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According to a UCLA study completed a few years ago, by the time a child is five years old, even before that child’s entered or completed a first grade education, he or she has heard the word “no” more than 40,000 times. Forty thousand times ! 

Beginning long before we ever reach grade school, we’ve endured a years-long, consciously-designed, semi-subtle system and subconciously hard-wired process that discourages our creative intelligence. Tragically, most adults continue to be utterly immobilized and defeated by “no” – as if we were powerless children.

Between my own experiences, and the wisdom and teachings of my first and greatest mentor, my dad, I discovered early on that “no” need not be a serial killer gunning down all ideas, inspirations, individual ambitions and progress. Call it arrogance or just tenacity, I figured out that NO can be a powerful ally. 

If we don’t automatically accept each ‘no’ as a dead end. 

If, when rejecting another’s idea, we do so with deep honesty and emotionally poignant, clear communication. 

We have the power to magically transform every ‘no’ into a relationship builder, bringing others closer rather than pushing them away and, in the bargain, becoming (and being perceived as) ever more effective leaders when we don’t yield to the superficial sting of a ‘no’ or utter ‘no’ in less than a compelling and truthful context.

Years ago, I abandoned law practice, choosing instead to pursue a new adventure in the film trade. Driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I felt the undeniable pull of a pursuit far less certain, yet far more in synch with my temperament, passion and personality.

Growing up, I was a ‘dreamer’, always lost in a book or daydream, and originally chose law simply for the fact others seemed to show great respect for attorneys and it would endow me with a more ‘adult’ presence. A daydreamer who often felt disconnected from the world around me, that language and legitimacy was something I urgently craved. At first, I was rejected from law school, yet persisted and finally got accepted. Rejection simply wasn’t part of my plan.

I graduated, passed the bar and practiced for a time, only to discover being an attorney wasn’t my calling. After a significant investment and just several years of practice, I abandoned ship. No sooner had I received my dad’s blessing, I got in my little Kharman Ghia and headed south to find my place in the film business, amidst a community of storytellers.  A handful of years in Hollywood, a series of disastrous failures later, and my career as a film producer was born.

Failure, rejection, a steady stream of “no’s” is the menu du jour every single day for a young independent film producer.  I was just stubborn enough, sufficiently deaf to the sound of ‘no’, oblivious and in too great a hurry or too passionate to dwell on a rejection for more than a moment.  Failures in all forms, shapes and sizes simply made me want to learn a better way to get where I wanted to go.

I refused to let someone else’s “no” define my mood, path or destiny. For every film that gets made, there are dozens or more projects that end up in the dead letter file. The tragedy is so many producers, writers, filmmakers, actors – every conceivable type of creative talent – get “shot down” in their own eyes and, ultimately, just give up. They quit. The result: countless brilliant stories, projects and successes get buried forever in the moment that choice is made.

But there are some stories you just can’t give up on … and your own is definitely one of those.

My father was my greatest hero and certainly my best friend. I was blessed to have an amazing individual as my dad.  He died far too young.  Years later, I was introduced to a book called “The Mothman Prophecies,” a story that spoke to me very deeply – about love and life and those we lose along the way – and our effort to remain connected to them. I began the long process of developing and producing that film.  Almost before we started, it was turned down, literally, by every film studio in Hollywood – except one. 

When I brought the script to that last remaining company, I naturally got my hopes up. When the axe finally landed, I heard the words, “We love the script, Gary, but we’re going to pass on the project.” I sat in stunned silence on the other end of a phone line. 

This project meant the world to me and I was not about to let it die. So in that moment, I made a decision and calmly responded by thanking them. The next words out of my mouth were “I respectfully pass on your pass”. 

After a good laugh, I asked for a face-to-face meeting because this project was so important to me. I could make that request because I’d built a real relationship with these folks over time – not close friendships, but rooted and respectful professional relationships.

One of life’s more essential lessons I learned is just that:  you write your own story. Don’t allow others to author your life, outcomes, soul purpose, motives, or determine how big or small you play in this go-round we call ‘life’. Speak from your heart, not just your head, speak your truth, emotionally persuade and attract the world to your cause, your purpose, your project or business. Know when to accept or reject a ‘no’ — recognize when a failure or rejection is just a clue to up your game, take a deeper cut, knock on more doors, tell a more engaging story.

“No” plays too big a role in most lifetimes. It should be used to teach us well – not to touch the hot stove, not to run out into fast-moving traffic. The average toddler hears ‘no’ 400 times a day, and the average five-year-old has heard the word “no” 40,000 times.  That same young person, that five-year-old, has heard the word “yes” a mere 5,000 times – eight times the gravity or fear of a ‘no’ as the expectation or habit of a “yes”.

For all the talent, brilliance, energy, well-being, innovation, inspiration and good that is quashed by that early ‘no’ programming – the millions who make choices based on lack of self-belief and avoidance of ‘no’ as adults – I have a different message and belief and hope for you…

NO is simply a conversation starter. 

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