Today is September 1 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you realize life is a windy road?” People who navigate the chaos relish the unpredictability of their personal life and career. Maintaining a flexible mind allows one to adapt to the changes that occur on a windy road.
American playwright, screenwriter and novelist Suzan-Lori Parks wrote “And as you walk your road, as you live your life, relish the road. And relish the fact that the road of your life will probably be a windy road.”
Her 2001 play Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2002; Parks is the first African American woman to achieve this honor for drama. Parks found a way to navigate the chaos while she traveled her windy road. In 1974 her father, a career officer in the United States Army, was stationed in West Germany where she attended middle school and German high school. The experience showed her "what it feels like to be neither white nor black, but simply foreign.”
After returning to the United States Parks lived and attended school in several states such as Kentucky, Texas, California, North Carolina, Maryland, and Vermont. Parks says her constant relocation could have influenced her writing. She graduated high school at The John Carroll School in 1981 while her father was stationed in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
In high school, Parks was discouraged from studying literature due to a teacher criticizing her spelling. However, upon reading Virginia Woolf's To the Light House, Parks found herself veering away from her initial interest in chemistry and gravitated towards writing.
Parks would go on to graduate from Mount Holyoke College in 1985 with a B.A. in English and German literature while a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She studied under James Baldwin, who encouraged her to become a playwright. Baldwin described Parks during this time as, "an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time."
As with many of the strategies discussed in this Navigate the Chaos series, there is a nuance related to today’s question important to understand. Hunter S. Thompson observed “A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.”
Thompson’s point is well taken but it is far from absolute since life is a windy road. Those who translate their dreams into reality do indeed choose. But those who put in the daily grind also realize circumstances beyond their control can also create opportunities if they remain open to seeing them. The windy career path of January Jones serves as an example.
While Jones has starred in a variety of television shows and movies, she is most famous for her role as Betty Draper, and then Betty Francis, in the award-winning AMC series “Mad Men.” In a May 2011 interview, Jones says she originally auditioned for the role of Peggy Olson, but that part went to actress Elizabeth Moss. The role of Betty did not exist at the time, so Jones almost wasn’t on the show.
As Jones recalled in her interview: “There was no Betty in the pilot when I auditioned. I read for Peggy two times – it was between me and Elizabeth Moss, who eventually got the part. At the end of the scene, there was a casual mention that Don [Draper] was married.” Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men,” wrote two more scenes featuring Betty. Jones went back to audition for the role of Betty without any developed character arc. Jones said: “He (Weiner) made me a verbal promise that the character would grow, and I took the part on faith; there was no script or fleshed-out character or Betty plotline.” Like Jones, R. Lee Ermey’s career and life took a windy path.
As a teenager, Ermey often got into trouble with the authorities, and he was arrested twice for criminal mischief by the age of 17. After his second arrest, a judge gave him a choice between the military and jail; Ermey chose the military. In 1961, at age 17, Ermey enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served in the aviation support field for a few years before becoming a drill instructor. After ten years he would medically retire because of injuries.
In retirement he went to the Philippines, where he enrolled in the University of Manila, met his wife, and landed his first acting role. He played a First Air Cavalry chopper pilot in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now where he also doubled as a technical advisor to director Francis Ford Coppola. For the next few years, Ermey played a series of minor film roles until 1987, when he was cast as drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.
Initially, he was intended to be only the technical advisor. Kubrick changed his mind after Ermey put together an instructional tape, in which he went on an extended tirade at several extras, convincing Kubrick he was the right man for the role.
Breaking his word to original actor Tim Colceri, Kubrick gave Colceri's part to Ermey. Seeking authenticity for the film, Kubrick allowed Ermey to write or edit his own dialogue and improvise on the set. Ermey's performance won critical raves and he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actor.
How often do you realize life is a windy road?
Parks allowed herself to gravitate away from chemistry towards writing; have you gave yourself permission to gravitate towards something you like to do?
Jones allowed herself to quickly pivot and go from performing the role of one actor to another. How often do you make pivots while navigating your career?
Ermey started out on the wrong side of the law, made a career out of the Marines and then shifted to acting. In other words, he had no idea where he would end up from where he started. What does this lesson mean to you? How can you apply such a lesson to your life?