Guiding Lights: The People Who Lead Us toward Our Purpose in Lifeby Eric Liu
We all need people to help us find the way. In this stirring new book, acclaimed author and educator Eric Liu takes us on a quest for those guiding lights. He shares invaluable lessons from people whose “classrooms” are boardrooms, arenas, concert halls, theaters, kitchens, and places of worship–and in the process, he reveals a surprising path to purpose.
As he entered fatherhood and a phase of changing ambitions, Eric Liu set out in search of great mentors. He found much more. He encountered people from all walks of life, from all across the country, with something powerful to pass on about how to change lives. Among those Liu portrays in vivid and fascinating narratives are one of Hollywood’s finest acting teachers, who turns a middling young actress into a project for transformation; an esteemed major league pitching coach, haunted by the players he’s let down; a rising executive whose eye for untapped talent allows her to rescue a floundering employee; a master clown whose workshop teaches a husband-and-wife team to revamp their relationship, onstage and off; a high school debate coach whose protégée falters at the pinnacle, and thus finds triumph; and a gangland priest who has saved many and yet still must confront the limits of his power to heal.
In these pages are remarkable stories of apprenticeship–of failure, hope, and discovery. These are stories of men and women who learned to hear the sound of other people’s voices and, in so doing, found their own way to a better and fuller life. As Eric Liu reminds us, these are our stories. Lyrical and accessible, Guiding Lights is a course to benefit any reader, a superb work of narrative nonfiction, and an exciting departure for its accomplished author. This book will change how we live, lead, learn, and love. Pass it on.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt
She saw right through me. Right through my careful presentation of self, my reportorial pose, into the inner chambers. We’d known each other for fifteen minutes. I was there to interview her. Had my leather-bound notebook, my questions all lined up. We chatted. I told her about this book. In passing, in response to I don’t even remember what, maybe something she’d said about her family, I mentioned that my father was deceased.
An hour and a half later, after answering my queries about how she had become an acting coach, about her challenging students, her general philosophy of teaching—after all the preliminaries—Ivana decided to show rather than tell. We did a little exercise. She asked me to pretend I was drunk. I hadn’t expected this, but here we were, and I felt more awkward about not playing along than about playing. So I gave it a shot. At first I stumbled about her living room, mimicking the weave and wobble of someone who’s had one too many drinks. But my imbalance was too studied, and my eyes were too alertly scanning her face for reactions. She asked me to remove my glasses. Without them my vision descends to 20/400: the world dissolves into bleeding pools of color.
It worked. I was utterly disoriented. I couldn’t see, but more important I couldn’t tell where I was going next. I was genuinely in less control of myself than I’d been only a few minutes ago. Pretty soon I was doing quite the drunk act in her house, and she chuckled with approval, paced around me in the high-ceilinged, echoey room, giving loose direction, telling me to pick up this glass or that book, to talk to her, to slur my words more when speaking.
Then, out of the blue, she asked me to think about my father. Just when I thought we were playing one game, she revealed another. As my father’s face flashed across my mind, my own face slackened involuntarily. My mouth fell open. I exhaled, then again, like a last gasp. It was over in a second. I wasn’t able to play a drunk anymore. But neither was I in the state I’d been in prior to our little scene. “Do you feel the difference?” she asked. I nodded, swallowing. Maybe now, her arched brow suggested, I would be ready to learn.
Ivana Chubbuck is one of Hollywood’s most successful and sought-after acting coaches. And she’ll tell you that. She’ll tell you that she’s transformed Halle Berry and Elisabeth Shue, that Beyoncé Knowles and Jim Carrey and Charlize Theron have sought her touch, that studios and television networks turn to her for emergency house calls, to rescue leading men and women who aren’t quite cutting it. She seems to have a raw need to prove her potency, to advertise it, and there is something both compelling and distasteful about her naked hunger for recognition. She is a curious specimen: the sensitive listener and the obsessive winner.
She is fifty-one and has the way of a savvy and world-weary lioness. It’s her voice more than anything that reveals her. Eye-VAAAH-nah. A husky, smoky rumble that reveals a past of drugs, beatings, failed relationships. She yells and shouts in class but in private she slows to an energy-conserving deadpan. She often punctuates her own witticisms with a slow, almost menacing “A-heh-heh-heh” laugh, pushed out through bared teeth. Her cheekbones are high, and she has a mane of dark brown hair. She doesn’t try to hide her wrinkles but she has curves still, and in the classes she teaches at night, you can spy some of the young male actors slumped in the seats before her, their eyes drawn to the red sweater wrapping her torso. She knows this.
Ivana has a gift, an uncanny ability to take a jumble of unintended signals—a darting look, a tiny flinch, a catch in the voice—and to convert them into a whole story about what moves and makes a person. What do you need to be pushed? Do you freeze when you are attacked or do you fight? In this, she reminds me of politicians I’ve known, or of cops I’ve been on the beat with. She knows even before she knows why she knows. What was it about me that had told her an act of drunkenness was called for, that inhibitions and self-control were the first things? What did I do in mentioning my father that told her to circle back to him? What did I give away? “I guess it’s just intuition,” she offers.
