The Middle Path

blind-man

In the “Untethered Soul,” Michael Singer brings up the following concept:  Picture a blind person with a red tipped white cane walking down the street.  They move the cane back and forth tapping.  They are not trying to find where to walk, they know where to walk.  They are determining where not to walk.  By staying on the middle path of their trajectory, they are staying safely between any obstacles.

We have a terrible tendency as humans to swing between extremes as we make our way.  We hit obstacles at the edges and swing back the other way until we find an obstacle at the other extreme.  These obstacles tend to be the sharp rocks of our own fears, biases, neuroses and perceptions.  You find gossip, disrespect, paranoia, rejection and bullying there.  Do you want to know why people get hysterical at work?  They are out on one of the edges.

We’ve all known co-workers who are addicted to drama.  Well, that drama is found at the edges. As they are getting scraped up by immovable objects, they are also doing all they can to drag others there as well.  Before long, they will soon careen to the other extreme and beckon you there also.  Left to these swings, a effective, energetic workplace can soon turn toxic.

There are many workplaces that will mistake this for progress.  It’s not progress, it’s reactive, needless activity that in and of itself is wasted energy. It pushes people out or burns them out.

I’m not talking about the strenuous and rewarding action of forward momentum.  I’m talking about impediments to forward momentum. A person on the edge is moving side to side, not forward or backward.

It’s most easily seen in our political climate.  The polarization is this endless careening from side to side. One side holding their position on the edge against the other at the other edge.  When administrations change sides, so do the parties.  It creates intractability and stasis and it’s the people who lose. Where there is no middle, no progressives, there is no progress.

I think everyone, in every workplace, on every crew, has the best intentions of acting in the best interest of helping the endeavor be the best it can be.  But, we’re human. Our natural tendency is to serve our self interest first.  Once we do that, we’re headed towards the edge.

So, the trick to moving forward is to walk past the drama on either side of you and remain focused on progress.  Check your own drama and correct course when necessary.  In this sense, the middle way becomes the only way.  If you stay in the calm middle, you can keep moving forward, even if in your peripheral vision you can see someone thrashing about on the edge.  It doesn’t mean you have to join them there.

If you want work effectively and you want to get things done, take the middle path. Beckon others there also. Take the middle path.

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Letting Go

Let go.  Yes, that’s it, let go.  There comes a certain time where you have to let yourself fall into whatever it is you need to fall into.  It could be organization, it could be disorganization.  It could be progress, it could be regress. Only you know the answer to the question.

Anger is pointless, fear is pointless, so is joy if you are not walking to the edge and then falling through the barrier that you have set up for yourself there.  This is business, this is life.

Sometimes, letting go is walking through the fire and sometimes it’s just walking away.  Most of the time, the barrier looks like a dense forest that appears beautiful in its complexity, but too difficult to ever make your way through.  It’s funny how we see accomplishment as pushing, pushing, pushing, when it is really relaxing into your fears and letting go of the barriers to success that exist only in your mind.  The barriers that you’ve developed through years of positive and negative experiences that have taught you where the boundaries are.  The boundaries appear to protect you from too much pain. But, they also protect you from too much joy, too much accomplishment and too much peace.

Walk up to those boundaries, relax and walk through.  Let go.

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Don’t Scare the Wildlife.

There is a saying:  be nice to assistants, receptionists and car valets.  One day, they’ll be green lighting your projects.

There are many ways of doing business in Hollywood.  The stereotype is the Agent as Shark.  Plowing a way through the ocean, eating everything in sight and generally causing havoc.  When you have the leverage, it’s easy to do that.  But, with experience you learn that you should rarely do things because you can. Doing things because you can has no view of the long term.  Instead, you do things that will be fair to everyone involved now.

You’re not kind to those under you because someday you may be under them,  you’re kind because it’s right. Because, whether you realize it or not, when people are working under you, the way you conduct yourself teaches them how to treat those that will be working under them someday. It’s like the cycle of abuse. You can perpetuate it or you can break it.

You have a choice.  You can continue Hollywood’s bad behavior or choose to take a moment, think about it, and make the choice between coldness or empathy, bullying or mentoring. Almost always, people are doing the very best they can.  Berating them won’t make them better.  It will freeze them where they are. In the end, if people disappoint you, you probably haven’t done a good enough job of teaching them what they need to know.  Such is the mystery of power.

