By Rebecca Green
In 2017, I was chosen as a Women at Sundance Fellow (now re-imagined as the Momentum Fellowship) and with the Fellowship came the gift of a life coach for one year. Going in, I honestly didn’t know what a coach was going to bring to the table. I thought, “I’m doing the thing, I’m moving up the ladder, it’s only a matter of time.” But during my first session, it quickly became clear to me that I had actually never stopped to think about where the proverbial ladder was taking me. Over the course of the year with my coach, I worked on stepping back to look at the big picture and honed in on what I valued most in my life and how that connected to my work. I dissected why disappointments felt so devastating and learned how to balance the ups and downs of the life of an artist.
So, for this week’s Dear Producer piece, I wanted to have a conversation with Jay to share with you some of the wisdom he has imparted on me in the hopes that it helps you open up your way of thinking about your own career and path forward.
Let’s start with the basics, what is a life coach?
It’s someone to have a conversation with who is dedicated to your success and has the skills of really generous listening. Someone who is able to hear you in ways that perhaps others, including yourself, can’t hear you and is able to point to things that may be interference; things that are blocking you in your way forward.
Human beings tell stories and then they live by the stories they tell. I can walk around, figuratively, in your story and notice where the story could be stronger. If the story you’re telling is a victim story or it’s a story with some basic assumptions that may not be true, that may be limiting you. It’s great to have somebody who points those assumptions out and not in a way that makes you feel wrong or belittles you in any way. Someone who is completely on your side.
The way I describe it: coaching is love and wonder that leads to effects of action. The love is simply that we’re talking about stuff you love in a loving way. We’re not criticizing or putting you down or diminishing you in any way. We’re wondering about things rather than just saying, “Well, here’s my advice or here’s the prescription.” It’s like, “Well, I wonder how that could be easier. I wonder whether there’s a way around that.” That’s the way the conversation proceeds.
The call to action comes somewhere in coaching conversation. I really want the client, and what the client almost always wants to do, is to take what we’re wondering about and put it into action. To have some kind of experiment, to try something out. There’s only so much we can wonder about in theory before you actually have to put it out there in practice and see how it works.
It’s funny that you work with people in the entertainment business because I read a lot of scripts where life coaches tend to be the butt of a joke, but having had you as a coach for almost two years now, I know that coaching is a true skill. How did you get into this work?
My background is in the theater and I was a member of Actors Equity in New York. In 1979, three of us started a company called Actors Information Project. It was a community that was dedicated to supporting actors in having great careers and great lives.
We started everybody with a 13-hour business planning seminar. Imagine actors getting up at eight o’clock on Saturday morning to come and do a 13-hour business planning seminar! Then we provided consultants or coaches along with workshops with agents and casting directors. It was a drop-in center in Midtown Manhattan. Then we opened an office in Los Angeles. Through all of that, it really gave me this incredible education into who these artists were and what their life challenges were and how we could best serve them.
Sometimes it was about just getting to know what it takes to be an adult and be responsible for your life, for your health, for your family. All of that taking care of yourself stuff. Sometimes it was about discovering the bravery or strengths you didn’t realize you had and how to apply those in the business. In some cases, it was supporting people in giving it their best shot so they knew sooner rather than later that this was not the thing for them. Some of our great success stories were people who really went at it hard for two years and then went to medical school and became doctors.
That business was very successful for about 10 years and then I personally found myself in decline in every way I could imagine emotionally, physically, and financially.
It was recommended to me that I hire a life coach. Little did I know, I was actually hiring the godfather of the coaching profession, a guy named Thomas Leonard. He helped me restore myself. He helped me build a coaching practice. My story about life coaching is actually about what it did for me. It gave me my life back. I certainly wouldn’t wish the pain I endured on anybody; to have to start from as low of a place as I was in at that time. But it was a great personal experience of what coaching can do.
One of our first conversations was him telling me that basically, I was bankrupt. I needed to declare bankruptcy and start over again and I did. This is close to 30 years ago.
Was there one life lesson that that he taught you that you still carry with you?
