Turning Forty, Experiencing a Stress Breakdown, Rebuilding, and Reinventing Yourself
When she was 40, Dr. Gigi Johnson wrote her own job description. It should have been her dream job. She designed it! But she did not ask for enough support, which led to a breakdown at 43 that required her to step away from the center she built. She went on leave and started to focus on taking care of herself. Then came some small creative projects. Then she started her own business and “re-peopled” her life with people who were in alignment with who she was and who she was becoming. It took her a long time to rebuild herself but it set the stage for the next 20 years of her life.
Board member, speaker, advisor, technologist, connector, educator, and creator. Dr. Gigi Johnson “connects the digital dots.”
Currently, she is working with partners to look at managing and learning in virtual and hybrid environments as well as where creative work and systems are going in an AI- and digitally accelerated age. Gigi co-founded the Maremel Institute in 2005 to explore digital disruption in how we work, learn, and create. For 15 years, she has built conferences, training, events, research, and learning media around helping leaders and groups work with next-generation technology and evolving communities. Through Maremel, she has advised leaders in start-ups and larger organizations in media, music, and education. Dr. Johnson speaks around the world on digital transformations — both of the past and in the extended future. Through the non-profit Rethink Next, she also is piloting collaborations on the futures of creative work in local communities.
She has taught at UCLA Herb Alpert School for 11 years in music innovation and advanced marketing. For 5 years, she ran the UCLA Center for Music Innovation, a think-tank on future music technologies and systems change.
Before UCLA Alpert, she ran centers and graduate and executive courses on digital disruption at UCLA Anderson for a decade, after years of financing media M&A at Bank of America. Gigi also has run 2 VOD networks and produced 8 years of concerts, 3 early web series (2004-2007), and 2 family music albums.
She speaks across the world on digital disruption and social change — and is working now on new programs to rethink time, place, and events…including conferences and education. She is the host of the Creative Innovators podcast.
Gigi holds a doctorate in educational leadership for change and media studies from Fielding Graduate University, an MBA from UCLA Anderson, and a BA in Film/Television Production from USC Cinematic Arts.
Asking for Enough
As she approaches 60, Gigi Johnson says most of us only make sense of our lives looking backwards and that the lens we can apply from that vantage helps us make sense of where we’ve been and what it all means.
Gigi had a complete stress breakdown at 43, but the seeds were sown when she was 40 – and she’s the one who sowed them. At 40, she had the opportunity to design her job and build her own job description – and she admits she made a bunch of mistakes. She designed a department at UCLA and she did not ask for enough support, which led to her eventual breakdown.
She acknowledges that not asking for enough is one of the recurring themes in her life.
She won a large research contract, which should have counted as a success. Instead, she ended up crying for three days straight. She knew she was in the wrong place, in the wrong shoes and whatever she designed, it wasn’t the right fit for her.
Her reflections on that experience vary. Some days she’s grateful for the lesson. Other days, she blames herself for not asking for enough support up front. She trusted that there would be an opportunity to ask for more support along the way. Was that a “girl” thing, or specific to Gigi? She’s not sure. But she knows she didn’t ask for enough, she didn’t ask strongly enough, and she didn’t leave the door open to ask for more in the future.
It came to the point where she told the organization, “if I don’t get this support, I have to close everything I’m doing.” She didn’t get the support and ended up closing the door. She had to walk away.
As painful as that experience was, it set her up for doing things in her own spaces, versus inside large organizations. She has now been building her own company for 20 years.
The Breakdown and the Rebuilding
When Gigi realized that the three days of crying was from pure exhaustion, she reached out to her employer and told them what was going on. That resulted in being put through a process with HR for a leave.
She couldn’t function. She couldn’t drive. She didn’t feel she could be with people, which was difficult for someone who ran programs.
She went on leave and started to focus on taking care of herself. She changed her diet, changed her health. It took her six months to disengage from her role.
As she came back to the world, a little bruised and battered, she started with some small creative projects. She took training classes with the Groundlings improv company. She started to sing with a partner and made two children’s albums. She made programming for kids when YouTube was in its infancy. She had three of the first kids’ channels. She thought of her creative work as a hobby at that time. And, she began to advise small companies. She focused on things that gave her joy and rebuilt her spirit. The next four or five years were a fertile time of creating, but on her own terms.
The barriers to entry to these creative pursuits had dropped significantly from previous eras. To start a YouTube channel at the time, you had to have a camera and be able to upload content and have a reasonably good internet connection. That was all.
