Breakthrough Failure to Success: Doing the “Thing”

As I meet people from all walks of life, I often encounter those pursuing a profession with plans to change tack someday. Usually the idea is to establish herself well enough to then do something completely different, such as become very serious about a creative hobby or start a business. This type of ambition is so common it’s practically a human leitmotif, so it never surprises me that people of all professions harbor goals to do something else—some “Thing”—in the future.

One of my roles as a speaker and educator is to offer succor and support to people of this ilk. I have learned many lessons through my own work and working alongside many dynamic people in theatre and film. I have witnessed trials undergone at great expense for the chance at terrific rewards, and there has been incredible success and tremendous failure along the way. What have I learned? That there is no chance at success until you do the Thing. Whatever that Thing may be for you, the journey has not started until you have stopped considering, planning and hand-wringing and start doing. There is virtually no way to make progress without taking that risk, and it requires that you put yourself out there. While there is no way to be entirely certain of a win, taking the risk is the only chance at reward, whatever you may seek.

I was reminded of this idea recently as I read a Brainpickings  interview with Humans of New York founder Brandon Stanton. Like many people fascinated by culture and seeking to expand their knowledge, I’m a great fan of both Maria Popova’s Brainpickings and Stanton’s Humans of New York. Each offers a unique perspective—Brainpickings is curated and distilled as if from a visit to the rare editions section, while Humans of New York shares visceral stories curated from the streets of New York. Both are beautifully redolent of humanism. In the interview, Stanton shares how he finally began to do the Thing: He had a day job as a bond trader, and the unraveling of that job and his nascent talent for photography is what brought about the phenomenon that is Humans of New York. It’s an inspiring story, one that reminds me of how our failures can lead to success. If you’re someone tempted or pushed to make a go of a long-smoldering avocation, I challenge you to go and do the Thing.


4 Ways to Be Creative, No Matter What Your Mood

Does creativity seem to be a fleeting mood? Is finding ways to be creative proving elusive?Sometimes I wish I could bottle it for the next stretch when I require its powers but they elude me. Well into writing my third book, I’ve experienced days when the words were fluid and easy to catch as if by the bucket, and others when distraction left me high and dry. To combat these lurches, I’ve devised four tactics that have helped me reach a creative mindset. Follow these tips, and you’ll find you can call upon your creativity when you need it.

Beckoning Your Creativity

  • Like children in a fairy tale who stray too far from home, sometimes we just need a trail of breadcrumbs to help us find our way back. Breadcrumbs are reminders that bring us back to the mindset we were in when we halted our work. Try to stop when you’re really into something (a vivid scene in a written work, for example), so you’ll be able to pick up when you return. Write yourself concise notes, focusing on details about where you left off, what problem you’re working to solve, or the next steps. This way, you can dive right back in when you’re fresh, rather than repeating work or trying to remember what to do next. You’ll save time and enjoy better focus when you return.
  • If you haven’t tried this method, I highly recommend it. Start with a timer set for 25 minutes, and work continuously during that period, without interruption or distraction. When the time is up, take a five minute break. Repeat this cycle several times, then take a longer break (15 minutes). This proven method puts our natural rhythms to work for us. What’s the relationship to creativity? With a limited time to work on a task, your mind relaxes about expectations. You’re not taking on creating an entire work; you’re working for 25 minutes. It’s amazing how quickly work can absorb our attention, and how much we can accomplish in these time boxes.
  • It may sound odd, but letting your subconscious mind work on a problem before your give it your full attention can lead to more creative results. It turns out that when given a challenge, our brains begin working on possible solutions, even before we begin our efforts in earnest. So, if you want to optimize creative ideas, let your ideas ferment.
  • Mise en place. If you want to do your best work, put your tools in place first (mise en placeis a French term commonly used in culinary arts to mean “putting in place”). Set a routine for your creative practice, and repeat the routine as fully as possible. Even better, work in a familiar place or with familiar objects nearby. With practice, you’ll begin to associate the routine and setting with the creative state of mind, and the routine itself will provide cues to jumpstart your creativity.

Make-Believe Economics Bolster Hollywood’s ‘Sorority Racism’

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on March 2, 2016.

Chris Rock got it right when he called out Hollywood on Sunday night’s Oscarcast: “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist. But it isn’t the racist you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like — ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.’ That’s how Hollywood is.”

