Jennifer Rudolph Walsh on Breaking the Busy Stigma, Finding Essentialness, and Transcending Bullshit
Jennifer Rudolph Walsh on Breaking
Stigma, Finding Essentialness,
and Transcending Bullshit
There are people out there who face fear and criticism and uncertainty on a regular basis, all because they believe in a greater good. Because of them our world is a brighter, stronger, more just place. And whether they do it in small, measured steps or in big, ambitious leaps, these are the people who blaze new trails and forge new paths. These are the game changers.
At fifty-two, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh seems like both an industry powerhouse and a person in the burgeoning stage of her career. Walsh takes nothing for granted—even her role as one of the most respected agents in the literary industry. She represents Sheryl Sandberg, Alice Munro, Oprah, and Brené Brown, among many others. Her career—her nearly three-decade-long career—actually started in college: A summer internship for the Writers Shop led to a job by the time she was a senior. (Walsh ended up buying the company and selling it to William Morris Agency.)
As WME’s worldwide head of literary, lecture, and conference divisions, Walsh has propelled some of the greatest stories by some of world’s leading writers—maybe that’s why she calls herself a thought follower rather than a thought leader. She has a deep appreciation for homing in on someone’s talent. “I’m like the search-and-rescue crew,” she says. “I find you. I see you.” And then she reflects that unique talent and purpose into the world “in the most impactful way” possible.
Walsh’s appetite for storytelling is what feeds her excitement. Her work is to send authenticity into the world—that’s the power of literature, as she sees it. The words can remind you that you’re not alone. That’s what literature did for Walsh. A self-described “terrible student” growing up, when Walsh read Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison in college, she found that these women “put words to things that I was just beginning to put together in my own mind,” she says.
Walsh doesn’t believe in prescribing. She believes in telling it how it is, which makes the reader (or listener) feel heard—and perhaps more importantly, hopeful. “I don’t want to tell people how to live,” she says. “But I can share my experience and hope that you find something in there that can light the way for you.” That rawness lends itself to Walsh’s passion project, Together Live, a touring storytelling event that gives voice to artists and “tears down the walls that are making us feel disconnected and depressed,” she says. (Together Live just released its latest lineup; tickets go on sale July 16.)
For our first Game Changers column, we talked to Walsh about the first person who recognized her talent with words, her single hope for her children, and the “bread crumbs” to finding her passion. “It’s wonderful to maintain a lead in this world, but you need to know how to turn a ship around,” she says. “You need to know how to start from scratch. And you need to know how to stand still in the storm.” And as far as why we’re calling this column Game Changers, well, after five minutes with Walsh, that part becomes pretty clear.
A Conversation with Jennifer Rudolph Walsh
I am a fierce advocate for authenticity and for storytelling that reflects the truth because it’s a medicine that works. I know that the antidote to loneliness, anxiety, and depression, and feeling overwhelmed or not enough—all of these things that we suffer from as a culture—is deep, truthful, authentic storytelling where we can connect our insights to somebody else’s insights. Where we realize that we’re in this together, and that we’re all experiencing the same things, and that we all want the same things from this world. In that sense I really believe that it has these magical powers to connect us and to heal us and even, truly, to raise us up.
All of that. But I didn’t know to look for signs, and I didn’t speak the language of purpose and calling and intuition when I was growing up.
In the language of achievement, it’s super important for people to understand that there is another metric for how you measure a life well-lived. I really didn’t have a sense of that, but I knew that there was something inside of me that longed to connect and longed to be seen. And I longed to feel that I mattered and that my contribution made a difference. But I didn’t really have a good way of expressing that, and I wasn’t good at school. And people would say to me all the time, “Oh, if you could only live up to your potential.” And I would think, Yeah, that sounds awesome. How do you do that? I had no effing clue. What does it mean to live up to your potential?
It’s a loaded word because it might mean one thing to one person and another thing to another person. Potential for what? It’s like potential for being a loving person, potential for being in relationship, for being an effective member of the community. It’s confusing, and I think people assume that your goal is their goal.
