Madonna was my life coach, for a while.
In the 80s, whenever I felt stuck and unsure what to do next, I asked a simple question: what would Madonna do? As a shy young journalist and later as a fledgling magazine editor, that question guided me through awkward situations, and allowed me to borrow some of her courage when I had none of my own.
There are many Madonnas, of course. The one I turned to most for advice was the character she played in Susan Seidelman’s 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan. I was self-conscious in my early 20s, still battling with a slight stammer that sometimes made it difficult to articulate my thoughts. I was far more worried about what others thought of me than my own truths and self-expression. Madonna-as-Susan helped me to change that.
It’s a long time since I’ve seen the film, but the character I built in my imagination was utterly shameless, in the best possible way. A punky bohemian who didn’t care what anyone thought of her, she lived in the moment, creative and daring. That question—what would Madonna do?—was my way of accessing a bolder, braver me, until it became natural.
In 1994, I met Madonna.
We met for an in-depth interview at her house in Miami, for the cover of The Face magazine. She was, of course, nothing like the character I’d invented. She was smarter, quieter, more thoughtful, very well-read and living in a relaxed but elegant home surrounded by beautiful art.
At one point I tried to explain the role she had played in my life and say thank you, but it all came out a little weird and stalker-ish. I quickly changed the subject, and she seemed relieved.
The thing is, I’m not sure you ever really need to meet your celebrity mentor. They might even be more effective if you don’t, because then you can make them whatever you need them to be.
The confidence trick
When I coach musicians and performers, I often ask who they think of if I say the word confidence. There was a time when four names came up, again and again: Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Adele and Stormzy. But what was interesting was that everyone gave them different qualities. They all saw what they most needed, at the time.
One person’s inner Beyoncé would be more like the singer’s Sasha Fierce persona, bold and assertive. Another Beyoncé would be a working mum who quietly supported worthy causes. A third person admired her body confidence, the way she moved unselfconsciously onstage and in her videos. (And having also interviewed Beyoncé, I know that isn’t always true.)
So how to you choose a mentor?
Start with some research. Some kind folks like Elizabeth Gilbert, Neil Gaiman, Twyla Tharp or Stephen King have written books about their craft, and how they do what they do; others have given TED talks or Masterclasses; many more have allowed others to make excellent documentaries, observing how they work.
If you feel attracted to someone’s achievements or the way they seem to navigate their world, read their biographies and interviews, learn from their successes and failures, find out all you can and absorb what you need.
Some questions to ask
- What are the qualities you admire in your mentor?
- What effect have they had on your mentor’s career, on the behaviour of others?
- How could you cultivate these in yourself?
- Who might you know who already has these qualities? What can you learn from them?
- What habits or routines does your mentor have that you might adopt?
- What do they do that you couldn’t possibly try? And is it really true that you can’t?
- What would you do differently if you were as successful/brave/ talented/smart/gorgeous as they are? And could you try doing this anyway?
Be more Patti
Madonna and I parted ways in the mid-90s. She continued making fine pop music, but she’d taught me all I needed. These days, I’m finding Patti Smith a good role model and guide. We’ve never met, but she has written three books of memoir full of inspiring ideas on the creative life. All you have to do is read them, and choose what behaviours to experiment with, then which to keep.
Just Kids is her account of coming of age in the New York of the late 1970s, surrounded by artists, writers and a thriving music scene. It taught me that all creators need to be surrounded by other creatives, and the importance of finding your tribe, your creative soulmates.
Right now, I love her almost contradictory attitudes towards routine, as outlined in her later memoir, M Train. The way she sits to write at the same table in the same café every morning, taking the decision-making out of creating. But then she offsets this by setting off on strange, spontaneous journeys round the world, having somewhat surreal and random adventures.
She’s also a shining example of how to elevate your own art by hanging out with other creatives, by collaborating and remaining open. And she’s showing me how you can grow older without losing your creativity.
I still have much to learn from Patti. I suspect she and I will be together for a while.
Sheryl Garratt is a writer and a coach helping creatives to get the success they want, making work they love. Click to sign up for my free 10-day course, Freelance Foundations: the secrets of successful creatives.