where a project doesn't turn out like you want, those times when festivals turn you down, an actor bails at the last minute on your passion project, your film gets horrible reviews, or any of the other gazillion things that can crush your soul as a filmmaker.
In other words, today's topic how to develop unshakeable resilience, so that obstacles and setbacks never get you down and derail your projects and career.
Combined with everything else you've learned this season, this topic will help you level up your psychology, and start playing the long game.
So I hope you're excited. Let's get into the episode.
If you enjoy today's show, it would mean the world to me if you'd leave a rating and review on iTunes. That's the best way to support this small indie show and to help new filmmakers find it!
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Practical Takeaways from Today's Episode
Two painful truths about filmmaking
We're going to start with two simple truths, neither of which are particularly fun.
The first one is that making a film is incredibly damn difficult. And the process is never (I mean never) as smooth as we want it to be, no matter how precisely we plan it.
It's like we're trying to get 10K little puzzle pieces to all come together in the exact right way. That's a stressful thing to manage itself, but then undoubtedly in every project you work on, some of your puzzle pieces won't fit, you'll be missing pieces, or someone will manage to tip the table over and your puzzle will completely fall apart.
Ok, so maybe it's not the best metaphor, but hopefully you see what I'm getting at.
As art forms go, filmmaking is the most complicated and difficult and messy of them all. Not to mention the most costly. No matter how simple something seems, things can go wrong, and they will go wrong. You can count on that.
So that's truth number one.
The second truth is that building a sustainable, enjoyable long term career in film is equally difficult and messy and complicated and frustrating.
No matter what you're trying to accomplish as a filmmaker—whether you're working in the industry, freelancing, doing commercials, or going the indie route—no matter what, you're going to face a mountain of obstacles and setbacks and letdowns, both in the filmmaking process itself and in your broader career.
And at times, it's going to suck. You'll be frustrated, beat down, and angry that your best efforts don't seem to be good enough.
There will probably be times where your mind starts wandering towards the possibility of changing course or giving up.
Maybe it's throwing in the towel on an individual project. Maybe it's changing your definition of career success so that it's easier to achieve. Or maybe even quitting filmmaking altogether so you can get a "real job."
To be honest with you, I've never met a single ambitious filmmaker (or just ambitious person generally) who hasn't had those kind of doubts. We all do. Hell, I thought about giving up on filmmaking entirely a whopping year and a half out of film school. Glad I didn't, but the thought was there.
Anyhow, I've mentioned it a few times throughout this season, but our brains are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and when things suck consistently enough, our brains will always start thinking about ways to ease the suckiness. It's their job, and they've evolved to be very, very good at it.
And that, my friend, is where resilience comes in.
What is resilience?
For the uninitiated, resilience is simply the ability to keep pushing forward even when things don't go as planned, even when there are obstacles that seem insurmountable, even when things flat out suck and our brains are screaming at us to ease the suckiness.
Resilient people are able to take setbacks in stride, keep moving forward, and eventually, through hard work and determination, reach their goals, no matter how many obstacles they encountered along the way.
And make no mistake, just like everything else we've talked about this season, resilience is a psychological skill that you can start working to develop right now.
And I've got several solid tips for you in this regard, but there's one big one that must come before all of the others. You can't overlook this tip and expect anything else to make you resilient.
In order to be resilient, you must be working toward something awesome. You must have goals that you're excited and passionate about reaching. Without that element of desire, you're toast at the first signs of adversity, because there won't be any real reason for you to push through.
So I'm going to trust you can can come up with a compelling big picture vision for your films and your career. (If not, check out season 1 episode 1 of this podcast). Once you've got that, then and only then, should you dive into the following practices.
Strategies for developing unshakeable resilience
1. Find a larger purpose for your work, and reconnect with it when things get difficult.
Frederick Nietzsche once said, “He who has a why can endure any how.”
It’s an idea that’s shown up everywhere from the oldest philosophy and military history, all the way to the most cutting edge neuroscience and psychology. When we have a deeper purpose behind our work, our chances of success are significantly higher.
