Three years ago, my daughter-in-law and I started a blog about the unusual and often unexpected ways in which people build their careers. We called it “10 Bricks“.
There is the story of the man who once “lost” a European diplomat in the Mall of America and ended up becoming an International Affairs Professor at NYU ; or the architectural draftsman who became one of New York City’s premiere chefs; or the high end, Madison Avenue art dealer who ended up becoming a priest.
Almost all of us share the experience of being asked, at some point in our lives, if we “know what we want to do when we grow up”. Implicit in this question is the idea that we should know, and if we don’t, it’s a problem. Many successful people achieve their goals, both personal and professional, in unforeseen ways. With that in mind, you can put the following under the header: “Bet They Never Saw That Coming”.
Walt Disney was a newspaper editor…[who] was apparently fired because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”
In the 1980s, Mark Cuban lost his job as a salesman at a computer store. That was the last time he worked for someone else…Shortly after his termination, Cuban started his first company, MicroSolutions. Since then, he’s made over $2.4 billion.
Before Whoopi Goldberg’s big break in 1985, [she] worked at a funeral parlor applying makeup to the deceased.
Julia Child was a spy. The famed chef wasn’t cooking up delicious French cuisine until age 36. Before that, she worked as a CIA intelligence officer.
We hope this “10 Bricks” blog will inspire readers to realize that career paths are full of unexpected twists and turns, and that each learning experience becomes a brick in the foundation of one’s profession.
In my case, I was fired from my first job as an agent at a national car rental company for renting a vehicle to a man who later turned out to be a bank robber. I would end up as an executive producer for CBS News with 4 Emmys, a Peabody Award, The Investigative Reporters and Editors Award and the Edward R. Murrow Award to my credit. Of course, I never saw any of that coming when I started.
Brick 1: Writing
I went to Johns Hopkins University. I majored in creative writing. Upon graduating, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But my ability to write turned out to be the foundation of everything that followed.
Brick 2: The Basics
I took a summer film workshop at NYU, directed by this short, Italian-American guy named Martin Scorcese. But back then, he wasn’t Martin Scorcese. He was just Marty. I learned how to operate a 16mm camera. I shot a lot of short, independent films that went nowhere. But I realized I had a pretty good eye, and that skill would come into play much later when I became a director and producer.
Brick 3: Watching the Pros
After my stint as a car rental agent to bank robbers, I got a job as a go-fer for an industrial film house. And when I wasn’t running errands or mopping the studio floor, I watched the editors work. They gave me invaluable lessons in the craft of editing.
Brick 4: First network gig
One day, I happened to walk into an art gallery on the East Side of Manhattan. I met the artist and asked him if he made his living painting. “In my dreams,” he said. He told me his day job was working as a writer/producer crafting :30 promos for the CBS Late Movie. He said they were looking for somebody. I applied for the job. I could write. Brick 1. I knew editing. Brick 3. So they hired me.
Brick 5: Field Production
My next job was at WABC-New York, producing profile pieces about interesting New Yorkers. The great thing about the job was that I got to direct crews in the field, and because of my writing ability, knowledge of editing and camera, I became a very efficient producer.
Brick 6: Pressure Cooker
After WABC-NY, I started producing for Entertainment Tonight. Often, we would be shooting in the morning, editing in the afternoon and satellite-ing the piece out to LA in the evening. The ability to work under pressure would become very useful when I entered broadcast news. But that was a ways off.
Brick 7: Long-form Producing
When I was at ET, I worked with an entertainment reporter named Robin Leach. One day, he got into an argument with the executive producer and got fired. Then I got fired because the reporter they hired to replace Robin wanted his own producer. But soon after, Robin got his own series and asked me to come aboard as senior producer. I said, “What’s the name of the show?” “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” he replied. I remember thinking this won’t last 3 months. Working at Lifestyles was an exercise in using writing, shooting and directing to make those Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams pop through the television screen — skills which would become even more important at my next long form gig.
After Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, I started producing for a CBS News primetime show called Face to Face with Connie Chung. CBS News expected their producers to bring a higher level of originality to the game. Now, all those bricks — writing, producing, directing, camera, editing — would be brought to bear.
