Born Fighter. Hopeless Romantic. New York City Boy. Dig that.
I’ve been wondering about the story I’ve been trying to tell here. I’ve been parked at Tumblr for six years now, sending my corner of the site up in flames or redesigning it or simply neglecting it more times than I’d like to count. Still, I’ve always felt a need to hang onto it, like I knew that there would be something to document. I didn’t want to leave. Maybe I was being stubborn, but I knew that I was keeping the Rabbitte name for that moment when I finally had a reason to use it.
Turns out that the answer was in the name all along.
I picked Jimmy Rabbitte because I saw infinite hope in the character. Maybe I was missing the point in The Commitments, but the story always lifted me to the rafters and got my spirit going even in its bittersweet and heartbreaking moments. When I was laser focused on making movies, I figured I would make them like Alan Parker and Roddy Doyle, finding hope in song and one brilliant moment of glory. I saw the genre, thinking more about the film as a realistic musical rather than the arc of the characters.
Rabbitte is a scrapper, a hustler, and a bit of a confidence man. He has (mostly) good intentions and is always trying to make life better. He talks fast and dreams larger than he probably should. Modern business has cooked up a word for folks like that: entrepreneur. Even though I used his name as the starter for this Tumblr, I had never drawn the straight line from how I act to how he acted until recently. For a kid who mostly grew up treading in the worlds of fantasy and speculative fiction, it was odd that the biggest influence wouldn’t be Spock, Batman, or Flash Gordon, but rather a small-time manager from Dublin.
I guess I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur; an artist always has to be. There’s no studio system to make sure you work on three pictures a year, no publisher that’s guaranteed to give you a topic for a novel and pick it up two months later sight unseen. You have to make your own opportunities. You make your own luck. I hoped, or probably just figured, that getting my MBA would make me want to settle down and get a normal job. I’d get a position at some multinational and push any artistic sensibilities to weekends and nights when I might have a few hours to fiddle around with them.
Instead I left realizing that I can’t work for anyone but myself, that the world needs cool ideas and good art more than it needs another consumer packaged goods conglomerate, and that I’ve been Jimmy Rabbitte for longer than I even realized. Even more than superpowers or the triumph of a hero over adversity, I saw real victory in the attempt. Is it always going to work? Of course not. The first thing my dad told me about business was that the good salesman is going to fail ninety-nine times out of a hundred. Are you going to succeed even if you fail? You might be surprised. Little victories. Small climbs towards something bigger. Fail and then try again. Keep failing until you’re doing nothing but succeeding.
I always think back to Rabbitte staring at himself in the mirror at the end of it all, wondering if failing so spectacularly was worth it. His last word on the matter? “Fuck if I know.” That’s a hell of a lot better than a No. No is the refrain of corporate culture, and I don’t want to hear it. I want to work towards a life where the worst I can say is “I don’t know yet” or “hey, maybe.” That’s why I went from school directly into trying to start another business, my fourth stab at the entrepreneur lifestyle. I’ve always been a little bit Rabbitte. I’ll always take moments of sparking brilliance and lows of failure over an even mundane life.And when I fail I’ll get back up and try again. Is there a big payoff coming?
Well, as the man said, fuck if I know. Guess I just have to keep going.
If you’re going to say something problematic, save it for your last joke. Make sure you go out on it. Know that it’s going to be the only thing anyone remembers from your set. It’s good to ride the continuous laughter of an audience directly into a brick wall, hearing them wince and for the room to go utterly and irrevocably silent. Leave the room to glares and whispered conversations about what you’ve done.
When the emcee comes up to you and says, “you know when you lost the crowd?” That’s when you let them know exactly when you lost the crowd. You had a run of jokes that poked fun of power structures and the absurdity of the situation and you ended on one that basically made fun of a fan favorite for being overweight. You stumbled and made the wording even worse than it could have been. But the thing is that the joke wasn’t very good to begin with. It was lazy and foolish. You fell back on old stereotypes and bigotry in your haste to finish up your five minutes.You didn’t think, and you paid for it.
You can do it better next time. You said something utterly terrible, but it doesn’t have to end you. Despite all evidence to the contrary, you are allowed to screw up and learn in front of a crowd. But the key is that you actually learn. You can’t make that same mistake again. Then it becomes a pattern, and then you’re just an unfunny and lazy caricature of a hack. Dig deeper. You know when you lost the crowd, but why did you? What replaces that finale with a better, funnier, less awful gambit? How do you shift towards a better presence both off and onstage?
Dig deep. Refuse to be lazy. Change the joke. Change the premises not for the sake of censorship but in search of the stronger performance. Get back on stage. Play it again. Keep the audience with you until the end. Try to not screw up again.
Even though you probably will.
I occasionally feel hamstrung by my age. I’m learning things too late, too slowly, too many times while fumbling towards competence. I’ve made the decision to go into business for myself again, choosing to be a little bit brave and a little bit foolish instead of working the job market like Sisyphus with the boulder. Every interview was a story of someone with the wrong qualifications heading into an arena that would have made him sick and miserable. Around the time I was asked to sell tobacco—one of the many plants to which I am severely allergic—I decided that there was no reason to stay on this path. I had to go back to making my own business.
