5 Critical Lessons I Learned From Working For Viola Davis

Actress and producer Viola Davis poses with her daughter and former assistant Paige Simpson (right).

Actress and producer Viola Davis poses with her daughter and former assistant Paige Simpson (right).

By Paige Simpson

Before I started working as Viola Davis’ assistant and nanny, I only knew her as a phenomenal actress. I’d seen her in The HelpDoubt and several episodes of Law & Order, and I even had a picture of her hanging on my wall. It’s a picture from a Los Angeles Times photoshoot. In it she has her natural short hair and is looking up and her eyes seemed to tell a beautiful story of power. I remember seeing it and thinking, ‘That’s someone I can really look up to.’

Now, after nearly two years, I’m lucky enough to count the woman I so admired — whom I still admire — as a personal mentor and friend. From traveling to Toronto for the filming of Suicide Squad and reading scripts for Viola’s production company to planning her 50th birthday party and wedding vow renewal, I was constantly learning. Taking the next step in my career, I recently moved on to a new job in development at Showtime, but I’ll carry the lessons Viola taught me wherever I go. Here are five:

1. Own your story. There’s power in embracing your vulnerabilities and pain.

One of the first things I learned about Viola is that she’s very proud of her upbringing. She talks about how she grew up in adjunct poverty, dumpster-diving for food and living with roaches. She experienced racism regularly. A lot of people who come from poverty try to run away from their past, but Viola is all about honoring your path and letting those experiences drive you.

The way Viola speaks about her upbringing makes me more comfortable embracing mine. I didn’t grow up with her particular struggles, but I definitely used to keep parts of my life hidden in order to seem more glamorous. Growing up, I never wanted people to know that I was raised without a father. In elementary school, I’d make up elaborate stories about where my dad was and why he couldn’t be at parent-teacher conferences. “He’s in the military and based in Hawaii,” or “He’s busy saving the world,” I’d volunteer. The truth is that he wasn’t any of those things, and witnessing Viola’s confidence talking about her own past inspires me to be OK sharing that my dad simply hasn’t been a part of my life. I no longer view the fact that I grew up without my father as something that reflects badly on me. I’m still me, and I’m still excelling. Now, when someone asks, “How’s your dad?” I just say, “I really don’t know what he’s up to. We talk every now and then.” Being honest and transparent can bring such peace to your life.

2. It’s okay to live in the unknown. It’s not okay to give up.

Viola has been acting her entire life, but she didn’t get her first major leading television role until just recently. She did several pilots, but none of them ever seemed to get picked up. She spent years auditioning, getting call-backs, and not landing the role. She could have easily given up or settled for making guest appearances, but she persevered not knowing what would be around the corner. Amazing things can happen when you stay strong in the face of uncertainty.

In college, I majored in biology. Like a lot of people, I started off figuring I’d pursue a subject I was interested in, thinking, ‘This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’ Then, a year in, you realize you don’t really want to do that anymore, but you know, you stick with it so you can graduate on time. Flash forward, and here I am pursuing a career that has nothing to do with my degree. I don’t necessarily see that as a failure — I’m still able to work in the industry I love — but there are times when I’ve looked back and thought I could be further along in my career if I’d done things differently. But in the spirit of owning my story, I embrace my path and wouldn’t change it. When I was in college, no one was telling me it was okay to not know what I wanted to do. If I’d known that it was okay to live with the unknown for awhile, I would have saved myself a lot of stress!

3. You deserve all of the wonderful things life has to offer.

Some people – especially women – have a tendency to feel unworthy when good things happen to us. Viola taught me that loving yourself unapologetically is key to success and happiness. No matter what experiences get you down, you have to trust that you’re here for a reason. Viola volunteers with Stuart House, a Los Angeles-based program providing support and resources to rape victims and their families. When women are raped, it not only takes away the power they feel over their bodies, but also their power over their spirits. They might feel guilty. Viola offers her support to show these women that what happened to them isn’t their fault and that they deserve to own their bodies and be happy again. It’s such an important and powerful reminder. I’m planning to volunteer with them too.

5 lessons from Viola Davis via Jopwell

4. You can be anything you want to be.

This is Viola’s signature mantra, and she’s constantly repeating it — to me, to herself, to her daughter Genesis, in speeches to young girls — because she wants us all to realize it’s not just some cliché. We recently went to a school in Dallas, and Viola was asking all the kids what they wanted to be. One little boy said he wanted to be an astronaut, and seeing the look on his face when she told him how great that was – and that he could do that – you realize how valuable that voice is.

5. Strive for significance, not just success.

Everyone wants to be successful, but not everyone realizes how much more significant it is to have an impact. Viola taught me that it’s crucial to reach back, reach to your sides, reach forward, and offer other people a hand. Don’t be one of those people who thinks, ‘I achieved this on my own, so other people can get here too.’ She is proof that even though there may never be a clear path paved out for you, you can, with the right persistence, move forward and be successful. I am working to become proof of that too, and I want to share it with everyone I know.

Images courtesy of Paige Simpson/The Well (Jopwell).
The Well

About The Well

The Well shares stories of and for Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American professionals and students. As Jopwell’s editorial hub, we are a source for career advice, thought leadership, and perspectives. Our mission is to diversify leading workforces across all industries and connect underrepresented ethnic minority talent with jobs they love. Follow @Jopwell on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Medium.
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