I was a hippie, a freshman producing all the music concerts for the UC Berkeley campus. I was living at the epicenter of something special, a magical time. A few years later, I graduated and headed back across the bridge from Berkeley to San Francisco.
In an attempt to put an end to several years of aimless confusion and random jobs, I applied to law school to become a criminal defense attorney and save the world. I was rejected. With a bit of persistence and the help of some extraordinary friends who believed in me, I finally got in.
During and after school, I worked at a foundation serving the poorest, biggest ghetto in San Francisco, defending the adults of this community in lieu of the Public Defender. That choice turned out to be less than an ideal match for my temperament. A chapter rich with experience, valuable relationships and powerful learnings, but not my dharma, let alone a career path that would sustain me. After a short couple of years, it was time to move on.
My other dream was to be a storyteller, so I ran away to Los Angeles, a metropolis where I knew nobody and knew even less about the film business. But I was a dreamer and I was determined.
Francis Ford Coppola, one of my early film heroes, had restored “Napoleon”, the famed film from the 1920’s, and screened it in many of the grand halls of the U.S., accompanied by live symphonies, all to resounding commercial success and critical acclaim.
Dreaming of following in his footsteps (and fervently hoping to capture Coppola’s attention), I optioned “The New Babylon”, another brilliant film from the 1920’s about the Communards in Paris, which boasted a gorgeous film score composed by a then 20-year old Shostakovich. Like Coppola before me, I hired a grand hall in Columbus, Ohio, along with the teasmters and the symphony. To realize my dream of a celebrated debut with bright lights and media acclaim, I borrowed $80,000, which I promptly lost on our opening weekend. Not a single ticket sold. I didn’t know enough to monitor the marketing firm I’d hired a couple of thousand miles away. Big lesson. Big mistake. I went on radio and gave hundreds of tickets away for free so this magnificent hall, beautiful film with a musical score that gave me chills would find an audience. In the moment, I was too horrified to be ashamed of my failure, but knew I had to find the light in what seemed only darkness. Gifting that moment to audiences was as close as I would come to redemption.
My start in the film business was a stunning defeat, a shame and humiliation that shadowed me, along with what felt like an ocean of debt that took me years to pay off. But even as I was beating myself up, deep in my heart, I knew this would only steel me to what had to come next. I was not going to stay down. I had no idea how, but the only choice was to put this right, to move forward, to do whatever it took to put this chapter behind me. To be smarter, work harder, learn faster, build relationships and find my seat at the table. What that would look like was the mystery I had to solve next.
I flew back to LA, tail between legs, and joined an outdoor club with pool, tennis and paddle tennis courts. I was unemployed, needed to meet people and my only resource was a lot of free time. Long before people talked about ‘networking’, I realized I could play hours of tennis, more hours of paddle tennis, hang out at the pool in between, and meet dozens and dozens of folks from the entertainment business. This army of creative freelancers became my mentors, eventually my friends, and in time became my door openers, the very people who helped me gain access and step inside the Hollywood beltway. Some even became my clients when I decided to hang a shingle as a literary manager.
Small daily choices and consistently, intentionally connecting with the right folks rekindled my sense of hope, opportunity, the very possibility of getting out of the shadow of failure and debt. There are things within our control if we recognize we have choice and are in control. Failure, mistakes, setbacks. These are opportunities to steel ourselves to more purposeful choices each day. They fade quickly when we take consistent steps toward that which we can achieve if only we believe in ourselves and recognize small successes ultimately pave the way to big successes.