11 Powerful People Who Changed My Destiny (Without Ever Knowing It)

As I’m nearing the end of my 30s, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how ridiculously fortunate I am to have learned from some of our generation’s greatest minds. But the more I considered it, the more I realized something odd — some of these people taught me invaluable lessons that changed me…yet they didn’t actually do much for me. It was a simple gesture or conversation that permanently altered my life, without their ever knowing it.

Consider how profound this could be. Over the years I’ve listened to hundreds of people — friends, family, job candidates — say they ache to do something that makes a difference in the world, so they focus on the “do something” part. “I should work for a different company.” / “I should volunteer for community service.” / “I should [fill in the blank].”

But when I look at this group who made a difference to me without doing much, it was simply because: 1) They were damn good at what they did, and
2) They were willing to share their truths with others.

Unlike so many, they focused on the “be something” part, and arguably led lives with an exponential impact.

After I nearly died 8 years ago, I had a realization about why we’re here. I’ll share more later, but for now I’ll just say this: I’m convinced we’re here on Earth to do the thing we’re really good at. And not just to do it, but to pour ourselves into it, fully and completely.

Doing what you’re good at sometimes takes more grit and fight that you’d think. But we came into this world fighting to breathe air; “the fight” is fundamental to our physical survival and equally imperative to our spiritual survival. The only alternative to “the fight” is atrophy. To fight is to live.

Over the past year, I had a second realization. The greatest impact happens when you live 100% truthfully. To thine own self be true. The “own self” is not “self-ish”. In fact, it’s the starting point of all goodness. Just as you must secure your own oxygen mask before you do so for your children, so too must you start with “Who am I really, and what do I want?”. This is how you guide and inspire those you love to survive to their fullest. Your truth is your oxygen, and it’s theirs too.

These people who dedicated their lives to being something ironically have multiplied their ability to do something. Amazing how much we can make a difference simply by being who we actually are, and sharing it truthfully with the world.

1. Francis Ford Coppola —Comfort Those in Pain

I was scheduled to attend a dinner hosted by Francis and his wife Eleanor, but sprained my ankle a few days prior and ended up on crutches. I thought about canceling, embarrassed at the mere thought of showing up in a long red ballgown…and crutches. But I sucked it up and went anyway.

Indeed, I felt ridiculous trying to get up the carpeted stairs, navigate across the rocky outdoor area, and stand there balancing a glass of his finest Cabernet alongside my 2 wooden crutches. When we sat down at the table, my ankle throbbed with pain as I strained to place the crutches to my side. Just then, in the corner of my eye, I saw Francis look at me and almost instinctively make a bee line to my side. He put his hand on my shoulder, leaned in, and asked what happened. I recounted the story of the cat who darted in front of my Great Dane in a busy parking lot, and how not letting go of her leash catapulted me into a bush. Francis laughed, and shared a story about a recent injury. He then looked at me warmly, took my hands in his, and thanked me for showing up despite the pain.

It was a short conversation, but it was deeply moving how at this fancy dinner with all these fancy people, he stood up from his table and walked across the room to speak with the pain-stricken, clearly embarrassed stranger in crutches. He went out of his way to show vulnerability to someone who felt powerlessly vulnerable. That one action has stayed with me for years and inspired me to seek out the person in the room most in pain, and most in need of love. It showed me how mere acknowledgement and a little bit of vulnerability can have a lasting impact. It’s that simple.

2. David Sacks —Teach the Next Generation

A few years after moving to Silicon Valley, I invited David Sacks to give a speech to entrepreneurs. David is a co-founder of PayPal, the Producer of the acclaimed movie “Thank You for Smoking”, and at the time was building a new company called Yammer (which he later sold to Microsoft for $1.2 Billion). He agreed to do the speech, and then to my surprise sent me a draft of his talk for my feedback. I was in my 20s and new to the world of tech. Still, I read through David’s draft, marked up all my edits, and sent it back to him. Later that day, my phone rang. It was David. He wanted to talk through my suggestions. And so began a correspondence that leapfrogged my understanding of technology and the people who radically change it.

Working with David was a lesson in details, intensity, and clear thinking. He would send me drafts in the middle of the night, and as I read through them the next morning it was like a masterclass in how to think about technology. Each sentence was profound, laden with meaning that few ever get exposed to. David would call me, and we’d would go line by line, dissecting, discussing, and rearranging until the next draft. Along the way, he would tell me stories of his career, share his POV, point out logical fallacies in my writing, and challenge my thinking.

In that short period of time, David showed me that greatness isn’t just a function of genetics or luck. It’s also the result of intensity. And moreover, I’m still shocked that he spent that time with me. When so many other of his fellow entrepreneurs would have done otherwise, David took it as his responsibility to share what he learned with a young, ambitious “woman in tech”. It sounds so simple, yet so few people actually do it.

