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

Park the Snark

We talk a good game about bullying. Then the claws come out.

Maybe we can’t help ourselves.

Maybe we should try harder.

Last weekend a good portion of the globe enjoyed the annual late winter Sunday evening television marathon known as the Academy Awards. The Oscars and the Super Bowl are two of the remaining real-time TV tent poles broadcast from the U.S. to the rest of the world still commanding appointment viewing of some of the largest assembled audiences joined collectively. Whether they are culturally worthy of that significance is beyond the scope of this blogger, but they are what they are: massive, temporally significant, and dare I say, glamorous.

EllenOscarTweetThis year’s Academy Awards offered what many have called the best line-up of nominated commercial films in years. Among the strong critically acclaimed competition, an important film won Best Picture. We saw unusually significant advances in motion picture technology win accolades. An excellent line-up of creative contributors offered heartfelt belief in their projects. We also enjoyed a quite clever world record tweet stunt (“the retweet blasted round the world”) emerge from a reasonably relaxed show format that seemed to try hard not to focus on itself too seriously, but to put that focus on the work being honored.

I don’t know if it was one of the best Oscar shows ever, but it seemed to me a credible, enjoyable celebration of creativity, all the more poignant given the immense geopolitical events mounting on the world stage as it played. It was a good night for Pharell Williams to sing “Happy.” A lot of us felt that way.

Then came Monday morning. Or if you really wanted to get in on it, later Sunday night.

What was the most insulting joke told by the host?

Who had the bad taste to show up with the worst vanity surgery?

How awful was that mispronunciation of someone’s name?

Can you believe that awful gown? She has to be the worst dressed, no contest.

What kind of self-aggrandizing acceptance speech was that?

Did you see how drunk he was at the party?

What kind of backstage snub comment was that?

Did you see the look on his face when he lost?

Did you really think she deserved to win?

It’s astonishing. We can’t even have one night to send up fireworks and smile in the glow without the snark. Maybe it’s because I live in Los Angeles and dissing in social circles is as common as saying, “Let’s have lunch,” but it seemed for every word of praise I heard for a winner, I heard three times that many diatribes flicked at presumed losers. Were I able to isolate it to the Hollywood elite, I might feel better encasing it in a cone of irrelevant silence, but I saw and heard it everywhere–online, in the mainstream media, on the phone, wherever news travels.

Folks, this isn’t news. It’s babble. It’s unimportant. It’s not particularly clever. And it’s mean. Really, really mean.

Sure we are a society of tabloid media. Websites and TV shows and grocery checkout racks thrive on insults, humiliation, and Schadenfreude. Most of this is not satire, not irony, not well-crafted humor. It’s just junk. Bloated, bombastic garbage. And we absorb it until we become it, and then we spew it right back, as if somehow that makes us part of some intelligentsia, some wise-cracking inner circle that can distinguish meaningful critique from wasted breath. When we join in the rant, we are kidding ourselves. We become part of the problem.

And here’s the problem: the kids around us are listening. They hear every word we say, every word the media relays, every nasty remark that deflects from the celebration that should be going on of wonderful, creative work that helps define our shared culture, commercial or otherwise. Then they go to school and the clear message is that bullying is verboten–completely off-limits, not allowed, punishable by extreme… what? Any chance there is a slight conflict going on when what they hear in their heads are our voices institutionalizing the public act of professional cruelty? We wonder why bullying is everywhere, but we don’t hear it in our own everyday dialogue.

What the heck is wrong with us? Really, we can do better. All we need to do is talk more about stuff that matters, less about stuff that doesn’t, offer praise with enthusiasm where it’s earned, and try to be a tiny bit more polite when someone happens to make a boo-boo, or we perceive them as making a boo-boo.

Because you know what? We all make boo-boos. And I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys ridicule, especially when they just did something out of the ordinary, whether the words travel behind their back or in their face.

It hurts. So let’s stop.