This was originally scheduled as a talk for SXSW 2020 before it’s cancellation due to COVID-19.
“Here to tell you the truth, tell you I’m nervous Tell you my story, tell you I'm worth it" — Witt Lowry, “Kindest Regards
“My career is done and I’m 25.”
I have a story for you.
It’s a story of how a kid from India immigrated to the U.S., went through dark times, overcame his demons and ended up working with his heroes.
It’s the story of how I found the creative work I love.
Initially, I didn’t want to share this. It felt too personal to share. But when I showed it to other friends who are creators, something interesting happened.
They told me they saw themselves in my story. That’s when I knew…
… I knew I had to share it more widely to help others.
Here we go.
I always wanted to be like the Creators I was always inspired by. We both have that creativity, that yearning to make something.
But for a long time, I believed I couldn’t create something as amazing as them.
You or someone you care about may be able to relate to this.
That feeling that whatever art you want to create, company you want to start, book you want to write or song you want to sing..
Wondering if it will be good enough? Will it ever measure up?
I: STARTING OUT — MOVING TO SAN FRANCISCO
Some people need convincing, of course, and I hope my story does the trick.
A creator I respected once approached me at SXSW and claimed my success was only because I was “lucky” enough to work with the big names.
Andrew Warner. Tim Ferriss. Seth Godin.
It fucking hurt.
Their comment caught me off guard, raised my defenses. But why?
They were right: at least at that time, I believed I wasn’t as talented as those guys.
But I can’t help feel it was more than luck. Or was it?
Maybe my current success is just returned karma for all those years of bad luck — metaphorical heartbreak and literal broken bones.
Coming out of college, I had a degree, but no experience. It was enough to get me a job at General Electric, but not enough to get me something that left me fulfilled. It reached the bottom when I was asked to give a client presentation and froze entirely. My manager had to step in and complete the presentation.
I had thought the job wasn’t good enough for me, but maybe I wasn’t good enough for it.
How could I change the world with my creativity if I couldn’t even give a client presentation?
It wasn’t long before I was out of a job.
Buying a one-way ticket to Bangkok, and traveling from there to Bali, wasn’t the obvious solution.
In my mind, I was being creative. I was doing what I needed to stoke my fire and spark my inspiration.
And then I dislocated my shoulder in Bali.
No job. No Insurance.
Sitting in a hospital bed, alone, you have a lot of time to reflect on yourself, and whether it’s worth it. Whether you should throw in the towel and take a cubicle job.
II: REJECTION AND THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
Whatever self-doubt I had was amplified to 11.
I had to make a choice. I could keep pursuing something bigger and risk losing everything. Or I could settle in and get an office job: steady salary, no anxiety about rent, food, health.
I couldn’t settle. I moved to San Francisco to start a business.
I went to the same place every week, and it wasn’t an office. It was a coffee shop. The banana-and-Nutella crepes it served were the only steady thing in my life. Everything else was up in the air. I was insecure. Even scared.
I don’t know what I expected, but the following period was a wake-up call. Creativity didn’t happen.
Everything I was doing was important: emails, phone calls, more emails. Anything to find a client.
Michael Ovitz, founder of Creative Artists Agency, had a similar period. “There wasn’t a day when I didn’t walk in the door and get hit by a rush of anxiety,” he wrote in his memoir. “What idea can I come up with today to pay the overhead?”
It’s not like I had absolutely no confidence. I was convinced that I had the skills to be a good marketer. So I figured if I just emailed people I wanted to work with, they’d for sure get back to me. They did. But that didn’t mean they hired me.
At some point, after so many fruitless emails and phone calls, I started to have doubts.
Was I the problem? Was there something wrong with me?
Although self-doubt was eating at me, I didn’t give up. I had rent to pay and some sort of dignity to maintain.
And so I kept on networking with people I had no right communicating with (at least that’s what I believed at the time). Hundreds of emails, phone calls, and interviews. Conferences, events — anything to be in the right rooms. Rejection after rejection.
They mostly found out what I already knew: I wasn’t qualified to work for people of their abilities. Still, just being able to chat on email with people who I admired? It meant something.
It didn’t mean I could afford surgery the next time time my shoulder popped out, however.
I could hardly afford my rent, much less the healthcare required to repair a dislocated shoulder (especially without any insurance).
I needed help from my parents and, at the time, it felt pretty humiliating.
Confined to the mandatory think-tank that is a hospital room, I thought about painting. I loved to paint as a child. Growing up, I’d felt that others were years beyond me in terms of ability because their paintings were obviously superior. What was the point of trying to compete with talent like that?
I quit painting.
As a child, I left myself with a “what if.” What if I had kept painting? Would I create the next Mona Lisa? Probably not, but at least I’d know. Over a lifetime, those what-ifs can pile up until they overshadow the little confidence you have left.
Sitting in a hospital bed, I decided not to quit again (despite my parents’ best wishes, maybe).
Perhaps I would fail. But more importantly, perhaps I would win. Win or lose, I would give it my all so there would be no “what if.”
Was I delusional? Maybe. But I felt that if I kept pushing, kept grinding, that something would come of it.
Maybe in the form of karma, maybe in the form of a paycheck.
