The Vanessa Williams Rule

by Mark Levy

In the mid-1990s I conducted interviews for a small entertainment newspaper. The editor was a friend who knew my tastes, so he gave me assignments I’d enjoy. I interviewed a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio, a rapper-turning-actor named “Marky Mark” Wahlberg, the art-house rocker Jim Carroll, and other artists who whose work was at the time considered edgy or who hadn’t yet made it to the top.

One day the editor called me, because he was in a bind. The newspaper had committed to doing an interview, but there was no reporter free on the day it needed to be done . He asked if I could do it.

“Sure,” I said, assuming I’d be meeting some up-and-coming Method actor or a rock ‘n’ roller who shunned the public. “Who do I interview?”

“A star,” he said. “Vanessa Williams.”

I rolled my eyes.

It wasn’t personal. Vanessa Williams is, in fact, a gifted performer. I’m just not a fan of Top 40 dance music and ballads.

I’d grown up listening to The Plasmatics, Sham 69, and Killing Joke. Raw, angry, bracing, countercultural noise. My friends and I would slam-dance to those groups in crumbling, dimly-lit, Manhattan punk clubs which violated every safety code on the books. Slickly orchestrated love songs performed by beauty contest winners and me just didn’t mix.

Still, my friend was in a jam, so I took the CD Vanessa Williams was promoting and got to work.

I had a week to prepare, so I listened to her album a dozen times. I doped out the lyrics, and studied its musical progressions. I also did my scholarly research by searching the Internet, and paging through back issues of People and Us. All told, my Vanessa Williams studies must have added up to twenty-five hours. It was time-consuming, but I drafted my interview questions and was ready. I’d become a Vanessa Williams expert in a week.

The morning of the interview, though, the editor phoned with bad news. Williams’ PR person said a scheduling conflict had arisen. Williams was sorry, but she had to break our meeting. There’d be no interview.

Here I was with a head full of Vanessa Williams knowledge, and nowhere to use it. I felt like the professor of a dead language who had no one to teach.

Of course, I was able to use my newfound expertise to  review her album (I gave it an “A”). Yet I was still disappointed I’d wasted so much time cramming for a subject that’d be of no future use. I vowed never to let that happen again.

In my mind I called it “The Vanessa Williams Rule.” Simply stated, the rule read: “Don’t take on a project unless you’re going to love the process, because the expected endpoint may never come.”

In other words, the journey better be worthwhile, because the destination may vanish before you reach it.

I got the chance to invoke the rule the following week. The editor called me with another star interview. I held my breath and prayed it was with Mitch Hedberg or one of the Coen Brothers. Alas, it was with Shannen Doherty.

Like Williams, Doherty is talented at her craft. But I’m not a 90210 guy, and I didn’t want to study to be one — especially if the objective might unexpectedly pop like a soap bubble.  I passed, and instead interviewed Marshall Crenshaw. Not as glamorous, but more my style.

Since then, I’ve used “The Vanessa Williams Rule” as a business rule. If I’m asked to write a book or work on any type of project, I divide it into “process” and “result.” For me to take the gig, both parts have to be meaningful and fun.

It’s a good rule, I think. Try using it yourself, and tell me how things go.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Meredith Kimbell

I came to a similar conclusion after training for a 10k run and pulling a muscle the week before the race. It’s a valuable lesson that helps me assure work is more consistently energizing and stimulating. Equally important, being fully engaged supports better results when I do get to cross the finish line. Great post.

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Mark Levy

Thanks, Meredith. At times we unexpectedly happen upon new things that can reinvigorate us. But just as often, the things that give us the most energy and satisfaction are doing the things we already know about and that have meaning for us. The “fully engaged” things. Much appreciated.

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Michael Jahn

Hi Mark – Wow, I guess I fail to see how the Vanessa Williams rule could apply here, or ever exactly. At once you share that this immersion was somehow not worth it as you were disappointed – some ‘my that glass sure looks half full moment” – from my perspective, when i see this as someone with no dog in this fight, i was all “hey, but look at the many upsides”. 1, you expanded and improved your opinion about another human on the planet, you learned that sometime you must expend a LOT of energy to learn something and while you could not actually use it for the purpose at hand, you indeed did expand you knowledge – and most importantly, you life experience will enable you to be less surprised when this happens again – which it will !

