What Do You Do After You Fail BIG At 25?

Photo: Constantine Soutiaguin / Alamy Stock Photo.
When I was 25, I was an idiot. Not a dunce cap, cousin-fucking type of idiot, but an idiot in the way many 25-year-olds are when they arrive at the urban center of their collegiate dreams with little more than a rent check from their parents and a suitcase full of dreams. I’d never been humbled by disappointment, and all I could see on the horizon were the money-colored clouds of dreams-come-true. This naivete gave me great courage, but also left me totally unprepared for the inescapable reality of any creative life: rejection. My dream was to become a TV writer, and at 25, that dream looked like it was going to come true in an overnight, rags-to-Hollywood-riches,“I’m Still Jonny From The Block” sort of way. After two years of excruciating development purgatory, I was poised to become the youngest person in history to sell an animated comedy to a major television network. I was ready for a huge success — I could taste it.

But then life pulled a fate-and-switch, and left me instead with a spectacular failure.

Failure puts the “suck” in success; defeat is often a necessary predecessor to triumph. Everyone on this earth — with the possible exclusion of Beyoncé — has experienced rejection at some point in their career. True strength comes not from denying the possibility of failure, but rather embracing it. Once I did, it became easier to see failure not as a final destination, but merely another step on the rejection-brick-road to success. Easy lesson, right? It only took me five years to learn.

Failure puts the 'suck' in success.

It all started, as many dubious ventures do, with 50 Cent. In 2011, I worked as a producer on a documentary about the rapper. Just to give you a little context: I’m 6'4, white, and gay as fuck. To say I stood out among the crew would be a severe understatement. This day job was one of many I had taken in order to finance my life as I worked toward my ultimate dream of becoming a TV writer. At this particular juncture, that dream was very far off. I spent my nights and weekends slaving over scripts that never saw the light of day — mostly because I was afraid of sharing them.

My role on this particular documentary was mainly to collect research on our subject, and I can safely say that I now know more about 50 Cent than any other homosexual on earth. The story of his success was genuinely impressive — particularly the chapter in which Curtis James Jackson III was shot nine times, survived, and went on to become a multimillionare. And here’s the part of the story where I tell you that the man who penned “In Da Club” inspired the most significant decision of my life, up until that point.

I was standing in Jamaica, Queens next to Steven, the executive producer of our documentary. We were in between takes, filming the very spot where 50 Cent had been shot. If Mr. Cent could manage to party like it was his birthday after surviving that brutal attack, then certainly I (a man with considerably less to overcome) could summon the courage to ask Steven the following question:

“I have a script, and was wondering if you’d take a look at it?”

This is the type of question, that when uttered by a wide-eyed 25-year-old, usually elicits a cringe, a shudder, or an outright “no.” But I’d worked closely with Steven over the past year, and we’d developed a strong working relationship. He agreed, begrudgingly, to read it.

That weekend I got a flood of texts. Steven not only loved the script, he wanted to produce it, and he sent the script to his agent, who wanted to package the show. We just needed a production company or studio with expertise in animation.

“This script is so fucking solid, we’re gonna find someone in no time,” the agent said.

Two years went by.

the man who penned 'In Da Club' inspired the most significant decision of my life.

During those two years, we met approximately everyone in Hollywood. Again and again we got our hopes up, only to be let down.

Around the two-year mark, I attended a gallery opening, and ran into a woman I’d worked with on the 50 Cent documentary. We had the inevitable, excruciating “What are you up to?” conversation, while sipping cheap wine and pretending to enjoy performance art. I told her the latest on my pilot, and she actually laughed in my face.

“You’re still working on that? Give it up, honey.”

I gripped my plastic cup of merlot, gritted my teeth, and made a mental vow to prove her wrong.

One month later, a game changing opportunity came along, thanks to our agent’s 9-year-old daughter.

Jessica was a girl with a dream: to have a birthday party with real, live ponies. Her father possessed the financial means to make this dream a reality, and in the process, make Jessica’s party the elementary school social event of the season. Every third grader in Brentwood wanted an invite, including the son of a development executive at one of the networks we wanted to pitch. In a shining example of Hollywood power-parenting, our agent leveraged an invite for a reading of my pilot script. One week and several pony rides later, the executive emailed our agent: She’d read the pilot, and felt it could potentially work for her network, depending on who was attached to the project.

Armed with the interest of an actual buyer, our agent went back out to potential production partners. Enter one of the largest animation studios in Hollywood; the studio head read my script, and absolutely loved it. What had taken two years until this point, now came together in less than a month. The studio quickly brought in an animation showrunner (a.k.a. the Shonda Rhimes of cartoons) to attach to the project. With all the pieces in place, our agent scheduled a marathon of pitches at our target networks.

It was then that I realized I had no idea what the fuck I was doing.

