After experiencing a major setback early in life, why do some people scale back their expectations or even shrink from life while others go for broke?
The other night we watched the documentary above, about the Broadway production of the musical, “Merrily We Roll Along,” by Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, in the early 80s. I had read that it was about “how we frame success and failure,” which is what made me want to see it.
In the film, director Lonny Price talks about how, growing up, he was not good at sports and did not fit in at school. When he took drama class, he found his place. At summer camp, he played the original cast recording of the Broadway musical, “Company,” so incessantly that everyone in his cabin memorized it. He remarked, “Somewhere in America there’s a 55-year-old divorce lawyer who can sing every verse of ‘Another Hundred People’ flawlessly. Whether he wants to or not.”
The idea of these 14-year-old boys at camp being subjected to a showtunes album just because Lonny loved it so much killed me.
Also, people who look at regular, normal life and say, “No, thanks” and immerse themselves in a world that is more to their liking, like musical theater (playing dress-up and make-believe)–that fascinates me.
We also watched the new documentary, “Jerry Before Seinfeld.” In it, Jerry says that when he was young, he bought all the hit comedy albums, and when he graduated high school and learned from friends that there was a growing comedy club scene in New York, he said, “Oh, I want to be in that world. I don’t want to be in the real world.”
I just realized that my way of opting out of the real world, when I was young, was to read books. Now it’s making movies and web series with friends. And I want to do that–“be in that world”–as often as possible.
A book you can’t put down! A critic observed that Bruce could become a full-time novelist if he wanted, because he’s that good a writer. Which his fans already know, because his lyrics are great. What you learn in the book is that he realized, early on, that writing was his strength. And he applied a blue collar work ethic to becoming a rock star.
He is really good at describing feelings that are hard to articulate. He captures the full range of human experience. And you find out all kinds of interesting things, like about how when he finally had huge success, he walked into a therapist’s office and burst into tears, because he was hurting so much at that time of his life. It’s a great read and a nice escape for a while–it’s thick! Takes time to read it. Toward the end, I kept putting off finishing it, because I didn’t want it to be over.
If you develop full Bruce mania, which you will when you read this, you gotta watch the documentary, “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town.” At one point in the film he says, “More than rich, more than famous, more than happy–” (he gives a short, tight laugh) “–I wanted to be great.” Fuck yeah, you did, Bruce!
Here’s a great song from the album (“Darkness on the Edge of Town”). Play it full blast while lying in a hot bath, and just think about life, man.
You know that feeling you get when you’re watching a great scene in one of your favorite movies–the sudden intense thrill or euphoria, or “the chills,” or however you describe that pulse quickening and wave of emotion you experience? Well, if you think about it, it’s probably really rare to have that experience without music accompanying the scene. I am probably the last person to realize this, but I have to keep reminding myself of it occasionally so that I make music a priority in my work.
I think the movie “Desperately Seeking Susan” is great, even if the writing is arguably a little thin sometimes. But there’s this moment at which the score, by Thomas Newman (cousin of Randy Newman), makes all the difference–it just takes the movie to another level, and it’s awesome. The scene is of Madonna and Rosanna Arquette’s characters in NYC, during the day, and here’s the score. See if it doesn’t give you chills:
She looks like just another smile-y blonde lady, but she’s the youngest self-made billionaire woman in the world. And despite having survived her share of dark experiences when young, she seems freakishly well-adjusted, positive and fun.
Even if you’re like, “Whatevs”
You HAVE to admit it was brilliant of her to create a product for which the target market is HALF THE POPULATION (or at least every woman over, say, 12 years old). Everyone from slim, fit celebrities to the average woman getting married, preparing for an important meeting or date, or trying to create “a more perfect canvas” for her clothes, as Blakely puts it, will sooner or later find herself purchasing Spanx. And now, what’s weird is even guys can buy her shapewear. It’s surprising to me that men are buying the compression garments shown on the Spanx site, but Blakely’s self-proclaimed knack is “knowing what the customer wants before they know they want it.” So, maybe men are buying Spanx products like crazy? SOMEBODY is, because she’s making a shit ton of money. In fact, a few weeks before she married her husband, also a successful entrepreneur named Jessie Itzler, she had to confess to him that she was richer than he thought. She told him her company doesn’t just make a few million a year, it makes a few hundred million a year. His reaction? He cried, because he was so happy for her. (I’m sorry, but I love these people!)
