What’s your backstory?
I’m an actor, dancer, writer, and entrepreneur. This is my story. I grew up in a pretty normal middle class family in Rocklin, California, a suburb of the state’s capitol, Sacramento. Though my parents divorced when I was 9, they both supported my brother and me in our various endeavors. I was one of those kids growing up who saw the movie “Top Gun” and knew exactly who I wanted to be for the rest of my life: a fighter pilot.
I worked my ass off in school, earned super high grades, and somehow convinced my congressman to nominate me for The US Air Force Academy. I was the nerd who was in Junior ROTC in high school, so I had been wearing an Air Force uniform since I was a teenager, but getting to The Academy as a cadet was a total shock. I went from being the top guy in a local ROTC unit to just another Freshman. It was a tough adjustment.
I was always sort of a rebel growing up, and didn’t even make it out of basic training without earning a spot on the probation list. I made my way off the list, but I realized that I’m not a huge fan of bureaucracies. It’s tough to have a boss who’s your boss simply because he or she is older or has more seniority. It makes you appreciate hard skill, talent, and character. Don’t get me wrong, I had an amazing experience. I made lifelong friends, earned my degree, and commissioned as a lieutenant.
I even earned a ticket to pilot training in Mississippi, which was a crazy and awesome experience. For over a year, my classmates and I hammered out 20-hour days learning to fly three different planes. We learned the basics, aerobatic flying, formation flying, it was all pretty fast and crazy. The stress was intense. 4:30am briefings so that we could get to the plane and prep to take off at exactly sunrise. It was intense, stressful, and the most difficult thing I had done my whole life.
Pilot training was one of those life experiences that pushes you hard. It forces you to take massive leaps out of your comfort zone every single day. Just when you get comfortable with anything you’ve learned -- takeoffs, aerobatics, landings, and solo flights -- you’re pushed to do something new and super uncomfortable. You never feel quite right in pilot training. You never really feel settled. But I think that was instructive more me. It taught me to take a chance and do what feels uncomfortable. And when you lend some thought to it -- serious thought -- you intuit that the only way to grow is to push beyond one’s comfort zone. After earning my wings, the Air Force stationed me in Las Vegas, Nevada and tasked me with flying Predator “drones.”
It was beyond surreal. I went from wearing a helmet, oxygen mask, and flight suit, flying 300 knots, to sitting in a modified storage container flying about 75 miles per hour in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a few other spots. It was one of those jobs that is 99% boredom and 1% pure adrenaline. I remember from flying on autopilot around a building for hours to celebrating hunting down Bin Laden. We were doing super important things, but it often felt mundane. I think that’s what the important things in life often feel like, and that’s OK.
I just needed some excitement more often, so I got into ballroom dancing as a side project. Really, it was a friend who suggested I buy one of those daily deals and go with her. I took a week of convincing me, but I finally went. It only took another week for me to fall in love with dance. Now, maybe five years later, I perform routines all over and compete when I find the time. I absolutely love it! In fact, it’s a big part of what I do now as a performer. After a few years of drone flying, I got out of the Air Force and moved to Los Angeles.
Ultimately, I thought my goal was to become a general in the Air Force, or an astronaut, or something like that. But it took me a few years to figure out that, even as a kid, I didn’t really want to be a pilot like in Top Gun. I really wanted to be the guy playing the pilot. I wanted to ACT.
I wanted to create compelling stories filled with rich characters facing impossible odds. It sounds trite, I know, but I really wanted to plum the characters I’d met along the way in the Air Force. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by what makes other people tick. What motivates them to do what they do. Acting, story-writing, and content production lets me do this on a deep level. I get to know a character inside and out, and I get to really understand what it is that drives people. It’s fascinating! I mean, I’m sure story exposition and character development aren’t everyone’s idea of fun time, but I just love the stuff!
Now, I spend most of my time developing characters and stories with my various content partners, and hone the crafts of dancing and acting. I don’t think I’m world class -- I’m definitely a better pilot than I am a performer -- but I’m putting the time in to getting there. I think that’s the toughest part of any career. I think it’s super tough to keep your head down and focus on getting better, even when you don’t see an immediate return, but I feel like I’ve had a great of training that keeps me in the zone and focused on becoming better every day. And really, that’s all we can ask of ourselves.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
#1. Become hyper-self aware. When I started dancing, I just assumed what I felt in my dancing was how it looked; I assumed that since I felt like I was dancing like a professional that surely I was. I was way off! It took about a year of dancing before I started videoing my dancing and watching the playback, but when I did, I was in shock! Haha! I realized that I looked way different from what I felt. No one told me.
I had to figure it out on my own. I think most of life is like that. I wish I grew up with a better sense of self-awareness. Not just in my dancing, but everything. I wish someone told me growing up that I should always reflect on my actions, how I treat others, and even how I appear to others. It think it’s a solid life approach that forces you to empathize and align your perception of yourself with others’. It’s refreshing to live with that reality and improve daily.
#2. No one has ever gotten rich trading their time for money. When I was in the military, we worked a standard 7:30 AM to 4:30 PM, no matter the workload. I get it. The taxpayers paid our salaries, but working a set time period in exchange for money made it impossible to gain wealth in the military. That’s not why any of us joined, of course, but looking back, the way the military pays its members has been super instructive for me.
The reality is that the way to earn real wealth (the monetary kind) is to find a way to add outsized value with minimal time commitment and then compound this by bringing on employees. That’s entrepreneurship and wealth building at their finest.
#3. Talk less and do more. When I started my first company, Skyborn, I knew nothing about entrepreneurship. I had given a ton of thought to the ins and outs of starting and growing a business. I told my friends and family that I found investors and partners and was planning to raise millions to get the business going. A year later, the business was limping along and I had egg in my face. I didn’t commit the time to the business that I needed to. I talked a lot about how to build it, strategy, who I would hire, etc., but I didn’t do a whole lot.
I took two years of failing in the business before what so many successful entrepreneurs had tried to tell me finally clicked: building a skill, a following, a business, whatever, requires focused hard work. That’s the “execution” that has become buzzy as of late, and it’s true: the idea is just a small piece of success. It seems obvious, but execution is what ultimately drives success. Now I spend far less time agonizing my way through an idea. I get up and execute.
#4. Passion is earned over time. Passion is great. It can make every day - tough or easy - a fulfilling, exciting day. But it’s not the be-all, end-all. And it’s certainly not given at birth. When I began acting in high school, I was terrible, and I hated it as a result. But over time, I pushed through the pain and became better and better. As I became better, I began to develop an intense passion for it.
My dancing tracked the same way. Now, even the mundanity of acting and dancing gets me fired up. I could spend hours memorizing lines, researching characters, and even practicing basic Rumba walks with a smile brimming ear-to-ear. Developing that passion took time and practice.
#5. Enjoy the ride. It’s seems trite, but it’s what we’re here for. We spend a ton of time worrying about how to make more money, buy a bigger house, and seem “cool,” but none of that matters. Really. Life is long. Really long. If you can’t find a way to enjoy it, it’ll be even longer. It took me awhile to figure this out, but in pilot training, I stressed a ton about acing every flight, impressing every instructor, and being top of the class.
I hated it, and that’s really a shame. I focused far too much on finishing pilot training and completely neglected the journey. I wish I had learned to just enjoy the struggle, the friendships, the challenges of learning to fly, but I was too focused on getting to the end. You gotta just enjoy it all. Every second of it.
Published by Lois Marten