I had never pitched a television show in my life. Doubt came rushing in; I was in over my head. But let me tell you something — if you don’t know how to swim, drowning is a great motivator. During the week leading up to our big L.A. trip, I wrote up my verbal pitch and practiced delivering it over and over again: in my bedroom, on the sidewalk in front of strangers who likely assumed I was schizophrenic, and finally, in a coach seat on my direct flight to Los Angeles.

I realized I had no idea what the fuck I was doing.

To quote the great poet Miley Cyrus, “I hopped off the plane at LAX with a dream and a cardigan.” Our pitches were scheduled back to back over the course of two days. That week, I walked into those rooms and charmed them like my life depended on it. Because, in a way, it did. I knew that this was my one shot to make all my hard work pay off, and a chance for my life to come together in the way I had always dreamed.

After the final pitch, we all went to get ice cream. There was the giddy comedown from the adrenaline rush, as our group celebrated a job well done. The hard part was over, now all we had to do was wait for someone to say yes.

No one did.

The response was fairly unanimous across the board:

“The script is too ‘female-driven’ for our network.”

“The voice was great, but our viewers won’t resonate with a female ensemble”

“We like it, but could you change the women to men?”

Now keep in mind this was 2012: a post-Tina Fey, but pre-Amy Schumer era. Still, the response shocked me — I had no clue an all-female animated comedy was a radical idea. I just thought it was a good one.

I was devastated. In all my preparation, I had not accounted for the possibility of failure. And now here it was: two years undone via a five minute phone call.

I fell into a deep depression. One by one, the doors that had been open a week prior, began to shut with frightening speed. Steven pushed his agent to set up pitches at more networks, but the momentum was gone. I pushed the agent to represent me on my own, but his interest had been dependent on the sale of the show. And so, after suffering through two agonizing years of development, I was left with absolutely nothing to show for it.

And so, after suffering through two agonizing years of development, I was left with absolutely nothing to show for it.

I had placed all my eggs in one basket and was now watching it burn. Once your sole dream basket is incinerated, it becomes incredibly difficult to find the strength to weave a new one. I began to write a dark narrative in my head: I hadn’t just failed — I was a failure. I was furious at myself for being unable to find Lena-levels of precocious success. Needless to say, not everyone can be Lena Dunham (in fact only one person can be) — but I was not listening to reason at this juncture. Instead, I was listening to Celine Dion ballads on repeat, and cursing myself for not having the insight to write and directTiny Furniture. Prior to my ill-fated trip, I was gearing up to make the big move to Los Angeles to pursue the next chapter in my career. But “big moves” were for people with big plans, and bigger success. To make the move now, would be to risk another huge failure. I was simply too afraid.

So I stayed in New York, and I dealt with my depression by becoming moderately wealthy. Shortly after my big dream face-plant, I was offered a corporate job that came with a six-figure salary. Overnight, I became a well-paid executive at a large television network. I secured the illusion of success, and set up a nice little life for myself, where I was insulated from regret by wearing $400 sweatshirts from Opening Ceremony. On a similar note, I started seriously dating a Swedish Ken doll who didn’t challenge me in any way. I Michelin-dined nightly, and consumed enough $84 bottles of wine to almost forget that I was living a lie, all because of one shitty moment of rejection. I was traumatized by defeat, and so created a world in which it was no longer possible. In my new life, nothing was risked, failure was not an option, and “Passion” was the scent of the $200 dollar candle on my mantelpiece.

Thank god I got cancer. Don’t get me wrong, cancer sucks more balls than a closeted Republican senator, but it did fortuitously alter my fate. You see, not only did I get cancer, but I also got fired from my job, and dumped by my beautiful boyfriend, all within one horrific month. Quite suddenly, the bougie lie I was living collapsed. Sifting through the rubble of my former life, I discovered the truth: I had compromised the most vital part of myself. With nothing left to lose, I finally moved to Los Angeles to finish what I started: my dream of becoming a TV writer.

Sifting through the rubble of my former life, I discovered the truth: I had compromised the most vital part of myself.

Fast forward one year, and you’ll find me in the conference room of one of the largest agencies in Los Angeles. I’m there with my new TV writing partner, and we’re surrounded by a team of smart, dedicated, and passionate agents. It’s late on a Thursday afternoon, and this group of individuals is assembled because they believe in our creative vision. They want to represent us as television writers. We make the decision to sign with the agency, and our choice is met with cheers and hugs. It’s the happiest moment of my career thus far. Finally, success. And it only took five years to find.

Of course, this milestone is really just one step, in what I hope will be a long and successful career. Now comes more work. Rejection is a huge part of any creative industry, and I have no doubt that I will continue to fail, and fail spectacularly. All we can ever do is our best, and leave the rest up to fate. Unfortunately, fate is gonna fuck us over sometimes. But in the end, I’m thankful for all the people who tell me “no,” because they give me an incredible opportunity: the chance to prove them wrong.

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