As part of his portrayal of Al Capone in the 1987 film The Untouchables, Robert De Niro famously insisted on wearing silk underwear throughout the production because it was favored by the infamous Chicago gangster, even though there is no scene in the film of Capone in his underwear.
Method actors like De Niro are notorious "experience junkies" and use these dramatic techniques to identify as closely as possible with the characters they portray.
The Untouchables is one of my favorite movies, not least because of the way it portrays the type of toughness, especially of the good guys, associated with my adopted city of Chicago.
Business executives are not often (if ever) compared to method actors but they (and maybe all of us) should strive to emulate them in at least one way: We should tap into our own life experiences to inform the trajectory of our careers.
My philosophy about success, in business or otherwise, starts with a couple of questions. How many experiences are you willing to have, to leave yourself open to, to respond to change? Those are the questions you must answer to determine your success.
I was reminded of these questions and answers and the value of experience as Hurricane Sandy bore down like the wrath of Frankenstein on the Eastern seaboard of the United States. Knowing for nearly a week that the storm was coming, people had to decide what kinds of preparations to make. Some evacuated to higher ground. Others stayed put and stocked up on food, water, batteries and other items, feeling that they would be able to deal with whatever came their way. No matter what their situation, nobody was able to completely stick to their routines.
I live and work in Chicago, and watched in horror as New York nearly succumbed to the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, and the New Jersey shore all but disappeared. In India, where I am from, monsoon season is brutal -- but it is also predictable in its timed arrival and devastation. We accept it and have learned to cope with it.
No matter what your situation in the Northeast, you had to react, respond and adapt whether your home lost power, was flooded or destroyed. Or not. Even if you remained warm, dry and connected with your home intact, you had to be resilient.
How would you communicate with loved ones and colleagues who were without power, phone service or hot water? Many people and business owners opened their homes and locations to those in need. Those able to provide services had to be flexible in responding to need. How many clean towels do I have? How many blankets and pillows? How much food and drink? And how quickly can I replenish all of these for the continuous demand?
Business owners and executive leaders had to account for the safety of their staffers and quickly figure out how to meet the needs of their clients and customers under the circumstances. As a CEO, I am ultimately accountable for these issues as they applied to the East Coast offices of our agency companies, but my ability to do so also rested with the competence of the first responders, utility companies and government leaders.
I couldn’t help but think that New York City in particular is like a method actor to some degree -- however unwittingly. The city is famous for its ability to overcome difficulty and get on with things because it has years of experience from which it has learned -- through blackouts, transit strikes, civil unrest, ethnic tension, and terrorism.
New York has had many opportunities in its history to practice the instruction of Konstantin Stanislavski, considered the father of method acting, who told his students to “think of your own experiences and use them truthfully."
Fundamentally, the point I make to people -- especially young people at the beginning of their careers -- is that maturity and the ability to deal with different situations appropriately, to respond well to change and to the unexpected are all part of your experiences, and surviving them will make you a better executive and probably a better person.
Even if you are an "average" smart person but you have had a lot of experiences, I believe you will outperform somebody who is very smart but has had a narrow set of experiences.
In conclusion, I’ll leave you with an image so memorable that it went around the world as a metaphor for lost power -- figurative and literal. A Brooklyn merry-go-round known as Jane’s carousel, fully lighted and detached from its foundation, was captured in a photo.
There’s an almost serene resignation with which the carousel drifts slowly and silently through flooded, darkened streets toward the unknown.