Whenever I spend time with young people, I treat each conversation the way David did with me…sharing the whole of what I’ve learned, and investing time in the next generation as a matter of responsibility.

3. Dave Goldberg — Treat Everyone as Your Equal

A lot of times, well-known people don’t live up to their reputations. But Dave Goldberg did. Dave is the late husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Survey Monkey, and was widely known as one of the most genuine leaders in technology. I will never, ever forget my one experience with him that left an indelible mark on me. He was sitting at a cafe with someone I knew, who was also very influential. As I approached these two powerful men to say hello, for a moment I felt like an imposter. I was a young woman who was early in her tech career, and you know, what did I have to say that would matter to them? But I swallowed my fear, raised my head, and walked over.

And…it didn’t go so well.

The guy I knew said hi and spoke to me for a bit, but he didn’t introduce me to Dave, and it was clear he felt I was an interruption. I stood there making small talk, and then finally decided to walk away, embarrassed that I ever made the effort.

Just then, Dave stood up. He put out his hand, looked me in the eye, introduced himself, and asked about me. If I can begin to describe how much this moment changed me, it would be clear proof that simple actions matter a lot. In that moment, Dave acknowledged me. He saw me. He treated me with respect, and as an equal.

In technology today, we focus a lot on the complexities of empowering women, and for good reason. But what often goes unrecognized are all these micro-moments, these micro-actions, that add up to something very big. Dave’s simple but important decision to stand up and acknowledge me gave me confidence to walk up to many tables thereafter, to “lean in” even when other people might not be inviting me to do so.

To this day, regardless of “title” or “influence”, I think about Dave and acknowledge everyone...especially young people for whom my acknowledgment might just give them the courage to keep leaning in.

4.& 5. Ron & Kelly Meyer — Your Reputation is Everything

I worked for Ron & Kelly during law school. Ron was the co-founder of CAA (the most prestigious talent agency in Hollywood) and at the time was the COO of Vivendi Universal. By all measures, he was one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. Kelly was a non-profit leader, environmentalist, and philanthropist who had every bit Ron’s fire, and more. They had a huge, ocean front mansion in Malibu. They were close friends with numerous celebrities of course…Michael Douglas & Catherine Zeta-Jones were their best friends, Cher was their daughter’s Godmother, Tobey MacGuire was their soon to be son-in-law. Basically, they had every reason to be full of themselves.

But Ron was known in Hollywood to be a genuinely kind, upfront person — a “stand up” kind of guy. And Kelly was exactly the same.

I spent a lot of time in their house, often joining them for dinner or hangouts on the patio, and can attest to their reputations. Yet one of the things that impacted me the most was years after I left that job, and emailed Kelly about something I wanted Ron’s opinion on. I was sure there was no chance in hell he would call me.

But the next day, my phone rang. “Yes, I have Ron Meyer on the line for you, please hold” said a woman’s voice. And sure enough it was Ron, reaching out to support me. I was shocked that he and Kelly even took the time, and then made the effort to actually call.

There are reasons few people get far ahead. And I’m pretty sure Ron showed me one of them. This was my 1st lesson in relationships. Your reputation is everything, and its not something you can turn “on” and “off”. Ron & Kelly inspired me to be the exact same person to everyone, no matter what. Because how you do one thing is how you do everything.

6. Sheila Nevins — Everyone has a story

Sheila is the Steven Spielberg of documentaries (or rather, Steven is the Sheila Nevins of filmmaking). She just retired after 30 years as the Executive Producer for Original Programming at HBO. She is the powerhouse behind every documentary you’ve seen on HBO. She’s won 26 Academy Awards, and 32 individual Primetime Emmy Awards (more than any other person in history).

I met Sheila while I was in college, and became close with her and her family. We spent many holidays together at her NYC apartment, and Sheila and I would talk in depth about her current projects…working with Spike Lee, a piece about child cancer survivors, an upcoming project with Rory Kennedy. The way she would tell the stories was like nothing I’d ever seen before. She spoke slowly, with gripping language, and an intense gaze. And when she described the story, it was as if she was inside the subject’s mind, seeing it all from the inside out.

Sheila would sometimes give me “assignments” to screen a documentary and report back on my opinion. Other times, she would ask about my life, question after question that was more like a therapy session than anything. I was shocked that she was curious about my life, and even more shocked she found it fascinating. As she delved into my past, I studied the way she asked questions, both her words and her tone. It took me years to master, but observing Sheila’s approach taught me how to find great stories.

My entire career was built on the power of narrative. Sheila taught me that every single person has a GREAT story if you ask the right questions, and listen. Consequentially, I’ve been able to help hundreds of entrepreneurs tell their stories over the last decade, helping them build meaningful, enduring companies. Everyone has a story — it’s just a matter of finding it.

