SPOILERS - If you haven't watched Avengers: Infinity War, be gone.
Seen it? Great. Let's talk about this little indie film known as Avengers: Infinity War. It's tearing up the box office and our news feeds. It's creating meme upon meme about airborne dust. And it has one of the biggest film budgets of all time at around $325 million. Oh, it's already made $1.7 billion. No big deal.
Avengers: Infinity War is bursting with superhero action, Tony Stark's nanobots, a Goliath purple chin, and a cosmic gauntlet that incites an astronomical ending. Whether you loved the film or found it a mess, Avengers: Infinity War has moments that are thrilling, heartbreaking, hilarious and even philosophical. But let's be honest, the monumental scale of this decade-in-the-making film is far out of reach for your average, friendly void-deck creative.
But Singaporean creatives can learn from the mindset, principles and actions of the Mad Titan himself: Thanos.
This is not a joke article. We're going way too deep. I over did it. Strap in.
So, if you're a Singaporean creative in Asia--a writer, director, poet, editor, cameraman, singer, songwriter etc--what can you learn from Thanos's depiction by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige, to make your projects a success?
Here are 10 Life Lessons you can learn from Thanos to transform into a creative force to be reckoned with.
(Forget what your parents and teachers have told you).
1. Create a mission that is shared and talked about.
Thanos' mission first appeared on the big screen during the credit sequence of The Avenger's film in 2008. He was, of course, renowned in the comics for his quest to unite the infinity gems to eradicate the Universe to impress the embodiment of Death aka Mistress Death. For the movie, this was simplified into a goal to half the population of the cosmos to prevent the depletion of resources, overpopulation and cosmic collapse. This was Thanos' mission.
But there's also another point: The Universe knew about Thanos’ grand plan for cosmic genocide, way before he arrived. The whole galaxy knew.
Thanos never kept his mission a secret. His mission was public, a business card, a promise.
Thanos wasn't afraid to proclaim his quest to half the population of the cosmos, love him or hate him, regardless of the consequences. He had a clear and understandable mission, and he took significant action to achieve it. And like any great movie villain, he made difficult decisions to reach that goal.
Thanos is the ultimate protagonist and antagonist. And the ultimate life coach.
For any creative in Singapore, defining your personal mission is probably the most important thing you can do. It’s not enough to be known for what you do. It’s more important to be known for why you do it. For me, I've always been driven as a writer to create what I deem as 'DOPE' content. Here's my definition.
The T-rex escaping the paddock for the first time in Jurassic Park. Dope.
The cross-cutting sequence of a baptism and a mafia mass shooting in The Godfather. Dope.
That shower scene in Psycho. Dope.
These are moments that are cemented in cinematic history for good reason. They stick in the heart, mind and soul. For me, as a small, insignificant writer in Singapore, I decided a long time ago that I wanted to write stories that embody the word "spectacle". Steven Spielberg/George Lucas/James Cameron-type spectacles. Because I love them. So that's my mission.
You should have your own personal mission -- whether it's to create psychologically compelling films, songs that ring in your mind and heart, or artworks are both commercial and that tap into what makes us human.
Whatever you do - make your mission known. Only then can your ideas catch on and be shared by people.
My mission is simple. It's on my Start Page.
Everyone can make a living doing what they love and not suffer to do it.
Done. Now you get me. This is my promise. This is what I offer. This is what I'm about.
Know that spreading your ideas through heaps of content is the future of not just writing, but any industry you may be in. The internet disrupted everything, and now, everyone has a platform to broadcast their ideas to the world. It's why huge creative agencies are taking a hit, and companies are taking control of their own brands to spread their own stories and ideas. They're cutting out the middlemen, and expressing their own mission to consumers because it's just more efficient and powerful.
As a creative freelancer or independent, you have more to gain by being public and talking about what you do, than sitting at home and plotting something that will never be seen.
An example in point: As soon as I started writing on my blog, people slowly started to contact me and consider me a new creative voice. Not the best. Not the worse. But a new voice. Since then, I've been contacted by people wanting to collaborate on feature films, offered free trials in social media apps, and had people share some of my articles in lectures in the United States. All from the power of just being out there and contributing to the conversation.
Create content about what you do in every way possible - Facebook, Instagram, Blog, Podcasts, Linkedin, print etc. You don't need to be an expert. Just talk about your experiences and your 'thing'.
