Alumni spotlight: David Freiheit

The Faculty of Arts caught up with McGill Art's alumnus, David Freiheit, lawyer and content creator.

A few weeks ago, I attended a panel hosted by CAPS called Careers in Arts and Entertainment. Since I’ve always been interested in a career in the arts and entertainment industry, I was hoping that by listening to fellow McGill Arts Alumni in the field, I would gain a better idea of how they got to where they are today. That was where I first met David Freiheit- a self described “compulsive” content creator at Viva Frei Productions Incorporated and commercial litigation attorney at Freiheit Legal Incorporated.

David - a McGill Arts alumnus with an Honours in Philosophy and a minor in History - has 47 thousand subscribers on YouTube with more than 30 million views. His vlogs range from cooking segments, cute squirrels (you might have known him from his viral video A squirrel nabbed my GoPro that has over 7 million views), to flashes of daily life featuring fishing, drones and his family of five. With two different - yet successful careers - I asked David if he had ever dreamed of becoming an online personality.

“No it was an accident! I never really fell in love with the practice of law. At the beginning, I gave myself a rolling six-month timeline within which I would either like it or leave it, but I kept on renewing that deadline because I just couldn’t make up my mind. After my wife and I had our first kid, that’s when I realized I needed to change something in my life.”

In 2010, after six years at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, David opened his own firm, making the unpredictable transition from a big firm to an independent practice.

“Being an independent lawyer was more fulfilling from a professional perspective and I liked it for a long time, but there was something about the practice of law that was never going to change and there was no point in me trying to change it. Just like how my mother had always reminded me of the serenity prayer – ‘to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

When people have invested so much into one career and are under the pressure of others’ expectations, it is often difficult to transition into another career.

“There is the financial aspect, but it’s almost less important than the emotional investment.” He recognizes this difficulty and elaborates, “I've been working with my father for a couple of years and my parents knew my mental state – they don’t want me to make mistakes, but they don't want me to be miserable. And my wife couldn’t be anyone more supportive (not just here, but for my life in general)! It’s bad having the fear to be labelled as a failure; but being unhappy for the rest of your professional life is worse. I didn’t have a real choice - I could have become a partner at the first firm I was working at, but it’s not a choice that I can live with.”

David gives credit to his family for playing a major role in his decision-making process, “Kurt Vonnegut says that ‘we have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down,’ so if I don't jump off the cliff I’ll never force myself to grow the wings. Then I’ll be that stressed out dad with the kids and partner that he doesn’t see and I’m not prepared to dedicate the rest of my life to that.”

When asked what has brought him onto content creation on YouTube, among the plenty other outlets available, David recalls,

“I got a GoPro for Christmas and I started exploring it by getting back to video making, things that I used to do when I was a kid. I had done filming when I studied creative arts in CEGEP, but I was brought up to believe there was no career in that. When I first started to make videos on the side, it was really just a stress release on the side from the frustrations built up from a professional basis. When I realized that you can make enough money to justify the passion, I got into the whole industry.”

While his experience in law helped him in the digital industry, David had his hesitations to turn to YouTube on a full-time basis,

“The greatest thing about being a lawyer is that you familiarize yourself with different portfolios, and in YouTube, viral marketing and the whole videomaking business, you are able to learn and adapt pretty quickly. Right now I’m at the crossroad because with three kids and two working parents in the family, finance is a real concern. I can still make my passion work but supplementing it with law seems more reasonable.”

The real challenge comes to dedicating the time and energy into one busy profession, while still managing another career he loves. For David, his time management secret is none other than having the passion.

“I am an unreasonably optimistic person. When I first transferred from commercial litigation to the practice of videomaking, I really understood what people meant when they said that if you love your job, you’d never work a day in your life. I can do this eighteen hours a day and I never felt the incompleteness when I was doing law for twelve hours a day and got paid more money than I knew what I could do with.”

Not all hobbies can be turned into sustainable careers despite having the passion. There are people out there doing jobs they don’t like for various reasons and they tend to place constraints on themselves to not leave such a job, which is a type of thinking that is difficult to overcome. Forced to choose between what one genuinely likes versus what seems more practical, it is an extremely hard choice to make.

“As a young Bachelor of Arts student, you are indoctrinated with that thinking because 90% of the time it is the reality. People get onto a path that they cannot get off because there are just too many things pushing them in that direction: bills, loans, private school, mortgages… And there’s no real choice left anymore. When you see people doing what they love in life, it is really nothing other than the 10,000 or the 20,000 hours of sacrifice to be able to make it work - whatever it is- painting, making music, or any sort of creation. It’s not that living by the rules and having a 9 to 5 job is wrong. Some people may have more difficulties to take the risk to break off these constraints.”

More people are making a full-time career out of YouTube and other content creation platforms, yet many have skepticism towards video making as a long-term sustainable profession, afraid that these jobs are a new trend that will die down soon.

“That’s a question YouTubers ask themselves everyday, but YouTube is just another content platform. Whatever the new trend is in the next five years, be it Instagram, Twitch, or anything else, people who are already succeeding with YouTube will find a way to continue. It’s like life in Jurassic Park – it’ll find a way.”

David stresses the importance of learning and developing core skills at any profession. To him, the ability to produce compelling content in the creative arts is more important than searching for the platform to showcase them.

“There are details and specificities to platforms, but there is also universality. People who create quality content and captivating stories will bring this creative capacity with them wherever they go regardless of the platform. You have people like Joe Rogan who is a stand-up comedian but also doing sports commentaries, podcasts and was a TV host and actor, and succeeded in every single aspect of his career because he brings values to all these platforms. At the end of the day, it is always the content that matters and you just need to learn how to market your transferable skills.”