Love Doesn’t Rely on Proximity. The fourth thing I’d say has to do with relationships. The people who care about me have shown up in both big and small ways. This year I got handwritten holiday cards from dozens of friends and family. I haven’t received that much mail for Christmas and Hanukkah since 1997! Friends have texted short, funny videos — just to say hello. I even had a client send me a bumbleberry pie as a thank you for helping her through a difficult time at work. Social distance doesn’t have to mean emotional distance. Love and friendship don’t rely on proximity.
With the success of the vaccines, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this difficult period in our history. But before we jump back into the routine of the normal life that we lived in 2019, it would be a shame not to pause to reflect on what we have learned during this time. The social isolation caused by the pandemic really was an opportunity for a collective pause, and a global self-assessment about who we really are, and what we really want in life.
As a part of this series called “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic”, I had the pleasure to interview Carol Lempert.
Carol Lempert started her career as a stage and film actress. She now runs a boutique training and consultancy firm that helps supercharge corporate leader’s executive presence — and their careers — with the performance secrets actors use to light up the screen.
Currently, she and her team run virtual training and coaching programs for Fortune 500 organizations on presenting with telepresence, selling with stories, and building resiliency.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?
Well, I guess the easiest way to paint a picture of my background is to imagine what would come up if you googled me. The first would be the fact I grew up in Oak Park, Michigan. I’ve also lived in Toronto, Canada, and currently live just outside of Manhattan, but I’m a Midwest girl at heart. Next would likely be a link to my acting demo. If I look vaguely familiar to any of your readers, it’s because they may have spotted me in a film with Jimmy Smits. Or, on a TV commercial dancing on the beach.
In answer to your question, “what life experience most shaped my current self” I’d definitely say it’s being an actress. I’m grateful for the lessons life in the theatre has taught me.
Most people don’t know it takes, on average, thirty auditions for an actor to book a role. Handling the sting of hundreds and hundreds of rejections over the decades has built my resilience and my ability to bounce back after a disappointment or hardship. All of us have had to learn to bounce back during this pandemic. Actually, more than bounce, we’ve had to learn to dribble!
Are you currently working from home? If so, what has been the biggest adjustment from your previous workplace? Can you please share a story or example?
Yes, I’m currently #WFH (as we now say). I’ve always had a home office for administrative work; scheduling, invoicing, marketing — tasks like that, but before the pandemic, I was on the road at least three to four days per week. I’m a performer and a keynote speaker. Audiences don’t come and sit on the sofa in your living room to hear you talk. In fact, on March 12th last year — the same day Broadway shut down — I was waiting for a Lyft to come and take me to Newark International Airport. I was scheduled to fly to California to deliver a program on Business Storytelling the next day when my client texted, “Don’t come. The event is canceled.” By the end of that week, all of my client contracts were scrapped.
The biggest adjustment has been two-fold:
- Figuring out how to give participants a good remote learning experience.
- Convincing clients a virtual event can be as impactful as an in-person one.
To be honest, at first, I was skeptical about this myself. The pandemic challenged me to get creative and rethink my business model. In-person events have lots of things going for them. They are energizing. Networking can happen spontaneously. Sitting in an audience with other people right next to you creates a feeling of connection and shared values.
I’ve discovered virtual events have a lot of advantages too. Advantages I’d never really considered before. Video conferencing creates a sense of intimacy with the speaker you never get if you are one of two or three hundred people in a crowd. On video, participants see me close up — as if I am having a coffee chat just with them. They actually can have the experience of sitting in my living room while I give a talk!
Virtual events also provide a space for people who are more introverted to attend without the overwhelm or social anxiety that is wrapped around break and mealtimes of an all-day conference. Many people struggle in large groups. Virtual events allow people to join from the quiet of their own homes.
Additionally, they are more inclusive. Before the pandemic, many employees were excluded from company events. In the last 10 months, dozens of people have told me they’ve been invited to participate in sessions that — before the pandemic — they never would have been able to attend.