There is clarity and purpose in a mission. And you stand out from a crowd that has no idea what to do with their own creative voices. So, define your mission. What do you stand for? Why do you do it? What are you offering to Singapore's creative conversation that will further the action you seek to inspire? Thanos was deemed a “radical” by his people and an outcast. Despite this, he wasn’t afraid to face rejection, ignore the naysayers, and chase down what he saw as his singular purpose. No-one is going to fight for your right to be who you want, if you don’t spearhead it.
2. Assemble your squad - collaborators and conspirators
Sometimes all we need some like-minded friends to further our goal of universal domination, amma right?
For Thanos, this came in the form of the Black Order, his ruthless, belligerent children. Now, I’m not suggesting you join forces with anyone connected to mass Universal genocide. (Met a guy at a mall once with the idea. Didn’t end well). What I am saying is that you have to cultivate a "team" that believes in what you do and is willing to help you achieve it. And in return, you do the same for them.
This means dumping the people that don’t support you. And building close bonds with the ones that do.
Now, this may be controversial. I’m not saying forget anyone that isn’t related to your goal. That would be selfish. What I am saying is that far too many people are stuck with negative, criticising “friends” that reduce their potential to succeed, and increase their ability to suck. They tell you that you can't do something. They tell you it's not worth it. They tell you to move on. You know the ones.
But here's the fact: It's because they can't do it themselves.
If they don’t like what you are doing? Block them. Delete them. Whatever. Instead, interact and nurture relationships with the ones that dare to dream as big as you, and are willing to take practical steps to get there. There is power in allies working together to bring about real change in their personal artistic/entrepreneurial/business pursuits.
Everyone needs creative acolytes.
For myself, this has meant sticking with a select few friends and working professionals that have the same values, work ethnic, and personal mission as me. Not all of them, mind you. We argue all the time. But at least we have the ability to say, “Hey, we stand for this and we don’t give up.” And I like to believe they make me better, and vice versa.
So who are your creative acolytes?
Who’s willing to lead the charge for your brand, your ideas, your message?
Are you willing to lead the charge for them? Maybe it’s the same goal.
Whatever it is, work shared is work halved. When we are the presence of passionate like-minded people that seek the same outcome we do, and they push us to be better, we become it. We don’t have to always agree. That's okay. That's good. It means you're growing and getting better together. But take it from the big guy. Even Thanos knew he couldn’t collect the infinity stones, defeat the Avengers, and rule the galaxy from his idyllic farm by himself.
3. Stop being precious. Put yourself through hell to start and finish things!
When it comes to creating stories and characters, one thing is clear: You must put your characters through hell to discover who they truly are.
Only when pressure is exercised over your characters, do they crack and bleed and show us what they're made of.
In screenwriting, this is called character growth, or an arc. For Thanos, he understood that he might go through a similar ordeal in the pursuit of his goal. In the film, he didn’t just allow others to collect the Infinity stones. He fought the Hulk in hand-to-hand combat, reducing him to a blubbering mess; showed up in Wakanda and took on the Avengers one-by-one when the endgame was near; and forced Gamora to tell him where the Soul stone was, and making the ultimate sacrifice for it.
Thanos was not afraid to walk through fire to reach his goal. He started, talked the talk, and finished. And you should too.
You will never know the limits of what you can do, if you never test your limits. Textbook knowledge will only get you so far. You must try, experiment, get onto the field to test your ideas. Just start creating the work you want to be known for.
But the most important thing is to start and finish. Without either, there is no growth.
But let's be practical then. Here are a few things you can try to get started on your journey to put pressure on yourself:
- Intern at a company to learn the ropes of your chosen industry.
- Take a course
- Contact someone with domain expertise and ask them out for coffee to gain some insights. Hint: People love talking about what they do.
- Contact/Cold call a company in your field and ask for any openings
- Start a random project online and tell people about it (to urge you to finish)
- FINISH SOMETHING
- BEGIN YOUR DREAM PROJECT ON THE SIDE - a song, script, artwork, sculpture - today.
- Read a book/listen to a podcast/watch a video about the thing you want to do
- Actually USE SOCIAL MEDIA to learn and gain insights directly from mentors and experts in your field.
- Get a full-time or part-time job connected with what you want to do
Treating yourself as a precious stone that must be crafted and polished will get you nowhere.
You must start and finish what you set out to do in order to understand what works, where your true talents reside, and to make a difference in the world.
And this includes making money from your craft. You aren't earning anything with half-baked ideas.
Sometimes, the only way to succeed is to get in there and...well...listen to the big guy himself...
4. Don’t go to your dream, let your dream come to you.
Too often we are told we need to “chase” dreams. I believe in it. I do. But there's a crucial component missing. The smarter thing.
Small everyday actions that contribute to a longer, larger goal.
