Gillian Zoe Segal: An interview by Bob Morris

Segal, G.Z.Gillian Zoe Segal is the author of Getting There: A Book of Mentors and New York Characters. She received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She lives in Manhattan and is also a photographer.

* * *

Morris: Before discussing Getting There, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your

personal growth? How so?

Segal: My mother, Leanor Segal. She is a charismatic, curious, fun loving adventurer and an out of the box thinker. I would love to be seen the same way!

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Segal: In the midst of law school, I knew that I didn’t want to practice law, but was not sure what I wanted to do. In short, I was lost, career wise. A real turning point occurred when, shortly after taking the bar exam, I read a commencement address given by the cartoonist Cathy Guisewite at my alma mater, the University of Michigan. Cathy spoke about the moment she realized she wanted to write for a living and suggested that, when deciding what to do with the rest of their lives, the graduates remember what they love: “Take the classes, the friends, and the family that have inspired the most in you. Save them in your permanent memory and make a backup disk. When you remember what you love, you will remember who you are. If you remember who you are, you can do anything.” Cathy’s words resonated with me.

Following her advice, I thought back over my four years at Michigan. I had been most energized by the photography course I took the last semester of my senior year. I decided to pursue this interest and enrolled in a one-year program at the International Center of Photography (ICP). Soon after that, I hatched the idea for my first book, New York Characters.

Morris: When and why did you decide to write New York Characters?

Segal: I realized that what makes New York such an amazing city is its people and that, among the millions of New Yorkers, there are some who stand out of the crowd, become famous in their own subcultures, and give the Big Apple its flavor. My New York Characters subjects included neighborhood fixtures, prominent celebrities, and the truly eccentric.

Working on that book was a dream come true. Every day felt like an adventure as I discovered different pockets of my city and got to know a broad cross section of its population.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Segal: I am not surprised to hear it. Warren Buffett explains that what’s essential, no matter what business you are in, is getting people to follow your ideas. He says, “If you’re a salesperson, you want people to follow your advice. If you’re a management leader, you want them to follow you in business.” It makes perfect sense that leaders are also adept at storytelling. Communication skills are a key ingredient to success.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Segal: My formal education has helped me tremendously with my communication skills. Law school, especially, taught me to be able to boil things down to what is truly essential. Whether it is writing a request to a prospective subject in my book, writing an essay, or approaching a journalist for publicity, I must communicate well.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Segal: 3 Idiots. It is a 2009 Indian film. The film’s message is that if you are passionate about what you pursue you will have the greatest shot at success. If you pursue something that your heart is not in, you’ll have a tough time achieving your potential. This is a major theme in Getting There as well.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Segal: I love this one! All growth and progress is dependent on trying something new (AKA a daring adventure).

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Segal: This certainly seems to be true! In his Getting There essay, the scientist, J. Craig Venter, explains that the biggest obstacle he continually faces is resistance to new ideas and new approaches. He explains, “If you look at the history of breakthroughs in science and medicine, almost everything that’s turned out to be a major development was initially attacked by the establishment—mainly because it was a threat. Thomas Kuhn wrote about the stages of paradigm shifts in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: First a new idea is attacked then it’s reluctantly accepted. Along with the acceptance comes denial that it was ever an issue to begin with and a bit of historical revision that it was never that big of a breakthrough.”

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Segal: I completely agree. A good idea is just the first step. If you never execute it, you are left with nothing. And executing an idea is the hardest part!

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Segal: As Kathy Ireland says, “If you are not failing, it means you are not trying hard enough.” Taking risks is necessary for growth and failure is just part of the process. That being said, you want to try and avoid making mistakes on really critical issues.

Morris: I was born and raised in Chicago, a city once described as “a melting pot with the lid off.” Have you considered another book that focuses on another city and its unique characters? Please explain.

Segal: Unfortunately, I would pretty much have to live in another city to write a (good) book on that city — and that’s not on my horizon in the near future.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an appropriate as well as an effective mentor?

Segal: An appropriate mentor should be a person you trust and admire. That person should also have an accessible and giving personality and, of course, expertise in the area that you need guidance in.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Getting There. When and why did you decide to write it?

Segal: To start, I never really had a mentor and was in search of some guidance — I think that’s what made me so passionate about making Getting There.

Also, there’s a common misperception that highly successful people were practically born that way—that they either had a meteoric rise to the top or, at the very least, enjoyed a smooth, steady climb.

The truth could not be further from this — but for some reason, even when you know this, you still can’t help looking at luminaries and imagining that they had a somewhat easy time getting to where they are.

Conversley, when you are working towards something and encounter an obstacle, fail, or get rejected, it’s easy to blow that out of proportion, get discouraged and get derailed.

The best way to ensure that you persevere is to get inspiration from the lives and careers of people you admire. Learn details about the difficulties these people encountered and see how they were able to move forward. Then recall those lessons and anecdotes when you need a boost.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Segal: When I first set out to make Getting There I thought that I had to find a diverse group of people, at the top of their fields, who had a “good story.” I soon learned that I just had to find a diverse group of people at the top of their field — because no one has had it 100% easy. Everyone has a good/inspirational story. The trick was getting them to open up and share it!

By the way, I also had to admire all my subjects.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Segal: It doesn’t! Whew!

