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Au revoir Hollywood: Reality does bite

by Gregory Messina

When I was a boy, I dreamt of playing second base and during the off-season, I would practice law. I was a fan of the ‘86 Mets and L.A. Law. I then turned my thoughts towards finance, more like Working Girl than Wall Street. When I later realized that most of my life revolved around watching TV and going to the movies, I decided to embrace my love of pop culture fully and work to propagate it.

But it is impossible to know what you want to be when you grow up until you’re actually doing it. I began my career by selling the film rights of books for a NY-based literary agency. At 22, I was the assistant to two agents. 10 months later, I was promoted to junior agent because, well, I was there. It was a very cool job to have; the kind of job I didn’t even know existed. Nobody in my real life or on TV had that kind of job. Unfortunately, though, I didn’t want my job.

While it was amazingly satisfying to match a book with a producer, it frustrated me not to play a role in the development process. To find such a job I decided that the odds would be ever in my favor by moving to L.A. But since I hadn’t ever worked in L.A., it was as if I had no experience at all. I swallowed my pride (with an apple martini chaser) and resigned myself to starting over from scratch.

That’s when I was hired as an assistant at arguably the most powerful agency in the world. My boss (let’s call him “Joe Bob” because I’m fairly certain no agent has that name) was not a cliché; he treated me with respect and never threw anything (at me). The pros to the job were that other people did all the photocopying, the holiday party had an unlimited supply of shrimp, and I learned how to leave a phone message in three syllables or less. I recognized that working at this agency was a great learning experience, which is why most of us assistants were there. One day, inner city kids visited our offices so that Joe Bob and I could explain to them what our jobs were. In that moment, I felt that my spontaneous answer was inspired:

“My job is to make sure Joe Bob’s day goes smoothly.”

What the what?!

I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to college to make sure someone else did his job well. At least, I don’t recall registering for that class.

At the outset, I had promised to stay for a year and 53 weeks later I moved on to yet another assistant position. But finally, I’d be working for exactly the kind of company I had been seeking – one that makes movies.

At some point while I at one of these jobs, in reaction to my “career” as a chronic assistant, my father asked flatly, “You use to have ambition, what happened?”

I was ambitious. Didn’t ambition send me to L.A. leaving friends, family and NY pizza behind? Wasn’t ambition why I was willing to suffer the humiliation of being a secretary for so long? I had a plan and was doing what needed to be done. Filing.

It didn’t occur to me until some time later that my father knew best.

In order to have ambition, I realize now, you need to have goals that you want fulfilled. Courage is required because ambition can lead to responsibility, something that is often accompanied with the possibility of failure and stress.

I was not ambitious; I was lost. While it’s impossible to know what you want to be when you grow up until you’re actually doing it, doing it just may change your mind.

It was when I finally had an excellent job when I realized that I didn’t want to work in Hollywood anymore. In just 2 ½ years, working for a brilliant producer, I had the opportunity to work on two feature films (one dud and one international juggernaut) and one television series. I found a graphic novel that a major studio optioned for us to produce, and I had enough influence to reject a novel whose eventual film adaptation starred an ER doctor and was nominated for several Oscars. Oops.

I was indeed on my way to living the dream, but then pesky reality got in the way.

My parents raised me to be one thing: happy. I had little patience for the actual process of developing a movie, which could be a long and frustrating one without any guarantee that a movie actually be made. I wasn’t ambitious because I was on a career path toward an unhappy future, and I didn’t want it.

So WTF do you do when you realize that your life’s dream is an illusion? As for me, I quit my job and ran away to Paris to follow a simpler dream of baguettes and butter. I didn’t mean to settle in Paris, but I haphazardly began a career in publishing that I quickly loved. I take French books and (try to) sell the translation rights to publishers around the world, so that they translate the books into their own languages for sale to the public. Yet again, I found a career I didn’t know existed.

My boss continually gave me more responsibility as I continued to learn. She allowed me to thrive, which gave me the confidence that I knew what I was doing, and that I was damn good at it. When I left that job after six years, I did so for the opportunity to do the same kind of work at a higher level on the corporate ladder.

When the right elements are aligned, ambition is too. My father confirmed this recently by admitting that he doesn’t worry about my career anymore, that I’m doing “just fine.”

It turns out that I was right about wanting to propagate pop culture, just not in any way I could have possibly imagined. Every day I get to talk about books and convince people to read them.

Finally, 17 years, seven jobs, one continent and thousands of baguettes later, I am what I want to be when I grow up.

Gregory Messina

About Gregory Messina

Gregory Messina grew up in New York State, graduated with a business degree from Washington University in St. Louis, quickly forgot everything he learned and now works in publishing in Paris.

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