Full text of TV star, Catherine Reitman’s talk: A Guide to Believing in Yourself (But For Real This Time) at TEDxToronto conference. In this talk, she shares her lessons learned in seeing ideas through to their completion, not allowing others to reshape your vision and a little bit about family dynamics.
Catherine Reitman – Producer, Workin’ Moms
I feel so fortunate to be here, you guys.
I should let you know I’m not an academic – hell, I barely have a university diploma – but I have found myself in a very fortunate seat.
I’m the showrunner of my own series. “Showrunner” is industry talk for a boss lady, hence the blazer.
And even as I say it to you, it feels strange because it wasn’t so long ago – four years now – that I felt completely powerless, and unqualified, and specifically like I didn’t have a choice.
Have you ever felt a tingle inside? That you were meant for more, that something outside of your prescribed life was calling to you, but you didn’t feel entitled to it?
If so, don’t sweat.
I want to talk to you about the choice you have to grow outside of your comfort zone.
See, I spent the majority of my adult life feeling like I had no choice. I lived in a constant state of rejection. I’m an actor. I spent my career going into rooms desperately trying to convince someone that I was the perfect version of that character, only to be told “NO.”
I’m sure you’re all thinking that acting is a very glamorous career. And the irony is the majority of creative types work a very small percentage of the time – if at all. So I got fed up.
I mean, look, if I was trying to sell you this jumper and you said “no,” I could blame the jumper.
But when the product is yourself, it becomes harder and harder to sleep at night. As passionate as I was about acting, I was so sick of feeling like I didn’t have a say in my own career.
So I did something that felt a little bit illegal. I started writing, not very well. And it felt like, I don’t know, it felt like writing was meant for someone smarter than me, or more special than me.
But I get these ideas, one in particular – little morsel. I had an idea for a medical dramedy that took place in a pediatric children’s hospital. I know, hilarious.
And instead of giving it time to develop past its infancy stage, I pitched it to an industry veteran. And this guy – smart, hell of a resume – I really trust him.
He’s also a very good father. For those of you who know my dad, Ivan Reitman, you know he’s considered one of the forefathers of comedy. He’s the dude who made Ghostbusters. Yes.
And he’s also here today.
Happy birthday, Dad.
And I am so sorry for the story I’m about to tell you.
You see, if you know my dad at all, he is beyond blunt. Yeah. I’ll never forget his face. He looked at me, right in the eyes, and said, “Catherine, a medical dramedy? Leave that to Aaron Sorkin.”
Those words on a loop reverberated through my brain for weeks: “Leave that to Aaron, leave that to Aaron, leave that to Aaron Sorkin.”
Ah, every time I went to brush my teeth: “Leave that to Aaron Sorkin.”
Tried to parallel park my car: “Leave that to Aaron Sorkin.”
Everything should be left to Aaron Sorkin, who, of course, is responsible for writing The Newsroom, and The West Wing, and more notably won an Oscar for The Social Network. Smart guy.
But yeah, that shut me down. I released the idea back into the wild and felt shame for even stepping outside of my comfort zone.
Now, if that moment is something you can relate to, where you suppressed your magic and you devalued yourself, I’ve got awesome news.
That is an absolutely required moment in identifying the choice.
I keep harping on about the choice because I find it very important to notice that there is one; I find that empowering.
But before we take that step, let’s just, for a second, examine what happens if you say “NO” to the choice, because we do it all the time, right?
You don’t have to say “yes.” You can ignore your inner voice and listen to that more critical voice that’s always running, right?
“You’re not smart enough. You’re not special enough.”
Remember that teacher who didn’t think much of you? That ex-boyfriend who thought you were a hack? He wasn’t always wrong.
And what if you fail? What would that feel like? Would it be that different than your current state of creative passivity?
For me those two states were the same. The idea of writing something and not going anywhere – failing – and not writing because I was too afraid of failing was about equal.
If you do fail, can you survive it? I think you can. Talk to someone on their deathbed.
In 2011, Bronnie Ware published a book about her time as a palliative care nurse. She documented the five biggest regrets of people on their deathbed.
The number one regret of people about to pass away: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life more true to myself and didn’t worry so much about what others expected of me.”
So look, you can unpack that in a bunch of different ways, but for me the takeaway is that it is our duty to listen to our inner voice in order to be our truest self.
So let’s take a step to the edge for a second; let’s just consider the uncomfortable.
