Dave Mowers on the Relationship Between Life Goals, Career Stages, and the Creative Pursuit

dave mowers creative career goals

After 20 years working as a director in theater, television and film, Dave Mowers re-trained himself to be a coach, teacher, and psychotherapist.  The common thread?  He focuses on narrative as a way to organize information, experience, and emotion.

Currently, Dave brings his depth of insight to the role of Director of Strategy for Carbone Smolan Agency, a privately-owned branding and design firm that’s been helping brands use design as a differentiator for over 35 years.

You’ve worked with creative professionals from media to entertainment as a coach, trainer, and strategic advisor. What are the main priorities that emerge when shaping a creative career path?
Most people are working to meet their needs, so the hierarchy of their priorities reflects that.  Most artists have a desperate need to make their art — the most comfortable artists arrange their lives around a need to write, to dance, to sing, to be in rehearsal, to have time with sculpture, to bring the vision into reality.

Many artists surface other needs: fame, applause, approval, admiration, money.  A career in the arts doesn’t always provide those things, so I work with people to set goals and priorities around meeting the needs that are in their control.

Does it vary by age or life stage?
Yes. Eventually you will face some very hard choices: do you want to be a parent, do you want to live where it’s comfortable, do you want to own property, do you want to pay off debt for the next twenty years, can you keep working 60 hours a week?

I turned 50 this year. I am more in touch than ever before with my own needs; I have a lot to balance in order to take care of myself on a physical, emotional, and spritiual creative level.

Is this why your own career path has such a fascinating evolution: theater to coaching to strategy?
I’m glad you think it’s fascinating. One of my main goals in life, which surfaced in a suburban teen age morass of sameness and low risk engagement in trivial pursuits, was to be interesting!

How does your own career path reflect the evolution of your personal needs or values?
I’ve been lucky to find teachers, mentors, and friends that help me be in touch with what deeply matters to me. I learned that the next thing should build on what you already know. Actions lead to actions, which reveal a path.

Even though Therapist doesn’t necessarily follow Director on a career path, it is a logical extension of the category Careers for People Who are Keen Observers.  The trick is that you can’t just jump out to social work school or law school or the Peace Corps or even buy a franchise unless it builds on what you already know.

Do you think personal and professional goal setting require a different approach?
The number-one similarity is that it’s important to set goals that are in your control.  The biggest difference is I will know I’ve achieved this when ______.

Can you give us an example?
We can measure the two goals somewhat differently. I think both should have measurements of some kind, but professional goals generally have manifestations that other people can see.

For example, I might set a personal goal to handle all my emails within 24 hours as a personal goal because I’m trying to maintain relationships. Framed as a professional goal, this might have a measurable outcome of generating leads faster, or increasing my customer service rating, or improving efficiency ratings.

No matter what, you’re still finding actions that are in your control as the standard for your success. You really can’t guarantee sales, for example, or your the way your body will respond to exercise. But you can become more efficient. You can answer the phone.

What do people get wrong when setting goals? 
A lot of people come to me with an idea that they want to be something, attain a title.  But it turns out they don’t want to do what that title demands.  Novelists spend a lot of time alone.  So if you want to be a novelist, you also have to find the way to want to be alone a lot. Owning a business means you have to solve every single problem that arises. There’s a million solutions, but you do have to solve every problem. If you don’t want that responsibility, you might want to set a different goal.

I believe that goals have to be time sensitive, there has to be a deadline. But many people have no idea how long it will take them to do what they want to do. That doesn’t mean extend the goal “until I finish.” It means you must find out the most reasonable time period with the most concrete marker and commit to that.

And I think people set goals around “I will be happy when xyz happens,” and the older I get the less I believe we have control over how things turn out.  So I appreciate goals that are truly grounded in “What do you want to do?”

Let’s talk about self-sabotage. How do you observe people getting in their own way?
1. It is self sabotage if you don’t have a Plan B.
2. You are getting in your own way if you ignore feedback and outcomes.  What is the world telling you?
3. Staying too long at the fair. If it was going to work, you’d know by now.
4. Taking it personally. Restaurants close. The Theater is shrinking. It’s not your fault. It’s not about you.

“It’s not about you.” That is so powerful. How do we keep this in focus — is it contrary to the idea of focusing on one’s own goals, within one’s own control?
Here’s where your outside support is critical: friends, mentors, sponsors, guides.  We all need people to keep us grounded in a larger reality than the one we create. That is really different than most goal-oriented coaches and trainers will teach. 

You are encouraging us to acknowledge reality, from market conditions to our own abilities and resources. 
Yes, I am encouraging that.  There are all kinds of reasons and ways that we lose touch with, warp, try to tolerate, and try to ignore reality. Even good reasons! To make our art, to create another world, to continue healing after the accident, to make it through finals, to deliver on the deadline.

How does this depart from the popular notion that “I can do anything I set my mind to?”
In American culture, especially, there’s a big incentive to create your own reality. I would just ask this:  Is it helping you?  Does your belief that you can do anything you set your mind to actually help you do things?  What evidence do you have?

When is it important to seek support for our goals?
All the time. Except at the beginning. Your vision should be your own. After that, there is probably someone who has done it, done it more often, done it right, and done it wrong. There is definitely someone who is interested in it. Find them!

How can we maintain a sense of creative integrity in business?
Admit it every time you simply give the client what they ask for.  Admit it every time you take a job for money.  Admit it every time you underbid, and every time you actually don’t care.  Just knowing it, and keeping it up front, will help you maintain integrity.

Meanwhile, make sure that you balance each of these incidents with something that feeds your integrity. So, notice every time you educate a client about what is best. Take a few jobs that will inspire you or build the portfolio. Do what it takes to deserve the highest level of compensation you can get. Donate your service to at least one thing you do care about.

How has your definition of success changed throughout your career?
Honestly? Now I define success as financial reward. I never did before and I regret it. This is a great example of needs changing. My biggest rewards have come from helping others, from being in creative situations like rehearsal rooms, and having access to brilliant minds.  Years ago, I was more than happy to spend my financial resources to make those things possible. My “future” was far away, so retirement wasn’t pressing, health care was simple, and standard of living was easy to achieve. But home ownership is now key to my plans, and that takes money.  I cannot skip months of health care, nor rely on others to provide it.  I need it and use it.  That costs money.

Consider how you would use a savings account at different times in your life:  you might cash it out completely to fund a film project if you’re younger, healthy, and have time to make up for it. Later, you might hold onto it until you had enough for a down payment on a home.  That will need to trump your film project if you want to own a place by 30. And later, in your fifties, it makes a lot of sense to hold onto your money while you’re in peak earning years. And, in my experience, in later life can choose how to spend those assets with a little more freedom.  You don’t have to give it to kids. You can travel, make a movie, fund your painting studio.

There’s a belief that giving back should be part of a successful career. How important is it?
It’s important to me. There’s some solid thinking around life stages,and how part of your job in development is to become a teacher or mentor, to give back. At some ages it is about obtaining mastery, at others about completion, and at others it is about reflection and letting go. I think it varies for each person. There are plenty of people who couldn’t care less.

Any goals you’re currently pursuing?
I have a completed research project, a groundbreaking idea, and a writing partner — and I will commit to writing a book with her by the end of 2016.

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