In 2003, Sean Cannell started shooting videos for his local youth group using a Canon HV30 with mini DV tapes. Watching the videos required a VHS player and projector—a retro pairing you’d be hard-pressed to find now. He could never have imagined that his passion for creating videos would someday translate into a career as a wildly successful YouTuber.
That isn’t to say the years in between have been easy. In 2009 he came up against several crises, each of which would have been an acceptable reason to give up on his passion. First, the recession hit and he was overleveraged financially, then his church was embroiled in an embezzlement scandal. Finally, his wife became unexplainably ill and required hospitalization. Amid the fear and grief, he somehow found a way to press forward.
“I’ve heard it said that if you’re going through hell, keep going,” he shares in a recent conversation with Brilliant Thoughts’ host and editor Tristan Ahumada. “I think the key is if you’re in the shadow of death, that’s not where you want to set up camp, you gotta keep going.”
Cannell’s current life is a testament to the power of perseverance. He started Think Media, a podcast and YouTube channel with more than two million followers, and recently published the second edition of YouTube Secrets, a book he co-authored with Benji Travis. His life is fuller than it’s ever been, but he recognizes it could have gone very differently.
Now Cannell makes it his mission to uplift other content creators by sharing his expertise. Of the many tips he divulges during his interview with Ahumada, seven stand out from the rest:
1. Find your mortality motivation
No one wants to think about death all the time, but there’s a reason Tim McGraw’s song “Live Like You Were Dying” exists—the realization of your impermanence makes you understand how precious life really is. This concept is called mortality motivation, and it’s what Cannell began to experience when his wife (who has thankfully recovered) was so ill in the hospital.
“It shifts your perspective and you start saying, ‘Man, am I really living all-in?’” he explains. “Tomorrow’s not guaranteed.”
Through the turmoil of his wife’s sickness, he decided to be all-in with his passion, with his effort, with everything. His attitude and the success he’s experienced as a result is why he can now sit on the other side, encouraging other creators to keep going.
“What we do today is we teach others how to monetize their passion, reach more people with their message and build their business with the power of online video and YouTube,” he says. “And the fire hasn’t stopped.”
2. Identify your ideal path to success
Cannell isn’t oblivious of the fact that some people struggle to find their path, especially when they’re interested in so many different things. In fact, he remembers being torn between his work as a pastor and a video creator. Identifying the following “three Ps” helped him narrow it down:
- Passion. It’s essential to pick a project you’re passionate about, but many people have more than one. In these instances, Cannell suggests picking five to 10 and writing them down for further evaluation.
- Proficiency. Cannell says that “proficiency speaks to what others see in you,” meaning the thing you’re known for or have the most knowledge about. You want to choose a path that is intuitive to your skill set.
- Profit. Even if you’re passionate about and proficient at something, if it can’t be monetized, it won’t lead to the ideal level of success. Before choosing a path, Cannell suggests identifying its total addressable market or potential for profit.
Ultimately, the path you choose should be the one that most strongly aligns with all three, according to Cannell. That’s the process by which he decided to go all-in on video creation.
3. Reconcile your callings
At times, Cannell feels strange about being a pastor who chose to focus on his YouTube career. However, he’s found a way to integrate his faith with his passion for video production.
“It was actually around 2008, before everything came crashing down, that God really stirred in my heart a call to the marketplace,” he explains. “But in a lot of ways, I feel that once a pastor, always a pastor.”
Cannell continues his spiritual caretaking through nurturing and praying for his team, as well as his viewers. In doing so, he’s been able to reconcile his two strongest callings, which is why many of his followers affectionately refer to him as “the YouTube pastor.”
4. Build on solid ground
“The mission of our company is actually to teach business and marketing from a biblical perspective, so the word of God is actually the foundation,” he says. “My hope is to help 10,000 purpose-driven people not just figure out how to make a living on YouTube, but also really figure out how to make a difference and share messages that matter.”
Although faith is Cannell’s foundation, he doesn’t believe it needs to be everybody’s. He does believe that people seeking a career in social media should build on something more solid than fame and money, such as ethics or character. He says that making his faith his foundation is what’s allowed him to keep the fire burning for Think Media.
5. Evaluate your relationship with ambition
Although the meat of Cannell’s mission is about helping thoughtful creators figure out how to share their messages, that’s not the entirety of it. He says that the final line of his purpose statement should say, “and to experience that success without losing their soul.”
“I don’t want my business or my YouTube channel to get bigger than my character because I don’t want to be crushed by success,” he says. “I also don’t want to be afraid of success, so it’s a line to walk.”
Cannell says that it’s hard to see young creators, especially on TikTok, blow up before they’re able to handle success. He encourages anyone building a fan base on social media to take an honest assessment of their relationship with ambition before diving too deep.
6. Think of social media as a tool
Although he agrees that social media has the potential for destruction, he doesn’t agree with some critics’ stance that it’s evil. To him, social media is a tool, much like money. They both have the potential to do tremendous good or harm.
Needless to say, Cannell has figured out how to make social media work for him. He says one of his main strategies is to “work smarter, not harder” by repurposing video podcasts for multiple platforms. Ahumada asks if he would change primary platforms or strategies if he were just starting his journey today.
“If I was to start today… YouTube would be home base because it’s the only place where your content lives forever,” he explains. “Yes, there’s incredible organic and viral growth on TikTok, but I would argue the quality of the viewership there is nowhere near what a YouTube audience is.”
7. Find your clarity
Finally, Cannell emphasizes the importance of clarity. At the end of the day, everyone—regardless of career or life path—needs to answer for themselves why they’re doing it.
“I would do some market research and think about what it is you love,” he says. “Of course you should serve others, but one of the reasons it’s cool to do an interview show is because it puts you in a situation where you’re constantly learning, where you’re constantly getting to build your network and connect with other people.”
For Cannell, that’s what everything seems to be about: harnessing passion, faith and ingenuity to bring more value to others.
You can find additional social media insights, YouTube strategies, courses and speaking events when you visit Cannell’s website.