Monday, February 1, 2021

Advice For My Younger Self

Photo Taken in Venice Beach by Kristin Mayer - 1992

I was listening to a podcast, and the host asked the guest, “If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?”  And I thought, gee, that is a great question to ask oneself because not only does it reveal some regrets about how one may have handled things in the past.  But also, it helps to show how one has hopefully grown in the subsequent decades.  So, for myself, let me think about this question.  Here are three pieces of advice I would give to twenty-four year old Fred. 

Keep Your Eye Off Of The Prize

The first thing that comes to mind, and probably always will because it is still painful for me, was my ending of my work in the animation industry.  You may infer from reading many of my blog articles that I am heavily conflicted about my animation career.  And I am.  

There are several reasons for this, including that I have changed quite a bit since the time I was working in the animation studios.  I have gotten used to creating my own schedule, which I love. I enjoy deciding how my day will go.  If I want to run early in the morning, or if I decide to take care of some work stuff earlier and do my fitness later.  Or, I can allow myself some impulsivity and decide to go check out some place I’ve wanted to visit right in the middle of the week.  That kind of freedom allows for a sort of creativity of one’s day, that honestly, when I was working in a corporate environment, used to scare me a little.  It’s kind of all up to me as to what I produce and what I don’t produce.  

But I also miss the structure that a studio team environment supplied to me.  There is a really nice feeling I experienced for a long time while working in the studios of everyone working towards a common goal.  It got very high-pressured and complicated at times.  Production puzzles to be solved here and there, like a Whac-A-Mole rearing it’s taunting head, and always in the area that was often unexpected and costly in time and money to production.  But dealing with those puzzles is something that is learned through experience.  And working with a vast array of varying personalities for a couple of years in order to get a feature film completed is really an amazing feat for the whole of a team to accomplish.  

But to get back to the point here, I would say that my title in this section, “Keep Your Eye Off Of The Prize,” is appropriate for what I think happened to me towards the end of my work at the studios.

I had made a comment to a friend of mine, which he later reflected back to me during a dinner we were having, that in the last few years of my working in animation, I had felt overly competitive with my co-workers.  I did indeed remember saying this to him, but when he recalled my comment, it didn’t sit well with me.  Not because he mentioned it, but because it wasn’t quite right.  

I’ve only recently realized really what I was going through in my final five or so there in production.  Early on, when I first started, I had been given the advice to work hard, but to keep pushing to get promotions.   That I should let the higher uppers know that I was interested in learning more about production, and that I would eagerly take added responsibilities.  

And looking back, I think this was all excellent advice.  I did eventually take on added responsibility, and I always had a positive face on with everyone I worked with.  Eventually, I moved up by one level from Production Assistant to Assistant Production Manager, also called, Production Supervisor at other studios.  I felt that I worked well in this position and that, though there were challenges as there are in any job, I was able to manage my artist and Production Assistants well.  

However, after a time, I noticed that I had stayed locked in this role for quite a long while.  “Why was this?” I asked myself often.  I also inquired to various supervisors if there was anything more that I could do to possibly move into a Production Manager role, which was the next level of responsibility up.  They mostly said keep doing what you’re doing, with some constructive criticism here and there that I knew that I could work on.  But nothing was brought to my attention as being a recurring problem for me.  

The only notable criticism happened in my last position in the second studio, which was an issue of being overwhelmed, arose because I had been given so little help after asking for it, so the issue was as much a problem with one of my supervisors who hadn’t taken my request for additional help seriously, as it was mine.  She had come to me saying that some notes were being missed in recent directors' meetings, and that either she could help me improve on it, or the alternative, she said, was, "Maybe this isn't for you."  I thought, is she really implying that after fourteen years of very hard work in the industry, "this isn't for me?"

