There’s a hard reality that hits most people when they graduate college and go out to the real world after 2 to 4 years of hard study. Something they don’t tell you when you’re in the process of choosing where to get your degree from. Wanna know what it is? Here it goes..
The truth is that, in the real world, it doesn’t matter where you went to school or even if you had good grades or not. What matters is what value you can provide.
Granted, there are some careers where you absolutely need to have a degree because you need a license or certification, but most careers don’t. Among the careers where you don’t need a degree are of course things like film, music, photography, writing and sports. But there are also many examples in more ‘traditional’ lines of work like business and technology where people without a degree getting the most success (Steve Jobs anyone?). The truth is, you don’ even need a degree to become the President! (source).
Over the years I’ve worked on tons of films, commercials, etc. So far nobody’s ever asked to see my degree, and I guess that’s a good thing, because I don’t have one. I did go to college for two semesters and took some classes, mostly improv, acting and a screenwriting 101 course, but I probably use the knowledge I got there about 3% of the time. If you do the math, acquiring 3% of the knowledge needed for real life situations in a year of study is not a very good return to my investment of time and money.
Of course it’s not all that groovy, you still have to learn and work hard. So, if you’ve decided getting a degree is not for you, here’s my advise:
No formal education does NOT mean no education
One of the main advantages of a formal school is that they’ve already structured a set of classes, activities and reading material for you. The disadvantage is the same as when you buy a Superman costume for Halloween and it’s not exactly the super fit that you see in the movie. Just like one size doesn’t fit all with costumes, one set of courses and classes doesn’t fit everyone’s needs.
The most important thing to remember though is that, even if you’re going to school you still have to keep learning, and if you’re not going to get that knowledge from a formal classroom you must get it somewhere else. Luckily, in this day and age there’s tons of places where you can get that knowledge. Here are a few examples:
- Audio books
- Online tutorials
- Local workshops
- A private instructor or coach
- College courses (You can take only the courses you want without having to go for a degree)
- Interning at a production company
Check the Resources
page for a list of books, websites and other resources I’ve used in the past. They may not be the ones you need or want but it’s a start. Worse than learning something you didn’t need that much is learning nothing.
Start at home
I think the best way to start is by reading, listening or watching videos about what you want to learn. At this stage I think it’s best to do it in a safe environment like your home or home office. Start with an easy read (or video) that covers the general concepts and work your way towards the more specific and specialized stuff as you progress, that way you don’t get overwhelmed with the technical details at the beginning.
A big annoyance of living in L.A. is that you have to drive everywhere and there’s always traffic. Last year I discovered an awesome way of both keeping me entertained during the ride and learning new stuff, it’s very simple and it’s been around for years: Audio books and podcasts.
I have an Android phone so I use Google Listen for podcasts and Audible
for audio books. I really like Audible because they have a good selection and I can hear them at either my computer or in my phone through its app (it also works on iPhone and Blackberry). If you have an iPhone, I know that iTunes carries audio books and podcasts so you can check there too.
Workshops can be a great way to accelerate your progress really quick. They tend to be specialized on a specific craft (acting, writing, directing, etc) and taught by professionals in the field. Also, since they’re outside of the formal education system the other students tend be serious about learning too which is great because it means everyone will push each other further than if you were taking a course with say, a guy in college taking an acting class because he wants an easy credit and meet girls.
Get some formal classes
I can almost hear the “But you said in this industry I didn’t need a degree!”, well yeah, you don’t. What you do need is to know what you’re doing and if a formal class is the best way to learn a specific skill then take it. The difference is you’ll take the sniper approach. Instead of follow the whole curriculum, you’ll just take the courses that you’re really interested in or that you really think will help you move ahead. Curricula tend to be bloated by classes that you don’t need anyway, and in some instances it takes two years of general education before you even get to what you signed up for!
Go out to the real world
Finally, there’s a vital step, and one that both degree and non-degree holders have to take no matter what. When you’re starting out people don’t want to hire you because you don’t have any experience, at the same time you can’t get experience because you don’t get hired. This catch-22 affects both non-degree and degree holders, and the solution is the same in both cases: Work for free.
If you’re starting out the best thing you can do is get an internship at a production company, a studio or an agency. Basically any place related to making films, commercials, music videos, etc.
When I first came to L.A. I went to the UTA job list
, the Variety Magazine Film Production Chart
and IMDB Pro
. I called over 120 production companies and got three internships. It was hard work, as an intern you’re asked to do all kinds of boring, monotonous or simply crappy work nobody else wants to do. Twice, in two different projects for two different companies I had to clean up a bathroom for a scene. In both cases they hadn’t been cleaned up in a loooong time, good thing I had my gloves!
I was very excited and grateful to be there though, (in the internship, not the bathrooms), I was given the chance to learn the craft I loved, so I didn’t complain. During the 2 or 3 months I was doing the internships I learned more about the film and the business than I would’ve in three years of college. I guess my excitement came through, because two out of those three companies decided to pay me, even after we’d agreed that I wouldn’t get paid. One of the companies kept hiring me and recommending me which in turn led me to meet even more people who also started hired and recommended me to other people. Eventually all that positive spiral of work meant a steady stream of income and the beginning of my career.
Other quick tips:
- Remember that without the responsibility of having to go to class it’s very easy to slack off. Make sure you’re clear on your goals and that you really wanna do this. If you’re not motivated you won’t make it far.
- Get some sales courses. What are you selling? you might ask… In the real world you’re always selling yourself.
- Try to develop your curiosity, often the best way to learn something is by saying, “I wonder what would happen if…”
- Always try to push yourself a little further. This one is a bit of a cliche and complete common sense, but I put it here because I see people getting comfortable at a certain level and spending two years wondering why their career is not moving forward.
- Don’t be afraid to ask people on set what they’re doing and why.
- Try to surround yourself with people more successful than you. They say you’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, so choose them carefully.
- Don’t be afraid to suck at first. Don’t let your pride to get in the way of your development. Here’s an example: You’re pretty good at walking right? Do you think it was always like that? Watch a one year old kid before you answer.
And lastly, if you’re gonna intern in Art Department… don’t forget your gloves, those bathrooms ain’t cleaning themselves!