To me, to be the most successful person does not mean to make the most money or to have the most high-profile job or to have the most anything. I think that was confusing for me: to know only one measuring stick growing up and to know that I didn’t measure up.
For my children, I have a very simple goal for them, which is to be comfortable in their own skin. That is it. That’s my prayer for my children every day. And inside that comfort, I hope they’re going to find their calling and their people, and their path forward.
I was constantly being told that I was doing it wrong. I was told that I had failed to distinguish myself and that I had to leave the school because not one single person would recommend me to college. I was like, wow, how did I get here and where do I go from here?
Once I gained my footing, I realized that the one thing that I had was my authentic self, my truth. I moved to a new school in New York City, which is where I found somebody who heard the song that I was singing. I liken it to being touched by a fairy godmother’s wand. Mrs. Lifton was her name. And she said to me, “You have something very special and unique, and you can lead people with that.” It just felt like, Oh, I have something that’s special and it’s me, and it can’t be taken from me because it’s essential to who I am. And then I thought: Let me build on that. Because the thing about our strengths is that we can build on them exponentially. The thing about our weaknesses is we can spend all our time thinking about them. I had been focusing on my weaknesses the whole time.
She refocused the lens for me a little bit and really was able to make me feel, for the first time, like the things that I had, the essential truth of who I was, was enough. That led to Kenyon College, where I really found myself.
Media plays such an important role in people’s development. This is not an original thought, but the truth is when everything you’re watching and everything you’re reading and everything that you’re listening to reflects something that is not your inner truth, there’s a disconnect. And inside that disconnect, you can feel that you’re not normal or not enough. I’m not ever going to be like these people. The gift of reading contemporary female voices in literature, for me, was that moment: that moment that you realize that you’re not alone. That you are enough. And that the things that you’re feeling are collective in nature. To me, that’s the greatest feeling in the world. Reading contemporary fiction and nonfiction was the first time that I really saw that.
That’s why I call it magic. And maybe I overuse that word, but I don’t know anything else to use because it’s magic. I mean, it changes everything in an instant and it makes you reflect on the fact that you have a story, too, and your story is important. Everybody’s story is important, and it’s only through reading things that remind you of other things that you realize, Oh, I’m part of this narrative, and I have something to add to this.
Good question. For one thing, I just want to speak to that idea of juggling so many things. I know that we are in a culture of chaos now where we ask, “How are you?” and we say, “Busy.” That’s not me. I’m not busy. I’m full. But I’m still caught up on all my best TV shows, and I’m still reading for pleasure, and I still have time to do all the things I want to do.
I don’t respond to that sort of busy, busy, busy thing. That’s not me. I think that one of the added benefits of living a life of purpose, when you know your purpose and you’re prioritizing the things that are better serving that purpose, is that a lot of the bullshit falls away. And when you’re serving your purpose, you have all the time in the world because somehow time just expands.
Twelve years ago, I actually wanted to find my purpose more clearly. I felt like I knew what it was, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure. So I did a little work around purpose. I defined my purpose down to a sentence, which is to shine the light forward for others so that they feel less alone, more connected, and healed. And once I realized that was the reason I was put on this earth, then I would deprioritize anything that didn’t serve that purpose. It doesn’t mean that I don’t do it, but it’s not a priority to me. And anything that does serve that purpose goes to the top of the line. I just followed that.
I followed it from the representation of books and from helping to create positive culture in the workplace and eventually into conference business and into creating places where people can come together and share their stories in real life. It’s always an evolution of my same purpose and also my same belief that everybody has a story, and that story matters, and that when you feel seen and heard and like your contribution matters, anything is possible.
I want to start by saying I’m a great follower of thought. I call myself a thought follower instead of a thought leader. So I amalgamate a lot of people’s thoughts, and these are not original thoughts. Maybe I’ve elevated some of them, but I take no credit for any of this. I’ve done work with people; I’m a voracious searcher, reader, studier of all things, from philosophy to self-help to narrative nonfiction to fiction.
