On Success, Failure, and A Few Things In Between

In Essays on April 11, 2011 at 10:28 pm

By Malvolio

One day in June, I exited Harvard with all my worldly belongings, a laser-like determination to succeed, and an unshakeable certainty that I was certain to. With this seemingly clear vision of my golden future, I never stopped to ask myself a number of key questions, including: succeed at what? And how? Even more importantly: why was the idea of success so important to me in the first place?

So without a second thought (or even a first one), I sprinted out of the gate, complete with friendliness, two credit cards, and a work ethic that had gotten me through what were considered to be the best schools in America.

I felt particularly proud of my work ethic. In fact, I had spent most of my life developing it: through hours of studying, reading, writing, arithmetic, all the while taking my SSATs, SATs, and LSATs without complaint. I had worked during summer vacations, first (in my own personal version of an Edith Wharton novel) at the ’21’ Club escorting customers who were downstairs to the maitre d’ upstairs. Then, the following summer (as Wharton gave way to McInerney), I waited tables at an Uptown restaurant called ALEX GOES TO CAMP, a venue so cool—at least at the time—that goldfish in fantastically shaped fishbowls adorned each table in the center of every cloth. Only some of the customers complained. Not about the fish, but rather about me, and my poor skills as a waiter. But then again, I could always wiggle out of it with smile, and the coy admission that I wasn’t really a waiter, but a Harvard student, putting myself to use during my summer vacation. Working.

I worked my way from the ground up in Hollywood, arriving three days after graduation, answering an ad in Daily Variety, and interviewing as a receptionist. I got the job. I was thrilled: I had achieved my first goal! Success!!!

The good and bad news about Hollywood is that it is totally unstable. Everything changes all the time. No job lasts forever. And everybody gets fired. So, somewhere after getting fired from that receptionist job, I clawed my way into a job reading scripts at a fairly important company. I got promoted, and, after my boss got fired, I ran the company’s movie division. Around that time, I had the good fortune to date a terrific girl whose boss happened to be running a Studio. Before she got fired, she had the good sense to dump me, but when her boss the Chairman got fired from his job shortly thereafter, he was hired by his former bosses at a different Studio where he had gotten fired previously. As I was getting fired, he hired me. Shortly thereafter, he fired me. Then he got fired. Then his bosses got fired, too.

Somewhere in all this activity, I became dreadfully dissatisfied. And awfully sad. In that order.

Maybe it was seeing many worthwhile scripts I had worked on morph into movies that sucked. (Luckily, by the time most of those movies came out, practically everybody, myself included, had been fired years before, so no one was deemed responsible for them except the people who weren’t responsible for them at all.) Maybe I realized after savoring at least some success that savoring that success wasn’t all that savory. Or that failure and the disappointment that followed felt just as transient, too.

Where would I find satisfaction? And how and why, despite my work ethic, determination, and decidedly glamorous degrees that were so fun to delay revealing to others, could I have been so utterly…dumb?

I decided to reflect. And start again. From scratch.

For the first time, I gave some thought to the question of what work I might love to do. This happened because I had been eavesdropping. Someone (who happened to be my boss at the time) once said that if you love what you do, work doesn’t feel like work at all. It wasn’t said to me, but I was luckily standing nearby to the person to whom it was said, so I overheard the advice. I fought against my urge to smack the person who had said it and luckily I won, because that would have resulted in my being fired yet again. As I preened a bit over my restraint, it dawned on me with great horror that I was envious, terribly envious in fact, that not only had this person discovered something that I did not know, something that was simple and clear, but that he really, truly, genuinely had something I wanted—not a job, but a purpose. That is: he had found what he loved to do, and he was in the midst of doing it. I was not.

I was subsequently fired from this job later on, but that’s a story for another day.

And then I read somewhere that what you do is as important as how you do it, which is just as important as why you chose to do it in the first place. No one had explained that to me as I was zipping through Emerson and Thoreau my sophomore year. I felt a certain amount of rage about that.

But after reflecting some more, I realized that goals, and achieving them, and success, or the lack of it, and setbacks, and their inevitability, were all incidental.

Loving what I do, and doing the best I can, and knowing why doing the work I am doing is meaningful to me, actually counted much more. And understanding why something worked or didn’t, and assessing how I might have done better or worse at it, with the greatest intelligence I could muster, was, in fact, downright…fun. Surprise!

And then I realized that perhaps I had been zipping though Emerson and Thoreau my sophomore year a bit too quickly. Maybe all that was in there. My rage diminished a little.

I started my own businesses. Every day, I break down my time into tasks: sending an email, reading a script. Every day, one simple step. Or five. After a certain number of these of these kinds of days pass, it’s easy to look back and realize that quite a few things have happened.

The good news is I don’t plan on firing myself anytime soon.

In the meantime, I’ve got credit card bills to pay and a mortgage payment to tackle every month. I also need to make my daughter lunch. And dinner. And breakfast.

So I keep at it. But with a more satisfied and much more sensible step.

  1. Malvolio, I was expecting your story to end with the revelation that you were washing dishes for Zen monks and had achieved peace but, reading scripts is cool too.

    Now, can I send you one of my scripts…?


    • Dear RP,

      Figuring out how to get your script read when you are new is one of the most challenging obstacles in Hollywood. I sympathize with your plight, and admire that you took the shot. But I’d be a traitor to the culture in which I’m immersed to accept your script so readily, and happily, treachery is nowhere to be found in my nature.

      As former agent-turned-producer Bill Block said to me when I was just getting started and I asked him for advice: I’ll see you out there.


      • Thanks Malvolio, I appreciate your candor as much as I do your yellow garters.

        The shot I took was certainly in the dark and without a reading of the roll of my bona fides which I’ll admit are slim. I’ve completed 7 screenplays 5 of which are iffy but 2 are strong. I’ve been a quarterfinalist in two contests, for feature script and spec TV -PAGE and Scriptapalooza and have no idea whether that is a good or bad thing.

        I’ve had a near miss with a Christmas script that went from Love it to Hate it to Love it to nowhere. A producer liked another script but couldn’t sell it but thought it would make a great book for a musical (?) and I’m currently doing a rewrite for an agent on another script while waiting for a writer for hire assignment to begin (or materialize).

        So perhaps I’m further along than some but still willing to be tenacious with strangers on the Internet. The script I’m proffering has been read and given good marks by my personal industry rabbis so I’ll ask you to reconsider.

        And this is the last time I’ll ask (until the next time). – RP

  2. […] and a 16-year career in finance to become a high-school math teacher; and by Hollywood producer Malvolio, who made less dramatic but equally important changes to put himself on a more satisfying career […]

  3. Nice piece. Funny, thoughtful, and true.

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