It feels a little like a blind date.
I’m sitting in a Barnes and Noble in Phoenix, AZ, two hours away from home, sipping an overpriced coffee and watching everyone who comes in. I’m waiting for a man to enter and scan the tables, also looking for for an expectant stranger — like me.
I met Tom on an Internet forum a year earlier, in 2012, and we figured out that we lived close to each other. Hindsight being 20/20, we really should have exchanged pictures before agreeing to this little get together.
I need work and he, I would later find out, is a tenured University professor who needs someone who knows how to write. From my forum posts, he believes that someone is me. He hasn’t offered me a gig, though. He just offered to look over my resume and give me some pointers. When you’re unemployed, the hours get harder and harder to fill, and eventually driving two hours to get resume pointers seems like a perfectly reasonable use for your time.
“Your resume is boring,” he tells me, after we exchange the requisite introductions and he looks over my two sheets of Times New Roman. “All this stuff is boring. It looks like the kind of stuff that companies used to hire high school dropouts to do, but now they can get out-of-work English majors to do it, instead.”
Tom has, I will discover, a wonderful way of saying stuff like that without making you feel criticized or belittled. He’s just stating facts: It’s warm out today, it’s nice to meet you, your entire professional life is crap, all of the work you’ve ever done for money is beneath you.
“It’s all boring,” he says, “except for this one thing you’ve got hidden away on the second page under ‘Other Skills.’ — this YouTube thing. You’ve really got this many subscribers?” I tell him that that’s how many I have personally. I also contribute to a group that has many, many more. “All this other stuff I see every day. This YouTube thing I don’t see every day. Tell me more about that.”
A few months later I’m looking at a check for $550. Tom gave me a gig copy-editing an academic research paper for one of his students, who knows more about engineering than he does about writing. I’m not sure if the paper ever got published, but the check came on time.
I’m looking back and forth between this check and an Expedia page with a plane ticket to Maine. I’m thinking about my bank balance and calculating how much longer I can keep paying rent.
Tom gave me a gig, but not a job, and I’m eating through my funds faster than I would like.
All of these calculations lead me to the conclusion that I would be a fool to click <Purchase> on this plane ticket. It wouldn’t be a safe decision.
But this plane ticket will take me to my friend Scott’s wedding. Scott is one of the friends I make YouTube videos with, and I don’t get to see him in person very often. It would suck to have to crawl back to my parents and ask them for help with rent, but it would also suck to know that I could have gone to Scott’s wedding and I didn’t.
What the hell, I think, uncharacteristically. It’s only money.
I click <Purchase>.
When I was in high school, my best friend Kenny had a video camera. We would get together in our backyards and make little movies and skits. We filmed them in chronological order and if we messed up a take, we would rewind the tape to the beginning of the scene and start over. Sometimes, if we hadn’t rewound far enough, there would be two or three half-second false starts before a scene would begin. Other times a scene would end a half-second too soon if we rewound too far.
My senior year of high school I got a job flipping burgers for fifteen hours a week in the afternoons. By the summer after graduation, I had enough for a top-of-the-line gaming PC to take to college with me and ensure that my freshman GPA would be a full point lower than it otherwise would’ve been.
My dad, knowing that what I had bought for myself was the opposite of a work machine, told me that for a graduation present I could pick out a scanner or a printer. I told him that the college library would have scanners and printers that I could use for ten cents per page. What I really wanted was a video capture card so that I could transfer me and Kenny’s home movies to my computer’s hard drive and edit out the false starts between scenes.
My dad grumbled a bit about the price, which was three times that of a basic printer, but he caved. The capture card came in the mail, bundled with some shitty consumer-level editing software that I don’t know the first thing about how to use. I set about figuring it out.
I find a day job before my funds run out, so I never have to regret buying that plane ticket to Scott’s wedding. Tom probably feels the same way I do about that copy-editing gig. At least, he’s never offered me another one. He’s got me doing something better with my nights and weekends now.
Another of Tom’s students, also named Ben, just presented his Master’s thesis defense on the environmental practicality of the use of carbon nanotubes in Li-ion batteries. Tom had set up a tripod and videotaped it.
