Career lessons about grit (and nepotism) from Oscar-nominee Sofia Coppola

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When the Oscars run (probably overtime) on Sunday, I'll be rooting for “Lost in Translation” for best picture. Not that I have seen the other competitors, but I loved this particular movie. In fact, I was so impressed 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 giving her a part in “The Godfather: Part III,” screenwriter lessons and producing “Lost in Translation” for her.

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 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 adults 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 thirties. 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 a 18-year-old a management job in a software company.

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. And 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 a 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. Once she finished the script it took her months to finally get it to him. Then she left messages on his 800-number for five months before he responded to the script.

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. How can you not root for her on Sunday?

1 reply
  1. CR Mudgeon
    CR Mudgeon says:

    This is a satire piece, right?

    I mean, you aren’t seriously suggesting that you, your brother and Sophia Coppola are farther apart in terms of privilege than your family and any random black youth living in an inner city ghetto, right?

    Let’s rewrite your brother’s beginnings with a minority urban youth.

    The govt. statistics on black male unemployment chart at 15%. But if you look at actual unemployment instead of the numbers adjusted for their needs, it’s closer to 30%. One out of every 3.

    In the recent “Recession” four out of every five jobs lost had been held by a male worker.

    So, no job. Wait, maybe his vast social connections in his socio-economic class can get him a job. No? Well, there’s always selling drugs.

    Hey, I know… He can just go to college. Oops, wait, no money and the government is cutting financial assistance for the poor.

    So where exactly is this “risk” you speak of? What exactly would have happened to your brother or Coppola had they failed miserably? Would their families have gone hungry? Would they end up indebted for the majority of the rest of their lives? Would they end up living on the street? In a shelter?

    No, because that big ol’ pile of money provided by your economic status would cushion their fall. And failing that, the money and/or influence of your class.

    It’s not a risk. There is nothing in your piece that even hints of risk. So, that word obviously does not mean what you think it means. Risk means the threat of pain. Risk is Russian Roulette with the truly underprivileged having 4 bullets in the chamber. You and your kind; you have one…. and, chances are, it’s a blank.

    Risk is not merely wounded pride over a job you wanted and didn’t get. Risk is not making dinner and having it flop. Because for your kind there’s always more food in the kitchen: another job, another connection, another chance.

    That’s the class difference. When you are not rich, day to day living a risk.

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