Gosh, so many things. A bunch of it was about the notion of a personal foundation. That I really needed to have my life in order to go on and do the great things I wanted to do. He had a form at the time called the Clean Sweep, which had a hundred questions. Check yes or no about your health and about your finances, about your relationships, about where you lived, and your home life and all that stuff. I think when I started my score was about 34 out of 100.
Meaning you had 34 things in order?
Yes, out of a hundred. He really pressed me just to go one by one checking things off. Have you been to the dentist? Do you have a will? Thing after thing after thing. Is there somebody in your life that you would cross the street to avoid?
Sometimes they were really challenging questions, but as I worked through the list, I could tell life was getting easier and easier. When I got up to 50, or 60, or 70, suddenly, man, I felt free. When I got up to 80 or 90, things would just click. There was that relationship between the strength of my foundation and my success in life or the ease I felt that was really fundamental.
Do you have that list because I really want to see it. [laughs]
I don’t have mine from 1991 any more, but I can send you a blank form. You can almost imagine that all the things on that list, if not checked, are the things that are distracting you, draining you, or are just waiting to get you just when everything is going well.
One of the things he said to me that was also critical and lives with me to this day is he said, “What I really think we’re doing here, Jay. I know I’m your coach, but what we’re really doing here is, we’re trying to figure out how to have a powerful relationship. A relationship that’s open and honest and creative. If we can do that with each other, then we can take it out into the world and do it with other people.”
People who knew me before coaching and people who only met me after, if they would get together at a party and try to describe me, each one would go, “Who? Who are you talking about?” I think beforehand, I lived out of fear. Fear I’d be found out, fear that people would think I was smaller or wasn’t special. I had a pretty good act, but I was suffering behind it.
That’s the process that he gave me. It’s always different with different people, but coaching in some ways is training on how to be a grown-up, how to be a human being.
I know that you’ve worked with both artists and corporate professionals and I’m curious to know if you’ve seen struggles that are specific to creative fields?
Honest, open relationships are really critical to being successful and fulfilled and I see both artists and corporate professionals struggle in this area. It’s one of those things I don’t think we’ve ever been educated in formally, other than maybe in athletics in school. Skills such as how to understand different people and how to listen. How to articulate your needs. How to establish boundaries. How to make requests. To ask for what you really want.
In the entertainment industry, even very successful people I have found are afraid they’ll never work again. This can make it intimidating for people to be their authentic selves. People in the industry are often afraid they’ll be taken advantage of if they’re vulnerable. Afraid that people will think they’re not enough or that they’re stupid. And money tends to be more of an issue more frequently, whether it’s the money needed to live and survive or to get a project up off the ground.
Also ADHD is a common theme in the entertainment industry and is something that I’ve come to specialize in the last five, six years, even though I’ve been around it for a long time being married to an ADHD for almost 40 years. I work to help educate people about their ADHD so that they know how to deal with it so that it doesn’t become an impediment to their day-to-day work life or their relationships. I’ve really enjoyed working with people with ADHD because they’re so incredibly creative. They’re the kind of people who aren’t satisfied with one project, want to be working on three or four projects at the same time. This work has been very rewarding for me.
When a producer wraps a production, they’re often depleted, completely void of energy and have often damaged personal relationships because they have neglected the people in their lives who are most important to them for the sake of their film. We give everything we have in order to create a wonderful experience for everybody else, but how do we make sure that we’re also creating a great experience for ourselves as well?
It’s a challenge. This is one of those places where a coach can come in handy because we all suffer from this egocentric dilemma of only being able to see the world from our own limited perspective. I mean, it’s the way we’re built. It helps to have somebody around who can remind you of the bigger picture.
I think it starts with awareness and then you want to add intention “Here is my intention. My intention is to make this movie and still be home on time to make it to my kid’s soccer game” or whatever is most important to you in your life. Then there has to be some agreement or cooperation or strategy to have that work out, which won’t always work out because there will be a day when you lose the sun or it rains, but if you don’t set an intention, it won’t ever work.
Producing is not a job for the weak at heart. I would just say first of all, don’t underestimate what this is going to take. No matter how hard you think it’s going to be, it’s probably going to be harder. Because of that, you want to take extra measures to protect the things that are important to you including your health, and your family, and your relationships, and anything else like that.