7. Heath Ledger — Be Who You Really Are

Heath and I met when we were both in our 20s. He wasn’t yet world-famous, and frankly seemed like another shallow Hollywood actor…at first. He fumbled in conversation, and I could tell he was trying to live up to the party boy, Aussie stereotype that everyone probably pegged him for. I was about to write him off during a conversation when he started talking to me about photography. I asked him to tell me more, and that was the beginning of getting to know the real Heath Ledger.

Our conversations turned from meaningless dribble to deep, introspective discussions on light, and perspective, and texture. We talked about painting, and people, and life. We didn’t know each other long, but it was long enough for me to realize how incredibly suppressed this artist was, and the depth of talent that lied below what everyone else saw.

It was years later that truly impacted me. Not his death, but his life. He actually started living it. He chose roles that were complex and socially impactful, like Ennis in Brokeback Mountain. He fell in love with a real woman, with equal talent and intelligence. He started producing films, and working with esteemed filmmakers who became his mentors. He was flourishing.

We all know how it ended, but that’s not the point. I think anyone who knew Heath a lot or even a little would agree that watching him become the artist he actually was — the person he actually was — forever changes the way you think. For me, it inspire me to keep becoming who I am, and to do everything in my power to encourage everyone else to do the same. Life is too short, sometimes tragically so, not to.

8. Ilya Segalovich — Commit to 100% Passion

I took a group of tech entrepreneurs to visit Ilya’s company, Yandex, in Moscow. While most Americans won’t know it, Yandex is the “Google” of Russia and Ilya was essentially Sergey Brin. We’d actually been scheduled to meet with one of Ilya’s product leaders, and on the way there I got a phone call saying they had to cancel. I was heartbroken, and shared that I was with a group of founders who came a long way to see Yandex. The woman told me to just show up, and they would find someone else to replace our host. We arrived and were seated in a large room. A chair was placed in the front, and as I looked ahead and wondered how this would turn out, I heard footsteps. We all turned around, and to our shock, it was Ilya Segalovich walking toward us. He walked slowly, and looked very tired and thin. He sat in the chair at the front, crossed his legs, and raised a microphone to his mouth as he softly began to talk. It was very clear that Ilya was not well, but he said that Yandex was his passion and he wanted to meet us. He sat with us for over an hour, answering every single question. It was clear he was in pain, but he refused to leave until he shared the story of Yandex, and all our questions were answered.

One year later, Ilya died of cancer.

That vision of him hobbling into the room, sitting on the chair with his frail legs crossed, and straining to speak into the microphone is burned into my mind.

Ilya inspired me to think differently about what I do. That is — to build a career I am passionate about, and to be passionate until the very last day.

Other people can choose to separate work and personal life, that’s noble in itself. But for me, I want to be so passionate about my work that there is no difference because I am doing what I love. Even until my very last day.

9. LeVar Burton — Make others feel heard and loved

My previous venture firm invested in EdTech, and that’s how I met LeVar. He was about to relaunch Reading Rainbow as an app, and agreed to give a speech about his views on childhood education to my group of entrepreneurs. I was raised on Reading Rainbow, and have visceral recollections of watching the butterflies dance across the screen while the theme song played “I can be anything…”. I can see myself, a little girl of 6 years old, sitting cross-legged in front of the television while LeVar read books to me. To me. So when he agreed to jump on the phone with me ahead of the speech, I was…speech-less. How insane that this girl who watched him on television from a small, farm town in Maryland was now about to join him on a conference call. My hand quivered as I dialed in, and my heart pounded so loud I thought maybe he would hear. But then he joined the call…

“Hello, Christen!”, he exclaimed. “I am so glad to speak with you”. He was exuberant and kind, the very same LeVar I grew up with. It was like I was speaking with an old friend. We chatted about the talk, his new app, his mother, and my time as an elementary teacher in South Central L.A. and in the Peace Corps. He was attentive and asked me questions about my own teaching experiences, and views.

When he arrived in person a few weeks later, my heart started palpitating again. He walked across the room, every head turning, straight toward me.

“Christen! It’s YOU!”, he exclaimed. He gave me a huge hug, and then held my hands as we spoke. I have never felt so immediately comfortable with anyone, so loved and accepted by someone who barely knew me. It was a very special moment in my life…maybe because after listening to him read books to me on a screen, I went on to become a writer and storyteller. Or maybe just because it was like returning to my childhood, and having that moment feel exactly the same.

I’m fairly certain LeVar is thoughtful about the role he played in so many childhoods, and the responsibility that creates when he meets those kids as adults. We’re all just kids in larger formats now, still in need of love and inspiration. LeVar knows that by making others feel heard and loved, you 10x your ability to ensure they hear you.

