Ever dream about finding a way to do what you love for a living? In my "Do What You Love" column, I ask people who've done it to tell me their secrets. Here's hoping they inspire you to do the same.
Traci Paige Johnson is the creator of the groundbreaking children’s television series “Blue’s Clues” and co-creator of “SuperWhy.” And she has a failed attempt at making the cheerleading squad to thank — at least partially — for her success.
Now, she’s launching the new interactive children’s media company yummico. Yummico produces entertaining media for preschoolers across multiple platforms, with a focus on digital games, interactive shows, apps and e-books, as well as traditional narrative animation, print books and other consumer products.
Johnson has found a way to do what she loves for a living and tells you how you can, too.
BusinessNewsDaily: Explain you what you do for a living.
Traci Paige Johnson: I have the privilege of being a “creator” of children’s media. I design the look, the world and the characters — and develop the storylines. For most of my career, I’ve worked in broadcast and cable television. Now, with yummico, I’m jumping into the digital space. Yummico’s overarching goal is to connect with children across multiple platforms by creating entertaining characters and stories with meaningful content. Our first brand out of the gate is Yummiloo, designed and animated with my husband, and produced with another couple who also have roots in the media and two kids of their own. It's a very homegrown, independent endeavor.
BND: How did you end up doing this for a living?
T.P.J.: I was a TV baby. I loved “Sesame Street” and “Schoolhouse Rock.” Without being able to articulate it at the time, I know that I was struck by their power: They were entertaining and educational. I was lucky. I knew, from a very early age, that I wanted to make children’s television. At Northwestern University, I majored in communications, with a minor in child development. It was here that I began experimenting on my own with cutout animation. I never had any formal training, neither in art nor in animation, and I often refer to myself as a folk artist — perhaps somewhat defensively. But, in fact, it was this very lack of training that made me stand out from my peers.
My art was rough, but it was also passionate and instinctive. And it eventually brought me to the attention of Nickelodeon. After working as a production assistant and freelance animator for several children’s shows, I interviewed at Nickelodeon for a position to help create the first "game show" for preschoolers. That show became “Blue’s Clues.”
BND: What was the crucial decision you made that led you to this place in life?
T.P.J.: Not making the cheerleading squad in high school! I know it sounds like a joke, but I have this one trivial disappointment to thank for the path I took in life. I was 13 years old, and I felt crushed and defeated. But I picked myself up and put my energies into something else. I got involved in an afterschool program that allowed kids to create their own sketch comedy show for the local NBC affiliate. The show was called “Beyond Our Control,” and from the start, I was hooked. I loved every aspect of the process — and not just the creative part. It was thrilling and empowering to be given real responsibility at such a young age: We were only in high school, but we were expected to create 13 half-hour episodes every year, and to deliver them on schedule. It was here that I found my career, my work ethic and my husband (I married my high school sweetheart). It just goes to show that when one door closes, another one opens. It may be a cliché, but it’s a cliché that has been true for me. Another is that you have to trust the path you’ve chosen and not get discouraged. I had many dark days, many days of rejection, before I landed at Nickelodeon. But I kept going. Over the years, I’ve met people who didn’t find success, not because they’re untalented, but because they simply gave up too soon. Never give up.
BND: What did you want to be when you grew up?
T.P.J.: When I was very young, I wanted to be a mom when I grew up. I had a great childhood, and a really close relationship with my mom. She was fun and loving, and she created a safe, magical environment where I felt comfortable exploring and experimenting. I looked forward to recreating that home environment for my own family someday. Later on, in high school, I began to dream of animating and creating television for children. But that dream was born out of my earlier dream and out of the confidence my mom gave me. In many ways, the house I created for Steve and Blue on “Blue’s Clues” was a recreation of the safe, magical environment my mom created for me.
BND: Why do you love your job?
T.P.J.: I love that my career and home life intersect — that inspirations come from home and I can relate them to work and vice versa. I created “Blue’s Clues” before I had kids, so it was wonderful to bring home all that I had learned about child development while researching the show. Conversely, after being home with my kids, I have so many new ideas for children’s media. For instance, my latest project, Yummiloo, a food adventure series for preschoolers, was born out of my realization, as a mom, that there was no food-related programming for kids that was also entertaining. As someone who always wanted to be a mom, I’m excited, with yummico, to connect with other parents more directly and share what I’ve learned while raising three kids of my own.
BND: What's the biggest misconception about your job?
T.P.J.: I think the biggest misconception about my job is that creating stories for kids is easy and anybody can do it. In reality, it’s a lot of work. And you really have to know your audience, especially preschoolers. The decisions I make about pacing and design are often counterintuitive — at least, from an adult’s perspective.
BND: If you didn't do your job, whose job would you like to have and why?
T.P.J.: No doubt, if not for TV, I would’ve been a teacher. I love connecting with kids. I love inspiring them. I love creating a warm, loving environment for them. The preschool age, especially, is a time when kids are filled with such curiosity and wonder. So to be a preschool teacher would be another dream job for me.
BND: Do you think having a job you love has made you a better person in other areas of your life?
T.P.J.: Life can be so stressful that I can’t even imagine doing a job that doesn’t bring some joy. Doing what you love can make the difficult aspects of a job a little easier. I enjoy modeling this philosophy to my kids. Every day, they see my husband and I working to take a vision from creation to finished product and aiming to make a positive impact on the world.
BND: What's your best advice to other people who are trying to pursue their career dreams?
T.P.J.: My advice for those trying to pursue their career dreams would be, “write your own story while listening to the stories of others.” When I was just out of college, I sought out leaders in the world of children’s television. I didn’t ask them for a job (at least, not right away) but rather for advice, and I prodded them to relate their own stories. People love to talk about themselves, and I learned quite a bit from their experiences. But I also made a lot of friends and planted a lot of seeds.
I would also say, based on my own experience, that it’s not always necessary, or even beneficial, to take the traditional route in life. I’m not a trained artist. I didn’t go to art school. I never took a class in animation. But I had passion and confidence, and I concentrated on those things that made me unique. Your uniqueness, the thing that makes you truly "you," is your strength — and ultimately, it’s what makes you different from everyone else that sets you apart.
BND: What's your idea of the perfect retirement?
T.P.J.: My idea of the perfect retirement … being able to sit back in a beautiful garden, with a cup of tea in my hand and my husband by my side, while knowing, in my heart, that I have done a good job: I’ve raised my kids, who are happy, successful and have families of their own, and, through my work in children’s media, I’ve made some meaningful impact on the lives of kids around the world … even if in just the smallest way.
Traci Paige Johnson created Yummico with Caroline Baron, an award-winning producer of feature films including "Capote," "Monsoon Wedding" and executive producer of the soon-to-be-released "Admission," starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. Baron is the founder of A-Line Pictures, with her husband and producing partner Anthony Weintraub. She also founded the nonprofit organization FilmAid International, which provides life-saving information on HIV/AIDS, landmine awareness, health and hygiene, women's rights, and conflict resolution. Find yummico at www.yummico.com and on at Facebook.com/getyummico. It Twitter handle is @getyummico.