My Will Smith Reflection

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.

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Photo: Pixabay

Act Two Begins When You Say So

F Scott Fitzgerald“There are no second acts in American lives.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon, 1941

“I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, My Lost City, 1932

Like many everyday admirers of American literature, I grew up only hearing the first use of Fitzgerald’s famous quote, which in fact was published posthumously. And like many people who misinterpreted that quote due to a lack of context, I grew up confused, conflicted, and even angry every time I read it. Fitzgerald the social observer worried about the American Dream, but he also celebrated idealism and courage. Would he want to be remembered for an inaccurate observation that is not only untrue but damaging? I doubt it.

Without diving into a diatribe on American literature, let’s just lift from the earlier interpretation of Fitzgerald’s quote and bury the latter forever. To the complete contrary, I assert with full confidence that it is entirely the DNA of American lives to reignite with second acts—in many cases, multiple second acts. In fact you can have as many acts as you want. Your life’s work can be singular, dual, multifaceted, multithreaded, a sine curve of milestones, or a pastiche of overlapping landmarks. If anyone tells you otherwise, run away as far as you can as quickly as you can and clear your mind of the naysayer’s rub.

Our economy is a place that celebrates reinvention. Our democracy is a place where resilience triumphs over cynicism. I believe these things not because I am a Pollyanna motivator (quite the opposite if you know me), but because I see these traits in winners who repeatedly defy the odds. Entrepreneurs, respected leaders, creative professionals who challenge the status quo—they all have to be good at what they do, but they all get knocked down for believing that change has to happen. They seldom bring change to the world on their first try, and when they win, they seldom win once. Why is that? Because before Act One is over, Act Two is in the works, and probably Act Three.

There is only one thing that can prevent an Act Two curtain from rising: Your own decision that a failure is too much to bear. The Information Age has turned that notion wholeheartedly on its head. As long as there is learning extracted from failure, failure is a pit stop, not an endpoint. As long as risk is sufficiently mitigated to bypass a cataclysmic wipeout of resources, you are not failing if you are learning. You are on a path to where you need to go. You are on your way to Act Two.

Read Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. We all know Jobs founded Apple. Then he got kicked out of his own company for being an uncontrollable rebel, the very thing that put Apple on the map. Jobs gets fired around p.206 in Chapter 17. He is personally devastated, emotionally crushed. That’s when his Act Two begins. The book ends on p.571 in Chapter 42. Through it all, Jobs’s Act Two is fueled by a spirit of resilience and a commitment to personal reinvention. He lives an arc that resonates.

Read Neil Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney. Disney Bros. loses control of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit around p.109 in Chapter 3. Mickey Mouse is born in Chapter 4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—which simultaneously almost crushed Disney’s financial interests and then put the Disney name into American lore forever—arrives in Chapter 6. Disneyland doesn’t even make an appearance until Chapter 10. The book continues until Chapter 11 is finally exhausted on p.633. If you’re looking to count second acts, start early.

Reinvention does not only apply to the famous. When I personally decided to return to writing after a twenty-five year hiatus, a lot of people made snide remarks, both to my face and behind my back. I had enjoyed a respected career in management at the intersection of entertainment and technology, but I never wanted to consider that my whole story. Starting over and writing a novel with a half-century under my belt seemed absurd to almost everyone around me. I would be competing with established authors who had amassed a lifetime of credits. I would be doing it for a fraction of the income I earned previously. There was absolutely no way to predict critical or commercial success of any kind. Critics can be harsh, public evaluation even more ominous. It was a challenge filled with possibility, a path to sharing ideas with authenticity and voice that was mine. That sounded like a decent Act Two to me. I wonder what Act Three will be.

In my new book, Endless Encores, a seasoned CEO spends an entire evening stranded in an airport executive club talking with a rising young manager who is about to hit the wall on his first failure. The less experienced leader is terrified that all he has ever wanted to achieve is about to be lost in a single product cycle. It’s a business parable, with only a few simple plot points, yet it encompasses a Socratic dialogue around what it means to learn from failure. Daphne, the veteran, has survived a seemingly infinite number of product launches, enough of them successful to keep her in the game. Paul, the rookie, comes to learn what it means to embrace resilience and reinvent himself to form a career of linking “acts” that over time reveal the arc of his personal development.

Neither Daphne nor Paul would ever buy into the idea of a terminal Act Two, let alone Act One. That’s a driving factor in the purpose that underlies their lives. Products have to sell, but more importantly, teams have to work well together and values have to emerge as shared conduits to satisfaction. Few of us get this right the first time. No one gets it right every time. You don’t have to get it right every time. You just have to know that potential for improvement always exists, recognize the aspiration for excellence as a mandate, and approach the ideal with unbridled enthusiasm. The curtain goes up on Act Two when you commit the passion to ensuring that it happens.

Don’t misquote or misunderstand Fitzgerald. Don’t tell me there are no second acts in our lives. As long as you are learning and readying yourself for what comes next, you can start anew any time you want. The courage to pursue that can only come from you.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.