Let’s face the facts: screenwriting is hard — very, very hard. Most of us, statistically speaking, will never even finish a workable, soundly structured, well-written script, let alone sell one. Over the last few years, many told me, “Becoming a professional screenwriter is damn near impossible.” That’s what I thought, too. I slaved away, project after project, listening to those who told me I’d never sell a script, or, “Nobody makes a living writing anymore.” Feeling dejected and as antiquated as a cobbler, I decided I needed a mind-set transformation, and a new, more positive, mental approach to achieving my screenwriting goals.
After a long talk with my mother (she listened to me piss and moan; she was a good sport about it) I was introduced to a book called The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. The book claimed to contain “The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work.”
Reluctant, and a little skeptical by the proposition of finding happiness in the form of a book, I read it. Three months later I sold my first screenplay, worked with my childhood hero, comedian Nick Swardson, and have now built a veritable screenwriting career.
What changed? What did I learn from the book? And how can that knowledge turn you into a better, happier, more productive screenwriter? You’ll soon find out.
The Happiness Advantage
As Shawn Achor states early in his book, people are wildly wrong about their concept of how to achieve happiness. “. . . if you work hard, you will become successful, then you’ll be happy.” That’s precisely what I thought. “Oh, if I just sell a screenplay, life will be great.” This not only wrong, but just plain ridiculous. Be happy now, regardless of your professional success. In fact, thanks to science, “we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result.” Shawn takes this a step further: “. . . happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement — giving us the competitive edge that I call the Happiness Advantage.”
That was the first — and, admittedly, hardest — mental transformation I had to make: shrouding my thoughts with positivity and optimism. Prior to making this mental adjustment, I had a difficult time feeling good about my work. Every word became a doubt, a regret, a futile pursuit. The crippling doubt not only made me unhappy, it was destroying my creativity — ultimately hindering the completion of my scripts.
“Extensive research has found that happiness actually has a very important evolutionary purpose . . . Instead of narrowing our actions down to fight or flight as negative emotions do, positive ones broaden the amount of possibilities we process, making us more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas,” says Achor. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’d write myself into a corner, unable to attain a solid cohesion between scenes, characters and plot points. Possibilities, the quality kind, that come with a positive attitude and open mind, were non-existent, and lost in the clouds of negativity and doubt.
After reading the book, and adopting the “Happiness Advantage,” I began — along with my writing partner Mark Floyd — a new script, a comedy. And we only had (Producer’s are crazy. Remember that) one month to deliver a completed, polished draft.
THE ZORRO CIRCLE: HOW LIMITING YOUR FOCUS TO SMALL, MANAGEABLE GOALS CAN EXPAND YOUR SPHERE OF POWER
Mark and I had thirty days to create characters, outline, and write a workable draft. I had to remain calm, maintain a positive demeanor, and stay in control of the situation. You might be wondering how I could possibly stay positive with that kind of deadline. Simply, by concentrating on small, workable steps to our end goal. Speaking on the subject of limiting your focus to manageable goals, Shawn Achor says “. . . when our stresses and workloads seem to mount faster than our ability to keep up, feelings of control are often the first things to go, especially when we try to tackle too much at once. If, however, we first concentrate our efforts on small manageable goals, we regain the feeling of control so crucial to performance.” Having been aware of this strategy, I decided it was imperative, right from the get-go, to set small, measurable goals. Mark and I decided — and if you’re a screenwriter, you know this is crazy — that to finish in time, we would need to each write five pages a day. This would give us about two weeks to get down a rough draft, and another two weeks to polish. After we decided on this incredibly ambitious, seemingly unreasonable goal, I thought, “How the hell are we going to persevere with such a robust daily workload????”
When faced with daunting deadlines in the past, I’d find myself anxious and alone, sequestered in my office. No fresh air. No human interactions. Just fingers dancing on keys, ears covered with headphones, and a never ending flow of coffee. Can you say soul-crushing? My days, if I was to finish the script on time, would have to be enjoyable. To do this, Mark and I adopted a new style, a style that seemed to me, at least before I read The Happiness Advantage, counterintuitive. Aside from the five page per day goal, Mark and I decided that our days had to be as “normal” as possible. Meaning, we would wake-up, get breakfast, work till early evening, and then go out: walk around the city, hang with friends — most importantly, make contact with other human beings. This strategy proved to be the most valuable; not only were Mark and I working with razer-sharp focus, we were also having a great deal of fun after our daily workload ended. We would usually spend our evenings hanging out with close friends, discussing script ideas, sharing laughs. This boosted morale, made the days seems shorter, and most importantly, added to our creative toolbox.
According to the The Happiness Advantage, the phenomenon Mark and I were experiencing was called “Social Investment.” And, believe it or not, this principle, according to Shawn Achor, is the most essential to human happiness. “Our need for social support isn’t just in our heads. Evolutionary psychologists explain that the innate need to affiliate and form social bonds has been literally wired into our biology. When we make a positive social connection, the pleasure- inducing hormone oxytocin is released into our bloodstream, immediately reducing anxiety and improving concentration and focus.”
Because during our month of writing we made it a goal everyday to eat out and spend evenings with friends, the results were amazing: the writing days were fun, highly productive, and easier to get through. We wrote three drafts, with the final script coming in at around 110 pages. We had officially completed our first feature film that would be produced and distributed. And we would receive our first professional screenwriting credit. (You can’t really call yourself a screenwriter without one.)
Could we have done better, of course. A month isn’t enough time for anyone to do their best work. But I can live with the results. (Whether the movie turns out well . . . That’s a different story; one that is completely out of my control.)
HAPPINESS WILL LEAD TO SUCCESS
Not every day is a party; maintaining my own happiness is a conscious effort, one that requires work and self-understanding. On the more difficult days in which I can’t find anything to be happy about, I just remind myself one thing: happiness leads to success, not the other way around. Remind yourself that the next time you’re feeling pessimistic. For me it’s quite simple: stay positive — or fail. Remember, the choice is yours.
Feel free to leave comments. Tell me your stories about screenwriting and happiness. And if you’re interested — best screenwriting book ever — here’s the Amazon link to “The Happiness Advantage”
Happy Screenwriting, everybody.