The reason is cost. In the past lots of companies only sent senior executives to in-person conferences because in-person conferences are expensive. A virtual event can be made available to everyone. All you need is a computer, a Zoom link and you’re in.
What do you miss most about your pre-COVID lifestyle?
You probably won’t be surprised to hear I miss going to the theatre. Even more, I miss going to the theatre with a group of people and then going out to eat afterward and discussing the play. Interesting conversations with groups of smart people have always been nourishing for my soul. I also miss the freedom to just pick up and go somewhere spontaneously.
The pandemic was really a time for collective self-reflection. What social changes would you like to see as a result of the COVID pandemic?
Oh my, so many things have happened. Where to begin? Since Covid-19 is an infectious disease, I’ll talk about the state of healthcare and health insurance in the US. I’ll use my specific situation as an example of the challenges many people face.
My husband and I are both independent contractors. As such, we are not eligible for a group health insurance plan. Plus, the cost of our premium is higher than the same policy would be if it was purchased as part of a group plan. In short, we pay more for insurance than someone who has a full-time job. We are not alone in this. According to a 2020 Forbes article forty-four million people in the US are self-employed.
In 2020 my husband and I had a plan which only covered 70% of our medical expenses. It cost us just shy of 23,000.00 dollars per year. That’s twice the poverty line for a two-person household. 23,000.00 dollars is just the price of the insurance, it doesn’t include copay fees, deductibles, or prescriptions.
In July 2020 the new premium for our health insurance arrived. It went up by 462.00 dollars a month, 5,544.00 dollars for the year. This was a 24% increase from 2019. From 2018 to 2019 it went up by 8%. From 2017 to 2018 it went up by 6%. A 38% increase in three years. McKinsey recently did a report analyzing the impact Covid-19 will have on the US health system. They estimate between 125 dollars — 200 billion dollars in incremental annual costs. Those costs are going to be passed on to me and you. I have a friend who is in his late 30s. He is also an actor but is currently working a full-time job with excellent benefits. He, unfortunately, suffered a small stroke last month. Thank goodness he’s okay. Want to know the first thing he was worried about? Having a pre-existing condition. He’s more worried about having a pre-existing condition on his record than he is about having had a stroke. His life’s ambition is to be a full-time actor. Once the pandemic passes and Broadway re-opens, he’ll be able to go back to auditioning to realize his dream. But now he’s concerned he won’t be able to afford to quit his job — because he won’t be able to afford health insurance. The impact of the pandemic will be felt for many years. We have to find a better way to provide for people’s health and wellbeing.
What if anything, do you think are the unexpected positives of the COVID response? We’d love to hear some stories or examples.
Since we were just talking about healthcare costs I’ll stay on the theme of money. I’ve saved a lot this year that’s for sure. I haven’t had a haircut since February 2020. No eating out. No theatre tickets. Very little gas in my car. I know many people are struggling and have lost their jobs. I’ve been fortunate and have been able to pivot my work to continue speaking, teaching, and coaching online. As a result, I’ve put more in my 401K this year than ever before. That was certainly a surprise.
Another unexpected positive is the number of people I’ve reconnected with from my youth. A good friend of mine from Michigan now lives in Iowa. Over the years we’ve sent each other the occasional birthday or holiday card, but this year we both made an effort to schedule Zoom calls once a month to keep in touch. At the end of our first conversation, we both wondered why we hadn’t done it sooner. Facetime has been around for 10 years! It took the pandemic to make me realize I’d been taking the important relationships in my life for granted.
How did you deal with the tedium of being locked up indefinitely during the pandemic? Can you share with us a few things you have done to keep your mood up?
One thing I’ve learned from my years of being a performer is that it’s up to me to keep myself in shape — both physical and mental shape — no one is going to do it for me. A casting director doesn’t care if I’ve been going to the gym or taking my vitamins, they only care I’m ready to hit the ground running if they hire me.
Back last March I realized I had to have a healthy balance of routine and novelty in my schedule. People experience tedium when they haven’t planned variety into their life. Most of my choices are on this theme.
