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The Brazen Careerist

To be successful, act like a movie star

At the Oscars, I rooted for "Lost in Translation" for best picture. Not that I had seen the competition, but I loved that particular movie. I was so impressed, in fact, that I read up on Sofia Coppola. In the process, I learned more about career management by how she managed hers.

Of course, Sofia has had more advantages than most fledgling directors. Her dad, Francis Ford Coppola, provided her with a stunning apprenticeship, including screenwriter lessons, a role in "The Godfather: Part III" and producing "Lost in Translation."

But before I launch into a celebration of Sofia Coppola, I need to say that the U.S. is not a meritocracy: Rich people are better connected, so they get better jobs. And rich people who are not well connected still tend to get better jobs because they have an easier time envisioning themselves in a successful career than poorer people. An example: My younger brother, now 21, did almost no homework in high school, and he recently landed a job most college graduates would covet -- investment banking in Europe.

He used connections and a lofty vision of himself to get it. He started on his career path in high school by getting a management job at a Blockbuster store. This was easy in the wealthy community where we were raised because no adult residents there wanted (or needed) this type of job. That left the entry-level management jobs to high school students. At my local Blockbuster store in sort-of-rough-and-tumble Brooklyn, the managers are in their 30s. So the first moment of inequality is that rich kids can get great jobs in high school.

Since he had been an actual manager before, I was able to give him a management job in my own company during the summer after his freshman year of college. And I concede he did an outstanding job. But only a sister would give an 18-year-old a management job in a software company.

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The next year, my cousin, a high-ranking guy at a big ad agency, gave my brother a summer internship even though my brother missed the deadline for applying and wasn't in business school like all the other interns. But to be honest, my brother did a great job of mending fences with a basically estranged cousin. He also had a stellar resume written by yours truly.

So by the time my brother graduated from college, he had great experience on his resume that helped him land his new job in Europe. I don't begrudge him that. And I admit that with a lot of effort and even more luck, a poor kid could land the same positions as my brother. But it's clear he had a million advantages that poor kids don't have, so he didn't need as much luck.

Speaking of people who don't need luck, let's get back to Sofia. Tracing the career of a person who had every advantage in the book can make one a little peevish. So how do people act when they have every advantage? That's the relevant question, because probably we should all act the same way.

People like my brother, who have relatively few advantages compared to someone like Sofia, ask for everything -- just to see if they'll get it. He asked my parents to pay for him to attend an expensive college even though he didn't do a lick of homework in high school. Even though he knew he wasn't qualified, he asked my cousin for an internship. He could do this because he could envision himself getting it. Poor kids have to stretch to imagine having food on the table every night.

In Sofia's world, though, you don't just ask for something -- you operate as though you'll definitely get it. The difference is that my brother and others like him still need to make contingency plans, whereas really well-connected people don't. Thinking this way is what helps them to succeed.

So Sofia Coppola wrote "Lost in Translation" for Bill Murray before he said he'd make a movie with her. She finished the script and then called Bill Murray hundreds of times before he agreed to be in the movie.

We should all believe in ourselves so much. How many of us would spend months on a project that might not happen? It's her belief in herself that impresses me. It doesn't matter if your last name is Coppola; if your screenplay is terrible, Bill Murray won't do it. In that sense, Sofia did, in fact, take a gamble, even though she wasn't in danger of starving like some screenwriters are. And with the biggest risks come the biggest rewards.

Maybe rich people can afford to take more risks. But my point is that by believing in yourself, as Sofia Coppola did, you may be able to leap career hurdles you once thought were impossible.

-- Posted: Feb. 23, 2004
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See Also
Resume writing: Lies vs. honesty
Resolved: I will find a better job
Financial advice glossary
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