8 Questions About Living an Authentic Life With Emmy-Award Winning Filmmaker Dana Michelle Cook

Recently, I interviewed Emmy-award winning filmmaker Dana Michelle Cook for my podcast “The Elements of Being." Here are her eight thought-provoking answers to my questions about how she aligned her life with her purpose. Take a read…It may inspire you to pivot the direction of your career or personal life (no matter how old you are or where you live).

Were you always running around with a video camera as a child?

Dana M. Cook: I did! My parents had a video camera, and I would recruit all of my friends to make skits. I would write a script…a skit for us-like lifestyles of the rich and famous….or play teacher and student and then record. Anything from long storylines to little blips. I'd recruit my aunt to pretend like she was evicting us. I don't even know where I got these ideas. I felt like I had a wild imagination and I loved filming. I loved it. I loved telling stories through film. When I was in college, I thought, “Well, I live in LA, the opportunities are sort of endless-Maybe I DO want to get into film and television!”

What do you think about the stories often portrayed in the media?

Dana M. Cook: I now understand that there is so much power in the platform and the story that you're telling….and how easily that story can be seen in a thousand different perspectives. When I worked for Fox News, the reporters were going out to tell the stories, and I was there to support them. The story was being told through their eyes. I remember going into the edit bay at Fox and seeing the story that was being cut…and it was SO different than the story I would have told. It was a moment where I thought, “Wow, as a storyteller you have to take responsibility in what you're creating because that is going out into the world!”

Did any mentors guide you through your career? What led you in this career direction?

Dana M. Cook: I can't say that I had mentors early in my life. When I became a producer, though, I had a bunch of mentors. I think what led me to that moment was curiosity. I feel curiosity is the root of finding your purpose. I think we can stand in our own way because of fear of failing or looking stupid. For me, it was just curiosity and having an open mind….knowing that if my eyes are open to the world around me, there are answers. I also think that--like a very Oprah moment right now--it sort of comes to you like a whisper…having the recognition “Oh, this feels really good.” When I imagined myself working on a set with people as a producer, I asked myself “What does this feel like in my body? Does it feel good or bad?” I found myself really drawn to the idea of doing THIS, and I think it's really aligned with who I am in my core. That's not me trying to be someone else….It's who I feel I am.

Do you think this curiosity has just always been like you said, a part of you? Or is this something that has been fostered over time?

Dana M. Cook: I think it's always been a part of me. It might be a result of being raised in a household with parents that have always been encouraging, though. I'm an only child-I had a lot of that attention, love, and encouragement to go out and pursue what made me happy. I thank my parents for that…I know a lot of situations that don’t have THAT kind of encouragement. We never worried financially. Both of my parents had blue-collar jobs, though. My dad is a mailman, and my mom worked for the phone company. We didn’t come from a very rich existence, but we were always comfortable. Because we were comfortable, I didn't have to take a bunch of jobs growing up to help my family, and I think that created space for me to be curious.

How do you reflect on your experience producing the reality television show “Strange Addictions”?

Dana M. Cook: Well…..you kind of soul search a little bit-especially when you're working on shows like this, and you're around people that feel broken. You sort of take the responsibility on and say, “What's my role here? What am I doing? How am I creating good in a bad situation?” That show was really exploitative to people even though they signed up for it. The guests responded to a casting call, and they said yes every step of the way. At the end of the day, we were creating a story…and exploiting THEIR story (and that episode lives on and on and on and on). I think it's on Hulu or Netflix right now. I know it became a challenge for some of the people profiled as they moved on in life. Many asked, "Is there a way to take this off the air? I just went in for a job interview, and the person recognized me for eating toilet paper.” Even though they signed up for it…it was becoming a barrier as they moved on in life.

That was an internal conflict for you (and I witnessed some part of that). Can you share some of the things that were happening at that time when you switched directions?

Dana M. Cook: Well, here we are at my first documentaries, "Girls On The Run" and "The Empowerment Project." Up to that point, I felt like I was working on content that I wasn't proud of. You should take responsibility for the work that you're putting out into the world. If you have control over what you're creating as a content creator, you need to understand morally how you're looped into that. The things that I was working on did not reflect who I was, and I only had so much control over how something was cut together in the edit bay.

