I didn’t think about passion when I was starting out. All I was interested in was money. I left school at 16 with the intention of being a millionaire by the time I turned 30. And as far as I was concerned time = money, so the path to becoming a millionaire was just to work all the time, passion didn’t come into the matter.
And work I did. I worked as a delivery driver for a Chinese restaurant. I made coleslaw at the weekend. I worked as a refrigeration engineer at night. And it seemed to be working – I had bought my first house when I was 19.
Work Without Passion
How did I feel about those jobs? Well, I liked the buzz of buying and selling houses. I actually enjoyed the chicken factory and making coleslaw and delivering takeaways because I knew they weren’t jobs for life and I could enjoy meeting the random people that I wouldn’t normally come across.
Refrigeration engineering however, my main source of income, was a different beast. It was a career for life and I felt trapped by it. I did it for 13 years. To be fair, refrigeration engineering did allow me to travel around the world and I am very grateful for that. I worked as a refrigeration engineer in Sydney, and as an air conditioning engineer in Melbourne. It allowed me to set up quickly in Dublin when I wanted to move. I was able to bring my trade anywhere, which in one sense was very freeing, but the actual work felt suffocating.
I was stuck because there were so many bills coming in – mortgages, insurances, replacing washing machines that went on the fritz – I was so consumed by needing to pay those bills and wanting to make more money that I couldn’t see the woods for the trees.
A dim realisation that something had to change started to creep in. I could sense deep down that I wasn’t happy. But the idea of passion for your work was still miles off – I didn’t even think that it was possible to get paid to do something you loved. I still believed that putting in the hours and making money was the whole point. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to make a move if reality hadn’t intervened and forced my hand.
The recession hit and I started to lose everything –everything went tits up all at once. I was starting to get backed into a corner and I had to make the decision to walk away from everything. I lost my job. I had to give up the houses. My businesses were going down the swanny. I had nothing. I had to apply for unemployment benefits. At 30 I was the exact opposite of a millionaire.
All I had left was the question ‘What the hell am I going to do in my life?’
This, for me, was like being reborn. I searched around for guidance. I read ‘The Secret’. I read ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’. I read Richard Branson’s autobiographies. I had all these amazing people telling me that you can live the life you want, you can follow your passion, you can turn your passion into a business and spend all day doing what you love and getting paid for it. Sounded great but I had no idea what the hell I wanted to do.
I was starting from nothing, so I just wrote a list: ‘What would I love to do?’
An idea swam up from the bottom of my subconscious: I was like… well, people are always asking me if I’m an actor. And they’re always saying that I look like this actor or that actor. Maybe… maybe I could be an actor. And then I remembered the movies I used to watch as a kid – I remembered watching Grease 2 and then going out on my bike and pretending I was on a motorbike. I remembered watching Dirty Dancing and pretending to be a dancer. I remember how much I wanted to be in the Goonies.
There were all these thoughts and memories of a joy that I had forgotten all about because I’d been so busy making money.
So, there I was with nothing but a list, a new dream of becoming an actor, hope and the new skills that I’d learned through research – visualisation, the law of attraction, vision boards. And I thought, I am going to be an actor. How do I do that?
I took the first action I could think of: I googled ‘acting courses Dublin’.
Up popped the Irish Film Academy and I registered for a six-month course.
From there, I was cast in a very small role in a movie directed by Jason Figgis. That led me to getting another role – a supporting lead role.
I was starting to feel really alive. I got a buzz from putting myself out there, from reading in front of a class. I still had nothing – all my businesses had folded, I was on the dole – but I was happier than I had ever been. Nothing that I had ever done in my life felt like as much of an achievement as standing up in front of a class reading a script or acting a scene. Things that had previously felt significant – like buying my third house – paled in significance to the buzz I got from acting.
I realised – this is a different kind of achievement – I’m not just making money here – I’m getting a buzz from it. I felt passion for my work for the first time.
I couldn’t wait to get into class in the evenings. I’d picked up a daytime engineering job, working 40 hours a week, but I was never tired going into class – I was busting to get in there. I booked class after class (with David Scott, with Graham Cantwell and various other acting coaches).
I ended up losing the engineering job because of the recession and ended up back on the dole in 2012. I was getting bits and pieces of acting work – I didn’t even care if I got paid, none of that mattered.
I was working on a movie and in the middle of it the director and producer parted ways. I panicked. I was like ‘you have to make this movie! I’m in it! I’m an actor! This is my big break!’ I was desperate that the movie should get made so I rolled up my sleeves and asked, ‘Right, what needs to get done?’. The director raised an eyebrow and said, hesitantly, ‘well, we need to film in a mental institution.’
