Fire Your Gatekeepers

Those dreaded gatekeepers. How many opportunities have we missed waiting around for them to say yes? Let’s go crazy and give ourselves permission to do all kinds of stuff.

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Fire Your Gatekeepers

Photo by Chance Agrella, courtesy of

This guy called Scott is a Facebook friend now, but I doubt we exchanged five words back in high school. It’s not that we didn’t get along – we just ran with different kids then. I’m sure he has no idea how profoundly he influenced my thinking. Something he said in class one day took decades to catch fire in me, but it’s Scott who gets credit for lighting the fuse.

Our teacher must have been leading a discussion on career ambitions. I don’t recall any other details, but I do remember Scott stating categorically that he was going to be a broadcaster. I had no idea where broadcasters came from, but I was pretty sure you couldn’t just decide to be one. Certainly opportunities like that were handed out on a highly selective basis – sort of like inductions into the Skull and Bones society.

Not to ruin the story, but the upshot is that Scott went right out and became a broadcaster. He learned his sports stats, volunteered to call games for the school teams, grabbed one professional monkey bar after another and before long had landed himself some pretty prestigious gigs. He just gave himself permission and did it.

I thought real hard about that.

Later on I found myself in line at an Orson Scott Card book signing. He’s one of my son’s favorite authors and I was getting a copy of Ender’s Game signed as a gift. I also grabbed his Characters & Viewpoint and had him inscribe that one to me. He asked if I was a writer and all I did was stammer. When he saw that I was waiting for permission, he asked if I needed a pencil. Then he reached out and handed me one from the signing table.

I thought real hard about that, too.

In his many talks about what he calls the long tail business model, Wired editor Chris Anderson describes a crucial power shift that applies to anyone with a creative dream. The old arts model was based on scarcity. Production tools for records, books and movies  were vastly expensive and complicated. Because the output channels were limited, whole industries grew up around a privileged class of executives whose job it was to say “no” to anyone approaching with a song, a band, a story or an idea for a screenplay.

Today, as Scott would report from the press box, it’s a whole new ballgame.

Thanks to the internet, audience access channels are now infinitely abundant. Production tools like HD cameras and editing software are becoming exponentially more affordable. All those highly paid gatekeepers are becoming obsolete and the barriers to entry are falling away. Just about anyone who wants to can learn how to make art and get noticed.

We don’t need permission anymore, and never really did.

Playwright and film director David Mamet touches on this idea in a great book for aspiring artists called On Directing Film. Character actors you’d recognize from some fairly big movies got their start in a home-grown repertory group they launched with Mamet when they were mostly broke. He encourages his readers to quit waiting for permission to enter the temple of creativity and become their own gatekeepers:

  • Self publish your book
  • Open your own theater company
  • Start your own record label
  • Establish your own publishing imprint
  • Produce your own independent film

Here’s something else to consider. When my Facebook friend Scott broke into broadcasting, none of the gate crashing technologies we have today had been invented yet. Three things empowered him to beat the gatekeepers without any gadgets:

  1. He was crystal clear on what he wanted
  2. He spent his time in the woodshed learning what he had to learn
  3. He refused to take “no” for an answer and kept showing up until he got in

Years later, it was Scott’s insight that gave me the persistence to break into radio myself, but there’s more than one kind of gatekeeper to watch out for. The ones who are closest to us often do a lot more damage than the ones in the suits and the Range Rovers. It’s also time to fire the “voices” that tell us we’ll never make it, that our dreams are impossible or that there’s something defective or unworthy about our art. Oh, and thanks, Scott.

Questions: Tell me about a time when persistence helped you beat a gatekeeper and fulfill one of your creative dreams. How did you do it? How did it feel?

  • Freda Posin

    Good stuff Tim – I am my own best/worst Gatekeeper!!

  • Russ Packham

    Great post, Tim. I just returned home from an amazing event in San Antonio called “Success 2012.” I had the opportunity to see and meet some of the most amazing people and hear some truly inspiring stories. Two jam-packed days of listening to Les Brown, Suze Orman, Steve Forbes, Larry King, Capt. Mark Kelly, Erin Brokovich, George Forman, Rick Beluzzo (former COO of Microsoft), and Adam Markel, to name a few, was too good to pass up for an entry price of $4.95.

    The biggest takeaways from that event for me is that no time is ever perfect and no one ever gets it right the first time. I was particularly taken with Les Brown’s story of how he became a disc jockey through his preparation and persistence. The theme throughout all the speakers, however, was much the same. Only the circumstances were different.

    My gatekeepers were destined to keep me tied to a desk in Washington, DC until I discovered that I could fire them. It’s amazing how people today don’t realize that the freedom they seek is as simple as making a decision and not relegating that decision to the gatekeepers that have different agenda in mind.