Vanity Metrics: Why you must reject it and accept your own path
“How many books have you read this year?”
“How many steps have you walked today?”
“How many followers do you have on Instagram?”
“How much marks did you score?”
and the cross-cultural and much beloved—
“How much money do you make?”
All these answers are made up of numbers that can be collectively termed as ‘vanity metrics’.
These numbers may be a good conversation-starter or a nice thing to add in your bio or on the first slide of a self-congratulatory presentation. Otherwise, they seem absolutely useless to track real progress, unless reaching the number is the end in itself.
Vanity metrics are simply feel-good numbers that seem appealing from the outside but may not align with what you have set out to achieve. We may fool ourselves into believing that we are headed where we want to.
A vanity metric of the filmmaking world is ‘the number of classics watched/screenplays read’.
I recently read the screenplay of Maqbool. It is the first feature-length screenplay I have ever read.
I passed out of film (design) school over six years ago. I attended an excellent screenwriting workshop, two years ago. I have made documentaries and corporate films. When someone asks me “what do you do?”, I say I’m a ‘filmmaker’. Yet, it took me as long to read a feature-length screenplay. I am not a regular viewer of films either. I haven’t watched many many classics.
In an earlier time (last year), I would have felt great shame in admitting all of the above; I would have been sheepish about the whole thing. I am not anymore because I have realised these are just vanity metrics.
I once knew an aspiring filmmaker who had watched every classic under the sun and could rattle away names of the cast and crew. He could name the entire oeuvre of master auteurs. He had the tendency to look down upon everyone that had not watched these films. But he couldn’t bring himself to put a few words on paper even.
It is easier to watch films all day and memorise the name of the gaffer or keep track of creative collaborations; than it is to come face to face with your own feelings of insecurity that you might be a terrible writer/director/editor/whatever.
If you want to be a curator or a critic—certainly, you need to watch lots and lots of films. And that becomes what you do. But if you want to be a filmmaker—you need to make films. Lingering for far too long on an intermediary stage, is nothing but procrastinating doing the real thing.
I don’t mean to say that there are no benefits to watching lots of films; that would be a ridiculous inference. But it is no substitute. And there is no guarantee that doing that will make you a better filmmaker.
Reading books on swimming is not a substitute to learning to swim. Reading is not a substitute to writing. Listening to music all day is not a substitute to being a musician. Watching a lot of films is not a substitute to being a filmmaker. Consuming is not a substitute to creating... from day one.
I am learning this the hard way. And I know this too well because I have been the very person who has spent far too long dilly-dallying taking action.
A friend once asked me: “I don’t know what you are preparing yourself for. You have been ‘prepping’ for years by now.” It was like a bolt out of the blue.
I was having a tough time ‘doing things’ because of all the ‘vanity metrics’ in my head: you need to attend a reputed film school without which you cannot make films; you need to have watched x no. of films by y filmmakers, until which you cannot possibly do anything; you need to have read ‘Sculpting in time’ 43 times, without which you are not a serious film student.
It was all a way of masking my own inability to take action by indulging in the name-dropping, using jargons and talking at length about the craft.
About a few years ago, I realised something profound:
Those who want to do, do. Those who don’t want to do, talk.
I had become a talker. And as soon as I realised this, I stopped talking. For a start, that was one way of reminding myself, that I still wanted to be a ‘doer’. I have ended up writing more in the past four months since I started this blog, than the entire two years prior, when I decided to focus on writing.
After blindly following the advice of others who I thought knew what they were talking about, I saw that I was going nowhere. I realised that it was ultimately up to me to get where I want to.
In conclusion, my realisation is this:
Your path is absolutely valid, as much as that of the breakout success social media/those around you are harping about. Your experience is yours alone, so nobody understands your situation better than you. Avoid seeking permissions or prescriptions at all costs. Drop the naysayers from your life. Take feedback from those you trust.
Without aggressive self-acceptance, it is impossible to do anything that is meaningful to you. And that, more often than not, is the only thing worth doing.