There were some clues that I’d been able to use to help people connect. What I’ve found is it is helpful to go back to your childhood and ask yourself a question: When you were young, were you told by an outside person that you were great at something that you thought was ordinary? In my case, I was told I had a way with words, and I was like, Oh, wow. Look at what people come to you for. And if and when you’re providing that service, pay attention to whether time flies and whether instead of feeling depleted from that service you’re providing, you feel filled up and energized. Something else I say to look for is what’s the side hustle that, no matter how busy you are, you always find time to do that thing.
These are all bread crumbs, and when you follow the bread crumbs, I believe it’s pointing you very clearly to what your purpose is. You can try a few purposes on and ask, Is this my purpose? And if it doesn’t feel exactly right, then you just keep polishing it and evolving it until it feels so humbling when you say it, that your throat actually swells. I’ve said my purpose probably 1,500 times, and every single time I say it, my throat swells a little bit because it’s such an honor. It’s such a privilege for me to be able to live my purpose in this earth. That’s how I know it’s true.
When you surround yourself with people who share a mission and who are willing to basically work their hearts out in order to collaborate, and to create something that is hopefully changing the way people think and what they believe about what’s possible, there’s nothing more exciting or more intimate.
Books is an incredibly lucky little place to start because when people are writing books, they’re baring their souls. And that calls everybody up. What I love about every single solitary person at WME is that we’re all passionate about storytelling in our own way. It might be somebody who represents musicians or somebody who represents events, but we’re all using the power of storytelling to create conversations and culture, and we all take that responsibility very seriously.
We’re very lucky to work in a place where we’re encouraged to bring our whole self to work. Nobody at WME has a work personality and a home personality—it would never fly. It’s like we’re too all-in, covered in mud, working as hard as we can, trying to innovate and to create the best possible outcome for the dreams of our clients and the dreams of our employees.
I’m talking about the hard times. The hard times are the best times. I’m talking about the tough conversations and the mistakes, and owning the mistakes, and practicing forgiveness, and finding humility. When I say bring your whole self, I mean work and all.
The thing is people know who you are. You might as well just come forward with it because people see the truth anyway. And when people see something in you that you don’t see in yourself, the only person who’s harmed in that is you. So the more you can own yourself fully and the more that you can have that self-awareness, the more successful you’ll be in those relationships. The leadership of our company, Ari Emanuel, our CEO, is the first person to say, “Oh, that didn’t go the way I wanted it to go.” And as a result of that, we all trust him. We would walk into a burning building with him because we know that he’s not going to try to put a Band-Aid over something or shift blame or create some kind of pretend illusion. I model that. I’m very good at modeling mistakes.
It happened in my late forties. It’s when I stopped the negative self-talk. I thought the negative self-talk was like my secret sauce, that I was not afraid to tell myself the dirty, ugly truth about myself. But I realized that that negative self-talk—which I was amazing at, by the way—was causing a lot of my moodiness. And I also started to identify negative self-talk as negative narcissism. Narcissism is almost like kryptonite for me. I’m the opposite of that, so it’s very hard for me to be in any kind of narcissistic behaviors. And I realized that negative self-talk is really just negative narcissism—it’s all about you. Even if you’re saying bad things about yourself, you’re still focusing on yourself.
I had a spontaneous recovery. Literally, if I feel myself starting to beat myself up about something, I just step right in with a completely different song to sing. That’s been the biggest change in my life. And now, because I’m not there beating myself up, telling myself what a piece of shit I am, I’m there building myself up, and as a result, it’s so much easier for me to be consistent in mood. It’s incredible.
It’s been a process. My first child, my daughter, was born when I was twenty-seven, so I had to grow alongside her and really try to model the best kind of truth-telling life, which means that she sees my scenes, and she sees me struggling with things, and she sees me going through transitions. And I do it in a way that I hope one day she’ll be able to tap into that.
