From "The Beautiful No" to Oprah & the Beautiful Now
If you were an Oprah Winfrey Show viewer, or even if you were like me, only occasionally tuning in, you probably remember her long-time producer, Sheri Salata, who Oprah often referred to and gave credit to. Sheri was a fixture on camera for the behind-the-scenes footage during the countdown to the show’s conclusion. It was obvious she was an Oprah confidant and a producing guru, lovingly steering the #1 talk show in America. Many probably had the thought at one time or another, “How did she land that dream gig, and what was it like moving on from it?” Sheri answers those questions and many more in her recently released memoir, THE BEAUTIFUL NO AND OTHER TALES OF TRIAL, TRANSCENDENCE, AND TRANSFORMATION. It wasn’t easy getting that dream job that she ended up devoting her life to. She also didn’t start at the top there, working hard at several positions within Harpo Productions, and after 20 years, it was a major transformation to walk away and re-set her life on several levels. She recounts that pivotal time in her book while encouraging others to take stock of the past, present and most importantly, the future.
I’ve had a dream-come-true career but not a dream-come-true life. Will that be my whole story? What will be yours? Being someone’s faithful wife, someone’s excellent mother, or being someone’s devoted employee does not a a full life make. It’s not the whole dream. As I lift my eyes to the big, beautiful, expansive second half of life the is yet to be formed, I summon up the courage to take a good look at what I have created so far. It is time for a reckoning.
Most of the book does not focus on Sheri’s dream job and larger-than-life boss. The focus is on transitions and finding her footing post- all-consuming job while in the middle of her life. It’s some of what the many fans of her podcast hear regularly, and then some. I had the pleasure of recently meeting Sheri and the honor of moderating a book talk with her. Below is part of what we covered throughout the fan-filled (hers, not mine- ha) event.
PF: You mention that in looking back on your life, you realize you were born to be a producer. How so?
SS: Well, what it looked like to others was that I was very bossy and I had to be in control of every detail of everything, so my cast members of all of my early “productions” were my cousins. Once I got my first big break as an adult, it was in advertising as a secretary by my best friends fiancee. I wasn’t a very good secretary, but he taught me everything. And then I knew I was in the vicinity of what I thought I was supposed to be doing. It felt great and creative, and aligned with my talents. It felt like making something.
PF: You took advice early on from a friend who told you, once you got your foot in the door at the Oprah Show, to keep your head down, do the work and you’ll be noticed. You don’t have to push yourself on someone, but rather your hard work and talent will have people taking notice.
SS: Well, when I started at my entry level role as a promo producer at the Oprah Show, 35-years-old, I’d had a string of not so great years. In fact, the day before I started I was totally broke and didn’t think I’d be able to pay my rent, and when I walked through those doors, I had enough experience, working other places to know that oh. My. God! This is amazing. Look at this coffee bar, and everything is free. There was a TV in my office that I was required to watch and look over as Oprah talked to people like Depak Chopra … and that was my job! I knew I won the Powerball, while the 21-year-olds were whining. I was there 15 years in different roles before being offered Executive Producer.
PF: But was it there or then that you noticed the power of stories, personally and professionally, that you reference in the book?
SS: True, but that came late. I didn’t necessarily have that wisdom then. It only was in the middle of life that I finally, really see how important the stories we tell ourselves. Why that makes all the difference. That voice that we have in our heads that repeats, and if you take a moment and listen to that voice, it is very shocking and sobering to hear how you talk to yourself, how you may have talked to yourself for many years. Most of my revelations have come at the end of that magical experience at Oprah.
I worked for Oprah for almost 21 years. I was in the promo department a really long time, and then they pulled me out from there. I really did take the advice of my former boss. I just put my head down, you give me a job, I’ll do it. Even more than that, because I was older, I had disappointments, I had felt like a failure so many times, that I knew what it was. I knew I was in the midst of something special. This was going to be more like a mission than a job. My favorite experience of the whole thing was that I was paid to build a spiritual life and exposed to new ideas. I needed to use story to make sense of these experiences, and the biggest one of all was you need to fire that voice in your head. You have achieved in spite of that. The second half of your life is going to very much depend on bringing in a new voice, and the number one quality of that new voice is tenderness and compassionate.
PF: How did that realization help you through that fateful transition from being married to a job you love, supporting your boss and your staff, to it all coming to a halt?
SS: I had this epiphany that I had manifested the career of my dreams, but not the life of my dreams. I sat with that and hunkered down with my best friend who was going through a similar situation but for different reasons. What we said to each other was that we believe it’s never too late to live the life of your dreams, but if not now when? If not now, maybe never. All of a sudden life looks very different. I call it the RECKONING, and you can either appreciate what you’ve accomplished and just coast, or you can look forward to or embrace the new paths.
PF: Where does the title come from? What is the beautiful no?
SS: I knew I wanted a job at the Oprah Show, but in trying to get there I thought I needed to land one last major job, no more of this freelance stuff. I thought if I could just get a big job at a big agency, making lots of money on huge brands, that’s going to be great. As such, I got an interview, felt I nailed it and celebrated way too early, last ten dollars is in the bank, I’m broke again cause I’ve been freelancing, so I’m waiting for my start date with the ad agency and it never comes. I get the fateful letter from HR saying I didn’t get the job. I go through the usual depression routine of hair in ponytail, sitting in front of TV eating potato chips, then a few days later I get a message from the Oprah Winfrey Show. After dusting off an old resume I had submitted years ago, they asked me to come in as a freelancer. Fast forward years later, I had a revelation of what would have happened if I had gotten that ad job I interviewed for. I never would have quit it- give up a full time, big pay ad job to freelance at Oprah?! I wouldn’t have done it cause I thought I needed security in my life at that time. I realized then, that was the best no I had ever gotten in my life.
PF: A true life lesson for anyone at any age, that there can be life after no, after rejections.
SS: Or maybe this. I’ll take it one step further. All no’s are beautiful! The real trick, the master here, in that moment even if you can’t see it yet, just say, “Okay, it’s going to be exciting to see how beautiful this is.”
PF: Through your podcast, do you and your friend and podcast co-host Nancy, have now regular events helping people navigate the middle of life like the one mentioned by an audience member?
SS: No, we’ve only done one so far. We wanted to help people, like us figure out how to up our game in the middle of life. It’s the only question we want to have.
For more about Sheri’s unique journey, life after Oprah and the exciting things going on with her now, buy her book from an independent bookstore, check out her website (thepillarlife.com), and listen to her podcast, The Nancy & Sheri Show.
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"The Beautiful No" is available at an independent bookstore near you or on their website.
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