Lee Zlotoff has changed more lives than we think. Not many pioneers in the entertainment industry create massively influential work on top of a ‘mind-hack’ technique anyone can use to solve their problems with nothing more than a pen and a piece of paper– but Lee has done both. From creating the hit show MacGyver, to winning many accolades including the prestigious Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Lee has made an immeasurable impact.
Lee talked to me about everything from his views about what humility really is, to his three rules for success, to how he views aging and keeping his relentless spirit going!
Colt: MacGyver is such a cultural force and has been so influential over the years – it shows up in the media all the time. How does that make you feel?
Lee: Yeah, it shows up a lot, especially with the recent pandemic. But to me now it’s like, if you have a child, and the child goes out and does something great – you’re proud of them, but they did it, I didn’t. So even though I kinda gave birth to it, it’s not really about me, you know?
Colt: I love that. I wanted to ask you about conceiving of MacGyver as having certain core values – can you talk about that?
Lee: Yes, one of them was to avoid conflict – as far as I know he’s one of the few action- adventure heroes that didn’t use a gun. You don’t see that too often, I think. Another was to be resourceful - turn what you have into what you need. The skill to do that is really important; as individuals, communities, and countries we have to figure out (now especially) how we can turn what we have into what we need. And last was to maintain a sense of humor humility – an open and laughing mind is much more likely to come up with a good solution to a problem than a frightened or angry mind, don’t you think?
Colt: I’ve tried to make it a habit to get in a good mental space before making decisions.
Lee: Our decisions may seem rational to us, but the truth is most decisions are emotional ones that we then just rationalize.
Colt: And what is humility to you?
Lee: Well… For example - there are a lot of competition shows on television, whether they’re cooking, fashion, or physical competitions, they introduce the players and it’s like “I’m tough, I’m not taking prisoners.” It’s all about ‘me’. Instead of “I’m going to do my best and the judges will decide.” That’s humility. Clearly, I’m an individual and I have an ego like everyone else. But in any situation, I try to start with ‘what can I give to this?’ instead of ‘what’s in it for me?’ And I’ve found that when I try to end up serving the situation, more often than not, it ends up serving me as well. So, it’s about starting with what you can give, not what you can take.
Colt: Can you talk a bit about the “MacGyver secret”?
Lee: Sure. Most of us think that it’s our conscious minds that solves problems, when in fact it’s our subconscious minds (our “inner MacGyver”) that has the best solutions. We all have this remarkable problem-solving ability inside of us but most of us are not using it because we don’t know how to access it. And the secret is three simple steps, with nothing more than a pen and a piece of paper, that allows you to access it, and establish an immediate, direct dialogue with your own subconscious: the part of you who knows you best! It’s been with you since birth (at least), recorded everything that’s ever happened to you, doesn’t sleep (even while you do), and will have the best answers for anything.
Colt: As a working writer with crazy pressure and deadlines how did you use the MacGyver secret?
Lee: I would write down my central question on a white board. And then go do something with my hands and try to forget about the question so my subconscious—or inner Mac—could work on the problem for me. It’s what we call an ‘incubation’ activity. In my case it was building paper models of building—like the Empire State Building or the Taj Mahal or whatever kit I could find. Then, after an hour or so I would come back to my question and just start writing—anything at all—like what I wanted for lunch or the words to a song. It didn’t really matter so long as I started writing. And then, within 30 seconds to a minute, the ideas I needed would just show up and come flowing out the tip of my marker. And the ideas were spot on. I know it sounds crazy, like some weird magic, but it worked every time. And it served me and my career like nothing else.
Colt: How did you realize this?
Lee: Well, like you said, I was under relentless pressure with intense deadlines, and I found that when I tried to be creative and rack my brain for good ideas, that was when I was the least creative. The best stuff came to me when I wasn’t trying to work, like when I was driving or taking a shower. So, I tried to find a way to re-create that by getting my conscious mind out of the way and letting my subconscious mind do the heavy lifting for me. And not only was the stuff I produced better, but it took all the stress out of the process. So, to say it changed my life is an understatement.
Colt: Do you still do it today?
Lee: Constantly. And I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, so my subconscious and I are on very good terms.
Colt: Have you discovered any way of developing that idea over the years?
Lee: Yes. It started with writing the MacGyver Secret book so that anyone could use this to solve their problems: be they technical, creative, or personal problems. And now we’re trying to see if this tool can be used to help veterans making the transition back into civilian life. There’s an unfortunately high suicide rate among veterans during the first year or so after they leave the military, and the research suggests a lot of it has to do with the fact that in the military really becomes your identity, and then when you come out of it, many struggle to clearly redefine who they are without that. So, we’re hoping that maybe the MacGyver Secret can help vets access the answers they need for themselves, to ease that struggle and lead them to a new and positive identity rather than feeling lost and confused.
Colt: For someone starting out in the entertainment business, how can you get to the place of someone like you – working with major production companies?
Lee: Three things. (1) Believe in yourself. It’s a very competitive business, so you must believe in your bones that you’ll succeed at it or you’re in the wrong business. (2) Don’t wait for permission. Do what you want to do. If you’re like me and want to, say, write for TV, start writing that stuff. You need samples to show people so that others can see what you’re capable of. (3) Network with people. Don’t worry about how it’s going to happen - it never happens the way you think it will. When I got to L.A. I joined every writing group I could get into and got feedback. And that both gave me the confidence and the connections that would help get what I’d written in front of the right people.
Colt: Was there a moment in time when you felt like you made it?
Lee: Yeah, kinda. When I was first staring out, I got a job as a secretary for someone at a soap opera in New York. I had a feature script that I had written before that, and I ended up working late one night and having a conversation with the producer of the show. I figured maybe this was my chance. So, I said “I didn’t come here to be a secretary…and I think I can write this show better than it’s being written.” He was shocked and glared at me for a beat and then asked, “Do you have anything to back that up?” I said, “Well I have a script.” So, he takes my script and the next morning he comes in, walks up to my desk, and says, “You – in my office, now… Shut the door. Sit down.” I thought for sure he was going to fire me. Instead, he says, “I read your script last night. You were right. I’m going to hire you as a writer. Now get out of my office.” And that’s how I got my first writing job.
Colt: How old are you now?
Lee: I’m 70.
Colt: Shut up. I thought you were in your 50s!
Lee: Yeah, I get that reaction a lot. Honestly, I think it comes from my attitude more than anything else. I don’t carry myself or focus on my actual age. Inside I still feel like I’m in my 30s or 40s.
Colt: I love that.
Lee: I know people in their 20s who seem like they’re in their 80s, and vice versa. I think it’s about how you picture yourself. The stuff inside you can determine who and what you are and how much you can achieve. The real secret is everything you want from life is already inside you. If you think it’s all out there in the world and what you need to do is hunt it down, kill it, skin it, and take it home to eat, you’re thinking like a cave man. But we’re not cave men anymore. The world has changed. And so have we. And if you can really find what you want inside yourself, the world will bring it to you. At least that’s been my experience, for whatever it's worth.