A ways back I used to eat my porridge every morning in a greasy spoon near where I lived. An old farmer owned it and it was one of those totally unpretentious places where everyone knew everyone, the service was fast and friendly and it wasn’t unusual to have strangers at your table.
When I went in the morning of my 28th birthday I ended up sitting next to a huge Aboriginal guy who was quiet, but very friendly. He heard the staff wishing me a happy birthday and he asked me how old I was turning. When I told him he said, “Ah, 28. The year you learn to say ‘no.’”
That was notable, because saying ‘no’ was not my habit. I’d led a good life saying a lot of ‘yeses.’ One of the yeses I’d given three years before that was when I got a call from a billionaire who was interested in my ability to notice strange patterns in things. He said he wanted insights that might help him make business decisions. It sounded fun so I did it.
In doing it, I came to realize that despite how we started, he became increasingly interested in the fact that my Dad is my hero. And I think in the end he wanted business ideas a lot less than he wanted to know how to be a hero to his kids, who he felt he’d not done great with. So mostly we talked about that until the time he died.
Now, years later, on the day I had breakfast with the Native guy who told me it was my year to learn to say ‘no,’ I got a call from the television network the billionaire owned. They were expanding and his son wanted me to come on board to help choose and develop future programming on the both the film and TV side. I had just come off writing a couple of movies and a few series, so I was due for a change and I agreed. What exactly I was agreeing to though, I did not fully comprehend.
Canada was (still is?) the second largest exporter of TV worldwide after the US. But it was still a small enough industry that all of the people who worked on the really big projects personally knew most of the people in their region. And a lot of us knew most of the people from one end of the country to the other. The business was that small back then. And that closeness proved to be an interesting factor when it came time to do the job.
I had a budget that was the envy of the industry. I had the freedom to work in both free and pay TV, on series as well as features. It was the only job like it in the country and it brought virtually every type of producer into my office. On average we would receive about 1600+ submissions a year, we would develop maybe 25-50 and produce about a dozen, including series. Of course those numbers meant that I was saying “no” almost every time.
The trick was, I was saying ‘no’ to my friends –people I liked and admired. People who I had grown up with in the industry. People I felt close to. And to each of those people their projects were generally pitching me the thing they were working on. They had all of their eggs in that basket —their heart and soul was into it. And I would be the guy who would crush their dreams of ever getting or sustaining a mortgage. It’s a hard way to learn to say ‘no’ a lot.
Being the guy I am I was able to appreciate that someone had to make the determination. They couldn’t give the money out on a first-come first-served basis. Nor could we do it alphabetically, or by script weight, or by the number of pages. Someone had to give an opinion about what they thought would work and I was that guy.
I won’t say that I liked turning down my friends —or even the non-friends who I knew had worked super hard on their submissions. I was a writer, I knew how much work even the bad projects involved. But this wasn’t a popularity contest. I had a job and my job was to pick things that would recoup their investments so that I could continue to pick things in the future.
And it turned out that having a pattern-matching brain and a couple years working as a theatre manager meant I had gotten really good at finding what worked. But that meant that I had to turn down development proposals that ended up destroying companies and careers. Of course, whoever did the job was going to say ‘no’ to 99% of the people making submissions.
It’s not like I didn’t have to turn away some good, heartfelt personal stories. I really wish some of those films had been made. But I only had so much money. And undoubtedly I was wrong many times we can’t ever calculate. But no matter how it all shook out, being good at my job meant that I had to crush a lot of other people’s dreams.
When you’re responsible for money like that it’s strange. Everyone has theories about what they would do if they had the job. But it’s much different imagining spending one million dollars on Richard Chamberlain than it is to actually be responsible for paying one million dollars for a theoretical Richard Chamberlain.
Of course, there is no way to actually calculate beforehand if Richard Chamberlain would create enough extra audience to be worth his expense (it turned out he was). But everyone had an opinion about whether or not that expenditure was wise. And how can anyone prove it wrong or right? It’s easy for people to question decisions like those, when we have nothing to compare to.
