It's true. It's better for your career and for your soul to be in a lowly job working for a great boss than being the head of--oh, let's just say the highly rated "Jerry Springer Show." I've learned this through experience.
After busting my butt at the Philadelphia station and then busting my brains in Baltimore and Los Angeles, I got a huge break. I was hired by CBS News to be a junior reporter on the "CBS Morning News," working out of the L.A. bureau. This was the network news that I was always aiming for! I was in! At the bottom again, but in! In over my head and terrified.
I need to tell you that I survived there--and even thrived there--not because I was so great, but because a brilliant, wisecracking, hard-of-hearing, tough-nosed producer happened to be in a good mood the day I asked her for help. Now, she was a street-savvy veteran from Brooklyn and I was--well, let's just say, not from Brooklyn. We couldn't have been more different. I don't think anyone who knew either of us imagined we would ever get along, much less become friends.
When the powers that be in the CBS L.A. bureau told me they were assigning this incredible producer to work with me, I was mightily impressed. They told me she'd started with CBS back at the Radio Network, that she was a great writer and producer. She'd worked with Walter Cronkite and Hughes Rudd. Wow! She knew all the players and procedures. She was great on deadline and knew her way around microwave and satellite trucks. She would always get me on the air. Most important, she'd teach me all about writing and story structure.
I was crazy with excitement. CBS News likes me! They're interested in cultivating me, nurturing me, teaching me! They're going to invest time and talent in my career! When can I meet this great lady?
Oh, in just a few weeks, they said. That's when your producer is getting out of a drug rehabilitation program in the desert, and you two can get right down to work. Whoa.
What they didn't tell me about my producer was that she made the maniacal producer in "Broadcast News" look like a sleepwalker. Her life had spun so out of control personally and professionally that CBS had sent her away to clean up. Oh, boy. I told you I wouldn't be bored.
What I also didn't know until much later was what happened at about the same time out in the desert, when she found out she was going to work with me. She was in group therapy at the treatment center when the counselor read her a letter from CBS News informing her that when she came back to work she wasn't going to be a hard-news producer anymore. "We're hiring Maria Shriver, and you are going to help make her a star."
I'll never forget the first time I met her. I was sooo thrilled. I waited for her to come out of the bureau manager's office her first day back from treatment. I stuck out my hand and said, "Hi. I'm Maria. I'm so excited to meet you." She looked at meet, rolled her eyes, and kept walking. I followed her like a puppy dog. Perhaps she hadn't heard me. I reintroduced myself and babbled on about how great this was and what a killer team we'd make. She waited until I was finished and then looked me dead in the eye. She explained that she hadn't heard a word of what I'd said because she was hard of hearing and her hearing aids were off. She went on--and I'm paraphrasing, because most of it is unprintable--that she would be working with me only because she had to. That she considered it a demotion, but she supposed she had to pay dues for behaving like a maniac all those years. That her main priority in life was not making me a star but staying clean, learning how to live without drugs, and paying off her drug debts. Teaching me was at the bottom of the totem pole. All of a sudden my news director in Philadelphia looked like a pushover.
I remember our first few stories extremely well. My producer had no respect for me and didn't care if I knew it--and seemed to want everyone else to know it, too. Whenever we were out on a story, I'd make suggestions--"Why don't we shoot this?" or "Why don't we set up the interview over here?"--because after all, I had been producing for a few years. In response, she'd make a big show of turning off her hearing aids so she could "pretend" she hadn't heard--indicating I couldn't possibly have anything useful to offer.
When we got back to the bureau I'd write the script and hand it off to her for editing. She'd read it and make a sour-lemon face and start motormouthing directions: "You buried the lead in the third paragraph. It goes up here. Always put the attribution at the beginning of the sentence. Don't lead into a sound bite by telling us exactly what the person is saying before they say it. And don't tell me I'm seeing an apple. This is television, and I can see the apple with my eyes. Tell me something else. Don't tell me the father is crying while you're showing him crying. Tell me what you learned about him because you were there." She crossed out sections of script with big slashes of her red pen, yelling, "This is bla-bla!" She drew arrows moving sentences around. She screamed so that everyone in the office could hear. Then she'd send me back to my cubicle for rewrite after rewrite after rewrite, until she could say, "Yes. There's no more bla-bla. This is tight. I can make this into a piece."
She screamed about my voice-overs: "You sound like a "Saturday Night Live" news satire!" She yelled at me when we got assigned to entertainment stories: "You're flushing my career down the toilet!" She chased me around the newsroom hollering. She kicked me out of the editing room with "Leave me alone. I'm trying to make you look good!" And so she did. And I watched, and I learned.
We spent so much time together, I knew at some point she would have to really talk to me. So I just waited. I kept my ears open in the car, when she'd tell the crew she was still thinking about drugs all the time and couldn't sleep at night. And I realized that what she was doing--struggling day in and day out to stay clean--was a far bigger deal than what I was doing, learning TV news. I just kept my head down and watched her and kept going to her for help.
And pretty soon it changed. She barged into my office one day, slammed the door, and cried, "I can't do this anymore. I'm gonna go out and get loaded."
I yelled back, "Don't be ridiculous! Don't you know how much courage you have? Don't you know how much courage it takes to do what you're doing?"
"I don't have any courage. It's too much pressure. I'm not gonna make it."
"Well, you are gonna make it. Get your butt to one of those anonymous meetings you go to." And she did. I think right then we accepted that we both had something to prove to ourselves and the company we worked for--but that we didn't have to prove it to each other. Also that there was a lot we could learn from each other. From then on, each of us refused to allow the other to be overcome by her fears, and the trust grew.
We went on to become an incredible team. She still would slash my scripts, screaming, "Bla-bla! Too much bla-bla!" But we would laugh about it--and so would everyone else in the bureau. And as we worked and laughed, I got better at doing news, and she got better at doing life. We traveled around the world reporting every kind of story: murders, political conventions, the Olympics, the Cannes Film Festival. You name it, we did it on the spot.
All these years later, we're still the closest of friends and I still say that pretty much everything I learned about television news, I learned from her. There is no doubt in my mind that had I not possessed the humility to ask her over and over again for help--and had I not listened to her when she gave it to me--I would never have survived my first years in the network news business. Even now, when I have my doubts and concerns--and I do--I call her for guidance. She remains one of my best friends, and I'm so proud that she's stayed clean to this day.
God puts mentors in your path. They may not look like you, sound like you, or be what you expect. But they always know more than you, and that's the whole point. Use them. If you don't find one at the beginning of your career, that's okay. Keep your eyes open. Mentors will cross your path later on. They transmit the lessons you need to learn.