Kindness and understanding is not situational.  It’s an operating system.

 

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The Inefficiencies of Anger

Unknown-3Around the WPA offices, I am sometimes called Obi-Wan.  I try not to take this as the old, decrepit and hooded Alec Guinness of Star Wars, but rather, the sage, father figure and hooded Alec Guinness that is all at once serene and powerful.  I suppose we all tell
ourselves the stories we need to hear.

When I was a young agent in New York.  Well, a younger agent, I was prone to getting angry about the weirdest things, little things, big things, anything really.  One day, I actually got a call from the head of the agency in Los Angeles, informing me that if I kept throwing my phone headset against the wall and breaking it, I would have to supply my own.  Fair enough I thought at the time.

I’m not sure when I realized what a waste of time my emotions were becoming or when I realized the amount of mistakes I was making sans calmness, but at some point I turned over a new leaf. As I think back, I wonder if it was inexperience that made me angry or my fear of failure when I found myself in unfamiliar territory, or an addiction to the drama of it all.

I think I calmed down for good when one day, on a negotiation I said something out ofimages-1 anger to a producer, who instantly used it as leverage and not only beat the hell out of me in the deal, but then he (of course) used the comment to deride me to my client. I ended up losing that client, even though what sparked my outburst in the first place was my feeling the client was being insulted and taken advantage of.  Hard lesson.

Once I turned the corner, I was left with a few undeniable philosophies:

  1. We’re making movies, not saving the world.  We’re white collar executives, not Seal Team 6.  No one dies in what we do if we are close to competent. In the movie industry, it’s only the extreme hubris of a Ryan Miller that will kill a Sarah Jones. 99.999 percent of the time we are perfectly safe.
  2. If your client will walk away from a negotiation, you can go hard because you have all the leverage.  If your client is desperate, you’ll have to accept what they give you and there’s no use in being upset about it. Supply and demand.
  3. At this point I’ve seen so many people get into trouble through their emotions that it’s hard to miss the lesson.  I have passed on so many clients after hearing their reputation as a screamer on set or unreasonable in negotiations.  It means at the least that they don’t understand principles 1 or 2. At the most, they are just assholes. In a business based on repeat business, they will have a short shelf life. Sometimes, they are in the “so talented, they’ll be around forever category.”  But, that just puts them in my “life’s too short category.”

I’m left with the image of Abe Vigoda’s Tessio in the Godfather as they put him in the car to drive him to his execution.  They told him it wasn’t personal.  It was just business and he understood with a resigned calmness.  For him, it was life and death, well pretend life and death anyway, but again, in the end it was just business.

images-3Now, when things start to get heated at work, I take an imaginary step to the left and let the other person’s emotion pass by me instead of through me.  If there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that the person who is more emotionally invested ALWAYS loses a negotiation. It’s a simple success model, be the calm one.

 

Scars

stapled-scar-resultsI have a scar on the knuckle of my left thumb.  I got it when I was in 7th grade and it was the first of many. It’s very faint now 40+ years later but it’s still there.  There was a kid in my neighborhood named John Coakley.  He was two years older than me and he had a penchant for terrorizing younger kids.  One day, outside a store in town, I came upon him pushing around a friend that was a year younger than me.  I stepped in the middle and told him to stop it.  He asked: “What are you going to do about it?” I hit him with a solid roundhouse from the left side and I caught him square in the teeth. Unfortunately for John, he didn’t expect that particular answer from a smaller kid, but he also wore braces and I think he assumed the unwritten law of “no hitting kids with braces” was in effect.  It wasn’t.  So the blow ripped open the inside of his mouth as well as my thumb.  He ran off yelling at me with blood flowing into his hands.  He never bothered us again.

All these years later, I have plenty more scars.  Physical, emotional and even spiritual I suppose.  I was reminded of it this morning when I got out of the shower and looked in the mirror.  I had surgery for a separated shoulder three weeks ago so I have a beauty now.  About 4 inches long, red and angry looking.  It runs from the top of my shoulder down almost to the top of my chest.  The result of another misadventure between man and horse.

