July 2008

Who are your heroes and what do you admire about them? How has your list changed over time?

As a teenager my hero was Sophie Scholl. She and her brother organized the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany, for which they were caught and executed (she was only 21). I admired Sophie for recognizing and sacrificing for what she believed was right at a time when so few other Germans did.

My college heroes were Lauren Fleshman and Suzanne Farrell. Lauren Fleshman was a distance runner at Stanford who won back-to-back-to-back titles in the NCAA outdoor 5,000m. She was really fast, smart, articulate, and an excellent leader.1 Plus, you could tell that she loved to compete. I'm trying to recall now what it was that made me so enthralled with her, and I think it has a lot to do with her goal of becoming "a dreamer, a doer, and an inspirer." At that point I was mostly a dreamer, but I loved that she was all three.

Suzanne Farrell was the ultimate Balanchine ballerina. George Balanchine, the greatest 20th century choreographer, was famous for creating roles that showcased the particular strengths and personalities of his favorite ballerinas, his muses. It was this dynamic even more than Farrell's beautiful and enigmatic dancing that inspired me - I loved the idea of Suzanne Farrell trusting Balanchine enough to offer herself to his creations entirely (Violette Verdy once said that "when [she] watched Suzanne Farrell, [she] saw pure Balanchine"), and he in return creating his most magnificent ballets for her.

Suzanne Farrell's relationship with Balanchine became for me a metaphor for the kind of relationship that I wished I could have with God. If only I could say to God, I trust you and will do whatever you ask me to as long as you make me into a great artist and saint. I think the saint part was okay to ask for (as far as I could tell God wanted that too), but I really wanted to be an awesome artist as well, just as much as or even more than I wanted to become a saint. And then I worried that maybe I was wanting to become an artist too much, and that to help me build character and long for the right things (kindness and patience and generosity etc.), God would think twice about giving it to me. As I'm writing I am thinking of the part in Matthew where Jesus says to seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will be given to you, so I bet that's part of the solution. It's just hard.

My Free Thoughts2 in college were full of references to Lauren Fleshman and Suzanne Farrell. I still admire them both tremendously, but my biggest heroes post-college have been Sheryl Sandberg and Paul Graham.

Sheryl Sandberg was VP of Online Sales and Operations when I worked at Google (she's now COO at Facebook). What impressed me about Sheryl was how smart and powerful and utterly feminine she was. I often get the sense from powerful women (like Hillary Clinton) or from actresses in powerful female roles (like Jodi Foster's New York lawyer in Inside Man or Meryl Streep's journalist in Lions for Lambs) that they are overplaying their roles, trying to prove themselves by acting tougher and stronger and more aggressively than men. With Sheryl I sense that she's not afraid to make hard decisions or to deliver tough feedback if necessary, but she's also empathetic, lovely, warm, and motherly even. Not that all women are meant to conform to this ideal; it's just that Sheryl is very much the sort of woman in business, or woman leader, that I would eventually like to become.

My other big hero nowadays is Paul Graham. Paul Graham created and sold ViaWeb in the 90s and then co-founded YCombinator, which funds and advises early stage startups. He also writes essays about risk and reward, doing what you love, and how not to die (as a startup). I like the way that Paul encourages young hackers to view uncertainty (as in, if you do a startup you will probably fail - most startups fail - but here is why it's still a better idea than taking that safe job at a large company. And, here is how you can maximize your chances of success...) I think it's a useful approach to getting started as an artist too since, as my parents keep reminding me, most artists don't succeed (at least not commercially).

For as long as I can remember, I have craved outside affirmation of myself as an artist. I longed for a mentor, someone like George Balanchine was to Suzanne Farrell, to tell me with authority that I had real talent and calling as an artist. Paul Graham has encouraged me not to worry so much what other people think or even whether I am talented enough. (Even Larry and Sergey weren't sure they had what it took to start their own company.) Paul has also encouraged me to not give up, to keep iterating and striving to do excellent work. Paul Graham is what I read when I'm feeling discouraged as a makeup artist. Like Lauren Fleshman, Paul Graham is also a dreamer, doer, and inspirer (not to mention enabler) to young entrepreneurs.

There are various other people who count, in a more limited sense, as my heroes as well. None of them has individually captured my imagination the way that Lauren Fleshman, Suzanne Farrell, Sheryl Sandberg, and Paul Graham have, but all of them have produced work that made me think ah, I want to be like that.

