I’m in New Orleans this week to deliver a presentation on how a change in mindset can radically improve a person’s happiness and success. I’ll be sharing the stage with the mayor because we both believe in helping empower people to new heights. This week’s story is about a young man who was born and raised in New Orleans, and a glimpse into his personal journey.
Emmitt was a middle child with three siblings. He had a challenging upbringing, due partly to living in poverty, but mainly because of the relentless, abusive anger of his father. The creative Emmitt learned at a young age to go places in his mind in order to avoid facing the mistreatment and hardships of his young life.
Not long after a particularly troubling incident, Emmitt was watching a talk show on which a speaker discussed how some difficulties in life could be worked through by writing them down. Supposedly, it was a process that could be helpful and therapeutic, and he decided to try.
Emmitt’s first writing took the form of letters to himself. He found that he not only liked writing, but was good at it. The letters helped him come to terms with his childhood and find strength in himself and in forgiveness. He also gained the foundation for a skill that he never knew he had, but which would inspire him to make writing a central part of his life.
Emmitt began working on a play based on his experiences. In it, he pulled no punches, using fictional names but conveying the hard-hitting truth about what he’d been through. It was rewarding for him to create, even though the subject matter was far from uplifting, and he was eager to see the play performed. Having saved up nearly $12,000 working at an entry-level office job and living with his family, he moved to Atlanta with plans to produce the play.
In Atlanta, Emmitt rented a theater to stage his production. Unfortunately, his name was unknown, so there was no audience for his work. Only thirty people showed up to see the play, and it lasted just one weekend. Emmitt lost every cent.
However, he was tenacious, and felt this was what he was supposed to be doing. He reworked the play while taking a variety of odd jobs that included used car sales and restaurant positions. Saving up his money, he kept trying to produce the play; each year he would put on another production, and each one failed to bring in an audience. This went on for six years, with each attempt leaving him broke. At one point, Emmitt, a grown man of six-foot-five, even lived out of his car, sleeping in his tiny Geo Metro.
His determination was faltering. His mother told him constantly that it was time to give up and go back to New Orleans where she’d feed him while he looked for a job with benefits. Nearly ready to quit, he decided to make one last attempt, and booked the show at Atlanta’s House of Blues. But this time, he went about things differently. He visited churches all throughout the city and persuaded prominent members of the choirs to take roles in the production. And for the first time, Emmitt decided to star in his own show.
On opening night, he was worried. Once again, he had spent everything he had, and it was the coldest night of the year. In the dressing room, he was reflecting on whether this would be his last show, when he looked outside into the freezing evening. There was a line of people around the corner waiting to get in. It was sold out.
Emmitt finally saw some success with his first show, I Know I’ve Been Changed, which toured throughout the South and up the East Coast. He wrote, directed and produced a number of subsequent plays about urban life that substantially raised his profile as a creator and voice that resonated with African-American audiences. Soon, Emmitt set his sights on Hollywood.
One thing he learned through his years in the theater was the power of putting out your own message and staying true to it. Hollywood tested that belief when one major studio executive told him that African-Americans who go to church don’t go to the movies. Emmitt walked away from that negotiation, and eventually found a deal that required him to put up half the budget, but allowed him complete creative control. That first movie, Diary of A Mad Black Woman, featured Emmitt “Tyler” Perry in his iconic role as the tough-spirited grandmotherly character Madea, and the film grossed over $50 million. In 2011, Forbes named Tyler Perry the highest paid man in entertainment.
It takes courage and conviction to follow your dreams. Learn to be your authentic self and you’ll never have to act a day in your life.
Until next week...