That last comment of hers really hurt me because I felt that I had taken on two added departments in addition to the one that I had been hired for per her request, and that I had not caused her any stress about it because I considered us old friends.  We had worked together on the first production I was on at the prior studio, and so I felt that we had been on the same "team."  So in this moment, I felt in a way betrayed that she had come to me in an official feedback meeting, rather than just coming to me with some information we could figure out together.  In hindsight, it was probably not a well thought out approach by her within the context of our friendship.  But more, much more, it was my internal reaction to all of this that was really misguided and the result of an ego that had not been self-checked.  I’ll get back to this because it was the triggering moment of why I ended up leaving animation.  

During the time that I was in that industry, from when “Lion King” had just ended to fourteen years later, the animation studios had grown by leaps and bounds, and the productions were top-heaving with Vice Presidents.  Everyone was called a Vice President of something.  But I began to become very frustrated with the glass ceiling that I had apparently hit my head on several times and was seeing no upward movement.  So at that time, I developed an interest in live-action production (that is, productions using live actors like normal movies and television…not animation and not gaming).  

Looking back, this frustration permeated my being while working at the studios, and I began to feel resentful of the work that I had put in.  More than pretty much anyone else at my level, I worked very late at night, rarely leaving before 7:00pm, and often leaving between 11:00pm and 1:00am (especially when having to cobble together pieces of writing from directors in London at the last studio for which I worked).  

My mistake was deep somewhere in the recesses of my mind as having adhered to the advice that I had been given so early on, and maybe having taken it too far in a way.  Baked inside the frustration that I felt in not moving up in responsibility was the belief, and therefore, the habit of looking up and ahead towards where there might be opportunity to be promoted.  In having this focus, a focus on the prize of my mind if you will, I believe that my real attention was no longer completely on the tasks that I had been given.  That somehow in all of this, I lost the satisfaction of just doing a stellar job at the level that I was working. I also know that I found criticism to be hard to endure, rather than as an opportunity for growth, and ultimately, that this type of growth over the long term could move me in the direction that I really wanted to go; that is, upwards with more responsibility.

I have been reading a book called, “Ego Is The Enemy,” by Ryan Holiday, which has really gotten me thinking about this prior situation of mine.  The book discusses how when one’s ego gets involved, as it often does with success, that some unhelpful things can follow emanating from one’s own person.  I think back to how excited I was to work with all of these artists and production staff and songwriters on these great feature films.  And then I think about how, over a certain number of years, I too was a victim of my own inflated ego.  I began to expect that by a certain time, I should be promoted, and I looked at other production staff of my level, a few of whom had been promoted, and yet, a lot of whom had also sat in the same position for years.  

What I did was to allow that kind of thinking to infiltrate the joy and the feeling of satisfaction that I had always gotten from working with these creative teams.  I remember that when I was leaving the last studio, the right hand man of the head of the studio, I’ll call him Bruce, called me into his office and asked me this question:  “Fred, I just wanted to visit with you and make sure that you really want to leave the studio.  I know we called you onto a production that was already very mixed up with a  lot of people coming and going and changing hats.  So if it’s just that, then we can figure out how to work with the project’s management to change the load of work around a bit for you.”   Before I tell you how I responded, I just want to state here that I appreciated so much that this kind man would say this to me.  I still do.  He was looking beyond the chaos of this particular project and looking out, instead, for my future at the company.

But…I was by then, both from the glass ceiling at the prior studio, and now from the feeling of being overwhelmed and failing at this studio, just too hurt.  I told him that I really wanted to try some work in live action production, and that I had been offered a position on a TV spot already that I wanted to take.  And the offer was true.  I did go onto work on that next live action project.  But what wasn’t true was that I wanted to leave animation.  I really didn’t, but as I said, I felt that I had been given an unfair hand and really didn’t know how to deal with it emotionally.  

And that’s where the ego comes in.  I had worked by now for nearly fifteen years in the animation industry, and I felt that I, who had all of this production experience, should not have been in this position of having to correct such a problem of being unorganized arising from my managing three different departments in a very chaotic period for the production, when I had been brought onto the project to manage one.  It felt like I had been given a ticking time bomb.  But unfortunately, my ego and inability to work constructively through criticism was on the other side of this nearly perfect career storm. I can see it now, but I couldn’t see it then.  That it was okay to feel overwhelmed and to momentarily not be able to handle what was too much to have been given to me.  And my supervisor's coming to me, in whatever form she had decided to handle it, was ultimately an opportunity for me to grow. 

