Category Archives: Inspiring People

Emilio Estefan

emilio estefanWith all the rhetoric surrounding immigration in recent years, I found myself drawn to a story of one of the most successful immigrants of my generation – Emilio Estefan. Founder of the Miami Sound Machine, he and his wife Gloria orchestrated the group’s ascent to the top of popular music while establishing themselves as icons in the entertainment industry. He captures his impressive journey from rags-to-riches in The Rhythm of Success: How an Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream.

Here are aspects of his life that I found inspiring.

He left Cuba with his father at age 11 with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Emilio and his father hoped to reach America and establish a base from which they could send for the rest of their family. However, in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, Cubans could not travel to the United States directly. Emilio and his father had to spend 18 months in Spain before gaining admission to this country. They were unable to secure employment and lived on meager resources supplied by relatives who’d escaped Cuba.

He took responsibility to secure freedom for his family. That desire fueled a stellar work ethic and ferocious desire to succeed. He learned the language, excelled at school, and worked multiple jobs to support the family. Throughout his teens and twenties, Emilio’s “north star” was getting his extended family out of Cuba – a goal he reached 15 years after his arrival in Miami.

He built a career doing work that he truly loved. Music was Emlio’s passion from an early age. He found the Latin beat contagious and took solace in making music with others. He formed the Miami Latin Boys as a teenager and booked gigs in the area to feed his passion and generate supplemental income. With the addition of a female lead singer, Gloria Fajardo (Emilio’s future wife), the group changed its name to the Miami Sound Machine. Emilio eventually stopped performing and took over the group’s business affairs.

Emilio, Gloria, and the Miami Sound Machine changed the face of popular music with their distinctive fusion of Latin, pop, salsa, and disco. Emilio branched out into music publishing, producing, and recording. His Crescent Moon studios became the center of Miami’s “Motown.” Their success paved the way for the artistry of Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and Shakira, among others.

He is a visionary entrepreneur with a lengthy track record of successful ventures. Emilio formed Estefan Enterprises in May 1986 through which he managed a music publishing company, a recording studio, restaurants, hotels, and commercial property investments. He has collaborated with some of the giants in the recording industry (Quincy Jones, Tommy Motolla, Sean Coombs). He and his wife are part owners in the Miami Dolphins.

He commits himself to being a great boss. Emilio speaks to the importance of working shoulder-to-shoulder with his employees and treating them with respect. He takes responsibility for their livelihoods and provides opportunities for them to grow personally and professionally. He challenges them to do their best work and feel a sense of ownership to the business and clientele they support. He is loyal to his co-workers and values loyalty in return.

He adopted a conservative approach to fiscal management. From the moment he arrived in America, he never spent money he didn’t have or wasted it on things he didn’t need. He kept his “day job” during the Miami Sound Machine’s early years to ensure a steady source of income. He leaned heavily on his own resources to finance new business ventures rather than go into debt. He manages all of his business enterprises frugally, thereby promoting their longevity even when unforeseen disasters strike.

He’s an optimist. He makes a habit of finding the positive in any given situation. He works toward his goals tenaciously even when faced with sizable headwinds. He sees opportunity amidst adversity and has proven time and again that he can achieve what he sets out to accomplish.

He remains a committed family man. He and wife Gloria have been married for over 40 years and have raised two exceptional children. They live and work with their extended family. Despite a very public lifestyle, their names have never been associated with scandal. They’ve maintained humility and grace in the wake of astonishing success and a heap of international accolades.

Gloria Steinem

With this week marking the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, it seems fitting to pay tribute to a modern day feminist icon.

Gloria Steinem was born on March 25, 1934 to Leo and Ruth Steinem. Along with an older sister (Susanna), the family lived an itinerant life during Gloria’s early childhood. They spent summers at a lakeside Michigan resort operating a dance hall, and passed the remainder of the year buying, selling, and bartering antiques from coast-to-coast. Both girls were home-schooled and developed a love of reading.

gloria steinemAfter her parents’ divorce in 1944, Gloria moved with her Mom to Amherst, MA to be close to her older sister during Susanna’s last year of college. Thereafter, they returned to Toledo where Gloria completed elementary school, junior high school, and her first 3 years of high school. She joined her sister in Washington DC to finish high school at a college prep institution.

