Poison Playmates

If you’ve read Julia Cameron’s excellent book for creative types, The Artist’s Way, you already know the term “poison playmates.” Otherwise, think “Debbie Downer” on Saturday Night Live. And if that doesn’t cut it for you, well… just about any Negative Nellie in your life has the potential to derail your success, whatever you want to label that person.

I’ve talked before about the importance of The Company You Keep, how essential it is to avoid Bitter Actor Syndrome, and you may recall that David Nathan Schwartz once shared in a previous column If you get five musicians in a room, you’ll get music. Five actors, why is it only bitching? (a favorite image, for me). So why bring it up again?

Well, I’ve recently read this amazing book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It was recommended to me over lunch with an agent (turns out, he’s my new agent, which is really super exciting) on New Year’s Eve. (Yes, I had a meeting with a producer, lunch with an agent, and cocktails with a publicist all in the last few hours of 2008. Holiday slow-down, my ass!) My agent and I were talking about our favorite books and films and viral videos of the year. It became clear that I needed to read Outliers as much as he needed to see Slumdog Millionaire. Done and done. But what does Outliers have to do with Poison Playmates?

Plenty. See, the premise behind Outliers is that we — as a society — can conspire to create greater success for all of us. Sure, there are predictors such as socioeconomic status, IQ level, raw talent, era in which you were born, and geographical advantages. All of those matter too. But perhaps just as important is a person’s practical intelligence (or social intelligence), i.e.: charm, wit, even chutzpah. And because those things can be developed and supported by a community that rallies around a person to make success more feasible, we actually have far greater control over whether we succeed or fail in life than we may have always thought (or been taught or been told, based on how or where or when we grew up).

Rather than re-tell some of the best stories in the book, I’d like to tell a story about an early dinner at Carrow’s I had last Monday evening. My husband and I had finished up our year-end meeting with the CPA and were either going to have to sit in traffic for two hours or kill an hour and a half and then drive for 20 minutes. I don’t know about you, but I’d always prefer killing time over a meal than spending that same amount of time on the 405. We arrived at Carrow’s at 5:15pm and were the youngest customers there by decades.

The restaurant was under-staffed for the crowd of octogenarians arriving for the early bird special, but we waited patiently (remember, it all beats sitting in traffic, so we’re just having fun, here), took our seats, and studied the menu and then talked for the 15 minutes it took the server to come back over and take our order. Meanwhile, two women seated at a booth nearby began complaining — loudly — within three minutes of delay on the order-taking. And not just about the delay. About where they were seated (they got to choose their own seat), about how dirty their menus were (they had chosen their menus from three stacks at the counter), about the special advertised in the window last week that was no longer advertised today, and about the delay.

As I sipped my water and flirted with my husband, I kept hearing this grating, increasingly louder voice filtering over into my space. I did the “glance over to shush a patron talking in a movie theater” look. Nothing. A bit later, I tried the “look over, make eye contact, smile, then look away” tactic. Nope. Finally, when one of the women was practically screaming that no one would come over and take her order, I leaned over and said quietly, “It appears they’re a little understaffed right now. But she’ll get to us.” I might as well have spoken in another language, from the look I got back from that. Fair enough. You’ve lived double my lifetime and you’ve earned the right to bitch about anything and everything. It’s America, after all. Bitch away!

But — as I’ll always do — I began to consider the personality type of someone who is that hell-bent upon criticizing. Or, better yet, upon seeing the negative in all things. I remembered an industry friend whose tendency to do this was so overwhelming that my husband and I actually named the syndrome after him. (I won’t use his name, here, but let’s just say it’s the Eeyore Syndrome, even though it really works better with the number of syllables in the real name.) He was the ultimate Poison Playmate. Always seemed to have something “cool” brewing, some project in development, a script in the works, a film coming through… and never, ever had anything but complaints about the snags he was hitting at every turn.

That’s the worst kind of Poison Playmate, because you stick around them thinking, “Well, they’re just going through the hard parts of producing. They’re just in the midst of the struggle of creating. I’ll see them through this and when their projects come to life, I’ll be the smart friend who believed in them all along.” Yeah. Maybe. Or more likely you’ll be the friend whose entire creative stream of energy has been sucked up and turned into bitterness due to the constant complaints and negative worldview of that friendship you chose to stick with for so many years. Is it worth the risk? Does the friendship (or colleagueship) mean so much more than your own ability to create, to generate brilliant ideas, to flourish, to thrive, to succeed?