During the week I schedule time in the middle of the day to go for a walk or do yoga or write in a journal. I’ve also made a point to keep up with friends. At least once a week I’ll call someone I haven’t spoken to in a while to check in and see how they are doing. On Saturday afternoons I have a weekly Zoom call with a group of women I used to play Mahjongg with in person before the pandemic. We knew if we stopped our routine of seeing each other every week we’d never go back to it after lockdown. Their friendship is important to me.
On Sunday mornings my friend Wendy Suzuki started hosting a weekly Zoom tea meditation. This has become a wonderful way to calm my mind as the week gears up again. On Monday or Tuesday evenings my husband and I often eat breakfast for dinner. (I’ve also been known to eat ice cream for breakfast!) It’s something small, but it reminds me that even though I’m ‘all grown-up’ I can do something silly, just because it’s fun.
Aside from what we said above, what has been the source of your greatest pain, discomfort, or suffering during this time? How did you cope with it?
There has been so much loss in the last year. In my acting community, we said goodbye to Cloris Leachman, Dawn Wells, and Nick Cordero. All three of them died from Covid. On the other side of life’s spectrum, two of my nieces have had babies and I haven’t been able to go back to Michigan and visit.
My husband had surgery in July and his recovery has been slow going. (This is one of the reasons I’m hyper attuned to healthcare costs.) My sister-in-law lost her mother, and my best friend lost her father this year. The funerals were both held remotely. More devastatingly, my first cousin died by suicide. It’s awful not to be able to be with loved ones who are grieving. I’ve coped by consciously focusing on self-care.
The word ‘self-care often conjures up images of someone taking a bubble bath surrounded by scented candles or getting a pedicure. It’s lovely if you can do that, but self-care is not about indulgence. Now, more than ever, paying attention to your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health is crucial. Each Saturday morning for the past year (before my Zoom call with my mahjongg friends) I’ve posted a self-care tip on LinkedIn. It’s been a way to hold myself accountable for my own wellbeing and to help others.
Here are some questions and some tips that might be effective for your readers who may be feeling like everything sucks and they’re not okay. Ask yourself:
- Have I bathed today? If not, go take a shower. Right now.
- If you are reading this at night and you are resisting going to bed. Stop reading. Turn off social media. Put your phone away. Get in your PJs. Lay down. Close your eyes. (If you’re still awake in twenty minutes it’s okay to get up. No pressure.)
- Have you moved your body in a joyful way in the last twenty-four hours? If not, walk around your living room for fifteen minutes. Or, go for a run. Or, put on some music and dance around for three songs in a row.
- Are you feeling unproductive? Take a deep breath and do one small task. Brush your teeth. Or take out the garbage. Maybe load the dishwasher. Simple things can have a profound impact on your mood and your overall state of mind.
OK, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Self-Care. You’ve likely gathered the first one by now. It’s what I’ve mentioned above. Self-care. Self-care is essential. There is a meme going around social media that captures this beautifully. It’s a picture of a battery that has drained and needs to be recharged. The caption reads: “You wouldn’t let this happen to your phone. Don’t let it happen to you either.”
- I’m Adaptable. Secondly, I’ve realized I can get used to anything. If you’d asked me two years ago: “Do you think you’d be able to earn a living, keep yourself entertained and never leave your home?” I’d have said: “No way. My business relies on large groups of people gathering in auditoriums all over the globe. Plus, I’d lose my mind being stuck in the house all day.” But humans are built to adapt. It’s how we’ve survived for centuries.
There is a scientist named Dr. Rick Potts who is the Director of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. He’s looked at this idea of adaptability and survival. As part of his research, he’s put together two lists. One is a record of the climate over the last five million years. It shows 67 periods when the climate was all over the place. Hot. Cold. Wet. Dry. Back to wet again. The second is a list of significant moments in human evolution. Moments like walking upright, creating tools, and the discovery of fire. These ‘eureka’ moments correspond to times when our climate was disrupted. We thrived because of our ability to adapt. If my ancestors could survive during an ice age wearing only the furs of animals, I can survive a pandemic in my sweatpants.
