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Why It’s Okay To Not Be Okay: Lessons From Val Kilmer

Updated: Mar 12, 2022

This week I watched a moving documentary that unexpectedly stopped me in my tracks. It's no wonder Val Kilmer's documentary received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival.

I am not a particular Kilmer fan, although most women can't help but appreciate his heyday attractive demeanor. After a long-standing career, Val got aggressive throat cancer. Chemotherapy, radiation and a tracheotomy permanently damaged his voice. He now speaks through a tube. It's hard for him to communicate - and hard for others to understand him. He chooses between eating and breathing.

In the documentary, he retraces a lifetime of self-made video clips which provide a private insight into his trajectory. Having lost most of his earnings to bad decisions combined with a premature divorce, his life is not of Hollywood trappings. His children helped to tell his story.

I think corporate leaders can learn several lessons from his journey:

1. All good things come to an end. Life in New Mexico with minimal trappings (albeit a bit chaotic!) can be more rewarding than you think. You adapt. Not been in a relationship for over two decades, he finds fulfillment through his children.

2. Expect to not be okay. Instead of self-pity, a former superstar signs merchandise at fan conventions. Once ashamed that this was beneath his professionalism, he is now grateful for the feedback which keeps him alive.

3. Being a perfectionist costs. Reputational damage resulted from always wanting to perfect his art. It’s hard to shift image once you get it, even though you justify it at the time.

4. Be yourself. Kilmer knows he comes across as strangely to some. “I deny none of this and have no regrets because I have lost and found parts of myself that I never knew existed. I am blessed.”

5. Your career image never fades. To many, he will always be Iceman Kazansky or Batman. No matter how much you reinvent yourself, change companies or careers, sometimes people just see you as they always have.

We can all learn from the journey of others. Yet many of us don’t.

These are salutary life and leadership lessons. I hope they are of value.


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