by Ben Stein
Monday, June 12, 2006
On June 30, 1976 , when Gerald Ford was President and we were just getting over Vietnam and Watergate, I opened my eyes in my apartment in New York City and closed them in Hollywood in a very cool hotel called The Sunset Marquis. My plan was to sublet my place in New York , work for six months or at most a year in Los Angeles , and then go back east.
In a couple of weeks, it will be 30 years, and I’m still here. Now, for the past many years I mostly travel around, speak, write about finance (which was my training), appear on TV about money and finance, and do commercials.
But for many years, I worked in Hollywood as a writer, producer, and actor. I got to see what works in terms of success here and what flops. Comparing that experience with what I’ve seen of journalism, finance, government, and sales, it’s clear to me that what helps you make it in Hollywood is pretty much what helps you get ahead generally in any business.
So, since I’m mentally always lecturing the way I did in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” — only a little more interestingly, I hope — I sat down with my long-time best friend, Al Burton, a successful producer here, and churned out a book about how to succeed in Hollywood or anywhere else.
Now, I usually write about investments, and I will again. But for most of us, our main earning asset is our selves. We make much more from our labor than from our investments unless we’re in a super rarefied stratum. If we work smart, operate with an eye on what works, we get ahead and make a decent livelihood.
So, herewith are a few deathless words about 26 Steps to Succeed in Hollywood , or Any Other Business.
Learn a Useful Skill
You get paid for applying makeup or writing a script or lighting a stage or catering a crew’s lunch. You have to have a specific skill that Hollywood needs, and you must have developed it to a level that makes the studios or networks want to hire you.
Make Yourself Invaluable
Do your work with such zeal and quality that your employer realizes he or she must have you at work every day to get everything that he needs done in a day accomplished. Don’t be a slacker or waste your boss’s time or anyone else’s. Do your work so that when you leave, your employer says, “How did I ever get along without her?” Be that good every day, and you’ll become invaluable — and you’ll get paid as if you were.
To Serve Is to Rule
This was suggested to me by my friend Barron Thomas. If your work on behalf of the costume department head is so good that your boss looks great and can brag about her department, you gradually become not the servant but the master. If you’re a beginning chanteuse and your agent wants you to sing Hava Negila at her son’s Bar Mitzvah, do it — and do it so that everyone in the room is on the floor dancing. Then you’ll get nightclub gigs.
The agent serves the client. The writer serves the producer. The hairdresser serves the star. The producer serves the studio — and most important of all, the studio serves the audience. “Everybody’s got to serve somebody,” as Bob Dylan, the greatest poetic genius of our era, sang. If you serve well, you eventually become the boss.
There Is No Quitting Time
If you work at the Postal Service, there’s a quitting time. If you work in a coal mine, there’s a quitting time. If you work at Tara in “Gone With the Wind,” there’s a quitting time.
But you don’t have a life outside of Hollywood . Hollywood is your life. Your career is your life. You work until you’ve done as much as you possibly can, then you read a script, and then you go to sleep. That’s your life.
Connections Are Everything
You don’t get ahead in Hollywood by taking the Hollywood SAT’s. You get ahead by being noticed by the people who are already ahead. You can go to the best film school in America and get super grades, but if you’re not a pal of the movers and shakers, you can just forget about everything you’ve learned inside the ivy-covered walls
The landscape architect who does a great job on the studio boss’s pool area and has a script has a much better chance than you do coming from New York University ’s film school without a friend in town. (Of course the best film schools often provide connections as part of the degree, but not always, as I can assure you.) You’ll do better as a waiter who serves the big-shot agent his pepper-crusted tuna piping hot at Morton’s than as the winner of the acting contest at a Big 10 University.
Make connections any legitimate way you can, shine them up nicely, and you’ll be a happy guy or gal.
There’s No Such Thing as Being Too Likeable
Remember how it was in high school? The friendliest, most self-confident kids got to be chairman of the student council and had a crowd hanging on them. Well, it’s exactly like that in real life in Hollywood (or anywhere else). Men and women gravitate to those who are likeable and easy to be around.
Think of your own bad self. Who do you like to be around? Sourpusses or friendly, encouraging, smiling people? That’s how it is in the workplace, too.