So, I’ll ask here, why do you make films? What is it about film that makes you want to do this work no matter how hard and frustrating it can be?
Maybe you're driven to tell certain types of stories. Maybe you love the medium itself so much that you can't imagine doing anything else with your life. Maybe you're just attracted to the Hollywood lifestyle.
Regardless, the best way I've found to really get to the core of your purpose is to ask yourself a series of why questions.
For instance, you might ask yourself, why do I love filmmaking? You might say, because it's the most awesome and powerful art form we have. Then you'd drill deeper, asking why that's important. Well, because it's the ultimate medium for telling stories that connect with lots of people. Why's that important? Because stories help us understand the world, and when we tell empowering stories, we help make the world better, even if just a little bit. Boom, that's a solid purpose right there. Telling stories that enable and empower people to live better lives.
That's just one example though. you could certainly come up with all sorts of different answers depending on where you start and how deep you go.
And a little pro tip here. the strongest purposes tend to be those centered around helping others in some way. I don't know why, but like we mentioned in the depression episode, focusing on service takes you outside of yourself and your problems, and helps you see the bigger picture of your community, the world, and how your work fits into it. And feeling connected to some kind of bigger picture is a great way to develop resilience. So if you're having trouble finding a purpose with that other method, start finding ways that you can serve others with your art.
Here's another example for you, and this happens to be my current purpose when it comes to filmmaking. Feel free to steal it if you want.
For me, I make films because it’s how I explore ideas and people. I'm a curious person, so when I don’t understand something, I’m driven to make a film about it. The process helps me learn about other people, other ways of thinking, other cultures, and about myself. And the more I’m able to do that, the better I’m able to engage with the world around me. The more I'm able to be empathetic and understanding. And perhaps most importantly, the more people who consume my work are able to do the same.
Seems a little cheesy, sure, but for me it’s everything I need to keep going. Because exploration and open mindedness and empathy and lifelong learning are all core values of mine. That's why this purpose gives me the drive I need to push through when things get tough, because it's deeply aligned with those core values.
So again, why do you make films?
If you have a compelling answer to that question, and you’re deeply connected with that answer, it will serve as fuel in your career.
That's the last important point I want to make here. For this to really work, you have to be deeply connected to that purpose on a gut level and feel it emotionally. So really take the time here to drill deep and figure out why you're so driven to be a filmmaker. Once you're able to connect to the source of that energy and tap into it when things get hard, you'll be unstoppable.
Ok, so that's tip one for developing resilience. Develop a strong purpose and connect back to it when things get tough.
2. Plan for obstacles and pre-meditate your failures
This next tip comes straight out of the psychological research on how to be resilient and achieve your goals. But a little bit of context first.
Obstacles and setbacks tend to be most potent when we're blindsided by them. When you think you have everything figured out, but then the world slaps you with something you clearly didn't consider, it can shake you to your core.
And if those particular obstacles and setbacks are big and potent enough, and you truly weren't prepared for them at all, that's the kind of thing that can knock you off your path, derail your progress, and make you want to quit.
That's why the advice here is extremely simple. Don't let yourself get blindsided. Prepare for any and all obstacles before they occur. And if you really want to use this strategy to full effect, pre-meditate the worst case scenario, where you vividly imagine what would happen in your life if everything that possibly could go wrong, did go wrong.
As for how to implement this advice, here's how I approach it.
Use backwards planning to spot potential obstacles ahead of time
First, you want to use the backwards planning process that we talked about earlier in this season. Take the goal or project you're chasing, and work your way backwards from the desired end result. Find all the milestones you need to hit along the way, and for each one, think about all of the possible things that could go wrong in the process of reaching that milestone. And then, for each obstacle you come up with, come up with a pre-emptive solution.
Honestly, I do this at the start of every project I take on in life, whether business or art or anything else, and it takes all of an hour to work through this process and have a plan ready for whatever life throws at you.
And the best part is, once you're in the middle of your project, you'll rarely encounter all or even most of the obstacles you planned for. Which will make you happier and more confident throughout the process.
