How does filmmaker, podcaster, speaker, and personality Kevin Smith define success? It's doing new things and having fun while just being yourself. He makes it happen by focusing on the work he enjoys and pretty much ignoring everything else.
You may know Kevin Smith as the Silent Bob half of Jay and Silent Bob, or as the director of Clerks, Dogma, Chasing Amy, and of course Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Or you may know him from his popular podcasts, live appearances, or even his comic books. But wherever and whenever you've seen his work, you've always been sure of two things: Kevin Smith is completely being himself. And he's having the time of his life.
How did he get there? By focusing on doing work that made him happy and not getting distracted by other people's opinions, expectations, or definitions of success. Here's how that worked for Smith.
1. Assume that if someone else can do it, you can too.
That's what happened in 1991, when Smith went to see the movie Slacker. That movie follows a few 20-something misfits on an ordinary day in Austin, and won acclaim for its director and star, Richard Linklater.
Smith, who had just turned 21 that day, noted that the film had no big stars and was set outside of the usual locales of Southern California or New York City. And yet it was a great movie and the audience seemed to love it. "I've described viewing Slacker with a mixture of awe and arrogance," Smith says now. "Awe because I'd never seen anything like that before. But arrogance because I was like, 'If this counts as a movie, I think I could make a movie too.'"
2. Just be who you are.
Smith had heard a radio interview with Robert Rodriguez, director of El Mariachi and co-director of Sin City. "Rodriguez said a lot of first-time filmmakers make the mistake of writing above their station in life," Smith recalls. "He said, 'But it helps if you just write what you have access to, what you know." Smith thought that made a lot of sense.
At the time, he was living with his parents in New Jersey and working in a convenience store. No one, he realized, had ever used a convenience store as a setting for a film, and so it became the backdrop for his first hit, Clerks. The movie was financed mainly with credit cards and shot in black and white. Critics approved the choice, saying it gave the film a realistic feel. In fact, the film's director of photography had warned Smith that the store's neon lights would give the actors a green complexion on film, unless they brought in an expensive lighting set. Shooting in black and white was the only affordable alternative.
3. Don't pay attention to other people's judgments.
Clerks won the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival and was picked up by Miramax. Perhaps predictably, after such a surprising success, Smith's next movie, Mallrats, was a commercial failure, panned by just about every critic. Twenty-five years later, that film is considered by some to be his greatest work. There's an important lesson there, he says.
"Don't listen to people say nice things, don't listen to people say negative things," Smith says. "You can hear them, just don't let it sink in, good or f--king bad. Because there's one truth, and it's yours. You know whether you've succeeded or whether you've failed."