I want to believe that hard work always = desired results. If I do my best, I can achieve anything. But I’m discovering that, for me, there is a marked difference between trying hard and doing my best, smartest, and most thoughtful work.
Maybe you are rocking it by busting your ass and taking names, but my ass continues to bust me at every turn.
Among the many surprises that have come along with city folk owning miniature donkeys, I discovered the fixed* field fence was not enough for our $20PerfectMiniLawnMowingPets. Donkey + Yoti needed a proper corral so they could be contained if they ever needed a vet's care, and Kirsten needed a stage for her latest hobby of halter-breaking them with carrots, pets, and grain, with her gentle Snow White voice. (There is an ongoing debate as to which one of us is the “Ass Whisperer.” Despite her obvious gifts, Kirsten is okay with me keeping the title for myself.)
One epic corral coming right up. With zeal and Pinterest, I am going to kill it. I dive into the World Wide Web to try out a friend's NEEDTO.COM site and post:
“I needto build a corral for my mini donkeys. I want to use posts from trees on our land to be super-eco. I want the eco-corral to be a perfect blend of rustic fashion and architectural function as if Darling and Dwell did a double magazine issue together covering livestock structures.”
I found a guy with awesome reviews whose biggest mistake turned out to be doing exactly what I said and he followed me down the rabbit hole. We chopped dead trees, dug holes, drilled boards; it took three times what we anticipated and spilled over into Sunday and Monday. When it was done-ish, this hundred-round-feet of rookie sweat turned out more like a movie backlot facade than a practical set—perfect in the background of a wide shot, but obviously flawed when seen close-up. When the jacks were rallied for the vet visit, it was less than thirty seconds before Donkey busted through the cityslickerspecial half-inch boards and provided an easy path for Yoti to escape as well. The vet had a smile on his face as he left and handed me his card. I think it read, “I look forward to coming back when you are not an urban idiot.”
LESS TIME • LESS EFFORT • LESS MONEY
Several humble weeks later, with the donkeys still giggling at me every time they walked through the busted stockade, I noticed a pile of ready-to-rock corral panels in the parking lot of Tractor Supply Hardware. It took our family three hours to tear down my three-day sorry excuse for a pen—and just thirty minutes to easily assemble six 60" high panels with vertical Z-braces built from 1 3/4" round high-tensile strength steel tubing with superior continuous-welded saddle joints and a superior blue E-Coat finish to ensure longer life in the field. It was perfect!
I didn’t needto try so hard. There was a much smarter solution that was 40% cheaper and took 5% of the time and effort. I had worked very hard. And yet, my best work finally came when I calmed down and paid attention to what was around me.
SHOVEL vs. PITCHFORK
I am changing my posture toward Green Acres as life on the land continues to work me over and teach me amid its rolling beauty. We recently created a pile of mulch to spread around in areas in need of compost. With a shovel in hand, I muscled each scoop into the wheelbarrow. When I asked my son, Mason, to grab a shovel and help, he snatched a pitchfork and started blazing through. To my surprise, the pitchfork easily picked up the shredded trees with minimal effort and we sped through the pile. Mason was able to get back to his Airstream to draw anime characters in no time.
I realize there is a shovel vs. pitchfork pattern in my life personally and professionally. I often try to muscle through with burdensome tools in a misguided way.
I have wanted to be a filmmaker since I was an eight-year-old boy sitting in a theater watching THE CHAMP for a second time and crying, again. I spent years and years directing hundreds of commercials and music videos amid feature film “good meeting” after “good meeting” with hopes of finally making movies. It wasn’t until I left Hollywood and moved to Waco, Texas, that my childhood dream finally became a reality. (I think I have exclusive rights to that statement.)
Supporting my wife as she cared for her mom in her last days battling cancer, I spent some time with old friend Wes Cunningham and new friend Thomas Ward dreaming up stories built around Wes’s music. In this heavy season, those hours in Cafe Cappuccino were the opposite of a trying-too-hard burden. With zero real chance of our ideas finding their way to 24-frames-per-second on a screen, we joyfully bantered through creative conflict and honest resolution with a script idea we would enjoy watching. As far as feature films go for me, writing SIRONIA was the pitchfork to fifteen years of shoveling in California. Financing was equally as smooth as I was crashing a Raven+Lily dinner when the host asked me, “Does it just take money to make a movie?” The film was greenlit two weeks later. (You can see SIRONIA on HULU or iTunes or Amazon if you’d like)
All of my projects have involved hard work, but a nose to the grindstone and really, really trying have not always produced my most inspired work.
Looking back, I realize the same easier flow was true in commercial and music video success as well. It was the Jazz Festival spot I did pro-bono that won a Gold Lion, and most folks appreciate the no-budget Switchfoot "Awakening" video to my larger scale work like Disney’s CAMP ROCK clip. (Unless you are nine years old.)
In the same way, I have been a master of trying too hard in my personal life as well.
Whenever asked, “How did you meet?” my wife takes pleasure in quickly following up my, “We were best friends in college,” with an added, “Brandon dated my roommates and half my sorority.” Depending on the listener's own experiences in college, Kirsten will often need to clarify, “He was a gentleman,” to mitigate whatever Animal House-meets-Risky Business image they have in their heads. I usually take the ribbing in stride and remain silent, even though the statement is, of course, an exaggeration—if I dated half of Pi Phi, that would not leave enough time to get to know the ladies of Kappa or Delta Delta Delta.
What Kirsten is saying is, “Brandon was trying very, very hard in college.” She has authority to say this as my confidant who would withhold judgment with every tale of looking for love in all the wrong places—making admiration my number-one subject throughout college. If Kirsten had secretly liked me, our story could have played out like the best of John Hughes’ films where the clueless guy finally wises up to realize that his best friend is the one he should be with. But our story was a wonderful, simple, and easy “A-HA!” moment in an airport where two best friends were connecting once again after college and realized that love did not have to try too hard; it was right in front of us. After a career in shovel-type dating, I married my best friend and beautiful soul mate, which has proven to be a fantastic foundation to build upon for eighteen years.
I’m tempted to spend a beat on what I am not saying…especially as it relates to doing hard work. I think a lot more could be said about practice and embracing failure, staying in the game, and how that all pays off over time. Wes has a wise personal motto: “Do the work, show up, and leave the results to God.”
There is also room for clarifying how “work” will never satisfy you and should only be a small part, rather than the source, of our deepest desires. As C.S. Lewis reminds me,
“Don't let your happiness depend on something you may lose.”
In this very challenging season for me—especially as it relates to film and farm—I want to believe that the way to brighter days is working harder and trying harder. And yet, I don’t have anything to support that reality in the history of my personal or professional life. The most profound and meaningful things have flowed in an organic way, which gives me little opportunity to pat myself on the back for my accomplishments. Maybe this is all by design. It certainly requires more prayer and patience than I’d like. Could this be why we celebrate beards so much?
I have had some variation of facial hair since we said “I do” in Mill Valley in 1997. Somewhere between style and insecurity—I've given a wide variety of whiskers a chance. From the goofy goatee to the soul patch/flavor savor, I’ve even donned an awful Henry David Thoreau neck beard and Charlie Chaplin mustache (which immediately looks like Hitler…don’t try it). I wonder if the current trend of lumberjack chic has anything to do with what I’ve been exploring here—the fact that a full beard gives us a chance to applaud patience and time, with only the discipline of not shaving. Coincidence? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
In the meantime…I leave you with this video of me trying too hard once again: