GIVE INTO THE WORLD AND FEAR NOTHING

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MIKE SMOLANOFF

CREATOR OF THE UNKNOWN

MARKETER + WHISKEY CONNOISSEUR

After college Mike jumped into the world of music thinking that was going to be his path and quickly learned that it wasn't for him. By accident he landed at a company doing experiential marketing. He didn't know what that was at the time but he was going on concert tours with brands so he thought this aligned well with his passion for music. Now he's the Director of Experiential Marketing at BFG where he works mostly on the production side of things and account services. I sat with Mike to learn about how he overcomes anxiety and the fear of the unknown.

IS IT SAFE TO SAY THAT YOU LOVE WHAT YOU DO?

Yea, I love what I do. Obviously there are days that are tough and not as good as other days but I have spent a good amount of time thinking about if I like what I do. At the core of what experiential marketing is, I enjoy that. If experiential marketing allows me to design experiences that connect with people at a deeper level, I'll always enjoy it.

WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF ANXIETY?

It's fear. Fear of whatever the situation is and being afraid of something that has happened that can affect something in the future. It can be tomorrow, it can be 30 minutes from when I leave here. It can be 10 years down the line. You can spend enough time thinking about anything and the uncertainty of life, work, relationships, whatever. People generally like to know what's next, what's going to happen, what can I plan for, what can I expect? I think anxiety draws on that fear and creates this moment where you get frozen and you're not exactly sure what to do. In other cases maybe you know exactly what you need to accomplish. But just thinking in general about so many things can lock you in place and create a lot of uncertainty around you. From someone who's dealt with it before I can say that anxiety comes from some level of fear. You can spend a lot of time reflecting and you can spend a lot of time pontificating.

WHAT ARE SOME SPECIFIC THINGS THAT GIVE YOU ANXIETY ON A DAILY?

I think I'm at a point in my life where I think I know who I am. I've had a good amount of life experiences. I've traveled a lot, I've met a lot of people, I've done a lot of things. I know what I like, I know what I don't like. I'm willing to try new things. But I have a pretty good grip on who I think I am. Now it's what do i do in the next two years, five years, ten years from now. When I was 24 thinking about ten years down the line is now. Then my level of anxiety for things were more social - like what does this person think of me and that type of thing. Nowadays as you get older you solidify your circle and it becomes more professional. I'm no longer just another guy doing things and taking commands from people. I'm now responsible for things. If something goes wrong, it's my fault. So anxiety can be a lot of things. I think a lot about if I want to do stuff on my own 5-10 years from now. The uncertainty from that gives me a lot of anxiety sometimes. The idea of not knowing what I want to do ten years from now freaks me out. 

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"If you freak out, everyone around you freaks out. If you keep it together, even if the building is on fire, people around you will keep it together."

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY DRIVES YOU?

I want to do some cool stuff. I did a project last year that I was really proud of. It was different, it was unique, it was challenging. I got that feeling that I got years ago when I was working on stuff that was new to me and I didn't know what I was doing. There was a lot I didn't know and I had to seek knowledge from people that knew things I didn't. I had to figure out who the right people were to help lead me down the right path on certain aspects of a project. I ended up working with some incredibly talented and intelligent people that I learned a lot from in a short period of time. I was surrounded by a group of people out of necessity for this project. I didn't know them before, but we became close friends because in some ways we suffered through it together. What we were doing hasn't been done before, we didn't know how it would work and we just needed to figure it out. It came together in a relatively short period of time which was another cool thing to say we did. Not only did we accomplish something really cool, we did it in a timeframe that seemed unrealistic. I was really ok with the fact that I was the least smartest person in the room, or at least I felt that way. Sometimes when you feel that way, that can give you anxiety or that can actually bruise an ego but I took a lot of inspiration from that because these people were unbelievable at what they do and I got to work with them. I got to be on that project and in a room with them. The one thing I can say is that I brought them together, that's my contribution. That's something i'm proud of and it reminded me of how I felt when I was younger, working with people who taught me something.

