I learned a lot from my first job. It was a hell of first job – I was a writer for Cartoon Network, focusing on Adult Swim. Before you get too excited, I wrote for the online part, not the shows, but it was still very exciting for someone who was an enormous fan of both.
So what did I learn? Many things, but chief of them was probably this – have a thick skin.
The head of Adult Swim is a man named Mike Lazzo. Before I actually started working with him, stories I’d heard made him sound like this rampaging tyrant. Get in his way at your own risk, or have your ego ground up into quivering bits of weeping jelly. I had actually started at Cartoon as an intern before getting my job, and when my internship was over I didn’t know if my time at Williams Street would eventually continue, so I resolved: screw it. I’m going to pitch Mike Lazzo a television show. I prepared some materials and sent him a short email, saying that I’d like to pitch him a show.
“Sure,” he said. ”Come on down now.”
Holy crap! I was extremely nervous, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Who knew if I’d ever get this chance again? Lazzo was seated at the end of a long hallway, along which were the offices and edit bays that made up Adult Swim’s in-house show production facilities. He used to sit at the open window there in this big chair and basically hold court, all the while smoking cigarette after cigarette, blowing it out into the open air outside. I sat down and presented my idea: an original Adult Swim action show! Look, I drew some sketches, and I have the plot all planned out. It was going to be awesome.
He let me talk for a bit, then looked me straight in the eye. ”This isn’t going to happen,” he said. ”But let me tell you why.”
Lazzo proceeded to give me an hour lecture on the business of show business. How to pay back Mom and Pop, as he called it – meaning how to make a show turn a profit. Action shows were expensive and they didn’t give much return. It was during that conversation, given to an outgoing intern who had no idea what he was doing, that I started to understand how things actually worked. Not a tyrant. Not a lunatic. A rational guy making good business decisions with innovative work.
Fast forward two years. The business had been restructured, and I now reported to Lazzo directly, for a while anyway. I was still full of ideas, but my ego had taken some punishment along the way – I was kind of arrogant and outwardly very self-assured, but inside if it wasn’t a realm I was comfortable in (games and action shows) I was very uncertain of myself. I had no confidence in my ability to, say, write comedy. (A circumstance that years later, I regret allowing to get to me. I can write comedy, I was just too afraid to really try. Speaks to the thick skin thing again.) But I remembered Lazzo giving me a chance, so I resolved to try again.
He, and many of the people who worked there, were very blunt about their opinions on things. This is the key to the whole point I’m trying to make. If they thought something sucked, they told you straight out. But it wasn’t until I worked directly for Lazzo that I understood – they’re trying to help you. They’re not trying to tear you and your work apart, they’re trying to make it better. Absorb the punishment, internalize it, strain the good bits out, then act on it. You won’t agree with everything critics say, but with every word it’s important to ask yourself if there’s not something to it. That’s the only way we grow as professional and creative people alike.
The image above is from an episode of Kitchen Nightmares that’s blowing up the internet right now. The couple that owned the restaurant had the thinnest skin of probably anyone ever. They fought, screamed, pushed… and in the end what they were left with was a lost opportunity to learn from a master chef and a ton of bad PR.
That made me think of this… whether I’m making a game or writing a book, I try to take in all opinions as offered. I can’t take it personally. However I’ve had bosses tell me they think what I’m doing is just awful, then once it’s complete they turn around and say “oh, I see what you were doing now. That’s great!” So you do have to pick and choose which feedback to respond to, but you have to let the criticism in, or you’ll never get the chance.
Gordon Ramsay FTW. ;)