Here are 14 things that have stayed with me after listening to interviews of Blakely:
While growing up, at the dinner table her father would ask her and her brother what they’d failed at that week, and if they had nothing to report, he’d be disappointed. But if she said, “Hey, I tried out for something at school and was horrible!”, they’d high-five each other. He helped “reframe failure” for her, so she learned not to be daunted by challenges, like starting her own business. To this day, if it’s been a while since she has taken a risk or embarrassed herself, she’ll purposefully do something like sing in a crowded elevator. (!)
When she graduated college, she wanted to go to law school but failed the LSAT. So, she took the only job she could get at the time–selling fax machines door to door. She heard “no” several times a day, every day, for the 7 years she did it. She would have to sneak past security guards in office buildings that didn’t allow solicitors. She had her business card torn up in her face and she was shown out of buildings. She was so frustrated, she cried all the time. There were days when she would just drive to a park and sit and cry. But all this experience hearing “no” taught her not to get discouraged. When she was trying to persuade manufacturers to make the first Spanx, she was told no by all of them. So, she flew to North Carolina (where the mills were located) and was again told no, in person, by all of them. Two months later, she received a call from one of the men that had turned her down. He said his daughters thought her product was a good idea, but what had stuck in his mind was her infectious enthusiasm. He agreed to make her product, although he still thought it was not going to succeed. Later, when she got her first order from Neiman-Marcus, she called to tell him and he was surprised–he thought she’d only be handing out her Spanx as Christmas gifts to friends.
Her parents divorced when she was in high school, and the day her father moved out, he gave her a Wayne Dyer tape titled, “How to Be a No-Limit Person.” Because she had recently witnessed her best friend get run over by a car, in their cul-de-sac, and was at a dark moment in her life, she was receptive. She became very interested in positive thinking and self development, so much so that her friends would joke that they didn’t want to ride in her car because she would make them listen to that self-help ‘crap.’ Today, she believes one of the most important things she does for her continuing self development is allowing herself alone time to think and get ideas. She said she loves thinking so much that it’s almost like a hobby. She feels that while driving in her car she is “most connected to gut,” and so she factors in extra time in the morning for a “fake commute,” in which she spends 40 minutes to an hour driving around Atlanta before going to her office, which is actually only 5 minutes from her home!
I think it’s significant that she was working a sales job in the early 90s. Because women still wore pantyhose to work back then! And she clearly was used to the smoothing effect they had on her behind, because one night, she was going to a party and wanted to wear hose under the new, cream-colored pants she’d bought. But she didn’t want the toe part to be visible in her open-toed heels. So, she cut off the feet of the hose. And she immediately thought to herself, “Are you my idea?” Because at that point, she was actively looking for an idea. She had become so depressed in her fax machine sales job that she’d decided she was not living the life she was meant to live, that she was “in the wrong movie.” She had made a list of the things she was good at, including sales, and she had written the following on a piece of paper: “I want to invent a product that I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel good.” She spent two years developing her product, all the while being told no over and over, being warned by friends and family that it was not a wise use of her $5,000 in savings, that a bigger company would just steal the idea from her, etc. She said that every day she would think to herself, Who am I to do this? She didn’t have a business degree, had never worked in fashion, and knew nothing about designing clothes.
She did not quit her day job selling fax machines until either Neiman’s made their first order or Oprah held up a pair of Spanx on her show and said, “This is my favorite thing!” (Blakely had sent Spanx to Oprah’s longtime stylist.) When Oprah’s people called to say they wanted to come shoot footage of her team at the Spanx offices, Blakely agreed, then scrambled to get a team and an office! I think she ended up grabbing the woman from her local wrap-and-mail place, and she and some other acquaintances or friends sat in a circle, pretending to have a meeting, in her townhouse. Something like that. Wild!
At home, Blakely and her husband mostly discuss ideas. She says they rarely talk about other people or events. She says her husband is very entertaining to be married to and that they understand each other deeply and value each other’s ideas.
When asked to list the 4 words that best describe her, Blakely said, “Inventive. Driven. Courageous. And tired.” Something like that. She said that in the 80s, she would’ve described herself as funny, but now that she’s a mom, she’s too tired to be funny.
