You might spot Jeffrey at DIANI Living hauling pieces of furniture to and from his vintage Land Cruiser. But he does so much more than the heavy lifting. Jeffrey, my partner in business and in life, splits his time as an actor, writer and photographer, as well as at the operational helm of DIANI Living. To say he is a busy man is an understatement. I’m excited for him to take center stage as our 7th Pillow Talk series, where we chatted about everything from starting a business as newlyweds and learning to trust your gut, to finding a meditation practice and his favorite way to recharge.
When you were in school, what was your favorite subject and what did you want to “grow up” to be?
To be honest, I don’t really remember any particular subjects that I liked in primary school. It was all just school, and I liked school a lot. At least that’s my memory of it. In high school I was a big extracurricular guy, and I was Senior Class president, so all of the classes were a means to an end. In college I started to really hone in on theatre and film production, and I remember loving my philosophy courses… a blue book exam where you just had to answer one big question? I could take those kinds of tests all day long. Oh, and when I was in high school I saw some thing on 60 Minutes about bad anesthesiologists, so I added that to my other career goal of becoming an actor.
What contributed to you becoming the businessman that you are today?
As an actor, you become kind of a one person company… you are the executive, brand development, creative development, operations, sales, and the product all rolled into one. I always had an agent and a manager as well, but BEING the business is literally what an actor is. I never fancied myself as a super savvy business man. I was always much happier doing the creative bit, but you don’t have a choice but to deal with the business part of show business as an actor. However, my real growth as a businessman came when I met Caroline. I started watching her and observing her, and two things I learned from her, and am still trying to hone, is whether it’s a good day or a challenging one, there’s always something I can do to move the ball forward… it’s in my power. The other thing is, that creating a beautiful and inspiring customer experience is paramount. Those two things have been a huge gift that she gave me (without even knowing it).
Which entrepreneurs do you admire?
Aside from my wife you mean? She’s number one in my book. Outside of my immediate world, I am continually inspired by Richard Branson. He seems to approach everything he does with a sense of adventure. He allows himself to think big. He focuses on the “what if”. And I love that. In the showbiz world, I have a couple of friends who have a theatre company in New York called Prospect Theatre Company, and they have been grinding away at that thing for decades and have created a viable creative hub for artists to create year after year. That tenacity is impressive to me. I would also have to give a shout out to the gentlemen who created Blue Man Group with whom I worked for many years… they were nothing if not dreamers who took the “what if” and put it up on its feet. And just by putting into the world something that they thought was cool, and not concerning themselves with what they thought would be popular, they happened to change the landscape of theatre.
Shortly after you and Caroline married in 2013, together you opened DIANI Living. What was it like to start a business as newlyweds?
It was a blast. First of all, I had never ever been anywhere close to retail. So it was so fun to decide what it was going to be, what the inventory was going to consist of, researching other makers and lifestyle companies. It was like Christmas everyday with deliveries of really cool vintage items and fabrics and furniture pieces. Our living room looked like a flea market! And I also loved the physical work of setting up the actual space. In the theatre, the moment that the set starts to go in, and the lights get hung, it all becomes really thrilling for me, because the world you’re creating is starting to materialize right in front of you… it’s the reward of lots of hard work and preparation. And you know showtime is right around the corner. I think that whole process really rooted and challenged our relationship in a way that as the years go by, I’m only going to appreciate more and more.
What role did you play in creating DIANI Living?
It’s hard to separate the roles Caroline and I played, because neither one of us had delved into the home goods territory before that. I suppose on the aesthetic front, I brought a masculine energy to that part of the brand which I think has helped DL to appeal to both men and women. And on the operations, logistics front, I saw myself as the General, but Caroline was the Commander In Chief. She obviously brought her retail experience to the table, and was creating an extension to the brand, and as such, she had to keep her eye on the other pre-existing entities… the shoe store, the clothing store, e-commerce, etc… whereas I was more of the boots on the ground soldier. I’m a collaborator at heart, and I love being a part of a team. I love knowing what the larger vision is, and then doing my part to help shape and mold that vision and bring it to reality. It’s also what I love about being an actor… the writer puts it on paper, the director lifts the idea off of the page, and the actor puts breath into it.
Your artwork is featured on the walls and website of DIANI Living. What is the inspiration behind your photography?
My favorite photography is the same as my favorite theatre and film pieces. I love art that captures everyday, normal, or even mundane moments, and by observing them, makes them special somehow… either by celebrating them or questioning them. I think my photography speaks to that appreciation. It occurs to me that if we see a deer standing in the field, we tend to pass it by because we see so many deer in this country. But if we see a Topi standing on an ant hill, suddenly we see the beauty. Or we see the interest in a stop sign in China, but we usually run through them here. My pictures aren’t about the craziest things on the planet, or even the most overtly dramatic, they’re about finding the extra in the ordinary. And I hope that expands our appreciation for the little moments that contain the extraordinary that we rush through on a daily basis.
What do you think is the single most important ingredient to success?
Easy. Point of view and authenticity.
What’s the most challenging part of your professional life?
Easy. Point of view and authenticity. The reason I say that, is because usually the simplest ideas, are the most organic and authentic to who I am as an individual, and trusting that the simple impulse idea is enough is the biggest challenge. It’s so easy to overthink a creative idea, to complicate it, or to spend too much time trying to figure out what will sell, or what’s “all the rage”. If you go for that, you end up chasing after what is already happening, and there’s no new ground broken. I love the challenge of keeping the focus on what I think works aesthetically, whether I’m applying that to my work as a retailer, a photographer, or an actor. In theoretical physics, they use the term “elegant” to define an equation that is simple, clean, & reproducible. Sometimes they have to go way around the bend only to arrive back where they started with a renewed understanding that that is the answer. Elegant. I like that.