Pre-Mortems, and the Stoic art of pre-meditation
That's the most systematic way to approach this, but there's another technique I want to arm you with that's a great combination of ideas from the worlds of business and Stoic philosophy.
The first piece of this is to conduct what's known in business as a pre-mortem. Basically, you sit around at the start of a project with a group of your key collaborators, and you imagine that your project has failed miserably. Then you all brainstorm a list of things that could have possibly caused that failure. And like before, you come up with a strategy to pre-empt each failure. It's a lot like the previous strategy, but done as a group activity, and done without the added benefit of backwards planning.
The other piece of this that I like to incorporate is what's known in Stoic philosophy as pre-meditation. Basically, you vividly imagine the worst case scenario with the project. You think through all of the terrible things that would happen, how those things would make you feel, and the downstream consequences the failure would have on your life. Basically, you let your fears play themselves out in as much detail as you can muster.
This is an intense thing to do, but once you get into it, you'll eventually start to make peace with the worst case scenario. You'll understand that even if things go catastrophically awry, you will survive and life will go on.
And for those of you who tend to experience a lot of fear about what'll happen when you fail, this exercise is incredibly powerful. Because it'll force you to confront what you're afraid of, and it'll force you to realize that your fears aren't that bad in the grand scheme of things. With that level of clarity, it'll be like having a weight lifted off your chest.
And when things don't go catastrophically wrong on the project, the success will be so much sweeter.
So that's tip two for developing rock solid resilience. Don't let yourself get blindsided by obstacles and setbacks. Prepare for them, both with a tactical plan, and emotionally, so even if the worst does happen, you're at peace with it.
3. Reframe your obstacles as opportunities
This next tip is one of the most empowering mental strategies I've ever come across.
All of us have the power to interpret the events of our lives as we wish. And we generally form beliefs based on those interpretations.
So the tip is this. Interpret every obstacle you encounter as an opportunity. Even when things feel shitty and diificult, there's always, and I mean always, a way to spin it into something positive. You just have to be in the right frame of mind to find those opportunities.
And the more you do this, the more you'll shape new beliefs around the nature of obstacles. And that's one of the most powerful ways to become resilient in all areas of your life, not just in filmmaking. Because beliefs stick around. They basically become our human operating system. And this is one of those system upgrades that can work wonders for filmmakers.
Here are a few film examples of how this might work.
- Script didn't get accepted by a contest, or you couldn't get an agent? It's an opportunity to hone your craft and become the best you can be.
- Ran out of money on your film? It's an opportunity to test DIY solutions and have fun with guerrilla filmmaking.
- Actor bailed at the last minute? It's an opportunity for you to step in front of the camera and develop a new skill.
- Don't have a crucial shot you need to edit your film? It's an opportunity to get creative and reimagine your story.
- Your film didn't get a distribution deal? It's an opportunity to learn marketing, distribute it yourself, and keep all of the profits for you and your team.
See what I mean? This type of thinking is so powerful, and I honestly believe that this right here is what separates the haves from the have nots in the film world. Everybody faces obstacles and rejections. Everybody. It's how you deal with them that makes the difference.
In order to pull this off, you have to get in the habit of asking yourself a simple question when things don't go as planned.
How can I make the most of this situation?
Questions like this are rarely obvious in the moment, because you're all wrapped up in the negative emotions that tend to stem from obstacles. And if you let yourself stew in those negative emotions, and only focus your attention on what's wrong, you won't end up anywhere good. In fact, you'll probably drag down the people around you as well, which can quickly demoralize an entire team.
That's why a question like this is so empowering. The right question at the right time will shift your focus away from what's wrong, thus changing your emotional state, and your new focus will be towards positive actions you can take to make the best of the situation.
Where you focus your mind and energy is what determines your success, and there's no better way to do that then by asking empowering questions.
So again, whenever things get tough, or you encounter something frustrating, just ask yourself, how can I make the most of this. Ask the people on your team for suggestions. Get everybody into the mindset of creating new opportunities out of setbacks.
