Tick, Tick…Boom! is a must-watch for anyone who does creative work

This is a movie about failure and getting back up, and his masterpiece is ahead of him. And it’s hopeful because maybe so is yours.


Lin-Manuel Miranda, director of Tick, Tick…Boom!

It’s been over six weeks since I first watched Tick, Tick…Boom! on Netflix (I reopened my Netflix subscription for one month just to watch this) and I still can’t stop thinking about it. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s an adaptation of a rock monologue by Jonathan Larson, who would later go on to write the smash hit Rent.

Tick, Tick…Boom is all about the “before,” when Jonathan was still working in a diner, rewriting and sweating over a futuristic dystopian musical he’d been working for 8 years with no clue whether all his efforts would be worth it. He’s turning 30 in eight days, his girlfriend wants to move to the Berkshires, his friends are dying from AIDS, and his best friend has given up acting to take an office job on Madison Avenue.

Far too often, the stories we read about artists are all about the successes, and we think that if we simply do what they did, then we can be successful too. This is the definition of survivorship bias. For every successful person out there, there are thousands of others who did the same things but didn’t have the same outcome. We never see hear those stories, though, and I think that’s dangerous. It makes creative success sound less like a crapshoot than it actually is.

I’ve even met writers who refuse to believe in luck, thinking that if they did all the right things, they can be the next Rowling or Patterson or King. Maybe, but that’s like saying if I buy a lottery ticket, I could win the Powerball–it’s technically correct, but it ignores how little control we have over the outcome. You can be immensely hard-working and talented and still not achieve conventional success because there are simply too many candidates for too few spots.

What I love about Tick, Tick…Boom is that it captures the strength and folly of choosing to persevere in the face of rejection and the sacrifices it requires to do so. Jonathan Larson chose to do a show revealing a vulnerable time in his life during a vulnerable time in his life (while he was working on Rent).

Sadly, he died the night before Rent‘s first off-Broadway preview performance. He was only 35 years old. He didn’t live to see how successful his work became or how he influenced a new generation of creators, including Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I’m not a genius like Jonathan Larson and my 20s are way behind me, but I still connected with his decision to just keep working despite the rejections and indifference from the powers-that-be. I’ve learned to get satisfaction from writing stories and releasing them into the world with no expectations. As Jonathan says in the song “Why,” “I’m gonna spend my time this way.”

There are SO many great videos and interviews covering Tick, Tick…Boom!, but the one that resonated with me the most is this scene where Jonathan learns that the musical he sank 8 years into won’t be picked up by a producer (and receives excellent advice from his agent):

No matter what, keep working on the next project.