Editor’s note: Ash Thorp is quite the household name in our industry and beyond. For years, he’s acted as a powerful force, constantly in flux; evolving and pushing on.
Ash’s trajectory seemingly knows no bounds. He rose to prominence working at one of our industry’s leading studios, launched a successful freelance career, has directed and created his own original content, made a splash in Hollywood, and is even the founder of a successful online education platform. That’s a lot! Ash has essentially jumped from one mountaintop to the next and is constantly redefining his work.
In this Motionographer guest post, we’re thrilled to bring you some insight from Ash himself as he recounts his explosive past few years, some of the lessons he has learned along the way, and where he hopes to go.
Going freelance (taking the leap)
I vividly remember quitting my steady day job, and the emotional rollercoaster which followed. It was a great job with the potential of learning and growing with the team there, but I knew deep down that I had to be my own boss. I needed to take control over my life. I admit that I am a bit of a control freak, but I also believe it’s a key trait that works great for a freelancer. As I drove away from the studio after putting in my two weeks notice, I felt both so alive and an intense dread of the unknown. What if’s started to flood my mind. What if no one offered me work? What if I couldn’t pay the bills? What if…? While the fear took its hold over me, I couldn’t help but smile at the same time from an enormous sense of freedom and bliss. I was free to do what I wanted.
This desire to be my own boss has been imminent since I moved out of my single mother’s house at the age of 14, and then had to work all kinds of odd jobs to make ends meet. I felt the greater part of my youth was spent under the control of others, and it was time for me to manifest my own reality. This notion had been brewing inside of me for quite a while, and there’s a chance you might feel similarly reading this. The desire to set your own hours, pick your own clients, to travel the world, and to experience new things. You’ll never experience the freedom of freelance until you remove the fear and take that first leap of faith.
It takes tremendous courage to jump into the unknown. Fear often controls most of my choices in life, but the few times I’ve taken a major leap into the unknown, it has paid off in amazing ways. I had been working my way up in life to be a freelancer for years up until the point I finally made that leap. It has become an extension of who I am and how I live my life. I like to stay busy and focus on several different things at once. I often equate freelancing to having your left foot in one project, your right foot in another, and your head stuck in the clouds. Freelancing isn’t for everyone. I’ve found that making it work depends on matching it to the life you want to live, and this is what I describe as a totally designed life.
Don’t expect freelance to always be glamorous; there are plenty of pitfalls you might encounter along your journey. Going freelance leaves you vulnerable to take on too much, which in turn can lead to overworking yourself and disrupting your work/life balance. One major pitfall that I fell into at the beginning of my freelance career was saying ”Yes” to every opportunity out of fear and desperation. When you let fears like that drive your decision-making process, you’ll quickly find yourself chained to your desk and working around the clock. If this doesn’t sound like a mistake you’d make, you might have more confidence than I did when I started freelancing. However, if this resonates with you, I suggest you learn to use the word “No” and not be afraid to do so. You should really enjoy saying it, not in a cruel or vindictive way, but in a way of self-preservation. I like to think that for every project I say “No” to now leaves the door open for another project I can say “Yes” to tomorrow.
Discovering the amount of work you can sanely take on is a vital piece of managing a peaceful balance between your career, family, and personal satisfaction with passion projects. Finding this threshold could take you months or years, but ultimately you must learn to understand two vital things: your time and your priorities. These two elements are critical to your survival as a freelance artist, and I can’t stress this enough. From taking on too many projects and continually burning myself out, I learned the hard way how to develop a sense of self-discipline and properly understand time management.
Over the years, I’ve received some very influential literature recommendations on the subject of time management and freelance. I will forever be indebted to the author’s wise words and guiding principles. The three books I suggest everyone read if they’re serious about taking their time and priorities to a new level are as follows:
These three books (among many others) quickly helped me realize my bad habits, taught me to develop productive workflows, and accelerated my personal growth and learning exponentially. Furthermore, I’ve developed daily and nightly rituals to reinforce these practices of time management while also truly understanding my priorities in life. Working in tandem, these skills have allowed me to reach personal goals and achievement I would never have thought possible.
Before taking the leap to freelance, I strongly recommend you do the following things to hopefully make the transition as smooth as possible:
- Save and set aside enough funds in your bank account to help cover at least three to six months of rent/bills in case you can’t find work right away. It’s always a good idea to have something to fall back on wherever you are in your freelance career.
- Consider reading the books I recommended, and start taking control of your daily habits and self-discipline.
- Communicate openly with your loved ones regarding your professional aspirations. Make sure they understand why you’re doing this, such as your need for freedom, and what changes to possibly expect in the upcoming months.
- Find an accountant and a contract lawyer who you trust and knows the industry – you’ll definitely need them.
- Write down your professional goals and reasons for going freelance, so that you can refer back on it to help you through the process. Try to remember that happiness is a choice!
I’m a total workaholic and I openly admit that to everyone who knows me. I am my work, and my work is often me; we cannot be divided. This statement probably sounds very odd and egotistical, but I have no other way of saying it. I absolutely love what I do, or rather, I often love what I do; I do my best to make the most of everything. I have an insatiable appetite to learn about every single thing I’m interested in, but the downside is that this can lead to obsessions. Obsessions don’t mix well with the balancing act required for a healthy family life.
The key to maintaining balance is having clear and open communication with those involved in your life. It took my wife and me many years to truly understand each other’s work ethic and habits, but through trial and tribulation, we’ve developed a harmonious and productive workflow. We both acknowledge and understand we need certain things from one another and give each other room to learn and grow along the way. The key element that I must emphasize here with gaining balance is to openly and clearly communicate with your loved ones. Do your best to help them see and understand why you do crazy things, like stay up until 4:00 am pushing pixels around on a screen until they make you less angry.
The desire for balance in our industry is often futile and I find this mainly due to a lack of confidence and communication. If I say “Yes” to every job which comes my way and triple-book my schedule, then I am saying “No” to family time, sleep, health, and balance. Even if you work at a studio, you can easily find yourself smothered in work due to what I’d consider a confidence issue. Understanding how valuable your personal time is, and how important it is to you as a creative person is crucial. Gaining personal clarity and time for your A-list priorities is the goal here, and it comes from daily rituals and habits which have allowed me to achieve a happy work-life balance.
Below is a short list of some thing which have helped me along the way, and I must clearly state that this is still a daily work in progress. Be aware that you have your own personal needs, life, and loved ones, and these things might not be compatible with all of them.
- Establish clear and open communication. It’s ok to be selfish, as long as everyone around you understands that you need that release sometimes and that it’ll only help everyone involved if you’re able to get that out of your system.
- Managing your time is incredibly important. As I mentioned above, it’s vital to your survival as a freelance artist and human being to understand how to navigate your time and daily rituals.
- Reinforce good habits by surrounding yourself with others who may be creatively further along in their careers, and who are positive and uplifting. If you find that the people around you are sucking the life out of you or draining your time, then it’s probably best to remove them from your life. Acquiring optimal balance in life and work is having the right people in your circle to help you keep and maintain that balance.
- Be patient and understand that you and everyone else on this planet are not perfect. We all make mistakes, and it’s best to acknowledge, analyze, learn, and move on from them. Don’t dwell on the past. Focus on the Now and be hopeful of the Future. Perspective is key in balance.
I could go on and on about how incredibly rewarding passion projects are for me as a creative. They have helped me grow in so many ways, opened doors of opportunities I once thought would be impossible, and they’ve led me to meet some of the most amazing friends and colleagues. Passion projects are the greatest gift I have given myself in my career, and I highly recommend doing them regularly.