Her motto: The more you experience in life, the more you have to offer others. She was once at a dinner party and said, “I have a motto,” and everyone looked expectantly at her and suddenly she forgot what her motto was. Later, her husband had a neon sign custom made for their living room that reads, “I have a motto, but I forgot what it is.”
She believes that when we are in a really bad place in life, that’s when we’re in a great place to make a change. She said if she hadn’t been in the wrong job, dating the wrong guy, and miserable, she probably wouldn’t have taken such a radical action.
She was focused on making Spanx the best product of its kind in the world (that’s probably why bigger companies didn’t create something to top it–because “what she had going for her is that she cared the most”).
She did standup comedy for two years. What it taught her is the importance of choosing the right words for maximum impact. Because of her belief in the importance of this, when she talked about herself or her product, she took all doubt language out of her delivery. Instead of saying, “I think this is going to be great,” she’d say, “I know this is going to be great.”
At first, she had to explain to people what her product was, what it offered. People were like, “Why do I need footless pantyhose?” and she’d be like, “It’s about the butt! The canvas!”
While working on her idea, she didn’t tell anyone about it for a year or so. She said she was not looking for validation. She didn’t want to spend time defending her idea to family and friends, she wanted to pursue it. I think this is possibly the most badass thing about her.
She believes that what you don’t know can be your competitive edge. If you don’t know how it’s supposed to be done, it’s pretty likely you’re going to do it different. For example, people in the retail fashion industry would ask her HOW she got Neiman’s to carry her product and she would simply say, “I called them.” (She repeatedly called the head buyer for Neiman’s, just like she did when she was selling fax machines, and she would never leave a message, and then finally one day the woman picked up!) Turns out, all the people in the biz were accustomed to going to trade shows, where they hoped that Neiman’s would come by their booth. They had never actually called Neiman’s directly!
My theory about Sara Blakely
I think the most winning thing about Sara Blakely is not her ideas, her persistence, or her “scrappy” sales instinct. The most winning thing about her is her bubbly personality. Listen to any interview of her and see if you don’t wish you were friends with her.
“Figure out what puts you on fire and you’re half-decent at and become tunnel-vision! And this is the biggest thing I’ve seen dividends from: Have the conversation with the person that’s holding you back. The reason most people are not doing that thing is that they’re worried about the opinion of somebody. Usually their mother. Usually their father. The reality is that your spouse may be holding you back. You have to get to a place where you’re doing you. Because the #1 thing that scares the f–k out of me is regret. You’re gonna sit there at 72 and say, “I wish…. I wish… I wish…” Figure out your thing–what you love to do–and stop making bullshit excuses.”
Jimmy’s staring at election news, and I’m staring at this blank page. We’re so depressed about Trump, we’re barely talking about it. I feel like his election can only be a sign that the apocalypse is near. Maybe tomorrow morning this will seem like a major overstatement. I’m trying to focus on the thought that there have allegedly been a lot of times in American history when people felt doomed, yet they lived through it.
I don’t remember how I came across this book, “The Slight Edge.” I just want to get to the frog story that follows, that’s from the book, because it’s hopeful. But Olson’s premise is this: you don’t have to be brilliant to get the things you want in life, you just need the slight edge. The slight edge is: Simple productive actions repeated consistently over time. The little, seemingly undramatic, mundane choices you make every single day make all the difference when compounded over time. (I seriously don’t give a shit about any of this either–the world’s going to end!! Okay, wait for the frog story. There’s a LOT of weight being heaved onto the shoulders of the frog story! I hope it holds up.)
Olson observes that people don’t consistently do the simple things (put away a little money, work out for 20 minutes, read a few pages of an inspiring book every day, choose a salad over a cheeseburger, etc.) for three reasons: 1) While these things are easy to do, they’re also easy not to do; 2) You don’t see any results at first; 3) They seem insignificant, like they don’t matter. But they do.
He includes a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do the thing, and you shall have the power.”
And now here’s the frog story:
IN THE PAIL
Two frogs left the safety of their swamp one day and ventured into a nearby farm to explore. Soon they found themselves in a dairy, where they found a large milk pail. Hopping into the pail, they found it was half filled with fresh cream.
The two little frogs were absolutely thrilled. They had never tasted anything so delicious! Soon their bellies were full. Feeling sleepy, they decided it was time to leave–and that’s when they realized they were in trouble.