And so I reached out to Andrew Warner. I couldn’t be Andrew, but I could be something for Andrew. I could complement his talent as a creator. I could make him better. I didn’t know how; I just knew.
He gave me a job, but it wasn’t what I expected. He wanted me to replicate a bunch of Mala bracelets he had ordered. It was humbling, holding a degree from Carnegie Mellon and doing intern-level tasks.
But it was a chance to make an impact. For me, it was everything. I scoured Google, found his actual invoice for the first order, contacted the vendor and got all the details for creating exact replicants.
When I outlined the steps for Andrew, he was stunned. He loved my mental process, and a relationship was forged.
That was the first of various projects I would do for Andrew over the next year, working from an “office” in a closet at my parents’ home. At some point, I noticed that Andrew didn’t want to deal with the sponsorship side of the podcast. I figured that given the podcast’s reputation, as a creator, he deserved to make more!
So I asked him if I could take a shot it. On the brink of shutting sponsorships down completely, he said yes.
In 2 months, we doubled the monthly revenue. We were both blown away.
And a year later, we sold $70,000 in ads in just one day, more than Mixergy had sold for all of 2014 and a new business was born.
Maybe I got lucky.
And maybe, a few months later, Tim Ferriss’s people just happened to notice.
If that’s the case, I can live with it. After all, Andrew — a genuine creator who was making the world better — benefitted from hiring me. And I benefited from benefiting him.
When a creator wins, everyone wins.
I can live with that.
Especially if it leads to an email from Tim Ferriss’ people.
Andrew told me before my meeting that he wouldn’t blame me if I needed to quit my role with Mixergy to work with Tim.
I promised him that wouldn’t happen (ambition is great, but loyalty is essential).
I saw where the meeting would be, and I was blown away. His team chose, out of San Francisco’s hundreds of cafés, the same coffee shop I lurked at for weeks during my toughest times.
The man behind the counter shouted “Banana Nutella” as I entered, remembering my face and order. I told him, “maybe later.” The memories of those dark days, and the anxiety they represented had come rushing back. I might need that crepe to soothe my despair.
Three-hours of discussion later, we had set up the next steps in our relationship. Apparently I hadn’t humiliated myself.
Right back where I started…
Do you ever get that feeling, that everything has come full circle? I admit having that feeling when I met Tim. I went into the cafe more confident than I had been in the past, but the little voice was there, reminding me how badly I could screw this up. But I didn’t.
III: FULL CIRCLE
It’s true: I’m lucky. But that’s only 10 percent of the story.
I had learned something. Even if I didn’t believe in what I was creating, that it wasn’t good enough, I could still help other creators.
I could be the person that showed them how to reach beyond their peaks, beyond even what they feel is possible.
I mean, look at Hollywood. For every George Clooney, there was a guy like Michael Ovitz or Scooter Braun, making sure he got the best roles. People whose names you don’t know, but who still make a difference behind the scenes.
But Ovitz didn’t just help the biggest names. He packaged screenwriters and up-and-coming talent with the big names to make sure his whole team got paid. He worked with brands to connect them to the talent they needed.
I could be that guy.
When the creators win, everyone wins. Maybe one day I can even help you win.
I knew things had changed when I reached out to someone on Seth Godin’s team…and they responded.
A decade earlier, when I first moved to the U.S. from India, I learned about marketing by reading his books and blog. And now he’s considering letting me write ads for him?
Someone once said to never meet your heroes. I don’t know what they are talking about.
I’m working with my heroes and living my dream. I couldn’t have even dreamt that story a few years earlier, and now I’m writing it.
One day, it hit me: I’d found the work I’d love, what I could spend the rest of my life doing.
Helping creators grow, helping them get paid. When they earn more, they can invest more in growth.
The bigger they get, the more they earn, and voila, so it goes!
Embracing my role — boosting the work of creators like you — has freed my own creator. When you win, I win.
As for me, here’s one way where I’ve come full circle: I’ve begun painting again (scroll to the bottom to see some recent ones I’ve made).
I don’t have any goals for it. I’m just creating, and it feels great. It won’t be displayed at a museum. There’s no one style or media. It probably still won’t be as good as what really talented individuals can do. But I don’t care anymore.
I always wanted to be like you, the creators I was always inspired by, good enough to make the world a better place through my creativity.
Now I know the creators who reach those heights don’t do it alone. They need someone they can trust.
Someone who will give them good advice and put them in the right place, with the right people, no matter what they need. Because if you’re distracted, it means you aren’t creating.
And that means the world is missing out.
When the creators win, everyone wins. Are you winning?
The world is waiting for you to live up to your full potential. What will help you reach that potential?
We might be able to help. If we should be so lucky.
P.S. The best part of this journey, as I mentioned, I started painting again. Here are some of my favorite experiences from over the last year.
Originally published at platformsmedia.com in August, 2019.
Gratitude: Thank you to my friend Mohit Pawar for kickstarting this process. Thank you to Tim and Mac at Creator House Media for being wizards on the video side. Thanks to Brian and the Scroll Studio team for taking my ramblings and turning them into a meaningful story worth reading. Thank you to all past and present clients, I’ve learned from every one of you.
Thank you, dear reader, for reading all the way through.
Feel free to ask any questions about the CreatorsMBA through email or Twitter.