With that said, it can be a very challenging path to navigate time for passion projects depending on your goals, focus, and who you decide to create them with. From the Ghost in the Shell tribute Project 2501, Lost Boy, and to paying homage to space with Epoch, each passion project has taught me many lessons about communication and my own personal threshold for growth.
I like how these projects can expose my weaknesses, and I use each opportunity to exploit them back, and for lack of a better word, destroy them. There are many plateaus that I felt that I have hit in my career thus far. I could have stopped at designing or doing UI for film, but I’ve always wanted more creatively. As a child, I would use my imagination to escape reality. As an adult I find myself doing the same thing, not out of fear now, but as a desire for personal growth. In my eyes, there’s always room for growth, and I will always be a student of the arts. It’s not a matter of chance that I chose to dedicate my life to art; it’s one of the only career fields which no one can truly master. It’s entirely subjective, thus rendering it a personal journey based on your personal ambitions and goals. You create the mountain to which you climb. It’s an amazing situation to find yourself in if you do love challenges, and so for me, passion projects have always been that mountain.
It’s become a habitual routine to have at least one passion project going on along with everything else in my life. Even if I’m spending just 30 minutes a day on it, it’s still moving forward. I’m reminded to step outside of myself into the unknown as that’s where you find the thrill of reality. There have been difficult moments of reflection and hard lessons learned along the way, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
If you don’t take a risk on yourself, then why would anyone else? Throw yourself into something you love and find the depths of your abilities, learn new skills and traits, and use them to better yourself in the future.
Sure, Why Not?
Building Learn Squared from the ground up has been one of the most difficult tasks in my career, but also one of the most rewarding. The main point of this discussion is not a shameless plug or promotion for the school, but rather to shed light on my “sure, why not?” attitude.
When it comes to massive tasks like building an online learning platform with the ambition of changing artists’ lives for the better, there’s really no easy place to start. I often find myself saying “sure, why not?” towards things I probably have no business doing, and that’s exactly how the entire endeavor began. I think this admittedly naive mindset has really allowed me to approach complicated, life-changing moments with better ease and an open mind. Why can’t things be better? Why does art education cost so much? Why can’t I learn from the best? Why do trade secrets have to remain secret? Why not share this knowledge with everyone?
If I hadn’t asked all those questions, Learn Squared wouldn’t be where it is due to how busy I am. Almost every minute of my day is accounted for the night before, and sometimes even the week before in a schedule. The school takes up a large portion of my time and focus, and at times it drives me crazy but I genuinely love it. Learn Squared has taught me so many valuable lessons I would never have considered had I not jumped head first into creating it with my business partners.
I am thankful for every new lesson I’ve learned, both good and bad, and hope that you also find yourself sometimes saying “sure, why not?” when faced with an opportunity you feel might make the world a better place with some extra time and devotion.
Before we part ways, I want to share some projected commitments. I often find that if I openly commit to things, I use that pressure to push me through the tough times, and derive focus knowing that I have shared something sacred with you all. I am a big believer in lists. I make a nightly list of my following day in detail with times assigned to keep me on track. I also like to keep weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly lists of my goals. Below is a list of some of my personal goals, in hopes that it might inspire and motivate you to create a list of your own.
In 5 years, I would like to:
- Direct my own film/short film (major or indie)
- Manifest any image or concept from my mind to 3D/CGI
- Create and publish my own video game
- Develop a new experience in VR
- Make a positive difference in the world
Join along with me in the comments and share your list of goals. Perhaps we can do this together, and use this as a time portal of sorts to look back on years from now to reflect on our growth.
Some of these goals are admittedly a bit ambitious, and I know the last one is very vague; however, I like to keep that sentiment as a daily ritual of remembering that giving back is so important.
If you made it this far in reading through this entire article, I sincerely appreciate you, from the purest soul of my being, for allowing me to share my honest thoughts and experiences. I wish for you to choose your happiness and to make the most amazing journey of your time ahead.