In Fall 1952, Gloria enrolled at Smith College where she focused on her academic studies. She spend her junior year at the University of Geneva and studied at Oxford University that summer. Upon graduation, she secured a two-year fellowship to study in India. She immersed herself in the culture and was influenced powerfully by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. She marched in protest of the caste system and visited villages torn by violence. She also learned a powerful lesson in community organizing from an Indian teacher:

If you want people to listen to you, you must listen to them.
If you hope people will change how they live, you have to know how they live.
If you want people to see you, you have to sit down with them eye-to-eye.

Upon her return to the United States, Gloria had difficulty finding a job. She worked briefly for the Independent Research Service in Washington DC before deciding to become a freelance writer in New York City. The available writing assignments for “girl reporters” in the early 1960s centered around celebrity profiles and style pieces. Though she felt little emotional connection to the subject matter, Gloria was content to do the work and pay her bills.

A novel opportunity arose in 1963 when she was asked to go undercover as a Playboy Bunny. The resulting piece revealed a work environment that was grueling, demeaning, and poorly compensated – jobs that no man would consent to do were the roles reversed. While the assignment should have drawn praise for the insightful exposé, it became a noose around Gloria’s neck. She was derided for “not being a serious journalist.”

Meanwhile, Gloria remained attentive to the issues of the day. In August 1963, she participated in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington and was struck by the absence of African American women on the podium. As with the civil rights movement in India, the leadership muted the female voice. She wrote: “More than ever, I found myself wanting to report on this new view of the world as if everyone mattered.”

With the founding of New York Magazine in 1968, Gloria gained the opportunity to cover important stories as a featured columnist. Her investigative reporting on women’s issues elevated her awareness of the depth and breadth of gender inequality. A feature story on the nascent feminist group Redstockings garnered the Penney-Missouri Journalism Award.

Though never aspiring to be a public speaker, Gloria shared the stage with African American feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes at the Women’s National Democratic Club in 1969. The two hit it off and made regular appearances together as community organizers. For Gloria, sexism and racism were intertwined, and the feminist tent needed to be big enough for women of all creeds and colors to find a home.

Now firmly entrenched in the movement, Gloria founded MS Magazine in 1972 as a place for women to read about women’s issues. As with most publications, she bolstered subscription funding with advertising revenue. Nonetheless, she would not countenance print ads that would exclude women who were not thin, young, pretty, able-bodied, well-to-do, or heterosexual. She courted gender-neutral advertisers – e.g., car companies, financial institutions, insurance carriers – and convinced them that women were prime decision makers in these product and service selections. Over time, she changed the advertising industry’s imagery, positioning, and understanding of the female half of the country.

Gloria was a delegate to the 1972 Democratic Convention and was invited to serve as its feminist spokesperson. In 1977, she served a pivotal role in the inaugural National Women’s Conference in Houston, a product of 56 “massively oversubscribed” regional conferences. This convocation developed planks on a broad range of women’s issues to which Gloria lent her listening, mediating, and writing skills to the “Minority Women’s Plank.” It was a life-changing experience, brimming with issues, possibilities, and a new sense of connection. In the words of Coretta Scott King: “There is a new force, a new understanding, a new sisterhood against all injustice that has been born here. We will not be divided and defeated again.”

Beyond her work with MS Magazine and the MS Foundation for Women, Gloria has traveled extensively as a guest lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer. She particularly relishes opportunities to speak on college campuses where she never fails to learn something new. She also remains a prolific author having realized the power of the written word to shape the public discourse.

References:

  • Sarah Fabriny, Who is Gloria Steinem?, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, ©2014
  • Gloria Steinem, My Life on the Road, New York: Random House, ©2015, 2016
  • Gloria Steinem, Passion, Politics, and Everyday Activism, New York: Open Road Integrated Media, ©2017

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader GinsburgTwenty-seven years ago this week, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sworn in as the 107th U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Her candidacy came on the heels of a stellar legal career as an academic proceduralist, a proven litigator and advocate for gender equality, and a thoughtful federal appellate judge.

Joan Ruth Bader was born on March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn Heights to hard-working immigrant parents, Nathan and Celia. Older sister Marilyn dubbed her “Kiki” for being such a kicky baby, and the nickname stuck. Kiki never got the chance to know her only sibling. Marilyn died of spinal meningitis in June 1934.

Given an abundance of Joans in Brooklyn Public School 238, Kiki started using her middle name, Ruth, to avoid confusion. She earned straight As at PS238 while also attending Hebrew school, taking piano lessons, and feeding a voracious literary appetite. At James Madison High School, Ruth was an honor student, played cello in the school orchestra, and twirled baton.

