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The Creative Essentials of Jeanie Caggiano, EVP, Executive Creative Director, Leo Burnett

Jeannie Caggiano shares six ways that working toward her impossible dream has made her more successful

Dreams are what drive us.

Whether it’s a career, a passion project or a creative outlet you keep just for yourself, the things that spark a fire within us are what give us purpose.

Normally in this series, we walk you through a curated selection of items that inspire the folks here at Leo Burnett. But in this unique installment of Creative Essentials, see what Jeanie Caggiano has to say about impossible dreams, success and her creative essential, ballet.

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We all need an impossible dream.

Mine? Becoming a ballerina.

Now I rationally know that, at the age of 57, I will probably never grace a stage wearing pointe shoes and a tutu.

But “probably” does leave mental wiggle room. So, two to three times a week I change into pink tights, a black leotard and a pair of pink satin Gaynor Minden pointe shoes. The piano begins playing and I’m onstage – at least in my mind.

When I was 23, I started working as a junior copywriter at Leo Burnett. I wrote FSIs for Keebler cookies, print ads for Mars bars and package copy for McDonald’s Happy Meals. I gained 10 pounds that first winter because there were a lot of cookies, chocolate bars and hamburgers around the office. My freshman 10 didn’t happen in college. It happened at Leo Burnett.

I figured I better start exercising. And noticed that the Ellis-DuBoulay School of Ballet was a block away and had classes at 6:30 p.m. daily. So I followed my childhood dream and started taking ballet. Since then I’ve taken class for 35 years. (Except for that one year where I was getting divorced and karate seemed like a better idea. And those two nine-month stints when I was pregnant with my kids and the doctors ordered me on bedrest.)

As a kid, I had bugged my parents for years to let me take ballet. Then I bugged my single mom. But with four kids to feed and clothe and put through college, she had no money for things as frivolous as ballet. But by 1983, I was on my own and had a job. So after rent, food and student loans, the next item on my budget was ballet class. Has been ever since.

What has my impossible dream done for me?

1. It’s shown me that you can get better at anything.

Confession: I’m a pretty terrible ballet dancer. But I’m a LOT better than I used to be. (You, not knowing anything, might even think I was pretty good if you saw me dance.) You get out what you put in.

I also love ballet because there’s always something to learn. From a new teacher, from another student, from the music, from a new combination. And learning new things makes you better.

2. It’s made me realize it’s never too late.

I think often about a Dear Abby column I read years ago. Someone was trying to decide whether to go to medical school, but they were 30. They wrote to Dear Abby, “Should I go to medical school? If I do, I’ll be 43 when I graduate.” Her response: “And how old will you be if you don’t go to medical school?”

It’s funny: my ballet classes at the Evanston School of Ballet tend to have women either age 13 to 18 or from 40 up. There are a few exceptions, but we young ones and old ones are the regulars. And by "on up," I include Miss Kerry, my teacher. I’m not sure how old she is, but this year she celebrated the 50th anniversary of the opening of her school. And when Miss Kerry broke her leg a few years ago, she went to physical therapy and broke the curve for people her age.

Impossible dreams are for people who don’t give up.

3. It’s taught me to deal with stuff that is hard.

For all of the decades I’ve taken ballet, I’ve always wanted to go on pointe. If you are a female, raised in America, you probably have wanted to, too. Those satin slippers look so cool; the ballerinas look so graceful.

When I was 53 years old, the opportunity finally arose. Miss Kerry was starting a new crop of beginning pointe girls after class on Saturdays. I asked if I could try it and she said, “Of course—I didn’t think to ask!”

The first time I went up on my toes (yes you are on the VERY TIPS), I was sorry. All I could think about was “Oh my lord, this HURTS SO MUCH! How do people DO this?” But with proper technique, practice and the right shoes (hint: the tighter, the better), you’d be surprised how much things stop hurting. You gotta just get past the hard.

4. It’s made me more successful by taking me out of the office…and my comfort zone.

In ballet class, if you fall, everyone claps. Because by going too far, by failing, you learn something new.

Ballet has made me try things I never would have otherwise. Apart from Chicago, I’ve taken class in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco. Even Zurich, Switzerland, where I spoke no German and the teacher no English. We got on fine. Ballet is its own language.

Over the years, I’ve also noticed that the most successful among us have passions outside of work that push them. Often, they’re things you’d never predict: Hockey, growing horseradish, breeding Akitas. One of my clients is an amazing cook. Her pies have won ribbons at the Wisconsin state fair. Another is a weekend farmer who is happiest when he’s elbow deep in a ewe’s you-know-what, helping her give birth to a lamb. I was delighted when I found out that our current chief financial officer writes romance novels on the side. Dreams give us depth.

5. It’s better (and cheaper) than therapy.

I’ve tried therapy. It doesn’t work as well as ballet. Here’s how it goes: I can have the worst work day ever. The client hated the ideas, a shoot went awry, we lost the account, the cut won’t cut. And you know what? I can still point my toe.

On the flip side, ballet is a great humbler. When I’m soaring with a swelled head — having had THE idea, won an account or a Gold Lion — I go to class that night. And you know what? I still can’t get my arabesque as high as that 16-year-old in front of me at the barre. Grrrr…

6. Unlike projects, dreams don’t end.

Realistically, I won’t ever wear a tutu and pointe shoes and glide across the floor. There are no recitals for adults at my ballet school. The rules are strict. Black leotard, pink tights, no skirts.

But once a year, on Halloween, Miss Kerry lets us take class dressed however we like. Adults can even wear tutus. I’ve never taken class on Halloween because my kids have always been of trick-or-treating age and I had to be home for them. But this fall, my youngest will be in high school. He’s past that whole costume thing, but I don’t think I am.

Perhaps that night I’ll finally wear my tutu and pointe shoes.

You can read Jeanie’s original post here.

May 29, 2018