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Class Act: A Touch of Humility
Posted Sep 5, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1

After watching successful actors and directors being interviewed over the past couple of years, I've noticed a common trait that a lot of them share. They have a perpetual belief that they can do better. I am not referring to the few whose tiresome narcissism is so over-the-top that it surely must be an attempt to compensate for deep-seated insecurities. Those folks are amusing at best and boring at worst. I'm talking about the standouts who burn with desire, knowing that their best work lies ahead. As one actor put it recently, "It's death to an actor when you become satisfied with your performances."

Great athletes have also been known to be models of humility. You very rarely see a great athlete say after a big win, "Yes, that's right, I'm the best." Stars like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Brett Favre all know when they are at the top of their sport, and yet they make no effort to tout that they are the best.

What I find surprising (and amusing) is that a lot of up-and-coming editors and shooters have unearned delusions of greatness, likening themselves to the finest in the field. Often, when I run across these people, I am naturally leery but willing to give their product a shot. More often than not, after looking at their work I think to myself, "That's what all the hype is about?"

What's even more surprising is that this inflated sense of self-worth afflicts producers at all levels of experience in the field. From the novice to the seasoned professional, some people just get really wrapped up in their own self-image. Some will have completed one video project and think that they are ready to take on the world. They become knighted producers, directors, or editors overnight. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for enthusiasm, but there is a whole lot more to production than you can learn from one project.

I don't bring up this observation with the intent of knocking down any production newbie. Confidence and a belief in one's abilities is one thing (the great pitcher Satchel Paige once said "It ain't bragging if it's true"); but the arrogant attitude that you've got nothing to learn is quite another. It's just fair to mention in passing that a measure of humility can prevent hurt feelings—your own—and help you avoid an uncomfortable situation if whoever is evaluating the material (the person who is paying for your services) is not very tactful or leavening in his or her criticism.

When I first came to the university setting, it was quite an adjustment to see film student footage for the first time. Shocking, really. There would be a buzz about certain projects (good and bad), but it was especially difficult to be encouraging and inspiring to those putting out the really awful stuff. What made it even harder was how proud they were of their student-project work. As the years have passed, it has become easier to draw a positive focus on areas that they can improve while not discouraging their attempts. But it would be so much easier if they could get beyond their own egos.

I run into students now and again who incorrectly assume that they are better than the rest. They have the most difficulty taking suggestions and seeing their product as others do. Few of these individuals learn the art of humility on their own. Most are devastated by one instructor or another down the road. A few bounce back and become better for it, but not all pick up on this life lesson and, eventually, much to their shock and chagrin, find themselves left standing in the shadows of someone else's success, because they decided far too early that they had nothing left to learn.

I've completed a few projects over the years that I don't feel that I could have done better on (certainly they could have been improved upon by others, but they got 110% of me). For the projects that came up short in my estimation, I would have liked a little more editing time or better shots to choose from. But the point is that healthy humility involves being being both open to suggestions and aware of areas of weakness and ways to improve. Knowing that there's always room for improvement often separates the average from those who have the potential to achieve greatness.

Did Michael Jordan stop practicing after he won his first championship? If he had, he likely wouldn't have won five more. In this same way, an editor who's at the top of his or her game needs to be receptive to learning new techniques and to the possibility of self improvement.

It's been said that when you're on top, you must be in the continual process of changing, learning, and evaluating yourself. How many professionals can you think of who have succeeded by "reinventing themselves"? If you're on top now and think you can keep your position by standing still, be prepared for a long fall.

To remind myself to stay humble in whatever I do—and particularly in my professional video work—I keep my favorite fortune-cookie aphorism pinned to my desk: "The superior person is modest in speech but exceeds in action."

We should all aspire to do our best in all our projects but be open both to the possibility that we might have been able to do it better and to the ever-present opportunities to learn and improve.

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