Not big ones -- small ones. It means creating smaller plans that are achievable, rather than one big one that is impossible. Then you stick to it and power through disappointment. This notion asks a series of progressive questions:
What if you decided to hack away at these small goals, everyday, regardless of the outcome?
In a year, or two, or three, what might that continued effort become?
In marketing, there is a term called “push” or “pull” marketing. Push marketing is when you push content, ideas and your product in front of the eyes of your audience and hope they will bite the bait. Today, a common form are cinema ads, Youtube adverts, or Facebook sponsored posts. In pull marketing, you decide to create such interesting, compelling and value-added content that loyal customers come to you. And yes, pay you for your goods and services over and over again.
You create a loyal community that believes in the solutions you provide, and then you sell to them directly.
Yes. All you have to do is work on what you love--and the money will come to you. Why?
Because the future of content is not in forcing eyeballs. But in nurturing communities around ideas and the value you create. Even for large brands and companies. This will set yourself apart and increase the longevity of your creative work.
Because solving perpetual problems for people is worth a lot.
In the future, as internet penetration rates rise, more people will be searching and Googling for solutions. So what it's really about is content that supplies solutions to "Whales" - the people that consume a lot of your ideas and content in whatever you do. This means you don't just sell ideas, but you become the marketplace for ideas to prosper. Ever heard of a company called Amazon? Anything you need is always there. Aim to become your own market.
Thanos understood this better than anyone. Although you can argue they all came from sociopathic tendencies, he understood that his goal wasn’t for him, but to benefit the entire Universe. Later, he simply stood still, created an illusion, and waited for his goal to come to him. And in the end, Thanos' mission was worthy of being pursued and chased. He was the cosmic marketplace for everything that happened. Sorry Avengers.
So ask yourself? If you stopped what you did right now, would people miss the solutions you offer? Or would they chase someone else down because of the solutions they offer?
5. Snap your fingers to hook your audience into anticipation
“All Thanos needs is all of the infinity stones and he can end half of the universe with a snap of his fingers.*click* just like that” - Gamora.
Clear. Succinct. Easy to understand. And I bet you were waiting for it from the moment it was uttered by dear Gamora (RIP) in the trailer.
Whatever you write - whether it’s a film, song, poem, blog article - never forget the power of hooking your audience's attention. It is the door that will drive their journey to understand, access or buy.
We are creatures designed to be hooked, to have our attention wrestled-away from us. Our brains are wired that way - for survival, to see patterns, and to react. In the modern world, a "hook" can be through a compelling title, headline, promise, or the anticipation of anticipating.
A few years ago, Buzzfeed conducted a TED talk about a video that involved releasing goats in their boss's office. The live feed quickly went viral, and they tried to dissected why. They ascertained that the anticipation of anticipating was what brought people together. Not only that, but they realised that people liked the idea of coming together because they had shared knowledge, fandom, interests, and experiences. By participating in certain things, they felt part of a small group of exclusive friends.
So let's unpack that for Infinity War. We were all together in our anticipation of:
- Whether Thanos would complete his quest to wipe out half the Universe, and click his gauntlet-clad finger?
- Whether Iron Man or Captain America would possibly die?
- Where the Soul stone was? Wakanda? Tony Stark's body?
- Who else would die? (ans: a lot of other people)
- Spoiler fear - so we needed to watch it first.
- (Not thinking about Red Skull's weird cameo)
So ask yourself for any content you create:
What is the one simple question or hook that sparks anticipation and draws people to my idea?
What's the door IN?
Is it the promise that this is something familiar but twisted into something new?
Is it a simple hook with a WTF-factor?
Is it the feeling that I relate to this and I am not alone in the cosmos?
Is it the idea that this is inspiring for people like me?
Is it a story about a regular cow that we've seen a million times before?
Or a RAINBOW COW?
You got me.
6. Think outside the box? Forget the box. Make assets like the Infinity Gauntlet.
In Singapore, you’ve probably heard this trite adage over and over again until you're practically sick of it:
“Think outside the box”
Honestly, I've heard this so many times that I truly feel no-one actually knows what it means. Secondary school teachers, family, Army, friends -- it doesn't matter. What's clear is that the box is ever-changing because it means different things to different people. One man's "emotional" is another man's tired cliche. Instead, a more interesting question to ask is:
How can we tap into a specific box for a particular group of people, and invigorate it?
Group of people? Well, in whatever you make, you should appeal to a target audience that wants to read, buy or spread your ideas. This is just being smart. But don't go for the masses. They don't know what they want. As master marketer Seth Godin states: "That's why they are called the masses." What you need to do is tap into people's particular tastes and inclinations.
