For Leslie Schapira, it took losing her dream job as a TV writer to clear the path for a new kind of success.
By Leslie Schapira
(Art: Ciara Phelan)
Growing up, I was a “winner.” Not that I was particularly special or talented; I just happened to be part of a generation that, as the stereotype had it, received trophies for everything from tying our shoes to brushing our teeth. In school, we were promised that as long as we tried, we would succeed. But now that I’ve entered adulthood, the rules have changed. Job competition and fewer opportunities have made those instantaneous wins hard to come by. And for the first time, I’ve had to come face-to-face with a word that was rarely spoken when I was a kid: failure.
If I had known the obstacles that awaited me in the real world, I wouldn’t have been so quick to race through college. But I did, believing that if I took the right classes, made the right grades and got a head start on a writing portfolio, my dreams of becoming a TV writer would turn into reality. I graduated early, networked like crazy, wrote every night and day, took random freelance gigs and waited for any window of opportunity to crack open. Then, four years later, through the grace of a godlike mentor, I was invited to join the writers’ room of a network TV show in L.A. It was the chance of a lifetime.
Every day at work, I obsessed over my performance, always sure that I could do better and avoid even the slightest mishaps. At night, I would go home, replay the day in my head and think of all the ways I could improve. Even if I had a good day, it never felt good enough.
Despite my insecurities, colleagues reassured me that I was doing well for a beginner. I was able to contribute a couple of story ideas, jokes, a decent casting suggestion. Executives were starting to learn my name; agents were suddenly interested. My future was beginning to look promising. As long as I kept my head down and tried my best, everything would continue to move in the right direction. At least, that’s what I thought.
When budget cuts came at the end of the season, my blood, sweat and tears were not enough to keep me on board. I understood the necessity of the cuts, but there was still a little voice inside my head saying, “If they really wanted you, if you were actually valuable, if you were really good enough… you’re not that expensive.”
My mentor tried to assure me that I would have other options. But in an industry based on momentum and perception, one loss can have a domino effect. My agent, who just three months earlier had showered me with adulation, suddenly didn’t seem so quick to return my phone calls and emails. A friend who had wanted to use my script as a basis for his grad school thesis was no longer interested. Even though these were small things, losing my job had unnerved me, and I started to panic a little, worried I’d never get back on my feet.
Still, I did my best to maintain relationships with my former coworkers. There was one in particular, an older, more experienced writer, who had always been like a big brother to me. From my first day on the job, he had taken me under his wing and coached me on how to pitch ideas. I always thought I could look to him in a time of need.
A few weeks into my unemployment, I emailed him. He agreed to meet for coffee, and I hoped he would remember prior offers to introduce me to potentially helpful contacts. He sat down, and when I asked for help, offered his advice, which was unexpected. “You’re so talented, but you can come across as a little desperate,” he told me. “Imagine you were on a date with someone like this. You would never want to be with this person.”
I sat in the booth, my heart sinking. It was not an easy thing to hear, but a small part of me wondered if he might be right. Had I overreacted to this setback in such a way that my attitude was now pushing some people away? Was my intense need to succeed hurting me rather than helping me? As crushing as this moment felt, I realize now that this conversation may have been one of the most critical turning points of my life.
Needing a breath of fresh air, I decided to take a week and go to New York City, where I set up meetings with a few contacts on the East Coast. In college, I had connected with a former editor in chief of National Lampoon, who had been starting a political-satire site called The Final Edition and wanted to convert my first pilot script into a Web series. Because I was attending college on the West Coast, our plans fell through and we lost touch over the years. I reached out to him on my trip to New York and reintroduced the idea of working together. He was thrilled, though he warned me that he could not offer me a paycheck or the structure of a writers’ room. Still, he did have a team and a platform to showcase my work. In the face of what felt like nothing, it was something.
As I flew back to L.A., all I could think about was how quickly I could return to New York. I didn’t know what to make of this. Until this point, my life had always been sheltered and I’d followed a linear path. I lived at home during and after college, believing that doing so kept me focused. My parents made everything easy and comfortable, so I didn’t have to worry about anything except my own work. I never went abroad: The thought of exploring the world seemed like a waste of time, something to distract me from my goals. I was also emotionally dependent on my family. We did everything together, from workouts to nightly dinners. The thought of ever leaving them seemed unfathomable.
But that week in New York had opened my eyes in a way I hadn’t expected. Being on my own provided a thrill I’d previously experienced only at work, when I’d contributed a story line or made a script suggestion that my boss liked. It was the first time I’d felt good about myself since losing my job, so I decided to take a risk. I left my nest and moved across the country not long after that trip.
I never would have imagined that without the crutch of my family or a glamorous job title my confidence would blossom. But outside of the bubble, I was forced to leave my comfort zone, establish new relationships and reconnect with old acquaintances. Now, instead of staying in every night to work on a script or (more likely) writhe in frustration over my lack of inspiration, I make it a point to get out there—I enjoy the stranger singing Russian opera on the subway and sample the sushi at the new place in my neighborhood. I see every kind of performance I can, from an all-star Broadway musical to a friend’s one-woman show. I even reached out to my high school crush (something I never would have done back home), because he’s a familiar face who also happens to live three blocks away. While it hasn’t been the whirlwind romance I fantasized about at 15, he’s become one of my good friends and a great introduction to the city’s hidden gems.
While a part of me—the old me—still feels a little guilty for enjoying time that isn’t strictly work-related, I love that I have this multidimensional life that I didn’t have before. And in a surprising twist, the energy and stimulation have actually reinvigorated my creativity: I’m writing more than ever before. I’ve found a new comedy team, one that believes in me and supports my work. With their help, I’ve even produced my first video.
I’ve always struggled to take pride in my accomplishments. Maybe it’s because the praise was so overly saturated when I was younger, but without that reassurance, it’s been difficult for me to believe in myself. That’s been the biggest change in my mind-set since I moved to New York—my happiness and self-esteem now come from me. I don’t need to rely on anyone else.
I’m unsure what the future holds, but I do know that failure pushed me not just to try harder, but also to try differently. It has forced me to grow up, overcome hardship by standing on my own feet and find happiness outside of the “work win.” And the student inside me says I should get a trophy for that.
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