Do You Have a Letterman?

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A few months back, Jimmy Kimmel took his late night talk show, “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” to Brooklyn to shoot. During the week they were there, David Letterman was a guest on the show. This was a huge deal. Not only is an appearance by the legendarily reticent Letterman a very rare event, David Letterman was Kimmel’s hero growing up.

You might be thinking, “Big Deal. David Letterman was the hero to lots of now 40-something guys who watched his show during their teens and twenties.” Yes, that’s true. And if David Letterman was stopping by to say hello to Kimmel at the financial services company where he worked, or a paint store or a doctor’s office, it would’ve been a thrill for Kimmel, but not of note to us.

For Kimmel, though, Letterman wasn’t just a cool guy. Kimmel wanted to BE Letterman. Some might say to an obsessive degree. But David Letterman was Jimmy Kimmel’s role model. And you could see, watching Kimmel sitting behind his late night talk show desk interviewing Letterman, just as Kimmel had watched Letterman behind his talk show desk for all those years, that this was a full circle moment for him. He had modeled his career after him and now he had the same career. He was a peer. A peer still in awe of his hero, but a peer nonetheless.

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I would imagine Ryan Seacrest felt the same way co-hosting “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” with Dick Clark and then taking over this year, having modeled his own career on Clark’s. And that Jimmy Fallon felt similarly as he stepped onto the “Saturday Night Live” stage as a cast member for the first time, having followed in the footsteps of Dana Carvey and other SNL cast members he used to model his own career.

You may not have such a laser-focused ultimate career goal as the people above. Jimmy Fallon says that being on SNL was the ONLY career goal he had, that when people told him that it was too one-in-a-million and he should broaden it, he told them that was impossible. Being on SNL was “it” for him. And he studied celebrity impressions and developed characters and wrote funny songs and took classes at the famed Groundlings Improv Studio just like some of his role models did. (Side note: The first time he auditioned for SNL, Jimmy Fallon did not get hired.)

Take a moment and consider your own entertainment career. Is there someone you can identify as a “destination role model,” as I call the icons whose lofty status up-and-comers sometimes aspire to? Who is Madonna to your Lady Gaga? Oprah Winfrey to your Ricki Lake? If you can find someone who has the career you would want, that will help you decide which opportunities to pursue, what training to get, and who to try and meet. It will provide you with a compass of sorts. And though you might not become the “next” whoever-it-is, if you don’t get exactly there, you will likely get your own version of that career if you steer in that direction. Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?

If you cannot identify a “destination role model,” perhaps there is someone who has achieved your immediate career goal, whose career path can guide you. Readers of Your Industry Insider often use the “Industry Pro” profile subjects as “next step” role models. Maybe the way Amanda Segel or Eric Rogers or Alicia Kirk broke into TV writing will work for you – or at least aim you in the right direction. Maybe film music studio executive Mike Knobloch’s career path will help you find a way up the ladder in your own film music career.

Aside from role models, you also would be wise to identify some people whose way of thinking you admire. Smart, strategic, big picture thinkers, people with an understanding of some aspect of what you are trying to do. These people make great mentors.

If they are real, actual people who you know, they can literally help you make decisions in your career. If you are deciding between two opportunities, they can work through the pros and cons of each one with you. If you are unclear or road blocked (or just think you are road blocked but are actually sitting on an opportunity you do not see), they can lend clarity and a way forward. If you are about to make a rash move, they can suggest you pause and reconsider. My own mentoring experience includes everything from ten minute office talks with job candidates who wanted to know how some aspect of the industry worked to formal one-on-one career consulting with seasoned professionals who needed a way out of a slump to tweet chats and group Q & A calls about showbiz careers.

Mentoring does not have to be a big, formal thing. I am proud to say I have served as the informal mentor to many people I hired when they were just starting out, employees and co-workers who became friends and still years later call me or take me out when they need guidance. For instance, I urged a young friend, a go-getter sports fan who had just relocated back to LA from New York and wanted to be in events here in a big way, that she should take the job she was being offered at the premiere arena in town even though it was two steps back from her last position. “This is the top place for what you want to do. No other place compares. It’s where you belong,” I told her. “You will kick ass and quickly move up.” I was right. And she’s now a senior executive there.

Some of you, I’m sure, do not have personal access to the right people to provide for your mentoring needs. And everyone can always use someone to help you think even bigger than those around you. That’s where “paper mentors” come in. As regular readers of Your Industry Insider know, one of my “paper mentors” is Sir Richard Branson. I have been inspired to action time and again by some of the things I learned from reading about his career, most notably in his autobiography, “Losing My Virginity.”

My favorite lesson from Richard Branson is “Ask ‘How Hard Could It Be?’” When he was frustrated with his experience flying and decided to start his own airline, he picked up the phone and called Boeing to ask about leasing a single airplane. Step one- Lease an airplane. This is actually two great lessons. The first is to take the first step and the second is to do it in a way that is least commitment. Hence leasing rather than buying an airplane – in case it doesn’t work out. So now, whenever I am thinking about doing something big (my version of starting an airline), I think, “How hard could it be?” and then I determine what my project’s version of renting an airplane is.

Your “paper mentor” could be anyone who thinks in a way that will inspire and lead you to greatness. They do not have to be great people personally, though it never hurts to have that in a mentor, real or “paper.” And they don’t have to be doing something in their career that you would want to do. Be inspired, be guided, be informed, and be trained to think strategically and expansively.

So think about the people you know. Who are the ones whose advice you value most? The next time you have a decision to make, give them a call. And in the meantime, if you don’t already have a “paper mentor” or two, look around and see if you can find some. Read about the members of Your Industry Insider’s Mogul Mindset Honorary Board of Directors: Sir Richard Branson, Jay Z, Ryan Seacrest, and Lady Gaga. Who knows? You might find a role model for your career there, too.

Who are your role models and who has mentored you personally and by example in your entertainment career? Share in the comments below.

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About JennyYM

Jenny Yerrick Martin is a veteran entertainment hiring executive with 20+ years in film, television, and music. She created to give students, recent grads and others a true picture of the layout of the industry, and how to break in, transition to a new area, or achieve more success on their current path.

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