My field was marketing creative and I did it for over twenty five years. I was among the very first digital creative directors, working on integrated marketing campaigns for the likes of Volkswagen, Playstation, GM, and tons of others. I climbed up the ranks in the usual way; going from art director to creative director all the way up to chief creative officer at an international marketing firm. It was grueling, at times rewarding, stable for many years, entailed a lot of plane flights, a lot of sucking up, shaking my head, pretending to like New York, working all night, camaraderie, making good money, but less than I deserved, and having a vague sense that it was going to end any second.
Being a creative director at an agency is both deeply corporate and at the same time, horribly insecure. Which really doesn’t make sense. I could get being insecure in another field that was more artistically fluctuating — like fashion or painting — but marketing is a by-the-numbers creative exercise that is only successful when it drives traffic or sells something. Over the years, the creative wrapper (which I think of more as cleverness than creativity) has become only tangentially important to the more hard-hitting elements of a campaign — the offer, the unique selling proposition or simply the reach and frequency of the media plan (how many times you see it). The concept itself, sure, it takes some time to crack. It’s not easy by any means. But the creative process is true and 100% effective. In fact, the parts of campaigns that are far more iffy are the strategic ones. Bad briefs are nearly always the problem with a campaign, rarely the creative process. Yet, the creatives are subject to a constant worry about whether they are going to be able to nail it the next time. And this fear only grows as you get older. Marketing fetishizes youth, or so it feels like. In fact, this is really just a masquerade for a deeply-rooted, bottom-line mentality. The top line is nearly impossible for agencies to truly affect in any scientific way, so “aging top creatives out” is a hush-hush practice that keeps the numbers down when things get tight. It’s fun to think that fresh new creatives bring fresh new ideas, but the reality is they don’t, they just cost (and challenge authority) less.
The irony is that the discipline need not be something so high-paying nor so stressful. You could, in fact, lower the overall pay of creatives simply by treating it like you would a normal job. But the industry is hung up on the idea of creatives being rock stars. Pulling that string out of the fabric of commercial art would unravel the entire sport coat.
People confuse the term rat race with hamster wheel. Most people think of being in a rat race as a mind-numbing and repetitive task-managing, but really a rat race is a race. A fast-paced scramble for a piece of cheese with a host of competitors, and only one rat gets the treat. The rest go hungry. This is the part of the agency life that ate at me most, for almost three decades; this idea that as a creative, I must constantly compete against my competitors, against my peers and, ultimately, against time. That there must be winners and losers. All of it is based on long-standing industry myths: the myth that creatives are rockstars (and therefore in need of people to manage them), the myth of award shows (a constant pursuit for a made-up, inward-facing accomplishment that depreciates over time), and ultimately the myth of the industrial revolution (which agencies continue to hold tightly to, even as creatives flee toward more forward-thinking in-house jobs), that has ingrained in us the idea that whomever ends with the most toys, wins. That is the rat race. It’s not just marketing, it’s anyplace that institutionalizes you and where the top-down structure defines your worth. There’s plenty of places to work in the world where people just do their work and contribute to the economy — I talked with all kinds of them in my journey across America last year — you don’t have to be in the rat race to earn money. It’s a very certain kind of place that sets up a maze.
I left it exactly one year ago. I wanted to talk about it then — a lot. But I also wanted some distance from it before I truly mused on it. There’s too much emotion tied up in extricating one’s self from something so all-encompassing. Taking a year to think, to readjust, re-center and even just get to know myself (and un-know some others) again has been revelatory. It has tested relationships, resolve, resourcefulness and my own belief system — something that, at my age, normally is hardened clay. But I’m a different person now, nearly entirely, than I was a year ago. Interestingly, more similar to the person I was before I got into the rat race. As a kid, I was not a competitive person. I never liked being cutthroat or seeing other people lose. I’m a collaborator, by nature. And most of all, I am a creator. I am constantly making things and trying to get better at the things I make. Wet clay, but with a camera. And that’s what I do now. These images peppered throughout this article are all taken throughout this last year and represent less than 1% of 1% of how many I’ve taken. In the last twelve months, I’ve worked with brands and celebrities, with Medium on that journey across America, I taught and mentored, got an artist-in-residence at a great art school, and have collaborated with incredible talent. And the best part — in this last year, nobody has had to lose.
The rat race is fueled by the pursuit of money. This is the value exchange, and you must understand it to be able to make your own decision on it. A quick story from the last year:
One of the folks I worked with early on within my new path was a musician. He was unsigned, hungry and loved my work. Very little if any money exchanged hands between us — we simply collaborated, with the idea that it was fun and creative to do so. And we made some beautiful work. We both benefited from it. Then he got signed, which was great, but it introduced money into the equation. Suddenly, everything started to feel like my old life. He started talking like the guys at the agency. His manager started talking like the guys at the agency. I could just feel him changing as a person and as a creative. The relationship ended with a conversation with the manager where I told him what my rate was for being able to speak to me in the way they do. It wasn’t a bad conversation, I just explained how much rats make.
The big question everyone wanting to get out of the rat race asks is: how do you stay afloat in a world where so little money is exchanged?
The answer to this is not as easy as one would hope. Unfortunately, it is not a jump from an airplane where you start sewing your parachute on the way down — though a lot of conversations around leaving the rat race feel that way. In fact, it takes planning. You have to remember that I’m not a spring chicken. I was in the rat race for almost three decades. So, in truth, there’s only two options: you have to either avoid the rat race altogether, or do it just long enough for an exit strategy to work.