At that time, I was overseeing projects that were being screened to 190 million people on Netflix, including "Toddlers in Tiaras"-which was not uplifting. Maybe somebody would think that that is, but to me it wasn't. It just wasn't who I was. It was a very dark time in my life, but also a very interesting time to say, “What is the voice in my head saying?” And it was saying, “This path doesn't serve you.” Telling stories like this….they don't serve you…and they're not serving the world. If you look at it in a meta-way, I care too much about humanity to continue doing this.

How long did this mental narrative take place?

Dana M. Cook: It was years…It was years. I would say that for two years I was constantly checking in with myself. I'm on shoots…flying all over the country…looking in the mirror and saying, “This doesn't feel right. This doesn't feel right. This feels terrible.” I felt that the way I was taking care of myself was sort of in the wind. I was always on a plane and working with people who were having a nervous breakdown in front of me. Week after week, after week, after week. It was a combination of these things.

So I decided to leave. There was a moment when I said, “Okay, this is it.” I was working on "Toddlers in Tiaras" and witnessing a little girl in a dressing room having an out-of-body experience. I'm filming a five-year-old getting a fake mouthpiece shoved in her mouth, and then she walks around a stage full of glitz (as they called it)…parading around a room full of old men. The whole thing was awful. And then, of course, working on 26 episodes of "My Strange Addiction" and just watching people suffer.

At the time I was also working with my friend, Sarah Marshman. We met through a teen filmmaking program. That was another project that I worked on that was so amazing in Chicago. The company name was Dreaming Tree Films. Sarah had also been working in reality TV and was burning out. She mentioned an idea to take a road trip with female filmmakers (there aren't a lot of us in the industry…It's a male-dominated industry) and wanted to interview women in different careers. I thought, “That's incredible. Let's do it.”

That was the first documentary that I'd ever been a part of creating. I don't know if I ever saw myself as a documentary filmmaker. I don't know if I had it on my vision board as a dream. I just knew that I loved telling stories. But for Sarah, she always wanted to do that. I thought that's sort of interesting…to know your entire life what you want to do and to achieve that. My path has been very different, but to arrive at this space is sort of a testament that there is no right or wrong way to do life. If you end up listening to the voices….where you're meant to be…you're going to be there.

Do most people ignore the internal voice that screams, “I need change”?

Dana M. Cook: I think you have to be driven to a breaking point. Often, when people make a big life decision of walking away from a career that isn't serving them it's because they've hit rock bottom. You might've been thinking about it for a very long time-to leave your job…to leave that person….to leave an abusive relationship…whatever it is, it takes time. It takes time to wear you down. You would hope that isn't the case. We hear about entrepreneurs that quit their job and walk out the door to pursue something new. It feels like it happens in a moment for them, but we know it isn’t always the case.

Want to listen to the unedited full version of the interview with Dana Michelle Cook or other past guests? Search “The Elements of Being” on Apple, Spotify, Overcast, Castbox, Stitcher, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can also find it in this podcast section.


A Personal Trainer’s Answers to your 4 Biggest Health and Fitness Questions

Trying to unravel the complicated approach to achieving your best health? A Chicago personal trainer answers your 4 biggest health and fitness questions.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about getting in shape?

Personal Trainer Wisdom: The most common misconception about getting in shape is the primary importance of fitness. While fitness plays a pivotal role in your strength, flexibility, muscular endurance, and cardio endurance, it still relies heavily on your nutrition. Without the proper nutrition for your body type, you will not have the energy or building blocks to sculpt the healthy body you want. Any nutritional deficit or inflammation will certainly affect your ability to get in shape, live to 100, or reduce injury.

What single piece of personal training advice do you have regarding form and technique?

Personal Trainer Wisdom: With the endless circus act of exercises found online and in magazines, it would take years to point out every little piece of the form you should keep in mind while exercising. While you should study your body's response to different positions and movements, there are basic rules you should keep in mind for whatever you approach:

-Keep your feet hip width and straight to maximize stability and glute/abdominal activation.
-Keep your shoulders above your hips to maintain a neutral position and reduce pelvic tilting.
-Maintain a neutral spine by periodically checking your lumbar curve (lower back) and cervical spine (neck).

There are certainly exceptions to these rules. Nevertheless, they will generally guide through a safe workout routine.

