Chase Jarvis on How to Master a Jack-of-All-Trades Film Career

April 11, 2017
Tips and Techniques
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"Our parents had one job, we will have five, and the next generation will have five at the same time.”

The “jack-of-all-trades versus master specialist” debate is one of the great conundrums facing filmmakers (and lots of people in creative fields). Can you afford to just be a shooter, or do you need to become a one-person production house? If you do obtain a production house’s worth of skills, when do you become the proverbial “master of none?” With the Internet and the democratization of learning, these questions have never been more important, so we turned to the Internet to help find an answer.

From Chase's photoshoot with Serena Williams.

Chase Jarvis is a photographer, director, best-selling author, and entrepreneur who has raised over $50 million to create the world’s top education platform focused on creativity. He’s also been nominated for an Emmy and contributed to a Pulitzer Prize-winning story for photography. His career is a case study in this “jack-of-all-trades” question, and he was kind enough to help us answer it while presenting the following warning:

“I’ve got lots of opinions. You should take it with a grain of salt, but I’ve got what I think is a strong point of view on that. It’s not gonna be for everybody.”

Point-of-view is a central concept to Chase and an essential component to how he answered our question. With that in mind, let’s set the stage with Chase’s own story.

“I left the things that everybody else wanted for me. Went to college on a soccer scholarship, dropped out of medical school and bailed on a PHD. I quit all of that to pursue the thing I wanted to do more than anything else: be a photographer. Turning my back on the conventional career path was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I’m very aware that I come from a position of relative privilege - I’m white, middle class and grew up with supportive parents - so as hard as it was for me, it’s even more difficult for so many others.”

That experience was the foundation for what would become a center point of Chase’s philosophy.

“The conventional wisdom is that choosing to forge your own path is riskier, but I believe that’s an outdated idea. Today, the riskier path is going to college, getting a four-year degree, and thinking you’ll find a job that you’ll have for 40 years and retire with a gold watch and full benefits.”

The changing economic situation for creatives is what eventually led Chase to found CreativeLive, the world’s largest online creative education platform. 10 million students and three billion minutes of education consumed on the platform later, and Chase feels like he’s just getting started.

“My experience in changing paths was integral to CreativeLive’s mission, which is to recognize that we are in this incredibly exciting time where the democratization of creativity is at an all-time high and give our students the access to the tools, people and ideas they need to chart their own path. We connect them directly with the world’s top experts in creativity and entrepreneurship who have lived the thing they are teaching - Pulitzer and Grammy winners, bestselling authors, and game-changing entrepreneurs - to help them turn their dreams into reality.”

Now to the question at hand. Chase broke his answer down into three parts. The tl;dr of Chase’s philosophy is yes, you should aspire to be many things. However, you should begin by mastering one thing and using the skills and knowledge you acquire along the way to help you branch out. With Part 1, he argues that it is only right to aspire to be many things, the jack-of-all-trades.

We've all felt like Filmmaker Eric Becker here.

Part 1: Be a Hyphen

“I’m what I like to call a ‘hyphen’: a photographer-artist-director-entrepreneur. I am the founder and CEO of a company and yet I can operate a camera. In the past that might have been the exception, but I believe that in the future it will be the rule. Our parents had one job, we will have five, and the next generation will have five at the same time.”

The reality might be that we all have to master many skills, but how do we do so without watering ourselves down? According to Chase, we have to begin by mastering one thing.

Part 2: Deconstruct What you Master

“The way you become well-rounded is -- ironically -- by focusing on one thing and becoming amazing at it. Become an amazing photographer, become an amazing director, an amazing cinematographer. Put in your 10,000 hours. Spend your time and a disproportionate amount of your energy mastering one skill, then apply that same framework and discipline to mastering other skills. As an example from my own life I took what I learned from mastering photography, applied it to video and cinematography, and become a director.”

Chase goes into more detail:

“By achieving mastery in a discipline, you learn not only the skill itself, but you learn how to learn. This is how you become a hyphen -- someone who has a high level of skill in several disciplines -- as opposed to a dilettante, dabbler, or jack-of-all-trades who jumps from one discipline to the next without reaching a high level of skill in any of them.”

That’s all well and good, but how does someone who has mastered shooting amazing 5D MKIII footage know where to go next?

Started from photography, now he's shooting with Alexa's.

Part 3: Branch Out to Things you Care About

“Focus on things that you are passionate about for the simple reason that it’s the only way you’ll find the drive it takes to develop a personal style. Without being fueled by passion, you probably won’t fully commit and push through the inevitable rough patches and emerge with a creative fingerprint such that anything you make - whether it’s a website, a photo, a film - someone could look at it and immediately know that YOU made it.”

That’s the basic concept, but what about branching out? How do you deconstruct what you know to excel at something you don’t know? To Chase, some lessons are universal and you’ll carry them from endeavor to endeavor without realizing it.

“Surrounding yourself with the right people is an incredibly powerful way to learn in ways that go beyond what we can do by conscious effort. Just spending time around the right people can really give you energy. People who know something, people who are part of the community. Whether you realize it or not, you’ll absorb and internalize their knowledge.”

Speaking at the PSFK Conference in San Francisco.

To find your next path, Chase has a very simple prescription. Scratch your own itch.

“Scratch your own itch. What is a problem in which you personally have experience and passion? What is something for which you have a deep amount of passion? Don’t start by spotting what appears to be a market opportunity, because that won’t work unless it’s coupled with passion. Things are going to get hard at some point. The people who are driven by passion will push through it, and the people who don’t care as much will turn away.”

Doing something you care about does a lot more to help you avoid failure.

“Focusing on things you’re passionate about and uniquely positioned to do enables you to create something that’s wildly differentiated because the experience and knowledge is embedded in you at a cellular level. You’ve lived that truth, and that’s why you’ll be able to create something amazing that others can’t.”

What if you’re passionate about more than one thing? You have more than one itch to scratch. How do you know which one to choose?

“Listen to yourself. Your intuition is your strongest asset. We’ve been programmed to get in line and conform, and listening to your intuition is the best antidote to that programming. If you have competing ideas, find some quiet moments to be alone with yourself and just listen. If you truly listen, you’ll find that your intuition knows the thing you should be pursuing. That thing can and likely will change over time, but if you’re always pursuing what your intuition is telling you to pursue, you’ll adjustment course as needed and eventually end up at the right destination.”

“Could you say that you’re on a new path now? Or could you say that you’re on a slightly more clear path than you were when you were further away from your goal? What matters is that you’re always on the path that your intuition tells you to be on.”

So, should you be a jack-of-all-trades or a master specialist? According to Chase Jarvis, the real quest is to be both. As conventional careers in filmmaking are changing to our more connected world, it only makes sense that we alter our conventional wisdom with it.

Happy shooting/editing/entrepreneuring/writing/marketing, filmmakers.

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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