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Are You Willing to be Weird?
No one wants to be average. But everyone wants to be normal. What’s up with that? You can’t imitate your way to excellence. It can be achieved only by breaking away from the pack, abandoning the status quo. But breaking away from the pack is also the way to spectacular failure. Are you beginning to understand why there is so little excellence in the world?
A weird person who succeeds is called eccentric. A weird person who fails is called a loser. Most people just walk the middle path and wonder what might have been. If there is, somewhere, a Book of Days, what will be written in it about you? Will the book say you played it safe, never took a chance and were buried in such-and-such a place? I think Tom Peters gave excellent advice to managers when he said, “Reward excellent failures. Punish mediocre successes.”
The New York Times tells us, “She embarked on a show-business career at 15 by going to Manhattan and enrolling in John Murray Anderson’s dramatic school. From the first, she was repeatedly told she had no talent and should return home. She tried and failed to get into four Broadway chorus lines, so she became a model for commercial photographers. She won national attention as the Chesterfield Cigarette Girl in 1933. This got her to Hollywood as a Goldwyn chorus girl. For the next two years she played unbilled, bit roles in two dozen movies. She then spent seven years at RKO, where she got leading roles in low-budget movies. But she was wrongly cast and mostly wasted in films.”
In all, Lucille Ball appeared in 72 B-movies before she became too old to be credible as a female love-interest. Her lackluster career on the silver screen ended without fanfare in 1948. So at the age of 37, Lucy left the movies, swallowed her pride and became Liz Cooper on the live radio show, My Favorite Husband.
Jess Oppenheimer, her director, tells the story. “I remember telling Lucy, ‘Let go. Act it out. Take your time.’ But she was simply afraid to try. So one day, at rehearsal, I handed Lucy a couple of Jack Benny tickets. She looked at me blankly. ‘What are these for?’ ‘I want you to go to school,’ I told her. It did the trick. When Lucy came into the studio for the next rehearsal, I could see she was excited. ‘Oh my God, Jess,’ she gushed, ‘I didn’t realize!’ She just couldn’t wait to get started trying out the new, emancipated attitude she had discovered. On that week’s show Lucy really hammed it up, playing it much broader than she ever had before. She coupled this with her newfound freedom of movement, and there were times I thought we’d have to catch her with a butterfly net to get her back to the microphone. The audience roared their approval, and Lucy loved it. So did I.”
Released from her fear, Lucy Ricardo had been born.
In 1951, a middle-aged Lucy leaped out from our black-and-white television screens into every living room in America. “To say that Lucille Ball was a phenomenon is an understatement. Through sheer determination and hard work, this one woman fundamentally changed the broadcast industry forever.” – Susan Lacy, winner of 5 Emmys as executive producer of American Masters
Most people, when they finally become successful, become conservative. Fearful of losing what they’ve gained, they abandon the behaviors that brought them success. But not Lucy. As the fearless owner of Desilu Studios, she took two enormous chances: Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. American television would never be the same.
On April 27, 1989, the New York Times ran her obituary. Its last few sentences were these:
Addressing a group of would-be actors, she said the best way to get along with tough directors was “don’t die when they knock you down.” She said she was very shy at the start of her career, but overcame it when “it finally occurred to me that nobody cared a damn.” Associates called Miss Ball self-reliant, sympathetic and sometimes tempestuous.
Lucille Ball failed often and well, seeing failure only as a form of education. She broke the old rules and wrote new, redheaded ones, inspiring you and me to do the same.
When you leave behind a legacy of courage, are funeral plans – or even funerals – ever really “complete?”