Life Lessons in Making a Difference from a Television Legend
Capital Group Private Client Services president John Armour shares highlights from a conversation with Norman Lear.
Over the course of his six-decade career, Norman Lear has created such iconic television shows as All in the Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons and Maude. He once had three of the four top-rated series on TV, which at their peak collectively drew more than 120 million viewers a week.
Part of Norman’s gift is his ability to fuse humor with incisive commentary about our society and humanity in general. Through multifaceted characters such as Archie Bunker and George Jefferson, Norman has illuminated both the foibles and the personal growth we all experience.
Norman has been a client of Capital Group Private Client Services for 20 years. During that time, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know and work with him and his family. He often talks about what he terms “the learning curve of life” — insights he has gleaned from his 94 years. I recently sat down with Norman and asked him to share some of the wisdom he’s culled over time. Here are three key takeaways:
Live in the Moment
It sounds simple enough: slow down and enjoy each moment as it unfolds. In reality, that’s often not easy to achieve. As Norman learned firsthand, there’s a human tendency to chew over past missteps and worry about upcoming challenges.
“I remember what a tough time we had getting All in the Family on the air in the first place,” he recalls. “In fact, it ultimately wound up on a different network than the one we originally pitched.” And as every entertainer knows, network TV shows typically don’t stay on the air for long. How does Norman handle a show’s cancellation — or any other challenge in life? By following a philosophy he refers to as “over and next.” In other words, be present in the moment and enjoy experiences as they occur.
“When tough times come, don’t dwell on disappointments or regrets,” he advises. “‘Over’ and ‘next’ are two little words, but when something is over, it’s over. Move on to what’s next. If there was a hammock in the middle of those words — over and next — that would be what philosophers mean when they talk about ‘living in the moment.’”
In other words, someone reclining in the hammock has let go of the past without fretting about what could happen in the future.
“Jean Stapleton, who played Edith Bunker on All in the Family, was a master at this,” Norman adds. “She always lived in the moment. Whether she was with you for a split second or 20 minutes, she was 100% there. And I’ve tried to live by that as well. It’s one of the reasons I titled my memoir Even This I Get to Experience. I basically look at life moment to moment.”
Be Aware of Your Impact on Other Peoples' Lives
As Norman learned long ago, television has enormous power to influence. Even today, people tell him about how the content of his shows altered the course of their lives.
“I was on a panel with [popular music producer] Russell Simmons not long ago,” Norman says. “He told me that as a young boy he watched an episode of The Jeffersons in which George Jefferson wrote a check. That was the first time he realized that a black man could write a check, since he had never seen this before. It was a stunning and very big moment in his life, and demonstrated for me the effect we can have on others.”
Though the impact is obviously more profound when you have a huge platform like Norman’s, he says the same principle applies to everything you do. Your actions speak much louder than your words, and you never know how something you do — no matter how small — will change another’s life.
“Early in my career, I shot a movie in a small Iowa town in which I cast a six-year-old girl in a two-second scene,” he remembers. “I really thought nothing of it. Fifty years later, I met this now-56-year-old woman at a book signing. She had read my memoir, where I recounted difficult moments from my childhood, including my father’s brief stint in prison and the emotional comfort I derived from wearing a gray and blue sweatshirt that functioned as sort of a security blanket. She told me that being cast in the movie was her security blanket at the time.”
The lesson for Norman was striking: What may seem like an innocuous interaction to you — chatting with a parking attendant or being friendly to a store cashier — can have a lasting effect. “We have a chance to impact people every day, even through something as simple as a smile or an unexpected ‘hello.’”
Distinguish Between "Stress" and "Joyful Stress"
Not surprisingly, Norman put in long days — and often seven-day workweeks — while producing so many shows at once. It was a grueling schedule, but Norman says he never looked upon all the script rewrites, late-night rehearsals and myriad other tasks as debilitating.
“There is stress, and then there is joyful stress,” he says. “There’s a big difference between the two.”
Joyful stress is what many of our clients feel. While they are financially secure and able to quit their jobs at any time, many continue to work, doing what they love, because of the joyful stress it brings to their lives.
“By the way, it has nothing to do with the money,” Norman insists. “A successful person in the business once brought this home to me by saying, ‘I work to work, and the rest follows.’ In fact, he pointed out that when it isn’t about the money, it’s funny how much seems to come your way. I’ve always found that to be true.”
Indeed, Norman still works harder than anyone I know. He is actively engaged in the production of several shows, including a new series for Netflix. Talk about keeping up with the latest technologies!
In closing, there are two other lessons Norman has taught me: First, age is just a number. “I think of myself as a peer to whoever I’m talking to,” he always says. That’s one of the reasons he’s so easy to talk with. Second, laughter is the key to a long life. “I believe my longevity has depended a great deal on the amount of laughter I’ve had in my life,” he insists.
We all have Norman to thank for adding laughter to our lives over the years, with more to come. “It has taken every split second of my 94 years to get to this moment,” Norman adds, “and it’s the first moment of the rest of my life.”
And with that, over and next!