Because these people are just WAITING to see, listen and buy what you have to offer! Give it to them!
This is illustrated perfectly by Netflix's category menu:
It's not just genres, age ranges or genders. It's particular likes, styles and preferences to location. That's how Netflix groups content, and it should be how you craft your own. So put real effort and time into figuring out what assets you're building for the group of people you're targeting. And whether it’s writing, directing, shooting, or poetry, ask yourself:
How does this put me in a category of one?
That’s right. You don’t need to be just another “director, writer, producer”. You don’t want to blend in. Instead of people saying eg: “I need a writer.” You need them to say:
"I need...*Insert your name here*”
You don't need to be like other creatives in Singapore. There are countless opportunities, creative spaces and platforms for you to do things. For me, this has meant branching out into blogging, podcasting, speaking and sharing my writing on instagram. So what is the one thing you want to be associated with? Build that. Build assets that connect, inspire and spread those ideas.
So create your Infinity Gauntlet/assets. Here are some tips to get started.
1. Create a platform to reach and connect with my fandom, target audience or community (ie. website, podcast, social media, eBook).
2. Create assets to scale: films, Ebooks, web series, songs, podcasts, articles, speaking engagements, email lists etc.
3. A public profile (online or otherwise) that espouses your domain expertise
4. The technical skills and knowledge through your chosen art form, product, service.
5. An unshakable inner work ethic.
6. Contacts that will spread your message and those you collaborate with.
Forget about being "special" with delusions of grandeur. You don't have $325 million to spend on a passion project. Instead, start with what you can control. This is what you signed up for as a creative, remember? You don't need to reinvent the wheel. You just need to participate with the assets you already have.
7. Step by Step: High Risk, High Reward. Low Risk, High Reward.
Thanos knew the power of patience. He had a plan and orchestrated it step-by-step. And he also knew the importance of time. Hell, now he controls it with the Time Stone. He realised, unlike most of us, that it's unlikely we will score a home run with one strike. There is no big moment, one action or "grand opening" where all your dreams come true. But there is time, and that is powerful.
You may feel the inevitable death knell of growing older, but it’s all in your head. You can’t compare your day 60 with a successful person's day 700. It’s unfair. Plus, your competitors probably have more contacts, experiences and resources than you.
The truth is: All you have to win is your HUNGER and TIME.
For Thanos, this meant taking small low risk steps that paid off in a huge way. It started from Avengers 1 all the way through to Infinity War. Get allies, get one stone, make a gauntlet to house the gems, find more gems, destroy those in my way etc. Hunger and Time.
And when he showed up in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1, the big bad Ronin betrayed him and claimed the Power stone for himself. Damn. Nevermind. Backtrack. Thanos regrouped, got in there, and decided to get his hands dirty. Hunger and Time.
Remember: Setbacks are set-ups for comebacks, right?
When Thanos eventually showed up in Infinity War, he was met with obstacle upon obstacle as well. Even a Hulk. Hunger and Time.
But he was prepared because of past actions (aka he beat the hell out of everyone).
If you dedicate most of your time to preparing and working — writing that book, writing that song, shooting that short film, creating that artwork, starting that business — and not trying to enjoy the fruits of imaginary success, you’ll be ready for it when destiny arrives. Until then, it’s all learning and growing, stepping towards your goal day by day. And there's time. So use it.
So Create. Read. Experiment. Prepare. Push. And work!
When push comes to shove, know that success is waiting for you. It won’t be easy. It never is. There is no set plan for success, as Doctor Strange realised when he asserted that there were 4 million outcomes to their disastrous plan to defeat Thanos. But there is at least one that will succeed. Cut down the extra things in your life and work action-by-action, failure-by-failure, until there is nothing left but success. Hunger and Time.
8. When in doubt with your craft, go to the Pleasure or the Pain.
Thanos has two modes in Infinity War. He is either enjoying the pleasure of savouring the mission, or he’s in profound pain over Gamora, his sacrifices and his conflicted life. And for me as a writer and observer of human behaviour, this speaks to me in how you can focus your creative juices.
Go where the pleasure is.
Go where the pain is.
This was inspired and highlighted to me by the brilliant writer Anne Rice on her Youtube Channel. I reccomend watching it below:
In the video, she clearly states: If you are not enjoying what you’re doing...stop. Why go on? Change the story until it is interesting to you. It is your responsibility to find “the thing” that sticks with the piece, that carries you through. Don't like it - change the story. No-one is going to do it for you. And like Anne Rice says, the best way is to go to the pleasure or pain of whatever you create. If you focus on this, the journey is much clearer. Why?
