The Art of Downshifting: A Chat with Kent Nichols
As creative professionals we have some of the best jobs in the world. We’re literally paid to create, to communicate, and to play. We have the freedom to draw from the creative well and apply that inspiration to work that informs and entertains.
As we navigate our career path many interesting opportunities will surface. Choosing what’s best for us professionally and personally can be difficult, though. Careers are fraught with ups and downs, and nothing is guaranteed. As humans we have the advantage of hindsight, which can inform and guide us to a certain extent, but we’re largely on our own to self-direct.
When you look at those luminaries of the creative communities there’s always a lot of talk about “making your own path”. But what does that mean? How do we make the right choices over a decades long career to ensure the best possible route for us personally, as well as, professionally? There’s no shortage of 60-80 hour a week jobs out there. Creatives are in high demand. But is that what you want? Is that what gets you to your goals? Maybe it is. Maybe it’s not. Have you defined your goals? Whatever your inclination is, forging your own path means making those decisions, embracing failure, rising to the challenge, and most importantly, being true to yourself.
Being true to oneself is something that digital filmmaker and content producer, Kent Nichols, knows a lot about. He was one of the first YouTubers to rise to popularity using independently created content. In 2005, he co-created the web series Ask A Ninja, which was one of the first breakout success stories on YouTube–garnering over 160 million views. His work has earned awards around the world, and he’s spoken at many of the largest tech conferences including SXSW and TED. Yet, for all the accolades he’s received, Kent made the conscious decision to go his own way, leave L.A., re-settle in Bend, OR and focus on his career, on his own terms.
Kent talked with us after his amazing talk at WebVisions Chicago about choosing your own path, the ups and downs of careers, downshifting, and the importance of a strong personal and professional network.
There is always a risk involved in every decision, but ultimately it comes down to what you want to do and whether you can live with yourself if the results don’t go in your favor.
Any type of creative career is going to have its highs and lows, but what, in your opinion, is the best way to navigate those ups and downs?
Working in the creative world you always need to be ready to reinvent yourself for the marketplace. You cannot be one thing for all time, you must figure out how to become something new and fun and interesting if you want to remain relevant to the marketplace of ideas.
Eventually, it seems like we have to take a step back and assess what’s really important. What does it mean to downshift your life, and how does that help you to get to a more creative space?
Downshifting has been important to me since it has relieved some pressure of the day-to-day. I’ve had to put less than four months of work towards paying the rent this year because I live outside of a major city. The remaining time has gone into working towards a new vision for online and TV content that will be helpful to producers, platforms and sponsors. I would not be allowed that space to think if I had kept a high pressure job and home in Los Angeles.
I would imagine that downshifting, or making a change, requires a certain mindset to be truly successful. What are the practices or lines of thinking you need to have in place before making these changes?
It does require a certain mindset, it is entrepreneurial in many aspects. You must be forward thinking, looking at opportunities and analyzing where markets are going to be, as well as, maintaining contact and relevance in what is happening today. We are at the beginning of a revolution of work, and you must start figuring out what that will mean personally for you in the coming years. If you can get ahead of it now by making changes in how you work now, you’ll be that much more ahead of your peers.
Once you’ve stepped away and begun to make changes does that remain in effect permanently? Can you upshift again, and if you do, what aspects of that downshift remain important when you begin to pick up momentum again?
My goal is to create enough momentum so that I can take more opportunities to do whatever I wish in the future. But I am hopeful that I can build enough of an enterprise where I am at that I will be able to do fun things around the world while maintaining a strong work/life balance and a stable environment for my family in Bend.
What is the key to setting up a reliable foundation that allows you to build a long term career?
I think people and relationships are always the key to career. People hire you, people have problems they need to solve, and people are looking to be treated decently whether they are starting out, mid-career, or at their peak. If you can treat everyone well, they will for the most part do the same.
Over the past few years failure is being reshaped into something that is not necessarily as negative as it once was seen to be. What should we take away from those unsuccessful experiences in our career?
Failure is so valuable, but of course always there is pain associated with it. If the failure was done with character and you maintained your ethics, I think there is nothing to be ashamed of. But if there were lapses and shadiness, you really need to re-examine and make amends.
Throughout our careers we are faced with many opportunities that may be seem to be good for our career. What is the best way to approach those choices, hopefully ensuring it is the right move for you professionally and personally?
Forks in the road afford us opportunities to check in with our mentors and networks. It’s a good time to gather intelligence, listen to advice, and then act or hold pat. There is always a risk involved in every decision, but ultimately it comes down to what you want to do and whether you can live with yourself if the results don’t go in your favor. Most regrets come from not acting, so I tend to lean towards saying yes, unless you have concrete examples of bad behavior on the part of new company or your boss. Personally, I always discuss things with my wife before I take or turn down something, but that’s after I have vetted it with my network.
I know that, professionally, the larger my network is, the more opportunities that present themselves. What is the value of networking, and should you view it as a necessity to being successful today?
The network is the most important thing. When we stopped Ask A Ninja in 2008, my network was very weak. I felt so alone. When I made this move, my network was much stronger and it has supported me at every step of the way. Always, always, always feed back into your network, make connections, repost job postings, requests for volunteers, and be as helpful as you possibly can. It will come back to you, I promise.
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Kent Nichols is a digital filmmaker and content producer based in Bend, OR. He was one of the early pioneers on YouTube, having garnered over 160 million views on his web series, Ask a Ninja. Kent spoke at the 2015 WebVisions Chicago event on “Downshifting Your Life to Rev Up Your Creativity.”