But my ego couldn’t take it.  I felt like I had to leave because I had dropped some balls, and I felt ashamed about it, and that I couldn't be seen as anything but the long-experienced production management person who could manage anything well.  Oh, the flesh failures. And this decision of mine, this emotionally driven, ego-induced, impulsive decision to run away from what could have been a learning experience, is something I will always regret.  

So my advice to my younger self is multi-fold.  

Firstly, always concentrate on doing a great job on what you have been given.  Don’t worry so much about why you are not moving up.  There may be a lot of reasons why that have nothing to do with you, such as in my case, that the production ladder was completely overcrowded, and that there weren’t going to be a lot of promotions in the near future.  If you do a great job every time, then you will have a better chance of being promoted some day when the time is right.

Secondly, do whatever you have to do personally to get used to criticism. Because without the ability to deal with it productively, you're not going to grow, and you're probably not going to find the career longevity that you are hoping for.  Resistance to constructive criticism is about you not feeling "good enough," when in reality, it's not a personal issue.  Constructive criticism is about smoothing out a process and the need to intuitively understand a system better for the whole of the team.

Thirdly, there are instances when supervisors make mistakes. They feel helpless and don’t know what to do themselves when they are short on staff and overrun with budgetary concerns.  They may end up handing out too much responsibility to someone who is a good and trusted worker.  Too much responsibility is not good for anyone, and your concentration, say with handling three departments directly, can suffer.   If this happens, then you must demand the attention of supervisors and let them know that it’s not doable with all that you’ve been given, and that it’s not only okay to tell them this, but that you’re doing the right, proactive thing.  You’re managing upwards to help them know where the stresses in their production (or whatever environment you’re working in) are festering.  And remember that even a supervisor is not actually working within the trenches like you are.  Supervising several departments doesn't equate to managing several departments.  That's why supervisors supervise more departments than a manager can manage.  Make sense? Therefore you, in the trenches, must know your limits.

Fourthly (wow, there are a lot of these for young Freddy, aren't there?), you’ve got to keep learning about your job.  No job is static.  If it is, you should probably look for another.  But most roles will evolve over time to meet the needs of the organization as the overarching business changes.  Keep learning about what can make your job run the most efficiently and effectively, and part of that process will always involve some amount of criticism and re-organization from time to time.

And lastly, to borrow from Ryan Holiday’s book, get rid of your ego.  It’s never going to help you, and it will only damage your experience in the special role that you have the opportunity to work in and that you strove so hard to find in the first place.  None of us is that great nor that bad.  I wish I had understood this a few years ago.  

Keep Running Your Ass Off!

What the hell do you mean about that Fred?  Well, let me first lay out some history.  From about 1988, when I was in my last year at U.S.C., I started running.  I tend to run a little hot on the anxious side, and after some panic attacks I developed while in school, that you can read about in my articles "Psilocybin, Panic Attacks, and Personal Growth" and "Double Nickels," I found that one way I could physically relax my system was to start running.  So I began to run around the perimeter of the U.S.C. campus, and also on their interior outdoor track.  

It worked!  I found that my stress level was reduced by maintaining a running workout of at least three days per week.  Well, over the years, this solution developed into a hobby and then a love of long distance running.  Three indicators that I should have paid attention to early in my life that there was some sort of running interest buried deep within me were the following:

Firstly, when I was age five through about age seven, my parents had a house on Malibu Road, right on the sand.  It was fucking fantastic!  To fall asleep to the sound of the waves running under the wooden pilings like mother nature rocking your crib…well…there’s nothing else like it.  When my parents and I used to go on walks on the beach, I would run down the beach as far as I could, and my mom told me that she used to worry that I’d be out of sight before I’d turn around.