Morris: In the Introduction, you share remarks by Cathy Guisewite in her commencement speech at Michigan twenty years ago: “Take the classes, the friends, and the family that have inspired the most in you. Save them in your permanent memory and make a backup disk. When you remember what you love, you will remember who you are. If you remember who you are, you can do anything.” These remarks resonate deeply with me and apparently, also with you. Please explain.

Segal: Nothing worth pursuing is easy. Period. If you love what you do you will thrive on the inevitable challenges and have the stamina to achieve your potential. If you pursue something just for the money or because you think you should — it probably won’t end well.

Legendary composer Hans Zimmer reveals in his Getting There essay that, whenever he needs legal or medical advice, he stands up in front of his orchestra and announces his problem. “Half of the musicians are doctors and the other half are lawyers whose parents forced them into those jobs.”

Morris: Of all that you learned about the contributors, what did you find most surprising? Please explain.

Segal: One of the most surprising things I found was how many of my subjects credit basic jobs in sales (as in cold calling or door-to-door) for equipping them with the skills needed for their ultimate success. These skills include the ability to not be deterred by failure and the ability to be a persuasive communicator.

Morris: However the contributors may be in most respects, what do all (or at least most) of them share in common?

Segal: The most common thread is determination. Gary Hirshberg, co-founder and CEO of the organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm, explains, “It all comes down to the moments when you either wave a white flag and give up or say, ‘I am going to keep fighting.’ The successful people are those who got back up after being knocked down, often repeatedly.” Stonyfield is now the world’s largest organic yogurt maker, but it didn’t make a nickel for its first nine years.

Morris: As I read and then re-read the book, I had the feeling that most of the contributors were speaking directly to me, without pretense or hesitation. I think many others will feel the same way as they read the book. What do you think?

Segal: I was hoping that the intimacy of my process would translate to the written page and I am so glad that you feel it did! I interviewed my subjects in a relaxed way. I showed up at their home or office with just a backpack — no assistant or fancy equipment. I asked them to let their guards down, share their stories, tell me about their lowest lows, and spell out the lessons they learned along the way. I also asked them to distill the best advice and wisdom they had to offer. The essays in Getting There are all in the subjects’ own words. I would take about a 15/20 page transcript of the interview, edit it down to a 5 or 6 page essay, then run it by the subject for his or her approval. I wanted to make sure that all my subjects were completely comfortable with how they came across.

Morris: For young women now preparing for a career or who have only recently embarked on one, what will be — in your opinion – the most valuable lessons to be learned from Kathy Ireland, Wendy Kopp, Marina Abramović, and the other female contributors?

Segal: Both Kathy Ireland and Stacey Snider share a sentiment that I think is important for both men and women: You can have it all, but not all at once. Life comes in stages and you have to prioritize each separately. It’s also important to remember that “having it all” means different things to different people.

Morris: Several of the luminaries made major changes before finally achieving the success that had eluded them. So did you. In your opinion, to what extent does “career planning” have any practical value? Please explain.

Segal: My Getting There subjects demonstrate that you do not have to have your career all mapped out. Careers have chapters and whatever you are doing now might not be what you will be doing a few years from now. The important thing is to always keep your eyes open for new opportunities.

Leslie Moonves, President and CEO of CBS, began his career as an actor but got sick of tending bar to make ends meet. At a certain point he realized that he would do better on the other side of the camera, and the rest is history… He advises, “If your path is too rigid, you’ll likely miss out on opportunities. You have to be fluid and open to change.”

Morris: In this context, I am reminded of Teresa Amabile’s commencement address at Stanford in 1993 when she stressed the importance of doing what you love and loving what you do because “what you enjoy most is probably what you do best.” Your own thoughts about this?

Segal: I agree. We all like feeling good about ourselves, so it makes sense that we tend to love what we are good at.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Getting There and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. In your opinion, where to begin?

Segal: The best work environments seem to be those where:

1) The employees feel appreciated and secure in their jobs.

Leslie Moonves explains that when companies don’t make their employees feel secure, “employees work out of fear and are constantly watching their backs. “ He adds, “When my employees drive to work in the morning, I want them thinking 100 percent about their jobs and not about whether the guy in the next office is going to screw them or whether they are going to be fired. That leads to non-productivity. If people feel secure where they work, their performance is so much better. “

2) The employees feel comfortable trying new things and possibly failing.

Warren Buffett says, “There is no way that anyone’s going to make a lot of business decisions without messing up on occasion so I have to decide if the people working for me know what they are doing overall. I’m not big on blame and, by other people’s standards, I’m probably quite tolerant of our managers’ mistakes.”

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Getting There, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Segal: Small companies have the greatest chance of excelling if they can provide something new and different. Most growth and change requires challenging conventional wisdom and questioning everything. Just because something has been done one way for years doesn’t mean that 1) it’s the best way or 2) that another way wont work.

The problem is that people often react to something new and different in a negative way. New things can be a threat to other businesses or just to peoples way of doing things. Forging ahead always requires a great deal of strength.

* * *

Gillian cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her website link

Getting There‘s Abrams link

Getting There‘s Amazon link

New York Characters‘ Amazon link

Forbes conversation link

LinkedIn link

Facebook link

Twitter link

Getting There YouTube video link

Posted in

Leave a Comment