Ruth entered Cornell University in Fall 1950 on a full scholarship. She was a dedicated student who aspired to achieve good grades and become successful upon graduation. Having excelled in a constitutional law class, her professor encouraged her to pursue law school and legal activism as a means of making the world better.

After graduation, Ruth married her college sweetheart, Marty Ginsburg. The couple spent two years in Oklahoma while Marty dispatched his military service obligation before both went to the Harvard Law School. As one of 8 women in a class of 552, Ruth stood out in the male-dominated culture and committed herself to a high standard of preparation and excellence.

After Marty’s graduation, the couple moved to New York City where he established a practice as a tax attorney. Ruth transferred to Columbia University as one of 12 women in a class of 341. She earned a place on the Columbia Law Review and tied for first in class upon graduation.

Post-graduation, Ruth secured a position as a law clerk for Judge Edmund L. Palmieri. While there, she accepted an assignment to research Swedish jurisprudence as part of a larger project on international procedures. Mentor Hans Smit bolstered her confidence and helped her establish a name for herself.

In September 1963, Ruth took on a teaching position at Rutgers University in civil procedure and comparative law. She also taught courses at New York University and volunteered her time at the New Jersey branch of the ACLU. The latter fueled her desire to participate actively in the civil rights movement and accorded her the opportunity to gain litigation experience. Rutgers made her a full tenured professor in 1969.

At the dawn of a new decade, Ruth was invited to teach a symposium on Women and the Law at Yale University. She researched the subject thoroughly and was disturbed by the law’s pervasive gender discrimination. It reflected the “separate spheres” mentality that assigned the roles of breadwinning and decision making to males and homemaking and child rearing to females. This construct was clearly out of step with increased participation of women in the workforce and a changing social consciousness toward the sexes. She decided to make sex-based discrimination her research specialty.

As the soon-to-be foremost litigator for gender equality, Ruth devised a strategy for presenting cases that would move the character of the prevailing courts. She used individual victories to set up favorable precedents. She was careful not to leap too far ahead of the political process and to align her cases with the weight of public opinion. Examples of cases that bear her fingerprints:

  • Reed v. Reed overturned an Idaho statute that privileged fathers as the executors of their children’s estates.
  • Frontiero v. Richardson determined that housing and medical benefits apportioned by the United States military could not be denied to the male dependent of a female officer.
  • Struck v. Secretary of Defense challenged the military’s right to discharge a member of the armed services due to pregnancy.

During the 1970s, Ruth co-authored a book entitled Sex-Based Discrimination: Texts, Cases, and Materials and published 25 legal articles. She crafted 24 briefs in Supreme Court cases (9 for litigants and 15 as a friend of the court) and presented 6 oral arguments.

Upon the recommendation of President Jimmy Carter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sworn in as a Judge of DC Circuit Court of Appeals in 1980. Deemed a “paragon of judicial restraint,” she was a moderating influence on a fractious court and garnered respect for her intellectual rigor, caution, and collegiality.

With the retirement of Associate Justice Byron White in 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg to serve as the 107th Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Senate endorsed her candidacy in a 96-3 vote, and she was sworn in as an Associate Justice on August 10, 1993.

In recent years, Justice Ginsburg has been cast in the role of the chief dissenter. Her opinions frequently land in the minority on civil rights, immigration, wage equality, women’s reproductive rights, faith-based programs, campaign finances, gun control, and the death penalty. Yet she soldiers on and lets her meticulously crafted dissents spur legislative action or appeal “to the intelligence of a future day.”

References

  • Jane Sherron DeHart, Ruth Bader Ginsberg: A Life, New York: Vintage Books, ©2018
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg, My Own Words, New York: Simon & Shuster, ©2016
  • Jeffrey Rosen, Conversations with RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty, and Law, New York: Henry Hilt and Company, ©2019

Wife, Mother, Professional

During the past few weeks, millions of workers lost their jobs and applied for benefits. Economists from the University of Michigan expect unemployment rates to top 15% amid a sharply declining domestic gross national product. It’s hard to draw inspiration at times like these, but I’ve found some by reflecting on my mother’s life and how she soldiered on during trying times.

Mom spent her formative years in a country wracked by the Great Depression. Her parents earned a subsistence living as officers in The Salvation Army, and the family moved frequently to serve missions around the country. It was a difficult life, and the lack of constancy contributed to a lifelong tendency toward shyness.

jean murrayEconomic necessity compelled Mom to join the work force as soon as she graduated from high school. She was sharp as a tack, a superb communicator, and a phenom with typing and shorthand. Even so, she faced substantive competition at every turn from folks who had far more work experience.

