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Kent Nichols, "Downshifting Your Life to Rev Up Your Creativity"

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Life is not a linear journey from point A to B, there are bumps, detours, and failures that we must endure and persevere to achieve our goals and get to the next level. Kent Nichols talks about his journey from College dropout to New Media darling to overcoming being a one-hit wonder in this humorous look at his life since dropping out of the LA rat race.

He tackles sensible irrationality, building a strong foundation, networking, picking the right place to escape to, and taking your time while being decisive. And you'll discover the pains and joys of moving to a "lifestyle" city, including no one caring about your Lexus Hybrid, realizing you're the fattest person in a 50 mile radius, and trading a 2 hour daily commute for a lot more time on an airplane.

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Kent Nichols, "Downshifting Your Life to Rev Up Your Creativity"

  1. 1. D O W N S H I F T I N G Y O U R C A R E E R T O R E V U P Y O U R C R E AT I V E E N G I N E @ K E N T N I C H O L S
  2. 2. @kentnichols T H I S I S W H E R E I L I V E N O W I’m the guy you hear about. The guy that moves to a small picturesque town that exports a lot of beer and extreme sports athletes and never really comes back to society.
  3. 3. @kentnichols The foolish archetype that has been romanticized and ridiculed in culture the film Funny Farm…
  4. 4. @kentnichols or Green Acres. Some think I am living out a mid-life crisis, and others are insanely jealous. 13 months ago I left Los Angeles and betrayed my 5th generation Californian heritage and moved to a small town in Oregon.
  5. 5. @kentnichols A city called Bend, which is nestled in just over the crestline of the Cascade Mountains on a high desert plateau along the Deschutes river. It’s a town of 85,000 people with a lot of things to do outdoors, so many breweries, it has an Ale trail, and a small but growing tech community. It’s a beautiful place and a massive change in scale and pace from Los Angeles.
  6. 6. W H Y ? Why?
  7. 7. @kentnichols In LA my wife and I were making a combined six-figure income, that put us in the upper 10% of households in the US. But it left us feeling exhausted, creatively drained, and like we were living paycheck to paycheck and there didn’t seem to be an end in sight. Our $3000/month mortgage on-top of $1000/month for our daughter’s childcare, took out a massive chunk of our incomes. Add to that both my wife and I were spending an hour or more in our cars each day on our commutes it was not a very nourishing lifestyle even though we had a lot on the surface.
  8. 8. And I don’t think we are alone in feeling that our big city lifestyle was overwhelming our sense of well-being. I’ve read countless stories about people struggling to keep their heads above water at well-paying jobs in hot job markets like Silicon Valley, NYC, and LA. We were ready for a change, but what?
  9. 9. @kentnichols Sarah and I had gotten acquainted with Bend and Central Oregon through visiting my in-laws who had transplanted there in 2012. And when you visit a place like Bend you start thinking and day dreaming about the possibility of moving there. But that would be crazy! We were doing so well in LA… But then something started happening at my job — there were rumors of layoffs and my boss stopped looking me in the eye. Never a good sign. I went home and I challenged my wife by saying, “If you can get a job in Oregon, we would have to move.” I knew this was a bit of a straw man argument, since the employment market in Oregon was particularly tight at the time, and there was little chance of her getting a gig. But…
  10. 10. Life finds a way…
  11. 11. But she’s an exceptionally talented middle and high school Math and Science teacher. And I don’t know if you know this, that is the best kind of teacher to be… So she got a job and called my bluff. And now we had to move. The plan for me was to just figure something out for myself, which seemed fair enough. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bent to me and I could do what I wanted to do most anywhere if I added a little more travel to my life. It was decided, we would move to Bend.
  12. 12. Some might see a move like this as an unacceptable gamble with my highest earning years ahead of me, but I also kept being reminded of the time I was losing with my daughter by being stuck in a car every day. And by the sense of wistful regret my own father had when he never pursued his occasional fantasy of moving away from it all. For me it was a gamble on myself and the time and timing was right. Let’s talk a bit about, time and timing.
  13. 13. My time as an investment in myself and others. I do not believe in quality time, I believe in quantity of time. In any relationship, you never quite know when a shared moment of life changing significance is going to happen — those moments cannot be planned. That’s why you need to just show up and build those relationships. And by moving to Bend, I am able to invest more time into myself and the relationships that matter to me. And those relationships aren’t only with the people nearest to me in my small town, but thanks to the net, they are to people around the world. That time is precious is hokey. But as with many hokey things, it’s hokey because it’s true.
