WHITNEY CUMMINGS is a Los Angeles–based comedian, actor, writer, and producer. Whitney is the executive producer and, along with Michael Patrick King, co-creator of the Emmy-nominated CBS comedy 2 Broke Girls. She has headlined with comics including Sarah Silverman, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, and others. Her first one-hour standup special, Money Shot, premiered on Comedy Central in 2010 and was nominated for an American Comedy Award. Her second standup special, I Love You, debuted on Comedy Central in 2014, and her latest special, I’m Your Girlfriend, premiered on HBO in 2016. Whitney is the author of I’m Fine . . . And Other Lies.
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix. Love the book, hate the title. It’s a very illuminating exploration of how we’re attracted to people who have the negative qualities of our primary caretakers. It was very eye-opening given who I was gravitating to in my work and personal life. It’s helped me to make better relationship and hiring decisions, which ultimately saved me a lot of time and helped me to be way more efficient with my time. It’s been a game changer for my self-awareness and made me a better picker of employees and coworkers.
The Fantasy Bond by Robert W. Firestone. This book helped me to understand how psychological defenses work, which gave me the power to disarm mine and move into a more honest, productive way to handle conflict. It helps stop your childhood from getting in the way of your adulthood.
The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine. I was so into this book that I made a movie about it, because I think everyone should be required to understand how their neurochemical engine works, and how we can be a puppet of our primordial brain at times. It helped me to master a basic understanding of chemistry, hormones, and the amygdala, which has given me patience with myself and others. This is invaluable when I’m dealing with difficult decisions or conflict. It also gives me a huge sense of freedom to be able to delineate between a neurochemical reaction and a legitimate feeling.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
A weighted blanket. I am not an expert on the science of why it works, but the “deep touch pressure” helps the body release more serotonin. When I’m anxious, stressed, or can’t sleep, I use it and I instantly feel calmer.
[One model that Whitney likes is the large weighted blanket from Weighted Blankets Plus LLC.]
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
“Fly high.” In any given situation, I can’t control anything except my reaction and my contribution, so this mantra helps me to not deplete myself with lowbrow responses to problems. Most likely, the problem won’t be around in a year, but my reputation of how I dealt with it will. As long as I can handle a situation with grace, I usually come out having won and don’t waste valuable time and energy feeling guilty or replaying it in my head. In my creative work, “fly high” is a reminder to always strive for an A-plus no matter how tired I am or how late it is. If you run out of time, ask for more. Never settle for “good enough.”
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
I rescued a horse and three dogs. After years of experimenting with antidepressants, meditation, hypnosis, and various forms of therapy, I realized that for me, animals are the easiest way to help me to feel calm, centered, and present. They’ve also taught me countless priceless lessons about boundaries, consistency, and discipline that I apply to my work and relationships every day. They are the best performance-enhancing drug I’ve come across, by far.
What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
Lying down in dirt. I do this a lot with my horse and with my dogs. There’s something very liberating about being dirty, because then you don’t have to worry about getting dirty.
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
Equine therapy and dog training are high up there, but I’m gonna have to go with gratitude lists. Every morning I make myself write a gratitude list, regardless of how busy I am, or how much I don’t want to. It can feel silly and redundant at times, but it’s atrophied my negative thinking. It’s built up the muscle that focuses on what’s going well and how fortunate I am, which helps me be more productive, creative, and focused. It yields a type of mental freedom that’s hard to explain. Negativity used to consume and exhaust me, so now I literally have more energy. It’s so easy for perfectionists to focus on what’s wrong, and finding flaws is a big part of my job, but in terms of the big picture, negative thinking was a serious obstacle to creativity. Also, white tattoos! I have little messages tattooed on my arms, but nobody can see them except me.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore? My advice would be to figure out some kind of charitable element to whatever endeavor you undertake, whether it’s a benevolent motive or a literal profit donation à la Blake Mycoskie. Chances are, if you’re reading books like this, you will succeed, but I’ve found that it all feels pretty meaningless if you’re not in some way helping people or improving humanity in some way. Instead of striving to be a CEO or an entrepreneur, strive to be a hero. We need more of those.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
“Network.” In creative fields, I think networking actually hurts you in most cases. Don’t waste your time socializing with people who you think can help you. Just get better, and opportunities will naturally present themselves once you deserve them. Only focus on things within your control. And if you don’t know what those things are, find someone who can tell you. Don’t network, just work.
In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?
I say no to almost everything these days, thanks to going into therapy for a condition called codependence, which is a neural wiring issue that tricks me into being unable to tolerate the discomfort, or perceived discomfort, of others. I’ve rewired my brain for the most part, and, as a result, I no longer do anything out of guilt, pressure, or obligation. I’ve also worked through releasing the shame around not being “fun” and my “fear of missing out” complex, which was a big energy drain. It compelled me to go to events I simply didn’t have time for, and that did not serve me.
An obvious corollary to this is social media minimization. I use the Freedom app to cut down on social media time. Not only is it very unhealthy and addictive, but it was also giving my lizard brain the sense that I was somehow being left behind or left out, which triggered deep fears. And fear is obviously annoying and exhausting. Speaking of annoying and exhausting, I also unfollowed a lot of close friends and coworkers on social media, which actually made our relationships much stronger and more productive, respectively.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
In my photos on my phone, I made an album called “calm.” I have photos and videos of my animals, funny pictures, memes, inspiring quotes, articles about neurology, gratitude lists, all sorts of things that make me smile and reconnect to my source. It’s like my own personal digital Zen museum. Honestly, I think I’d be way more embarrassed if hackers released this album than any nude photos in my phone, but it’s worth the risk. When I’m adrenalized, distracted, emotional, or anxious, I go into the album and it always grounds me; it reminds me of what’s important and what’s temporary. It’s super helpful at work, because I can do it around people, while traveling, and at times when I don’t have the luxury of a quiet room or a walk. Oh, and I put my phone in airplane mode first, so I’m not getting texts and emails while trying to find sanity away from texts and emails.