Secondly, I went to a camp on Catalina Island two summers in a row.  It was called Catalina Island Boy’s Camp (CIBC), and it was in Howland’s Landing next to Emerald Bay facing the mainland, and west of Avalon by a good boat ride.  This camp was a water sports camp.  We water-skied, snorkeled, kayaked, hiked to the top of the hills behind the camp where we could see both sides of the island, played tennis, shot rifles, played ping pong, came back and gulped some red bug juice, and then back out to look for the wild boards just outside of our camp area.  The list of activities goes on.  

During my second year at the camp, I think I was about twelve, a kid woke me up early in the morning and told me that I should run the “Miracle Mile” with him.  Surprisingly, I had not known what this was, even though I had been there the summer before.  He told me it was running race, so with being a little groggy and not wanting to argue my case to stay in bed and sleep, I got my shoes on and went to the open area of the camp grounds where this race was to begin.  

A bunch of kids lined up, and while doing so, I was trying to eye the course.  Where was this race supposed to go?  I didn’t see lines on the ground for a makeshift track.  So I asked the kid next to me what the course was.  He pointed up the hill behind our sleeping bungalows and said, “We start by running up there to the fire road, then take the fire road around that way,” pointing to the right way behind our entire camp, “and then where the fire road meets the road behind the camp, you just run back here for the finish line.”  

I looked back to the hill where he said the race started.  It was steep, and the fire road at that point, which was coming in from the southern part of the island, was way up there.  Well, I didn’t have a lot of time to think about all of this when a counselor yelled, “Go!,” and we were on our way.  It was a steep scramble up the mountain side as I had suspected.  I was gasping for air and my legs were feeling weak from exhaustion, and actually, I wasn’t going up as fast as a lot of kids.  I didn’t know anything about this race, and I thought, “I’ll just get this done and go back to bed.”  

I finally got to the top and was in the middle of the pack, which included cabins with older kids than I.  Then, I started down the winding but gently downward sloping fire road as it meandered its way toward the acreage in back of our CIBC camp grounds.  And as I did, for some reason, I put the pedal to the metal and hauled ass down this road.  I was passing a lot of tired people, which I would learn as a more mature runner later in my life, made a lot of sense.  People had burned themselves out on that hill climb, whereas, I dealt with it as an unpleasant chore that I didn’t really want to involve myself in and had gone relatively slowly up it, inadvertently saving up my stamina.  

I was now running with just a few kids.  The pack had thinned out, and I thought for sure that some really fast runners had gone into light speed and had already run beyond the event horizon and that I would see them sipping from a water fountain when I finally got back to camp.  With the last of the kids in my vicinity dusted behind me and a few more curves in the fire road, an opening to my right revealed the dirt road that led back to our camp grounds.  

By now, I was running my ass off at top speed and came into camp facing a couple of counselors watching me run in.  They congratulated me, and it took me a second to realize that I had just won that race among all of those kids at the camp. There had been no-one in front of me once I had rid myself of that last gaggle of kids on the fire road.  I was given a flat painted stone that read, “Winner Miracle Mile.”  I kept it in my bedroom in my parents’ Studio City house until about the time that I went off to university.  

Thirdly, in Junior High School (middle school), I played a lot of handball with a Korean friend named Steve.  Mostly after school, but sometimes during lunch of any of the courts were open.  That was it for sports for me.  But in P.E. class, we had to take a running test as part of our, I guess you would call it, final exam.  Mr. Morgan was our teacher for this, and he had us practice by running around a track all of maybe three or for times over some number of weeks.  He made us aware that there was a “mile board” in our locker changing rooms, and that if any one of us, during the final test, got under a 5:40 minute per mile time, we would get onto that miler board.  

My parents never pressed sports with me very much.  I played T-ball on a team when I was a kid, and I played basketball on a team a few years later (very badly, I’ll admit…I sucked at basketball).  But it wasn’t like sports competition was ingrained in my life early on as a kid.  