The producer who can create an atmosphere that is wonderful for the other creative artists to have the freedom to do what they do is a brilliant producer. That means a certain amount of strength and confidence is required from the producer and that brings us back to the personal foundation. If you’re not getting pulled by your fears about money and worrying that your significant other is going to leave you because you’re working too much, you’re in a lot better place to create that kind of environment. The people that have a sense that they can have a job and a life and that people aren’t asking them to try to give one up in favor of the other are the ones who can not only succeed, but also be fulfilled.
I just interviewed a producer, Jordana Mollick, who said something that I had never heard before that blew my mind, though it’s so obvious, she said, “I’ve learned not to make life decisions when I’m in production.” And I thought, “Wow!” Of course you shouldn’t make life decisions during production. You’re in such a heightened emotional state and everything is urgent and the stress levels are so high. Why would you ever make a life decision then? But then I thought back to the last time I was in production, I put an important relationship on the line during that time and it went horribly wrong. I should have just been focused on the basics like you were saying – eating well, sleeping, talking to my family.
I’ve seen the abuse come in two different scenarios. One is “This is my big chance. This is the big project so I’ve got to give everything to this.” It’s almost like, I’m running The Marathon and if I make it back to tell them that the Persians are attacking and I die that’s okay, at least I accomplished my mission.
The other one is, “I’m now suddenly really successful and I’m working on this film and another one is in pre-production and another in post. There’s too many things going on.” At that point people need to get really good at developing a staff and asking for help and having assistance. It can be uncomfortable for people who are used to doing it all themselves for so long.
Those two buckets are interesting because indie producers are juggling multiple projects and so they’re pulled in a lot of different directions. They don’t have support staff because financially they can’t afford it. And while it might not be life or death for a producer on a specific project, it usually is for a director and if you don’t act like it is for you too, you’re made to feel like you don’t care enough about the project. It’s too much pressure.
My advice would be for every producer to get a clip of Geoffrey Rush on their phone from Shakespeare in Love where Shakespeare or whoever says, “This is all falling apart,” and Geoffrey Rush says, “No, it’s going to work out. It’s going to work out. How is it going to work out? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” He’s the producer, right?
I don’t know any other way to say this but to develop maybe one part wisdom, two parts humor, and maybe five parts Buddhism. It’s about not being attached to the ups and downs, the ins and outs or just the problems of the moment. As Puck says as he observes lovers caught up in their drugged soap opera, “What fools these mortals be.”
I could talk to you forever, but the last thing I want to talk about is this idea you and I have discussed in my sessions about how we define success, when there really aren’t benchmarks, and how we keep score. We often get to a place where we feel we have found success, our film plays a major festival, or we sell our film to a distributor. However, rather than people saying congratulations, we’re asked, “so what’s next?” How do we know what success is if it is never recognized?
I’ve got a few answers to that. One is that it’s important that a producer develop a group of people who they can be really straight with about their needs. One of the needs that everybody has is to be appreciated, but when you get into top positions, when you’re the boss, it’s less likely that people will appreciate you in the way that you need to be appreciated.
You might get some compliments or some thank you’s, but often people don’t see or understand the work you are doing. If you can have a group of other producers or friends or your family who you could actually go to and say, “The way I handled Sasha today, I just need somebody to know that you saw how important that was or how brilliant that was.” Because it’s not cool to ask for that stuff, but we’re humans and we need it. That’s about getting those basic needs met.
Two is the game. I call it the inner game. The “bigger” game is getting the movie up and winning awards or something similar, but the inner game is about creating milestones. There’s no end to the number of games you can create. You could say, “On this film, I want to have 10 great interactions with the director where the director appreciates the feedback I gave him/her.” Cool, that’s the game or, “I want to be able to take 10 concerns that the director has and handle them so that they’re no longer concerns at all.” You know what I mean by that being the inner game? It’s not big, but sometimes those small things that you go, “This is what I’m working on right now. This is what I’m playing for today,” can be really important.
