A Talk with Casey Neistat

Last Tuesday, Carnegie Mellon was visited by filmmaker, entrepreneur, and YouTube star Casey Neistat. Neistat, best known for his multimedia company Beme and his inventive style of vlogging, provided some choice advice to Carnegie Mellon’s aspiring filmmakers:

“Nobody knows anything.”

Coming from an accomplished filmmaker who presumably knows a lot about his work, this advice was unexpected. A few laughs came from the audience, who thought his advice was just a joke, but Neistat was as serious as could be. As he told his life story though a series of jokes interspersed with videos from his career, Neistat related how utterly unpredictable life can be, and how determination can take you from humble beginnings to national acclaim.

Neistat first entered into the job field as a dish washer in a small seafood restaurant in an even smaller town. He started creating videos as a way to share his feelings and have his voice be heard, hoping to impact others from his tiny community in Gales Ferry, Connecticut. He continued to make videos, eventually moving to New York City. Over the course of several years, he and his brother, Van Neistat, landed an HBO show The Neistat Brothers in 2010. Being in the company of shows like Boardwalk Empire and How to Make It in America, the show never gained quite the footing they had hoped for. Undeterred, Neistat kept his energy on filmmaking while simultaneously working as a bike messenger in New York. This is where he created the immensely popular “Bike Lanes” video. Currently at 20 million views, this video was the one that established him in the public eye. Neistat was just “angry about having to pay $50 for riding his bike outside of the bike lane, and decided to make a stupid video about it.” This “stupid video” in due time lead to a three-film collaboration with Nike, exploding his career as a filmmaker both on YouTube and on the commercial scene. As he so pointedly remarked during his lecture, “who could have foreseen that happening?”

It’s here where his advice — “Nobody knows anything” — comes into play. He tells students that he “had no idea what he was doing, but he was doing it anyways,” determinedly chasing after his goals and taking down any obstacle that stood in his way. “Big successes can come from unexpected places,” saying he could never have guessed that his “stupid video” about New York’s transportation laws would result in greater long-term success than an eight-episode HBO series. While life may be wildly unpredictable, “it can take you to places you’d never known.”

Like many of the others at the lecture, I found Neistat’s advice to be lighthearted, fun, and incredibly valuable. Entering into such an established field, especially one in the entertainment industry, can be incredibly daunting; we’re surrounded by others who’ve accomplished and experienced so much more than we have, and we can often find ourselves feeling like we truly don’t know anything. But that’s okay — apparently, no one else does either! And as crazy as that can sound, it brings an important truth to mind: all that matters is our own determination and our own grit. While some opportunities can lead to other amazing ventures, and other opportunities may not, setting our sights on our goals and fighting for them can yield incredible results. Like Neistat, if we stick to our guns and focus our energy on our goals, we can have big successes in our own wildly unpredictable lives.

After warmly joking about his past experiences and videos, Neistat finished his lecture with one last piece of advice, and left the audience feeling motivated and energized:

“Do more, and do what you can't."