By Scott Westerman
I was in New York this week to hear 5 very successful television producers talk about their work. Two things made them extra special: They are all Spartans and they all happen to be women.
Their stories were fascinating, tales of perseverance, lots of rejection, how the mixture of relationships and work ethic helped them grow and succeed, and the fleeting nature of success. Every one of them has been told, some on several occasions, that their jobs were ending. Shows get cancelled. Movies wrap. Teams brought together by a combination of serendipity, talent and tenacity scatter. There are uncertain hiatuses where you don’t know when or where the next paycheck may materialize. And you’re always thinking about Plan B.
So it was interesting that the most memorable moment of the evening, for me at least, was when Cathy Daniel said, “there’s no crying in show business”. Cathy has been an Emmy Award winning producer on programs like Meredith Vieira and Dr. Oz.. She’s among the best of the best.
“I had a production assistant come to me one morning in tears about a boyfriend break-up. She said she needed the day off to process her emotions.” Cathy did her best to put on an empathetic face. Her words felt anything but. “I told her, ‘Put on your big girl pants and get back in the game. There’s no crying in show business'”
Melanie Reardon, another Spartan with a production resume that many would envy agrees. “I can’t tell the network we’ll deliver the show late because of your personal life.” She once was told to ensure that great white sharks would show up, on cue, for a specific two hour period every day for a week so that a network could show live pictures to their viewers. “It was a career defining moment for me. My boss was saying ‘do it’ and I wasn’t sure how we were going to make it happen when the client demanded it. But we got it done.”
Melanie discovered that playing AC/DC’s pounding bass lines under water attracted the fish. They magically appeared, on cue, every day. In the real world, you adapt, you adjust and you deliver.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s very, very important to process the emotional dimensions of life’s ups and downs. If you don’t, they will fill that invisible wheelbarrow that we all push to the point where your body will react in some very uncomfortable ways. But in the high pressure world of television and film, deadlines are deadlines. “The show must go on.” Producers seek and retain talent that can deliver the goods.
And so it is with life. We can seek out corporate cultures where co-workers can be among our psychological support systems. These jobs compensate accordingly.
Those who rise to the top in high-pressure roles learn to compartmentalize when on deadline. They have a magical ability to stay in the zone and point their laser beam focus on outcomes. The more healthy among them also ensure that there are compartments for self care, for the physical fitness that helps protect their bodies in times of stress, for the fuel they put into those bodies, for emotional exercises that promote reflection, and for clearing out the unending river of bad juju that always seems to be part of every life.
They don’t fight the battle alone. They employ personal trainers, financial advisers, psychologists and surround themselves with loving, honest friends who come to learn when to express that magical mix of empathy and tough love that builds the mental toughness essential to navigating an ever more complex existence.
Production people spend lots of time wrangling the high maintenance talent that creates great content. They answer questions about when the stars are supposed to show up, even though they know that the recently printed call sheet is probably in the person’s pocket. They take the late night phone calls from a director who just got a “better idea” for the next day’s shoot. They negotiate contracts on the fly and recalibrate the expectations of nascent PAs who may still think that a helicopter parent can help solve problems of their own creation. Their value is in direct proportion to their ability to stay cool, stay on task and get stuff done, no matter what inevitable obstacles the new day may throw in their face.
And the best of them never cry.. at least until they get home.
What does this teach us? There is a time for “big girl pants” and a time for tears and pounding pillows. The visceral emotion of reality television is something that happens on the screen, not behind it. When you enter the game, put on your uniform, remember your skills and focus on what’s happening on the court.
As Ecclesiastes so wisely imparts, “To everything, there is a season.. and a time to every purpose under Heaven.” Success is often impacted by our ability to determine what season we’re in.. and to dress accordingly.