Community-Driven Institute


Wisdom from Unexpected Places
by Hildy Gottlieb
Copyright ReSolve, Inc. 2002©

Sometimes life hands you a surprise. And sometimes the more you think about that surprise, the more you realize how fortunate you were to be in that place at that particular time.

Such a thing happened to us last month, and it was so special, we had to share it. Here’s what happened:

Photo Credit: Tim Fuller

Both my daughter AND my business partner’s son want to be actors. They are both in high school, and both already have considerable performing experience. So when their favorite comic stage actor, Bob Sorenson, was in town from New York to perform “Fully Committed”, an amazing one-man show, I fantasized about how cool it would be to have the kids meet Bob, and to have him share some tricks of the trade with our budding performers.

So I wrote him a letter. I introduced myself and the kids, and asked if he would be willing to meet with us, to talk about acting. To our surprise, he said yes.

What a delightful man he was - so real and funny and honest, and willing to give the kids all kinds of pointers. Interestingly, though, most of those pointers weren’t about acting, but more about how they think of themselves. It was the stuff of life, really, and not the stuff of being on the stage.

It was powerful to be reminded that the lessons of success are pretty much the same whether you are an actor or a consultant or a NonProfit CEO. And we thought it was important to share that reminder with our friends who are on a different kind of stage every day.

The Top 10%

“You go to an audition,” Bob begins to tell the kids. “You walk into the room, and you find 100 people vying for that part. Fear strikes, and you think to yourself ‘Oh my God, my chances of getting this role are one in 100! How will I ever compete with 99 other people?

“But if you are the best you can be - if you have worked hard and know your stuff; if you are confident in who you are and comfortable with yourself - then you’re already better than 90% of the people in that room. Now you’re not competing with 99 other people - you’re competing with 9 other people. Your odds aren’t 1 in 100 - they are 1 in 10. I’ll take those odds any day!

“So just make sure you are in that top 10%. If you work towards that top 10%, you will immediately increase the odds of getting that role.”

It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day that we usually forget to ask ourselves, “What will it take to be in the top 10% of my field?” It may mean reading, constantly trying to learn, asking questions. It will likely include trying to make not just ourselves better, but our whole craft better (regardless of what field we’re in). Living it, not just doing it. Taking classes, attending seminars. Learning from those around us, and teaching what we can. If we’re in that top 10%, we’ve already eliminated 90% of the competition, just by being the best we can be!

What Sets You Apart

Bob asks the kids, “If the script says ‘I’m going to kill you!!!!’ with four exclamation marks, what’s the logical way to play that?” The kids naturally respond with a screaming “I’m going to kill you!!!!”

Bob smiles. “That’s what they would expect. And it’s probably also what everyone else in the room is going to do. So maybe you should see if there’s another way to play this, to do what they don’t expect. Here - watch,” he says, and explains by acting.

“What if the exclamation marks don’t mean to scream, but just mean intensity, like this,” he says, and turns to my daughter, sitting by his side. He puts his hand calmly on her shoulder and brings his face very close to hers, looking directly into her eyes from just a foot away. Then slowly and firmly, he articulates each syllable as he quietly tells her with all seriousness, “I’m going to kill you.”

We all feel a chill - we believe him! “Even if you don’t get THIS part, there’s a better chance they will remember you for the next one.”

When we “audition” for our part with clients, potential employers, funding sources - whomever we are trying to impress - are we thinking about what will set us apart? Do we do the same old thing the same way everyone else does? What is it that differentiates us from the rest? In other words - why should they want to work with you and not someone else?

What It Really Takes to Do the Job

Seeing Bob Sorenson in “Fully Committed” is a lesson in itself. In an hour and a half, never leaving the stage and never changing his clothes, Bob plays 37 different characters in a frenzied script. He is masterful, convincing us that all those people are, in fact, on the stage.

At lunch, he tells us that he’d seen the play done elsewhere, and the actor had worked so hard that he’d sweated horribly through the whole thing, dripping everywhere, to the point where it was distracting. “The play became about the actor and how hard he was working, and not about the characters. I knew I needed to be invisible for all those characters to come out.

“So six months prior to doing the part for Arizona Theater Company, I started working out at the gym. I worked on my aerobic endurance and my strength. I didn’t want the physical act of acting to get in the way of the performance.”

Another example comes up later in the conversation, when Bob learns that both kids play multiple musical instruments. “Music will help you act, and will especially help you direct,” he tells them. We all look perplexed. “If you know how music works, you know that it is more interesting if it has loud parts and soft parts, if the rhythm changes or the speed suddenly shifts. And the same is true for the story on the stage.”

Then he asks them, “What about dance - do you also know dance?” They both admit they don’t. “Dance will make you learn how your body moves and will teach you grace. It will make you feel comfortable inside your own skin, and on the stage, there’s nothing more important than that.”

