questionmarkI was young, innocent and seduced by a mouse. I spent 29 years working for The Company and even after I was laid off continued to work freelance doing the same work for seven more. Held back by golden handcuffs, I fear I’ve wasted decades to pursue greater things.

Is it too late to break in? Should I stop writing scripts and just take a job behind the counter at Starbucks to sell coffee? Should I never have considered starting to write in the first place, since clearly I wasn’t driven enough at an early age?

Hold old is too old to hold on to a dream? Not just screenwriting, but any dream.

— Paul
Santa Ana

random advice“Golden Handcuffs” is a term I heard a few times while visiting Pixar: a job that’s so good that you’d be crazy to leave it.

In the case of Pixar, well, Pixar is awesome. Get a job there, and you’re making amazing movies with some of the brightest people you’re going to meet anywhere. But you’re ultimately making Pixar’s movies, not your movies.

The same could be said for companies in every field. Take an anonymous survey of executive vice presidents from Fortune 500 corporations, and I bet you’ll find a lot of MBAs who feel like failures for not starting their own ventures.

Life is choices. In this case, which do you put first: your comfort or your ambition?

From what you describe, Paul, you chose comfort.1 And that’s okay.

I strongly doubt you wasted decades: you had an entire life outside of work that was possible in no small part due to having a steady paycheck. Most of America would gladly trade places with you. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you’re aiming for self-actualization. That’s good, but recognize that it’s a comparative luxury.

Right now, you’re playing the What If? game, and you’re playing it wrong.

You are never going to be able to go back and make different choices. As Daniel Faraday would remind you, whatever happened, happened. So stop fantasizing about scenarios in which the past 29 years might have turned out more artistically satisfying. More importantly, stop beating up the younger version of yourself. He wasn’t lazy or naive. He was you.

Here are your new rules for the What If? game:

  • Only ask What If? questions about the future. What If you now devoted yourself full-time to writing? Or, What If you stopped carrying this torch for screenwriting, and pursued something else you enjoyed? Which would make you happier?
  • Only think about the person you are today. A 20-year old has different options and challenges than a 49-year old. How much of your current life would you be willing to up-end?
  • Recognize assumptions. Don’t assume you know where a path would take you. Rather, ask whether traveling that path would be interesting and fulfilling.2

Golden handcuffs don’t really go away, incidentally.

I write movies for other directors because it’s safe and lucrative. And fulfilling, mostly. I want to get movies made, and I can write many more movies than I could ever direct.

But every time I take a job writing someone else’s movie, it pushes back my own next movie another few months. At some point soon, I’ll need to quit my day job to pursue my own ambitions, with all the risks that entails.

  1. Inaction is a choice, too, though it often doesn’t feel like it. You didn’t ask yourself every morning, “Should I quit my job today?” But it’s a good question to ask.
  2. Yes, this is essentially the chorus to the Miley Cyrus hit, “The Climb.”