Q&A with actress, author, and producer, Marlee Matlin

How to ignore the ‘naysayers’ in your career

Regardless of the barriers she has faced, Marlee Matlin has refused to let the naysayers get in the way of her success. As she has stated, “The only thing I can’t do is hear. The rest is there for the taking.”

Earlier this month we invited academy award winning actress, author, producer and mother, Marlee Matlin to come share her story on how she achieved her dreams. At Microsoft, we believe our mission can only succeed if our culture is grounded in a growth mindset, where we are continuously learning. Each month we invite thinkers, doers, and shakers–people who have made a difference. This event is called, ‘Outside In’.

Matlin received worldwide critical acclaim for her film debut in “Children of a Lesser God,” for which she received the Academy Award for Best Actress. At 21, she became the youngest recipient of the Best Actress Oscar and only one of four actresses to receive the honor for her film debut. In addition to the Oscar, Matlin received the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama.

Since then, Matlin has starred in numerous film and television projects, including “Seinfeld,” “The West Wing,” “The Practice,” and “Law and Order SVU,”—garnering four Emmy nominations along the way. Matlin has helped raise awareness for better hearing health for millions of deaf and hard of hearing children and adults in developing countries. Most recently, she was instrumental in getting federal legislation passed in support of Closed Captioning both on television and on Internet broadcasts.

Marlee passionately answered some questions from us, about the importance of focusing on ‘ability’ instead of ‘disability’, inclusive office culture, and of course, how to ignore the ‘naysayers’ in your career.

Q: You have a great story about your parents wanting you to ‘grow up doing what you loved.’ At Microsoft, we believe that all employees should, ‘come as you are and do what you love.’ Your career is that ideal realized – what does that feel like?

A: I understand that people consider what I’ve done in my career as the realization of my dreams and that should feel great. But as long as there are individuals, for whatever reasons, who are unable to do what they love, who are prevented from achieving their dreams due to no fault of their own or because of barriers that are out there to prevent them, then I still believe there is more work to do. I can agree that personally, I have achieved so much, more than many had predicted, but for me, personal achievement is about living generously and sharing the formula for success with others who still face obstacles. So, in summary, it feels great but I have SO MUCH more to do!

Q: How do you achieve work life balance as an actress, author, producer, and mother?

A: I watched lots of “Bewitched” growing up and am able to split myself in two. Actually, it’s called being a Virgo and having a very understanding and supporting husband and family. We are very good planners and we simply take turns. Many times I am able to schedule work around my family and many times, I am not; that’s where my husband comes in. We have very extensive calendars, we try and get as much scheduled in advance and just make it work!

Q: What projects are you currently working on that you’re excited about?

A: I’m developing a comedy pilot for a digital comedy network as well as a pilot with actress Salma Hayek based on a true story that my producing partner and I found in the NY Times over a decade ago. I also am eager to reboot my YouTube pilot for “My Deaf Family,” (nearly 1 million views) and turn it into a reality series with a new family.

Q: We recently heard that you launched your own app. What incentivized you or sparked your interest?

A: So many people asked me where they could learn the basics of sign language when they were unable to find a local class or had difficulty learning from books. I quickly figured out that an app was a good place for teaching sign, considering that everyone carries their smart phones with them. So why not develop a basic primer for sign language and with me, who pretty much everyone knows as “that deaf actress!”

Q: You’ve stated, “The only thing I can’t do is hear, the rest is there for the taking”. Why is it important to focus on ‘ability’ instead of ‘disability’?

A: Labeling someone “disabled” – even if it’s just a word – already assumes failure or that something is lacking. I prefer to focus on the positives, of what you CAN do, of what you CAN achieve, rather than frame through the lens of “can’t do” or “impairment.” Words can make a big difference in how someone views themselves and I’m all about lifting people up rather than putting them down.

Q: Our Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft, recently shared her experience with ‘brick wall moments’ in her career, personal and professional challenges she’s faced along her way to success. Can you share a time where you came face to face with a personal or professional ‘brick wall’ and how you overcame that challenge?

A: The easiest one for me to remember and the one most people might have heard about was how critics, the day after I won the Oscar, said I would never work in Hollywood again simply because I didn’t speak or because I was Deaf. Despite the encouragement I got from my parents, friends like Henry Winkler and my teachers, that was the first time I saw myself as “handicapped.” And I hated it. So, what did I do? I followed examples of my family and mentors and I looked for advice. And for that I turned to my friend Henry Winkler who gave me the chance to reassess my career and helped put me on a path of self-determination, despite the odds. He did it with a wonderful quote that he had on a plaque that hung in his office – “If you will it, it is not a dream.” Basically, it was another way of saying, “Just do it.” And I did it. Today, it’s been 31 years and I’m still here, still working, still showing the naysayers I can do it.

Q: You have one of the most inspiring backstories in Hollywood – what would you say to someone who might feel defeated in their career? How should they ignore ‘naysayers’?

A: Like I said earlier, my dreams are not complete if there is one person out there who faces the same barriers as I did in my life and career. To that end, I say the same thing Henry and parents said to me – “Be creative. Make friends. Don’t give up!” The getting creative part is important because most times, people have no idea what you can do unless you SHOW them.

Q: You’re an advocate for diversity in the workplace. We certainly are as well. Why is an inclusive office culture so important?

A: It’s a reflection of the real world when diversity is part of one’s work environment. Life doesn’t choose who is where; it just happens, and it happens wonderfully, in all colors, in all different beliefs.  The work environment should reflect that too. The more different people you include the more you can achieve success together.

Q: Microsoft: If you could lead a project at Microsoft, what would you want to work on? What would your title be?

A: Creating better video conferencing systems, perhaps? Maybe my title would be “Director of Visual Communication Strategies!”