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Own Your Past Or You Could Lose Your Career

I met someone at a coffee shop a few years ago that was a perfect illustration of a paradox I’ve found living and working in Hollywood. The man was in his forties, and had significant success as a movie and TV commercial director. He had been on everyone’s “hot list,” and in one year, directed at least 15 major TV commercials in between his work as a feature film director. But when I met him he was selling real estate.

He hadn’t directed a film or a commercial in at least three years, and while he talked about a few projects “in development” it was obvious his career was on the rocks – which is fairly typical of an enormous number of people I’ve met in Hollywood over almost thirty years. In so many cases, they’ve been involved in much more significant and successful projects than me, have made far more money, been recognized in the industry, but for some reason, all that came to an abrupt end.

I started thinking about it, and started asking others who had long careers. What did they do differently? One of the key principles I’ve discovered could be called The Law of Ownership.

Ultimately, when it comes to career success or failure – the responsibility is yours. As I chatted with my friend in the coffee shop, he talked as if everyone was responsible for his failure but him. Not once did I ever hear him say, “I made a poor choice at this or that point in my career,” or “I should have done this differently.” As a result, he couldn’t get past that bitterness long enough to see the real reasons his career had stalled.

I used to enjoy working with a brilliant production manager. His organizational skills were excellent and he could do more on a budget than anyone I’ve ever met. But a few years earlier an unethical producer on a movie stiffed him for about $10,000. The producer was a jerk, totally reneged on his contract, and cheated my friend. But my friend can’t get over it. He talked about it constantly, and even today obsesses over the incident. It’s gotten to the point that if you hire him as a PM on your project, you know he’s going to spend all his free time telling (and re-telling) the story about how he got cheated.

Guess what? Producers like me got tired of hearing about it, and we’ve stopped calling. Today, his promising career is stalled because he can’t release it and move on with his life.

Whatever happened to you doesn’t stop your power to forgive. Let it go, and move your career forward because only you can control your choices. In some cases it might take some counseling, but in most, it’s just a matter of settling the issue and moving on. Stuff happens, and when we focus on the stuff, we begin focusing on failure and not on your destination.

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6 Comments

  1. Of any career decline subject you’ve covered, Phil, this one terrifies me the most, because it’s the fear of not being able to do my “One Big Thing” anymore. I know of two TV directors, one who now is a janitor and the other who can’t launch a new project if his life depended on it. I don’t want to end up like them because of any of my own personal hang-ups. Thank you for all your great advice, Phil, such as this post and the one about lateral moves within one’s OBT!

    1. I totally understand Nathan, and agree with you. I’m amazed at the number of people who refuse to face the reality of their past and it cripples their career. Thanks for the note!

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