4 Years in LA

6 min read.

I remember the hallway feeling longer than usual. The t.v. at the other end played as it normally did after dinner, but this time it sounded so far away. Each step carried a little bit of guilt and a little bit of hope as I made my way down the communion aisle of a hallway towards my parents’ bedroom. After a quick wave of fingernail taps on the door (that’s how my dad knocked so for some reason I knocked on his door like that) I entered to find my mom and dad relaxing in bed watching the baseball game. “Dad, I have something to tell you…” I started. He looked up with a pursed smile and greeted me. I was at the communion table now. “Oh, ok. What’s that?” he asked as he got up from the bed. He was smart. He knew something big was coming so he started walking both of us out of the room so my mom wouldn’t inherit his stress. My mom was undergoing chemo. Her breast cancer had come back. She didn’t need more to worry about. So we continued in my room.

I handed him a lease agreement. “I’m moving out. I found a place on campus. I’ll be back on the weekends to see Mom but I need to be back on my own.” I had previously lived on campus but decided to move home after my Mom got sick. Money was tight and it felt like the right thing to do. But after a year, with my Mom getting stronger and me needing my independence back, it was time. “I’m getting a restaurant job, don’t worry” I rambled. He didn’t even look at the lease. “No. I won’t allow it. It’s too much.” I flipped to the back and showed him that I already forged his co-sign. “I’m moving out. You won’t have to pay a single penny. I promise.” Up until this time, my whole life was centered around baseball. For all we knew, that was the plan. I had a few verbal offers to play at smaller colleges and I was even scouted for a bit by the St. Louis Cardinals the summer after high school, but in the end, I decided to study and do the 4-year college thing. And while my parents supported my decision to walk away, they probably questioned my decision making ability. But what they didn’t understand was that without baseball, I was quietly struggling with my identity. I needed to find something else to be good at. Something I could hitch my goals to. I was restless. And depressed. So I told him the second part of my plan. “…and I’m going to buy a camera. I’m going to build a brand and then I’m going to work at an ad agency.” I can’t remember exactly what my Dad’s response was. He might have said “I hope you’re right” or he might not have said anything at all. But I remember how it felt. It felt like taking communion with gum in your mouth. No matter how hard you try to push your gum to the side, you always get bread crumbs in your gum and the grape juice is bitter. It was 2009, and I didn’t know anything about photography. But I had a plan.

For the next 6 years I worked. I shot weddings, senior portraits, nightclubs, campus events, sorority videos, toured with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at the height of Thrift Shop, and later evolved into a one-man media company of sorts, helping startups and brands with their social media presence and marketing. The restaurant job got me through college, and then I transitioned over to a sales-admin role at Microsoft HQ after graduation. By that time it was 2015. I had established myself in the city and had a creative hand in a few small companies, logging little wins like placing our products on ABC’s The Bachelorette and in print. I accomplished my first goal. It was time to focus on the second one: The Ad Agency.

On paper, my Microsoft job was great. It paid well. It was high-stakes. My parents were thrilled. But I just couldn’t help but feel like I was wasting time every minute I was sitting in that building, wearing my grey suit and picnic blanket tie. To be fair, the benefit of having the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett walk down your halls is that you overhear great advice. And I’ll never forget hearing this one: “Being good at a job doesn’t make it important.” The reality was that my role at Microsoft was replaceable. I wasn’t using any of my creative skills. So that night before I went home, I looked down at my access badge. I knew that if I took my badge home, I would have to come back the next day to return it. So I unclipped it from my pocket, and I left it in my locker. And I quit that night. I was a full-time artist. Time to see if I was for real or not.

That summer, I made 30 music videos. I traveled the west-coast and embarked on what I call The Great Corporate Headshot Tour of 2015. And then… I got a call-back. From an ad agency in Los Angeles that I applied to as a complete stretch. They wanted me to send over my portfolio. So that night, I took all of my favorite photos and videos and transformed them into snackable social media assets, like the ones the agency had on their website. It worked. They offered me the job and 2 weeks later, I was on the road, fulfilling my promise to my dad, and myself,  7 years later.

And I guess that brings me to right now. Today, October 2nd, marks 4 years in Los Angeles. A lot has changed and a lot hasn’t at all. I’m still making videos for brands and studios every day, I’m just not able to share them on my personal channels or here on this blog. It truly has been a dream come true though. The goal was always to create for the sake of something larger than myself and to work at an agency that knew how to win. And I get to do that every day. But now that I’ve been able to properly exhale, I can’t help but feel some regrets.

I’ve mentioned it before in old blog posts and podcasts but I ran my body to the ground. For all of the work I was able to produce, the trade-offs were often severe. Physically, I was a zombie. In college I was pulling 2-3 all nighters every week. I drank a lot and abused anti-anxiety meds. My bed was a bean bag one year because I was really only napping between class, work, and shoots. I look back and regret not being a better friend. I have the best friends in the world and it kills me to think about all the times I chose work over them. I regret not being a better son and brother. I could have slowed down. I could have made more time. To be at home. To talk. I regret the relationships I walked away from. The love I pushed away. The flowers I tried to pull and keep for myself. I regret putting all that stress on myself. To prove other people wrong. To prove myself right. Or to simply know that I didn’t just waste the last 7 years of my life pushing silly buttons on a camera. 

Luckily, I can look back and say that I didn’t. I’ve built a great little community here and with each passing year, I’ve been able to reprioritize my health and my relationships with the people I love. I’m very content. Doing what I wanted to do, in the city I always wanted to be in. Looking forward, the goal remains the same: create for the sake of something greater than myself. But now more than ever, I’m making sure that I’m not just telling stories, but I’m telling the right story, my story. It’s not enough anymore to post work if it doesn’t say anything about who I am and where I’m from. So that’s where I’m at. Making sure that I’m only sharing a story that I’m able to authentically tell. And subconsciously I always knew that in order to start telling my stories, I would need to open up and tell this one first. *Spits out gum. Takes bread. Drinks grape juice.* Here’s to the next 10 years.

-AZ

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