Because pleasure and pain connect to people in biologically hardwired ways.
Another way to look at it is another copywriting marketing technique called The Life Force 8 in Cashvertising by Drew Eric Whitman. In the book, he isolates eight basic human instincts hardwired into every person:
1. Survival, enjoyment of life, life extension
2. Enjoyment of food and beverages
3. Freedom from fear, pain, and danger
4. Sexual companionship
5. Comfortable living conditions
6. To be superior, winning, keeping up with the Joneses
7. Care and protection of loved ones
8. Social approval
That's it. I personally couldn't think of anything else, either. These are the eight things that people are biologically programmed to crave or want. In terms of copywriting, you can mold them into your sale message and pitch, and test different desires to see which have the biggest impact.
For example, instead of trying to sell a flashlight by saying it does *this* *this* and *this*, show how a flashlight can shepherd a scared family through a blackout safely. (Care and Protection of Loved Ones).
Creating content is a balancing act when it comes to human emotions. But it's the only thing that really connects, triggers, and compels people to ACT.
Choose. Good. Now you're making closer.
9. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable
Tough guy huh? Wanna take over the Universe huh? Can’t cry huh? Well, Thanos did. Vulnerability is a commonly misplaced virtue in Singaporean culture. While it’s talked about, it isn’t exactly something that is promoted in everyday life. We're taught to be "strong", "not cry", and "keep quiet". But for me, vulnerability is where all great work comes from.
Because it’s about connecting to the parts of people that we commonly hide. And it opens people up to listen and engage with you.
We’ve all walked into an MRT station, beeped our card, and felt a sense of shame when the gantry proclaims low credit.
We’ve all been to a funeral that can’t believe it's happening.
We’ve all been at a party we loved, and a party we’ve hated.
We’ve all asked someone out on a date with the possibility of them saying no. (Well, most of us).
Be vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to show your fragile side, the thing that makes you tick, the thing that makes you ashamed. Because, maybe, just maybe, that thing relates to other people as well. And if it relates to them, they will spread your idea to new heights and fandom.
Thanos understood the importance of being vulnerable. He showed guilt for sacrificing Gamora, anger at the Avengers for facing him, and a deep-seated respect for Tony Stark for fighting him. And he cried. It made him human. It made us care. It made us like him and root for him. It made the whole damn movie SPECIAL.
10. End with a bang that is unexpected (sort of).
While the ending may be the biggest cliffhanger in Marvel Studios history, screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus revealed that they wanted to provide closure in the sense that audiences should know that, yes, Thanos does complete his plan in this film.
"There are still questions: What are [The Avengers] going to do?, and all those sorts of things," says Markus. "But if you had stopped it before he snapped his fingers, or with four stones, that really is just a pause button. That really is just going, 'What's he going to do?' 'Will your hero stop dangling from the cliff?' And we wanted to put a much more definitive 'Yes, this happens. Deal with it,' tone at the end of it, rather than jerk you around."
Deal with it. Did you hear that? For many, the ending of Infinity War was shocking, thought-provoking and a little discombobulating. But for me, it was perfect. Why? Because it had to happen for the characters to grow. It's not a cop-out, because the movie was framed as Thanos’s story all along. It was a happy ending from his perspective.
So what can you learn from the ending of Infinity War?
Well, to take a page out of Marvel Studio's mastermind Kevin Feige’s book - don’t be afraid to promise something big, if it makes sense for your service, product, story etc. Don't be afraid to shock people either, if it makes sense for your creative work. Shock works. It compels us to sit up and listen.
If that means writing the death of a beloved character: Do it.
If it means disagreeing about something controversial in a blog entry - Why not?
If that means changing up a chord progression and inserting a sample track no-one has heard of: Try it.
If it means presenting your poem in a new but risky way: Give it a shot.
Just know the effect you want to create on your audience. And why.
It’s all a balancing act. Be smart about it. Just know that the ending of anything you create is truly what the film is about.
Because the end of a scene, a song, a story, a product, a piece of sales copy— is the point.
Really. Go and see. Every scene of any film ever made had a point made at the end. The drama took twists, turns, and emotional ups and downs for sure. But the end of the scene was the point. The same goes for other creative works.
So remember the end. What is the lasting impression you want to leave? What is the message, moral, conversation or image you want people to remember? Don't make it just shocking. Make the ending count in terms of the creative work itself, your personal beliefs, and the long-term success of the product itself. When all three align, magic happens. And the effects last much longer in the minds, hearts and wallets of audiences.