Of course. But Ivana’s intuition is not just a current that carries her along blithely. Ivana has seized this intuition of hers, this sixth sense, and wrought it with the force of her formidable will into a powerful and refined instrument. Her hyperperceptive listening, her ability to be an actor whisperer, is not simply a “gift.” It is the result of a deeper process that has unfolded over many years, making her the teacher and the woman she is. A cauldron of life history roars inside her unseen, burning without rest, reducing to liquid all that it encounters.
“Eva will have a hard time remembering what she used to be like,” Ivana once said to me. “When you change and grow it’s hard to remember what you used to be. Halle doesn’t remember what she was like before she became a strong woman.” But Eva does remember. She remembers the first classes, the way she felt. Ivana was her first coach, her only one so far. Whatever Eva is about to become is because Ivana has helped her be- come it.
When Eva Mendes arrived, she wasn’t quite sure how she’d gotten there. Eva stumbled into acting. A typical Hollywood story, except that it’s really the opposite of typical. It’s the story of one in ten thousand, or a million. She was twenty-three, an on-and-off marketing student at Cal State Northridge, hanging out with friends and not sure what was next, when an agent saw a picture of her in the portfolio of her neighbor, a photographer. That’s all it took. A marketable Latina, sultry and smart, alluringly distant. The agent found Eva, hounded her. In fairly short order, this daughter of Cuban immigrants found herself in studio auditions and screen tests. She appeared in music videos, a commercial or two, and then was cast in the 1998 teen horror flick Children of the Corn 5.
At first it was like a freak accident, not a sign that her calling had come calling. She thought, “Cool, I was in a movie.” The work helped pay the bills. Not that anyone watched Children of the Corn 5 for the acting, but she did seem comfortable. In truth, she was miserable during that experience—precisely because she wasn’t a natural. She’d never acted, and had no preparation going into that role. “I didn’t realize how hard it would be. When I wanted to express something,” she says, “I had no idea how to do it. It was always so frustrating.” She got a few other roles like these, which got her more exposure, but also reflected the limits of her ability. Eva knew this. And as she looked around, thinking about her accidental career, she discovered she had something in her, a catalytic mixture of pride and humility, that spurred her to seek out a teacher. She wanted a path to an identity still undefined. She quit school and committed herself to acting. She started auditing classes all over town. The first six teachers she met left her cold. “They were nuts. I just didn’t see how acting like a tree was connected to anything I was doing,” she recalls.
The last teacher she audited was Ivana Chubbuck. “Within five minutes, I knew,” Eva remembers. As she watched class unfold, she responded to Ivana’s directness, critiques that were tough but never abusive. It was also Ivana’s searing rationality she responded to. Ivana has a system. She drills her system into her students. And here was a girl, Eva, who literally by chance was becoming a movie star, and who wanted to know—needed to know—that there was a structure to this work that she might know and master, so that what had come so easily and quickly would not just as easily evaporate. She began in the basic classes that Ivana’s former students teach, and soon advanced into Ivana’s own class. “She can deconstruct me,” Eva now says of Ivana, “and peel all the layers back. She can give a reason for everything.”
A reason for everything. I’ve come to know Eva at an interesting moment. It’s late 2003 and she is not a household name yet but she’s on the brink of—well, either becoming one or not. Her next film, 2 Fast 2 Furious, was essentially a feature-length music video with a sexy multicultural cast, including the rapper Ludacris, and souped-up cars in noisy drag races. But it was a hit. Fame has begun to arrive—the kind of early fame that puts her on the cover of lifestyle magazines, nets her a presenter role at the Golden Globes, and rates her a mention in The New Yorker as someone whose career has prospered while other starlets in her cohort, the “Almost-It Girls” like Jaime Pressley, have begun to plateau. Eva’s life at this moment in late 2003 is one of ever more admiring reviews, high-profile supporting roles with the likes of Denzel Washington, a big role in Stuck on You, a broad comedy by the Farrelly brothers, and much more work already booked for the coming year, including a role opposite Will Smith. The neon halo of celebrity has flickered on, at first tentatively but now more brightly, and soon, perhaps, it may seem to everyone that she was always this way: born a star.
The Ivana Chubbuck Studio is a crowded windowless room on the second floor of a building on the corner of Melrose and Formosa. Forty or fifty theater-style seats. A futon, a desk, a few chairs, a table, a coatrack, and a scattered assortment of props on the kitchen-sized stage. And that’s it. The central air conditioner is so noisy it drowns out the actors’ voices, so whoever’s sitting closest to the switch turns it off during scene work and back on during critiques, creating a thermal echo wave of stuffiness and chilliness all night long.