How do you try to manage your work/life balance?
I have begun meditating again. A friend of mine, Théo Burkhardt, started studying Vedic Mediation, and I took a class from him 5 or 6 years ago, and never really practiced. But recently, I have picked it back up, and I’m loving structuring my day so that I get a 20 minute session in in the morning, and 20 minutes later in the day. I also have the ability to compartmentalize my time fairly easily, so that when I’m with Caroline at the end of the day, or with friends, I’m able to let the work life go for a spell. Sometimes I have to remind myself that there’s nothing I can do now about what needs to be done tomorrow, but I’m usually pretty good about accomplishing that. I’ll also occasionally wake up at 5 AM thinking about the things I didn’t get done for the business the day before, or how I didn’t spend enough time on a script or something, and instead of tossing and turning, I usually get up, and get going. But it’s not always all that easy when you’re a business owner, that’s for sure.
What do you see yourself doing next to express yourself professionally?
Caroline and I are always talking about what the next level looks like with the business, and I’m also working on writing a play right now.
What do you currently have in the works that you want people to know about?
I know that Caroline has talked a lot about the farm in New York… I’m very excited about a few DIY projects that I’m embarking on there… stay tuned to our instagram account (@hudsonvalleyfarm). Also, I’m currently doing a play at the Berkshire Theatre in Massachusetts. We are in rehearsals, and we open at the end of September. And then, finally, I starred in a feature film made by a friend of mine Nathan Wetherington, called “A Thousand Miles Behind”. We shot it mostly in the Santa Barbara area, and we just got accepted into a beautiful film festival called The Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis. So we have our World Premiere screening on October 12th. It’s very exciting, AND it’s Caroline’s first foray into showbiz! She’s an Executive Producer on the project, and it wouldn’t be what it is without her. If you want, you can see the trailer here: www.lemoynestreetpictures.com.
How do you manage the fear and doubt that inevitably creeps in when you’re paving a less trodden path?
Well, this is a really good question, and sort of ties in to some of the other questions. For me, the path less trodden is almost always the most personal path… and this gets back to following my instinct and trusting in the simplest impulses and most elegant ideas. When I feel stuck or like I’m going in circles in the creative process, I stop what I’m doing, and I give myself 10 minutes to rail at my inspiration, and indulge my doubt. And then, when that 10 minutes is up, I sit back down and get back to work. Ten minutes is all I get. That’s the deal. Usually, when I get back to the task at hand, I see that I’m stuck because I’m doing something in a way that I think it “should” be done because that’s what “they” would do… whoever “they” are. That little break allows me to refocus on what my perspective is, and re-energizes my trust in that idea. I believe there’s little point in doing something if it doesn’t reflect who I am personally, and what I want to see in the world.
What have you been most afraid of trying in your career, but you did it anyway?
Retail. Retail has always terrified me. The idea of trying to sell someone something always made me feel a little uneasy. Until, like I said earlier, I observed Caroline doing it. Once I realized that retail is a creative process, I began to see it as a kind of storytelling process. There’s a story to tell behind the making of a product, or how one item might work with another, and together they tell a different story. I started to see that objects and in this case, household goods aren’t merely functional or utilitarian items to have in one’s house, but that they can be reflective of one’s personality. And when Caroline and I buy for DIANI Living (and I know Caroline does this when she buys for the clothing and shoe stores), we are always finding pieces that we think are interesting or pleasing. And when you love the inventory on the shelves, talking about them to customers isn’t only easy, but satisfying.
Was there any opportunity that you had in your life that you didn’t take?
There have been a couple of roles that I turned down as an actor, but I didn’t really see those as missed opportunities, because I didn’t want to play those parts. I sometimes think that an opportunity is only an opportunity if I take it. Otherwise, it’s just another of an infinite number of choices that are offered up in life from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed.
Any sleep rituals that you use to help quiet the mind after a long day?
Usually at the end of a long day, I fall asleep pretty easily. But, if I’m feeling particularly stressed or have been unsuccessful in compartmentalizing my time, I have learned a little mental method that has proven to be very effective. It essentially consists of some deep breathing, and then running through my day from the time I woke up until the time I hit the sack. And then I do the old fashioned counting backwards thing from a very high number. It’s almost always effective.
What’s the biggest gift you give yourself to recharge?
I love coffee. And making a cup of coffee and just sitting there and drinking it, and doing nothing else, is one of life’s great pleasures. There’s a line in the movie, “Jackie”, and I’ll paraphrase, when the priest talks about doubt and how he wonders what life is about, and then when morning comes, he wakes up and makes a pot of coffee, and then he says: “God in his infinite wisdom, has made sure it is just enough for us.” I don’t disagree.
What’s your favorite food to indulge in?
Twizzlers. Next question.
What’s the first thing you do after you wake up?
Well, if you had asked me that a few months ago, I’d have a hard time coming up with something that I do consistently, but now, I meditate. Before I turn on the computer, radio, tv. I meditate. All of that other stuff will be there waiting for me when I’m done!
What’s the last thing you do before bed?
I turn down the house. In our marriage, I’m responsible for closing up shop. And I have turned it into a kind of ritual. Closing the doors, the shutters, turning off the lights, bringing in the pups… I love it. I have a visual memory of the ending of every episode of The Waltons… each light in each window being turned off one at a time, until the house is dark, and everyone has said good night.
How do you make your bedroom a sacred space?
I’m not a genius at making the bed, but I like to keep the bed made. There’s something about pulling back the covers before crawling into bliss. Whether there are hospital corners to undo or not.
Thanks, Hubble. It’s always so inspiring when we slow down for a minute, chat and I learn more about what makes you tick and how your creative mind works. I love it and can’t wait to see what you do next. xo