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5 Career Lessons From Joan Rivers


Yesterday, Joan Rivers passed away at the age of 81. Celebrities remembered her on Twitter as a comedy icon, but most importantly, as one of the hardest working comedians in the business. Here’s how her career can inspire you, no matter what you do for a living.

joan rivers 

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

What can you learn from Joan Rivers’ career?

Do You Know What You're Worth?

1. Be brave.

People rarely felt “meh” about Joan Rivers. She was variously described as hilarious, mean, obnoxious, brilliant, irritating, and inspiring. One word comes up again and again in profiles written during her life and tributes after her death: brave.

At XOJane, writer Caissie St. Onge, who worked with Rivers, describes one example of her fearlessness as a comedian:

One of my all-time favorite stories about Joan was the afternoon she called my house and my husband answered the phone. He covered the receiver and said, “It’s Joan.” Then he whispered, “She sounds like she’s crying?”

I took the phone and sure enough, it was Joan, and sure enough, it sounded like she was crying. I immediately asked her what was wrong, and through tears she started telling me how one of her dogs, a beloved rescue with three legs, had fallen ill and had to be put to sleep just moments ago.

I immediately started rambling, trying to comfort her and she patiently let me go on for a minute before stopping me and saying, still through tears, “Thanks. Anyway, can you write up a bunch of dead dog jokes? Because I have a show tonight.”

2. Work hard.

Rivers’ work ethic was legendary. In one scene in the 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, we see her day planner, chock-full of appointments, teeming with work. It’s not enough for Rivers, who sees only the white space in her calendar.

Granted, some of her desire to work constantly was because she wanted to keep up a certain lifestyle — and to be wanted by her fans. But it’s hard to picture most people working as hard as a then-77-year-old Joan Rivers.

3. Be generous.

For someone whose persona was occasionally quite cutting, Joan Rivers is remembered as being very generous and supportive in her personal life.

“…I will never forget how, on the day before she returned to late-night television as a guest on Letterman’s Late Show after 27 years in the post-Johnny chill, Joan wouldn’t let the segment producer off the phone until she could tell him about a young comedian named Billy Eichner,” writes Julie Klausner at Vulture. “‘He’s absolutely brilliant. You have to have him on the show,’ Joan insisted to a producer assigned to find out what jokes Dave would need to set up for her the following day. ‘Billy Eichner.’ She repeated. ‘He’s hilarious. I’ll bring you a DVD.'”

St. Onge says, “she had a way of making you feel like you were a treasure that someday everyone would understand the value of.”

“Do you need me to call your mother and tell her how proud she should be of how talented you are?” she’d ask. “They are so lucky to have you. You could be doing anything you want, anywhere you want to do it.”

4. Get organized.

Many people are funny. Some of those people make careers out of being funny. But to be consistently funny, on demand, over decades, takes organization. In one scene in Piece of Work, we see Rivers’ filing cabinet. It looks like an elegant card catalog from a pre-computer era library, and it contains thousands of jokes.

These days, most of us rely on our smartphones to keep us organized, and don’t even both to back up our contacts as often as we should. It’s worth remembering that really successful professionals in any field are often the people who go the extra mile in order to keep on top of the details.

5. Keep moving forward.

Joan Rivers started out on stage (playing Barbra Streisand’s lover in Driftwood) and went on to pioneer red-carpet coverage on TV, win the eighth season of Celebrity Apprentice, and star in numerous TV shows, specials, a documentary, and a web series. Along the way, she also lost her husband to suicide, directed a film that earned scathing reviews, and wound up banned from late night TV for the better part of three decades.

Through it all, though, her persistence and drive and refusal to give up propelled her forward. She always wound up on top again … or at least, back in lights on a marquee, and working, which was close enough.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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