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Finding the Space to Overthink

I’ve always been intrigued by Michael Keaton’s choices. I think he’s the most underrated actor of his generation. He, like many others of his era, went through the 80’s and 90’s entertainment hit mill. He cranked out stuff like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. He rebooted the Batman franchise with Tim Burton. He was everywhere – and it was getting to be too much. As he recounted in a 2017 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he was “getting tired of hearing my own voice, feeling like I was kinda pulling out tricks, probably being lazy, probably being not particularly interested.”

So he retreated from the industry, back to his ranch in Montana. And, as typically happens when someone turns their back on Hollywood, Hollywood reciprocated in kind, ““I had a life. And also not a whole lot of folks knocking on my door.”

He used the space he had, created both by his choices and the unanticipated consequences of those choices, to think about what he wanted to do – on his own terms, ““I started getting really, really locked in and narrowing the focus and narrowing the energy and narrowing the vision and honing it and really thinking about what I wanted to do.” 

For the last 10 years, that time taken to regroup has resulted in Keaton’s best work: Birdman, Spotlight, The Founder, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, Dopesick and Worth. It’s a string that comes from a conscious decision to focus on work that means something. In a more recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he explains, ““Without sounding really pretentious … I have a job that might actually change something, or at least make people think about something, or feel something.”

It’s the perspective of a mature mind that realizes that time, effort and energy are no longer in endless supply. They should be expended on something that matters. I also believe it’s a perspective that came from a lot of thinking in a place that allowed for expansive thoughts that wouldn’t get interrupted.

A place like Montana.

Keaton admits he probably overthinks things, “Probably because I’m too frightened, I’m incapable of phoning anything in.” Maybe a ranch in Montana is the place you need to be to overthink things and circle around a hunch endlessly until you finally are able to nail it in place.

I don’t think this is a bad thing. I believe in quality over quantity. I also believe the world is tilting in the other direction. The soundtrack of our lives is a clock ticking loudly. We are constantly driven to produce. There isn’t a lot of time left over to just think. And if we keep pushing away our opportunities to just think; to absorb and ruminate and mull things over in our minds, we’ll lose the ability to do that.

For myself, I had my own taste of this in my career. For various reasons, which were all personal, I chose to keep the company I founded headquartered in Kelowna, a small city in the interior of British Columbia. In doing so, I’m sure I restricted our growth. Most of our clients were at least 3 hours and at least one transfer away by plane. I would attend conferences in New York, Chicago or San Francisco and come back to Kelowna feeling like I was trapped in a backwater, far from the mainstream of digital marketing. When I was home, I couldn’t grab a coffee with anyone outside our company who had a similar professional experience to me.

But I also believe this gave me the time to “over think” things. And good things came from that. We conducted a ton of research that attempted to uncover why people did what they did online, especially on search engines. We discovered that technology changes quickly, but people don’t. For us, user behavior became our lodestone in the strategies we created for our customers, constantly pointing us in the right direction. This was especially helpful when we started picking apart the tangled knot that is B2B buying.

I have always been proud of the work we were able to do. I believe it did matter. And I’m not sure all of that would have happened if we didn’t have the space to think – even over think. I believe more people have to find this space.

They have to find their own Kelowna. Or Montana.