Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why Compassion, and Who the Heck am I to Say Anything About It?

Have you ever watched a character in a film who was nothing like you on the surface, but somehow, you felt like you understood them? Or possibly even more significantly, like they understood you? That there was something in their being that felt totally human, that reminded you of yourself, or a friend, of your family?

Have you ever walked away from a play, or even a TV show, feeling like you understood something differently? That a new point of view that you hadn't previously considered was suddenly as plain as the nose on your face?

I've been working in the entertainment business for close to twenty years, and for many of those years, I was convinced that the business I was in was like any other; it was strategic. You did one thing to achieve another, which led to another, which led to a desired result. An analogy might be that we at SodaCorp repackage our soda in convenient Fridge-Packs™ which would allow the grocers who sell our soda to utilize shelf space more efficiently, and would allow consumers to have a convenient way to store our soda in their refrigerators. We'd have plenty of choices for each consumer's individual taste: regular cola, diet, ginger ale, lemon-lime, even root beer. Something for everyone, each in a convenient Fridge-Pack™ . Consumers would consume more of our product, which would eventually feed back to us as higher profits.

Think about it. An actor comes to Los Angeles or New York, and we, the representatives, the teachers, the casting directors guide them into the right kind of packaging in order to make them the most appealing to the consumers. We guide them to look to the others who have come before them, not as an example of someone who's looked deep into their own heart and found their own, personal path, but as someone to imitate. The windblown hair, the white shiny teeth. The chiseled abs. The casual way they deliver a joke, or how their eyes glisten as they deliver the emotional knock-out blow.

And, for a time, it works. If we package it right, if the goods are of a certain quality to begin with, and there's enough shelf space in that particular section of the market, it flies off the shelves.

For the better part of twenty years, I thought that's how it worked. And apparently, so do a lot of artists. For many, it's all about in order to. I'll do this TV series in order to get the movies I want. I'll do this genre movie in order to be considered for the movies I really want. I'll take this job in order to make the money I need, so that I can do this play in order to be considered a serious actor. I'll try and be more like him in order to get the jobs I want.

I'd spent years strategizing, trying to figure out the “right” next move for each client so that they could someday
have what they wanted. And it was working out! I could point to my strategies and see how they'd been productive. If they hadn't worked out, I could point to some unforeseen outside circumstance, something beyond my control that had gotten in the way of my master plan. Of course, I never got full credit in success, because I was never willing to take full responsibility. I couldn't say “do this,” I'd say “it sounds like this is the right choice, based on your feelings and concerns.”

Unknowingly, I was actually exploring a very different territory with my clients, though not with full awareness and therefore not with full power. When I heard them talk about the work to which they were truly drawn, I couldn't help but be touched, moved, inspired, and to support them in their endeavors. It wasn't passive; their passions became mine, and I'd find myself torn between the strategy I thought made sense, and the inspiration I felt in my heart.

Poet and author David Whyte says, in his astounding book The Heart Aroused:

...if we can see the path ahead laid out for us, there is a good chance it is not our path; it is probably someone else's we have substituted for our own."

I started my company in early 2005, thinking I knew the path laid out ahead of me. But when I was finally in charge, when I could no longer claim I had to live within someone else's worldview, when I realized I was personally responsible for my own point-of-view, I started thinking about what actually inspired me, instead of what I thought should inspire me.

And there it was, right in front of me. Every single artist who truly inspired me, who brought me to tears, who brought me to a new understanding of what it means to be human, who made me laugh, and who inspired me to action, had something in common:


My client Tom Hiddleston, about whom who you'll be hearing quite a lot, is quite accomplished with his Latin. Tom says:

"Passion" is from the Latin verb "patior" meaning "to suffer" (participle is "passus" meaning "suffering"). And the "con" part in the preposition meaning "with.” So - literally "suffering with" means taking on another's suffering as your own, a deep kind of understanding and connectedness with another human being. Having compassion for people as a whole, for the whole palette of humanity, all of us with all strengths, weaknesses, our flaws, our nobility and fragility. That's what compassion means to me as an artist. An understanding that no character's suffering or insecurity or weakness or fear or strength is any greater or smaller than my own. ... "patior" has a second meaning in Latin, which is "to allow, "to acquiesce,” "to submit.” So I suppose etymologically "compassion" carries within it an essence of permission, acquiescence, acceptance. Which deepens my understanding of it in terms of having compassion for the characters I play even more.

Another smart guy (H. H. The Dalai Lama) said this:

Whether people are beautiful and friendly or unattractive and disruptive, ultimately they are human beings, just like oneself. Like oneself, they want happiness and do not want suffering. Furthermore, their right to overcome suffering and be happy is equal to one's own. Now, when you recognize that all beings are equal in both their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it, you automatically feel empathy and closeness for them. Through accustoming your mind to this sense of universal altruism, you develop a feeling of responsibility for others: the wish to help them actively overcome their problems. Nor is this wish selective; it applies equally to all. As long as they are human beings experiencing pleasure and pain just as you do, there is no logical basis to discriminate between them or to alter your concern for them if they behave negatively.

Wow, that's a lot to take on. Here we have an artist's point-of-view, and we have the point-of-view of a religious leader who's spent his entire life studying and meditating on compassion. And it sounds to me like they're coming from the same place.

Except here's what I see, every day:


Dude, you're a manager?


Yeah, that's right.


Cool, dude, like in Entourage!


Ummm.... yeah.