  14. 14. Five years ago I had a life changing experience because of this man. Ben Hatfield. Ben was my Brother in-law, he had graduated law school, was a brilliant mind, and he was taken at the age of 30 from Ewing’s Sarcoma, a painful bone cancer. I was around the family and took care of them when he passed and it was a terrible and beautiful site to behold.
  15. 15. I say beautiful, not because it was pretty, or enjoyable to watch, but because it was one of the first genuine human experiences I had been involved with — I had felt infatuation, and fear, and adrenaline rushes, but being there at the end of someone’s life is a solemn and sacred moment. Before Ben, death was a thing that happened to grandparents or to high school acquaintances. This death was in my face, and the consequences needed to be dealt with, and there is a beauty, a poetry surrounding death that mirrors love and birth — all experiences are different and personal, but also a little boring to hear about. So I will not try to tell you what I got from that experience, but I will say that it changed me. Experiencing what a true tragedy looks and feels like started to melt away some of my self-importance and ego. It also made me keenly aware that time was not on my side — if this could happen to someone younger than me, what was I doing petulantly complaining to the universe that it wasn’t fair that my YouTube channel was no longer as popular as it once was?
  16. 16. Another lesson on time and creativity was taught by a friend I met in my Ask A Ninja days, Stefan Sagmeister. Sagmeister is a graphic designer and bon vivant, who takes a sabbatical year completely off from client work to go and just relax. He does this every seventh year to keep himself centered and sharp. If he can do this every so often, why could I just build a better life in a place that was half sabbatical all of the time?
  17. 17. And finally during this past year, my dad who was 30 years older than me passed away suddenly from a heart attack. Dad’s death was not a tragedy like Ben’s. In the last decade of Dad’s life he let his weight spiral out of control, which put a target on my health and sedentary lifestyle. Moving to Bend has given me more opportunity to exercise and enjoy nature than I had while living in LA.
  18. 18. Timing to me is more about being aware that your life is always going change, sometimes that change will be for the better, sometimes for the worse, but if you can be prepared for change the better you will be able to decisively act when it occurs. Sarah and I made the decision to start planning on a escape route before I left Maker, so that when it was official we could just proceed with our plans. When we moved it caught a lot of my friends and associates off-guard, but it was backed up by a lot of work and planning. Let’s go back, how did I get to this point in my life and career?
  19. 19. I was the type of kid that was best friend’s with all of the teachers, but never could get an A in anything but choir or drama. I had my areas where I would passionately learn, but I would always torch my grade by dismissing homework as mundane busywork, and I would never study. It wasn’t the best plan, but it was the one I went with. I also was too ethical to cheat, so I suffered with C’s and D’s in High School and college. By the time I decided to drop out of college, I had professors, mentors, and even my parents encouraging me to move on and find my passion in life.
  20. 20. Well I found that passion in comedy, the first comedy writing class offered at the Second City training center in LA changed my life. I was finally innately good at something and I wanted to do my homework. As I learned more about writing and filmmaking.
  21. 21. Things keep chugging along for a few years, and I eventually learn about the online series model through a show called Red vs. Blue. Still around today, and I still know all of the guys, but it was a breakthrough to me back then. Here was a group of creative folks, living in Austin, creating their own reality in show business by serving an audience of their own fans. I was amazed.
  22. 22. I immediately wanted to do what they were doing, so I worked up a show about Ninjas living in the suburbs called Kinzai Ninjas, and we set about trying to produce that show but we just couldn’t get it off the ground — we had no budget and it was way too ambitious. So, my partner Doug just kept asking if we could do it like Red vs. Blue, using video games or some other cheap method of production to create the show. No… But we could film you as a Ninja in front of my living room wall.
  23. 23. Ask A Ninja went on to become a huge success, #1 Podcast on iTunes, a top 5 channel on YouTube, and we wrote a book and we were being quoted on the Floor of the US House of Representatives — it all got to my head and I grew into a huge asshole. I would scream at agents, prance around like lord fontleroy and be a general douche. Being like that is fun — but it’s not really sustainable or enjoyable for anyone other than yourself. When the markets crashed in 2008, so did our advertising deal. So we stopped getting paid, we were personally burnt out and we didn’t know what to do. So we just stopped making videos. It was weird.
  24. 24. I don’t know if you’ve ever been creatively drained like that, but it was a mixture of depression, exhaustion, and feeling like a total failure. I was able to coast on some of the money we made from the Ninja, but I wasn’t able to do much in terms of new series, transition into other mediums, or have the motivation to move on to a new career.