Your likeable self is the self who gets ahead. Remember it, and win in Burbank , Beverly Hills , or Bergen County .
Well, that’s enough for now. I’ll give you more in my next column. Remember, I have seen this, and it works. The people who have the Aston-Martins and the houses in the flats of Beverly Hills know it, even if the wannabes at Starbucks don’t.
As you will recall, class, last session we were discussing how to succeed in Hollywood …or any other business, based on my long years — 30 years as of June 30 — toiling here in Lotus Land.
Here’s Part 2 of my tips on how you can advance in your career — with the strong admonition that for most of us, how much we earn by our labor is far more important and a larger sum than how we earn with our investments. Thus, it pays to maximize your utility (as we economists say) by working smart.
Stay in the Game
Don’t let temporary pique or anger toss you off your horse. People will be rude to you. They will cheat you. They will disappoint you. Nevertheless, stay on your horse — or get back on it — and stay in the game. Unless you have an excellent alternative — a better way to pay your bills and fulfill your dreams — stay in the game. This takes a lot of forbearance and swallowing of pride, but it’s worth it in the long run.
Don’t Work for Insane People
Yes, you will have people who yell at you, demean your abilities, or boss you around even though you’re a lot smarter than they are. But that’s totally normal. That’s called “life in the workplace.” Expect it, and roll with the punches.
But if a boss calls you a racial epithet, casts slurs on your family, touches you inappropriately, or screams at you and calls you at home to yell at you over something you did or didn’t do at work, tell him politely that you don’t want such treatment. And if it persists, then quit. Life is short. It’s far too short to waste working for someone who’s mentally sick enough to think he owns your soul and that you have no dignity just because he gives you a paycheck.
You’ll find this kind of person extremely frequently here in Hollywood : Little Caesars, little Napoleons, little dictators who will treat you like a slave. There are a great many sick people here with serious rage problems. If one of them is your boss, politely but firmly take your leave. A boss who treats you with respect means fewer sleepless nights and a lot more possibility for making a name for yourself.
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
That was the name of a great civil rights song. It means to get through the small, aggravating stuff today and then go on to look at the big glittering gold cup down the road. Or, one might say, focus on the long-term goal you have in mind, and forget the piddling little detours on the way.
Just keep in mind a question, “Will this in any way get me closer to where I want to be?” If the answer is “yes,” then just do the babysitting, Xeroxing, or whatever it takes to get you to the next step.
Don’t Talk Endlessly About Yourself
No one wants to hear it. It’s boring. It creates negative utility and wastes your colleagues’ time. If you need to talk about yourself, get a shrink and talk to her. Or talk to your dog. But no one wants to hear every detail of your life, and it will just make your employers hate you. When you get to be boss, you can talk about yourself endlessly. On the way up, listen. Don’t talk.
Get a Rabbi
No, I don’t mean to convert to Judaism. I mean a get a leader, guru, or guide who will help you with your goals and your journey. Get someone up above you on the ladder. Listen to his war stories. Listen to his boasts. In return, get his advice, get his contacts (contacts are everything in life), get his words to a friend, get him to boost you up the ladder. Everyone in Hollywood needs someone who’s been there, knows the right people, and can and will make the call that pushes you up the ladder.
In return, you’ll be a faithful companion, cheerleader, and admirer of your rabbi. But get one, and do it soon. You really can’t get ahead if you don’t have someone ahead of you working the angles for you.
Look the Part, and Look Good
We’re judged by how we look. If we’re ridiculously slobby or dirty, if our clothes are old and tattered, if our hair is a weird color or shape, we will make a bad impression.
People assume you’re what you look like, so appear at your best all of the time. Wear clean clothes. Stand straight. Look alert and business like. No piercings. No tattoos. No strange hair. No looking like a prostitute. Look like a business person or a writer or an actor. But always look neat and clean and well organized. For a few dollars, anyone can look good. You don’t have to wear Prada. You just have to look good.
Stand Out for the Excellence of Your Work
Do good work. Don’t allow the word “sloppy” to be heard near your name. Let people know you by the quality of your labors and work product. There are so few good workers out there that you will soon make a name for yourself.
There are more rules, but these will hold you for now.
Next time, back to investments. But again, for most of us, we’re our own largest asset. Make good use of it, and you’ll be a happy guy or gal.
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