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What’s Your Question?

Years ago, I created an after-school program to teach 9th graders the basics of documentary filmmaking. As a producer, I know how powerful it is to tell the stories that matter to you so I knew it would be empowering for kids to make their own shorts.

We began the class by looking at scenes from a variety of films. The kids were breathtakingly savvy when it came to things like composition, story, and character. They’d grown up watching media after all. Then, everyone had to pick a subject. The students chose everything from profiling a favorite teacher or friend, documenting a favorite sport or subject, and one student even wanted to make a film about his own alter-ego.

This is where it gets interesting. It’s so easy to talk about what other people do. Critics abound. And it’s even easy to come up with a really interesting or even great idea. But, then what? Can you execute it? Where do people get stuck?

The students broke down into 2 groups – those who were stopped by not knowing how to do something and those who weren’t. I’m sorry to say that it was a direct gender split as well.

The boys plowed forward. They demanded the cameras, held them, turned them upside down, pushed buttons without fear. The girls, though, just sat there, afraid, it seemed, to even ask a question.

Every client I have has a great idea and doesn’t know what to do next. They know they need additional resources and support. But I often think about all those people out there who don’t know or are too intimidated to ask. What are the key qualities one needs to internalize to develop and launch a new idea? What do we have to teach our children, especially our girls, so they can do this?

Some people get really bogged down by what they don’t know. It becomes an obsession or something to hide. But to me, the question is what can you learn? I know if you have curiosity and the capacity to ask questions and learn, you can accomplish anything.

This starts in our society by allowing our children to watch us in our own decision-making processes as opposed to just presenting them with a finished, perfect result. My hairdresser has a great story about her father. But before I tell you that story, I have to tell you about her. She is in her early 30’s now but when she was 18, she got pregnant and dropped out of high school. She decided to go to beauty school because it was a 9 month program and she could be working and making money pretty quickly. Now, though, she is getting her BA online in psychiatry and planning on getting her masters and becoming a therapist. Why, I asked her, are you capable of this when so many women in your position would have given up? She told me this story about her father.

When she was 6 years old, he decided to build a jungle gym for her and her siblings because they couldn’t afford to buy a pre-made one. He bought all the wood, he laid it out in the garage and then he began drilling it together. She spent many afternoons in the garage with him, handing him nails and tools. She said that it seemed like he unscrewed more screws than he put in. It took him years and it wasn’t until she was 10 years old before she actually used it. But to her, watching him figure it out, being there alongside him as he tried, failed, and tried again was much more fun than actually playing on it. And now she is a person who knows that she can figure anything out. As she said, if she needed to learn how to do brain surgery, she could. And I believe her.

I am thinking about those 14 year old girls in my after school program. The editing part was the most challenging for them. As the boys were at their keyboards, trying, messing up, undoing and trying again, the girls were sitting there in front of their final cut pro systems afraid to press the wrong button.

If you find yourself sitting there, in front of your next step or unsure about your next step, remember the father building the jungle gym from scratch. He wasn’t a builder. He was just a dad who loved his kids and wanted to create something for them that would make their world a better place. He did his research. He did some planning. He looked at existing examples to see what he liked. He drew a plan on a piece of paper. He documented his idea. He talked to people at the lumberyard. He asked a lot of questions and then he dove in, continuing to learn as he went.

Lack of knowledge or experience never needs to stop you from your dream. It’s not an uncrossable chasm but a space to be filled. Begin asking your questions.

And those girls finally got there. I worked with them, one-on-one, so they could ask their questions privately at first. I celebrated their baby steps, I sat them next to each other so they could be teachers to each other, asking more questions and sharing what they’d learned. Slowly but surely, they each edited their own shorts.

At our screening at parent’s night a few weeks later, they stood up proudly as they each gave a short introduction to their films. We all – families and friends – cheered their success. My hope is that in the future, they will remember their capacity to learn anything and that no matter what ideas fill their minds, they’ll be unafraid to start asking the questions whose answers will fill in the gap between idea and execution.

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