I have some on my right shoulder from a Labrum repair, a few on my stomach from Gallbladder surgery and others here and there that I don’t even remember how they came about.

It begs the broader question: what are the cost of my scars?  See, horseback riding is a contact sport. Contact with the ground, with hooves, with dicey terrain and gaps in my horsemanship. The Gallbladder scars?  Bad eating habits. My emotional scars are from incessant worrying about my wife and children, the death of my father, mistakes, rejections, business failures and stepping up to do the right thing when I knew it would hurt my business and my finances.

But, now I realize that every scar means something to me. It’s the cost of standing up to a bully.  It’s the cost of having the sense of adventure to get back on horses that invariably will throw you into the woods now and again.  It’s the cost of doing business with integrity when others can’t or won’t, and those people will find the justification to call you inhuman, ruthless and worse when you show them the door.  They will multiply your scars by poisoning what they can long after. It’s the cost of loving someone who won’t be here forever and that particular scar will be where no one else can see or understand it.  That scar is on your heart.

I’m proud of my scars. I’ve earned them.  They mean that I tried.  They mean I stood for something. They mean I’ve loved some people and said goodbye to others.  They mean I had courage and I wasn’t afraid to fall down and fail.  And all those things put together ultimately lead to a successful life.

So, a big thanks John Coakley.  I hope you learned something from your scar too.

 

I Am A Citizen Of The World

I have decided that I am a citizen of the world. Coming off of St. Patrick’s day where my Irish American wife and my Irish American self scoured the southern California countryside for a decent corned beef and cabbage (and settled instead for King Crab legs) I have decided that I am not Irish.

My beautiful picture

Clara Riordan

Even though my great grandmother Clara Riordan, arrived from County Cork in the 1890’s I am not Irish. Even though my great great grandfather Jacob Jacob arrived from Prussia in the 1870’s I am not German or Jewish as he probably was. I’m not Italian like my great grandfather on my Mother’s side Joe Rosso, or even Canadian/American (is that a thing?) as would make me as my Dad’s mother, Myrtle Beck was born in Montreal, her grandparents (the Hoopers) were a British immigrant and Italian immigrant to Canada. With so much other stuff in me I’m not even sure I’m American.  Well, I am technically American as I was born just outside of Boston and at last glance it was and still is a part of the USA. It’s just very confusing and I can’t commit to it any longer.

My beautiful picture

Joe Rosso

I was brought up Catholic, though I gave it up for Lent one time and never started up again. I played music in Evangelical churches for years, but it turned out that I’m not Republican enough, fundamentalist enough, conservative enough nor insular enough to really make a go of it. I did have fun with some Methodists for a time, they’re cool.  I like Rumi and Lao Tsu and meditation, but I’m pretty sure I would wash out of the monastery life very quickly.   I am a Citizen of the World.

My beautiful picture

The Hoopers – James and Gabriella

I don’t want to “Make America White Again,” I mean “Great Again” as the idiot child of moron parents, Donald Trump wants to do. The message is Fascist, oppressive and makes people want to hit each other. His policies (if one can be accurately located) are probably in and of themselves the reasonings that my dear ancestors were escaping from in their homeland and making their way to the new world in the first place. Can you hear the hum of the millions of immigrant bodies spinning in their graves all over Brooklyn? I can.

This is a business blog right? What does this have to do with anything? Only everything. I’m an International Business Person. I travel abroad regularly. I have clients and partners all over the world. I have to think multi-culturally and globally. I have to get along in different environments with people who have very different backgrounds than me, and do you know what?  It’s not hard, because by and large, people the world over think the same way and want to get to know me, understand me and do business with me.

I’m still learning of course.  I got in trouble at a fancy London social club a few years back because I had improperly placed my silverware on my plate at the end of the meal. This resulted in the Lebanese waiter rebuking me on proper British table etiquette, which resulted in my British hosts getting really (yet politely) pissed at the waiter.

Conversely, the first time I was in Poland, I went in search of Pierogies. I pointed to the real thing on a menu and the non-english speaking waitress flagged down someone to tell me that if I ate what I had chosen, it would make my Gringo stomach drop through my shoes.  She chose something lighter in the Pierogi family for me and I felt like Chopin on a Saturday afternoon break. She was beaming that she had saved me from death by potato dumpling.

