WSJ. asks six luminaries to weigh in on a single topic. This month: Mistakes: Judith Light, Kamasi Washington, Jennifer Weiner, Toyo Ito, Minnie Driver and Joe Gebbia
Updated Sept. 26, 2016 11:18 a.m. ET
“After I had finished Who’s the Boss?, my manager came up with an idea for a TV series for me. So we did seven episodes, but it didn’t go beyond that. I was also doing movies, but eventually things just sort of stopped. My manager told me that I needed to go back to the theater. Here comes along this wonderful play about—you’re going to laugh—an aging sitcom star. He said it was perfect for me. I had started in the theater, but I was scared. I didn’t think I had the chops. I went to a yoga camp and meditated and finally called him, but by that point they had already cast it. So I told myself, ‘The next thing that comes up, I’ll go for it.’ It was this play, Wit. I had to shave my head and get naked onstage—I could have done a play with my clothes on! But it changed my life. I had to face the critics. I had dragged my feet because I was afraid of making a mistake, but what came out of it enabled me to learn something valuable.”
—Light stars in the Amazon series Transparent.
“I’m from Los Angeles. When I was young, I hung out with gangsters. My mom lived in a Crip neighborhood, and my dad lived in a Blood neighborhood. I used to walk from one neighborhood to the other every day. I had a friend who was a Blood, but he went to a Crip school. He wanted me to walk with him because I knew both Crips and Bloods. He had a gun that he used to keep. We would play Street Fighter and then walk to Inglewood. That was a mistake that I used to make daily. I wish I could have slapped myself on the back of my head and said, ‘What are you doing?’ But it was a mentality. Living in that part of the city didn’t affect me. I didn’t let it scare me. I was fortunate, though, in that those mistakes didn’t end up hitting me too hard. You learn quite a lot from your mistakes, especially those that you make coming from a good place.”
—Washington is a jazz musician.
“Arrogance is a mistake that many people make when they’re younger. I went to Princeton and graduated summa cum laude—I thought I’d be one of those 22-year-old hot young things with a book deal. But my first job out of college was as an education reporter at this small daily paper in central Pennsylvania. Part of my job was typing the lunch menus for five school districts. Every Monday, I’d be typing, ‘Hot Dog in Bun, Milk.’ I was so mad—I wanted desperately to be in New York City working at a magazine. But, honest to God, it taught me humility. I was in a different part of the country outside of my comfort zone; I had to find stories to tell. I couldn’t be snotty about who I thought was interesting and who wasn’t. In retrospect, I’m so glad that I was 31 and not 21 when my first book came out, because I would not have handled it well.”
—Weiner is a novelist whose memoir, Hungry Heart, is out this month.
“I was born in Seoul in 1941. Before the war, my father had worked at a trade firm, and I thought that after university I might go into banking or work at a trade firm. But when I took the entrance exam for prospective economics and law majors at the University of Tokyo, I failed. The following year, I decided instead to try the entrance exam for science and engineering majors—I passed. I wanted to become an engineer after graduation but my academic results were poor, which led me toward an architecture course with Mr. Kenzo Tange. It was an inspiring experience—he was working on the Yoyogi National Gymnasium project at the time. I cannot imagine how my life would have turned out had I not encountered academic failure. Life can change its course at many small yet critical points. Even if one thinks they have failed, that failure may open up another path for that person’s life.”
—Ito is an architect.
“I genuinely don’t believe that mistakes are truly mistakes—I know, it’s very 1972 and crunchy. But anything that I’ve perceived to be a mistake has invariably, at some point down the line, given rise to something else wonderful. I made a movie that was a very difficult experience for everybody, cast and crew. It was nine months in 22 million gallons of water—it wasn’t fun. The movie didn’t do well. It didn’t further my career. It didn’t do all the things it was supposed to do. But I couldn’t call it a mistake, because so many good things came out of it. I met people during filming whom I’m still friends with today. You have to be aware of the alchemy of life. I think we’re too harsh with ourselves about what we consider to be mistakes. The only mistake is looking at your life myopically and not appreciating the vastness of experience.”
—Driver is an actress who stars in the new ABC series Speechless.
“The fear of mistakes is the fast track to irrelevance. Of course Airbnb made mistakes the first year! Some came from our own preconceptions. When we started, we designed our interface for ourselves, internet-savvy twentysomethings. We never considered the role of good eyesight in our interface—font size, vernacular; it all matters. The fastest-growing group of Airbnb hosts in the United States is seniors; the second-fastest-growing group is people in their 50s. So we learned our lesson. On a recent Mother’s Day we invited our moms to visit the company, and we encouraged them to use the website in front of us. We were able to witness firsthand if something didn’t work for them. But it’s important to remember that the failure itself is not an event. It’s the relationship that you choose to have with an event—how you react to it—that matters.”
—Gebbia is co-founder and chief product officer of Airbnb.