Life Lessons From a Hollywood Trailblazer "Change is What Invigorates"

Architects of Change

Sherry Lansing, The Sherry Lansing Foundation

By Sherry Lansing

Sherry Lansing became the first woman to run a major Hollywood film studio when she became president of 20th Century-Fox Studios in 1984. Eight years later she took on the role of CEO at Paramount Studios. Only at age 60 did Lansing leave the entertainment industry to start The Sherry Lansing Foundation which supports cancer research, health, and public education.  Lansing also sits on the boards of The Carter Center, Teach for America, The American Association for Cancer Research, and The Lasker Foundation.  In addition, she is vice-chair of the University of California Board of Regents and serves on the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything shows that women today have choices.

When I was growing up, there were only two career paths for women – to be a teacher or to be a nurse.  I am grateful to Gloria Steinem and women like her – the people who broke down the walls. Today, women have unlimited options. The U.S. almost had a woman president. Women run businesses; women run foundations. We have arrived.

But with those choices come consequences. If you decide that you want a career, and you want to devote a great deal of time and energy to that career, you have to make sacrifices. There are only 24 hours in a day. Women can get childcare and pregnancy leave, but there’s no doubt that if you’re spending 12 hours a day at work, there’s less time for human intimacy. It’s a mathematical certainty.

I feel blessed by the choices I have made, but I knew my limitations. When I set out on my career path, I knew what I was up against. I wanted very much to be independent. I couldn’t do it all at once. If I was to be married and have two children and try to advance in my career as the head of a studio, I would have felt pulled in a million different directions. And I wouldn’t have been able to give any of it my all. Had I told my bosses, “I want to go to my child’s soccer game, I’m leaving work now,” they would have said, “Fine, but don’t come back.” 

So I made choices, and I’m very content with the choices I made. But I gave up time -- to travel, to be with my girlfriends, who are very important to me, and to have a relationship – in order to work.

Then, in my 40s – I said to myself, “I know how to do this.” I had run a studio for years and produced movies that were successful. I began to think about the things I had missed and the things that I had yet to accomplish.

I met my husband when I was 46. He had two wonderful children, whom I adore and who are now my stepchildren. At that point, I started to find a balance. But even then I couldn’t go to all of my kids’ soccer and basketball games. Fortunately, they had wonderful mothers and stepfathers, and my husband is a director, so he had a more flexible schedule. 

Then in my early 50s I started to consider other options. After more than a decade of running Paramount Studios, I felt as if I was repeating myself. Life is about evolving and constantly changing. For me, change is good. Change is what invigorates. 

I started to care more about giving back, which I think is a natural evolution that happens in your 50s. I wanted to give back to cancer research, to health and to education. And I cared more about intimacy and about being there for my family, for my girlfriends and for my male friends.  So I left the movie business, and I started on the third chapter of my life, which is the most rewarding of all (although I’ve said that at each stage of my life). At 65, what you think is important is different from what you think is important at 25, 35, 45, etc.

At 60, I started The Sherry Lansing Foundation. In addition to cancer research, health, and education, I have also gotten very interested in individuals over the age of 50 who are devoting the Third Chapter of their lives to encore careers in public service.  I created a volunteer program called PrimeTime LAUSD, which connects retirees with volunteer opportunities at schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  I also created a program called the EnCorps Teachers Program, which recruits retiring math and science professionals to teach in the public school system. I am also able to support organizations that I am passionate about – Stand Up to Cancer, Teach for America, Big Brothers Big Sisters, RAND Health, the Lasker Foundation, and more.

You get to a certain point in your life where you care more about human relationships than ever before. Your values change. Life becomes less complicated. You get a real sense of peace. This is the happiest time of my life -- but you should always be able to say the happiest time of my life is “now.”

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  • Your post reads like 'the stages of a woman's life' and so it is! I'm just a couple years shy of 60 and am finding that life is both more challenging and more exciting than ever before. I have finally found my personal life's work and am only on the beginning of that yellow brick road; my grown daughters are now my best friends; my 2-year old grandson is the apple of my eye; my husband is my best friend and family is ever so precious. My parents and my sister have passed away and my mother-in-law is lost to Alzheimer's..."life" is very much like a half-polished gemstone - shiny on one side and coarse and rough on the other.

    Posted by LindaCSmith, 6 November 2009.

  • Oh, how I relate to your post.
    From 22 until now I have been in Television. First production then writing and producing. How hideous it was to be a woman in tv when I started n the 1980'! Just gross. And lonely. No one ever talks about that piece. I didn't meet my husband until I was 38, got married at 41 and had my son at 43. I've slowed down my interest in television because the hours are so unappealing. And now I'm slogging it out volunteering in my son's LAUSD public school. I'm 51 and I agree, it is more vital for me to do this work than anything previously. I don't know if it is so much as "giving back" as just feeling a call and seeing a need.
    I can't tell you how I see so many holes in the net at public schools especially now with the economic crisis. One thing that I see as a huge need is (for lack of better words) a Concierge for parents at LAUSD school...volunteers are repeating actions over and over again in all the schools which would be so much easier if they shared their data with each other. I broke ground at my local starbucks (donating to school now) but how nice would it have been if someone told me how they did it? I got the idea when my family and I were on a National Park road trip this summer and I saw a sign in a Provo Utah starbucks. But if all us volunteers started to cull our resources and share them, imagine how much it would improve the public schools in Los Angeles?

    thank you for your post. I'll go check out your partnership with schools...I had not known about it until now....see what I mean about a consierge?!

    Tracy Abbott Cook

    Posted by ByJove, 18 October 2009.