“Be nice to those you meet on the way up. They’re the same folks you’ll meet on the way down.” ~Walter Winchell, 1932
Back when I was a young freelance writer, looking to break into the wonderful world of live-action television, I wrote a spec script for a young teen series. It was an unsolicited submission (one of those things every industry professional advises against), a shot in the dark – but it had been fun to write and at worst, I figured, I could always use it as a writing sample. Well, about a week after sending it off, I received a call from one of the show’s producer. He’d read my script and loved it. Only problem was they had just a couple of slots left to fill for that season. Following a brief conversation on the script’s strengths and weaknesses, he suggested that, if I didn’t hear back from him soon, I should touch base before the weekend. He stressed the importance of this: my getting in touch with him BEFORE THE WEEKEND. Any later and I risked missing the boat. And so, after a couple of days went by and I hadn’t heard from him, and with the weekend fast-approaching, I gave him a call. He wasn’t in and so I left a message on his answering machine. A day passed. Then another. It was Friday morning and I still hadn’t heard back! Was it possible he’d inadvertently erased my message? It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. I’d done it myself countless times. To be on the safe side, I picked up the phone and tried him again. And, again, I went straight to voice mail. I left another message and then went about my day, assuming he would no doubt call me back. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. I started to stew. Here was my big break, slipping through my fingers, and all because I wasn’t able to honor a simple request to get in touch with him BEFORE THE WEEKEND. Well, with the minute hand ticking past six p.m., I decided to try one last time, leave a final message. If nothing else, at least he would know I’d made every attempt to honor that request. So I called. He picked up on the third ring – and then proceeded to berate me for pestering him. Needless to say, that opportunity didn’t pan out.
Fast-forward to several years later. I’d established myself as a writer, a story editor, and a director of development for one of North America’s premiere animation studios. Part of my duties of the latter position required me to take show pitches from various producers and freelancers. One day, I walked into the board room and was introduced to the individual I’d be taking a pitch from that day. Turned out he’d developed a popular teen show but, since it had gone off the air, hadn’t done much of anything. As I took my seat at the conference room table and this disheveled, desperate-looking guy started pitching his series idea, I started flipping through his resume and suddenly realized who he was: ole “get in touch with me BEFORE THE WEEKEND”. He obviously hadn’t made the connection. But I did.
Oh, I did.
“I want to mention one of the obvious symptoms [of a sick culture]: Violence. Muggings. Sniping. Arson. Bombing. Terrorism of any sort. Riots of course–but I suspect that little incidents of violence, pecking away at people day after day, damage a culture even more than riots that flare up and then die down. I guess that’s all for now. Oh, conscription and slavery and arbitrary compulsion of all sorts and imprisonment without bail and without speedy trial–but those things are obvious; all the histories list them.”
“Friday, I think you have missed the most alarming symptom of all.”
“I have? Are you going to tell me? Or am I going to have to grope around in the dark for it?”
“Mmm. This once I shall tell you. But go back and search for it. Examine it. Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms such as you have named… but a dying culture invariable exhibits personal rudness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.”
“Pfui. I should have forced you to dig it out yourself; then you would know it. This symptom is especially serious in that an individual displaying it never thinks of it as a sign of ill health but as proof of his/her strength.” – Robert A. Heinlein, Friday
It’s been my experience working in this industry that you CAN succeed without being a complete and utter asshole. Sure, you hear stories about those who have back-stabbed and blind-sided their way to the top, but every so often karma rears her beautiful head and these same individuals suddenly find themselves at the not-so-tender mercies of those they’ve wronged, ridiculed, or forced to go out and pick up their dry-cleaning or drain their dog’s anal glands. I personally know of two former executives who had no compunction about bullying and belittling those beneath them back when they were at the top of the heap, only to have fortune turn for them in a nasty way. Their eventual falls from glory were all the more spectacular for the number of former associates who went out of their way to ensure they not only went down hard but stayed down for the count. Neither has really worked since.
It’s not that hard to avoid their fate. It doesn’t take any extra effort to be nice to someone whoever they may be, from the established director to the humble driver. They are, in the end, people just trying to make a living. It doesn’t kill you to show them respect. That production assistant you diss today could some day hold your career in their hand. Remember, Michael Ovitz once worked the mail room at William Morris and before she struck it big, Madonna Louise Ciccone served up tasty treats at Dunkin Doughnuts. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger started off as a bricklayer while Matthew McConaughey once shoveled chicken manure to make ends meet. Colin Powell worked at a baby furniture store, Stephen King was a high school janitor, Ralph Lauren sold gloves, and Larry King drove a truck for UPS.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people. And some bad ones as well. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to tell you about the former (like, say, Chris Vance, The Transporter’s Frank Martin – a great actor, hard worker, and one hell of a genuinely good-hearted guy who is simply adored by those he works with). And nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see the latter receive their occasional karmic comeuppance.
“If I ever pass you along in life again and you were laying there, dying of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water. I would let the vultures take you and do whatever the want with you with no ill regrets. I plead to the jury tonight to think a little bit about the island that we have been on. This island is pretty much full of only two things – snakes and rats. And in the end of Mother Nature, we have Richard the snake, who knowingly went after prey and Kelly who turned into the rat that ran around like the rats do on this island, trying to run from the snake. I feel we owe it to the island’s spirits that we have learned to come to know to let it be in the end the way Mother Nature intended it to be – for the snake to eat the rat.” – Susan Hawk, Survivor: Borneo