The answer is very easy for me. I spent years in friendships that served the friendships and not the individuals. We could actually feed off each other’s negativity and live forever. And all we’d have at the end of any bitch session was a righteous feeling of, “Yeah! The world sucks! Screw ‘The Man’! Let’s show ’em!” But when you are so sure the world sucks, owes you something, or needs to be put in its place, how much creative energy does it take to overcome that stacked deck in order to actually create even a tiny bit of light? In comparison, when you weed out the Poison Playmates, you find you’re filled with extra creative energy, you have more enthusiasm for creating your own projects, and you suddenly have an astonishingly abundant source of free time (because you’re not sitting around grousing about how hard it’s gonna be to actually do it).

The visualization I have on this is from one of my favorite movies, Joe vs. the Volcano. I know, I know, it’s not on anyone’s “best movies, ever” list, but it’s always been a movie I’ve loved for several reasons — one of which is the message about what we choose to see, how we see the world vs. how it really is, and how it’s completely within our control to succeed when we really want to. In the beginning of the film (which is lit and shot in a very drab and depressing tone), Tom Hanks and dozens of drably-dressed drones trudge into work, the grey of the concrete accented only slightly by the black of their suits and dress shoes. Close on: A crack in the sidewalk. A single, yellow flower has somehow grown from beneath yards of concrete. And is promptly squished underfoot.

That yellow flower is possible, even when you surround yourself with Poison Playmates. But an entire field of that beauty is available when you eliminate the steady stream of negativity, “it can’t be done,” and a chosen society of those who are not living their dreams every day.

So why choose that? I know, I know. Some folks just need it to be a struggle. I get it. And I also get that choosing the struggle is, in fact, a choice. So, if this describes you, consider choosing just a little bit better each day. Don’t OD on Prozac or try to peg the pendulum in the other direction. You’ll get whiplash and you’ll just rebel against the fakeness of it all anyway. Just strive for a little bit better today. And tomorrow. And the next day. If you’ve lived a lifetime of negativity, it’s gonna be tough at first.

But I’m pretty sure those women seated near us at Carrow’s spent their entire meal complaining (about everything from landlords to neighbors, from the music playing in the restaurant to the traffic on the way over, from their ungrateful relatives to the awful TV show they just watched, from the secretly snotty message in the holiday card they received to the mailman who purposely bends the cards out of spite) fifty years ago as much as they did last Monday night. It’s a lifetime habit you begin cultivating very early on, if you’re going to be a Poison Playmate (and believe me, I’m so glad these ladies had each other, but it was like watching enabling in action). And it’s something — just like nearly all of the impediments to success discussed in Outliers — that can be ceased right now. Just choose better. See better. Do better. Live better. Be better.

To tie this in a teeny bit with last week’s piece on Social Networking and Acting, I’ll mention a really cool tool I found called Happy Tweets. It actually ranks the cheerfulness of those whose posts you follow. Remember what I said about status updates and having a very narrow window through which you get to teach us how to see you, before we choose to “follow less” or “unfriend” altogether? Well, Happy Tweets actually let me see which of the folks I was following might be bumming me out! Sure enough, the folks I had stopped following months ago (because it was simply exhausting to see post after post about what’s wrong with the world, every time their little faces popped up in my feed) had the lowest scores. And the folks I’d started following because, “I just really like what she has to say,” or, “He seems interesting,” had higher rankings.

No, I’m not recommending an all-positive, delusion-filled, eyes-closed-to-reality worldview by any means. But I am suggesting that the more we surround ourselves with what we want to be (successful, happy, prosperous, healthy, well-balanced, generous, grace-filled), the easier it is to cultivate that in ourselves. Bombarding yourself — even though you’re sure you want to be successful and happy and positive — with messages, images, and friendships that are anything but those things is to give yourself the task of growing your little yellow flower through that crack in the concrete. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer basking in a field of those beautiful flowers over working that hard to create one little shimmer of color in a drab world any day.


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000971.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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