Through it all, though, I’ve been more scared than I should be. The business of making business isn’t a new one for me; I have already worked as a freelance contractor, and I know that pushing forward takes guts and knowledge and insanity. I’m well aware that what I’m walking into is going to be difficult. I press on anyway. The last decade of work has at least given me the perspective that comes with failing early and often , the lessons you can really only learn by screwing up so badly that you’re left with a disaster area and a few good ideas on how to not do that next time. But the thing about those failures is that they eventually took their toll on me, so even successes feel hollow and exhausting. I managed to make my way through an MBA through sheer force of will; I was basically convinced that I had to make it through because I had signed up for it, despite being surrounded by a culture I found alienating and a peer group I didn’t relate to in the slightest. I powered through because I figured it would be good for my career. I kept going because I don’t really like to lose, let alone fail terribly. I’ve already done that enough.
I’ve been basically useless in the two months since I graduated. While the more finance-minded among us are off starting jobs and beginning their strange movements through corporate America, I’m sitting here with the vague idea of a business trying to figure out how to turn it into anything at all. I worry, I fight my recurring depressive episodes, I try to do things that I think will rejuvenate me. One particularly desperate morning found me literally rearranging deck chairs on my balcony, working as hard as I can to will my metaphorical Titanic into reality. Every day I go through the same thoughts: I don’t know how to do this. I’m doing this too late. I spent my twenties screwing up. I have no idea how to even start. And then I think it would be so much easier if I had been in this position even five years ago. At twenty-five I would have had the energy and the time to move forward without these weird ideas about what I should or shouldn’t be doing or where I should be on my timeline. All I want to do is write down the big ideas and some pro tips to avoid my mistakes, send them back five years, and pull myself up by my bootstraps from there.
This little time-travel fantasy always made me think I was being incredibly self-reliant, turning myself into my own boss and finally grabbing ahold of my potential. But I realized something today when it popped into my head: I was just looking for another boss. I’m not actually doing those things if I warn myself ahead of time. Instead I’m looking for another person to give me permission. This want has actually devolved into me asking myself for permission. That’s recursive nonsense, but it’s what I’ve been dreaming in order to avoid facing my panic head on.
The truth is that I don’t want to fail again. I’m tired of failing. I know you’re supposed to value all the failures along the way for what you learned and how they changed you, but honestly learning experiences bounce right off my mind. I have it in my head that I need to win this time. I see where I’ve failed due to lethargy, laziness, alcoholism, depression, hubris, and damn near any other human weakness you can imagine. I should be somewhere else by now. My mind shuts out everything else I’ve been or done, crowding out successes in order to give me a myopic focus on my fears and failures. That I’ve decided I’m a lazy failure after getting a Master’s degree, staying sober for five hundred and fifty days, and running two businesses while opening two more is absurd in itself, but there you go. Depression lies, and timelines lie even more. I’m in a panic as I approach my thirtieth birthday thinking I’ve done nothing.
So I invent this fantasy of passing my work backwards through time, buying myself a few more years to build something I can be proud of, completely ignoring the work I’ve done so far and the yearning I have to be the inventor and leader I’ve always wanted to be. Even in my fantasies, all I want is for someone to give me direction. That’s how I end up reading Tumblr on a Sunday night, already changed into my lazy pants, unshaven, a few pounds heavier than I ever wanted to be. That’s how I spend another day worrying about what the future looks like and what the past could have been rather than fixing the present.
I have to choose myself. I’m waiting around for a sign, hoping that I can cheat the Space-Time Continuum, berating myself for sins real and imagined. I create cubicle life in my own apartment; lord knows how many times I do the social media loop while avoiding doing anything that could get me closer to what I want. I’m creating the same awful days I’ve spent my life trying to avoid, looking for a supervisor to dump some work on my desk. I do this while saying I’m too old to start and too young to give up.
Turns out I’ve been the boss the whole time. Guess that means no more waiting around for work. I purposefully opted out of corporate culture to make something incredible. All I want to do is make good art and make people’s lives a little bit better. I don’t have to be incredibly young to do that, and I don’t need anyone’s permission. I’m the boss I’ve been looking for, and this is the time when I’m ready. I wasn’t good for it five years ago, and any advice I could have sent back would have been mangled or thrown into my life asunder. I’m the boss I need right now. I just have to keep myself working.
Because I cackled like a moron through the whole thing. I’m pretty sure Lord & Miller are some kind of wizards.
"Luke, we’re gonna have company!"
There are other calculations to be done here, but suffice it to say that a more frugal producer and lower ticket prices would actually increase profitability for the film industry.
Allow yourself the walk-on role in someone else’s movie. Stand back, listen, and learn. Our narcissistic tendencies make us want to run to the front and declare ourselves the most important, but we aren’t always. You’re still involved in the periphery. Let yourself observe what happens so you’ll be better when it comes your turn to be the main character.
I’m spending my Sunday afternoon on a treadmill desk writing a plan for making movies online while I choose my music from an near-infinite list of New Wave b-sides.
The future is awesome and being an adult is awesome.