Late on a Friday afternoon, she submitted a job application along with a couple dozen other women. She was told that they’d get back to her the following week and schedule an interview should her candidacy merit consideration. She decided not to wait. Come Monday morning, Mom showed up at the company’s front door ready to go to work. She got the job and never gave them pause to regret it.

She met the love of her life at Sutro’s Ice Skating Rink in San Francisco. They married in a private ceremony at the family home and settled into a one-bedroom apartment. They lived on my father’s salary to provide flexibility for Mom to stay home once the children arrived. They didn’t buy a car until they were able to pay for it with cash.

Mom turned her attention to full-time parenting while my older brother and I were pre-schoolers. Shortly after I entered kindergarten, she returned to work to help us maintain a home in the area’s premier school district. She also began taking courses at the local junior college to fulfill a life-long dream of attaining her baccalaureate degree.

In the late 1960s, Mom took the opportunity to become a full-time student at San Francisco State University. Then in her mid-forties, she found herself front-and-center amidst the counter-cultural revolution and anti-war protests that characterized the era. Despite a rough commute, student strikes, and on-campus violence, she stayed the course and graduated summa cum laude in 1970.

Mom spent the balance of her career as an eligibility worker with the County of San Mateo. In this capacity, she helped the less fortunate identify opportunities for governmental aide and provided fiscal oversight for selected programs within the county hospital system. Her coworkers and clientele had nothing but high praise for her dedication and efforts.

No matter how busy she was with school or work, Mom never missed a beat on the home front. She took excellent care of the house and its inhabitants, volunteered at school, church, and civic functions, helped with homework, and participated actively in our musical, athletic, and social activities. She was also Dad’s sounding board professionally and his partner in life, parenting, home renovation, and landscaping. One wonders how she got it all done!

Beyond her prodigious accomplishments, I stand in awe of the determination that got her through the tough times and kept her moving forward. She mustered the courage to do things that were decidedly uncomfortable for her. She took on unpleasant work assignments to be responsive to her family’s fiscal needs. She never backed away from a challenge and spent a lifetime learning new things and honing her skills. Moreover, she was committed to putting forth her best work no matter what was asked of her.

Having lived an exemplary life, Mom finished her earthly journey three months ago today. Her final years were difficult, but she did her best to put on a brave face and carry on. May she rest in peace.

Frances Perkins: First Female Presidential Cabinet Member

I’ve always wanted to take a turn as a cast member of a Broadway Musical. To my good fortune, I’ve been selected to play a bit part in the Sherwood Foundation for the Arts summer musical, Annie. In addition to participating in ensemble numbers, I’ll play Frances Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve in a U.S. President’s cabinet. I thought it only fitting to learn a bit about her.

Frances was born in Boston MA on April 10, 1880. She grew up a shopkeeper’s daughter in middle-class Worcester MA. With her parents’ encouragement, she was among the 3% of women who earned a four-year college degree. Her exposure to liberal-minded activists at Mount Holyoke College set the course for her life’s work.

She taught school for 2 years in Worcester before heading to Chicago to pursue social work. She had a particular interest in poor immigrant women and took a job rooting out the perpetrators of sex slavery who preyed on desperate women. She took note of systematic bias against women in labor markets – e.g., lower pay for the same work and denial of union access. She bolstered her credentials to address these issues through graduate studies at The Wharton School of Finance and Commence. Thereafter, she pursued a fellowship at Columbia University and was granted a Master’s degree in political science.

Fresh out of graduate school, Frances was hired to run the New York office of the National Consumers League. Her charter focused on 4 priorities: working conditions, long work weeks and substandard wages for women, child labor, and fire hazards. She lobbied against sweat shops and worked for corrective legislation. She recognized humane manufacturers by dubbing their wares “White Label Items” and encouraged consumers to “wear their conscience.” She redoubled her commitment to safe working conditions after 146 women died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911. That horrific event also galvanized her supporters.

In the aftermath of the fire, Teddy Roosevelt asked Frances to lead a Committee on Safety to improve working conditions and institute fire safety standards. He’d been impressed by her vitality, intrinsic optimism, self-confidence, work ethic, and boundless energy. Her investigative work provided the impetus for legislative reform.

Frances married Paul Wilson on September 26, 1913. He was a wealthy, handsome, connected activist who trafficked in New York City politics. After a miscarriage and a stillborn son, Frances delivered a healthy baby girl on December 30, 1916 who they named Susanna. Ever the activist, she spearheaded the formation of the Maternity Center Association to provide free ob-gyn exams and newborn wellness care for poor women.