Do you know what I like?  Advertising with inter-racial families, same sex families and that PSA where people are looking at a giant X-Ray of other people behind a screen that turn out to be all kinds of combinations when they come out from behind.  They are all as much of a genetic, nationalistic, spiritual Mutt as I am. As we all are.  After millions of generations, aren’t we all just this caldron of DNA goo?  The same stuff in slightly different variations?

So there you have it. I renounce every bloodline corpuscle in my body in pursuit of being a Citizen of the World.  I don’t want to have to fit into the box of being American or Irish/American or Italian, German, Swahili/Eskimo, or whatever else worked its way in there over the eons. I’m a Citizen of the World.  Maybe I’m naive to think it’s possible, but if enough of us start to think this way, do business this way, maybe life and business will be in better shape.  Maybe xenophobes will have a harder time coming to power.

If I’m wrong? If Trump wins? I’m one quarter Canadian. I’ll write you from Vancouver, eh?

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Two Men Walk Into a Bar – The Story of WPA

imageTwo men walk into a bar. Ok, not a bar. Two men walk into a lunch place on Sunset Boulevard.  They talk for twenty minutes. The conversation stops when one glances out the window and notices a competitor stumble by drunk as hell.  They debate for a minute if it’s really him.  They concur that it is.  They continue talking. Before the competitor can weave around the corner and out of sight, the two men in the lunch place realize that they are inextricably linked to each other for the rest of their careers. And here begins the story of WPA.  Admittedly, before they walked into the bar, er.. lunch place, both had been thinking of getting out of the business.  One to be a Lawyer in Europe, the other to be a Luthier. I know, no one knows what a Luthier is. I’m tired of explaining it, Google it here for Chrissakes.  Anyway, they talked about the agency business. They agreed it could be done better.  They agreed that they were now working in a global marketplace. They agreed, boutiques didn’t work anymore because the big agencies now used them in Hollywood and abroad as talent farm teams to be shaken down when clients reached a certain level.   They agreed a global brand presence was possible. They agreed the big agencies treated their employees like nothing more than chattel to be traded upon. They agreed there was room in between for an agency with the roster size and power of the big agencies, but with a culture that allowed for humanity, development, free flow of information and closer relationships between agent and client and agent and agent.  They agreed on a lot. They walked out of the lunch place with a lot to do. The next weeks were a blur of activity.  One had gone out on his own 8 months before.  He had to convince his clients that it was a good thing to double the size of the agency.  The other had to dissolve a dysfunctional partnership and move on.  He had to convince his clients to free fall with him.  They met on a Saturday morning two weeks later and in 90 degree heat, loaded furniture into a horse trailer.  Yes a horse trailer.  They set it up in 3 tiny rooms on a back lot.  Why a backlot?  some say smarts, but the reasons were more practical.  It was free.

Molly manning the books.

Molly manning the books.

There were other intrepid warriors, Kristen, Trevor, Louiza and Molly.  Young, full of energy, passionate and ready for the fight.  Kristen named the place Worldwide Production Agency when we couldn’t come up with a name.  Trevor had left marble encrusted ICM just a few months before and now found himself smashed into a corner with his face plastered against the window wondering WTF. And Louzilla, well the name says it all. In the early days, Richard had dinosaur roar sound effects on his computer that he fired off liberally whenever Louiza made a deal. Molly, well Molly kept the unruly crew in line and finances headed in the right direction.

Trevor moving his elbows.

Trevor moving his elbows.

We started signing, we started booking, we started building. Megan, Derek and Amber joined us. The studio decided to move us across the lot to a bigger office.  Now instead of 3 tiny rooms, we now had 3 small rooms. Trevor wasn’t plastered against the window anymore. Now he could even raise his elbows when he worked. It was tight, but our culture was born there.  Everyone could hear everything anybody did. How could you not?  No matter where you sat, there was somebody literally 3 feet away.  We developed a style and working rules based on transparency, free flow of information, honesty and respect. We realized we were different.  Starting humbly had bound us together as a tribe.  We had our brushes with each other, sure. But, there was no door slamming,  because in truth, there were no doors to slam.

