Gillian Zoe Segal: An interview by Bob Morris


Segal, G.Z.Gillian Zoe Segal is the author of Getting There: A Book of Mentors and New York Characters. She received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She lives in Manhattan and is also a photographer.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Gillian.

* * *

Morris: Before discussing Getting There, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Segal: My mother, Leanor Segal. She is a charismatic, curious, fun loving adventurer and an out of the box thinker. I would love to be seen the same way!

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Segal: In the midst of law school, I knew that I didn’t want to practice law, but was not sure what I wanted to do. In short, I was lost, career wise. A real turning point occurred when, shortly after taking the bar exam, I read a commencement address given by the cartoonist Cathy Guisewite at my alma mater, the University of Michigan. Cathy spoke about the moment she realized she wanted to write for a living and suggested that, when deciding what to do with the rest of their lives, the graduates remember what they love: “Take the classes, the friends, and the family that have inspired the most in you. Save them in your permanent memory and make a backup disk. When you remember what you love, you will remember who you are. If you remember who you are, you can do anything.” Cathy’s words resonated with me.

Following her advice, I thought back over my four years at Michigan. I had been most energized by the photography course I took the last semester of my senior year. I decided to pursue this interest and enrolled in a one-year program at the International Center of Photography (ICP). Soon after that, I hatched the idea for my first book, New York Characters.

Morris: When and why did you decide to write New York Characters?

Segal: I realized that what makes New York such an amazing city is its people and that, among the millions of New Yorkers, there are some who stand out of the crowd, become famous in their own subcultures, and give the Big Apple its flavor. My New York Characters subjects included neighborhood fixtures, prominent celebrities, and the truly eccentric.

Working on that book was a dream come true. Every day felt like an adventure as I discovered different pockets of my city and got to know a broad cross section of its population.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Segal: I am not surprised to hear it. Warren Buffett explains that what’s essential, no matter what business you are in, is getting people to follow your ideas. He says, “If you’re a salesperson, you want people to follow your advice. If you’re a management leader, you want them to follow you in business.” It makes perfect sense that leaders are also adept at storytelling. Communication skills are a key ingredient to success.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Segal: My formal education has helped me tremendously with my communication skills. Law school, especially, taught me to be able to boil things down to what is truly essential. Whether it is writing a request to a prospective subject in my book, writing an essay, or approaching a journalist for publicity, I must communicate well.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Segal: 3 Idiots. It is a 2009 Indian film. The film’s message is that if you are passionate about what you pursue you will have the greatest shot at success. If you pursue something that your heart is not in, you’ll have a tough time achieving your potential. This is a major theme in Getting There as well.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Segal: I love this one! All growth and progress is dependent on trying something new (AKA a daring adventure).

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Segal: This certainly seems to be true! In his Getting There essay, the scientist, J. Craig Venter, explains that the biggest obstacle he continually faces is resistance to new ideas and new approaches. He explains, “If you look at the history of breakthroughs in science and medicine, almost everything that’s turned out to be a major development was initially attacked by the establishment—mainly because it was a threat. Thomas Kuhn wrote about the stages of paradigm shifts in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: First a new idea is attacked then it’s reluctantly accepted. Along with the acceptance comes denial that it was ever an issue to begin with and a bit of historical revision that it was never that big of a breakthrough.”

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Segal: I completely agree. A good idea is just the first step. If you never execute it, you are left with nothing. And executing an idea is the hardest part!

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Segal: As Kathy Ireland says, “If you are not failing, it means you are not trying hard enough.” Taking risks is necessary for growth and failure is just part of the process. That being said, you want to try and avoid making mistakes on really critical issues.

Morris: I was born and raised in Chicago, a city once described as “a melting pot with the lid off.” Have you considered another book that focuses on another city and its unique characters? Please explain.

Segal: Unfortunately, I would pretty much have to live in another city to write a (good) book on that city — and that’s not on my horizon in the near future.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an appropriate as well as an effective mentor?

Segal: An appropriate mentor should be a person you trust and admire. That person should also have an accessible and giving personality and, of course, expertise in the area that you need guidance in.

* * *

To read the complete interview, please click here.

Gillian cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her website link

Getting There‘s Abrams link

Getting There‘s Amazon link

New York Characters‘ Amazon link

Forbes conversation link

LinkedIn link

Facebook link

Twitter link

Getting There YouTube video link

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