So much has been written about “the slap heard ’round the world” in such a short time that it already seems a tired target. It is all of that, but I would feel I missed a moment if I didn’t share my own reaction.
For me, it has almost nothing to do with Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Chris Rock, the Academy Awards, or any of the specific elements that surrounded that night. I stopped watching the Oscars years ago, mostly because I love the craft of storytelling far too much to see it devolve into a compromised, increasingly irrelevant dress up pageant.
My take is more personal, a series of artifacts stored deeply in my mind that have molded me over the decades.
I began my career in entertainment, both as a writer and on the business side. I was even in the legendary William Morris mailroom for an abbreviated sequence of heartbeats.
Here’s what I discovered in the entertainment business: wealth + fame = the equivalent of royal privilege.
Most of my observations of high-ranking talent—creative or executive—encompassed abysmally bad behavior. There were exceptions of course, but most of what I encountered involved arrogance, rude backbiting, uncontrolled spending of other people’s money, and a tone of disdain fearing ordinary competition might unseat an incumbent player.
I discovered the novel phone etiquette of “Please hold for so and so … ” when someone calls you, where that someone is rolling calls and can’t be bothered to dial. On my very first round of job interviews out of college, I asked a producer at the top of his game for his business card; he laughed at me and told me everyone knew who he was, he hadn’t had a business card in 20 years (his name wouldn’t even make a good Jeopardy question now).
I saw a celebrity at the top of her game order a bottle of Dom Perignon at a lunch meeting, take one sip from her glass, and the rest went untouched. I had a stapler thrown at me, not because of anything I did but because I was in the room when a big deal went south.
Small stuff? Sure, but the message was clear. They weren’t like us. They were different.
Later came Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and MeToo. But it didn’t really come later. It was happening all along.
I migrated my career to technology, which was an open door in those days. I figured as an emerging platform it would be more egalitarian, a level playing field, and I was sort of right, that a piranha-filled moat was not yet evident in the entrepreneurial community. Multiple times I called the CEOs of newly public companies and thought I would get their assistants, only they had no assistants and actually picked up the phone.
That was before I met the financial community that surrounded technology.
Here’s what I discovered in high tech: wealth + fame = the equivalent of royal privilege.
I was invited to a backyard party in Silicon Valley, then called to be told I was uninvited because there were too many other more important people coming, then called the day of the party and invited again when apparently not enough people showed up. I was told my wife was not invited to a dinner, because the money people involved didn’t want to get too close to me or know much about my family in case I didn’t work out and they had to dump me.
I was invited by multiple blue-chip funds to pitch for backing, left in the waiting room for 45 minutes of my scheduled hour, then given 8 minutes to run my deck to people staring at mobile phone screens. I was promised substantial equity financing and told to move ahead with major hiring plans, only it never emerged and I had to let go most of the people I had hired.
What does all of this have to do with Will Smith?
As F. Scott Fitzgerald so eloquently observed: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
He was right. The consistent theme I have observed is that somehow, some way, when too many people get to a certain level of reward (note that I say reward, not necessarily accomplishment), something in their thought patterns is altered. Outlandish acts that would never occur to normal people—you know, like walking on a stage during a global broadcast of a once glamorous awards show and smacking a presenter speaking into the camera—somehow even for a millisecond sound survivable. Of course they almost immediately regret it if they are at all partially sane, but the momentary lapse of reason is not curbed in real-time by the same filters that are applied to the rest of us.
Do the same rules apply to everyone? It would be naive of me to say yes when we observe so much to the contrary. Only on some occasions is bad behavior of the elite so bad that the consequences are unavoidable. We see the edge cases where hubris is called to the carpet, but that remains a fraction of the enforcement necessary to remind us that civility in public discourse is not an elective, it is expected for unsupervised social engagement to be a constant.
Very early in my career, one of my wisest and most conflicted mentors said to me: “Be careful with what you think you are achieving; if you live long enough, you might become what you most fear.” I barely had a clue what he meant at the time, but I never forgot it, and each year that has gone by it has meant more to me.
What do I take away from the Will Smith fiasco?
None of us are very important in the broad scope of things. Should you disagree, have a look at the obituaries of the most successful among us published even 30 days ago and try to recall most of their names.
Delusions are most famously reversed at the most inopportune times.
If you wish to maintain your admiration for a celebrity, try very hard not to meet them in person.
Life is too short and precious to let success of any kind go to your head and reshape your humanity into something you as a child would have abhorred.
Humility is a choice.