I think I must do this about 20 times a year, that is, do a deep dive into something only to discover that i did not actually need to dive that deep, or dive at all – but I love to learn, and always think that no learning is bad learning. To be wise is to have experience, and you can never ever gain experience without failure sometimes, so – well, you must expect failure to become wise – I guess You see this as a negative experience. I see you as becoming wiser, it is just that I think it is more important that YOU feel you have become more wise – and look, it was a great blog post to boot !

My experience with this happens sometimes when I prepare for a project that sometimes never moves from the bid stage to the ‘the check arrive YEAH!” stage – or when we are “we need to see why the color management didn’t work on that image and spend time analyzing the PDF file for hours only to later discover that they had some incorrect setting in their printer driver (and we didn’t look there) – everyday I just learn from experience – and I guess I just see that as upside.

I know NOTHING about your industry or what is “normal” when it comes to engaging with an editor, but in the art world, if I were asked to prepare for a project that required research and sketches ( I was a medical Illustrator ) – it would be typical for me to have a contact that included a kill fee – that is, if they kill the project, I am paid for at least some of my time. Even a plumber has a minimum payment requirement to show up at you house.

If that were possible – that removes the “Vanessa Williams Rule” factor all together – no idea if that is possible, but this would sure sweeten that “I have some bad news” moment (if that were possible anyway)

Something to think about I guess – and hope this helps !

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Mark Levy

I loved your insight into the post, Michael. My thoughts:

I agree with you that doing a deep dive into most any subject is worthwhile. (Wasn’t it William Blake who said, “To see the world in a grain of sand . . . “?). By doing so, you’ll learn an enormous amount, not only about the subject under consideration, but about a galaxy of interconnected phenomena that branches off from that one subject.

So, if I wanted to learn about how to be a veterinarian, my studies could spiderweb out into hundreds of directions, including learning about biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, anatomy, medicine, vet school, internships, business, being part of a large practice, being part of a small practice, owning one’s own practice, emergency room procedures, dealing with owners, breeds of cats, dogs, horses, birds, reptiles, primates, marsupials, small animal medicine, large animal medicine, behavioral training, the writings of James Herriot, depictions of animals in books, depictions of animals in movies, animal rights, animals in mythology, cultural differences on how animals are looked upon and treated, and on and on. The value in such a deep dive would be indisputably valuable.

And, if you can believe, Michael, I was once thinking about writing a book about such a subject (and still may do).

I did, then, learn some interesting things about Vanessa Williams, and about associated topics like the Miss America Beauty Pageant and career expansion. I also heard some good music in a genre I don’t normally take to.

It’s just that, given the amount I have (and that we all have) to spend in a week, I would have preferred to focus my attention elsewhere as a starting point.

Again, though, your point is well taken and I’m grateful you made it. Thank you.

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Lynn Kindler

This is soooooo true Mark. Love this. I’ve been hosting a show on Blog Talk Radio for two years now and have had a flow of some really interesting people, many of them writers. I believe it is important to have the courtesy and respect of reading their books and studying up on them before they come on the air, even if their publicists have generously provided “suggested questions” for the show. That means I read a lot of books and because time is valuable I’m very careful now to only book those people who I know I would enjoy getting to know better and definitely authors whose books I would read anyway…even if they weren’t coming on the show. Thanks for writing about this.

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Mark Levy

I appreciate your situation, Lynn. You want to be conversant when it comes to a guest’s work, but there are only so many hours in a day, so you have to give yourself guidelines as to how much material you should try to absorb in a given week. Rather than spreading your attention too thin, it sounds like your guidelines allow you to do a more thorough job on the books that would appeal to you and your audience.

Thanks so much for commenting, and for the kind words about my post.

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CV Harquail

Hi Mark,
Your Vanessa Williams rule about what tasks to take on makes me think about something a little different, which is a rule that I was taught about when to take a job (or not). The question to ask was: “Can I add something significant and meaningful here, that without me wouldn’t get created, or can anyone else do this job?” I’ve used this a million times to sort out opportunities, especially volunteer work and ‘service’ assignments. If it doesn’t matter that “I” do it, over anyone else, I’m disinclined to say yes.
I’m not sure how this connects to the VW idea, but I’ll think more on that.
cv

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Mark Levy

Thanks for the thoughtful comment CV. Here’s how I see things: Applying rules of thumb that were created when our thinking is at its best, can be helpful to us when our thinking is foggy, or when the situation in front of us is ambiguous.

Your excellent “significance rule” cuts through complexity, and helps you focus on, what for you, is the most important job criteria of all.

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