Something Significant: Tiffany Shlain

Inspiration into Action | Happy Living“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
(Albert Einstein)

I first met Tiffany Shlain in The Corner Bar of the Hotel Boulderado in Boulder, Colorado in March of 2015. Well, Tiffany wasn’t there with me, not in person anyway. But she was with me in the form of her award-winning documentary Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology. I was eating dinner alone on a business trip. I had my computer behind my plate, headphones in my ears, and I spent an hour and twenty-five minutes enthralled in her story about how personal and family crises had led her to investigate the connections between her own experiences and the world at large. I was really blown away by her movie, and her message. I knew I had discovered another ordinary person doing extraordinary work in this world. I knew Tiffany was dedicating her life to doing work she loves and which creates something of value to others. And I knew, that night in Colorado that I needed to interview her for our popular series, Something Significant.

It took me nearly a year and a half to achieve my aim, but I hope you’ll soon agree that it was worth the wait. And so it is my great pleasure to introduce one of the most creative and innovative people I know – Tiffany Shlain.

Hi Tiffany, tell us a little about yourself and how you got where you are today?

Hi Matt, thanks for giving me this wonderful opportunity to share my story. Well, growing up, I always used to watch movies with my family. Films were really a way to touch on some of the big issues in life; moral dilemmas, meaning and purpose. Every Sunday, my family and I would go to the movies and then to dinner and ice cream and discuss the movie, but I never thought I could really become a filmmaker – I was supposed to be a surgeon. My father was a surgeon and that’s what he wanted for me. He bought me the book The Making of a Woman Surgeon four times when I was growing up! When I went to college at U. C. Berkeley I took a film history class as an elective and I just fell in love with the idea of how film could be used to share ideas, and to change and evolve culture.

When I first started making films, it seemed that I was never able to raise enough money, so I worked in technology, which was also a passion of mine, to pay for my independent films. I was very into computers. I was introduced to the Internet very early on and I thought, “This is going to change the world.” Then, I was given an opportunity to create from scratch an award program honoring excellence on the Internet. We called it the Webby Awards. Twenty years later, the New York Times calls a Webby “The Internet’s Highest Honor”. I loved my ten years with the Webbys. It was fun honoring people and highlighting the best websites. It was also those years that gave me a deep sense of how much the Web changed the way people live.

For each Webby event, I would make short films to tap into just where I thought we were with the joining of technology and humanity – how it was changing the way we did everything. So I was making more and more films, and finally decided I wanted to go back into it full-time. So I sold the Webby Awards and started a film studio in San Francisco, The Moxie Institute Film Studio + Lab.  I wanted to combine all of my experience with the web and the power of films to make social change. One of the first films I made was called Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. It premiered at Sundance. It looked at the issues of women’s rights and reproductive rights. I also made a film called The Tribe, which was a look at American Jewish identity through the history of the Barbie Doll. I always raised just as much money as I did for the actual film to create a discussion kit and book to go with it. To me, the film is the emotional trigger to open up your mind to ideas (inspiration), but then I wanted to provide lots of materials to go deeper on the idea (action).

Then I set out to create my first feature film, Connected. It is a feature-length documentary that explores our connectedness from the beginning of time until today, and then into the future. It also includes a really robust educator kit and discussion kit. Unexpectedly, a deeply moving family story began unfolding right in the middle of making the film that entirely reshaped it. As a result, the film weaves a personal story with a universal one.

One of the ending ideas from Connected is: “What’s the potential with this many people on-line? What can we do with that?” One of the first things I did after making the film was to try and answer that question. To facilitate this, I decided to make a collaborative movie with people from all over the world. I wanted to make a script that speaks to everyone, that speaks to what connects us at the highest level. My first collaborative film is called A Declaration of Interdependence. It launched a whole new way of making films that I call ‘cloud filmmaking’. We write a really tight script, and then invite people to answer questions about something important, and then we weave it all together into a film.

I am really interested in neuroscience and social science so I made a film called The Science of Character. We decided to premier it in a new way, so we offered the film for free and to schools all around the world, and Character Day was born. It’s a day when we encourage everyone to stop their very busy lives and spend one day watching a film about character development, and we provide all these resources to create a global discussion. We were expecting maybe 250 screenings our first year (2014), and there were more than 1,500. Last year, we added two new films for Character Day and had over 6,700 screening events throughout the world. Our 3rd Annual Character Day is set for September 22, 2016 and, so far, more than 31,000 groups in 66 countries have already signed up!

How has significance played a role in your journey? (My philosophy on significance has two components: doing something you love and creating something of value to others.)

Well, I guess I grew up in it. You see, both of my parents love what they do. Well, my father has passed away but he was a surgeon and a writer, and my mother is a psychologist. And they both did things that were of service to others… my father in healing people physically and my mother by healing people emotionally. So, for me, it was a given that I would do something that would give back and that I loved to do. I feel so grateful because now I understand how rare it is to be raised in an environment with two parents who loved what they did – the gift they gave me was the expectation that I could, and I would do the same. Of course, there are tough days, and difficulties to overcome in my work, but I try to never lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that I work with incredible people, that I have wonderful supporters, and that my work is bringing people together for a common purpose.

Was there a specific moment or situation when you became aware of those things that are most significant to you?

Yes, there was. It was that moment when I was doing the Webby Awards: It was a huge full-scale production in the Opera House in San Francisco, with three thousand people attending, and we were doing this show to honor the best of the Internet. We had films and performances, comedians, and the whole deal. It took so much energy from me. In my twenties, I was working ridiculous hours. And I was really thinking about having children soon, and how I could scale what I was doing and still give back without needing to give everything that I had in terms of time and energy. It was during that time that I made Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. It was my first real film outside of the Webbys that I had made in nearly seven years. And that film got into Sundance. And the charity Planned Parenthood used the film for all their 30-Year Anniversary events. And that film still plays to this day.

That was such a ‘light bulb’ moment for me because I thought, “If I go back to film, combined with the power of the Web, I can really scale change.” I realized that with a film, once it’s made, it captures all the creativity and message for change within it. I don’t need to keep re-doing it like I needed to with The Webby Awards each year. It was the scale of filmmaking which appealed to me, and knowing that once made, it can exist without me. And every time it screens, it still has all the impact and creativity it did when I made it. So that was a big light bulb. I had to go back to filmmaking, combined with everything that I’d learned with the Web, to make change. That was a real epiphany for me, especially as a mother, when I realized I could continue to make the impact in the world that I want and still be present for the people that I love. That was in 2003. And that’s when I decided to sell the Webbys and start my own film studio. So now, at this point in my life, I’ve made 28 films and they play all over the world, at any given moment, and they’re all happening, and they don’t need me anymore. My favorite thing is getting an email from someone about how one of my films moved them into taking action that has changed their life.


What obstacles have you faced in your pursuit of significance? How did you overcome them?

My biggest obstacles have been getting the right chemistry and combination of people, and of course, the proper funding to do a project… and then seeing it all through to the end. In every one of my films, I start out full of excitement and enthusiasm, but inevitably, there comes a moment, or a sinking feeling, where it’s just not working. And I have to figure out how to make it work. And I’ve lost perspective because I’ve been working on it too much. But now I’ve learned what to do at that critical moment: I bring in outside perspective from trusted advisors. I love that about getting older: I better understand the creative process now, and I’ve learned when I need to bring in ‘outside eyes’. I strategically bring them in at three different stages in the process: at the very beginning, mid-way through, and then again at the very end. I really try to create support when I need it, such as when I feel like an obstacle is insurmountable. And over time, I’ve built an amazing team of advisors I can call on. I really believe with the right team and partners, you can figure anything out!

What is one thing you wish you had known 10 years ago?

Well, it was more like twenty years ago. I tried to make a feature film right out of college. I was so green, and it was way too ambitious. And when I got to that scary stage in making the film, when that sinking feeling came, I didn’t handle it well. I just didn’t know what to do at that point. It was debilitating to me. I lost confidence and faith in the film, and I ended up not finishing it. It’s my big failure in my career, but it was also the best thing for me. I learned so much while climbing out of that hole. And now I recognize when we’re in that stage of the process where it’s not working. And that’s when I call in the Cavalry. I wish I had known that this was just a part of the creative process back then. That’s the great thing about life – experience teaches you what to do better the next time.

What is one hope you have for the next 10 years?

How about several hopes?!

I have two amazing daughters whom my husband and I are having so much fun raising. These next ten years will be our last years with them at home. I want to continue to be present for these years. We do Technology Shabbats (no screens of any kind from Friday night to Saturday night). It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. We’ve been doing it for 6 years now…It’s just my favorite day. It’s an opportunity to slow down, make deeper connections with those I love, and do some deeper thinking, or what I call wandering thinking. It’s brought a grounding presence to my family. So I hope to just continue to enjoy and savor these years, while also continuing to climb creative mountains personally. And I want to provide a great example of a good marriage and partnership to my girls. And I want to keep giving back in bigger ways!

Inspiration into Action | Happy Living

Are there any books or resources you would like to recommend to our readers?

Oh my gosh, I have so many, I actually have a whole list!

Of course, I think everyone should read my father’s books because they are so brilliant. And I’m here to carry on his legacy with my brother and sister. So that’s what I’ll say, anything by Leonard Shlain. He’s written four books. Although he’s no longer with us, his ideas continue…

Books by Leonard Shlain:

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image

Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light

Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius

Sex, Time, and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution

Thank you, Tiffany, for sharing your inspiring story with us!

If you want to hear the full, unedited audio version of my interview with Tiffany, just click here. The audio quality is not great but the content is very inspiring.

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