Never try, never know: riding the big waves in uncertain times
Fear, explains Sarah Donnenberg, can be crippling, but also exhilarating. It can create doubt, but also opportunity. Here, the Founder of SLMBR PRTY Films explains how she decided to face fear in a bid to embrace success.
In early 2020 I took a trip to Indonesia. I was living my best life, riding mopeds, doing yoga, and surfing.
Our surf guide, Rahmad, was the perfect teacher: upbeat, encouraging, and experienced. He taught us that waves break three times. First, the wave is massive in the back, then it breaks and becomes smaller, and then it breaks a third time before finally fizzling.
As creative people, fear is part of the job description.
To a novice like myself, who was (quite honestly) just trying to look cute in my newly purchased surf-fit, the biggest wave was beyond intimidating. But, on my last day in the water with Rahmad, he pointed to the big wave and said, “Sarah, let’s go!”
But what about this fear? I voiced my doubts. Rahmad smiled, shrugged, and said, “Never try, never know.”
Above: Big waves, like big decisions, can be intimidating but also exciting.
As creative people, fear is part of the job description. We push boundaries, challenge conventions and reinvent things that are broken. As producers we help our directors and clients navigate their fear too. So many leaps of faith every day. And it’s scary, all of it.
It’s scarier to have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right in front of you and not even try.
A few months after my surf trip, I was going all-in on starting a production company. Talk about a big wave. Scary. Then a global pandemic hit a few weeks into it. Scarier. Then the world economy kinda ground to a halt. Still scary. The uncertainty shows no signs of stopping. The ground is shifting, and the landscape is changing. The timelines, the budgets, the specs, the workflows and the usual ways of doing things are all in flux. The only thing I know to be consistent is inconsistency. A person could, if they were inclined, feel a lot of fear a lot of the time.
Except, is it weird that I also feel excited? It’s how I felt about that big wave too. This simultaneous - hell, no!/but what if I could? - feeling. When you’re taking risks, the possibility of failure is real. But Rahmed reminded me of that other possibility; that I could succeed. Fear is strange that way. Stepping outside of your comfort zone and taking on big challenges, creative risks, or unfamiliar territory is scary. But I would argue it’s scarier to have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right in front of you and not even try.
Above: Opportunities can be scary, but fear can also be rocket fuel.
That surfing experience was crystallising for me. It made it clear that the fear I felt (and continue to feel, and will probably feel forever) is a kind of rocket fuel. Yes, it has the potential to be dangerous, but it also has the power to create exciting and necessary changes in our lives and in our business. It can push us in some really important ways.
Embrace the competition
Committing was terrifying. And now that I’m a company owner, I find that same fear creeping up when we are bidding against the 'heavy hitters'. Those production companies with more established reputations, directors with decades more of experience.
Advertising shapes culture (lofty but true), and we cannot risk sticking to what is safe.
Even when I’m in a tough bid pool I know that, even if we lose, we have the opportunity to make an impression. And, if we make a good impression, we are building relationships and contributing to growing awareness about our capabilities. I can’t be afraid of wasting time or money on treatments. I move forward because I can’t risk passing on the opportunity.
Take a 'risk' on talent
New talent might seem risky, there is undeniable validity to that for production companies, agencies and clients alike. For production companies, are we going to invest resources, build someone’s career from the ground up and, in only two years, have them fly somewhere else, where others profit from our investment? For brands and agency partners, do they have the experience to execute the caliber of work you expect?
I think we have to focus on what is potentially lost by not committing to nurturing new talent. We need to continue to move the industry forward. Advertising shapes culture (lofty but true), and we cannot risk sticking to what is safe. We invest in new voices and new leaders in order to shift our industry to reflect what we want to see: diverse, equitable, bold and balanced.
Above: Wiping out is part of the risk, but you also might end up riding the biggest wave of your life.
Fix things that are broken
Operating in a shifting landscape isn’t just about accepting change as it happens, it’s about being a part of it. It’s the perfect time to make changes, be intentional, look at the old way of doing things, and re-approach. This is our opportunity to fix the things that are broken.
Think of [fear] as a reminder to slow down and take time to consider the nuances of a situation.
I would even go so far as to say that launching during the pandemic helped me. The industry as a whole had to adapt to new limitations and quickly. It gave me an opportunity to be a part of this and prove that we could come to the table with solutions for clients.
Fear is information
Not every fear is unfounded. Sometimes its presence does mean we should avoid something. So, instead of thinking of fear as something that must be conquered, think of it as a reminder to slow down and take time to consider the nuances of a situation. Examine what might work, or might not. Instead of automatically shrinking back or just barreling forward, live in the murky middle for a minute to entertain the full range of possibilities.
Did I wipe out on that beach in Bali? Yep. But I also caught one or two big waves, and the effort and the exhilaration of meeting the moment made it truly one of the best days I’ve ever had.
There’s always another 'big wave' to face, whether personally or as a small business owner. I’m afraid every day, but you know what? If you’re doing something exciting with your work, something that will create long-lasting change, and if you're taking worthwhile risks in your career, you should be afraid. However, I’m less afraid of failing. I’m more afraid of passing on a possibility. Whenever I find myself faced with an opportunity that feels scary, I remember some of the best advice I've ever gotten. Never try, never know.