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Sherry Lansing

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A Season for Everything

Posted: 09/19/06 08:34 PM ET

I like the quote "There's a season for everything." I've always had this great fear that time would run out and life would have passed me by. I realized that I didn't want to die at my desk. I wanted to do something else and began to wonder: Am I defined by my job and if so, what kind of a person am I? Is this really what I want to say with my life? Of course, I loved the movies and the movie business. I ran Fox for over three and a half years, produced movies for ten years, and then ran Paramount Pictures for over twelve years. I loved my job, but at a certain point it became repetitive. The highs weren't as high, and the lows weren't as low.

So I asked myself: What is it that really gives me pleasure? The answer is giving back. From the time I was twelve, I'd always been carrying these little tin cans around, trying to raise money for causes. I've always loved that kind of activism.

But it was a process -- it took five years. I talked to everybody about it -- to my husband, to my girlfriends, to my therapist, endlessly. I thought about the people I idolized -- people like Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King Jr. -- and what they had done with their lives. And, in my teeny tiny way, I wanted to do what small part I could to follow in their footsteps.

I thought: What is my worst fear? Would I be bored? Would I have enough to do? Would I miss my job? I remember someone once asking me, "Will you regret not the things you did, but the things you didn't do?" So I concluded that I'd have no respect for myself if I didn't try to do something different. I thought, What's the worst that can happen? If it's a mistake, okay, I'll go back and make movies; you are allowed to change your mind.

Somewhere in my midfifties I realized that I was seeing a line of sorts -- and that line was sixty. So, with sixty looming, I did it. It just felt right. I knew it was the right time, and so I retired from the entertainment business and committed myself to a career in philanthropy. I formed my own foundation dedicated to cancer research and education. I serve on the board of the Carter Center and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which disburses $3 billion in funds for stem cell research. I am a regent of the University of California and chair of its Health Services Committee. With my partner, Civic Ventures, I'm starting a movement, Primetime, for those sixty and older to retire and give something back to the community. The funny thing is that I'm busier than I've ever been.

My advice on overcoming fears is to prepare for them. Talk about your fears -- with your friends, your family, or in therapy, which I believe in. And then confront them. You don't have to do it fast, but once you've done it in your head, once you've visualized the worst-case scenario, it becomes easier to put one foot in the water and then the other.

I honestly can tell you that this is the happiest time of my life. It doesn't take anything away from what I was before; I still love movies, I still love my old friends. But now I have so many new friends, and I'm constantly learning new things. The big difference is that I control my own days and set my own agenda; I don't do anything that I don't want to.

I was in Paris recently and went for a walk in the Tuileries. I've probably walked through the Tuileries twenty times in my life. But I realized it was the first time I'd ever been there without a cell phone attached to my ear. It was a moment of pure joy. And I realized how lucky I was to have given it to myself.

--Excerpted from On Becoming Fearless ... In Love, Work and Life.

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