And so these are all the things that I try to model honestly. And back to authenticity. I’ve tried to model it all through my own truth.
Sexism is something that I’ve come to see and understand more and more as a result of the power of the MeToo movement. And I’ve come to see how it manifests in many different cultures.
People have asked me, “How did it feel being the only woman in the boardroom?” I never thought of it that way because what I thought of it as was, here are these people in this room with me, who are bringing their whole hearts to everything they’re doing, working as hard as humanly possible and wanting the best for everybody. Sometimes I would feel like people aren’t speaking the exact same language as me, and I had to be more careful and more thoughtful about the way that I put my words together so that my intentions were clear. I always saw that as a great practice because being able to make your point and being able to sway the way people believe is one of the great powers we have as human beings. I never really saw it as boys versus girls, men versus women. I mean, toxic masculinity and toxic femininity are both problems in the workplace. But if you know somebody’s true story, you’re never going to view them as other again, regardless of what gender they ascribe to.
When I know that you were raised by a single mother and that your father left and never came back, or that you had a brother who was the greatest at everything and you always felt not-enough, once I know these things about somebody, it is good business because now I know how to get the best out of you, and I know how to avoid triggers. And I can understand why certain things seem to create an outsize reaction to you. When you’re coming from that place of understanding and compassion, you can get through anything.
Being authentic and comparing insights doesn’t mean that you’re going to have nothing but free sailing. Every hard time I’ve ever gotten through with honesty with someone, we’re always stronger on the other side.
We’ve gotten into these silos where, other than church and rock concerts, there’s no place for us to safely come together. I’ve just always had this anti-club kind of feeling. The more elite it is, the less I want to be there. And I have been blessed to be invited into these what I call small rooms. It’s incredible. But my underdog self wants everybody to have that ability. I want to make the small rooms the size of the entire world. So I wanted to create something where the barrier to entry was so low that at least for the price of a movie and a piece of pizza, and around the same amount of time, you could have a transformative experience.
We’re doing a national tour for [the second half] of 2019, and the goal for 2020, which is our five-year anniversary, is global. We’re thrilled to say we’ve seen 50,000 people in three years, and we’re thrilled to say that this last year, 15 percent of our audience was men. We love that because we really feel like these are conversations that everybody needs to hear, and that everybody can benefit from. We’re just opening the doors wider and wider, and we’re just hoping that more and more people hear the call.
In a world where everybody’s about elitism and VIP this and VIP that, I’m the opposite. I’m like, all you need is an open heart and an open mind. Come because we need you and you belong here, and we’re going to blow your mind. You’re going to hear the story of a Muslim woman, and you’re going to feel like she’s telling your story even if you’ve never even met a Muslim person. Or we’re going to tell the story of a trans woman who grew up in the Philippines, and it’s going to blow your mind because you’re going to hear pieces of your best friend in her story. And the automatic gift in that is that you feel connected on a level of humanity that just tears down all these walls that make us feel sad, lonely, or depressed.
My goals have evolved so hugely. I’m fifty-two and I feel like just, even since I turned fifty, my goals have continued to evolve. It’s a funny thing. I read an article once that said that whenever you think back like five years, you imagine all the change in the past, but when you think forward, you imagine you’ll be the same person in five years moving forward. It’s just a funny human nature thing.
My goals really have shifted around how to be more impactful and yet how to be more joyful and consistent of mood, which is my entire spiritual practice now. It’s just consistency of mood. What a powerful thing that is, when people around you can depend on you being consistent in the way that you respond to things. It’s so important for morale. I just find that the more consistent I get, the more effective I can be, and the more room there is for joy.
To quote Sue Monk Kidd, one of the most beautiful novelists ever and a dear friend, she said she feels as she gets older, she’s just boiling herself down to a good strong broth. That resonates so deeply for me. Every year I take out the noodles, I take out the carrots, I take out the celery, and I just keep boiling it down to the essentialness of me.