The most common thing people ask me, is this: “How’d you get away with it?”. The “it” they’re referring to has been many different things. From being able to work from home ten years ago, to working with some of the best actors in the country, to setting down ground rules that benefit me as much as the other parties.
See, when people ask you “how’d you get away with it”, they’re assuming you’re either cheating, or you’re doing something that you shouldn’t be able to do. We’re trained very early on to respect authority (maybe not as much today, but that’s a whole other topic of discussion). In the working world, we’re trained to respect a hierarchy, and we’re trained to believe that we’ll be appointed a specific role in that hierarchy by the person, or people, above you. So, if you’re in a junior role, you’re a ‘junior’ until someone else says you’re not. Naturally, people stagnate in roles, or they’re promoted to their highest level of incompetence. As it turns out, your boss isn’t always the best judge of your skills and your character.
So, here’s the problem with waiting for someone else to tell you what you are good at: if their opinion of you gets ingrained into your mindset, you’ll never recognize it when you’ve actually upgraded your skills to the next level. And if you’re a go-getter, you’ve likely been learning as you go. You’ve acquired new skills, you’ve gotten better at certain tasks, you might even have surpassed your peers. If you don’t grab that fucking bull by the horns, and start calling yourself ‘intermediate’ after it’s become obvious that you’ve earned it, you’ll always be at the mercy of other people.
I think that’s why I’ve always been the way I’ve been; I don’t like being at the mercy of other people’s opinions, especially if it’s not based in anything other than traditional roles and traditional beliefs. I’ve always been aware of what I did on a daily basis, and how that measured up to the industry that I was in. If you want to climb up the ladder, you have to keep an eye on your marketplace, even if you’re not looking. You stay sharp, or you lose. (And if you’re losing interest, then you start thinking about what else you want to do with your life.)
When it came to making connections, I knew that the only way I’d connect with the people I wanted to connect with was to impress them with my skills. If you want to do editorial work, and the only thing you’ve got is a boring commercial portfolio, then why the fuck would anyone consider you for an editorial? Go back, and create an editorial portfolio on your own time. You have to become what you want to be. It’s really that simple. If you want to work with the best actors in the country, you have to behave like someone who’s already done that. By the way, you will absolutely fuck up your first few projects. I have. I screwed up on a few projects because I couldn’t achieve what I’d set out to do. It’s by screwing up that you find out what you need to do to level up, next time.
I got away with stuff because I learned when to say ‘yes’, and when to say ‘no’. You’ll rarely hear me say ‘maybe’ to anything. It’s a lot easier to advance, or step back, if you tackle indecision right away. Doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind, later. It just means, you’re moving along. Keep moving, always keep moving.
I got away with stuff because I didn’t let the hierarchy impose stupid ideas on me. And that’s a shocker when you’re doing it. Nothing is more amusing than the eyes of people who’ve never heard anyone say ‘no’ to them. You can’t fault them. People only behave the way they do because they’ve always behaved that way, and they’ve been rewarded for it. But, I never hesitated to say ‘no’ at the right time, and under the right circumstances, and especially in a situation where, if I didn’t say anything, it would aversely affect other people. As a manager, my entire raison d’etre was to protect my team from bullshit. I learned how important that was from other leaders I’d worked for in the past. When you see something you like in someone, emulate it, because the truth is, very few leaders are actually respected by their subordinates.
If you want to take your place in the world, you’ll have to walk the line between being assertive, and being an asshole. Sometimes, you’ll cross the line, and if you have a healthy brain, you’ll recognize it. You’ll know you’re an asshole when nobody wants to work with you. And the thing is, they won’t tell you. They’ll make up excuses. But, you’ll know. You always know – and I know, because I’ve been one. And if anyone else perceives you as being cocky for getting what you want, then so be it. I’m ok with that perception. I think it’s possible to be cocky, and compassionate. It’s possible to be cocky, and a good listener. It’s possible to be cocky, and a pleasure to work with. (I use ‘cocky’ as an expression, but if you don’t like it, just replace it with ‘assertive’ or ‘confident’.)
In the end, I’ve never lost that fear, that sickening fear we’re all born with. The one that makes you feel like you don’t deserve it, or that feeling that makes you nervous when you’re about to say something that might be met with confrontation. That doesn’t go away. You just practice living with it. It’s like a singer with stage fright. A lot of famous singer have stage fright, but they still get up there and sing. It’s bullshit to believe that you can get rid of it. You’ll always feel like an imposter, and you’ll always struggle with the feeling that you’re not good enough. It never goes away. But, you can “get away with stuff” by acknowledging that it’s there. You don’t need a guru for that. You just acknowledge it, make it your friend, take it by the hand, and start walking forward. You just have to do it once. And then, you do it again and again, and again, until it becomes a way of life.