Gigi didn’t set out to create a YouTube channel. She didn’t set out to record kids’ albums or do eight years of concerts. These were all what she called “small stuff” that gave her joy.
In fact, doing more than what she was doing scared her. She was fearful of stepping back into the space she had been in previously. She looked for things that she found both joyful and reenergizing, but that occupied what she calls a “small pocket” so she wasn’t putting herself in stressful situations.
It took her a long time to rebuild herself but it set the stage for the next 20 years of her life. She knows that she would not have taken this road without the big crash at 43.
She became very conscious of the non-work aspects of her life, including taking good care of her health and creating a great environment for her family. It kicked off almost a decade of phenomenal health, including weightlifting five days a week and running 5 and 10K’s .
During this time, Gigi invested in building relationships outside of work. Not only friends, but entire ecosystems of friends. She had to “re-people” her life with people who were in alignment with who she was and who she was becoming.
Gigi recommends a book by Herminia Ibarra called Working Identity [affiliate link]. The author studied hundreds of people going through life transitions, and one of her big takeaways, other than it only makes sense backwards, is that you need to re-people your life when you make changes.
While social media blurs all of our identities into a single picture, Gigi believes we have many identities and she doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to bring her entire self into every situation.
One of the elements of improv she didn’t like was, when you step on stage, the other person names who you are and you name who they are, and then your relationship is set. She said, “In any environment where I walk in and they tell me who I am, I can’t stand it.”
Gigi likes to figure out which “me” she is in context of the different circles she runs in and different organizations she works with. In fact, she gives deep thought to who she becomes when she enters new groups of people. Is it your job title? Is it your parenthood? Is it another aspect of your identity that you put front and center?
One of the challenges of running her own company is that she finds people are always trying to define her and then figure out what their professional role is within that context.
The Blessings and Challenges of Making it Up Yourself
Part of the challenge of making things up as she goes along is that you’re always marketing yourself to something new. And many of the seeds you plant don’t bloom until later – sometimes as long as a decade later.
She connected with people who had taken her classes at UCLA, people who had worked with her before, people she had met at events. And she started attracting new and different opportunities.
Around that time, there was a recession, which meant that many more people who had been displaced from “real jobs” hung a shingle to become new consultants, new creatives.
Meanwhile, she was designing and developing her own center (and repeating some patterns). And she was becoming someone who is hard to define, who is non-linear, who doesn’t fit into a box, but who is creating what she thinks needs to exist in the world. But people still want to put her in a box. They still want to categorize her to make it easier for them to interpret and digest her. But she bristles at being put in a box, at being told who she is. She is a different person in different environments. She still spends time noodling on how to frame herself so other people can understand and invite her to the tables she wants to sit at.
Creating the Opportunity to Make It Up Yourself
Leaving the safety and security of a large organization is anathema to many people. One of Gigi’s early bosses in banking told her, “you really need ‘screw you’ money.” Meaning, if you’ve got some money put aside, you can take chances; you can follow threads. You’re not beholden to “the man” for your paycheck.
Gigi thinks having enough money put aside so that you can walk away for a period of time and rebuild is incredibly important. She likes to say that the “past Gigi” has been very good to the “current Gigi.” She lived frugally early on. She made good financial decisions. She married a great man and, together, they made good decisions for their family. Over time, that has created a space where she can experiment.
Part of the reason that Gigi is so careful is the example her parents set. They were not as careful as she’s been and found themselves declaring bankruptcy in their 50’s.
The company she’s been building for 20 years was the result of an exercise at the beginning of her doctoral program. They asked, how would you introduce yourself in 10 years?
It led her through the thought process of: “who do I want to invite to the table? Who do I want to engage with, as me and mine and my ideas, that I’m building for me? And do I ask for enough? Am I asking for enough resources from myself? Am I thinking about who I want to work with? And do I know to ask?”
Another book recommendation from Gigi is Rejection Proof, by Jia Jiang [affiliate link]. The author gave himself a challenge to seek rejection on a daily basis as a way to steel himself against rejection and to develop his own confidence.
Notice, 20 years later, Gigi is still working on asking for enough – even if it’s just from herself.
The Forty Drinks Podcast is presented by Savoir Faire Marketing/Communications
Find Gigi online:
Maremel Institute: https://maremel.com/
Creative Innovators podcast: https://maremel.com/creative-innovators-podcast/
Organizations Mentioned in the Episode
Lunch Club (but contact Gigi for an invitation!)
Books Mentioned in the Episode
Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection, by Jia Jiang https://forty-drinks.captivate.fm/rejection-proof
Stephanie: Hi, Gigi. Thanks so much for joining me today.
Gigi: Glad to be here and glad to be on this thought process as I'm in my year of turning 60. So thinking about 40 is an intriguing option.
Stephanie: Isn't it? You always look back to look forward.
Gigi: Absolutely. And most of us only make sense of our lives looking backwards.
Gigi: So in many ways it's a different lens, when you retrospectively try to make sense of where the bleep you've been.
Stephanie: Yeah. You are in Southern California.
Gigi: I am in sunny, Southern California, near Pasadena.
Stephanie: When we first communicated, you told me that you basically broke down your life and started again at age 43.
Gigi: I was thinking about this, because that was my first impression thinking about it that I had to, I actually had a stress breakdown, but it started at 40.
Gigi: At that time I'd been a banker for 10 years. I'd been at a university for three years. I had three kids in their teens. And I had the opportunity to build my own job description, everything from scratch, and that all came to a crushing halt at 43. It got derailed and re railed. And I feel very strongly on this topic, but the table was set when I was 40 and I set that table.
Stephanie: So it's interesting because you're 40 and you get to design your own job. It just feels how adult, what a great level of success you must've achieved at that point to be given that kind of leeway to say, set your table. What can you help us with? How can you bring us value?
Gigi: And I had just run into a jerk and my professional life who had been my boss and had been a pain in the rear and had just left. It was one of those great moving forward to sign your department, decide what you want to do. It was interesting cause I've had much more angst about turning 50 and now 60 then 40. 40 felt like an unleashing that my twenties very much were.
Gigi: I was in advertising and PR. I was in grad school. I was struggling. I was recently married. Didn't have any kids yet. And I was in a building mode. So hitting 30 was good. And then three kids. I changed jobs. I was building a career. I was traveling a lot, which was one of my heartbeat desires, and I got to 40 and it was like, I'm now feeling free to set the stage to build up.
Gigi: And I designed a department at UCLA where I've, I just retired after 22 years, though I hate the word retired. And I've really said, what would I actually want to design and build? And I made a bunch of mistakes.
Stephanie: Tell us about your mistakes.
Gigi: Yeah. One of my joys recently as listening to Dolly Parton, talk about her life with her new book and her album.
Gigi: And I heard her tell the same story in person at an event about five years ago, where she says everything she built in her career, it's her own doing so it's all her fault. So that she looks everything that she wakes up in the morning and goes, oh, this isn't quite right. She's the one who set the stage. And I designed a department where I didn't ask for enough, and that is one of my recurring themes.
Gigi: I did not ask for marketing support. I did not ask for enough financial support. And I got to the point one day. I had just won a very large research contract, and began to cry and cried for three straight days. And it was one of those. I am, whatever I designed, I'm in the wrong shoes, I'm in the wrong place. I'm in the wrong moment in my life.
Gigi: And I look back at that, depending on what day I'm at with really different reflections. Sometimes it's thank goodness I did that and had that experience and sometimes I blame myself gigantically for not asking for enough up front.
Stephanie: And so when you didn't ask for enough upfront, was it because you thought you were a superwoman and you could do it all yourself? Or was it because you didn't know that you would need more support? Which do you think it was?
Gigi: I was trusting. I was trusting that it would develop, that there would be more than I would be able to ask for. And it's interesting, cause I then have done this a second time. Knowing later that I was doing the same thing that I built something with an organization, didn't ask for enough upfront.
Gigi: So I do see that as a recurring theme in my own dramas. But part of it is I just didn't know to ask and that I didn't ask strongly enough. And I don't know if that's a girl thing. If that's a girl in a larger organization thing, if it's a me thing, but I didn't ask enough upfront and I didn't leave my door open to keep asking.
Gigi: Of my three kids, two are fabulous young women, and I very frequently tell them to be asking for more and setting the stage to be able to ask. And maybe I wasn't at that space at 40, or 43, where I really could. I actually ended up asking. I basically said, if I don't get this support, I have to close everything I'm doing. Didn't get the support and closed the door. And part of it's being willing to walk away. It's a negotiation. Even if I had the pledge of support up front would I've gotten it, blah, blah, blah.
Gigi: So a lot of it is the, do I know to ask an ask bigger? And that's one of the themes I tell my own kids I've told my own students. I tell lots of young people, is to be willing to ask as big as possible and then figure out then what to do with a no. But it's, I like to think about what did I learn from my life so far? And the, sum of it is that I tend to not ask big enough. So 40 was definitely an echo of that.
Stephanie: That's interesting because when you're building something, sometimes you don't know what to ask for or what you're going to need around the next bend, because a building something as a twisty turny road, and you just don't know what's around the next bend, or what's three months or six months down the road, because it's going to be a completely different landscape.
Gigi: And even if you ask up front, it doesn't mean in a large organization, it will provide. And it also doesn't mean that same person that you negotiated with will be there later, or will have the same pressures, et cetera. We all get different takeaways from experiences. For me, it tends to be, don't build things in large organizations and ask outside.
Gigi: And so in many ways that experience set me into doing things in my own spaces and own company. So turning 40, then turning 43 and having that aha moment to go through the experience. I then have been building my own company for 20 years.
Stephanie: So okay. Before we get to that,
Gigi: It was a pivot. Yeah.
Stephanie: I'm very excited to learn about that, but you told me that you massively hit the wall.
Gigi: Oh, yeah.
Stephanie: Tell me what that was like. How did that manifest for you in your life?
Gigi: It's a control question. A lot of it that I had been on the path, I thought I was supposed to be in as a linear reputation, job title, incremental thing. And in many ways, as a parent of three kids, at that point in time, I had tension with those sets of roles of success.
Gigi: And then having three wonderful kids, wonderful husband. He worked full time trying to make it all happen. And I got to the point where literally I couldn't stop crying and it was very biological. It was very much of a, it wasn't like something was going through my head. It was, I had just pure exhaustion and I reached back out to my employer and said, Hey, this is going on.
Gigi: And I'm going to take some time. And they went into kind of defensive mode, and that became all sorts of fun issues with then university paperwork and all that fun stuff. I've never told this story in public before. So this is an interesting lens to talk about people now. I really couldn't function.
Gigi: I really couldn't drive. I really couldn't be among people. And I was doing things. I was running programs. I was doing all sorts of stuff, counseling, medication, which made me feel like I was a flat squishy thing. That it was very much of a, it took the bottom off my emotions and it took the top off my emotions.
Gigi: So after about a week, I said that game is over. Changed my health, changed my diet, and turned the tap off, turned off, took a leave from the organization. And just that quietly for a while. And it was, it was a fabulous experience. It was incredibly frightening as a person who self-defines on her ability to do and think and be. It was a shock to the system.
Gigi: I didn't tell many people. I did tell people I was stepping out of the role I had. And it took me until six months to disengage from that. And I had been doing small creative projects before that.
Gigi: I had. I've been taking acting classes. I actually had done, as a way to have an emotional outlet, I had joined training classes with the Groundlings. I was doing all sorts of small stuff, but I hadn't really diagnosed about what I was trying to shift from and to. So I ended up at the time starting to sing with a partner and we did two albums. So you can go to look for Gigi and Mike Kids' Music, which we did for about eight years. And then I began to advise small companies and I began to make kids' stuff online when YouTube was being born and had three of the first kids, YouTube channels. But it was like little hobby, creative stuff that I was doing instead of working.
Gigi: And so I began to build these creative projects that gave me joy. So it came out of that design what I wanted, high-stress crash, became then a fertile about four or five years of creating and stepping off the main drag, stepping off the freeway.
Stephanie: And you didn't know what you were creating when you started, you just started taking baby steps and doing what the, what the, they, the experts would say, find little things that give you joy, right? Find something that gives you joy. It sounds like that's how you started rebuilding your life in very small steps.
Gigi: So is was at a point in time that the barriers to do that creative work had dropped. It's like podcasting, right? To start podcasting now costs you, other than having a decent microphone, costs you very little. To start a YouTube channel at the time, you had to have a camera and be able to upload stuff and have an okay internet connection. And you really didn't need to do much of anything. And this is literally when it was Google video before YouTube. So it was at an era where there was almost no barriers. You could just step in. And so it was a combination. So it was being able to tinker creatively, but the barrier to tinkering had dropped away.
Gigi: So the fact that I had time, and at the time it was interesting, cause it wasn't like, I need to create a YouTube channel. I need to start kids' albums. I need to start eight years of concerts. I needed local cable shows. It was, I worked like four hours a week. All of this was like small stuff that it wasn't just that it was a joy to do.
Gigi: It was the fact that I got fearful of doing more. I got really fearful of stepping back into that space I'd been in before. So it was, what can I do that is both joyful and reenergizing, but that is, is a small pocket so that I'm not putting myself in stressful situations. And it took me a long time to try to come back to the, how to deal with my own designs, my own, what I build and detoxing the stress whenever possible, to say where's the edge of that. Because I've stepped over the edge. And would it have been different with a gigantic team and more money and all the things that I know where the problems? It would have been harder to step away.
Stephanie: It would've been a bigger machine.
Gigi: Yeah. And I do have problems stepping away from the machines I build. That's a whole nother, it'd be a whole nother podcast. But a lot is, what is the support structure and support mechanism for what success is when you make a major shift? And I didn't have a big support structure at the time, which this kind of came down and screamed about. And I needed to rebuild who I was. And it really, it really set the stage for the next 20 years of my life. And I would not have walked this journey without that crash out.
Stephanie: Right. So the thing that was so awful going through it turns out to be an experience that sets the stage for wonderful things that come after it.
Gigi: Yep. Including taking good care of my health. Creating great environment for my family. I became really concerned about the non-work aspects of my life that I had been working with, but had not been front and center.
Stephanie: Tell me an example.
Gigi: Oh wow. I went and started working out in weightlifting five days a week and building what became then about seven, eight years of phenomenal health doing five and 10 Ks. But some of it was just taking the investment time in me, and building then the human relationships that went with spending time at a different space, and not being racing to work all the time.
Stephanie: Did you just say making friends outside of work?
Gigi: Not only that, but ecosystems of friends. Sadly, quite a few of those people have passed away. That is one of the challenges of being 60, is a lot of people who you might've ecosystem with back 20 years ago, have all passed and had other lives. But having communities outside of my work identity.
Gigi: And then the question goes, who comes with you when you go to the next? And so my other thing that I've always had as, uh, as an interesting challenge with leaving, uh, a major university, uh, cause I left at the time, is that people don't come with you. That they're very much attached to that identity.
Gigi: There's a great book by Herminia Ibarra called Working Identity. And I adore the book, recommend it to anybody. She studied hundreds of people going through life transitions. And one of her big takeaways, other than it only makes sense backwards, which I totally believe, is that you need to re- people your life when you make those changes, that the people that are around you, want you to be, who you've been. And I really went through a massive re peopling of my life.
Stephanie: Oh, that is speaking to me so deeply because I am someone who has gone through multiple transitions of friend groups or close friend groups, and it's so painful and hard and heartbreaking and heart wrenching. And I love the word re peopling. That's fantastic. And that's hard too. And it sounds to me like you and I are probably similar on the sort of introversion extroversion scale, more on the extra than the intro. But even for me, I feel sometimes making friends and finding those right people for the time in your life is not an easy task.
Gigi: And you are many identities. And I do think that social media blurs them so that you have a hard time piecing it separate. I spend a lot of time with really wonderful groups in various areas I never would have met otherwise or head time for. Song Makers, great organization in Southern California. I know there's some similar ones in your area, cause I'm trying to steer one of my friends in your area to one, that are just, people get together and sing every month. That there's all these other sort of groups of people who then you can be a different "you" to that you can just be you.
Gigi: Uh, part of my challenge with especially larger organizations is, and one of the things like I didn't like the Groundlings in improv. One of the things is that when you step on stage, the other person names who you are and you name who they are, and then your relationship is set. And in any environment where I walk in and they tell me who I am, I can't stand it.
Gigi: So figuring out who the me is of groups of people. But I do find in a lot of organizations, they spend a lot of energy defining who you are. And I do find that I really like to be different me's and meet different people, and find different people who like me for me and not my job title, not whatever image I have, but enjoy me for me.
Gigi: And so there's lots of groups that I have become part of since that time that I walk in and I'm simply myself and I tell my stories, and I have my things that I share, and I bring my somewhat extroverted energy to the table. And it is an interesting question. Who do you walk in to become in new groups of people, where you then can be then creating something new.
Gigi: Do you wear your job title on your shoulder? Your parenthood on your shoulder? Your identity on your shoulder? And a lot of people do. And I do find that's a challenge in running my own companies is that people are always trying to define me and then try to figure out what their professional role is with me. So I have a lot more fun kind of building separate from that and telling people who I am and not taking the job title as self thing. That's a whole nother rabbit hole to walk down.
Stephanie: No, that's interesting because I am also a, an entrepreneur, started my marketing agency 15 years ago and you're right. It's interesting. I do walk into situations a lot of times and have that agency owner hat on and look at, oh, who can I? Is there any opportunity? Are there any connections?
Stephanie: And it's so interesting that you say that because I was just, this weekend was in a situation where I had never been before. I was looking around going, oh, I bet there's some great opportunities here. And usually for me, it's just a momentary, cause then it's oh, wait, be present. Where are we? What am I doing?
Stephanie: And I take that hat off, but you're absolutely right. So it's interesting that you say you try to have that hat off before you even walk in the door.