The footage is terrible. The room is dark because Ben is using a projector, and the projection screen is at a strange angle relative to the camera, rendering his slides fuzzy and unreadable. Also, Ben is not a trained public speaker and his verbal pacing is off — some ‘errs’ and ‘ahs’ and weird pauses and unnecessary tangents.
My job: Can I clean it up some so that Ben can show off his research?
Yeah, I can.
On the video, Ben is pointing to the projection. I crop out the part of the slide he’s pointing to from his Powerpoint file and overlay it on the video. Now when Ben points to the projection, the information lights up like he’s some kind of magic Powerpoint wizard. I cut some material out and use a full frame of the Powerpoint slide to cover the cut so that there’s no jump in the video. Then I mask everything but Ben from the shot, shrink him down, and put him in a picture-in-picture window on top of the Powerpoint slide. He gestures again to what he’s talking about.
This is all baby stuff compared to timing lip flaps or cutting a thirty-second fight scene down to two.
I’m really getting paid for this?
I’d been out of school for a couple years and I was working two part-time jobs. During the day I shelved books at the local library. At night I rang people up at a dry cleaner’s. There’d be a three-hour break in between jobs when I went home and played video games or watched anime or surfed the Internet.
One of the things I watched was a series of YouTube videos called “Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series”. I knew Yu-Gi Oh as this goofy dumb show that my little brother watched when I was living at home. This YouTube version was different, though. When the characters talked about the silly card game that was so important in their weird world, they did it like they knew how ridiculous it was that a silly card game was so important. There was another YouTube series for an anime called Naruto, and when was I done with Yu-Gi-Oh, I watched that one.
I also found fan-made anime music videos, and one of the sites that hosted them had some tutorials about how to get anime footage from a DVD to your hard drive and what to do with it once it was there. I sort of remembered how to edit from fooling around with my capture card and Kenny’s backyard home videos. My computer’s headset had a microphone. And I had a lot of anime DVDs.
One Monday, I spent the three hours between jobs figuring out how to rip the footage from the first volume of the anime Berserk onto my hard drive.
On Tuesday, I watched the first scene of the first episode and thought up some different lines for the characters to say. I recorded myself saying the lines in different voices, played the new lines over the scene, and tried to make it so that the characters’ lips movements started and stopped around when the line did.
I did the same thing on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday.
On Friday night I posted the first episode of “Berserk: The Abridged Series”. My voice acting wasn’t as good as the voice acting in the Yu-Gi-Oh abridged series. My editing wasn’t as good as the editing in Naruto Abridged. I had no idea if I was as funny as either of them. But what I had done was finish an episode in just one week. Neither series had ever done that, as far as I could tell. I realized that if I didn’t play any video games or watch any anime on my three-hour lunch break, I could do this every week.
I made an episode a week for the next eight weeks.
I’m in a hotel room at an engineering conference with Tom, showing him the new laptop he bought for me to edit on. He indulges me for a while, and then says, “This can be your pay. I know we agreed that it would belong to the conference and that you’d give it back after this weekend, and then you’d get paid for your work. We can still do that if that’s what you want. Or you can take this laptop and that’ll be your pay.” I agree. I love this laptop, and it’s expensive enough that this constitutes a raise.
Tom’s son, Payson, helps me install some streaming software and the portable capture card that will connect my new laptop with the conference’s camcorders so that we can livestream the presentations to remote attendees. Payson came up with this system by asking the Let’s Players he watches on Twitch about their setups.
Payson and I work 16 hour days for three days straight keeping his jerry-rigged setup running, and then I fly home. I should be exhausted, but instead I’m energized. I spend the rest of the week backing footage up to Tom’s cloud storage service, and the rest of the summer editing more videos. I’m getting better at getting the viewer to the important parts more quickly and making a person standing in front of a Powerpoint slide less visually boring.
I will do the same thing the next two summers.
My dad invites my girlfriend Suzy and I to dinner to meet his new girlfriend Nancy. Dad will eventually marry Nancy. I’ll eventually break up with Suzy, but I’ll always remember this dinner and be grateful for it.
“What do you do, Ben?” Nancy asks.
I’ve had a hard day at my day job, and I’m tired. “I’m an appraisal support specialist with the county assessor’s office.”
Suzy nudges me. “She didn’t ask you for your job title, she asked you what you do.”
