Some days you learn too many good lessons to just write one.
Barbara Hall, the creator, writer, and executive producer of my all-time favorite CBS show, Madam Secretary, took us to church because she was PREACHING. If you aren’t familiar with the show (WHAT), then you may know her as the creative mind behind shows like Joan of Arcadia and Judging Amy.
After working on a month-long project last semester that involved writing an episode for her show (http://www.jmu.edu/news/2015/05/04-your-script-madam-secretary.shtml), I absolutey geeked when I found out she was coming to speak to our class in LA. Hearing her talk about her life and her career was everything I hoped it would be and more.
She’s intelligent, ingenious, driven, and nice.
Needless to say, she’s kind of my hero.
And when you read the rest of this, you’ll understand why.
Put your professional pants on, and listen up. Although most of this was originally about the entertainment industry, I’ll put it in a way that anyone in any field can appreciate and learn from. I hope that you’ll be inspired by Mrs. Hall as much as I was. Today’s lesson is long, but it’s worth it—I promise.
1. Your first job with anything you do is to actually do it, and finish it.
If you build things? Build something. If you create things? Create it. If you make things? Make them. It doesn’t mean it’ll always be good. Like Pheof Sutton said, it won’t. But the point is to finish what you started so that you have something to show for it; so that you have something to build upon and improve upon and learn from.
2. “I realized I had to actually write something to be a writer.”
It only makes sense, right? A lot like what Seth Kingsley told me right before I landed my summer internship at E! News—if you want to be something, BE IT. Stop waiting for experience to find you. Create experience for yourself. If you want to be a mechanic, start changing tires. If you want to have your own show, make online videos. If you want to be a business person, start your own business. When you create experience for yourself, experience will begin to find you.
God, do I struggle with this—but this is a lesson we all have to learn. Especially when you begin to take on a lot in your life and your career. As a showrunner who’s in charge of the creative direction of her show, Barbara says to hire people you trust and let them do their job. I love what Barbara said about this: “Be happy someone can (write) as well you can, don’t be threatened by it.”
4. To work with others, you have to understand others.
Most conflict arises when people who work together have no idea what the other does. For example: A writer should know what a director does and a director should know what a writer does. Study up. You don’t want to step on toes. And when you do have a suggestion or an idea, propose it as a question, not a command.
5. The scariest thing you’ll ever have to do?
Own your mistakes.
6. The second scariest thing you’ll ever have to do?
Be fearless. Barbara told us, “I learned going the extra mile in writing means being fearless. It’s so much better to dial it back than to not quite be there.”
What she said.
7. Your main job is to perfect your craft. That will always be your job.
Study it like it’s your homework. Barbara broke it down:
A. If you’re a fan of something, figure out why.
“It’s not okay not to know,” Barbara said. When you love something, you should be able to communicate then and there why it’s so fantastic to you. Is it the look of it? The aesthetic? Is it how it feels, or maybe how it makes you feel? Do you appreciate its complexity? Or its simplicity? Is it the story? Is it how it tells the story? If you’re a teacher—who was your favorite teacher and why? If you’re a magician—what’s the best trick you’ve seen and how was it done? If you’re a lawyer—what’s your favorite case and how was it won? Ask yourself these questions over and over and find the answers. Barbara told us her daughter stopped at her door during her 100th time watching “Band of Brothers” and said to her, “Do you think you have a problem?” That’s how it should be! You should know what you like and why you like it, inside and out. And during the process, you might just find out a little bit about your style, too.
B. It’s really important to know what you don’t know.
Get ready for a brain twister: If you don’t know something, there’s really no excuse not to know once you realize you don’t know. Look it up. Research it. And never stop doing this. As Barbara said, there’s nothing wrong with not knowing. In fact, when you always have the answers and are always trying to prove what you do know—well—that’s a bit annoying. All of us are always learning, and none of us will ever know everything. Plus: if you ever plan on doing #6, you have to know the rules before you break them.
8. Life is all about perception. But if you’re planning on being good at what you do, your career isn’t.
Barbara said that you’ll quickly learn there’s a distinction between actually being a good at what you do, and being perceived as being good at what you do. You’ll know because the latter means you’ll probably find yourself fizzling into the background after your “big break” or the “start of your career.” Work hard. Stay up to date. Keep studying and learning. Do what you need to do to get to where you want to be—more importantly—to stay at where you want to be. “No one is going to make you do anything when you get to Hollywood,” she said. “No one is going to set deadlines for you.” You have to make the personal choice to work hard and stay successful. “You can get the biggest break in the world, but it means nothing if you can’t deliver the goods.”
9. You have to make the transition from being a fan to a professional.
If you want to do this, then you have to start thinking of the people around you and in your profession as PEERS. You are apart of this just as much as anyone else. You have to believe that.
AND FINALLY, I saved this one for last, because it’s my absolute favorite.
10. The key to being a successful leader (and in her case, television showrunner) who can run things?
Barbara told us the following sentence is the true test:
Are you okay with leaving the room and people not liking you?
This was so damn good that I got even more intently quiet then I already was. As someone who wants to one day possibly direct, produce, write, and act, I needed to hear this—even when I didn’t want to. If you’re a reader of my blog, you know from past lessons that I’m that I can be that incredibly annoying “nice girl.” I’ve always been one to avoid conflict. While I’m not easily influenced and I rarely go along with things “for the sake of it,” I am most definitely a people pleaser who wants to be well liked by everyone. But in order to do my job, I’ll have to learn that that isn’t always an option.
Barbara is the realest. She told us: “It’s not about being mean or being a bitch. Truly, people will always think they can do it better than you can. But you have to be okay with it and just know that in the end, you have the final say.”
Barbara struggled with this. She shared that in the beginning, she wasn’t making decisions, and people weren’t happy. The problem was, people were looking for a leader; people needed a leader. She realized quickly that she needed to change it up.
“Make a decision even if it’s wrong,” she told us. “It’s better to make a bad decision than to not make one at all.” She told us that we’ll have to make a ton of decisions quick and on our feet. As we begin to make more and more decisions, we’ll start to get better at it.
And coming from wonder woman herself,
I believe her.
A final piece of advice?
“Remain true, no matter what the business is doing.”
In conclusion, I actually want to bring it full circle, back to the first thing Barbara told us.
“I always like to tell this to people first: I’ll tell you my story, but my story won’t help you at all.”
Of course she was being funny, and we all laughed. She told us that compared to when and where she started her career, it will be different for us because the industry is much different now. She told us that basically, everyone’s story won’t be the same as hers.
The cool thing is—this can go for every person and every story, ever.
You all know how I feel about stories and the importance of telling your own. If you’ve ever submitted a guest lesson, you’ve seen the quote I’ve included in my email back to you: “If we are not telling our stories, we are consuming other people’s lives.” So today, I’ll leave you with this piece of wisdom alongside Barbara’s incredible advice.
Your story is unique.
I promise you, your story is not as boring as you think.
Keep telling your story and telling stories.
Stories are what make the world go ’round, they’re what fuel life, and they’re what keeps ourselves and others inspired.
Story is king.