A woman I used to know, Cynthia, was in the business of helping celebrities prepare to be on camera. They were accustomed to performing in front of thousands of people, they had reached
excellence in their craft, but unscripted appearances and interviews on talk shows were really hard for some of them. My friend would meet with them, set up a mock camera, they’d sit down facing each other and she would ask probing questions about their careers and their private lives so they could learn to manage conversations that made them uncomfortable. She advised them how to dress, how
to sit, and how to appear relaxed when they were stressed out. How to smile when they were afraid. She showed them what to do with their hands, what to do with their legs and how to laugh at themselves.
Cynthia was in London in the early summer of 1997, when she got a call from Princess Diana’s assistant. He told her that the princess wanted some help with her public appearances and he wondered if Cynthia could meet with her that afternoon. She was breathless, it
was an extraordinary opportunity, but she was intimidated. What would she say to her? What if she did a bad job and Diana was disappointed? She decided she needed some time to prepare. “I can’t do it today,” she said, “I’m flying home to Los Angeles. But I’ll be back in London next month and we can set something up.”
Diana was killed in a car crash two weeks later and Cynthia regrets her decision to this day. The irony was that she was being challenged by the very things she was teaching her clients how to
handle and she couldn’t rise to the occasion. She learned the hard way not to let fear stop her from saying yes and I expect that made her better at her work.
I faced the same kind of fear when I was asked to show a writing sample to Diana Ross who wanted to write her memoir. She interviewed other writers and when she chose me, I was proud and ecstatic. I was about to work with someone who was more than a celebrity. She was an icon. But when two large Fed Ex boxes arrived at my house the next morning filled with write-ups, articles and reviews that I had to put in some kind of order, I took a look at the boxes, made my way down the staircase, went into my bedroom and got into bed. In a flash, my ecstasy had morphed into hardcore reality. The celebration was over. Now I had to write the damned book with the shortest deadline you could imagine and I would have to work in three different states to do it. “Wow, I’m writing for Diana Ross,” had turned into, “Oh no, I’m writing for Diana Ross.”
At that point, I had only written one book and edited another but I never considered not doing the icon’s memoir. I went back upstairs to my office, opened the boxes, took out all the materials, spread them out on the floor and created my own filing system, using
colored pencils to organize the singer’s life into highlights and
relationships. I went on plane rides, conducted in-person interviews in three homes, transcribed tapes and organized the transcriptions into chronological order. I got to really know the legend of stage and screen. I got to know her personal chef and her chauffer, I interviewed her husband and I got to know her family. My book made the NY Times bestseller list and publishers hired hired me for
other ghostwriting jobs. The singer’s agent called on me to work with his famed clients: Olympic athletes, news anchors, award winning composers and movie stars. I had created a successful career for myself with numerous bestsellers, something that never would have happened if I had turned down the original offer and let fear win.
Showing up despite your insecurities or your fear of mediocrity takes a lot of courage and requires realistic expectations. You’re not going to pick up a guitar for the first time and play like Eric Clapton. You’re not going to your first ballet class and perform a pirouette like Misty Copeland. You won’t sing like Barbra Streisand or act like Meryl Streep. The ladder to excellence is tall, you have to climb up rung by rung, and whether or not you make it to the top, the reward is putting your fears in the background and enjoying the ride.
I’ve learned most of my life lessons, not by professional training but simply showing up and doing what was in front of me, no matter how scared I was. I was inspired by painter, Georgia O Keefe, who said, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve
never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.” That resonated with me and gave me courage at the beginning of each project when I felt frightened and overwhelmed. With every job, I kept getting better and better and eventually, I learned to trust myself and I managed to have fun along the way.