Keeping Up With the Joneses in a Career: The Worst "Ism" Isn't What You Think

There are many reasons people don't get ahead or why a career stalls. Excuses abound as to the rationale, usually headed up by the well-known "isms." We've got sexism and of course racism, plus the universally maligned ageism, because it's the one "ism" to which every single one of us is potentially subject if we are lucky enough to be able to work throughout a long life.

However, the worst "ism" isn't any of these, though such "isms" are surely nothing to sneeze about. Any form of discrimination bespeaks a wrongfully placed attitude, because we should be desired mostly for a combination of our skills and talents and the ability to interact well with our colleagues.

Wouldn't it be great if the above attributes were enough to close the deal so that those of us who are capable, ready and willing to continue working in our chosen profession were able to do so? Unfortunately, in too many cases it is not, in particular the fields where there is a great competition for high paying jobs and perks. And in most of those situations, these "isms" are trumped by the worst "ism" of them all: perceptionism.

Perceptionism in itself may come about as a result of any assortment of the above "isms," but it can also provide a negative effect for those who are white, male and of an age too early to be presumed old. Let's say thirty-five to forty-five.

Perceptionism is how you are viewed in your profession, as in what have you done lately? It cannot realistically be used against those truly too young to have filled out a meaningful resume. However, it is too often brought forth as an excuse when considering someone for a job if he or she hasn't had an assignment in a recent time frame. And that time frame has been decreasing. A number of years ago, depending upon your job history or, as the entertainment industry calls it, your credits, you might have had as much as five years to get going again. Then, it was reduced to three. Now, if you haven't achieved anything in the last year, certainly in the last two, you are summarily washed up.

Perceptionism puts you in a veritable abyss, a whirlpool from which you can almost never emerge. Because however au courant you might be, however many courses you take to keep fresh in your field, or if, as a writer, you continually churn out new scripts to prove your current mettle, it does no good if you are not even given a once over. If your CVs are answered politely with a form letter but there is rarely an interview and almost never a follow-up. Almost every profession is so affected, but from here on out I'll focus upon the area in which I have firsthand knowledge.

In the entertainment industry perceptionism begets lack of interest and thus lack of work, and before long you're chucked by your agent and eventually cannot find another. Then, no matter what you do to revive interest -- to prove you've still got it, that you're not relying upon old chestnuts from your literary trunk -- it does no good to say here's a new script or novel or play. You find that if you don't have an agent, most people -- sometimes even your acquaintances -- won't read your new material citing legal reasons. An excuse that's clearly bogus and really a euphemism for "If you don't have an agent you can't be any good."

Having an agent does not indemnify a studio or production company from litigation. I'm sure Art Buchwald had an agent when he sued and won a judgment against Paramount Pictures for Coming to America. However, there are a number of executives and producers who actually believe the agent necessity nonsense. Indeed, I've heard many such stories from a lot of my colleagues, so a little over a year ago, and as a former Member of the Writers Guild West Board of Directors, I made a pitch to the current WGAw Board to get them involved. To urge them to help, even if only in a small way.

I acknowledged that the majority of those who refuse to "read" a professional writer with a bundle of credits do so out of laziness or, worse, scorn for the writer, who has become victimized by perceptionism. However, I argued there still might be a small number of buyers who would be interested to read a script. Perhaps you met them at a party and they asked you to have your agent send it over, but then balked when you admitted that you didn't have one, citing the "legal reasons" they believed to be true. If the Writers Guild could put forth a statement indicating this was bullshit -- maybe through ads in the trades and by meeting regularly with the studios -- the producers who always had this convenient agent "cover" would now have to come up with another reason to say "no." And since there are so many people in the industry who don't have the guts to appear cruel, maybe, just maybe with the debunking of this oft-used myth by an industry force such as the WGA, a few more writers would get back inside the door. And after awhile maybe even more. Wasn't it at least worth a try?

Sadly the Guild leadership was at best ambivalent. They listened politely and shrugged as if to say that's the way it is and there's nothing really to be done. Though it was almost a year before the 2007 strike began and months before Guild activities ground to a halt in preparation for negotiations, the feeling I got from the room was that their efforts shouldn't be wasted on pie in the sky hopes to correct an admitted injustice that most believed to be insurmountable -- especially by a labor organization that wasn't a hiring hall.

I said that writers didn't want job mandates, which are the raison d'etre of other unions. All most people want is a chance to rent a booth at the bazaar to sell their wares. Some of our Members are being denied the chance to rent that booth due to the fallacious belief that without an agent's submission legal problems will surely follow. And getting an agent when your career is cold is almost impossible. Everyone knows that agents are the bottom feeders of the industry, not at all sensitive to a person's true qualities, as they are the most profound practitioners of perceptionism. Don't just take my word for it. Their personas are the stuff of legend, depicted ruthlessly and derisively in books, plays, motion pictures and television shows.

However, without accomplices the agents alone could not effect the needless villainy that Perceptionism invokes upon a person's livelihood. There are many good and talented folks who finally give up, not because they don't want to keep going but because it becomes an almost impossible obstacle to overcome if those who are in a position to consider their talents fall prey to the God of perceptionism. A holy spirit, which makes them feel okay about benignly participating in the gradual interment of someone's career.

Occasionally we hear stories of people who, through luck or the help of a good friend, are given a second or third chance, and in some of those instances the results are spectacular. And when that happens people come out of the woodwork. People who wouldn't return your calls suddenly are your biggest fans. When I left a major talent agency after a three-year spate without any work, I secured another agency that got me in the door of a new sitcom and later that year I was back on staff of a network series. A friendly acquaintance at my former agency said that when he told the head of the literary department of my latest gig, the man grinned broadly and said, "I always knew it." Pity this knowledge didn't reveal itself when I was struggling and needed the man's confidence to get me the necessary meetings to jump-start my career.

When Julian Fellowes won the Writers Guild Award for Gosford Park, he told the audience that there were suddenly all these agents calling. He said that he was fifty-two now and just as good a writer the year before, but no one was so forthcoming then. So, it's not just a question of getting a little older and being unemployable, because suddenly, and as the recipient of an Oscar for the same film, the middle-aged Fellowes was in demand.

Of course, winning an Oscar can propel you into the stratosphere, but were it not for Robert Altman's atypical belief in such a man with his work history, his fairy tale might not have had a happy ending. His qualifications were clearly there, but in most instances such an opportunity would never have happened despite the man's professional experience. Unfortunately, the harsh truth is that perceptionism is a cruel game which so many of us play, where we think it's perfectly okay to discard or disregard people when they are no longer part of the "in" crowd.

Perceptionism can happen to anyone. Not only in the entertainment industry. We have seen careers in politics and business that appeared meteoric, only to have a misstep or loss shoot them down. On the other hand, perceptionism can occasionally, though not often, be tackled. Who better than Richard Nixon, who'd lost not only the presidency but two years later the governor's race in California. He was dead politically, yet six years later moved into the White House.

So, perceptionism can and must be defeated someday, but first, like all social diseases, it has to be recognized in order to find a rational vaccine to rid it from our mindset. We are all subject to personal likes and opinions. Chemistry between people may always be the determining factor as to why we want to be friends and colleagues. But wouldn't it be great if an individual's aura and apparent competence were the ultimate judge rather than gossip and false presumption? Shouldn't we at least be given the chance to interact and demonstrate what gifts we might offer today rather than allow Perceptionism to damn us eternally as passe?

Let's get rid of all the evil "isms," of which perceptionism I believe to be the most venal.