One of my first pieces was a profile of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. I had decided to interview them separately. It was a three camera shoot. I was directing from the mobile control room in a semi-trailer parked in their driveway. Connie was interviewing Paul in their kitchen and Joanne was watching from behind the cameras. Every so often, Joanne would mutter things like “Bullshit” or “What a load of crap”. My AP (associate producer) said, “Should I go in and ask her not to do that?” I said ‘no’. Instead, I walked into the kitchen and repositioned the third camera so that it was capturing the entire set and I gave Joanne a big smile. Some have said this was the first time that a producer had broken the ‘fourth wall’ on a network news broadcast, by revealing what went on behind the scenes of an interview — in other words, how all the cameras and crews were set up. I won my first Emmy for that piece. But it was the accumulated experience of all the pieces I had produced up to that point that allowed me to see a different way of doing things.
Brick 8: Network Standards
My real education during this period was measuring up to the rigorous standards of network news. We fact checked everything, and then we fact checked it again. And then someone else fact checked our fact checking.
I had left CBS News to work on a primetime magazine show at ABC News called Day One. My first story for them led the premiere episode. It was called “Deadly Secret”. It was about the first man in the United States to be convicted of knowingly giving a woman the HIV virus. She died of AIDS, as did he, in prison. That lead to my second national Emmy.
On another Day One story, a young man walked into our office with a bunch of documents claiming to show that one of the biggest female vocalists of all time (I am choosing not to reveal her name for this article), was ripping off donors and charities who benefited children with aids. We investigated and corroborated his allegations. The scam worked like this: the star would headline these huge charity concerts at places like the Kennedy Center to raise money. She was doing this to keep her public profile high because she was falling out of fashion and her concert bookings had dropped dramatically. Over the course of two years, she raised three million dollars, but only about $56,000 went to charity. The day after the piece aired, I got an anonymous death threat. That led ABC News to pay for a heavily armed, former Secret Service agent to sit in my kitchen from midnight till 8am for a week. But the good news was the story lead to my third Emmy award.
Brick 9: Administrative Experience
After a few years at ABC News, I returned to CBS News to take a senior producer job on Coast to Coast, a new primetime broadcast where I would begin to gather management experience.
Brick 10: Executive Producing
The years of my technical, creative and administrative skills resulted in a promotion to Executive Producer at CBS News Saturday Morning. All of that experience would be put to the test few years later in the most challenging way. It was a little after 9am. I had just walked into my south-facing office on West 57th St., when I watched a plane fly into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I raced into our news room and, along with two senior colleagues, Pat Shevlin and Al Ortiz, and an exceptional newsroom staff, launched CBS News’ daytime coverage of 9/11 anchored by Dan Rather.
Not long after that tragic event, I joined 48 Hours as their Executive Editor. Working alongside Executive Producer Susan Zirinsky and her incredibly talented staff, we produced the award-winning film “9/11”.
My final stint at CBS was not in the News Division, but as Executive Producer and Head of Development for CBS Eye Productions, a production company, helmed by Margery Baker, that made shows for the cable industry.
One of the interesting aspects of being an executive producer was the types of disputes that came across my desk. They involved employee to employee conflicts, union issues, talent contracts, production contracts, intellectual property disputes and much more. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was laying the groundwork for the next brick.
Brick 11: Mediation
When I left CBS in 2014, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Then, unexpectedly, I met a man who was a mediator. As he told me about his work, something resonated inside me. Partly because helping people is in my DNA, and partly because of the confidence gained from all the disputes I had resolved as an executive producer, I began several years of intense mediation training.
Today, I have a mediation and conflict coaching practice covering multiple areas including commercial, civil, divorce and family matters. My mediation training led to an association with a wonderful organization called the New York Peace Institute. I work with them on community, Surrogate Court, Criminal Court, Family Court cases and much more. I also mentor apprentices in their training program, and coach NYPD officers in conflict de-escalation.
What will Brick 12 be? Who knows?
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Read the stories at Medium.com/10-bricks