Strategic Thinking

Understanding why quitters win

5 Decisions That Shaped Shirley Temple's Remarkable Life

Decision lessons from the life of America’s first sweetheart

 In 1931 Gertrude Temple made two decisions for her three-year-old daughter that would forever shape her image in the eyes of the American public. First, she decided to enroll the precocious toddler in nearby Meglin’s dance school to nurture her budding interest in singing and dancing. Second, she decided to style her daughter’s hair into 56 golden locks which would dangle perfectly, yet playfully from her little head for the rest of her childhood. Whether or not these decisions by stage-mother Gertrude wound up being more helpful or hurtful to her baby girl is a decision that Shirley herself will make.  

After nearly a decade of cranking out an average of three movies each year, at the ripe old age of 12 Shirley’s parents decided she should retire from the movie business and enroll in a real school—one outside of a Hollywood studio complex—for the first time in her life. Like most of our decisions in life, this one likely derived from mixed motives on the part of Shirley’s parents. After an unparalleled run of film success that led the Independent Theatre’s Association to conclude that little Shirley was on the short list of actors who truly earned their keep at the box office (unlike other household names they derided such as Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford), Temple’s critical and commercial appeal began to fade. Paving the now well-trodden path of most child stars, the dimply, cute-as-a-button little girl with the firecracker personality became forgettable virtually overnight at the onset of puberty. No doubt the string of setbacks helped the Temples see the writing on the wall a little more clearly. Yet, they deserve credit for recognizing that the winds had changed and deciding to change course instead of pushing their cash cow daughter into a Sisyphean battle against her own biology.

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The aging child star decides NOT to twerk her way into a more mature public identity. Since her first official retirement at age 12 Shirley had dabbled with side projects on the screen and on stage, but mostly focused on building a life with some semblance of normalcy replete with friends, family, and the standard trials and tribulations of a teenager. After being passed over for the lead role in the Broadway production of Peter Pan in 1950, Shirley Temple quit the acting business once and for all. Looking back now, it seems just short of miraculous that she was able to avoid the seemingly inevitable downward spiral that plagues so many big-time child stars. With only one failed, yet scandal-free marriage on her resume (she married at 17 and divorced five years later) she glided into relative obscurity with the same grace she displayed in her many big screen dance numbers.

The lack of paparazzi, camera phones, and YouTube recording her every indiscretion probably didn’t hurt. But we must credit Temple for choosing her own path here. Around the age of 19, during the pivotal transition between teenager and young adult, highly respected Hollywood producer David O. Selznick warned Temple that she had been typecast and advised her to move abroad, gain maturity, and change her name. Ignoring that advice, Temple decided to stay put in California where she grew up and instead of changing her name she reclaim her maiden name and focused on raising her baby daughter, Linda. While that may seem like the “normal” decision for Temple to have made, I don’t think any of us can truly fathom what “normal” must feel like to someone who literally grew up under the spotlight in front of millions of people. Although it’s easy for us all to take pot shots at a Miley Cyrus or a Justin Bieber—exactly as I did with my tongue-in-cheek reference above—none us can really know what decisions we would make at that age in that situation. That is not to say that those understandable decisions are the right ones, only that Temple’s decisions were more remarkable than they might first appear.   

Shirley Temple Black decides NOT to be dissuaded by her critics. After decades of political involvement including a failed run for congress, Temple decided to accept the appointment as United States ambassador to Ghana and later to the former Czechoslovakia. Most career diplomats scoffed at the notion that Temple could be anything in that position other than an international punch line. Instead of letting the critics make her decisions for her or running from the identity that had been so firmly etched in the minds of the world’s everyday people, she decided to make the best use of it. She strategically employed her popularity to gain audiences and acceptance with the public in her appointed nations. After her past fame opened the right doors, she used her intelligence and influence to shape the right future. All too often, whether in our careers or our lives, what appears to be our most notable disadvantage can become our greatest strategic advantage if we just decide to use it that way. To the astonishment of even her most vocal critics, she proved by all accounts to be an outstanding diplomat.    

Perhaps Shirley Temple’s greatest decision was the one she made time and again to embrace her role in the bigger picture of her movies, her life, and the world around her…even as those pictures shifted right under her feet. Franklin Roosevelt commented during the Great Depression that “it is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” Instead of letting that Good-Ship-Lollipop persona stunt her development as a person, or let a waning career and a failed marriage push her to despair, she decided to put her circumstances to use with a deep sense of purpose no matter what role she found herself playing. As Shirley Temple shows us, we don’t always get to choose our roles, but we can always decide how we play them.

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Nick Tasler has a background in organizational psychology. He is the author of Why Quitters Win: Decide to Be Excellent.

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