The day came for the final running test, and what do you know?  I got a 5:38, and up onto the miler board, along with prior running times of gymnasts Mitch and Chuck Gaylord, I went.  The funny thing about this day was that there was a very athletic kid in my class with the first name of Kevin.  He ended up running in behind me, missing the cut off time, and then saying to me, “Fred, you son of a bitch!” out of his frustration of a non-athlete placing ahead of him.  I still giggle at that.  I dusted your ass, Kevin!  And by the way, my name is still up on that miler board.  I just checked about a year ago.  Hee hee!  

Later, in my mid to late twenties, all the way up through my mid forties, I ran a lot.  In 2001, I qualified for the Boston Marathon with a 3:15:42 in the Vancouver Marathon, which was gorgeous running through Stanley Park.  I ended up running the 2002 Boston with a time of 3:29:05, the slower time of which I attribute to by then being in the crunch of production at Disney.  Having qualified about eight months earlier, I couldn’t keep the same kind of training up to the Boston Marathon while being in full production mode.  But it was a great run, and my mom and her sister, Isabel, as well as my cousin Jed watched me run by Heartbreak Hill.  The nice thing about that is that my mom and her sisters grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and as kids, they used to watch the Boston Marathoners run by Heartbreak Hill.  So with her son now doing it, it had come full circle for her.  “It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all…”  Can you hear me singing it in the shower?  I do indeed all the time, along with "Won't Get Fooled Again." Don't get me started on The Who.

I ran a total of 26 marathons (ironic since marathons are 26.2 miles), and literally hundreds of shorter races with my PR’s being:  Marathon: 3:15:42, Half Marathon: 1:28:03, 10K: 38:14, and 5K: 18:02.  Funny thing is (not so funny) that some of the issues were arising in the first part of this article…the production careers stuff…and…my parents were both diagnosed with forms of dementia in and just after 2006 and 2007’ish.  So, the balances that I had in place with an enjoyable and dynamic career and with my parents being in good health, were changing.  

And here I made yet another mistake.  I very much stopped training.  I can’t blame myself really.  There was no time for it as far as I could make out.  My parents, over the next eight years, would need visits to doctors’ appointments (I had help with that), in-house nursing care, multiple professionals handling various aspects of their lives, the fading away of their personalities to their diseases, the visits and eventually moves to assisted living homes, constant visits in those homes, and it goes on and on, and then finally, the ultimate loss of each of them as they passed away.  Of course, I loved them so much, so all of my attention, as much as I could handle, was going to be directed to their situation.  

And at the same time in these years, my decision to have left the animation world and enter into the real estate world was just flat out terribly timed.  I landed in the middle of the financial crisis hitting real estate and all of the financial companies.  So I wasn’t making any sales, and only the very seasoned of agents were still making money from their tried and true clients.  

This was all a disastrous landslide for me.  And…I basically stopped running.  I would do a run here and there, but these stressors didn’t create the stability or motivation for me that I needed to have a regimented running training schedule.  And so, I also gained weight, and I took up a sporadic cardio-boxing Muay Thai regime to at least keep some semblance of physical togetherness.  

The thing I have always noticed about running for me is that somehow my life goes better when I’m running.  This has been tested time and time again with a few years of training lulls here and there.  I can’t explain it from a scientific place at all.  But my life just always goes better when I run.  So I should just take that and run with it.  

I just ran an easy six miles today, the day I’m writing this article.  I didn’t run fast, and I’m not right now training for anything.  But it’s just such a nice feeling to get out with a pair of Asics on my feet and hit the bike path and feel the warmth of the sun on my skin.  I wear wireless Blue Tooth earphones, the kind whose stabilizers wrap around the outside of your ear so that they don’t move around when I run.  I don’t use ear buds for that reason.  And I enjoy my music collections, or I listen to podcasts.  When I run, it’s like I know I was built to run regularly.  

