Ethan Hawke: Success Is as Simple as Setting Achievable Goals

As an actor, director, screenwriter, and novelist, Ethan Hawke knows how to get things done. The secret to his success is taking small, progressive steps to a larger goal. It's just that simple.

Ethan Hawke:  I have thrived on one simple idea which his placing achievable goals in front of you. I never would give myself a goal like writing a novel. I find goals like that really intimidating. I do well by saying I’m going to try and write every day for ten days. I remember when I was first starting to teach myself to write. I would say I’m going to go away for ten days. I’ll go on a ten day retreat and I’ll write every day for ten days with the goal of one short story. Let’s see if we can just – I’m going to come back with one short story I can hand to my friends. And usually those simple actions give you confidence. I did that. I wrote a short story and I gave it to my friends and they really liked it. I mean they’re my friends, right. And they were encouraging. I knew that there were a couple of paragraphs that were really good. You know when you start accessing that part of yourself and you give yourself achievable goals – I remember I didn’t decide that I wanted to direct films. I told myself that I was going to direct a short film and I was going to make it super manageable, something that I could afford to produce. I didn’t need to ask anybody. I took the money I made from Dead Poet’s Society and I made a short film. 

You know, I’ve got a graphic novel coming out. That’s kind of weird, you know, for an actor to do. I made a documentary last year. I wrote a children’s book last year. I’ve acted in plays. To a lot of people that strikes them as weird. Or they can accuse me of being a dilettante or something like that, right. But I believe in cultivating the attitude of a student at all times and putting yourself out of your comfort zone. You know if all I did was act since I was 13 I could do that but it doesn’t help me become a better actor. Writing helps me become a better actor. Directing, you know, I’m trying to direct a movie right now. I’m trying to talk other actors into being in the movie and they say no all the time the bastards. And but it helps me understand wow, that’s how she works. I would have never thought that about the script. You know what? She’s right. It is strange. Why does that do that? Now when I’m meeting a director who is trying to talk me into doing a movie I know how sensitive they’re feeling, you know, and I know how to talk to them in a way that’s not going to be hurtful or disrespectful.

I have had a lot of experience in different things and, you know, I’ll give myself a goal of a first draft of something with plenty of time. But you have to make it. If you give yourself achievable – the great thing is you don’t want to position yourself to fail because failing is depressing and it makes you lose steam. Whereas if you say like I don’t have to direct a movie by next year or anything like that but I will have a first draft or I’ll die. I’m going to have this first draft. And so what do I really need to do that? Well I need to have an outline by next week and then I’ll make that outline into a ten page treatment. I’ll turn that ten page treatment into a 20 page treatment. Then I’ll try to write a first draft of a screenplay with my goal of it being 60 pages. And like that. And okay. Invariably often you can get done sooner than that.

Although Ethan Hawke is a novelist, he says writing a novel has never been a personal goal. His comment is not a falsely modest one. Rather it comes from a feeling of genuine intimidation before the task of writing a book-length manuscript. As a famous poet once said, our ends never know our beginnings, and in the case of achieving our goals, this might be a good thing.


The idea of taking baby steps through a project is cliche enough to be virtually meaningless. As a way through that impasse, Hawke discusses some real life examples of when setting small goals has allowed him to achieve greater success. Before he ever dreamed of writing a novel, he took a retreat to simply write for ten days in a row. The goal? One short story. After acting in Dead Poets Society, Hawke decided to do some directing. Instead of directing a feature-length film, he chose a short documentary.

In two of Hawke's industries — writing and filmmaking — there is an achievable goal baked into each medium: the short story and the short film. Rather than writing a novel or directing a documentary, Hawke merely committed to writing a short story and directing a short-form documentary.

The key, says Hawke, is not setting yourself up for failure. Whatever your medium is, whether banking reports or epic poetry, you must set achievable goals for yourself, despite whatever grandiose wishes you have. Setting impossible goals will result in failure, and failure, says Hawke, is just depressing. One of the greatest motivators in Hawke's writing endeavors was the praise of his friends, so receiving positive feedback for your work is essential. Positive feedback comes from inside and outside, and both depend on setting goals that are realistic.

Ethan Hawke's graphic novel is Indeh: The Story of the Apache Wars.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
  • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
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