Box? What Box?

Allow me to play the devils advocate for a moment and ask “What’s wrong with thinking inside the box”? It’s dull, certainly, and not very rewarding, and usually quite a tedious process, but other than that, what is the harm? When did “thinking inside the box” become such a social stigma? When did it become something to scorn and malign instead of something to build upon? It occured to me today, as I was trying to describe what qualities I found most valuable when I was looking to hire someone, that the qualities I prize the most highly in someone that I plan to work with are very much “inside the box” qualities. They are as follows:

– Show up. (On time).

-Meet your deadlines.

– Don’t complain too much in between.

They sound obvious because they are. They are quintessential “inside the box” qualities that require no skill or special training to achieve. They are dull, tedious, and unrewarding to the extreme; surely they are worthy of our scorn and ridicule? Or are they? I happen to think that these are invaluable qualities, whether they’re boring or not. In fact I might even go so far as to say that the ability to show up, to get things done, and to do it with a pleasant disposition are the key elements to success.

Showing Up

Don’t you hate it when you’re sitting at home minding your own business and someone knocks at the door and offers you a job with full benefits and a nice plump starting salary with flexible hours and a company car and a generous annual bonus? What’s that you say? You say this has never happened to you? Oh, right. This is reality.

The expression “opportunity knocking” I think is very misleading. Opportunity never knocks. It walks in without asking and if no one is around when it gets there then it walks out again. Showing up may sound like a stupid  piece of advice, but sometimes that’s all it takes. It is the easiest way to get noticed. For example, I was casting a short film a few years ago and a gentleman showed up for the audition. Since the film was silent, and since he was a voice actor, he decided that it probably wasn’t the right role for him but he left a headshot and resume and I added him to my mailing list. Several weeks later we had a fundraising event and I sent out email announcements to my mailing list. He came to the event and reintroduced himself and I was very pleased and impressed that he had chosen to take the time to come all the way out for an event to fund a film that he wasn’t even a part of. When it came time to cast our second film I made sure to send him an email to invite him to the audition and when it came down to the final three actors and I was trying to decide between them I said to myself: “These three actors are all very talented, but I know that THIS one will show  up.” And that was the deciding factor.

Meet Your Deadlines

Henry Ford invented the assembly line to speed up the manufacturing process; a team of individuals each with a specific task that needed to be completed before the item being built could pass to the next person. One worker would tighten a bolt, the next would pull a lever, the next would add a spring and so on until a Model T rolled off at the far end. Now imagine if the first worker didn’t tighten his bolt. The next worker couldn’t pull his lever, the fellow after him couldn’t add his spring, and no cars would roll off the end of the line.  The entire team would be held up waiting for one person to do their damn job, and in the end nothing would be accomplished.

This is an exaggeration of the importance of deadlines but only a small one. Filmmaking is, like many activities, a team effort. It takes an incredible amount of effort to get a production rolling and only one small grain of sand in the works to bring it to a standstill.   If a costumer doesn’t have a costume ready in time then the actors, the cameraman, the gaffer (that’s the lighting guy), the director, the sound engineer and so on all have to wait for it to be finished and production grinds to a halt. I’m unfairly picking on costumers here, but really it could be any member of the team holding up production; an actor without lines memorized, a sound engineer without the proper equipment, the cameraman with dirty lenses, etc. The point is, if you’re part of a team (and we all are, in some way or another) other people depend on you to get your work DONE before they can do their part. I’ve worked with some people who were innovative, creative, masterful, geniuses in their field, but who couldn’t get a single thing finished in time.  I always think twice about working with them a second time- is the quality of their work worth the time and expense of having to wait for them to finish it? Sadly, the answer is often “no”.  I’d rather have a functional Model T roll off the end of the line than to hire a virtuoso bolt-tightener who is going to hold up the line.

Don’t Complain Too Much

There are two schools of thought on this: One is “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” and the other is “The squeaky wheel gets replaced”. At times, it is appropriate to bellyache a little bit about any job. The hours are long. The pay is bad. The expectations are unreasonable. I worked one summer in a Summerstock repertory theatre in the costume department. Summerstock theatre is incredibly intensive.  We would work twelve hour days, in the basement of a theatre, six days a week, for three weeks until the main show went up. I would see the sun for 15 minutes in the morning and for a few minutes at lunch  and dinner breaks. Complaining was something we all did exceptionally well and with great abundance  to blow off steam and to comiserate.

The point is that even though we whined a lot, we still did the work and put in the hours. Complaining is natural when things suck, but when complaining becomes more important than getting the work done it becomes a problem. I intensely dislike working with the kind of person who complains about the work they have while doing nothing. It takes a supreme effort to motivate them to do anything which invariably leads to the rest of the team needing to do more work to compensate. The more the rest of the team has to work the more dissatisfied they get and the less they want to work and the more motivation it takes to get them going. Give me someone who will work in spite of their complaints any day.

So maybe the point of all this is that we should think of The Box as a toolbox, instead of as a trap. The tools we keep in it are pretty basic: a hammer, a screwdriver, a tape measure, etc but we wouldn’t try to build our dream house without them. Why would we try to build our dream job without basic tools like showing up, meeting deadlines, and not complaining too much? And who knows, The Box could be handy as a step ladder for reaching those lofty goals or as an ballast when we need to steady ourselves in troubled economic tides. Maybe The Box iteslf is our most important tool whether we’re thinking inside it or thinking outside of it.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on June 29, 2009.

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