When I was running a lot of marathons, a woman at Disney named Tina and I were walking from one meeting to another, and she said to me, “I wish I had something like your running; something that was really mine like that.”  I knew exactly what she meant, and I was indeed glad that running and I had found each other, and that it was such a good fit for me.  I should never have gotten away from it.  

I would say to my younger self, “You’re going to hit some difficult times in your life, and it’s not always going to be easy, stable or predictable.  You have to keep doing the physical things that you enjoy doing.  You have to cut that time out for yourself and put it ahead of everything and everyone for just those hours that you do it. Running will always create a nice physical balance for you in your life.”

Read Books Like A Motherfucker

As a young child, I couldn’t read well.  And as an elementary student, I still didn’t read very well.  It took some amount of tutoring and lots of practice to become, what I consider, a proficient reader.  The result of this was that all through school, I didn’t like to read.  I had friends who, when they had a few moments of quiet time, would disappear behind a book.  All I’d see was the book in front of their faces, and their three fingers supporting the back of their novel as they chomped on some Cheetos. I always wished that I could read that easily and fluently.  

But sometime around age twenty-four, I started reading more.  Not a vast or eclectic array of books.  But because I wanted to get as much information as I could about my growing running habit.  I read all of Jeff Galloway’s books about running (he was big at the time I started training), articles in Runner’s World, and pretty much anything that I could find that I felt could give me some insider’s knowledge of better training techniques for running, I would try to get my hands on.  

It was this deep mining that I did for running information that created an interest in reading for me.  That continual practice of searching for and extracting processes, facts, and figures made me realize just how powerful the act of reading really is. 

I still to this day don’t consider myself a very strong reader.  But proficient enough is good enough.  And I read a lot.  I read so many books now, with piles of more in my office waiting to have the information sucked out of them, that I usually have four or five books on hand in my house or in my Jeep that I am reading concurrently.  

I read exclusively non-fiction.  I’m one of those who feels that there is so much interesting stuff that goes on in this world, and so much to learn, that I don’t have the desire to read books about things that people make up.  I know I just pissed a few people off by saying that.  But it’s not a criticism of fiction.  I’ve read some great fiction. It’s just not where I want to limited time in this world to be focused.  

When you think about us as humans, that we can have these incredible life experiences and so much to tell, and that we can write those things down to live in perpetuity.  Well, that’s such a cool thing.  I mean, by reading something someone else wrote, my life can be profoundly changed.  I doubt that if I hadn’t read all of that running stuff early on, I would have become a great (for me) runner.  It’s not like I was living around some group of high end runners who I could ask questions of, especially pre-Internet.  And I couldn’t physically go on runs with this caliber of athlete.  

And this is so true of anything.  You can find out information on everything in the world and really dive into the subject.  I know I sound like a teenager who just discovered reading a month ago.  But this concept is never lost on me.  All of this extremely valuable information is locked up on these things with pages, and all that you have to do is to read them to digest it all.  And a lot of it will probably stay with you for a very long time.  

I’ve used things from books I’ve read, and then later wondered where I first heard it.  Eventually, I will come to re-discover the source at a later date, and it reiterates for me how for the past five or so years, I’ve been using some axiom in my life that I borrowed from a simple written sentence in a book.  

Right now, one of my favorite activities since I drive so much is to listen to Tim Ferriss’ podcast.  One of the things he does in interviewing extremely fascinating people is to ask them what books have had an impact on them.  I always get my little pad and pen out and jot down these ideas as the guests list them.  I find that these titles from his guests create really high quality book lists. 

And so I would tell my younger self, “Find good sources of book lists regarding subjects that you think you might be interest in, and then read them.  Just read a lot, and you’ll find that you are constantly entering terrain and worlds that you had no idea you’d really ever come to know or understand in a deeper way.  You’ll also find, as a result, that you are more equipped to handle a larger variety of situations in life and won't feel alone since others have already described their own experiences with them.”  

Oh, and the last thing I would tell my twenty-four year old self:  "Try doing some writing.  You might really enjoy it!"