- Learning. I discovered I can learn faster than I thought. On March 11th last year I’d never heard of Zoom. By March 14th I was running workshops for hundreds of people on it.
- Love Doesn’t Rely on Proximity. The fourth thing I’d say has to do with relationships. The people who care about me have shown up in both big and small ways. This year I got handwritten holiday cards from dozens of friends and family. I haven’t received that much mail for Christmas and Hanukkah since 1997! Friends have texted short, funny videos — just to say hello. I even had a client send me a bumbleberry pie as a thank you for helping her through a difficult time at work. Social distance doesn’t have to mean emotional distance. Love and friendship don’t rely on proximity.
- In the words of Thelma Lempert: Behave Like a Person. The person I’ve been most impressed with is my Mother. My Mom is a widow and about to turn 83. She lives alone in a condo. At the beginning of the pandemic, she told me she’d thought a lot about how to fill her days, so she didn’t get depressed. Here is her schedule:
Wake up. Stretch. Check the stock market and Facebook. Eat breakfast. Read the paper. Do the crossword puzzle. Get dressed. Tune into her synagogue’s daily Zoom call. Make and eat lunch. Walk on the treadmill. Read a book. Call a friend to check in. Prepare dinner. Eat. Watch TV and the news. Play some online games. Go to bed. A few times a week she goes food shopping or runs errands. She told me: “You have to have a routine. I don’t turn on the television until after dinner. That’s important. You can’t just lay around in your nightgown all day long and watch TV. It doesn’t matter if there is a pandemic, you still have to behave like a person.” On days I feel a little low I think about how my Mom has survived my father’s death and how she’s dealt with the pandemic. So, I’d say the final thing I’ve learned is that I’m grateful to have come from very resilient stock.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you during the pandemic?
My life lesson quote is from The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. There is a very moving passage from the book which stays with me: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God.”
Some of your readers may not know of Anne Frank. She was a German Jew who went into hiding with her family, and four of their friends, in 1942 during the occupation of the Netherlands by the Nazis. They were discovered two years later. Her father, Otto Frank, was the only member of the group to survive the concentration camps.
While in hiding Anne kept a diary. Otto Frank discovered it after the war and was so moved by his late daughter’s insights he published it. The diary has since been translated into 70 languages. Over 30 million people have purchased a copy. A Broadway play and an Academy Award-winning movie were also adapted from the book. My connection to Anne’s story is from the Broadway play. I’m probably the only actress in America to have been cast as all three of the Frank women in The Diary of Anne Frank. In my teens, I played Anne Frank. In my twenties, I played her sister, Margot Frank and in my forties, I was cast as her mother, Edith Frank. In preparation for each of these productions I read and then re-read Anne’s diary.
The passage I mentioned above is extraordinary. You see, Anne and her family and friends couldn’t go outside. They were in hiding. Eight people. For two years. In a 450 square foot attic. Afraid that every breath they took, every move they made would alert the outside world to their whereabouts.
During this past year I’ve thought of that quote — and of the Frank family — often. Especially whenever I leave my house and go outside for a walk to clear my head. To survive this pandemic all I have to do is wear a mask and stay 6 feet away from other people. It’s not even a tenth of what others who have come before me have had to do.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
What a cool offer. I’d be over the moon to meet and speak with the improviser, comedian, and host Wayne Brady. First, he’s unbelievably talented and has made me laugh more times than I can count. I’d like to say thank you. Also, I recently heard him speak on Variety’s Strictly Business podcast. He shared his plans to build a business consulting firm that will use the tenets of improvisational acting to help coach executives and other leaders.
This marriage of theatre, acting, improv, and business is something I am also passionate about. I’d love to learn more about his plans and if I might be able to help. So, hellooooo Wayne. If somehow you are reading this — you’ve a fan with common interests!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
So nice of you to ask Phil. The best place is my website:
HERE is a list of my blogs on executive presence and presentation skills that people can read for free.
HERE is where people can sign up for my newsletter.
I’m also on LinkedIn. I post tips on personal branding, storytelling and resilience every day. Your readers can connect with me HERE
For visual learners you can check out my YouTube page HERE
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.