Los Angeles is a moody city. When you’re winning here, it’s hard not to feel like the whole show is for you, that the sun rises over the mountains and sets over the ocean in your honor, and that an annoying traffic jam is really just a chance to do some automotive people watching.
And when you’re losing here, there is a full destruction of the soul. The constant sunshine bakes you in the frying pan basin. The hills glittering with mansions taunt you with wealth that is physically close but hopelessly out of reach. There is a feeling of invisibility, a sort of rotting anonymity that lives in your gut as you putter along seven lane freeways full of people who have what you can’t get.
Over time, the ups and down of this lifestyle – the Hollywood lifestyle – begin to feel like a drug addiction. Like a dope dependency, you would never choose this life but you eventually learn to acknowledge the problem: your creative motivations are a chemical handicap and they’re hard-wired into your soul. Your need for self-expression inevitably pushes you away from stable, lucrative careers and compels you to face long odds that often lead to financial hardship in the name of “dreams.” Satisfying these dreams is a craving that distracts from achieving important life milestones like marriage and parenthood, while your foaming ambition can damage relationships with friends and family outside of your community of addicts in Hollywood.
And though I’ve never checked into Writer Rehab, I have developed a coping mechanism that works pretty well. See, I’m not just an addict – I’m a jock too. Sports were my formative experience and I come from the part of the country where college basketball commands a larger market share than the NFL. March Madness, the NCAA Tournament, is Mardi Gras in Louisville, Kentucky, where your support for the Louisville Cardinals, Kentucky Wildcats, or Indiana Hoosiers is a tribal commitment as deep and binding as an oath to ISIS; and it’s a game of thrones that’s settled every spring in the NCAA Tournament.
And that’s what Young Hollywood is to me: it’s March Madness. Because at the end of the day, no one in the bottom half of this town is playing for style. The game isn’t about the best dunk, the sweetest jump shot, or the flashiest jerseys. Those are all things that the pros with their seven-figure salaries can argue about. Down here in the bush leagues, the name of the game is what Coach Jim Valvano told his team of Cinderellas at North Carolina State during their legendary 1983 title run. In Hollywood and in the Big Dance, it all comes down to the famous proverb, “Survive and advance.” Get out of this round and into the next.
Survive and Advance is a realistic appraisal of the field you’re playing in. It takes into account the long list of qualified contestants who are all vying for the same thing (your goal), whether it’s that first TV staff job, promotion to agent, or a speaking role in a studio film, and it requires you to think longitudinally about all the steps from preparation to execution that your championship run will require.
Survive and Advance is about playing the long game, one where you bet on discipline and endurance to trade-up from a crappy situation to one that’s slightly better. It’s about getting out of the mailroom, turning in your DGA book, making coordinator, or landing that writers assistant job they told you no one actually gets.
Survive and Advance is a way of life. It’s the opposite of the other great sports metaphor, “Hitting a homerun,” because homeruns require too much luck and expose a batter to risk. Admit it: more often than not, big swings end in big whiffs.
Survive and Advance is also a tool to focus on the present, where the task of climbing the obstacle in front of you is the only thing that matters on your journey, and where the squishiness of dreams can distract attention away from what matters right now.
Lastly, Survive and Advance is a tool to keep you from being a rambling, bloodshot, Hollywood dope fiend in a constant state of existential panic. It’s about planning your life in a way that’s organized and focused, and beating your addiction by demonstrating measurable progress to your restless soul.
Am I better off now than I was a year ago? Am I measurably closer to my goals? I ask myself these questions constantly and I apply their logic to the imperfect options that life always puts in front of me on my own journey. Sometimes the dueling mandates of progress and survival means passing on mediocre jobs if time is worth more than money, and sometimes it means taking them when money is worth more than time.
I’ll admit it. I’m an addict. So are all creators in all fields. But when I get those heavy night sweats – when the bugs start crawling on my skin – I always imagine the same thing: dribbling a ball with the game on the line as the shot clock ticks down. And as time moves by and the moment closes in, I wonder: what do I do right now to survive for just one more round?
And that’s when I get my answer.