Fighting the Scourge of the ‘30 Under 30’ List

Big. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka Mattoo represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and directs, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide. In show business, they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck because now you know Priyanka!

I’m a freelance journalist in my mid-20s, but I aspire to write for TV. My samples are in pretty good shape, and I’ve started sharing my work with writer friends. The feedback has been pretty good! The problem is, every time I think “Wow, I’m doing great!” one of those 30-under-30 lists comes out and I start to doubt myself. There is so much pressure to get things done by a certain age that it’s hard not to feel like a failure because I’m not being lauded for running my own show yet. How do I keep myself from being discouraged when it seems like I’m surrounded by wunderkinder? —Sarah S., Birmingham, U.K.

Oh GOSH, a wave of existential dread surges through the young people of Twitter every time one of those lists comes out, and I both feel for you and have had enough. I’ve never been on a list in my life! The only time anyone has ever asked me to be in a magazine, they took it back when they found out I was pregnant. So, that’s magazines. Now, I realize the readers of this column all want to be Simon Rich, not me. But you can work in comedy, and enjoy it, and other people in comedy will think you’re good at it, and that’s pretty satisfying.

I absolutely remember how it feels, though. I 100 percent met my 30th birthday with tears and dread because I’d been brainwashed, like everyone else, to think I should have done 1 million important things by then. And it feels especially challenging when you’re a woman and you’re being told that if you want to have children, you’d better get cracking. On top of that, media and entertainment are strange, strange jobs. Nobody is giving you a quarterly review, telling you you’re doing great, or quantifying your achievements in any way that you can share with your family and friends. And your family and friends have no idea what you do, anyway. So, the lists partly serve that purpose — they publicly pat a section of people on the head every year and say “Good job, you!” It must feel really nice to be on those lists. Congrats, everyone on lists! But for you, it means nothing. I promise. Another promise: The vast majority of happy, successful people have not been on any sort of list.

First of all, let’s talk about how these lists are compiled. Not all, but many people in flashy positions had a leg up because of a parent’s financial situation, a specific school, or a family business (OR BRIBES!!!!!). Great, fine. That is his or her journey. There is no one path to success, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of “If only!” I mean, yes, if only we all had families to support us emotionally and financially, we might be further ahead, or we might be lazy jerks. It’s a toss-up.

It’s also important to remember that a lot of these lists are cobbled together by publicists. Various agencies and PR companies pitch their clients for the best-known yearly lists, and editors decide which collection of people is going to make the most interesting story to their readers. As we all know, the media loves a prodigy. It’s how Theranos happened! Girl took two semesters of chemistry, and people were referencing her science background! Don’t get me started. The media loves baby animal friends and stories about people piecing together health-care payments from strangers. Young people, too, mean more clicks.

I know that a lot of the advice I give boils down to “ignore everyone else,” but there’s a reason for that. The success of other people doesn’t mean anything for your own. There isn’t a finite amount of success in the world, and if they’re in a glossy magazine, it doesn’t mean you’ve lost any achievement points. Sit down and physically map out your measures of success: a career that inspires and enriches you? Financial stability within that career? A support network of fun, trustworthy friends? An enduring romance? Whatever combination you’re going for, it’s a myth that they will be achieved by some faraway editor deciding that you’re worthy of press coverage. You’re going to work hard, you’re going to make nice friends, and you’re going to date, if you feel like it. And your life is going to be amazing! Everyone else does not matter.

Here are some late (or later-than-30) bloomers to tape on your fridge: Laura Ingalls Wilder was 43 when she first set pen to paper. Julia Child was a terrible cook who enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu at 37 and published her first cookbook at 49. Melissa McCarthy had been working her butt off for years when she did Bridesmaids at 40, and things have gone pretty well since then. Tiffany Haddish was 37 in Girls Trip. David Sedaris was 44 when he showed up on NPR for the first time. Ang Lee was a stay-at-home dad, supporting his kids and wife, who made his first English-language movie at 41. I realize I’m also … making a list here, but I hope it hammers in the point. The big things you want — a career, some stability, and, likely, an artistic legacy — are entirely unrelated to when the world decides it wants to notice you.

What I really hope is that you can turn down the volume on this desire (that we all have!) to be noticed. I get asked a lot what people can do to be “noticed” or “get attention” from agents, producers, whomever. My response is that you can’t control when someone notices you, but you can control how much work you put into building your portfolio and sharing it. I doubt you value attention over craft, so work on your scripts, build your community, and enrich your life. Great work will rise to the surface. And before everyone yells at me for implying that Hollywood is a meritocracy: You’re right, a big chunk of it is not! A big chunk of the world is not. I wish I could snap my fingers and change that, but I can’t (yet!).

Yes, some people scam their way into entertainment — a family member gives a kid an internship, that kind of thing. Connections in the business can certainly get your foot in the door. But in my experience, if they don’t have the skills to back up the opportunity they’ve been given, they often get laughed out of their jobs. And now that showrunners, producers, and execs are feeling the pressure to cast a wider net as they hire writers, actors, and even assistants, they are looking more intently for talent in places other than the same old well. I’m so inspired and encouraged by the people I’ve met in the past year who are the first in their families to go to college or to come out here and chase this nutty dream. This column exists so that everyone has access to the same information that people here have been hoarding for generations!

People who are born with a leg up are not going away. Hopefully we can change the percentage of slots given them, but in the meantime, if you want to write, I encourage you to live the kind of rich, eventful, interesting life you’re proud and excited to mine for art. A bunch of kids you read about may have a lot of talent, but it’s hard to keep writing about life if you aren’t exactly living it. Go listen to The Dropout, in which my favorite part — I’m paraphrasing — is John Carreyrou saying that there is a reason most Nobel Prizes in medicine are awarded to people in their 60s, because that’s usually how long it takes to change the world. Afford yourself kindness and patience, and keep doing the work. You’re going to be great. Write me back in ten years please!

Fighting the Scourge of the ‘30 Under 30’ List