EDU003 Career Advice Part 1

Field recording – Canterbury Coastline – 29th November 2006

About once a month I get an email asking for career advice and as time allows I write the best, most honest reply I can…. But having done that now for the tenth time I decided to write a post on the subject, so that in future I can save some time by first referring people here. But please bear in mind these are all my opinions, question them & find your own conclusions.

Firstly, there is no easy answer, but there are a lot of questions and the first question is this:
Do you want a job or are we talking about a VOCATION?

If you just want a job, then I am likely not the right person to be asking. I personally believe that every sentient person has a vocation hidden in them, that is waiting there to be discovered. So what is a vocation? Lets ask

vo·ca·tion [voh-key-shuhn] –noun
1. a particular occupation, business, or profession; calling.
2. a strong impulse or inclination to follow a particular activity or career.
3. a divine call to God’s service or to the Christian life.
4. a function or station in life to which one is called by God

I’ll leave religion out of this discussion for now, although it isn’t entirely unrelated, but that last word in definition 1 is the key: a vocation is a calling. The few times I have been in hospital (appendix, broken leg) I have been so appreciative of the work that doctors, surgeons, nurses and all of the medical staff do, and many times I have also thought to myself: wow these are jobs I could not do! Why? Because it is not my calling and I know it. But I so appreciate the fantastic people for whom caring for others is their calling. COVID has reinforced this sense of gratitude, as these incredibly hard-working and caring people put their life on the line to help others. They are truly essential workers.

So do you really want to do “THIS” for a living? (regardless of what “THIS” is, exactly)
If you are not sure, maybe ask yourself the same question in one weeks time. Then ask it of yourself in a months time. Then in six months time. Is THIS calling permanent for you? Or is it a whim? Some things look like fun… until you try them.

Another litmus test for a vocation is this:
Would you do it regardless of being paid or not?

We all need to eat & pay the rent (food, clothes & shelter) but is the financial reward what drives your wish to do THIS for a living? Or is it a passion that transcends financial reward?

Someone a long time ago said this to me:
If you can turn one of your hobbies into a career then you will always be happy.
Why? For the same reason, it’s a test. Do you love it so much that you would do it without being paid? Does the primary reward stem from the work itself, simply doing IT.

When you are young, and anything is possible, being specific is less of an issue. You have plenty of time to go up a few wrong alleys, and sometimes the only way to know if you will enjoy something or not is to try it. And it can still be valuable to find out that what you thought was the solution isn’t. This happens often with work, discovering what doesn’t work provides valuable insight as to what might work, and such knowledge over the years adds up to wisdom & refines your instincts.

Ok so lets get specific, what is IT, that you really want to do?
Tell me/yourself in five words or less.

Sometimes young people say “But I will do anything!!” Unfortunately what that says to me is that you do not know what IT is. There are only so many hours in the day and when someone says that I think to myself: “hmmm.. well perhaps you should go away and do some more research?”

When someone considers taking on a trainee, an intern or an employee they know it is a two-way road. A business must invest a significant amount of training to get a new member to contribute to the work being done. The last thing anyone wants to hear, after say investing six months training a new dialogue assistant, is that the person has changed their mind & now wants to be a composer. It may not be clear to you EXACTLY what it is you want to do, but if that is the case then there is plenty of research you can do to help clarify that situation. In fact THAT should be considered your job, until such time as you work out what your vocation is.

Research? What research?
There has never been a time when research has been so easy and accessible. Read books. Watch documentarys on the subject. Read industry magazines. Ask people. Ask Google. Learn how to use Google Advanced Search. Ask Google more specific questions. Save relevant websites as PDFs for later reference. Learn to use your public (free) library. When I was young I couldn’t afford to buy many books, but I did learn how to interloan books using the library system. And a month is long enough to read most books & photocopy or photograph what you need to retain….

More research: Equipment
Find out what equipment is relevant to what you want to do and start learning about it – software and hardware… Most user manuals are available as PDFs.. When I was young I read the ProTools manual from cover to cover and I made a note of less obvious functions that could be handy. For example, just the other day I mentioned to a soundie friend my process of exporting ProTools markers as text, so I could import them into an Excel spreadsheet for auto-naming sound library files. He was surprised you could export a ProTools session as text, and had never found that function, so he no had idea it exists. But it’s right there in the manual, it’s right there in the ProTools menus. But if you don’t even realise it exists, you can’t start dreaming up clever ways to use such functions.

Researching Work History
Ok, so you are starting to narrow IT down. As you learn more about what is involved in each role, you become able to ask more intelligent questions when you meet someone who actually does one of those roles for a living. This is good and may well have a direct bearing on you finding yourself in the role you are aiming for.

I remember when I was looking for work experience (not job hunting, I’ll get to that) one thing I did was research the work that each person I approached had done. Nowadays, with IMDB, thats a fairly easy task but back then it required me hunting through old issues of trade magazines & reading lots of credit lists. Maybe the slower process made me appreciate the value more, but as with any information it is what you do with it that matters. In my case, I had a list of the projects my target person had worked on, so next I went and watched & listened to a bunch of these projects. How many? As many as you can. But the point isn’t to say you have seen/heard everything someone has done. The point is to be able to learn from them, and to be able to ask intelligent questions as to how they approached that project, or even better specific moments or elements of that project. Make notes you can refer back to.

Doing this research works positively in two ways: First you are learning & thinking about what it is that person contributed (& maybe you have it all wrong! Best to find out) and second, the person may well be flattered that you bothered to find out about them & their work. But this is not about pandering to egos or about being disingenuous. If this is your vocation you will be genuinely interested. They will appreciate that you are learning & seriously thinking about what it is you want to do, relative to them and their career. This sends an important message.

Revising this now, a decade later, it is interesting to see how terminology has changed. People speak of having a ‘side hustle’ while holding down a day job to pay rent & live, and are developing their hobby into a business in their spare time.

Apart from being a necessity, philosophically holding down a day job can be motivating. I had an 18 month long gap year, between when I dropped out of University and before I started Film School. During some of that period I was unemployed, but I took on one part time job that had crazy hours: I would work 5 days on 5 days off, and would start work at 11pm and finish at 7am. The job was mind numbingly boring, basically I was baby-sitting a 24 hour video store and gas station in the suburbs. I think the owners realised it was cheaper to pay me a wage than to pay insurance and security for a closed garage. But between the hours of 1am and 5am I would just watch movies because no one would come in at all. I also remember one night I took the Nagra in to work, and someone came in to the store at 2am and found me with 1/4″ tape all over the counter, as I was learning to splice tape!

But what that part time job taught me was this: I could have stayed in that job the rest of my life. It was easy work, the pay was ok, there was no stress. But I knew I wanted more from life. I wanted to creatively contribute. I wanted to pursue sound with a passion! So when I got accepted into Film School and handed in my resignation at the video store, it really did feel like the start of my career. And it was!

Now one other story, which reflects on an important aspect of finding your vocation: Do not be in a rush.
I was reminded of this by an assistant sound editor on Lord of the Rings. He was a young guy that I knew and had worked with, so I knew he was keen as hell, conscientious and ambitious. I respect that, but each of us has to pay our dues and prove out worth. I’ll save this for another post, but as an experienced sound effects editor, I was the only person in NZ who turned down three years of work on Lord of the Rings. But my studio was directly across the road from Park Road Post, where all of the LOTR team were based. One day this assistant knocks on my door and I can see he is pretty upset. What’s up? He explains, he has been working his butt off, working long hours often doing thankless tasks, but always with a positive attitude and grateful to be there. But. There had been a recent promotion, and one of the other assistant sound editors had been promoted to First Assistant Sound Editor. So they were effectively the lead or manager of the team of assistants. On a large scale project like that, where VFX updates are arriving constantly and conforms are critical to avoid more senior sound editors losing productive time, the assistants play a very important role. But he was upset as he felt he should have got the First Assistants role. We talked through the issues, but something was bugging me and I eventually just had to ask. How old are you? His answer: 23. I sighed and explained that I didn’t even go to Film School until I was 25. I didn’t even get a start as a trainee sound editor on TV series until I was 26. And you are asking me to sympathize with you because at 23 you have an important role on a huge budget trilogy and you didn’t get promoted the first time such a change occurs? He quietened down at this point and went away and had a think about being thankful for where he already was. But also to think about whether it was what he wanted to be doing. Be careful what you wish for.

Verifying your dreams
An important part of your research in finding your vocation is to find out if you actually want what you think you want. Seeing the results of someone else’s work, or wanting someone’s job, does often not take into consideration the hours of maybe boring but vitally important work that also contributes to it. Similarly, you do not want to accrue student debt to go to Film School only to find out that it actually isn’t your vocation. You need to find that out beforehand, and I think that may well be where learning as a hobby can be a good way of checking and verifying that your hopes and dreams are grounded in a reality, that will last through the years.

This is very similar to music, in that many people learn a musical instrument. But far less make a career in music. It is a choice and a commitment, but for some people keeping their hobby as a hobby can be more rewarding than risking an attempt to professionally pursue their hobby. In some cases protecting a hobby from the need to monetize it can be its own reward. If for example I play in a punk electro noise band in my spare time and all we ever do is make a racket and have fun, then there is no risk of disappointment that we don’t achieve anything more than that. But put that same band under some kind of career-ist pressure and maybe all the fun will evaporate.

Food for thought!

In Part 2 I get very specific about sound as a career choice…

originally posted February 18, 2008



2 thoughts on “EDU003 Career Advice Part 1

  1. Andrew Richards says:

    Should have proof read that. Lots of errors. Point being, I’m looking forward to your future EDU posts as I know you cut through the crap that has people trick themselves into thinking they’re making progress but really they are just being consumers (talking to myself more than anything here)

  2. Andrew Richards says:

    I went to uni a few years out of school to learn audio production with the aim to record my own music and be a rock star. When I first did a sound post project in my first trimester I genuinely didn’t think anything of it. But slowly over time I started to collaborate with another friend of mine who was studying at film school. I don’t feel ashamed to say that I fell into film sound (or more specifically for me atm, short form moving picture content). I’m turning 30 in a few months and have been doing production and post production for almost five years. I do love it. I enjoy both aspects, and have no intentions on specialising in the near future. If I had to pick though, I think post production is more where my heart is at. Sets are full for myriad reasons, but the magic happens in the box, and when you get it right there’s just no other feeling. Frustratingly, I feel like my addiction to information and plugins gets the best of me. I buy more and more SFX libraries thinking that I’m making up for a lack of technical prowess, but it just seems to feel like it escapes me. I wish I could say that a lack of doing is responsible for these feelings but truthfully I’ve done many projects, I’d say 60+ would be around the number. Facing so many deadlines forces one to innovate and deliver. The thing is that my work hardly ever ends up sounding like my peers who I adore in the same genre. Some of these folks are my age and have been at it for roughly the same time. And I wonder if in another five years time my skill set and capabilities will look roughly the same, or if not then slightly better, but not as good as I hope to achieve without being unrealistic. Stream of conciousness end.

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