“Spend a little time doing things that make you feel good about yourself, so you don’t have to spend so much time doing things that make you feel good.” is Emmy Award-winning producer, Michele Kanan’s, guiding philosophy. She is an Emmy nominated writer who recently won an Emmy Award for her work as executive producer on the hit show, Amazon Prime’s STUDiO CiTY, and is the wife of actor, producer, and author, Sean Kanan and a mother to four grown children. While Michele is clearly a woman of many talents and makes it all seem effortless, she shares the lessons she learned about starting over, creating meaningful success, and choosing happiness over complacency, along with her strategy of “Don’t get in the ring if you don’t want to get knocked out.”
*You’re now an Emmy Award-winning producer for STUDiO CiTY, a hit series on Amazon, but you were living in a small town, running your first husband’s medical office, raising your children, as well as volunteering for charities, and being extremely active in your kids’ school PTO. Was there a turning point in your life that led to such a dramatic shift in your career?
I remember playing Bunco, a popular dice game that a group of mothers and I would play weekly to socialize, drink wine, and unwind from the monotony of childrearing. It was our version of a bowling league. One night, maybe it was the liquid courage from the wine, but I posed the question: “If money was no object, and you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do?” After a puzzled pause, one friend blurted out that she would renovate her bathroom. Many of the other moms mirrored similar types of responses. That night I got the message loud and clear, as I tossed and turned while trying to fall asleep, as this was when I did most of my best thinking as it was the only time that I was alone, uninterrupted, and didn’t feel guilty for being alone. I realized that I didn’t have a shared drive or vision with the people who were my peer group and close friends.
Where I didn’t feel inspired or visible, they were content. I had dimmed my inner light in order to fit in for the sake of my children. I guess I was just seeking approval by suppressing my dreams to the point that I lost myself. In the morning, I then made some bold changes and began some intense self-examination. I read my own journals to determine who I was, what I liked, and what excited me. I made a schedule for the week that included me this time. I got the kids on board by enrolling in classes so we could be homework buddies…ok so it was at NYU and I was living in California…but I found the mental stimulation I was looking for and I was willing to fight for it. With the support of my kids, I was regaining the pre-mommy person I had buried under all the diapers, homework, carpools, and drive-thrus. However, in a marriage, when one mate grows, and the other doesn’t, my first marriage abruptly ended. It was crushing for me to realize that I had to choose between being the strong, independent woman I wanted to be, and the lost little girl that was married to my now ex. Was this why my mother’s generation was so emotionally unavailable? Finding myself in a messy divorce, I had to resign myself to focus on my career with a resume tied to my ex and doing it alone.
As with any major change, the kids suffer the most and they were not emotionally capable of being my cheerleaders any longer. I had to “embrace the suck” and start from the bottom. I remember thinking, even though this is so tough, I feel alive, and I knew I had made the right choice, for all of us. I laid out all of my resources and analyzed what would be the best path forward. I jumped into film finance as I had plenty of contacts and experience with fundraising from the kids’ schools. I also took the opportunity to put myself on set for the projects I raised funds for and learned anything and everything I could to grow my roots in the business. I eventually bought my own camera and filming equipment and set it up at a studio. It was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying because I was doing it with four hurt teenage kids in tow. But amazing things happen when you are true to yourself and engaged in your life. Each step I took led to the next step until I won the Emmy last year for the show that I worked on with my kids and my new husband. In short, it’s vital to surround yourself with people that inspire, motivate, and encourage you.
*What wisdom would you share with your younger self?
Seek stimulation, not approval. I would tell myself not to try to fit into other people’s perceptions of being a “good girl.” You may find yourself one day feeling like a shadow of your former self, and not knowing what you like or enjoy. It’s easy to confuse being comfortable with enjoyment. Joy is not the absence of pain. Being creative can be terrifying but exhilarating. Do your best to find pursuits that make you feel ignited and passionate. I would tell my younger self to make space for people to get to know the real me and to allow room for our differences. I have never been a fan of blame but, by avoiding constructs, such as the terms “always” and “never,”, especially in arguments, blame can be repurposed to identify a solution instead of inflicting shame.
*What is something that being a successful working mother taught you?
Many women, and especially mothers, are almost internally programmed to be selfless. As a mom, it is virtually reflexive to respond to your family’s struggles or suffering by shifting into care mode. You can find yourself doing everything for everybody else and it happens so naturally that you don’t even notice it happening. If you really unpack this though, you begin to understand why flight attendants advise passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before assisting young children. Self-care is not selfish, it’s everything for everybody else and it happens so naturally that you don’t even notice it happening. If necessary.
*What is something that you hope you taught your children about wellness and self-care?
One of the most important things I have learned from my own experiences, that I truly hope I have modeled for my own children; is how vital it is to have my self-esteem built on what I do, and not how I look. In raising children, I’ve learned that it is all about marketing. How you pitch things to them will be how they perceive those things, and this is particularly true in terms of developing healthy habits and body image.
*How do you approach trying to make healthy meal choices?
Food has an extremely complex role in people’s lives, from variety to portion to frequency. I come from a large, Italian family and, like many cultures, food is served as love. Many times, a cannoli was the hug that I wanted and a pizza was the laugh that we shared. Historically, I think this originated from food being a scarcity, when sharing food with someone was an honor or something is done out of care though, thankfully for many of us, that is no longer the case. Food has become entwined with socialization, but I work hard to shift my mindset to take the emphasis off food and try to focus instead on health. I say “try” because the mental-gymnastics required to socialize without making poor food choices are Olympic-worthy. I’ve had to explain my ordering choices frequently, always remembering to frame it as a cool, fun way to eat, instead of a shame for not indulging.
Regardless of what nutritional approach you take, it is important to do things the right way, avoid shortcuts, and, most importantly, the right way for yourself. I found out by accident that I am extremely allergic to wheat. Gluten intolerance was something that impacted my life in so many negative ways over the years. I remember vomiting in school so often that my teachers thought I had anxiety issues! I suffered inflammation and terrible migraines. Once I became aware of what was causing my problems, I could find a healthy path forward, where food no longer made me not feel well.
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