That ummmm... yeah is me being judgmental, by the way. Not very compassionate of me, I know! But it's not really a true story, it's one I made up to make a point about what is right now. So I'm being judgmental of an imaginary character. That's ok, right? Ermmmm..... oh yeah. Here's what is:

Every day, I encounter people who see entertainment as mercenary, it's about getting something in order to get what they really want, it's about strategy and business planning. And this comes from a group of people who generally got into it completely inspired, people interested in human connection, creativity, and making an impact in the world.

Naturally, this leads to people in the biz feeling resigned, disappointed, and beaten down. They suffer through their work because they have to, they do work thinking it's what they need to do, and very often and very quickly the inspiration and passion that they'd hoped to have in their careers and lives gets drained away. And anyone even considering getting into the entertainment business is led to think that this is how it works, that entertainment is about anything but compassion, it's about business school, and spreadsheets, and foreign sales value.

There's a deep cost to the world that comes from this kind of behavior. We're suffering, and we're being deprived of the things that bind us, that show us what we have in common, that give us hope.

And where does that lead us? To a world full of entertainment created by the uninspired. Sure, there are exceptions, but in a world where artists are being told to focus on business strategy, those exceptions are sure to become rarer and rarer.

Can you imagine a world where careers full of compassion, inspiration, and creativity were commonplace? And what that might make available in the world?

What I have noticed is pretty simple:

  1. Compassion is at the center of every career that truly inspires me.
  2. Compassion is the key to the most extraordinary career possible.
  3. Compassion is the key to making the most extraordinary impact possible
  4. Compassion is the key to the happiest life possible.
Wow! Big leap! Especially #4. I mean, seriously, who the heck am I to make that assertion? I'm just a poor suffering schmuck, but there are much smarter people than me who agree:

Again,The Dalai Lama:

The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.

And again:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Another smart guy, Shantideva, from The Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life.

All those who are unhappy in the world are so as a result of their desire for their own happiness. All those who are happy in the world are so as a result of their desire for the happiness of others.

Oh, you think it's only a Buddhist thing, right?

Thomas Browne Sr.

By compassion we make others' misery our own, and so, by relieving them, we relieve ourselves also.

George Washington Carver

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.

St. Teresa of Avila

Yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion for the world is to look out.

Albert Schweitzer

It is a man's sympathy with all creatures that truly makes him a man. Until he extends his circle of compassion to all living things, man himself will not find peace.


No man is a true believer unless he desireth for his brother that which he desireth for himself.

Hasidic Proverb

He who feels no compassion will become insane.

And that's the intention of this project, to show how 1, 2, 3 and 4 are possible, and to inspire others to take on compassion as a focal point for their own lives and careers. We'll be seeing video commentary from some amazing people, each with their own personal point-of-view on compassion and how it relates to their work. Along the way we'll be hearing from actors, writers, directors, acting teachers, writing teachers, Zen teachers, educators, people from the nonprofit world, students, and anyone else who has something to say.

I am particularly thrilled to have the participation of Peace Games in this project. Peace Games' mission is to support young people as peacemakers through programs in elementary and middle schools. I have long been impressed with Peace Games' focus on compassion, communication, and activism. Peace Games' students, volunteers, and staff members will participate on our site in a dialogue, responding to the postings on compassion. We'll get to see the direct effect of the videos on young people. The dialogue between members of the Peace Games community who aim to foster compassion in their schools and neighborhoods, and professionals who value compassion in their work, will be an exciting concept around which to build a unique online community.

As a result of this partnership, not only is there an opportunity to inspire our Peace Games community, but an opportunity to reach thousands worldwide and energize them about the value of compassion in their own lives.

Come back to our site for regular updates, videos, essays, and commentary, showing how compassion has made a difference in the lives of our participants, and to get inspired by seeing how it can make a difference in your own life. *


  1. Thank you for this, Jon. Linking this wonderful blog to SuperForest right now.

  2. Such an amazing project! Thank you for sharing your journey in this endeavor from your past assumptions to your present wisdom. It's a journey I relate to completely and I must confess my own often temptation to work harder at chiseling my abs than softening my heart. In spite of my angsty, career obsessed tendencies, I know on a deeper level that the "SodaCorp" model is short term thinking and that cultivating compassion in any form in this business broadens our possibilities and increases our chances of longevity. The how of that is most worthy of exploration and I so appreciate your taking the time. Further, I'll say that it is your unique perspective on this that sets you apart, not only as a manager, but also as a human being. Thanks so much for being passionate about this. I'm thrilled to be involved. Love, Kat.

  3. Check this out:

  4. Jon -

    I recently started my own business - primarily because my "way" didn't seem to mesh with the "way" of the large agency with which I was previously associated, and because times were such that similar companies were not taking on new agents, anyway. So it happened, not by design, but organically, and has proven to be a blessing in disguise, rather than the crisis management that I thought it was at the time. I know that Clients respond to the way I feel and think about the business, and their (our) careers, even if those who would have been my Associates might think it naive. I can't tell you what an inspiration it is to hear someone who has apparently done quite well for themselves in this business, thank you very much, express a similar philosophy. I, for one, am truly appreciative of the effort you have put into sharing your views.

    Sincere thanks to you.

    Todd M. Neville

  5. I am so thrilled that someone in your position would write about compassion. I always tell my fellow actors that this life as an artist does not have to be hard, cold, and full of struggle if we look at our lives thru eyes of LOVE....compassion for ourselves and our fellow human beings. It has changed my acting career immensly and has inspired me to create my own TV show until one that I love casts me in it. All my best, Neerja Sharma