What is the best way to get a personal training client motivated when they feel like giving up?

Personal Trainer Wisdom: Considering that each person is different, there isn't a single strategy to motivate a personal training client when he or she wants to give up. While some personal training clients persevere when given a strict structure to follow, other clients are intimidated and will less likely push themselves. Add in societal pressures, personality traits, family and work demands, and natural limitations, it's surprising that anyone has the strength to sift through these factors and push through. The best advice is to help your personal training client become a human scientist - to study their physical selves and their habits, decision-making process, and problem-solving approach. By utilizing this strategy, you are reducing the ambiguity of the process in the most simple way and identifying the personal training client's strength and weaknesses for the most efficient approach. The personal training client will feel more control over his or her situation and will be able to target the undermining reasons for giving up with more confidence.

What is the best advice you’ve ever learned about staying in shape?

Personal Trainer Wisdom: After nearly 15 years of personal training and research in Chicago, I have learned that your mental approach is the steering factor of staying in shape. You will most likely reach your goal but whether or not you maintain this success is questionable. Who can blame you! There are too many distractions and pulls in life, including holidays, work, and family, that easily pull you from your new healthy routine. The best advice is to clearly define boundaries based on your needs-not your wants-and use this set of rules as you approach the unknowns of life. I don't think it's reasonable to assume that you'll make perfect choices each day. With reasonable boundaries based on your body and habits (not anyone else's), you'll keep yourself in check and stay in shape.


My 10 Favorite Life-Guiding Quotes from the Stoic, Marcus Aurelius

Where do you look for the answer to the question, “How do I live a good life?” Naturally, you refer to 165 AD for a perspective that transcends time. To shape my philosophical self, I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (one of the earliest self-improvement transcripts). The following 10 quotes are taken directly from this great work. While I typically offer commentary on their meaning, they are left to your interpretation (everybody could use a break from a pundit).

1. “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

2. “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

3. “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”

4. “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

5. “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”

6. “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

7. “If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.”

8. “Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”

9. “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”

10. “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

Photo Credit: Matthias Giezendanner and Wealth sf .com-Whether considering weight loss or optimal health, a personal trainer’s client’s real transformation begins at a deeper level.


How to Turn Your 13 Favorite Midwestern Meals into a Weight Loss Diet

Recently, my personal training client wanted to ramp up her weight loss efforts. Our first step was examining her current slate of meals (the typical Midwestern diet) and identifying the healthy alternatives. Take a look…the same meals are probably in your diet too!!

Quick Swap/General Changes to Your Typical Meals

-Organic ingredients only (more flavor!).
-Reduced sodium for all canned products (less bloatedness!).
-No lard in any of the canned bean products (less of the unnecessary bad fat!).
-Meat (including all red meat, white meat, fish, seafood, etc.) should not be more than 25% of any dish (vegan is preferred for ALL 3-4 meals).
-Eliminate cheese or swap it for a SMALL amount of Diya's Chopping Block Cheddar Cheese Shreds. I still hesitate to recommend a cheese substitute since it's still highly processed and you will continue the craving (which will be dangerous when the substitute isn't available).
-No butter.
-The portion of vegetables must always double the size of meat at a minimum.

Common Meals (and their Healthy Alternatives)

Chili mac

-Healthy Alternative: Mexican mix (below) using the taco seasoning recipe (below) with Banza Chickpea Elbows Pasta (boil until el dente, and then quickly rinse with cold water). Meal Ratio: 1/4 ground chicken (2-4 oz), 1/2 veggies, 1/4 pasta.


-Healthy Alternative: 365 Everyday Value Cauliflower Pizza Crust, 8 oz (frozen), tomato sauce, Diya's Chopping Block Cheddar Cheese Shreds, roasted red bell peppers, fresh garlic cloves, basil.

Lemon garlic sauce chicken, veggies, and pasta

-Healthy Alternative: 1/4 chicken (2-4 oz), 1/2 veggies, 1/4 Banza Chickpea Penne Pasta (or substitute with boiled and drained cauliflower rice).

Grilled chicken breast and veggies

-Healthy Alternative: 1/4 chicken (2-4 oz), 3/4 veggies (grilled asparagus, broccoli, tomatoes, etc.).