I don’t understand what Suzy’s getting at. “I’m a paper-pusher.” I try to make the truth sound like a joke. “People drop off papers at my desk, and I push them from one side to the other.”
“Not that,” Suzy smiles like I’m being purposefully obtuse. “That’s not what you care about. What do you do?”
Now I understand. “I make videos on the Internet with my friends,” I say. “We take episodes of a cartoon show, and we cut out the boring parts. We write funnier lines for the characters, and we record them, and we re-edit the lip movements to match. I did it with a show called Berserk a few years ago, and then a couple more shows after that, and now there’s a new Berserk movie out and I’m doing it with that. My friends are better at it than I am, they do it with a show called Dragonball Z and I do some voices for them. A couple times a year I go to fan conventions with them and we put on panels and do Q&A. ”
I feel the tension release itself from my back. I sit up straighter. My shoulders relax. I feel less tired.
I’m writing my final paper for a filmmaking class at the community college. Everything I know about editing video is self-taught. I’ve decided that I want some book-learning. If I take the right classes and pass them, I’ll get a certificate that I can put on my resume.
My final paper is supposed to summarize the last six chapters of the textbook. The textbook is out-of-date and poorly written. I haven’t been keeping up with the required reading. I’m skimming the chapters and writing the paper as I skim.
I don’t like the instructor. He writes multiple-choice quizzes based on the textbook. Sometimes instead of choosing a pre-written choice I write my own answers as if they were essay questions, based on things I’ve learned making YouTube videos or doing freelance work for Tom. The instructor does not give me credit for the questions I answer this way. I keep doing it anyway.
I know my final paper is poorly-written as I write it, but it’s due tomorrow and I don’t believe the instructor will read it closely. I start putting strange, non-sequitur asides in the middle of unrelated paragraphs just to see if he will notice. By the end, the paper has become a bizarre stream-of-consciousness with almost no relation to the textbook. I turn it in anyway. I no longer care if I get a certificate to put on my resume.
The next weekend, I go to Phoenix Comic Con. I have breakfast with my friend Lawrence and ask for his advice on choosing microphones. Later, I will reflect that I learned more in that conversation over breakfast than I did in an entire semester in filmmaking class. The class cost me $300. The breakfast cost me $20. I decide not to sign up for classes next semester.
I get a B- on my final paper. I still do not know if the instructor read it. I see him at Phoenix Comic Con. He is dressed as Professor X. We have an awkward conversation and I never see him again.
“The county asked me to come back part time,” I tell Tom. “I’m going to work for them in the mornings and for you in the evenings.” I lost my day job a few months ago. Tom has had a lot of work for me since then, and when my brother died my sisters and I each got a third of his bank account. I’m not worried about paying my rent. But the work Tom finds for me has always been feast or famine, and I’ve always had a day job. It makes me uncomfortable not to have one.
Tom isn’t happy. “Ben,” he tells me, “I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out how to get more work out of you, and you tell me this. Have I not been giving you enough to do?”
“It’s not that,” I say. “I love working for you and I want to keep doing it, but it doesn’t give me any structure. I need that. I need a place that I have to be every morning.”
“So you’re going back to a job that pays you half what I do and uses a quarter of your skills? One that made you so bored that you’ve already left it twice? How does that make sense?”
I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it to him so that he’ll understand.
“Payson went and saw you at Phoenix Comic Con,” Tom says. “He said your autograph line was right next to Christopher Lloyd’s, and your line was longer. Do you think when Christopher Lloyd saw that, he said, ‘Guess I’d better see if they’re hiring at the post office’?”
I say something else about needing structure. What I’m really thinking is that since my brother died I’ve been breaking down at odd times. I’ve been spending whole days doing nothing because there’s no one to make me get out of bed. I want to get better and I don’t know how.
I think of having my safe shitty job back. Sitting in a desk where no one expects great things of me and I can half-ass my way through the day. That sounds like a warm safe blanket. Why can’t he just let me have that?