So off I went and googled ‘mental institution Ireland’. I rang institution after institution? ‘Can we film there…. No… ok… (ring)… can we film there?… No.. Ok… (ring) Can we film there… no … ok’. Eventually I found a place willing to have us in Galway. I hired a car and got all the crew to Galway. And then I sorted the next location… and the next… and then the next, until the movie was finished.
The Accidental Producer
Up to that point my buzz was acting but suddenly I was exposed to a whole new side of the business. I’d just produced a movie without having a clue what I was doing and it turned out I loved it. I hadn’t realised that was what a producer did. I couldn’t believe that people got paid to organise films and schedule stuff!
That was what I had done my entire life in refrigeration engineering. All those things that I had learned from my past life running jobs – dealing with finances, asking tenants for money, bargaining over the price of washing machines, painters, tiling – all those things that I had previously hated, suddenly, when adapted into my new life as a producer, were giving me a flipping buzz!
That movie finished and has since been distributed (The Ecstasy of Isabelle Mann) and I realised, I think I’m ok at acting but I can’t be arsed with waiting around on auditions. To be honest, I do like having cash in my pocket and acting wasn’t making me any money. I thought, well, let’s see if I can produce stuff then.
Harnessing Your Passion
I was over in LA (as an actor) and was discussing my recent experience of producing with a friend, Kevin Elliot. Sensing my excitement, the next day Kevin bought me a book called ‘What a producer does’ and I read it cover to cover.
A few days later I met another friend and had the same conversation. He said:
‘Matthew, take your opportunities when they come. If you spend any time in LA, you’ll meet loads of out-of-work actors and singers who say, “it just never happened for me”. I can guarantee you that every single one of those people have had an opportunity that they turned down when it could have changed their lives. Don’t do that, take every opportunity that comes your way and roll with it’.
By the time I was on the plane back to Dublin, I was a producer – I’d read the book, made up my mind and was ready to take whatever opportunities might come up.
When I got off the plane I turned on my phone and there was an email from the production company that I had worked with asking would I consider working on their next movie. I was on a buzz to take every opportunity that came along so I was like ‘Yes, of course, 100%. I’m doing this, I’m rolling with this, I’m a producer.’. And that was that.
The only knowledge I had to my name was 1) the experience of accidentally producing one movie and 2) having read a book about producing. But I was a producer and I owned it.
In truth, the art of jumping in without knowing everything is very powerful – if I had gone to school to study they would have told me that I had to work up to first AD or be a camera assistant or line producer – why would I do that? I was a fucking producer.
Finding Your Passion
I found my passion by adapting all the stuff from my past life, putting it together with the passion I had for acting and movies and cutting my teeth as a lead producer – nothing less. And the more I did it the more my passion for producing developed – I fucking love seeing scripts come to life before me, doing deals with actors and negotiating distribution deals.
Passion evolves – my passion was acting, then it developed into producing and it’s still developing – into script development for example. That’s the only way to find and develop your passion – try stuff and if it doesn’t work for you don’t be afraid to rule it out – finding your passion is a process of elimination.
For example – say you always wanted to be a writer and you finally get a job writing and soon realise ‘fuck, this is boring the tits off me’ – let it go, move on. I’m not saying just skim over everything – give it a good bash, don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not good at it. There are different elements to any passion – if you are passionate about football, you must be passionate about many things – running, strategy, fitness and diet, anatomy – maybe your passion would fulfilled by being a dietician for an athlete, or a trainer for a better player than you, maybe a physio, a sports journalist? You can fulfil your passion by any number of activities that fall under the umbrella of your headline passion.
Don’t lock yourself into one thing – try things – don’t be afraid to step away from them and don’t be afraid to delve in deeper when something feels right. If you have a passion – do something. Passion for cooking? Start to cook. Passion for guitar? Play the guitar. Don’t be put off by your own negativity. Some people might be put off playing guitar because they think ‘Oh I’m too old, I’m never going to be in a band’. So what? I have a friend – Eoin – the most passionate man about guitars I’ve ever met in my entire life – he owns a vintage guitar shop and knows everything about every single model. He’s not in a band, but he gets to pick up his guitars and play them every day – while making a living out of doing it.
When I started to realise that acting wasn’t really for me I thought shit, I’ve failed at this. And that was hard. But I’m glad that I did have the courage to walk away from it and stop beating myself that it didn’t work. Now I’m working in the field that I’m passionate about and am much happier. Some people keep at something that isn’t working thinking ‘I’m not letting this defeat me’. But if you’re miserable forcing yourself to stay in a game that’s not for you it is defeating you! Trying an alternative activity in the same field doesn’t mean that you’ve abandoned your passion.
So, the bottom line? Think of things that bring you joy. Try something out. If it doesn’t work, let it go and try something related. Keep trying until you find something that works for you. Own your new role, even if you don’t know what you’re doing. In fact, use not knowing everything to your advantage.
Take every opportunity that comes up.
Live in your passion!