Gigi: Or realize that what hat do I bring?
Gigi: There's a great, weird tool now called Lunch Club. And, I think it's still invite only, but it's been in the longest crazy beta.
Gigi: And if anybody wants to be in Lunch Club, let me know. So Lunch Club, you sign up and it uses quote, unquote, I'm doing air quotes with my fingers, AI, to match you up with other people who meet things you need, and you have a half hour to talk with them and there's no preamble other than they see a tiny, weird bio for you.
Gigi: And so you have to think about, what do I say, who do I, who am I? What do I ask for? What do I, want? How do I tell my story? And what is my story and who is this person? And it's a phenomenally weird ritual of how people describe themselves and say what they need, what they want. Is there a spark professionally?
Gigi: Do we follow up? And it's speed dating or chat roulette for business? So the question is, who do you say you are? Are you your job title? Are you the place you are in a box in a company? And if you are an entrepreneur with your own business, what is the work you do that you want to be the magnet for when you walk into a room?
Gigi: And it's interesting when you are a small business or are something that is diverse, people will see you as what they need. It's back to the re-people'ing yourself, right? So people want to see you as fulfilling what they need in their, whatever it is. Sorry, this is a whole different rabbit hole than turning 40, but
Stephanie: That's okay. Because it's part of it. Because you were talking about needing to rebuild your life, and I know we've jumped forward a little bit. This is part of what life looks like outside a large organization and all the, it's not quite as I want a stable as when I say stable, I just mean two feet on the ground. It's almost that large organization gives you some real solidity to go to the world. And when you're out on your own, there's a lot more footwork of just what we're talking about. Who am I in this situation? And what am I bringing to that situation? And what challenge can I help solve? And what am I asking for? So it actually is part of the same conversation.
Stephanie: But let's go back. Let's go back. Tell us a little bit about rebuilding your life. After your crazy breakdown, you took some time off, you took care of yourself, you started eating differently and taking care of your health. And you started with some creative projects that you were just testing the waters, but where did it go from there?
Gigi: Part of the challenge with living a life like that is you're always marketing yourself to something new. And so part of it is, I see a lot that the work I do has long leashes. That is something that I do or someone I meet, that sometimes it circles back 10 years later to connect the loop. So living that life began to attract different opportunities.
Gigi: And so I had people who had worked with me in classes I had done, or events I'd gone to 5, 6, 7 years earlier, came back and said, looks like you have time now. And they would invite me into their dance parties into what they were doing. And so some of those became mistakes. The mistakes again, I learned from. So I joined several boards.
Gigi: One of them was an absolutely crazy company, but through that, I met a bunch of interesting people. And then I, and a bunch of people, and we may be heading into a recession in the next year. We headed into a recession and living that life during a recession gets to be a much more fragile. In part, because so many other people were getting dislocated from jobs that they also were cracking out to become new consultants, new board members, new creatives.
Gigi: And suddenly I had people who are willing to do something for almost nothing. One thing I believe in really strongly. Is what I call postcard moments, that something shows up that you're in the right mindset for, and you notice and you take a pivotal action. When I was a really young person, I applied to USC film school based on a teaching assistant. We used to have grades on postcards.
Gigi: So I got a postcard with a note saying you should think about applying to film school. And I saw that. And at that moment thought, oh, I should apply to film school. My sister who teaches in Europe, had seen a posting for a job back at UCLA, in the music school, but to teach a single class in marketing and then went to build a new program.
Gigi: And I replied to that postcard and I was doing so many things in creative arts, in marketing my own music work, in producing YouTube channels, that I was the perfect candidate to come in and teach the next generation of music marketing. Because of adding all those bits of adventures together. That then turned into what became the Music Industry minor that became the Center for Music Innovation at UCLA.
Gigi: That became my first podcast. That became. So , if I'd not gone on creative walkabout, would I have noticed that postcard? Would that have shown up? Now, meanwhile, I went and designed my own center, all the fun things that go with repeating patterns. But to me, I become who I am from all of these journeys. And I become not someone in a box. And it becomes hard to tell the story still. I am so non-linear in what I think and do, and all the things I put together. And it's helped me now build out the small company I've put together on the side when I had my meltdown. I've put all my creative projects into it and everything I've done since. And that's the company, Maremel, that I run. And it came from that crazy gestational rebuilding time of opening up my own box to put stuff into. And creating then what I think needs to be there in the world with the people I meet in the world, who I want to help in the world. And it's not in the box of a major institution. And it's let me have stretch space even while working at UCLA off and on now for 22 years. I do recommend to everybody they have a stretch box that they put their joy into.
