Writer’s Journal
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Writer’s Journal

4 Tough Lessons of Missing Jay Leno’s Only Phone Call

A disaster could be a blessing in disguise

Photo by Negative Space: https://www.pexels.com/photo/marketing-office-working-business-33999/

He Called

Jay Leno called me personally and I was not home to take it.

It was the early 90s. He just took over the Tonight Show. Thinking he would need a new crew of writers, I started to send him by fax 30 topical jokes a day.

I loved writing jokes back then (I still do). I believed I was good at it. I made my wife laugh, for example. She is a physicist with a high threshold for humor. If I could make her laugh, I believed I could make anyone laugh.

Blinking Red Light

Apparently, I did make Leno curious enough for him to pick up the phone and place a call. It was like a dream about to come true: writing for one of the comedy icons of our times.

When I walked into my study, I saw that blinking red light on my answering machine.

The message was short but unmistakable: “Hey Ugur! This is Jay Leno. Why don't you give me a call when you have the chance?”

Beep. End of the message.

While I Was Busy Buying Cereals and Milk…

My blood drained out of my body. The opportunity of a lifetime arrived while I was busy buying cereals and milk at the supermarket — and I missed it.

Over the next two months, I called him back numerous times but could never reach him. Left a few messages to his secretary but nothing came out of it.

In the end, I had to accept that the window of opportunity had closed for good. God knows how many writers were dying to be on his team and he probably had already found my replacement.

I honestly believed that the only reason why he was calling me was to invite me to write for him, after months of receiving 30 fresh one-liners from me.

Enter: Depression

What followed was a period of depression. I knew I missed a big one.

But gradually, as the dark clouds of despair started to disperse, I started to see the other side of the fog.

There were actually lessons, hard-to-swallow but important lessons of that miss that I never forgot to this day.

Lesson #1

Breaks, real valuable life-changing breaks, are few in life. If you miss one, you may get another, or not.

If you get one, jump on it with all you’ve got. There are 8 billion people on earth and nobody’s irreplaceable.

But if you miss your break, it’s best not to regret anything and move on the best you can in another direction, instead of trying to create and capture that original moment of a potential breakthrough.

You can't make the same omelet twice with the same eggs. Those eggs are gone. Get yourself new fresh eggs and try another dish.

Lesson #2

There’s life after every disaster.

Even though at the time I’d give an arm and a leg to write for the Tonight Show, I switched first to journalism, and then to technical writing. I was still a writer, doing what I loved doing best. My boat was still in the water even though I was rowing in a different direction.

I made a good living by continuing to write and took care of my family and loved ones through the gift of my keyboard even though I wasn't writing for the Tonight Show.

“So what?!” is one of the powerful liberating mantras in life. Say “so what?!” and continue on your journey.

You’ll discover that there are multiple roads that lead to the top of the mountain. If one road is blocked, you are always free to try another.

Lesson #3

Disasters help confirm your worth and mission in an unexpected way.

Yes, I missed Leno’s call but if I weren’t good enough as a writer I wouldn’t get that call in the first place.

Yes, I was depressed for missing the call but if writing was not my precious jewel I wouldn’t be depressed in the first place. Behind the pain and disappointment, my love for what I did was shining bright.

I cared enough for my craft to get depressed just like a pro football player might get depressed for getting injured and left out of the team. My pain was an unmistakable confirmation of what I really wanted to do in life.

So be open to that clear confirmation of the value of your life’s work when doors slam shut on your face. It’s a valuable gift that life delivers to your doorstep for free and in return asks only for your understanding.

Lesson #4

Every object has a shadow.

Every deal has a price tag.

In our sky-is-the-limit culture, we forget that there are no pure-benefit opportunities in life.

I now am certain that, had I gone to LA and started to write for Leno, my marriage would not have survived.

I’ve known my wife since we were 15. We went to the same high school in Ankara, Turkey, and started to date in college.

I’m an extrovert. She is an introvert. I’m emotional, daring, and entrepreneurial. I learn not by theory but by trying out things. She is theoretical, reserved, and cautious. Not the Hollywood type. We complement each other well.

Had I moved to L.A., she had two choices: either refuse to move and get a divorce (if not immediately, for sure eventually), or come with me and live in misery in the hyped-up environment of the world’s entertainment and make-believe capital.

In both cases, I would be crushed since there is nothing more important in life for me than her happiness. To see her smile is worth everything to me.

In Hindsight…

So in hindsight, I can honestly say that it was a blessing to miss Leno’s call even though it didn’t feel like it at the time.

If you also miss a similar shot-at-the-brass-ring in life, don’t kick yourself right away. Try to understand what that apparent short-run failure actually means for your growth and development in the long run.

You might be pleasantly surprised to discover how also beautiful is the other side of the mountain.


Here is the autographed picture Jay sent me sometime during the late 90s. It’s still one of the most precious items in my library.



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Ugur Akinci

Ugur Akinci

Award-winning Fortune 100 writer. Father. Husband. Brother. Fabricator. Got nothing to sell but tips are humbly welcomed.