Monday, December 18, 2017

Owning Success

Someone told me once that women are far more likely than men to attribute professional success to luck. Once I heard it, I couldn't stop noticing it, not just in others but in myself as well. Is it societally baked-in, this reticence to own our accomplishments? Is it another case of women just trying to avoid appearing cocky, arrogant, assured, for fear of being disliked and, in turn, losing work?

Yes, luck is a factor in success. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time or the opportunity simply won't present itself. And certainly some individuals are luckier than others in terms of having the means to be in those situations in the first place. But there are other factors that go into capitalizing on that moment: ambition, focus, skill, social grace, work ethic. If you don't have those, all the opportunities in the world won't help you.

Henry Winkler (yes, The Fonz) has said there are two secrets to success in the film business: tenacity and gratitude. You need the tenacity to persevere through endless rejection, to overcome doubt and fear, and to put in the work required to keep moving towards that ever-distant goal post. And you need the gratitude to keep you grounded in the fact that none of this can be done alone. Relationships have to be built and maintained and collaborators must be thanked for the part they play in your success. We have to constantly grant ourselves permission to enjoy ourselves and remind ourselves to appreciate our situation.

I think we can acknowledge the role of fortunate circumstance (and continue to do more to increase access to opportunity for under-privileged and under-represented folx) without downplaying our own agency in, and our own tenacity and gratitude for, our achievements.

This tendency to brush off any acknowledgement of our successes is just one of the societally ingrained behaviors that women must be conscious of and work actively to overcome. Through countless portrayals of sainted mothers and self-sacrificing girlfriends, we've also been taught the merits of acquiescing and putting our needs second, neither of which serve us as leaders. Additionally, we often don't garner the immediate respect that comes with conforming to the general physical description of a "director" (white, male, usually wearing a ball cap,) so we have a higher bar to clear just walking onto a set. We are not given the presumption of competence.

I often use the expression "fake it 'til you make it" regarding my struggle to overcome my own natural shyness. First as an AD and then as a director, I had to push past it so the cast and crew would get what they needed and expected from me--someone who was assured, unequivocal, and just the right kind of  forceful on set. It's not impossible to learn or assume traits that don't come naturally to you, but when the exact opposite behavior has been expected of you for your entire life, it can be a bit of a reset.

This isn't to say that there aren't loads of culturally-entrenched "female" attributes that come in super handy as a filmmaker. First and foremost, empathy and an understanding of how to get what you need while allowing others to feel heard and valued. These "emotional" assets may actually be harder to fake than the "power" traits above. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are less often seen as an integral part of a director's job.

Ultimately, all of us must find a balance between what's expected of us and what tools we carry in our particular tool belt. But when it comes to the demeanor with which one carries & comports oneself, these are things you can master, or at the very least attempt to control. There's only one place in life where the cards you are dealt is purely based on luck, and that's the circumstance into which you're born. Everything else combines a little right-place-right-time and a lot of hard work and self-assurance.

These days, when I find myself tempted to use the word "luck" or "lucky" to explain how something came to be, I stop myself and consider my role the achievement, then own it without apology.

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