A changing of the guard in NYC politics left Paul out of work and out of favor. He became volatile and unemployable while gambling away all of their money. He was subsequently diagnosed with mental illness and would spend the rest of his life in and out of institutionalized care. This development placed Frances in the unenviable position of having to work to support her family and pay for Paul’s care.

Frances PerkinsUnder Governor Al Smith, Frances earned a post on the Industrial Commission where she established workplace safety rules and mediated labor-management disputes. FDR tapped her to serve in his cabinet when elected to serve as New York’s Governor. With the dawning of the Great Depression, she advocated for a State Employment Service, explored unemployment compensation, and became the nation’s foremost authority on labor statistics.

Upon his election to President of the United States, FDR asked Frances to serve as his Secretary of Labor. Though arguably the most qualified individual for the post, she faced extreme bias on many fronts from those who resented placement of a woman in high office. While these contrarians were a constant source of pressure throughout her tenure, she kept her focus squarely on the work and consistently took the high road.

With rampant unemployment at the start of FDR’s Presidency, Frances’ work was front-and-center on the President’s agenda. A short list of her accomplishments:

  • She rooted out corruption and inefficiency in the Department. For example, she oversaw the conviction of 12 immigration officials for malfeasance, dismissed 13 for misconduct, and accepted resignations from 5 others. She also transformed the Bureau of Labor Statistics into a trusted source of information.
  • She worked with FDR to institute a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that employed over 3.5 million citizens in forestry and ecology over a 9-year period. The CCC improved the value of public lands while stimulating the economy and bolstering worker confidence.
  • She administered the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and put 26 million Americans back to work through the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Works Administration.
  • She had a hand in the formation of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to push for international labor laws that would move the dial on the home front. She was also instrumental in preserving the organization through the ravages of WWII.
  • She provided the research, legislative support, and administrative support for the establishment of unemployment insurance, social security, and welfare programs.
  • Her fingerprints were all over the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1928 which brought about minimum wage standards, a 40-hour work week, and overtime pay.
  • She greatly expanded the U.S. Conciliation Service to help the nation deal equitably with labor strikes.

Frances’ personal life was never of a source of comfort during these difficult times. Paul could not manage on his own; he could not be trusted to circulate among the persons of influence with whom Frances worked. Susanna inherited her father’s mental illness and required an extra measure of support after her first marriage failed and a second one fell short of financial sufficiency. Frances’ financial obligations forced her to sustain full-time work after leaving FDR’s cabinet at age 65. She worked for President Truman as a Civil Service Commissioner and then took teaching positions at universities. She worked full-time into her 80s.

Frances Perkins did not achieve her due recognition in the annuls of history. Yet she would never have been one to toot her own horn. In reflecting on her life’s work, she would simply say: “I came to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain, common working men… ‘My cup runneth over and surely goodness and mercy will follow me.’”

Source: The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, by Kirstin Downey

First Lady Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama came to town last week to speak at the Moda Center as part of her book tour for Becoming. I just finished reading it. Sure wish I’d had the foresight to get a ticket for her talk!

I’d absorbed snippets of information about Michelle Obama during the presidential campaign and her 8 years as First Lady of the United States. I knew that she’d gone to Princeton as an undergraduate and Harvard Law thereafter. I knew that she was a loving wife, committed parent, and powerful public speaker. And I knew that she oozed grace and class. But I’d barely scratched the surface of this remarkable woman.

She shared a 1-bedroom apartment with her parents and older brother while growing up in the South Side of Chicago. Her father had a blue-collar job which he executed faithfully despite suffering from multiple sclerosis. Her mother devoted herself to giving her children every possible opportunity to succeed. Neither parent complained about their life circumstances. They worked hard and instilled a strong work ethic into their children.

As the neighborhood fell victim to “white flight,” Michelle witnessed first-hand the waning support for public schools and other critical social services. She saw what it was doing to their collective confidence. She reminds us that failure starts as an idea before it becomes a reality. Though the odds may have been stacked against her, Michelle was driven to succeed, even when a high school counsellor deemed her “not Princeton material.” She persevered. She worked even harder and built confidence with each success.

michelle obamaI felt a sense of kinship when she wrote about her acceptance into the Harvard Law School. She hadn’t really thought about whether or not law was her thing. Rather, acceptance into such a prestigious institution was a public affirmation of competency and being deemed “good enough” to run with the nation’s elite. (I definitely relate to that feeling!) She completed her training, passed the bar, and worked for a few years in a law firm before realizing that it wasn’t fulfilling. Not surprisingly, her mother had a no-nonsense response when hearing of her daughter’s bourgeoning sense of disquiet: “Make money first and worry about happiness later.”