  25. 25. @kentnichols T H I N G S I D I D F I G U R E D O U T D U R I N G T H I S T I M E : I wanted to stay in the online video industry Not having a college degree was going to hurt me if I tried to do a conventional job search. I needed to simultaneously humble myself and stop beating myself up over my complicated relationship to Ask A Ninja and YouTube. Things I did figured out during this time: I wanted to stay in the online video industry I enjoyed my friends in the industry and I wanted to take what I saw an learned through Ask A Ninja and apply it to the next phase of my career. Not having a college degree was going to hurt me if I tried to do a conventional job search. I was going to need to use my network to figure out my next step. I needed to simultaneously humble myself and stop beating myself up over my complicated relationship to Ask A Ninja and YouTube. Bad things sometimes happen, and Ask A Ninja was a wonderful experience.
  26. 26. A A N 2 . 0 So in 2010 I decided to relaunch Ask A Ninja with Doug and we had a new slate of shows, we hired a small staff and we tried to make a 5 day a week schedule work. It didn’t. But what it did do was get me back into the conversation of online video. It setup me up to get a teaching gig at USC, and a position that worked with other creators at Blip, and then Maker Studios.
  27. 27. Those jobs were great, they allowed me to buy a house, have a kid, and most importantly, I got paid to relearn the online video industry. And in that process I began to see the larger opportunities available to provide services that larger companies couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to do, which are the problems that I am working to solve today.
  28. 28. @kentnichols S O W H AT ’ S I T R E A L LY L I K E ? • Short flight to LA • Took a pay cut, but that’s mitigated by a lower cost of living • We spend a lot less time commuting Bend is a two-hour flight from LA, and I generally make it down to LA once or twice a month if I’m not on a gig. I have booked 5 gigs this year which is making me about half my salary when I was at Blip and Maker. My wife took a 30% salary to teach in Bend. So that’s a pretty big haircut, but… Our mortgage is $1000 all in, we have no car payments, with money in the bank and 300 Hours A Year commuting to a job LA 5 Days of Travel 180 Hours A Year to get to my coworking space and 20 roundtrip drives to Portland which is 6 hours round trip. 53 Days on the road So more time on the road, which I have really enjoyed, and much, much less time commuting. If you look at the 180 hours, 120 of those hour were spent driving to and from Portland to help build my network there. My friends and associates in LA see me almost has much as they did when I lived there. In LA it’s really hard to maintain friendships when your commutes are so intense. So I would end up seeing most folks at industry events and mixers anyways.
  29. 29. @kentnichols W H AT D O E S T H AT D O F O R U S ? • Takes away pressure to think about bigger problems and how to solve them • Higher salary brings a bigger time commitment, takes away flexibility What does that do for us? This digital content problem I am working to solve is tricky, I am working with a group that has been raising funds through out the year and they are close to going public, so in the meantime I am learning to think like how they think, and learning to translate that thought process to the digital content world. That does not happen over night. And we they are ready to move, they will want to move very, very quickly. So if I was in a situation where I needed to be making a high salary, this year would have been an impossible wait. Instead I have been taking gigs that strengthened my network and added to my skills that I will need when their fund is ready to go. It’s not all beer and legalize recreational marijuana in Oregon, there definitely have been some hiccups.
  30. 30. @kentnichols C L I Q U E S Cliques aren’t just for High School Small towns have a momentum about them, and folks do not like the attitude of “I’m from the big city and I know how this should work”. They are skeptical since they have seen people come and go. You should expect this and embrace this. I have been in Bend a year and only in the last 3 months have people warmed up to me and what I do. Things do not move at the pace of Silicon Valley or a big city. You just need to adapt to that.
  31. 31. @kentnichols I ’ M FAT Moving away from a car culture to an activity culture LA is a crazy car town. You always are aware of car as image, and Bend has some nice cars around, but there you really are judged by what you do —it’s not uncommon to hear things like, “we just unplugged completely for four weeks this summer and went primitive camping at a little spot we hike to every summer. My wife got her job because her predecessor decided to bicycle with her husband around the world. In LA it was relatively easy. Buy a hybrid, be smug, and go home. Bend you actually need to get outside every once in a while and do something. Which was different for me, and it’s been a great change. I am actively tracking and working on being active and engaged in the outside world. I’ve worn glasses and had practicly no depth perception since the age of 1 and half, so sports like basketball and baseball were never going to happen for me. In college I found long distance cycling and moving back to bend has relit that fire. And this winter I’ve decided to learn how to ski, something I never imagined for myself before this move.