LeVar showed me that I needed to do a much better job celebrating others, listening to and asking about them (instead of focusing on what I was going to say next), and going out of my way to make them feel loved.

LeVar taught me as a kid that I could be anything. And as an adult, he showed me what it means to truly be a role model, for life.

10. Charles Phan — Stop chasing money

Charles and I met during the Hawaii Food Festival in Honolulu. I was there on sort of a boondoggle business trip, and my venture firm ended up participating on a few panels since we’d invested in some notable food tech companies. If you don’t know Charles, he’s a celebrity in the San Francisco food scene and well-known worldwide among chefs because he is the pioneer of modern Vietnamese cuisine. A refugee who came to the U.S. as a teenager, he eventually opened a small restaurant called The Slanted Door in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. It became such a hit that he relocated it to a sprawling location in the Embarcadero, and was subsequently recognized many times over by the James Beard Foundation, including in 2004 as “Best Chef: California”.

Basically, Charles is insanely impressive because here’s a guy who escaped extreme poverty, started life over in a new country, and then radically changed the world of food by just being who he was.

“You know, I used to be in software sales at Cisco”, he said to me. I was shocked at this revelation, as he stood with me in a hotel hallway for 45 minutes and we talked about his journey, his mom, his new book, and our shared love of food. I kept thinking that at any point, he might realize he was talking to a no-name in the food world and decide to end the conversation. But — nope. He was genuinely interested in the conversation, and we kept talking until he absolutely had to go.

He gave me his card, and we parted ways.

It was one conversation, but it stayed with me. Because Charles left a lucrative career at a time when technology was getting huge, to run a tiny restaurant in the Mission…with no experience whatsoever. And then when he could have just kept it going and live comfortably, he took another huge risk in expanding it. That risk paid off, but watching Charles stand there talking to me for nearly an hour, I could see why. He stayed in the conversation because he was passionate. It’s the same reason he left Cisco, the same reason he took such large gambles, and the same reason he changed the world of Asian cuisine as we know it.

Chasing money is a fool’s game. But chasing passion, and transforming it into grit and commitment, is how you change the world.

11. Lidia Tenaglia — Don’t Just Be Honest, Be Raw

This is one of my favorite people who I knew briefly, but had a huge impact. Lidia and her husband Chris are the co-founders of ZPZ Productions. You might not think you know ZPZ but…you do. It’s the logo that flashes at the end of all Anthony Bourdain shows.

And here’s why — Lidia is the one who discovered Anthony Bourdain as the world best knew him, the television star who changed how we eat, travel, think, and live.

I met Lidia because, as wild as this sounds, ZPZ was making a pilot documentary about my former company and I was the point-person to work with all the producers. I was the one who originally pitched the idea to them, and you can imagine my utter shock when they actually took it seriously.

While on a trip to NYC, we were hosting a party so I invited Lidia and Chris to join. We sat on a navy, tufted couch with a glass of wine in hand, and ended up talking all night.

Lidia told me the whole story of “Tony”, as she called him. They were like brother and sister…that unique, familial bond of equal parts love and annoyance. She recounted when she first met him. He’d just published Kitchen Confidential, and though she was skeptical whether a writer’s heartfelt wit could translate on-screen, she was certain after meeting him that Tony had something very, very special.

We talked about the cooking shows at the time, and how US-centric they all were. It was a different climate then, and though ZPZ was aiming to do something very unusual with Bourdain, they weren’t sure it would work. Still, there was just something magical about the way Tony saw the world, and told the story. He was beyond honest. He was raw.

When the news of Tony’s suicide filled every media outlet, I didn’t think of him first. I thought of Lidia. How incredibly devastated she must be, this woman who was his business partner, his friend, and in so many ways, his family.

But I also thought about the debt of gratitude we all owe Lidia. Anthony Bourdain didn’t just change the way we see food — he changed the way we see the world. And the way we tell stories about it. Lidia’s hunch when she first met Tony was right. He had something magical.

Yet what she didn’t tell me that night was just as important — she had something magical too. She knew that being honest is great, but being raw is how you really make a dent in the world.

When people celebrate everything Bourdain did for the world, I concur. But I hope by reading this, some know that behind that special man was a very special woman who saw him…really saw him…and brought his talent to the world, for the better.

Lidia taught me one of the most powerful lessons of all. In a world that loves to edit and rinse and repeat and repackage, it is only in seeing the raw truth and telling it — without editing — that we can actually do something profound.

In memory of Heath, Ilya, and Anthony. And thank you to all the leaders and influencers out there (the famous and even more importantly, the everyday people) who recognize their power and responsibility in the world, and are committed to using it for good. The world needs more people like you.

Written by

I write about serious tech stuff for work. But here, I tell true tales from my wacky, wonderful life. (read more: www.christenobrien.com)

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