If my summer has had a personal theme, it’s been the dangers of success and owning who you are. I’m a proud baldy who’s scared of the power of the American Dream and loves comedy more than action. Okay, that’s a bit silly. I really have been thinking about success all summer. I’ve achieved a couple goals I’ve been pursuing for a decade, which is as exciting as it is scary. In the light of all this, I read a terrific interview with Richard Dreyfuss. He’s so bombastic and cock-sure, even as he criticizes himself for being too bombastic and cock-sure. Two comments in particular resonated with me. In one, he recalls an early audition where he reveled pridefully in losing a gig because he mouthed-off to a director. “It was [a high-risk strategy] but I was filled with self‑confidence and, I now see, self‑delusion.” The other came when discussing the failure of his first marriage. “And that was a tragedy. I shriek in self-loathing as I recall it.” Self-confidence. Self-delusion. Self-loathing. That’s what I’ve been grappling with all summer. I suddenly understand the idea of not losing yourself in the moment but losing yourself to success.
I used to think that age and experience didn’t mean a damn when it came to thinking about the context of your life and choices. Then I got some age and experience and I understood how much nonsense that was. In that state of mind, Dreyfuss’s interview sent me down a rabbit hole that started with What About Bob? which stars both Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Murray. This rabbit hole wound through The Goodbye Girl, The Competition, Lost In Translation, and The Razor’s Edge. Dreyfuss and Murray both have made a career out of characters dealing with the consequences of their success. Dreyfuss’s characters struggle with success. Success overcomes them, they lose, or they find out that some people are just better than them at what they do.
What About Bob? is an all-time favorite and the one that stuck with me the most in this frame of mind. The acting and comedy are perfect. The film is all punch. It’s directed by the amazing Frank Oz. It stars two of my favorite actors. It was shot by Michael Ballhaus who’s done a ton of amazing work with Martin Scorcese. He also teamed up with Oz for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Finally, it was edited by the impossibly great Anne V. Coates. So much talent concentrated in one film. The script and construction of the film are very sharp.
I’ve noticed two things about my relationship with the movie as I’ve accumulated years. First, Murray’s Bob Wiley makes a load more sense. Germs are terrifying and, seriously, what if my bladder explodes because I can’t make it to a bathroom in time? If I fake it, I can’t have it. I see you, Bob Wiley. I see you. Second, I’m so much more sympathetic to the meltdown of Richard Dreyfuss’s Dr. Leo Marvin.
As a kid, I didn’t understand his motivation even as I enjoyed the comic antics of it all. I’ve grown up and I’ve got the hairline and the family to prove it. I’ve reached a point in my life where I have the foundation well laid. I understand how things operate. I’m ready to take my successes and turn them into something defining. My goodness, I feel Marvin’s struggle. He has no answer to the question: how can you feel so lost when you are succeeding?
Success, both its promise and its wrath, are all over the movie screen. We watch people make literal deals with the devil, sell their uniqueness, lose their families, lose themselves. We watch them dream about success. Think about it. Scheme for it. Analyze it. Whether we’re weekend warriors or relentlessly mission-driven, it’s an obsession to which we can easily relate. I find that success can not only consume us but that it can do so without our even noticing.
The challenges at each are different as you rise from apprentice to journeyman to master in the discipline you’re pursuing. You know, as a beginner, it’s exciting and frustrating and all so new as you learn the basics. When you master the basics and move on to applying your knowledge creatively, you’re so darn excited to be “doing” that you are mostly too distracted to see the dangers of a stumble. That’s as apt a description for life as it is for career success.
Dr. Marvin is on the precipice of great success. At the start of the movie, he has a clearly successful practice, a newly published book, and popular interest in his work. Good Morning America wants to interview him. He’s about to realize a career-long pursuit. All the while, he has a family who clearly loves him. You can’t achieve these things without being good at your work and present at home. His career is about helping people. He guards himself more fiercely as he approaches success. The prize is so close and so big, it’s consuming his vision.
I like that turn of phrase, “precipice of success”. It captures how I feel about that moment you are about to level up your pursuit. There’s a tight rope to success, but below it is a dark chasm. At best, you can see the layers of your life and experience that built you up to where you are. It’s scary to suddenly clearly see the expanse of your life set before you. In fact, it’s probably the first time in a long time that you’ve been vulnerable to failures related to being new at something. You are suddenly aware that the tightrope you’ve been walking your whole career has gotten pretty fucking far off the ground.
There’s a giddiness to it, you know? I remember exactly how I felt as a child on Christmas Eve. And it leads to similar behavior. You’re too excited to follow the rules, in this case, the rules you’ve created for yourself to allow for this success. You get a little cocky. And this all happens as the mature, cynical You remembers all those Christmas Days in your life that were busts. You lock down your emotions. It’s a volatile, combustible mix. And it totally jacks up your ability to make good choices based on who you are.
That’s the seduction of material success. There’s a force to it and you start to make decisions based on the fear of losing it. You do things you’d never do in any other scenario because you’re afraid, and you think it’s something you have to do in order to make sure you achieve your goal. But, it sure doesn’t feel like you. You know, the You that makes you happy every day and has helped lead your life to where it is today. Will you embrace fear or yourself?
Honestly, it isn’t even a choice that you have to have the courage to make once, and then it’s done. You are always balancing on a tightrope, on your way to your destination. That fall is always terrifying. You have to make that choice again and again and again. It’s a lot. So, you close yourself down and get ready for the worst.
What About Bob?, and I mean this sincerely, helps me put similar thoughts of my own in their proper place. I don’t mean in the sense that I’m taking a Bob Wiley approach to life. Though, I do relate very much to the idea of having to take baby steps through public transit. Only dealing with the small, immediate goals in front of me. The world is a filthy place and germs are scary. As funny and freeing as it is to live so out loud, the idea of feeling everything and being overcome by waves of emotion and anxiety is scary.
Dr. Leo Marvin helps me remember that it’s all a gag. I remind myself to step back and have a laugh in times of great stress. You know in The Matrix when the kid says the bit about the spoon? Don’t try to bend the spoon with your mind. You can’t do that. Simply try and realize that the spoon doesn’t exist. It’s a bit like that for me. Always try. Don’t laugh at your pursuits and your goals. Simply try and remember that embarrassing or not, it’s hilarious when you do a national television interview, and your patient of a few days barges in and pretends to vomit.
A friend told me once that his mantra is “if it isn’t fun, it’s funny.” I think that’s a good way to try and navigate these stressful situations. Don’t go thinking you’re a big shot. That’s your surest way to stumble and fall. You are not a big shot. Be humble. Constantly remind yourself to pay attention to the baby steps in life. You’re never too successful for baby steps.