My makeup heroes are Pati Dubroff and Lucia Pieroni. Pati Dubroff represents the apex of the makeup style that comes most instinctively to me - making women look beautiful and glamorous while looking like themselves: the Vanity Fair or Harper's Bazaar celebrity cover look. Lucia Pieroni is amazingly versatile. She has created gorgeously natural looks for Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, and Nicole Kidman on the covers of Vogue, but she also does more fantastical looks for runway shows and high fashion editorials. The remarkable thing is that I am able to recognize her work through all these diverse forms - it has something to do with the way she blends and chooses her colors, the way her work retains a certain softness and lightness even when the actual look is quite harsh and dramatic. I would love to have the kind of career that either Pati Dubroff or Lucia Pieroni has.

My writing heroes are too numerous to list. Heading the list, though, would be Madeleine L'Engle and Emily Dickinson. I love Madeleine L'Engle for the sensitivity of her writing; Emily Dickinson for the expansiveness of her quirky poetry. Emily must also have been very brave to keep writing and preserving her poems even though she was barely published and never recognized in her lifetime.

Artist heroes are also too many to name, but Quentin Blake (he illustrated most of Roald Dahl's books - I love how his pictures seem so joyful and effortless), Edgar Degas (he claimed to be trying to capture movement itself, but his paintings of dancers convey much more), Rene Gruau (one of the original fashion illustrators - I love his use of bold color and strong brush strokes), and John Singer Sargent (for his sense of composition and the way he makes his subjects look so elegant) are surely among them.

Acting heroes would be Edward Norton and Cate Blanchett.3 Many actors (even critically acclaimed ones, like Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Portman) strike me as playing similar characters over and over in all their movies. In Audrey's and Natalie's cases, someone with elegance and class (even when playing a prostitute and stripper, respectively, both actresses exhibited this quality) that audiences respond to for those very traits. Edward Norton and Cate Blanchett are so good at what they do that they disappear into their roles nearly every time.

My final two semi-heroes are Paul Buchheit and Marc Andreessen. Both are successful entrepreneurs and startup investors (Paul created Gmail and Friendfeed, Marc did Netscape and Ning). Like many of my heroes, both are also not only extremely good at what they do, but insightful and articulate as well. Paul especially has taught me the importance of humility when facing uncertain outcomes.

I think that many people who do great things have a moment of arriving among their heroes, when they realize that the people they have always admired from a distance have now become colleagues and friends. For example, Lauren Fleshman tells of the first time she raced against Carrie Tollefson, a runner that she had idolized for years. It was unreal to think that she was now competing at the same level.4

Like many makeup artists, I dream of working with the best photographers, stylists, hairdressers, and actresses/models. I also dream of one day counting the likes of Paul Graham, Paul Buchheit, and Marc Andreessen as colleagues and friends. What the stars of Silicon Valley would want to do with an aspiring makeup artist is beyond me, though Paul Graham at least recognizes the affinity between artists and hackers (that both are makers).

In any case, one can dream.

Who are your heroes? Whom would you most want to work with?

- esther-emmanuel


[1] One similarity among my heroes is that I admire people who are not only excellent at, but also thoughtful and articulate about what they do.

[2] Every once-in-a-while email letters that I write to my friends.

[3] I've noticed that I am easily influenced by the standards and tastes of the people around me, and that I will start to feel bad for not being the same way. For example, in my last year at Stanford I was taking a lot of graduate classes in neuroscience, and I started to internalize that the most valuable and interesting problems to be working on had to do with circuits and cells. I also started feeling that the arts were less valuable because nothing new was being discovered (feelings, beauty, meaning and humor have been around for as long as human beings have), and furthermore if it was all subjective what constituted good art then why try to be good at all? While I could name a bunch of reasons for why art is valuable and why I shouldn't feel ashamed to want to try to become the best artist that I could be, it was watching Edward Norton's performance in American History X that reaffirmed for me that 1) yes, you can be really, unequivocally good as an artist (I often think that with a comparable level of training and experience I could do at least as good a job acting as many Hollywood stars currently do, but I could tell that even with all the training in the world I probably couldn't be as good as Edward Norton was in that movie), 2) that good art does matter, in that it reaches out and touches some people and possibly changes them, and 3) that I wanted to be that good as an artist (though not necessarily as an actor), and that I wanted to try to touch and change people with my life in that way too.

[4] Maybe that is what heaven will be like - the moment of arriving among saints and heroes who have now become one's friends.