At first blush, dance and music and working out at the gym seem to have little to do with being a comic actor who neither sings nor dances on the stage. But Bob doesn’t just bring acting skills to the table - he brings the combined life experience of all he has learned and done.

And really it’s no different for any of us. We, too, bring the experiences from our non-professional life to bear on behalf of those we are working with and trying to help.

So what can we bring to the table that doesn’t directly affect our knowledge of the issue at hand, but enhances our performance overall? What do we do to “work out” to ensure we are in great shape for our performance? For those of us who do public speaking, presenting or training, how comfortable are we in our own skin? What outside interests help us to be well-rounded, bringing perspectives to the table that those who depend upon us may not have?

The more diverse our life experience - the more we bring to the table - the better we’ll be at thinking through the problems life brings our way.

Be Easy to Work With

“This is common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t consider it relevant,” Bob tells the kids. “People who are difficult to work with are usually not worth the effort. I try to be known as ‘easy to work with.’ I work hard. I behave professionally. I don’t get mad and rant and rave. I try to be a team player, to be known as a nice guy. When a director is casting, it helps that they know they can count on me.”

You would think this one is so basic we shouldn’t have to be reminded of it. But how many people do we each know who ignore this basic principle? And if they are ignoring it, is it possible there are times when we are ignoring it, too, and not even realizing it?

We all like to think we’re easy to work with, and that when there’s trouble, it’s the other guy’s fault. But if we find ourselves in those types of situations frequently, then maybe it’s really not the other guy. Maybe we’re not as easy to work with as we think.

It’s not just about being the one your coworkers, family or clients can count on. It’s about being happy in that role - being dependable without feeling “Oh sure, when the going gets tough, it’s always me who ends up doing everything.” The Golden Rule is truly golden: we must remember to treat others as we would like to be treated.


Finally, Bob addresses what happens when you don’t get the job. “I’ve never been rejected,” he tells the kids. “There are many roles where they chose someone else, but I’d be flattering myself to think that out of the twenty or forty or a hundred people that went up for the role, that they took the time to single me out and reject me! How big my ego would have to be to think that of all those people, they sat back and singled ME out, saying ‘Oh, that Sorenson - we definitely DON’T want HIM!’”

It’s easy to chuckle when we think of rejection in that way. But I remember the early days of our consulting practice, when every job we didn’t get was a personal rejection that took days to recover from!

NonProfits do the same with grants. Individuals do the same with job-hunting, or awards. We forget how rare it is that an individual or organization isn’t chosen because the folks doing the choosing just don’t like him or her.

Remember that if you follow the rest of Bob’s rules - if you are in that top 10%; if you are easy to work with; if you’ve differentiated yourself and learned as much as you can to make yourself well-rounded - then there is a good chance it’s not that they rejected YOU but simply chose someone else. And the best way to find out and to learn from their choice is to ask them why you didn’t get the job, the grant, or the award.

Lessons Bob Doesn’t Know He Taught Us

As I think about the things both the kids and we adults learned and were reminded of at lunch that day, I realize that we learned some things Bob doesn’t even know he taught us.

First, the kids learned a lot about being humble regardless of how famous (nationally or locally) they might become. They learned this simply from the fact that Bob Sorenson, a box office draw for one of the ten best regional theater companies in the country, took the time to talk with two teenagers, not to just tell them about his life, but to listen to theirs.

We are all busy - busy doing the day-to-day work; busy doing volunteer work in addition to our “real” jobs; busy with family time. Somehow, though, the most successful people are the ones who also find time to help someone who is new to the business, or to mentor a college student looking for guidance, or even a colleague with a unique problem. As we mature in our professions, what is that worth if we can’t share the lessons we’ve learned?

Secondly, the kids learned that you don’t really risk anything by asking for what you think may be impossible. My daughter knew I was going to write to ask Bob to meet with us, but she nearly died when I told her he had called and was happy to get together. The kids learned that when it comes to approaching someone we admire or want to work with, we risk nothing by trying. The worst that can happen is that they’ll say “no” or, more likely, that they just won’t answer at all.

We all have our wish lists. The foundation we would just kill to get funding from. The job we would do anything to get. The board member who would be absolutely perfect. The consulting client we drool over.

What’s stopping you from sending that article you wrote to that person or foundation? Or an article you clipped out of the paper, and thought had a solution or approach they might find interesting? Make the contact - what’s the worst that could happen? And what’s the best that could happen? Isn’t it worth it to try?

And finally, there is the lesson I personally learned at lunch that day. And that is, quite simply, that we need to stay open to life’s lessons, because we never know where we will find them.

Life hands us all the wisdom we need to be better at our work and better at our lives. All we need to do is to look for those endless possibilities to learn.


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