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How often do you adjust your sails to propel yourself forward?


Today is September 7 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you adjust your sails to propel yourself forward?” Avoiding storms is virtually impossible. People who grow both personally and professionally understand this and leverage the wind from a storm to propel them forward. Since storms are a natural course of life people who navigate the chaos do their best to avoid them but know doing so always is virtually impossible. When the storm is inevitable, those who navigate the chaos welcome it and figure out how best to leverage the wind.


The quote often attributed to today’s strategy of navigating the chaos stems from the well-known spiritualist Cora L. V. Hatch who delivered a lecture at the Cooper Institute in 1859 and said, “You could not prevent a thunderstorm, but you could use the electricity; you could not direct the wind, but you could trim your sail so as to propel your vessel as you pleased, no matter which way the wind blew.” Three people who learned how to adjust their sails to navigate the chaos are Julia Stewart, Vincent D’Ornofio, and Matthew Modine.


Julia Stewart used adversity to strengthen her career path. Stewart, who worked as an IHOP waitress as a teenager, was in marketing when a serendipitous plane ride with Carl’s Jr. founder Carl Karcher brought her to the restaurant industry. According to Stewart: "I was flying to a presentation with a client, and I ended up sitting next to Carl Karcher on the plane. And the man kept trying to read my Wall Street Journal. Finally, we struck up a conversation-we are dear friends to this day-and he said, 'You are just the type of person I need to meet. I very much want to have you come to work for me.' From that moment forward I have done nothing but be in the restaurant business." She eventually ended up at Applebee’s and was an executive there during the late 1990s. In 2001, Stewart jumped to IHOP, and became its first female CEO in 2002 and continued to serve as CEO of the combined entity until 2017.



After graduating from high school, D'Onofrio started to appear on stage. During an 18-month stint at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado, he was involved with small, community-theater productions. He later studied method acting at the American Stanislavsky Theater and the Actors Studio, under coaches Sonia Moore and Sharon Chatten, which landed him his first paid role in off-Broadway's This Property Is Condemned. He went on to appear in several of their productions, including Of Mice and Men and Sexual Perversity in Chicago. D'Onofrio continued his career by performing in many New York University student productions while also working as a bouncer at the Hard Rock Café. In 1984, he made his Broadway debut as Nick Rizzoli in Open Admissions.


In 1986, D'Onofrio took on the role often considered the defining moment in his acting career, as Pvt. Leonard Lawrence, an overweight, clumsy Marine recruit in the movie Full Metal Jacket. On a tip from friend Matthew Modine, D'Onofrio was urged to send audition tapes to director Stanley Kubrick, in England. Four tapes later, D'Onofrio landed the role. Originally, the character of Pvt. Lawrence had been written as a "skinny ignorant redneck"; however, Kubrick believed the role would have more impact if the character were big and clumsy. D'Onofrio gained 70lbs for the role and had his weight balloon from 210lbs to 280lbs. This remains the record for most weight gained by an actor for a film.


In an interview about the making of Full Metal Jacket, D’Onofrio provided some additional perspective on his life situation at the time: "I was working as a bouncer at the Hard Rock Cafe and Matthew Modine and his wife walked in and I asked him what he was doing. He said he was doing this Kubrick thing and there was a part available. I didn't even think about being in film. I saw a lot of films, but I thought of film actors as very different from myself…Stanley made my career. There's no question about that. I've done over 50 films because of him. Because of that part. Because Stanley cast me. There is no other reason why I am working as an actor.”


D'Onofrio adjusted his sails and considered the role, sent Kubrick audition tapes, gained 70lbs, and in so doing completely altered his life and career. Such a decision, of course, was based off a conversation he had with fellow actor Matthew Modine. Imagine if D’Onofrio had not been working as a bouncer that night, or if Modine and his wife went out to a different restaurant. If the two actors had not discussed Kubrick’s film their career paths would have probably gone in completely different directions.


Moreover, Modine himself used the strategy of adjusting his sails during his audition for the 1984 American drama film Birdy based on William Wharton's 1978 novel of the same name. Set in 1960s Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the film focuses on the friendship between two teenage boys, Birdy (Modine) and Al Columbato (Nicholas Cage). Modine originally auditioned for the role of Al Columbato, but the director Alan Parker decided to cast him as Birdy, believing that the actor possessed an "introverted honest quality" that best suited the character. Modine said, "I was flabbergasted because I hadn't auditioned for Birdy. I had never imagined playing the part of Birdy. So, I had to really go through an extraordinary transformation in my mind of trying to bring this remarkable character to life. It was an incredible experience making the film."


Modine adjusted his sails to undergo the required transformation of mind as he needed to learn a completely different character. Kubrick contacted Parker while his was shooting Birdy and expressed interest in Modine. Parker sent an audition tape to Kubrick of Modine. Upon reviewing the young actor’s tape, Kubrick was less than enthusiastic. Luckily, there were a few minutes of Modine not acting, and just being himself, and that is what caught Kubrick’s eye. If Kubrick had not cast Modine, and since Modine helped recruit D’Onofrio there would have been no D’Onofrio either.


For today’s post, let’s reflect upon the following questions:

  • What would have happened to Stewart’s career if she had not engaged in a conversation with Carl Karcher on the flight?

  • Sitting next to a random stranger on a plane offers serendipity and chance to enter into your life. How often do you allow serendipity and chance to enter your life?

  • Stewart started her career in one industry but switched to another. Have you had the opportunity, or even thought, to switch industries? If so, what is holding you back from adjusting your sails?

  • Where would D’Onofrio be today if he chose not to gain weight for his Full Metal Jacket role?

  • D’Onofrio never saw himself as a film actor but adjusted his sails. Has someone recommended a different type of position for you? How did you respond?

  • Modine auditioned for one role, but the director asked him to play a different part. Would you adjust your sails to play a different one, or would you be so set on the one you auditioned for that you would turn down the other opportunity?

  • How often do you adjust your sails to propel yourself forward?

  • What is holding you back from adjusting your sails more frequently?