WHAT I FIND INTERESTING IS EARLIER YOU SAID THAT "UNCERTAINTY" GIVES YOU A LEVEL OF ANXIETY, YET WHAT YOU LOVED MOST ABOUT THIS PROJECT WAS THE LEVEL OF "UNCERTAINTY." CAN YOU EXPAND ON THAT?

I think the uncertainty of what's ahead theoretically is the anxious feeling that you get. But the uncertainty of how you get to the finish line on a project is different because you can see the finish line. It's right over there and you may need to figure some things out but you know you have to get there. This sounds weird but I don't have to figure out where I am in ten years. Where I end up in ten years will be the result of the things I do. I can try to plan for it and whatever but I don't have to get to the finish line ten years from now. But I may have a project that has a 4 month finish line from now and that's very real. Not saying that doesn't make you anxious but it's a direct line you can see. Depending on that project or what it is, that can be the motivator. Understanding what you path is even if it's a short term.

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST RISK YOU'VE TAKEN IN YOUR LIFE AND DID IT PAY OFF?

It' really tough to figure out. I've taken small risks. I remember when I got out of college I didn't know what the hell I was going to do. But I knew that I didn't want to live with my parents. I wanted to live in the city. I had a job in the city and I was commuting from my parents house. I was not making enough money to live in the city. But I had some money saved and I decided that I would figure it out. I made the decision to do it knowing that I didn't make enough money to live in the city. So every month I watched my bank account slowly decrease. Every month it was less and less and less. That went on for nearly a year and a half. I was this close to moving back to my parents house but then I got a new job. It didn't pay a lot either but compared to what I was getting paid it was like "oh my god!" I was basically making enough money to live there, pay my rent, my expenses and not live in the red anymore. That was a risk for me. Taking a risk on myself and saying "ah I'll figure it out." 

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"Create something for yourself. It doesn't matter what it is as long as it makes you happy."

HOW ELSE DO YOU DEAL WITH ANXIETY?

I have an extensive bourbon collection. That helps a lot, I enjoy that. I say it jokingly, but seriously like over the past year or so I've gotten really into the history behind American whiskies and I spend time on online boards and communities and stuff looking into it, talking to people, meeting up and trading bottles. It's something that I enjoy that takes me out of the daily nonsense of other stuff when I'm thinking about it. It's me time and it's a hobby. I also like to travel and I like to be in new places where I can meet new people. Planning those experiences and knowing that they're coming up on the horizon is always helpful because It's something to look forward to. Another thing that helps is this - spending time with friends and family and talking it out. I think one of the most therapeutic things to do is to talk about the things that are affecting you just out loud. You and I are drinking a glass of whiskey and talking about anxiety to a camera. Talking about anxiety is way better than me sitting on a bus thinking about anxiety. Just talking about it out loud is good, it makes you rationalize it and you start to think about it differently.

WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE TO ANYONE ON HOW TO LIVE A MORE MEANINGFUL AND CREATIVE LIFE?

I think it's motivation and the self-discovery of finding out what drives you. It can take time, you might not know the answer to that. I don't consider myself a creative by nature. I know people who can't stop thinking about creative ideas. I think I have the ability to be creative and I think I do have a creative side to me. I can think of creative things but it comes out more when It's something I'm passionate about. So the advice I have is to explore because it may take you a long time to find what that is. Unless you're open to experiences, trying things and failing, opening yourself up and being vulnerable, and being scared and taking risks, you may not find it. There are things in my life that I fell into either by chance or because I tried something I wasn't sure about and ended up loving it. Take risks, take chances, explore. Out of that you might find a passion that leads you down a path that you may never look back from. I think that's part of the search. I'm always looking for that. Some people find that thing and never look back. I think that's to me the only advice I can ever give anybody. Don't close yourself off. Give into the world and experience as much as you can.

Watch the full interview here: