Passion, Persistence, and Payoff

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By: Richard Osbaldiston, PhD, chair and professor, EKU Department of Psychology

You can watch a couple of excellent documentaries that personalize and localize the opioid epidemic on Netflix, like “Heroin(e)” and “Recovery Boys.” Both documentaries were created by Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who describes herself as an Appalachian filmmaker. She spoke on EKU’s campus recently.

These two films and her other major project, “Hollow,” paint the complex picture of how passion, persistence, and payoff interplay. 

Sheldon’s passion is clear: she seeks to make documentaries which accurately portray life in Appalachia, including trying to escape from the dominant media narrative that stereotypes the region.

And the payoff is clear, now, retrospectively. Netflix picked up both of her documentaries, and she was able to negotiate liberal rights for their use in educational and community settings. She has been nominated for impressive accolades like Academy, Emmy, and Peabody awards. She is currently working on a project sponsored by PBS Frontline, and she has worked with Grammy Lifetime Achievement winner John Prine. One of the lead subjects of “Heroin(e)” was named to Time’s to 100 most influential people, largely on the strength of the documentary.

These are big payoffs, and if Sheldon had known that she was working towards prizes, notoriety, and future success, the journey probably would have been easier. But this is a story of amazing persistence.

You don’t just shoot a documentary. You don’t just walk into town, point the camera at someone, and start asking questions. 

To make a documentary, you need to invest in building relationships, and this process takes months and years before you can shoot 10 seconds of footage. And once you start shooting, it’s not a one-and-done process. You have to look for angles, follow leads, cross-check information. The timeline for shooting is also measured in months and years. 

And then there is the editing, endless editing in which you piece together, almost frame by frame, the story that will captivate the audience. And once it’s done, it really just starts, because then you have to promote it and sell it.  Every day you have to have a staring contest with the monster called “Rejection,” and if at any moment you blink, the whole thing is over.

Sheldon’s story is like this. She spent years making “Hollow” and was able to generate just enough Kickstarter money to keep the project rolling. “Heroin(e)” would have been nothing more than a file on her hard drive if a funding agency hadn’t put out a call for films that show the resilience of women. She got just enough money to get a rough cut together. Then she got lucky when Netflix liked the rough cut and paid her to complete the project. 

But she had to hold true to her vision and her values in negotiations with Netflix. She wanted the film to be freely available for public showings at educational and community organizations, and she pushed for this. Of the thousands of films in Netflix, about four have such permissions.

The incredible part of Sheldon’s story isn’t that she made these beautiful, provocative, and acclaimed films. The incredible part of her story is that she did all of this in the face of very, very dim payoffs. 

It’s fair to say that our society is based on the principle “Show me the money.”  Very few of us would go to work if we thought there was a pretty good chance that we wouldn’t get paid.  And even for non-economic work—like parenting—we are expecting pretty good outcomes.

Can you imagine working for years on a project that might never get off the ground? How long could you keep working if you couldn’t see the payoff? 

Sheldon’s story is a fabulous reminder that passion is great, but persistence is even greater. What do you need to persist at to make a mark on the world? What project is in danger of becoming nothing more than a file on a hard drive? What contribution should you make, even if there is no payoff? Whatever it is, please follow Sheldon’s lead and keep going until you reach the end.

Richard Osbaldiston, PhD, chair and professor, EKU Department of Psychology

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