Kristen & Derek on Derek Appreciation Day.

Kristen & Derek on Derek Appreciation Day.

We also found we all had another thing in common.  An appreciation for Korean Bar-B-Q.  We started having appreciation days for whoever was the low man on the totem pole.  We had them for interns and receptionists.  If there was a reason to appreciate someone, it was off to Korean Bar-B-Q.  To this day, one of the interview questions for potential employees is the direct question: “Do you like Korean Bar-B-Q?”  There is only one acceptable answer. We grew and we grew.  We outgrew the 3 small rooms.  There were now 9 of us and and Trevor’s face was plastered against the window again.  We had been looking for an appropriate space for months and months and finally we walked into a space that all made sense.  3500 square feet with no walls.   Plenty of room, floor to ceiling windows, a garden courtyard on one side, a proper reception area, a conference room

Louiza on the BBQ

Louiza on the BBQ

and did I mention no walls?  Working right next to each other had become our trademark and our comfort level.  why not scale it? You see, the big thing with big agencies is that information disappears behind closed doors.  Everything we’re against. Our philosophy demanded the open space, the honesty and the 24/7 discussion that had brought us this far, this fast. Enter Adrienne. imageAdrienne worked tirelessly building us the open space, that all at once is serious and elegant, while at the same time being welcoming and comfortable.  In August 2012 we moved in and things really took off.  I mean REALLY took off.  We will forever be in her debt. Was it us? Was it the space?  Was it the philosophy?  Was it a commitment to client centric service without the Hollywood bullshit? In truth, it is all of it.  One thing led to another, fed into the next.  The openness bred imagesomething bigger than the sum of it’s parts.  The space Adrienne gave us was more than a space.  It tied it all together. It defined us.  It gave us confidence.

Frank Balkin

Frank Balkin

But, something was still holding us back.  We felt out of balance.  Something was missing and we knew it.  We were always strong in Features and strong in Commercials, but weak in Television.  We needed balance.  We needed Frank and Brian.

Brian Goldberg

Brian Goldberg

Like the mate who you chase for years knowing that you’re destined to be together, we pursued them.  They were the perfect fit and we knew it. Finally, they made the jump.  Things exploded, we had balance.  Barely a year later, it’s all humming along nicely.  But, we have never trusted nicely.  We have never trusted status quo.  As I’ve said before in this blog:  You’re never standing still.  You’re moving forward or backwards.  Status quo is an illusion.

Barnaby Laws

Barnaby Laws

So, here we are. What’s next is here. London. Meet Barnaby. Substantial and social, I met him first last November at Cameraimage in Poland. It was the same feeling as when I walked into the lunch place and met Richard. I could just tell. When I talked to the others, they could just tell also. I would say it was strange, but it’s not. We’d been here before and we knew the feeling. Richard was on his way to London to visit clients. We agreed he should look up Barnaby and ask if he might be interested in working with us at some point. It turns out that his contract was up and he would be available as of February 1st. When you build things correctly you have options. Lots of options.  You have to have criteria for culling through them. Our criteria have always been to look past the opportunity and directly at the people involved. Options will show you opportunities for fast money, for fast growth and power in the marketplace, but you have to brush all that aside and look at the people. Are they a fit?  Skill set is teachable, market knowledge is teachable, deep seeded philosophical values are not.  So we don’t ask: are they like us? That’s far too low a bar as you can always find something in common. The correct question is: do they have the same basic values and life philosophy that we do? imageBarnaby was a fit.  We had figured maybe Barnaby and London in a year, but in a month?  We go by the maxim: Go slow when you can, go fast when you must as the right fit is very rare.  As of today, WPA-United Kingdom is in operation. There will be more adventures, for that’s what it is, an adventure.  We’re not just building a business.  We’re building a lifestyle together.  Our clients, ourselves (we’re 16 employees strong now and growing) and our philosophy.  We’ve done it better, the marketplace is global, there is room for humanity, honesty and transparency. There is room for power, flexibility and exponential growth. So, that’s the story of WPA and it all started when two men walked into a bar, I mean a lunch place. image