Take nothing for granted

The NY Times ran an article this week about Natalie Portman and her talents as a high schooler. Not her acting talents, mind you (though she had plenty of that), but her skills in…science. Yes, that’s right. Even after being cast in multiple roles opposite actors like Julia Roberts, Uma Thurmon, and Jack Nicholson, she still maintained an A- average through high school and was a semi-finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, a prestigious national science competition whose winners have gone on to various awards and honors, including earning seven Nobel Prizes. After graduating high school (and playing Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequel trilogy), she went on to Harvard to earn a degree in neurobiology.

One of the quotes that stood out to me was this one from a teacher of Ms. Portman:

“I’ve taught at Harvard, Dartmouth and Vassar, and I’ve had the privilege of teaching a lot of very bright kids…there are very few who are as inherently bright as Natalie is, who have as much intellectual horsepower, who work as hard as she did. She didn’t take a single thing for granted.”

She didn’t take a single thing for granted. Here’s someone who had the start of a fantastic career and a clear road to stardom. The most natural thing to do with her academics would be to just coast. Or hire a private tutor to complete high school, like many underage celebrities do. But she didn’t do that. She pushed forward and accomplished as much as she could. She even published in a peer-reviewed journal while at Harvard (giving her an Erdős–Bacon number of 7).

She’s not alone though; many celebrities are incredibly smart, driven people off the screen as well. James Franco, nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in 127 Hours, apparently wasn’t satisfied with his film career and reenrolled at UCLA in 2006, receiving permission to take up to 61 (!) credit hours (as opposed to the normal 19) while still acting. He graduated in 2008 with a 3.5 GPA and moved to New York to simultaneously attend graduate school at Columbia University’s MFA writing program, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for filmmaking, and Brooklyn College for fiction writing. Naturally, he also occasionally committed to North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College for poetry. He received his MFA from Columbia and is now a PhD student at Yale and planning on attending the Rhode Island School of Design as well.

How depressing 🙂

I could go on…check out Dolph Lundgren or Mayim Bialik (now playing Dr. Farah Fowler on the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory).

These people had already arrived in one sense. They had every reason to relax and just enjoy their success in their field, but they didn’t. They kept pressing forward, learning new things, reinventing themselves.

This is a lesson I constantly have to remind myself of. (Warning: egotistical statement coming up)  I’m not a big success yet, but I’m doing OK. In the last five years I’ve seen my income more than quadruple and earned the freedom to work when and where I want, on what I want. And I’m in the process of separating my time from my income. But sometimes I catch myself slowing down, subconsciously thinking that I’ve arrived somehow. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As the Apostle Paul said:

“I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is obviously not talking about his career here, but this isn’t taking his words out of context. I think that being on guard against complacency is a principle to be applied to every area of life. It’s a constant danger that we have to be aware of.

On the other hand, where does contentment fit in? There’s a lot to be said for being grateful for what you have, instead of always striving to have more. There must be a sense of balance in terms of striving to be our best and not holding ourselves to an impossible standard; we should be proud of our accomplishments if we worked hard and did our best. So where is the line between contentment and complacency?

After some reflection, I think the difference is in the distinction between what we have and who we are. None of us are perfect, so while we shouldn’t beat ourselves for our limitations, neither should we be satisfied with them. We should always be pushing ourselves to new challenges and opportunities for growth, whether that’s taking a full-time course load at an Ivy League school while being cast in an Academy Award nominated performance, or just applying for that management position that’s just a little outside our comfort zone.

Just keep pushing forward and never be afraid to reinvent yourself. Who knows what your wikipedia entry might read someday? 🙂