“You’ve got this image of yourself,” Tom says, “As this guy who has this day job that’s kind of crappy and boring, but it’s okay because it pays the bills while he does his fun little hobbies. You need to kill that image of yourself, because that’s not you. You’re the guy who goes to conventions and gets on stage and says something funny and makes a thousand people laugh. You’re part of a new generation of creatives. You’re a fucking rock star. It’s going to be hard to kill that old image of yourself. Maybe you’re not ready to do that. But I don’t need the safe guy. I need the rock star. Do you want that?”
I want it. It also scares that shit out of me. I’m a nerd, so I think of Game of Thrones and the speech that Maester Aemon gives to Jon Snow. “Kill the boy,” Maester Aemon says, “and let the man be born.”
I call my old job and tell them that I’m very sorry, but my freelance work is picking up and I just don’t have time to accept the part-time position they’ve offered me. Then I open up my calendar and create a new event called “Kill the Boy.” I set the event to last all day, and to repeat every day for the rest of my life.
It’s 2016 and I’m on Skype, interviewing for a job working with Scott and the rest of my friends who make YouTube videos. They’ve got a little office in Texas and several employees and some contractors. They need help keeping it all straight. It’s a little weird, interviewing for a job I’ve already been promised, with people I’ve known and been working with for eight years. People whose weddings I’ve attended. All of my job interviews up until now have been with strangers.
In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “These guys have done incredible things with no more contribution from me than some voices now and then. Do they really need my help?” One of the things they want me to be in charge of is convention appearances. “Okay”, I tell them, “I can do that. Just plug me into whatever calendar system you use so I can see what’s what.”
The Skype call gets quiet. They don’t have a calendar system.
Or, it turns out, a cloud storage system so that they can share footage between editors who are across the country from one another — sometimes in a different hemisphere. Not a lot of people in the organization seem to know what everyone else’s jobs are. Some of them don’t even seem to know what their own jobs are.
I feel better. These are things I know how to do and they’re things the team needs, so I start doing them. At first working part-time from home in Tucson, all the time thinking that pretty soon I’ll have them all organized and they won’t need me any more and I’ll go back to a real job. When that doesn’t happen after a few months, I ask them to bump me up to full time so I can move out to Dallas and manage the team in person. Less than a year after that, I am officially named the CEO of the company and given a 10% ownership stake.
In my new role, I find myself thinking more and more about Tom and his students.
The way he organizes things, the way he lets people find the things they’re good at and do them. The way he hired an unemployed English major from an Internet forum to copy-edit a research paper. When I turned out to be kind of crap at that, the way he helped me figure out something I was really good at: making videos out of research presentations. I find myself wondering how Tom would handle a situation, how he would help a team member who needed it.
Shortly after I was officially hired by Team Four Star, one of my new coworkers complained to me that he didn’t have any structure in his job. I told him that he could have all the structure he wanted, as soon as he was willing to impose it on himself. Then I told him that when he figured out how to do it, please share the secret with me.
I used to compartmentalize my life. I never let anyone on the Internet know my real name. When I was at my day job, I never told them that I would go home and make YouTube videos. When I asked for a weekend off twice a year, I didn’t say that it was to fly to a different city and tell jokes about anime characters to a packed house. When I had dinner with my dad and he asked how work was going, all I’d say was, “Okay. I mean, it’s a job. It pays the bills. It’s fine.” And if my YouTube videos ever came up, I would downplay it. “It’s just a hobby, just this thing I’m into, it’s kind of nerdy and lame.”
Every good thing that ever happened to me in my professional life, happened because I decided to do the opposite of that. Because I finally allowed the different parts of my to life inform each other and feed into each other. I took down the walls between them. I stopped siloing them into artificial categories like “job” and “hobby” and “personal life.”
Instead of doing things the right way, where I take a class and get a certificate to put on my boring resume for the privilege of interviewing for a job for which I am overqualified and will be underpaid, I did things the wrong way. I got in over my head and figured it out as I went. I started listening to the people who told me that I can be more than a guy with a boring day job and a nerdy hobby. I stopped listening to the voice in my head that tells me that that’s all I’ll ever be — because it’s not safe to be anything else.
And when I do that, things happen that I don’t plan and can’t predict, but that I find far more rewarding than shelving books and cashiering. Sometimes it scares the shit out of me. Sometimes I do things that I’m crap at and fail. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ll be able to pay rent.
But it beats pushing papers in an office.