Rock got it right because #OscarsSoWhite is merely the latest newsworthy example of #HollywoodSoWhite.

In my experience, racism in Hollywood is rarely overt. However, the lack of overt racism, like so much in the entertainment business, is an illusion. I have never had financiers or producers tell me they only want to cast white actors. Instead, they couch their racism in economic terms, explaining that the movie business is, first and foremost, a business.

“They don’t like black actors in Asia,” financiers and sales agents have told me behind closed doors. “Or in Europe. Or in Latin America. You just can’t sell them.” Their subtext is: Hey, I’m not racist, and we don’t have a race problem here in the US – but other countries do. We’re making movies for the world market, and we have to give the customers what they want.

Bill Maher, on his HBO show Real Time, said it in public:

Most movies are made now with an eye to the foreign market, and Asians really are racist…. I’m just honest. They don’t want to see black people generally in their movies. The Hollywood executives are, like, ‘We’re not racist; we just have to pretend to be racists because we’re capitalists. We want to sell our movies in China (and) they don’t like Kevin Hart.’

I have written and spoken at length how money and aesthetics are not measures of each other. A good movie can make much or little money; a financially successful film can be excellent or execrable. But what happens in Hollywood is that taste and money conflate: here, taste means you make things that make money, and you do not transgress the perceived wisdom of what makes money. Hollywood’s version of taste is supported by the economic argument that actors of color don’t sell tickets overseas.

Cultural critic Susan Sontag said, “Rules of taste enforce structures of power.” She was writing about womanhood and aging in the early 1970s; the dictum applies equally to race and Hollywood today.

One wonderful thing about the movie business is that so much information is publicly available. We can check out race-based assumptions, and see if the economic arguments are accurate or wrong.

The website aggregates box office information about movies and actors. You can type an actor’s name in the Search box and discover the actor’s box office track record, split between domestic and international. The movie business today draws about 70% of its revenue from international markets, but because each actor’s box office history dates back to career beginnings, few actors actually get 70% of their box office performance from overseas markets.

We might take Tom Cruise as a benchmark – he’s worldwide star. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation got 72% of its box office from international.

On a career basis, 56% of Tom Cruise’s box office is international. Therefore, we might deduce that if an actor falls at or near the Cruise Benchmark, they are economically viable internationally, regardless of the color of their skin.

Here’s what the data says:

  • Will Smith: 58% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Samuel L. Jackson: 55% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Dwayne Johnson: 67% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Penelope Cruz: 67% of her lifetime box office is international
  • Sofia Vergara: 53% of her lifetime box office is international
  • Javier Bardem: 68% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Gael Garcia Bernal: 64% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Michael Pena: 57% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Michelle Rodriguez: 69% of her lifetime box office is international
  • Morgan Freeman: 51% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Chewetel Ejiofor: 64% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Idris Elba: 61% of his lifetime box office is international

Clearly, there are a lot of diverse actors who meet or exceed the Cruise Benchmark, and some that fall just below. According to the data, the perceived wisdom is incorrect. Still, I don’t want to misrepresent. This kind of data does not share a full picture; some of these actors gain box office bumps because they are members of ensemble casts or had supporting roles. Just because an actor has a lifetime box office performance percentage at or above the Cruise Benchmark does not mean they are a bigger star than Tom Cruise.

Casting is not a formula because art is not a formula. There are few if any actors who literally “open” a movie, whom audiences will see no matter what. The right casting is always the alchemical triangle of the right actor, the right role and the right audience. Put Gerald Butler in an action film, and he usually works gangbusters; put him in a romantic comedy, and audiences are mainly lukewarm. Audiences seem to pigeonhole actors as much as executives do, and maybe that’s why executives do it. But I believe, and the data suggests, that an actor’s race is not the governing economic factor. Still, many in Hollywood quietly assume that race is an economic factor and have not questioned this assumption.

When Alejandro G. Iñárritu accepted his second Best Director Academy Award on Sunday, he said: “What a great opportunity to our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and this tribal thinking and make sure for once and forever that the color of skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair.”

The make-believe economics of acceptable casting choices is another version of tribal thinking. The real problem that the global entertainment business must confront is the structures of power, the ways in which power enacts creative “taste” that’s justified with an economic rationale – economics that are wrong. Seen in this light, the whole illusion tumbles down.

Top image: Chris Rock hosts the 2016 Academy Awards. Photo courtesy AMPAS.