Now look, my Aaron Sorkin idea, Dad, wasn’t there yet. But Aaron Sorkin didn’t become Aaron Sorkin by allowing anyone who did something before him halt his development. Right?
Granted, he’s a white male, and that gave him opportunity, you bet. And that’s not just my opinion; that’s a statistical fact.
As a female showrunner, I frequently find myself in these conversations, talking about how key roles in the entertainment industry aren’t going to women. It’s why I make a practice of hiring predominantly women even if their resumes don’t support it yet.
But guys, Aaron Sorkin is not the problem. He’s merely the incumbent. He’s currently holding office, which means you get to be the challenger. And yes – your path into the arena must be a challenge.
And in order to do that, you got to enter the arena. That’s where the choice comes into play.
My path as the challenger started after I gave birth to my first son, Jackson. I went back to work too early. I say that because I had postpartum depression.
And a few years ago, no one was really talking about postpartum depression, because a lot of people associated it with the stigma that you were broken.
Well, I was not broken, but I was experiencing a hormonal imbalance. I felt like I was having an identity crisis. I didn’t feel like myself when I was with my son. I didn’t feel like myself when I was at work, which made my first job back – shooting an independent film in Philadelphia – hard.
You see, it also happened to fall on my first Mother’s Day. I was away from my six-week-old son, surrounded by male comedians, and they started giving me hell, right?
They are teasing me, saying that they’ll send my son a Mother’s Day card on my behalf. Would it be more intimate if they signed it “From the nanny”?
Was my son calling … Was my son calling the nanny “mom” yet?
As you can guess, I cried. I broke down right there. I still remember their faces, you know? It was so awkward, and painful, and silent, but there was also something really funny about it, but I didn’t know it in the moment.
I went back to my hotel room, and I called my husband – who’s also my producing partner, smart guy – and he said, “You got to write this down. We watch TV all the time. When’s the last time you saw this story? You can’t be the only one experiencing this.”
There it was, right? The choice.
And this time, god damn it, I said “yes.” I wrote it; it fumbled out me. It was awkward and not perfect. And for those of you who are familiar with my series, Workin’ Moms, you know that it is the finale of the pilot episode, followed by my character personifying that moment by battle crying at a 900-pound grizzly bear.
If you’re now flirting with the idea of saying “yes” to the choice, I got two things for you.
One, it’s a lot of work. I don’t want to downplay that. You’re going to work.
Two, that work has to be specific to you. You must cut your voice so sharply that it can be mistaken for nobody but you.
Workin’ Moms is that for me.
I felt confident writing about what it was to be a working mother because I know how hard it is, I know how humiliating it is. I also know how luxurious it is. I get to leave my kid, kids now, and do something that’s just for me.
If you are considering saying “yes” to the choice, I don’t want to burst your bubble, but others will too. You’re not the only one who’s going to take a whack at it.
When I first sold my series, it was actually to a US network. And because my resume had nothing on it, they attached another showrunner. And this guy, who by the way is still a friend of mine, really funny guy, his number one job was to make sure that my show, Workin’ Moms, was as relatable to as many people as possible.
And in what world was a mother battle crying at a bear relatable? Was my show targeting mountaineer women? There it was again – that choice.
I could stick to my guns and be deemed difficult, or I could trust his experience. I turned in the pilot to the network without the bear scene and a few other scenes that weren’t so obviously funny.
The network passed.
Turns out, they had another working mother show in development, that was very specific, very good, and also produced by Louis C.K., ironically, the incumbent or Aaron Sorkin of my actual genre. That lesson was a hard one but an important one.
You see, if you’re going to be brave enough to say “yes” to the choice, you must also have the courage to stick to your vision because it will be tested.
The silver lining is the rights reverted back to me, and after several more passes, my show happened to cross the desk of the tastemaker and serious risk-taker, Sally Cato at the CBC. She green-lit the pilot to series.
I remember siting down with her the first time because she commented on how the show’s specificity was so relatable to her. So perhaps being specific is actually very relatable.
Look, you might watch this and still not be ready to say “yes” to the choice. That is a very worthy part of the journey. Only you know when it’s time to enter the arena.
I just finished saying “yes” to my second season of the show. And I’m about to start this process with a whole lot new show that is completely outside of my comfort zone.
Dare I say it’s outside of Aaron Sorkin’s too? Who, for the record, is a genius and doing just fine.
Guys, whatever voice you’ve been gifted with – and it is a gift – I’m here not to encourage but to demand that you at least consider it.
Because why not you, baby? Enter the arena.