How Humility Saved My Career
“I hope they liked me.” I said to my boss. We were discussing a series of interviews I’d gone through for a promotion I was trying to get. At this point, I’d been with the company for over four years, having spent two of those years in a leadership position. I’d worked hard to get where I was and had achieved measurable results to show I could do the job I wanted. I had earned this. “Don’t worry,” she said, alleviating any doubt. “It’s pretty much a done deal.”
But it wasn’t a done deal. As any good storyteller knows, when someone tells you not to worry about something - that’s when you should start worrying. Circumstances outside my control led to the hiring manager deciding to hire someone else without consulting the other managers who had signed off on hiring me. Within a week of being told I was getting a promotion, I was back in my old job and was being asked to train the person who’d been given the position instead.
I was dumbfounded and humiliated. But most of all I was angry.
Not only did they take the position away from me and give it to someone else, they expected me to teach that person how to do the job! How dare they! I’d earned a promotion. I was PROMISED it. I DESERVED it.
At least, that's what I thought at the time.
What I didn’t realize at the time, was that the sequence of events that led me to lose that promotion, had actually led me to something else - a sense of entitlement.
I have no way of knowing for sure but I’d venture a guess that that sense of entitlement carried through in to my conversations with others. Not directly, of course, but perhaps in more subtle ways. I stopped trying to learn new things because I felt I’d learned everything. I stopped seeking new opportunities for growth because I assumed I was done growing. I thought I’d reached my destination when, in fact, I was really just getting started.
Three years later, after numerous attempts to gain a promotion within the company, I found myself still stuck in the same position with little hope of getting out. Finally, a start up company came to me and offered me a job in a directorial position. So, without considering the viability of that company, I quit and took the job I felt I “deserved”.
One and a half years later, that company went under and I found myself unemployed. My career was all but dead. I was incredibly frustrated. Why was this happening? I kept asking myself, what had I done to "deserve" this?
Before all this, I'd developed a passion for story at an early age. Reading books from authors like Michael Crichton and watching films by directors like Frank Capra made me want to learn everything I could about story. I took up hobbies in writing, acting, and eventually, filmmaking with a thirst for knowledge in everything pertaining to story. This eventually led me to decide with absolute certainty that I wanted to be a screenwriter and a director.
I began making short films with my friends when I was in high school and college and had tons of fun making them despite the fact that I was probably going about it entirely wrong. It didn’t matter to me, though. I was learning. The more I did it, the more I learned, and that’s all I really cared about.
Of course, in college, I needed a job to pay the bills so I tried looking for something that pertained to my interests. At the time, film was not big in Georgia and the only real way to get a job in film was to move to California. Because of my humble origins, that was not an option.
But Apple had recently opened a store nearby. The company that made so many of the tools I was learning, like Final Cut Pro (this was before Final Cut Pro X), was looking for talent so I figured it was the next best thing.
When they offered me a job in a low level position, I was only too eager to take it. It didn’t matter that I was at the bottom of the totem pole. I was going to be learning. There were opportunities to get certifications in those programs - for free! Oh, and yes, it was Apple. Needless to say, it was an exciting opportunity.
But the sequence of events I outlined above led me to forget the reasons I’d joined the company in the first place. Instead of developing the skills needed to get me where I wanted to be, I became focused on moving my way up the ranks into higher and higher positions. It didn’t matter that taking any of those positions would’ve led me on a sidetrack away from my primary goal of becoming a writer/director.
Now, I decided, was a good time to refocus my efforts. At this point, Georgia had become a hub for filmmaking, thanks to new tax credits, and new opportunities were opening every day. But the experience I’d gained at Apple really had little to do with filmmaking. I knew the software, sure. But it had been nearly ten years since I made a short film and I’d only made a few commercials in between. I was rusty at best.
I realized, much to my own chagrin, I was going to have swallow my pride and start over. Having been in leadership positions for seven years at that point, it was a tough realization to come to. But my wife, being the smart and beautifully wise woman that she is, reminded me that I hadn’t been focused on doing what I wanted to do. I had been focused on chasing promotions which really had nothing to do with film.
I took a class with producer Linda Burns who, if you’ve never met her, is a hardened film producer with a knack for telling you how it is. She taught me that if you want to work in film, you have to go in every day with an attitude that says you’re willing to learn. Boy, was she right.
I swallowed what was left of my pride and managed to get an internship with a local production company. I came to work each day, with no pay and no promise of anything at the end, but with an open mind. I tried to maintain the attitude that I knew nothing and that there was always something to learn. Funny enough, on most days, that assumption was correct. There were a number of times where I screwed up. In the past, I would’ve found some way in my own head to pass the blame of these screw ups on to something (or someone) else. But now, I simply accepted that it was because I didn’t know anything and, as a result, I started learning.
Five months later, when the internship ended, the company didn’t promise me anything but did make a point to tell me how much they’d enjoyed having me work for them. I can't say I wasn't disappointed but I had enjoyed the experience and learned a lot from it.
A few weeks later, though, something interesting happened. Job offers and opportunities to work on real film sets started pouring in. I suddenly had more opportunities than I knew what to do with. I finally asked one of the producers who reached out to me how they'd heard about me. Apparently, the company I'd interned for had been talking to others and was telling them how great it was having me work for them. Funny thing is, it’s not like I did anything amazing for them. I was just an intern. But they'd enjoyed having me there so much that they felt others would, too. I had gone in to work with the best possible attitude and with the upmost humility choosing to accept that I had a lot to learn and now it was paying off. That humility is what saved my career.
Bruce Lee once said, “You must empty your cup so that it may be filled.” I believe that because I chose to act as if I knew nothing, I was able to restore the passion and excitement I’d once had for story so that I would go to work every day excited to learn something new. This showed in my enthusiasm and performance and, as a result, made me a desirable employee.
I now work as an editor with aspirations to direct a feature film. I've come a long way since the internship one year ago but I always go to work open and willing to learn something new. I still make mistakes and, yes, I still have a lot to learn, but it was only because I humbled myself that I became open to learning again. Will I get to be a writer or a director? I don't know. I don't focus on what I feel I've "earned" or "deserve". I let others worry about that. I just focus on trying to learn something new every day while sharing my passion for story and that makes my work more than worth the effort.