Gigi: I'm always getting the name of the movie wrong, Everywhere, Everything All At Once, the movie that's out now. If you haven't seen it, it is a bit about stretch boxes. It is very much of a, in this lens, a great movie to see.
Stephanie: Okay, great. One of the things you had said to me when we first communicated was that you have stepped out of official labels and framing. Tell me about that.
Gigi: Or actually I'm in many labels and framing, right? I do find that people want to put you in a box, especially as you do things as well. I'd been both building the center at UCLA and then building Maremel and my other creative projects out. And people kept wanting to say, oh, you're the UCLA music woman.
Gigi: There's no, I am all these different things I'm doing. So I do find that there is that push towards simplifying, who people see me as.
Gigi: And I would much rather, back to the Groundlings metaphor, and not have them tell me who I am. So in many ways I'm a different person in different environments and it's hard for people they really want to put you in a space. Or I try not to tell people what I'm doing and just be in a space and let that kind of develop over time.
Gigi: There's a group I was in this past week, that's working on a project, across many geographies, and one of the rules is you can't start out with identifying who you are.
Gigi: You just need to, what are your ideas? What do you want to do? But a lot of people, it's the shield they wear. I am X I define me, I give myself validity, et cetera. I try not to do that. And some of it is how you present yourself, but it also is a limiting factor.
Stephanie: For sure. Cause what if you said the wrong title in the conversation where there's an opportunity under one of your other titles?
Gigi: And not only that, but you sign up to go to an event now and everything says, what is your title and company? And it's at one point in time I was running three different legal entities. So what do you want me to put there? Then they make decisions on then what they share with you based on then their tiering of your title and all that stuff. And it's going to be a problem if I ever really do retire, as to what my label is. Because once they put you in the retirement bucket, then you stopped being considered to be part of anything.
Gigi: And I think that's got a really change as people have all sorts of types of reworking and a third phase or whatever of their careers. And that sort of, some of my noodling now is what's my frame for other people to digest me and invite me to the table?
Stephanie: It strikes me that somebody listening to this who is in the safety of a large organization might be thinking of this terrifying, what you've done, and what I've done. And so do you think of yourself as brave or courageous? Did it feel that way during the building?
Gigi: One of my early bosses in banking, and I'm going to clean it up a little bit, says you really need screw you money. That I think that edge of having enough money put aside so that you can walk away for a period of time and rebuild is incredibly important.
Gigi: And I lived very frugally early on. I tend to joke that my past me has been very good to the current me, that my past me set the table by being frugal and thoughtful. And then I've made a lot of decent decisions in that regard. And I married a great man, and I've had three great kids, and we made a bunch of decisions. Our house has appreciated in value, et cetera. That over time it's built aspace where I don't have to say I got to make $X or I can't do Y. One of my friends from grad school, we had long talk about 15 years ago now. And he was incredibly stressed, very high level job, and I said just take three or four months off. And he goes, well, I've got two kids in private school. My mortgage is high. We're part of these clubs. I can't take a month off of having an income.
Gigi: And I do think that living a life for your future self to give her or him space is really important. I come from a fairly poor family and I would be very teeth grindy if I had not had enough space, economically. My parents lived life fairly similar to mine.
Gigi: And I think part of it, the reason I'm so careful on that, is they were not. So they lived more of a paripatetic life. And were a great example to me that this is possible, but didn't have the build a nest egg to give them the flexibility .
Stephanie: Right. For me. I left my last full-time job and stable organization, I think I was either 30 or 31, and I didn't have much responsibility at the time. Unmarried single no kids. I had bought a condo probably six months before I left that job. So for me, when I started it was, I just need to make this nut. And the nut was very manageable. So while I didn't have the resources put aside, I also had very few responsibilities and was able to hustle to just cover the very bare minimum. And then of course I had parents nearby who I could go have dinner at their house and things like that. So there was, there was a, a little bit of a safety net there. But what I learned when I did that was that I was more risk tolerant than I knew of myself. And maybe you are the same? There's a lot of things you have been doing out in the world, that that have no safety.
Gigi: I watched my parents go through bankruptcy when they were in their fifties, which was a bunch of poor choices. And have massive health problems. Okay. That's the bad. As long as I'm not on that base, I'm fine with that. It does help to have a wonderful spouse where we've had one or the other of us having cashflow happening at any given time. So that's been very helpful. And some of it is self objective. My definition of myself has not been my economic or job success as much of.