While continuing with her law practice, Michelle orchestrated a series of interviews that eventually helped her launch a career in public service – first in government and later in not-for-profit settings. She also found mentors who provide invaluable professional guidance while helping her navigate the joys and challenges of being a working mother. To all appearances, she seems to have achieved her twin objectives of working with purpose and parenting with care.

Being thrust into the limelight as a political wife brought a whole new set of challenges. She took her responsibility as the first African American First Lady seriously – a debt to all the pioneering women who preceded her. She focused several initiatives on children to stem the tide of childhood obesity and to provide supports to help them succeed in life. As she says, kids will invest more of themselves when they feel that they are invested in… when they are told (and shown) that they matter.

I imagine that she was often frustrated by the slow rate of change, especially given her compassion for those in dire need. But she seemed to find peace in having her feet planted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress. As she said, “You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be.”

Loved the book. Bowled over by the woman who wrote it. Wonderful to experience America through a different set of eyes. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. Highly recommend it.

Portrait of an Extraordinary Artist

They first met in 1966. Malka Marom was a wife, mother, and popular Canadian folk singer in the duo Malka & Joso. Her seemingly idyllic life was unraveling as she walked into a dimly lit coffeehouse in Toronto. As she listened to the young singer, Malka felt as though this woman knew her. “And the more she sang, the more her voice became my own.” She was amazed to discover that the woman wrote her own material. She felt certain that she’d become a star. She was right.

joni mitchellAs a journalist seven years later, Malka landed the first of three in-depth interviews with that young woman. It marked the beginning of a close friendship that spanned decades. Joni Mitchel: In Her Own Words allows the reader to sit on the sofa while these two kindred spirits reflect on the life of an extraordinary artist.

As I read through the material, I took note of several themes that characterized Joni Mitchell’s artistic journey.

She didn’t get caught up in the world’s judgment; she held to her own inner compass. As a young child, Joni was labeled a mediocre student by her teachers. Yet Joni noticed that the “good students” were those who simply spit back what the teacher told them. Joni was interested in the unasked question, or the question that didn’t have an easy answer. So their labels didn’t mean much to her. Years later, Joni drew criticism when her work didn’t attain the expected level of commercial success. She didn’t get worked up about it. She accepted the fact that people wouldn’t always appreciate her artistic growth. She takes pride in her “experimentiveness.”

She identified with being an artist. While her grades may not have inspired enthusiasm, she discovered her skill as a painter by winning an art contest. (She drew the best dog house.) That discovery provided another avenue to distance herself from her banal education. She also leveraged her gift to quell anxiety. When a teacher suggested that she could also paint with words, a poet was born.

She was endlessly curious and inventive. She didn’t want to learn the masters when playing piano; she wanted to write her own material. She played London Bridge is Falling Down backwards to yield a far more interesting sound. She kept fiddling with the tuning on her guitar so that she could continue to explore and re-discover the instrument. She craved freshness and never wanted to sound like anybody else. When asked if she ever feared that the creative well would run dry, she responded: “As long as you still have questions… the muse has got to be there.”

She plumbed the depth of her experience and her emotions to create authentic material. She deemed herself ultra-sensitive, perceiving things that others do not. When writing a song, she was open to the encounter, giving herself the space to experience the miraculous. “The muse passes through you as you allow yourself to experience.” Recording was a process of discovery, searching more and more for reality, not an affectation. She was also keen to experience her songs as she performed them. If she felt that she’d gone on auto-pilot and started thinking about 100 different things, she’d stop.

She made difficult choices in service of her art. Joni and her first husband became a successful folk duo. When she realized that she couldn’t grow with him, she set out on her own. She refused to be a formulaic recording artist who produced derivative material (even of herself!) for the sake of fame or fortune. She turned down highly lucrative performance gigs if the venue, material, or vibe didn’t align with her artistic integrity.

She was never addicted to applause or honorariums. She was driven by her muse, by the need to explore. She felt it was important to “keep a carrot in front of your nose for growth.” At the end of the day, the art was the thing.

“Freedom for me is a luxury of being able to follow the path of your heart, to keep the magic in your life. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create, and if I cannot create, I don’t feel alive.”
– Joni Mitchell