The Leaping Frog and the Patient Snake
by STEVE HICKNER
“There is no man living who isn’t capable of doing more than he thinks he can do.”
“Three frogs are sitting on a log, and two decide to jump. How many are left?”
The answer is “three”—because deciding to jump and actually jumping are not the same. Potential is not sufficient to achieve a result. All of us have known talented people who have never achieved the success they should have achieved. Like the frogs, these people fail to “jump” and convert their potential into success.
Life is not fair. All of us have different abilities. Some people are born taller, smarter, prettier, more handsome, or more talented than we are. Many of these traits are embedded into our DNA and we cannot change them. If you are one of the lucky ones to be blessed with such gifts, congratulations—you have a head start in life. But even if you did not inherit terrific assets, great opportunities are still possible. Life may not be fair, but it does allow room for negotiating. While we are all given a set of tools at the start, such as intelligence and talent, the amount to which we develop these abilities is up to us.
And that is our big escape clause.
When I was growing up, I adored the work of Charles M. Schulz for his comic strip, “Peanuts.” He was one of my heroes, and I did my best to absorb as much of his drawing techniques as possible. There were many individual strips that I enjoyed, but I especially recall one drawing of Linus Van Pelt, the brilliant philosopher of the strip. Because of his intelligence, he carried the weight of great expectations. As he once famously observed, “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.” Linus’ words are bitingly true; having great potential is nothing but a promissory note.
Steven Spielberg possesses an extraordinary talent for making movies, but before he achieved success, he was just another young wannabe filmmaker. Then one day he made the “jump” and snuck onto the Universal Studios lot. He hung around the movie sets, watching TV shows like Wagon Train being filmed and becoming a presence in the editing rooms. Eventually, he became such a fixture at the studio, the guards thought that he belonged there, and he managed to appropriate an empty office. He was able to get an audience for his short film, Amblin, and the rest became history.
When I begin a job, it is the frog in me that gets me to jump into the fray, but it’s the snake in me that keeps me going, bit by bit. What do I mean by “the snake in me?” Let me explain...
Snakes have been on earth since the days of the dinosaurs, and for good reason. They are adaptable. Despite their ubiquity, snakes are the recipients of a great deal of bad press. For instance, most people think that a boa constrictor kills its prey by squeezing it to death. In actuality, a boa constrictor kills its prey in a less theatrical way. The snake grabs its lunch-to-be within its coils, and patiently waits for the animal to inhale. Each time the animal takes a breath, the snake tightens its coils until the prey is unable to breathe. The prey simply dies from suffocation. The boa constrictor may not be as fast as a cheetah or as cagey as a wolf, but this snake is every bit as successful at securing its dinner. The boa constrictor is the model of accomplishment through persistence.
Perhaps the thought of being compared to a serpent is not appealing to you, but the boa constrictor’s success is proof that you can achieve the same result as others who are swifter or smarter. Discipline yourself for incremental gain. You can arrive at the same place as your peers by sticking to a job and being persistent. Before you begin a task, imagine the pleasure of the result and use this future reward for the impetus to begin and the conviction to continue through adversity.
I have used self-discipline to my advantage during my career. When others around me arrive late, pack up early, relax on self-improvement, let their skills slide, or fail to study the horizon for how the business will be changing, I gain ground on them. I take pride in being a reliable and dedicated animation professional. There is no training or waiting period necessary to develop self-determination. You can start today. All you have to do is to decide you want to reach a certain goal—and make the commitment to keep working at it until you get there. You do not have to achieve your goal in one burst. Focus your attention on improving your abilities or situation a little bit at a time, and eventually you will arrive at your destination.
ATTITUDE IS ALL
When I was living in London and working for Steven Spielberg, the studio was so new that we had to hire almost 200 employees. During our search for talent, I realized that I valued a particular character trait even more than technical proficiency. The magical component that is so important that it supersedes the benefits of a high IQ or brilliant talent is …
In addition to self-control, self-determination, and persistence, attitude is another one of those jewels that we possess that is independent of our DNA. While we may not be able to make ourselves smarter on a daily basis, we can influence our job outlook and mood. Deciding to bring a great attitude into each work situation is perhaps the single most important decision you can make. There is no simpler way to improve your odds of career longevity than by being known as a person who brings enthusiasm to the office. Kelly Asbury, the director of Shrek 2, Gnomeo and Juliet, and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, has a great reputation for being fun to work with. And guess what? He is always in demand. No sound engineer has to duck a flying coffee mug on a Kelly Asbury film—although I have heard tales of such insanity taking place on other people’s movie sets.
As a producer, I hired dozens of artists and production crewmembers, and I always chose the person with the best attitude if the decision was a close one. I can teach someone the technical requirements of a job, but I cannot teach someone to have a good attitude. I have witnessed both excellent and poor attitudes in the work environment and in college classrooms, and I know that being around a worker or student who is negative impacts the dynamic for the entire group. When the situation calls for creative collaboration, having a healthy environment is essential and the candidate who is eager to help is the kind of person that I want beside me in the foxholes.
I have worked alongside Jeffrey Katzenberg for over half of my career and I can attest to the fact that you are unlikely to find anyone with a more positive attitude. Katzenberg has been one of the most successful studio executives over the past few decades and he considers enthusiasm such an important attribute for a career aspirant that he places it on par with the pursuit of excellence. In a May 2008 speech to graduates of the Ringling College School of Arts he said, “Whatever you do, do it really, really well and with lots of enthusiasm. …. And if you’re the one putting maximum energy into whatever you’re doing, not only will you move ahead on your path more quickly, but you will be more engaged and have more fun along the way. And I promise—you will stand out.” Not everyone, however, is naturally gregarious or outgoing. In such circumstances, there is another trick to employ:
ACT THE PART, AND YOU'LL BECOME THE PART
Cary Grant is considered the epitome of the suave, sophisticated gentleman, but according to Grant, his persona was something that he developed over time. He once said, “I don’t know that I’ve any style at all. I just patterned myself on a combination of Jack Buchanan, Noel Coward, and Rex Harrison. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point. It’s a relationship.” Richard Schickel, “The Acrobat of the Drawing Room,” Time Magazine January 26 2007.
When I arrived in London to work as an associate producer on An American Tail II: Fievel Goes West, I was worried that I would not be gregarious enough to serve as a leader for the large crew. In order to do the best job, I decided that I would play the part and force myself to be much more outgoing than I actually was.
Several months into the production, I was working alongside one of the department supervisors when she remarked that she was impressed by how energetic and enthusiastic I always seemed to be. I confided in her that my whole demeanor was an act—I was quite shy and I was just pretending to be extraverted. She looked at me incredulously and replied, “No, you’re not. I’m here with you for ten hours a day, and you are always enthusiastic. Nobody could act for that long. That’s the way you are.” As I listened to her words, I realized that she was right. I was outgoing. I had acted the part for so long that I had become what I was pretending to be. Just as Cary Grant had said, at some point the acting gave way to actual behavior.
Anyone can do it. The only prerequisite is that you must possess the desire to change. Once you start practicing having a great attitude, each successive day will become easier. Before you know it, you will be the person that everyone points to as the one they want on their team.
Animating Your Career
By Steve Hickner
Published by: Brigantine Media