What Price Passion? …and What are Millennials Willing to Spend?

Opening Ceremonies Gay Games VII - Chicago

Opening Ceremonies Gay Games VII – Chicago

You may have been told that one should not choose a career to make money. Rather one is best served by listening to one’s heart and following one’s instincts; choosing a pathway of passion and fulfillment…making the difference in the world in a way that speaks to and nurtures oneself.

Do this, I’m sure you’ve been told, and the Money will come.

Don’t. You. Believe. It.

While I fully endorse the authenticity and validity of the first part, I’d be very careful of expectation inherent in “…the money will come.” That’s not necessarily a Bad Thing, depending on one’s definition of “money,” and it applies, I dare say, to pretty much any career choice. If you love the Law, be a lawyer; if you love cars, drive, design or repair automobiles…do what feeds you, feeds your muse, keeps you excited and inspired about what you do.

Be aware, though, that there are no guarantees of financial security, job security or what one might describe as “success” – especially in the realm of Entertainment and Creation of Experience – if such success has a material quality of life attached.

While it is possible to make a lot of money in this / these fields; the overarching reality is that a few do fantastically well, some do very well, many do comfortably well, most get by and no small number scrape-by from gig to gig with absolutely no security, at all. For many, the price of a can of tuna remains relevant for a great deal of their lives.

You’d best absolutely love what you do; as that is from whence the fulfillment must flow.

If creating an experience that makes audience gasp or cheer or cry out or laugh or go so deeply into their heads that the silence becomes palpable or leap from their seats before they know what they are doing fulfills and excites you; then, Come on Down! There is plenty of room for you, here.

If, on the other hand, you seek to make Big Money as a Producer, Director, Creative Director or Designer…and that money is important to you…perhaps you ought to look for something else; as you’ll sweat blood before you make Big Money in this spectrum of occupations and careers.

Not attempting to throw cold water on a career choice. Realism is, at the point of entry, a good discipline to exercise before setting oneself up for disappointment. While the perceived Gold Standard of Walt Disney Imagineering will always (we hope) offer long-term opportunity for hundreds of creatives and producers and short term projects for hundreds if not thousands more; that remains, still, just one company.

Outside of WDI, Disney and Universal there are hundreds of entities that hire for thousands of jobs of longer and shorter duration, better and poorer compensation, sporadic to regular work all of which is in support of creating experience to move and inspire people. That world outside of The Big Guys is a panoply of opportunity for the peripatetic; those willing to travel and move from project to project, month to year…

During a recent sojourn in Dubai, I worked on three shows. On the first – a huge spectacle for National Day – we had a team of Independents from all over the world. The show-caller came straight from the London Olympics, one of the choreographers came directly from the Eurovision contest, the Production Manager came from South Africa – departing for Hong Kong the day after the close of the show. Even one of my stage managers, within two weeks of the show close, was on the production team for the New Year’s Eve broadcast from the Burj Khalifa.

These are short gigs, and there are thousands, out here, who make a fair living – not a GREAT living – by moving from place to place, creating something where there was nothing, then moving on to the next thing.

On a larger scale there are installations of all sorts taking place all the time, all over the world: resorts, theme parks, civic installations, museums and even churches are creating experiences that take months and years to create and build. On one of these teams, one might find oneself in Shanghai or Dubai for sixteen months to a couple of years, then on to Brazil to work on an Olympic Ceremony.

For me, this is exciting and fantastic…and it is not secure. At all. Be sure you are in this for the Passion.

Recently, I spoke on a panel of Themed Entertainment Association Board Members before an audience of students at the Savannah College of Art & Design. What struck me, most, was that the first questions after the presentation were about quality of life in The Business…from both male and female students. Questions that never even occurred to me, back in the day(s) of career launch…

What about family? What about travel? Questions that pertained to the personal, the family environment, downtime and regenerative activity. Not overwhelmingly, but notably, these questions shed light on a bit of a new perspective on career and where it fits in one’s life…

A friend of mine, the VP of Sales for a company in Southern California, recently vented with me about the point of view of her millennial sales staff. She was getting questions about how many hours a day and time off at a level and a time frame that would have been unheard-of a decade or two ago. They were asking how much time they would need to put in to meet their goals, she said, “…they just want to know when they can get off work; it’s more important for them to spend time with their friends than to meet quota…”

Of what is this a harbinger?