So that's tip number 3. Use questions to change your focus, and turn your obstacles into opportunities.
4. When things get tough, lean on your tribe of filmmaking friends
This next tip is a fairly obvious one, but it's so important that it needs to be mentioned here.
Every filmmaker needs a tribe. Not just because filmmaking is a team sport, but because outside support is insanely helpful when dealing the ups and downs of a creative career.
So the first step here is obviously to start building that tribe. Find people around you who share your values, your creative sensibilities, who compliment your skillset. Work with these people consistently, make cool stuff with them, grow with them. Become friends in the truest sense.
If you want to learn more about how to find these people, go back to the networking episode in season 1. There are all sorts of solid tips in there.
Anyhow, once you've got a solid tribe, you'll not only be better staffed and prepared in your projects, but you'll have a tremendous support network when things don't go well.
So when things get tough, and you come across obstacles and setbacks, be open and honest it about it with your tribe. Not only will they support and encourage you, but you’ll be able to crowdsource solutions to whatever’s holding you back. The support and wisdom of your peeps can help you overcome anything.
5. Put yourself at the center of a bigger story
Alright, so I've got one last tip for you in terms of developing resilience, and I'm pretty sure I mentioned this elsewhere this season. But it bears repeating.
Start viewing your life as a story, with yourself as the hero at the center of that story.
Let’s take a step back for a moment and think in terms of storytelling fundamentals. Almost every great story has a few things in common. There's a protagonist (you), who goes on a journey and overcomes obstacles in order to reach a better place and transform in some way. And usually, the best stories have a moment of darkness before the triumph. Deep dark nights of the soul where everything feels hopeless. But then, through incredible internal strength, the hero prevails and wins the day.
So here’s the mental trick. When things get tough, imagine yourself as the hero of your own story. And imagine you’re in the second or third act of the story, where things get tough and harrowing and the hero is tested. And imagine that, just like all great lead characters, you'll summon the strength to pull through.
When you do this, it reframes all of your obstacles and setbacks as something that you can (and will) ultimately overcome. And when you use this mindset in conjunction with everything else we've covered here, you'll be unstoppable.
Further Reading & Resources
Book: The Obstacle Is The Way - Ryan Holiday
This book is only a few years old at this point, but it's already a classic. Probably the best book you'll find on turning your obstacles and setbacks into opportunities.
Book: Grit - Angela Duckworth
Angela Duckworth is the foremost psychological researcher these days in the study of grit and perseverence, and her first major book on the topic delivers a whole bunch of fantastic insights into how to be more gritty.
Quick Video: How to anticipate (and prevent) big mistakes - Daniel Pink
A great primer on the "pre-mortem" technique I mentioned earlier, plus it includes extra reading and resources if you want to dive further into this topic.
Article: The Stoic: 9 Principles to Help You Keep Calm in Chaos - 99U
A lot of philosophy has little practical value, but Stoicism, on the other hand, is a treasure trove of useful mindsets for weathering the craziness of life and taming some of the emotional thinking that holds you back.
Wrapping up Season 2 of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast
Whew! You made it!
I hope if there's one thing I've impressed up you this season, it's this: you can't just change your psychology by wanting to change your psychology. There's no positive self talk, no affirmations, no mental tricks that will get you to where you want to go on their own.
There's only difficult, consistent work. Not only that, but you have to actively chase down the work that you're afraid of, that makes you uncomfortable.
By showing up every day, and doing that kind of work, you will become the person you want to be, both on the inside and the outside. And that's what this has been about this whole time. Because when you start taking action and putting your inner world in order, your outer world changes for the better as well.
For you, that might mean any number of things. It might mean better films, more opportunities, more money, incredible relationships, improved health, or any number of outcomes.
That's the power of taking care of your psychology. And I hope I've armed you with the tools to do that this season. Now you just have to go out and use them.
So good luck in your journey, my friend, and godspeed.
If you enjoyed this podcast episode, you'll love Filmmaker Freedom Weekly. Each week, I share my latest writing, curated stories from around the web, a short film that I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.
Are you ready to take your film career to the next level?