  32. 32. @kentnichols L I V E P E R F O R M A N C E S Missing Live Performances A lot of folks I talk to about moving away form a large metro area worry about missing their access to live performance. That is true to some extent, but for my wife and I the transition away from missing live bands and theater was easy — we honestly only saw a small number of live cultural events each year, so it was not a huge part of our diet. For others this could be a struggle, so consider a larger but more affordable city.
  33. 33. @kentnichols Making friends Small towns are like most any place. In general it’s hard to find any one specific person to be friend’s with, but it’s usually pretty easy to find your subculture. For me it’s been through the Maker movement and the tech hub where I rent a desk. We also have access to a huge community through my wife’s school, and there is the added benefit of local family. Ask yourself what are your hobbies and passions, and find the local groups that do that thing.
  34. 34. @kentnichols Becoming a business traveller For me traveling for business still has a bit of romance to it. I like that this week I will be in three different cities. It speaks to something inside of me for a small sense of adventure and wanting to be needed. Weird I know, but if you don’t enjoy being on a plane, rethink your appetite for moving to the country. Even with the realities of video conferencing and other modern communication tools, it’s still very helpful to be in the room with people. It reminds people to hire you, it allows you to understand social dynamics better. So if there are a few big conferences in your area, keep going to those conferences on your own dime. It’s a tax write-off and you’ll keep yourself in the mix. Most of the remote workers in Bend like myself need to have a pipeline of jobs coming from outside the city, and in most cases the state. So you the network you build up in the big city is going to be as relevant or more so when you pull the rip cord. Prepare to market yourself to your contacts in the search for more work. My marketing comes in the form of memorable business cards, and sending gifts after I complete a gig.
  35. 35. @kentnichols T H R E E Y E A R S B E F O R E Y O U E S C A P E • Start Saving $$$ • Start Targeting Locations • Do I want to live there? • What Network Do I have There? • Are there other resources to help me land on my feet? Lay the foundation Three years before you escape Start saving money Having a nest egg that first year of your escape is especially important. It will make the difference between comfortably surviving and barely scraping by. Start targeting locations and ask yourself: Do you want to live there? This is the squishiest question, how do you until you get there? But once you have boots on the ground you should have a better idea. I would say visiting several times during different seasons before you actually move is the best case scenario. What network is in place? Use Facebook and Linkedin to figure out who is already there and when you visit, take those people to coffee and figure out the lay of the land. I am speaking here today because the first person that I spoke to in Oregon was Brad Smith the founder and organizer of WebVisions. I had spoken at WebVisions Portland and he either forgot that speak or was impressed enough to have me back 8 years later. I also just combed through Facebook and Linkedin and reconnected with as many folks as possible. Are there local resources to help me land on my feet? Look around at co-working spaces, are they going to be what you are looking for? Are there chapters of professional organizations, and are other folks remote workers or are they working for local clients
  36. 36. @kentnichols T W O Y E A R S B E F O R E E S C A P E • Pick the place • Learn even more about it by joining groups around your professional and personal interests • Start studying the rental and real estate market Two years before you escape Get your location down to the finalists and start virtually attending or at least paying attention to local groups in your areas of interest. Are these people cool?
  37. 37. @kentnichols T H E Y E A R O F T H E E S C A P E • Buy A New Laptop and pay up a year on SAAS • Be looking for you chance to go • Make sure you network of friends/clients in the market you are leaving know you are striking out freelance • GO! The year of the Escape: Buy the tools of the trade that you may need in the first 12-18 months of your new life. Professional tools like laptops and in my case cameras and filmmaking gear were bought while I still had a job so the transition would be easier, any SAAS that would deb help prepay for a year. Just get that stuff out of the way while you are getting a steady paycheck.
  38. 38. @kentnichols O N C E Y O U A R E T H E R E • Figure out how to give back • Remember the golden rule • Find and foster mentorships Figure out how to give back I have been a mentor at the Oregon Story Board an accelerator for digital storytelling since I have been up in the state. That has gotten me connected to people like the producer of Portlandia, the state film commissioner, and some amazing startup companies in my space. Remember the golden rule Especially in a small town everyone knows everyone. And in a state the size of Oregon, total state Population of 4 Million, everyone in the state knows everyone else. So be nice. Be helpful, and don’t drive like a maniac. Find and foster mentorships I mentioned Brad, but I also have several folks in the startup world and business world that I turn to regularly for advice, guidance and connections. People want to be helpful to you, they may just not know where you fit in.
  39. 39. @kentnichols Thanks

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