Observing these questions in the context of the larger conversation articulated in trade mag after business blog after panel discussion in myriad iterations of “How to Deal with Millennials,” I sense something positive out of this gradual (or perhaps not-so-gradual) tectonic shift in the work culture as Millennials come of age. I sense that they seem to want fulfillment, they have a passionate and achievable sense of morality and fairness (and Equality), they want to be fulfilled in their professional pursuits…but…they want to have energy left over to enjoy what they’ve done and time left over to enjoy their families and friends.

Can you imagine?!

So, as I write these words of caution to those about to enter the work force, a part of me is aware that making “Money” may not be the priority for Millennials as it was for the Baby Boomers and the following generations. I am also not experiencing the sense of Entitlement experienced of the GenX and GenY’s – those who wanted it all; seeking a big salary and expected to be on a first-name basis with the CEO from Week One. While some did get that, most did not and they were not happy about it.

Meanwhile, the Business Leaders and writers seemed to keep analyzing the dynamic as though the young people coming up were the problem to solve. How to enlighten ‘em to How It Is so that business can continue to be run “right.”

I don’t know; perhaps this refreshed consciousness will manifest in other ways…

Looking closer, working alongside 20-somethings on my own production teams and teaching Apple Workshops, I see a fresh-faced, aspirational population that may have a more profound effect on the American Work Ethic than many might envision. For the most part, these kids (I say that affectionately and respectfully – even enviously) are happy with less of the material and seem to find more value in personal experience and levels of intimacy. In my experience, relatively few are motivated to acquire; more to enjoy.

This could change the infrastructure of Society in a healthy way, perhaps.

Rather than feeling pressure to succeed, I sense a desire for the freedom to accomplish. Rather than needing to make a lot of money, there seems a deeper desire to enjoy and be fulfilled by what they do.

This being the case, what it perhaps portends is that our Quality of [Material] Life may in fact diminish as the Quality of Living increases as a result of this evolved perspective. And that just might be a very good thing.

Somewhere in there is a great future for the world of Experience Design, of Creation of Compelling Experience. If one is protective of, a contributor to, the resonant qualities of one’s own life; will that person be even better equipped to create powerful and resonant experience for others? Will they be able to conceive of more effective ways of immersive storytelling, of weaving narrative, of new ways to express narrative or story that can engage on deeper levels? I’m thinking, maybe so.

I am struck by something else in these New Kids…a level of respect for those who have gone before that I have not experienced in a long time. A desire to learn what is or was combined with a complete absence of fear of sharing their own ideas and approaches that yields some brilliant, collaborative energy; teaching everyone and benefitting all.

Is it a New World? I dunno. It’s certainly a new ethic.

At the close of one of my Stanford Show Tours, I wrote an epic poem about the 12-city journey, closing with this:

But there was a moment, in every city

When what we did went to profound from pretty.

When guests became silent, when hearts skipped a beat,

When each person settled more into the seat.

The air in the room became quieter, still;

And breath was abated as hearts took the thrill.

That’s when we touched them, that’s when we knew

We’d delivered completely on our Mission, true.

No one will ever accomplish again

What we have given to those where we’ve been…

…and it is That Moment that keeps me in this business. The thrill of being able to create an experience that takes people so far into their heads that they are no longer conscious of their mind, they aren’t thinking, they are feeling and seeing through some deep, personal portal to which I have found the key.

Rarely will you ever be paid what you are worth; the choice is to let go of, to relinquish any such expectation and to embrace what you do realize from it. This work must nourish you; then, while “The Money” may not come rolling in, you may find peace with the compensation you do receive and find yourself wealthy for having touched others.


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8 thoughts on “What Price Passion? …and What are Millennials Willing to Spend?

  1. As you so eloquently point out, the question is whether or not one is willing to sacrifice — and to what extent. It is impossible to know in advance what the price of passion will require. I like to say, “follow your passion — but keep your vision of exactly where it will lead you fluid.” Like the dancer who becomes a lighting designer, you may not wind up where you expected, but doing something else you love in a related field you never even registered existed or knew that you had an affinity for. PS Great photo!

  2. I love this, Kile. You hit the nail on the head.

    I’m a millennial by every definition, which unfortunately includes some of the negative connotations associated with the term. I’ve noticed, both first- and second-hand, that my group has some difficulty interacting with certain members of previous generations. I truly believe that these hiccups in workplace mindsets stem down to differing communication styles. Millennials, basically born with an iPhone in hand, have grown up in a world that values simplicity—one that advocates quick problem solving for efficiency—whereas older generations had to sweat and slave to create these solutions in the first place. When millennials expect (based on familiarity) a faster and easier route in the workplace—be it managing a project without enough experience or working flexible hours based on their terms—there seems to be a lapse that comes across as ungrateful or demanding. I, too, have been guilty of this. However, I’ve realized that it’s a little unfair to be condemned for this way of thinking. Disrespect is one thing, but when you’re raised to solve problems and think in a certain way, it is somewhat jarring to be reprimanded for this misunderstood attitude—especially when it comes from a good place.