Gigi: So that's left less of an issue being willing to jump off a cliff. One of my best friends, when I started working with his department at the university, his immediate thought is that I wanted his job or their job. Very much of a, it's a hundred percent sinecure position. You know that this is safety and it's, I must admit I have not really been aiming at a safe job since I walked away from banking in 1999. So I've been on this sort of gradual shifting sands for quite a while. And I guess it didn't part, I've got parents who never were in safe, secure jobs, despite that people send us, people used to be in the same job, their whole life, because, no, I've got parents who weren't.
Stephanie: And so now you said you are aiming at 60 and feeling a little bit of the same unease or discomfort with, with where you are and what you've built.
Gigi: So I left the university last year. And I was part-time and it had been building programs for the past two years during the pandemic, along with Storm Gloor at, University of Colorado, Denver. We've been building Amplify Music, which was bringing together 45 organizations in the music industry. But it was one of those things where we built it because there was an opportunity to see what's happening locally, globally during the pandemic. And that's from standing where I am on shifting sands, to be able to stand and say, welcome into the shifting sands. And now we're at two years in. And so I'm now at this kind of interesting framing of doing what to I now do with this? So Maremel is still my space. But now I'm going, well, when I first built Maremel as a company, it was part of an interesting exercise at the beginning of my doctoral program, which I jumped into, as an adult. I did an adult doctorate. Where they had an exercise where they said, now introduce yourself in 10 years. How would you introduce yourself in 10 years?
Gigi: Explain it to somebody else. And then they introduced you. And so I made up the company on the spot at that moment, and then built it over the next couple of years. And I'm now in that same exercise. It's okay, so I, when I'm 70, when I look back, what is it I want to have done and built? And whatever I'd like to get to then can I get to sooner, and build something that is new and mine and collaborative, and we. So I've got about four projects percolating with partners, with people I want to work with. And so I'm very excited about that. And some of it now is, okay, what is the table I want to set? Because I have this great edge moment where I've closed doors and I've let the doors close, and now I can let them, as I did 20 years ago, more gradually open.
Gigi: And do I want to be gradual about it? And do I want to, who do I want to invite to the table? Who do I want to engage with, as me and mine and my ideas that I'm building for me? And do I ask for enough? Am I asking for enough resources from myself? Am I thinking about who I want to work with? And do I know to ask? That still is my foible and my joy is learning to ask bigger.
Stephanie: That's amazing. I'm thinking for myself of how I would go through that exercise. And I'm not sure that I would have any idea who I would be in 10 years or how to even imagine it. But I love the concept of setting the table, because I could come up with some outcomes I want. And so to be able to start setting a table, to get towards that outcome is something I can, I feel like I could wrap my head around.
Gigi: Well, I think of it like a buffet, right?
Gigi: So that, and I'm bad with food metaphors, and postcard metaphors. I like to put many things out on the table to see what works. So my podcast, Creative Innovators has been one of those elements where it becomes a magnet for new things, including meeting you. So that's part of it.
Gigi: And so I'd like to have things out there in the world that help attract opportunities. But if I don't put out the buffet buffets, I'm at the mercy of a limited selection of things that happen. So how do I put out enough, maybe magnets is a better metaphor, things out in the world that then have people go, ah, that aligns with me, mine, my interests.
Gigi: And I've been putting out magnets really for 20 years. And so what, what gets pulled to the table? How do I know what to pull in when? And, and some of it is I can have the best planning in the world. And again, I have a bad habit of not asking for enough upfront, not being in the position to ask. And what do I ask for?
Stephanie: That is the big question that we all wrestle with on a daily basis, asking for enough, or even what to ask for. So,
Gigi: Or asking bigger. If anybody wants to get inspired with that Jia Jiang has a book called Rejection Proof I recommend to everyone. And , it's his hundred days of failure that he designed, and how he learned very quickly, he was trying to build a thick skin. And so he asked for something outrageous for a hundred days and his learning quite quickly - and there's TED talks on this cause he did a bunch of stuff with it - is that he began to ask bigger. He started getting bigger yeses. And so he had to learn that he wasn't asking big enough and he inspires me.
Stephanie: Okay, I'm going to go get that book. That sounds wonderful. You've made a couple of great recommendations today. So I'm looking forward to diving into those books.
Stephanie: Gigi. I want to thank you so much for joining me today. This has been amazing and I can't wait to go back and listen. We covered so much ground and so much depth here that I'm actually really excited myself to go back and listen and learn more from you on a second and third and fourth listen. So I just wanted to say thank you so much for joining.
Gigi: And thank you for spurring the conversation.