Before class, the French doors into the studio are locked, so the students hang out on an unlit veranda that overlooks the side street. They smoke and sit around talking in the soft nighttime Los Angeles air. A few carry on cell phone conversations, but mainly they’re hanging out, as if it were a little cocktail party, or a hip vodka commercial. As we stand around, waiting for Ivana’s assistant to arrive and open the studio, I’m suddenly cognizant of the fact that I’ve never been in the midst of so many gorgeous young people before. The men, the women, are truly the L.A. cliché—Send me your prom queens, your handsome boys with scruffy hair and sensitive eyes, send me the lithe lean beauties who once stunned your towns in the Kansas prairie and the Florida wetlands and the Idaho mountains with their floral splendor, and we will make them our waiters, our valets, our personal assistants’ assistants: our acting students.
As the doors open the students file in quickly, some finding seats and others scurrying about the stage to move around the furniture and props for the first scene on today’s list. These are professionals. None is famous but a few have appeared in commercials and sitcoms, a couple even in films. Many others don’t have acting work lined up right now. There is no prelude, no pep talk from Ivana. After everything is set up, the first pair of actors stands onstage, waits a moment for conversation to subside, and then one says, “Ready.” They begin. On this night’s class, which will run from seven till past eleven, students in twos and threes play six or seven scenes. The scenes are drawn from plays and films of all kinds. A whiteboard on the wall lists them all: something from Speed the Plough, then Beyond Therapy, then The Hours.
Ivana has selected and assigned these scenes with a keen sense of intention. Isaac is a nebbishy, anxious stand-up comic who’s used to performing solo; Jack is into “fine” theater, more focused on the meter and timbre of the spoken word than on the inner terrain of character. She’d paired these two last week and given them a scene in which a criminal is trying to get a priest to absolve him but the priest is too self-absorbed to listen. Ivana didn’t choose this scene to make them look good. Isaac and Jack overact, struggle to connect, revert to their worst habits, and pretty much fall flat. Ivana sits in the front row, just a few feet away (the stage isn’t raised), and remains silent through even the most excruciatingly awkward moments. When they’re done, they look deflated, and a little surprised that Ivana let the scene go on so long. She observes, finally, that the two actors seemed to be feeling a great deal of pain. “Actors like to feel the pain,” she says. “But that’s bullshit. Real people try to overcome the pain.” And she proceeds to prod them on what their characters would do to get out of the emotional cul-de-sac that the actors put them in.
This idea recurs in everything she says and does—that achieving an emotional state is not the point of acting; that meaningful acting, like meaningful living, involves a desire to get somewhere. To get something. To win. She conveys it with sarcasm, taunting, profanity. “It’s ineffectual just to play the problem; you have to play the solution,” she’ll say. Or: “I’m getting a pretty half-assed effort to win here.” Or: “Why don’t you act like you have a dick? Show me you have one. Swing it around.” Another evening, she’s working with two men, a black guy and a white guy, in a scene from Knockout. They’re boxers, the white guy coaching his cocky pupil at the gym. The actors play the scene like it’s a buddy movie, a playful, physical interaction. They’re pretty good, and their cross-racial camaraderie makes everyone in the room feel good about themselves.
Ivana tears the work apart. She asks the white guy what his character’s objective is and he says something about mentoring his buddy. “Stop. Right there. Your goal is not to empower anyone,” she sneers, “it’s to prove you’ve still got it, that you’re still superior to this guy.” It’s a brilliant interpretation: the coach’s obligation to teach is not his objective; it’s his obstacle. Likewise, the protégé’s objective is not to be validated. It is to beat the coach. “We have to make this more than just a friendship thing,” Ivana says, and she directs them to play it again. This time there’s more testosterone and electricity, maybe even too much, but that’s okay. “You have to have the possibility, always, that you’re going to take it too far,” she says. She smiles with satisfaction. They were dancing before. Now they’re sparring. As the coach bobs and weaves, telling the pupil with a taunting, competitive smile that “You’re getting better,” Ivana shouts to the coach: “Point to yourself when you say that.” She thumps her own chest for emphasis, fist balled like a boxing glove. “Point to yourself!”
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
ERIC LIU is a fellow at the New America Foundation. He writes the “Teachings” column for Slate and is the author of The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker, a New York Times Notable Book featured in the PBS documentary "Matters of Race". Liu served as a speechwriter for President Clinton and later as White House deputy domestic policy adviser. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he teaches at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Recommendation Eric Liu is a gifted, practiced writer whose prose shines, particularly when he writes about his life. This book chronicles his quest to learn what makes someone a great mentor. Quest genre sagas share lessons learned along the course of the journey, and usually culminate with some variation of Judy Garland's parting words in 'The Wizard of Oz': '...if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with!' Liu's verbal gifts and originality enable him to avoid most, but not all, of this New Age genre's pitfalls. Liu discovers the five characteristics of great teachers, as personified by the 15 delightfully diverse mentors he interviewed: a sought-after Hollywood acting instructor, a major league pitching coach, a forensics teacher, a corporate motivational speaker and more. Liu approaches each mentor with reverent inspection, as if each unknowingly possesses a clue to the puzzle of what makes a teacher extraordinary. While the book's business relevance may be somewhat limited, Liu's essay-stories are consistently original, thoughtful and engaging. That's why we give this book a strong recommendation, particularly for coaches and trainers.