The third is there are things that have happened in life that you’re proud of and that for a moment provided a satisfying emotional moment, but then got soiled. Some call it a rainbow list. A woman was telling me the other day that her objective all her life growing up was to have a job where she got to work in London. She finally got the job, but immediately she was caught up with all the challenges she had at work. Then she called her dad, and he said, ” Sarah, you accomplished a big dream; why don’t you just take the moment to enjoy this right now? Go on outside, just sit on a bench and enjoy this moment.” She did and it wasn’t until she was sitting on the bench that she could reconnect to that emotional experience of pride and satisfaction.
It’s part of a larger process that is known as appreciative inquiry, looking into the past to find what’s right so that we can bring that into the present rather than always looking at what’s wrong. Finding gems that have been soiled or dirtied and bringing them back.
Again, that’s sort of part of a personal journey or a personal challenge to be responsible for our own lives, our own happiness. If you’re going to be affected and impacted by everything that happens in the process of making a film you’re probably going to be unhappy more than you’re going to be happy because it’s problem, problem, problem, problem, problem, success, problem, problem, problem, problem. I’m not a producer, but that’s what producing seems like to me, one problem after another. Producing is problem solving.
I often say, “No one is ever happy.” That’s how I feel most of the time, that no one is ever happy. No matter how hard I work, it’s never enough, especially directors. It’s draining.
Somewhere you got to find the strength to focus on the wins; to use all the resources you have that can keep you present to this magical and mysterious thing we call life or else you are destined to be blown around by the exigencies of any particular project, which never quite work out the way they were planned.
This has been a wonderful conversation and has given me the opportunity to refresh on a lot of the things we’ve talked about during our previous sessions. Thank you so much for all you have given to me as a coach.
I so appreciate what you are doing with Dear Producer. I know that I talked about the Actors’ Information Project a little bit… Everybody moved to New York or LA and none of us knew what we were doing and nobody wanted to admit it. Here we are on our own making mistakes and we just said, “Why don’t we do this together? Why don’t we recreate a community where we can share all this stuff with each other? We don’t have to do this on our own.” There are ways producers can do this together too and I think this thing you’re doing it’s just so cool, it’s what we need. We need more together. How this planet is going to survive?
Thank you, though it’s been a lot of work, it’s also been very rewarding. Producing is a very lonely job. We’re not only siloed in our own industry, but we’re also usually working from home by ourselves. It’s a hard life. If Dear Producer can make it a little less lonely, that’s something I can be proud of when I go to sleep every night.
I appreciate you having this conversation and as always, I love all of our talks and look forward to the next one.
It’s my pleasure.
If you are interested in working with Jay Perry as your life coach, please visit his website HERE.
Jay Perry, author of Take Charge of Your Talent: three Keys to Thriving in Your Career, Organization, and Life, is a Master Coach (MCAC), personal champion and creative partner who helps people take advantage of both business and personal challenges in unique and powerful ways. His clients include creative artists, entrepreneurs, and 500 corporate executives. He is known as one of the world’s leading mentors for new coaches seeking professional certification.
He is currently on the teaching faculty of ADDCA, The ADD Coaching Academy and works with people who have been diagnosed with ADD to take advantage of their special gifts.
Jay’s clients appreciate his fresh perspectives that help them to see themselves and their situations in a new light. He earned a BFA from Boston University and an MFA from Ohio University. With a background in professional theater as an actor, teacher, director, stage manager, and theater owner, Jay approaches his work with a sense of playfulness and a passion for developing creative communities. In the 1980s, he applied these skills in operating the Actors’ Information Project to empower performing artists to take charge of their careers and lead healthy lives. He also served as CEO of a digital imaging and archiving business with offices in New York and Los Angeles.
Jay has coached and led workshops for thousands of people around the world on diverse topics such as business planning, leadership, transformational change, personal mastery, coaching skills, communication, and career planning. In 1991, he began working with legendary coach Thomas Leonard and participated in the creation of Coach University and the International Coach Federation. Jay’s corporate coaching clients include executives at AT&T, Avaya, Genentech, GlaxoSmithKline, Shell, First National Bank of Nebraska, and Schlumberger. His artist clients include award winners from stage, television, film, and the visual arts.
Jay lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, Susan.