Why a creative career requires cultivating curiosity and embracing failure
Emmy and AACTA Award winning producer turned screen sector executive coach Ellenor Cox explains why she feels curiosity is the single most defining feature of a successful creative career.
I clearly remember the moment as a 21 year old, freshly inducted into the hallowed halls of Qantas’s marketing department, when I came across an article stating that the average Australian will change their careers three times in their lives.
“Well, that will never be me!” I proclaimed, still chuffed at being accepted into this insanely competitive graduate management trainee program, envisaging myself grey-haired but with the corner office.
Yet six years later I experienced what’s now known as a ‘quarter life crisis’ and I took myself off backpacking indefinitely through Europe to ‘find myself’.
Fast forward and after an almost 25 year career as a film producer, I’m reaching that statistical average; I’m revelling in my third career as an executive coach to the screen sector.
There was no dramatic mid-life crisis that heralded this new reinvention of myself. I have loved every minute of my producing career and am immensely proud of the body of work that I chaperoned from concept through to distribution, spanning several genres and entertaining and inspiring people around the world.
The key character trait that drove this reinvention is the same one that I believe to be the foundation stone and most crucial ingredient of a successful and sustainable creative career: curiosity.
Without curiosity I would not have had the courage to leave the sanctity of those dove grey work stations at Qantas, even though offers for closed door offices were starting to come my way (not the corner one just yet however…)
Without curiosity I would not have bought a one-way ticket to go see the world. Without curiosity I would not have returned with an itch to scratch – a notion, one that seemed to have just dropped from nowhere, suggesting I become a film producer.
It’s curiosity that led me to strike up a conversation with my next door neighbour, only to discover that he was already active in the film industry. That began a nearly 25 year life and business relationship with my husband Marcus Gillezeau and our film company Firelight.
Towards the end of my full-time producing career I’d started to recognise that I was having a ‘same same’ kind of feeling towards the filmmaking process. To counter this, at the outset of a project, I started asking my heads of department:
“What is it that would make this film a truly unique experience for you? What’s the one thing above all else that you really want to explore, learn or try out on this production? How can I help make that a reality for you?”
Without consciously realising it, I was stepping more into the role of a coach than a producer.
Their answers would often intrigue me, as they’d be far from obvious. But when people are given an opportunity to nurture their curiosity and attempt to make the unknown known, magic happens.
Most importantly, when producers facilitate and enable a work environment where people are encouraged to push boundaries and embrace the possibility of failure, then inspiration and creativity can thrive.
It was a great privilege as a producer to set the standards and benchmarks for my team, pushing them out of their comfort zone and challenging them to attempt to achieve things that they didn’t think they were capable of.
Eventually I realised celebrating their achievements at the end of a film was what I loved most about my job – as much as the finished film. It became increasingly obvious to me to transform this curiosity into a recognised qualification.
As an accredited master coach I have now shifted my focus from the audience to serving the practitioners and professionals in our industry.
It’s a privilege to do this and to provide practical support and strategies to individuals and teams seeking to experience a greater sense of purpose, momentum and self-confidence.
My curiosity is now directed at assisting my clients with their challenges; be they career progression desires, resilience building strategies or communication mastery – to name a few. What I’ve observed is that those that have fully embraced their curiosity and set about to nurture an inquiring mind seem to have experienced the most significant results.
There’s no doubt that many are experiencing challenging times in the industry right now. But I’m a firm believer that, in order to maintain our self-belief and remain resilient and optimistic, the key is to focus on the areas of our lives that we can take responsibility for and control over. Our mindset, focus and habits all fall within this realm.
I encourage clients to consider choosing curiosity and a mindset of ‘I wonder….’ as their prism for action taking and decision making. For in the words of Albert Einstein: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
Remaining curious allows us to turn a failure into an opportunity for a new learning; a challenge into the possibility of growth; and a set back as a moment of reflection to examine clearly the fork in the road ahead.
Tips to cultivate curiosity:
- Nurture a hobby
Curiosity is the entry point to many of life’s greatest sources of meaning and satisfaction: our interests, hobbies and passions. Often our most creative thoughts come when we’re engaging with a hobby and in a ‘flow’ state of mind.
- Set out to learn something new everyday
When we consciously build knowledge, we open our eyes to interesting gaps about what we don’t know. Read (don’t skim) industry articles, listen to a podcast on your commute, attend an industry talk or event. Aim for a daily dose of discovery.
- Practise saying less
According to Epictetus, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Prioritise listening to other perspectives instead of sharing your own. This will create new ways of looking at and thinking about things.
- Practice asking “why?” and other good clarifying questions
“Knowledge is having the right answer. Intelligence is asking the right question.” It’s really amazing how often our creative collaborations improve after we spend a bit of time digging into what someone truly means when they say something.
- Find the unfamiliar in the familiar
Suspend judgement and assumptions about ‘seemingly’ familiar activities and events. See your daily commute as if you’re in a foreign city; strike up a conversation with your barista; ask a colleague what they did on the weekend. When you attend to how things are, not how you expect them to be, there are all sorts of surprises to be found.
Ellenor Cox Coaching & Consultancy www.ellenorcox.com
An original version of this article appeared in IF #190 August-September.