They had no trouble hopping in. But how were they going to get out? The inside of the pail was too slippery to climb. And because they couldn’t reach the bottom and there was nothing for them to step on for traction, hopping to safety was out of the question, too. They were trapped.
Frantic, they began thrashing about, their feet scrabbling for a foothold on the elusive, slippery curve of the pail’s sides.
Finally, one frog cried out, “It’s no use. We’re doomed!”
“No,” the other frog gasped, “we can’t give up. When we were tadpoles, could we have dreamed that some day we would emerge from the water and hop about on land? Swim on, brother, and pray for a miracle!”
But the first frog only eyed his brother sadly. “There are no miracles in the life of a frog,” he croaked. “Farewell.” And he sank slowly out of sight.
The second frog refused to give up. He continued paddling in the same tiny circle, over and over, hoping against hope for a miracle. An hour later, he was still paddling in his futile little circle. He no longer even knew why. His brother’s dying words clutched at his thoughts as fatigue tugged at his tiny muscles. “Was my brother right?” he thought desperately. “Are there no miracles in the life of a frog?” Finally he could swim no more. With a whimper of anguish, he stopped paddling and let go, ready to face his fate…
Yet to his surprise, unlike his brother, the second frog did not sink. In fact, he stayed right where he was, as if suspended in midair. He stretched out a foot tentatively–and felt it touch something solid. He heaved a big sigh, said a silent farewell to his poor departed brother frog, then scrambled up onto the top of the big lump of butter he had just churned, hopped out of the pail and off toward his home in the swamp.
I think it’s sort of pathetic to consult psychics. But I consulted a psychic. Her name is Angel Eyedealism and I love her. She told me I should be “ebullient.” This was a year ago. I guess I wasn’t ready to hear it at that time. But recently I was listening to the recording I made of my consultation with her, and I was struck by this. I’m almost always optimistic and positive, but I was not actually ebullient (which is defined as cheerful and full of energy). And at that time, my general attitude was more like “grim determination.” I decided that the difference between ebullience and grim determination is significant and that the trajectory for each will lead to significantly different destinations. So, my aim is to be ebullient. Sometimes, to get myself in the mood, I open my eyes super wide and smile, in a sort of crazed way, and say, “I’M EBULLIENT!!”
I’m curious to know what your current attitude is. And where you think it will lead you.
What do you care about enough to fix, or disrupt, or invent?
Don’t avert your eyes. Look at the opportunity.
It’s your turn to: Ship. Speak up. Stand out. Build a following. Market a product. Make a connection. Solve an interesting problem. Write, sing, create, ask a question, launch a project, learn a new skill, help someone who needs you.
Looking for reassurance? It’s not here, and it wouldn’t do you any good if it were.
We’re capable of creating work that matters only if we’re willing to be uncomfortable while we do it.
We have to live with this paradox: It might work./It might not work.
If fear is able to keep us from showing up when it’s our turn, then fear has won the day and it will return again and again. Note the fear, welcome it if you can, but do what you should do.
To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.
There are so many posts on the Internet exhorting us to be more productive, but the reason we’re not being productive is because of the stupid Internet. And we can’t stop to reflect on the irony because we have to get back to clicking on other stuff. Today, I clicked through a slideshow of famous couples who’ve stayed together “despite the scandals they’ve weathered.” Who deserves to be flogged? I do. Guess who I want to flog me? Celebrities Who Have Changed So Much You Won’t Recognize Them Now!
Before the Internet existed, there probably wasn’t nearly as much written about productivity. Probably the only people who really thought about productivity were CEOs and efficiency experts. When I think about what life was like before the Internet, I picture us sitting in our houses, staring into the middle distance, with nothing to do. No distractions, nothing stopping us from writing a novel or learning guitar or whatever. But probably we were mostly at the mall or playing tennis. Just doing ’80s activities. It seems like heaven compared to today, being tethered to our computers and phones.
Did I already tell you about how, in the early days of the Internet, I sat next to a 30-something guy on a plane who confessed he was in counseling for his addiction to being online? I remember looking at him and thinking, “That’s weird.” I couldn’t relate at all. I wonder where that guy is now. If he was already addicted back then, he must be a basket case now. Actually, no, he’s probably still way ahead of us–he is probably taking regular, self-imposed breaks from the Internet. Which I think we are all going to start doing, for real this time, any day now. Right after we check Facebook.