    My own experience of this communication gap, where a strong-headed generation X boss essentially bullied me out of a corporate managerial position for atypical social media ideas, triggered a pseudo-quarter life crisis that resulted in a cross-country move. As unpleasant as it was to have creativity be misconstrued for insolence, it made me think more about where I want my life to go and where my values lie, which I’m extremely thankful for.

    Thankfully, due to people like yourself taking the time to understand the turning gears inside millennial minds, the next few years in the workplace are going to be exciting ones. I truly believe that the divide between millennials, generation X and baby boomers is narrowing as each group continues to question and learn from each other. Previous generations have so much to teach millennials and by working together, truly revolutionary products will begin to emerge.

  3. I think the Millennial generation has seen what happened to the post-Boomer generation. Those post-Boomers concentrated on getting the highest salary at their chosen creative profession. You worked long hours, sacrificing your personal life in the hopes you’d be rewarded with upward career mobility and job security. Then agency employers broke that implied social contract. Wages stagnated, job security evaporated, and if you weren’t careful you spent your retirement as a Walmart greeter. So this new generation sees little benefit to the “work-till-you-drop” ethic.

  4. Kile,

    I loved this post. As a Millennial, I absolutely worry about how much I will have to sacrifice to follow my passions. I commend students and other Millennials for asking the taboo questions about vacation time, etc. The reality is that having a well-rounded, healthy life requires a balance between dedication to a career or “higher purpose” and feeling connected to a tribe or community – for most people, this comes from intimacy and emotional connection with family and friends, not the work environment. I come from a generation of divorced parents, and I know I speak for a lot of my peers when I say that creating a well-rounded, healthy, stable family life for my future kids is one of the most important goals of my life, despite my passion for being in the themed entertainment industry. Like others, I worry how this industry will put a strain on that goal with travel, long hours, etc. Then there’s the added factor of being a woman, which also doesn’t get talked about a whole lot: I feel even less in control of my life thinking about managing child-bearing and a career in “Experience Design / Creation of Compelling Experiences.” There’s a reason that there are few women in the industry, especially in the C-level and decision-making positions.

    Overall, I too feel optimistic about Gen X and Y: they (we) are just as passionate as earlier generations, but are more realistic about what it takes to lead a happy life. I hope we change the paradigm to allow for equal parts ambition and personal life.

    • …and thank YOU for weighing-in, Sasha. I’m hoping that this particular post and responses get wide exposure; as so many (not all) of my own peers look at millennials as a problem to be addressed, enlightened, “educated” when, in fact, there exists the opportunity for evolution in both directions…possibly resulting in a more humanistic work ethic, all ’round.

      I must add, though, that I perceive and experience a fundamental difference between what I consider Millennial and those of the proscribed GenX and Y’s; that being an absence of a mentality of Entitlement and the presence of a willingness to learn and collaborate woven into a confidence in the sharing of self and one’s own perspective. It makes for a dynamic mix of cross-“cultural” respect and evolution on the part of all parties. imho.

  5. Great piece! It echoes so much of what I experience among the younger generation and since I am close enough to that cusp, you have put words to what I find more in myself these days – “Rather than feeling pressure to succeed, I sense a desire for the freedom to accomplish. Rather than needing to make a lot of money, there seems a deeper desire to enjoy and be fulfilled by what they do.”

    I have never been able to answer the question, “How do you measure success?” since it seems to the wrong question and not one I ever ask my self. The closest answer I can give when asked it by others is, “I know I have been successful when I have been faithful to what is in me to do.”

    Plus, I resonate with the desire to spend less time at work and more time within the community and relationships of life. Work is good. But it is so small a part of the great equation.

    • Thank you, Kendall — hearing that from you tells me I’m onto something authentic. I appreciate your own wrestling with Success and Fulfillment… The disparity in my own life between being compelled to step up, help, create, assuage, comfort, fight, protect – then measuring my success with the judgement standards of material and monetary reward in which I was born and bred always brings me up short; leaving me to perceive myself as a failure, especially when measured against others. I envy this evolving consciousness in those now coming of age and can look at my own life through that lens to see the immense value that is there. Then, with each, successive project I take on, I rediscover the awe and joy in making a difference and connecting with people.

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