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Err on the Side of Entitlement February 9, 2008

Last night I was reading the November/December issue of the Brown Alumni Magazine. I have a real love/hate relationship with this publication.  Every issue seems to shout at me: “Hey, Jackass! Look at the dozens of people who used their elite education to achieve something great with their lives! What the hell have you been doing with it?” The BAM always makes me feel simultaneously inspired and ashamed to be associated with my fellow alumni.What struck me about this particular issue, (other than the ad on the back cover to share jets with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates) was how the protagonists in the two feature articles seem to have achieved their goals in life mostly with arrogance–to the exclusion of all else.  These are not bad people, mind you.  They are in fact very kind and generous.  Arrogance doesn’t necessarily equal selfishness–just overconfidence.

Take Lauren Zalaznick, for example.  She’s the network president of Bravo, which became famous for its hit show, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”  When she was made president, she was charged with taking the popularity of Queer Eye and parlaying it into network-wide success.  She did this, quite literally, by taking the five content areas of Queer Eye–fashion, home design, food, personal grooming, and culture–and made a separate reality show for each.  The fashion show, “Project Runway,” was the first to be released, and it bombed.  The company executives wanted it pulled off the air.  Zalaznick refused.  Against all evidence to the contrary, she insisted that the show was a winner, and rather than remove it from the rotation, she re-ran the first three episodes all over the schedule, throughout the entire holiday season.  By the time the fourth episode aired, Project Runway’s ratings had quadrupled.

By forcing the show down people’s throats and completely contradicting her bosses, Zalaznick forced everyone around her to become invested in a show that they initially didn’t care about or really like.  This is successful arrogance at its best.  You insist that something of yours has value until it does–by sheer force and repetition.  There’s a saying we used to throw around at the New York Aquarium when I was a volunteer there: “People will only save what they love, love what they know, and know what you teach them.”  This phrase was obviously used in the context of wildlife conservation, but it seems to work equally well in saving a television show from extinction.

The second story I read is about the last lecture given by a Carnegie Mellon professor named Randy Pausch on how to achieve your childhood dreams. The poor guy has pancreatic cancer, which is nearly always incurable, but he has accomplished more in his forty-something years than most other people accomplish in their entire lives. How?  By always believing that he deserved to have whatever he was striving for, and never taking no for an answer. Here are some examples: after being wait-listed and rejected by the admissions officers at Brown and Carnegie Mellon, respectively, Pausch talked his way into being admitted to both.  A few years later, he met a pretty grad student while visiting the University of North Carolina. She was out of his league and thought he was gay, besides.  But he blew off his UNC hosts and a guest speaker waiting for him back at Carnegie Mellon just to try to have dinner with her. He married her a year later. And what was his excuse to those he ditched? Nothing. He just told them the truth and didn’t care what happened to him.

So what’s the lesson in these stories?  Err on the side of entitlement to make things happen for yourself.  Not in the Paris Hilton way (i.e. “My daddy’s rich, so I deserve to be famous for absolutely no reason”), but in the way that makes others believe in your talents and hard work as fiercely as you do.  This is America, Baby!  Insist on your greatness until it becomes true.

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