So those sorts of decisions were constantly under scrutiny and constantly under attack. There was no shortage of people I’d turned down who disagreed with any number of them. Plus I also had to chastise lazy writers, and inform neophytes about what they didn’t know. I had to not cast people’s spouses. These are not things that make a person popular.
Even for those that got money, they didn’t always get what they wanted. So there were a lot of observers like those two old miserable guys from the Muppets that had lots to say about every decision I made.
People used to ask me if it bothered me that there were people that hated me for those decisions (and undoubtedly for some, for differences in our personalities too). But the answer was no, it didn’t bother me. Why would it? No matter who I chose, someone wasn’t getting money. A lot of someones weren’t. The majority of someones weren’t.
When you do the math on my budget and submission rate, it’s easy to see that there was no avoiding making a lot more people angry than I made happy. But hey, that’s why it’s tough at the top. That’s why they pay you the big bucks. But bottom line, you can’t be who you are and also cater to the desires of everyone you meet.
We have to be our own person. We have to have faith in ourselves. We can’t try to be infallible. We have to realize and accept that sometimes in life, we are given an important job because it needs doing. And our job is to do it the best we can, which I did in that case. But even though I succeeded for the company, those rejected submissions were still painful, expensive experiences for the people being turned down.
We won a lot of awards and set a few records while I was there, but that’s not why I felt successful. I felt —and continue to feel— successful because I had a great team and process, and we chose those projects with great care. I had tremendous respect for the money I was investing, and for the work that had gone into the submissions. And I knew I couldn’t be right every time. But I was going to be right as often as I could. After that I can’t waste my life worrying about what someone else would have done in the same situation.
Our sense of self can’t come from the approval of others. If everyone likes your decisions then you’re not making any —or at least not any of consequence. I remember a prominent producer arguing with me over casting an Asian school teacher. He was worried it would reduce sales to the US. In his mind, I was asking too much. Today of course we realize that he was just displaying some fearful racism. But that argument stems out of the decision-making process. To make an omelet you have to crack a few eggs. You can’t focus on the cracked shells, you have to focus on your objective.
The objective in that job of mine wasn’t to reject things. It was just to find more that worked than didn’t. I’m sure there were some money-makers in the ‘no’ pile. But again, I only had so much money. I can’t think so many what-ifs that my life gets frozen in place while I re-think everything. Perfection is the enemy of good.
So rather than focus on who I disappointed, I focused on who I could help. And I’m pleased to say that I gave a start some very talented people who’ve gone on to great careers. But I couldn’t have done that if I wasn’t prepared to put myself out there to be criticized for my decisions. I get that.
If I worked two years on something and it got rejected I would be upset too. And I might even call the person who did it some names for a few minutes after I found out about the rejection. But eventually that would wear off and I would know that someone had to choose. And I would know full well that they couldn’t say ‘yes’ to everything. So it only makes sense that we all have a better chance of being in “no” pile.
We must be wary about letting our fears of being liked preventing us from doing what we think is right. Every one of us can be confident that as humans, we will be wrong quite often. But in life, as long as you’re right more than you’re wrong, they often let you keep playing in the big sandbox.
I’m glad to be out of that now. I had a ton of fun at the height of the industry —just before the internet took the legs out from underneath the golden age. It was nice hotels, limos, cool festivals and real life movie stars. But you got none of that unless you were willing to have some rejected writer scream obscenities at you in a hotel bar.
Every bit of ‘success’ has a matching price. So to take that job, you had to be willing to know that a good friend could consider you the reason that her business failed. Again, everyone has their separate realities and it’s obvious I would be the villain in many people’s rejection narratives. But that’s like having someone mad at you because you don’t want to date them. You’re not saying they’re not worth anything. You’re just saying they don’t match you. That’s why the native guy was right. Learning to say ‘no’ is a life skill.
Don’t be a pleaser. Be yourself and those who love you will make ample room for your choices. You’re not here to make us happy, you’re here to make you happy. So respect people. Be empathetic to their pain. But as much as possible, don’t let the downsides dictate a decision. Just make the best decisions you can with the information you have and go from there. And always remember, they could be right. And you could be wrong. And that’s okay.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.