Perhaps you know the story of Slomo?
This wonderful little story about a doctor who stopped doing what he didn’t like to go skate along the beach all the time is pretty much the poster for leaving the rat race. But it neglects to mention his age when he gives up the career. He’s nearing 70 in the film, so I’m guessing he was at least my age when he gave up his career. By his own description, he was driving a BMW and living in a mansion when he decided he wanted a different life. So, in fact, while the movie makes it look like a dramatic leap, I’m guessing it was thirty years in the making. And probably more.
In fact, Slomo is not a story of a guy leaving his job so much as a story of a guy staying in it for just the right amount of time. Unfortunately, it would be less inspirational told that way.
When I toured the country talking to people about their jobs, I spoke with a welder, a waitress, a river raft guide, a teacher, a politician, three farmers, a prison guard, two border patrol agents, a framer, and many others. I wanted to focus on blue collar work — or as I like to call it, normal. None of them lived with any worry about their jobs. Also, none of them made near what I or Slomo made at the heights of our races. So, this is one way to avoid the rat race — simply accept a career path and lifestyle that doesn’t afford lavish vacations, fine automobiles, watch collections, expensive college tuitions, pools, expansive views and a revolving wardrobe. While so much of our media propels the desire to have these things, most of the world finds joy without them and within the smaller successes and experiences of things like rollerblading. This life comes with its own stresses, of course. You can end up living right at the edge of poverty as you strive to find that balance of the good life and the simple life and that has its own hardships. You can also find yourself wanting something you can’t have and that often feels debilitating. I grew up in this environment, with a lot of “no’s” to my wants. And of course you can find yourself susceptible to hardships that come from health issues — and this can keep you on edge every bit as much as the rat race can. But the payoff is the comfort of a simply-lead life with nobody defining your worth but you, your friends and your family. I like the exchange here, personally, though it was not the path I took.
The other way to go — the one Slomo and I took — is to embrace the rat race fully, but for a limited time in order to get exactly what you want out of it. Play the game, play it as hard as it plays you, and then cash in. But this takes extreme discipline. Some can do it — many can’t. The ones that don’t plan for it suffer the most.
A few years ago, Sports Illustrated estimated that around 80% of NFL players go broke within three years of being out of the League (a place where the average salary is high six figures). The reasons are a little all over the place (supporting too many people, not saving, spending too much, divorce, etc.), but they all amount to the same thing — they never planned on getting out of the rat race. And they probably never even realized they were in it to begin with.
My own story of escape is really a story about real estate. My wife and I made smart decisions about where to buy a home, and then as soon as we could, a second home. Having two homes — and being able to rent one out — is just one way to start to plan for a simpler life. It’s simple math: the income from one pays for the life in the other. Or at least a portion of it. And if you buy in good places, the value of the two homes increases as you live your life, eventually leaving valuable property for your kids. This was my grandparents’ strategy, my parents’ strategy and it was passed down. But as simple as it is, it takes time and money to make work — good investment take money and banks only give out money to people who are good for it. And nothing says you’re good for it like a big paycheck. So this is why you suck it up and go into the rat race for a time.
Real estate is only one strategy, there are others. Some might use this time to start a family-owned business, make investments, or some other strategy that sets them up for down the road. But make no mistake — life after the rat race is not nearly as lucrative as life in it. You have to be ready to get back to a simpler life. Despite having some savings and some passive income, our lifestyle has become extremely modest. I shop at second hand stores now, have sold off the watches, am downgrading my car and all kinds of other adjustments. My grandparents and parents did this, too. This shift in lifestyle is also key in finding peace, but it is not easy and it rarely comes when you plan it. And most likely you still have to work.
That’s the hard part. The good part, I find, is nothing short of life-altering-ly pleasant.
Abraham Lincoln once interviewed someone for a cabinet position but turned him down. When asked why, Lincoln responded, “I didn’t like his face.” His advisor said, “But the poor man isn’t responsible for his face.” To which, Lincoln replied, “Every man over forty is responsible for his face.”
What does that mean?
I have a child in preschool. My wife and I biked down to pick him up the other day and got into a conversation with the school gardener, who seemed to be about my age. The children played un-losingly together while we enjoyed a lingering discussion about plants and children and the best things in life. We just stood there and caught up and had a very human interaction with a very good person. At one point I asked him how long he’d been gardening — he said a few years, that he used to be a stockbroker. He described the familiar refrain of having been in a brutal and unhappy workplace. The rat race. I don’t know what he did to plan for his exit — something — but here he was, gardening with a smile on his face, stopping to smell the roses and talk with kids and parents, and just be a light in the world. Nobody was telling him to get back to work. No discussions about his utilization. He was happy and he was free. And you could see that written all over his face.
This is life outside the rat race. To lead it you have to understand, and subscribe, to the larger arc of life. A final parable:
There’s a fisherman in a little village. Every day he goes out in his little boat, made for one and catches fish for his family. One day, an American meets him on the beach and has an idea: You know what you should do, he says, get a big fishing boat and catch fish for the whole village! You’ll be rich.
The fisherman goes into business with the American. Two boats becomes four and then a whole fleet. They dominate the local fishing industry and become millionaires. Finally, the fisherman retires and he lives out the rest of his time doing exactly what he loves: going out every day in a little fishing boat, made for one, catching fish for his family.
Thanks for reading. You can see more of my photography here.