Grilled cheese

-Healthy Alternative: Whole grain bread with Diya's Chopping Block Cheddar Cheese Shreds but this still isn’t a nutrient-dense option alone. Make this a 1/4 of your meal and add veggies for the rest.


-Healthy Alternative: Mexican mix recipe (below) using the taco seasoning recipe (below). Meal Ratio: 1/4 ground chicken (2-4 oz), 1/2 veggies (beans, corn, sauteed onions, bell peppers), 1/4 El Milagro Corn Tortillas (only ingredients: corn, water, lime).

Beef chili

-Healthy Alternative: 1 diced medium yellow onion, 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 tbs tomato paste, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp pepper, 1 cup dry green lentils, 1 (8 oz) can tomato sauce, 1 (14.5 oz) can petite diced tomatoes, 1 (4 oz) can diced green chiles or hot Rotel, 2 tsp chili powder, 2 tsp cumin, 1 tsp oregano, 2 green peppers, 3 tbs of Worcestershire, 1 can of drained kidney beans, and 1 can of drained pinto beans.

Crockpot BBQ chicken

-Healthy Alternative: Chicken breasts, green pepper strips, strips of sautéed onions and diced garlic, and Annie's Original BBQ Sauce. The chicken is only 1/4 of your meal and veggies for the rest.

Tuna salad

-Healthy Alternative: Wild Planet Wild Albacore Tuna Pouch (No Salt), 1 tbs of Real Mayo, 1tsp of Trader Joe’s Lemon Pepper seasoning, ¼ tsp garlic powder, ¼ tsp onion powder, lemon garnish, and 1-2 tsp of diced pickle or relish.

Chicken casserole (chicken, peas, cream of chicken soup, breadcrumbs)

-Healthy Alternative: Chicken breasts, peas, vegan cashew sauce (https://cookieandkate.com/vegan-mac-and-cheese-recipe/), and oats or quinoa (instead of breadcrumbs). The chicken is only 1/4 of your meal and veggies for the rest.

Tacos (chicken, lettuce, cheese, shells)

-Healthy Alternative: Mexican mix using the taco seasoning recipe. Meal Ratio: 1/4 ground chicken (2-4 oz), 1/2 veggies (beans, corn, lettuce as well as chopped spinach and green peppers marinated in squeezed lime juice), and 1/4 El Milagro Corn Tortillas (only ingredients: corn, water, lime)…no cheese.

Taco salad (same as above but in a salad)

-Healthy Alternative: Mexican mix using the taco seasoning recipe. 1/4 Ground chicken (2-4 oz), 3/4 Veggies (beans, corn, lettuce as well as chopped spinach and green peppers marinated in squeezed lime juice)…no cheese.

Beef meatloaf

-Healthy Alternative: Ground chicken, diced green peppers, diced sautéed onions and garlic, oats or quinoa (instead of breadcrumbs), Organic Large Omega-3 Brown Grade A Eggs, Heinz Simply Tomato Ketchup, and Annie's Original BBQ Sauce…..but this still isn’t a nutrient-dense option alone. Make the meatloaf a 1/4 of your meal and add veggies for the rest.

Base recipes

Mexican mix

-1 lb ground organic chicken breast sauteed with 1 chopped medium onion and 2 chopped garlic cloves
-2 cans of Bushes black beans
-1 can Hot Rotel (or any diced tomatoes)
-1 can Mexican corn

Taco seasoning

-2 tbs chili powder
-1/2 tsp garlic powder
-1/2 tsp onion powder
-1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
-1/2 tsp oregano
-1 tsp paprika
-3 tsp cumin
-2 tsp salt
-2 tsp pepper

Photo Credit: Bon Appetit. com: Can grilled cheese ever be healthy?


My Personal Training Client’s SPECIFIC Plan to Lose Weight

After a frustrating stream of weight fluctuations, I couldn’t be prouder of my personal training client’s new plan to lose 20 lbs for good! This is a great template for anyone serious about long-term weight loss.


-Get Down to 187 Pounds on my Home Scale by 7/1/2019
-Get Down to 181 Pounds on my Home Scale by 8/1/2019
-Get Down to 176 Pounds on my Home Scale by 8/31/2019
-Get Down to 171 Pounds on my Home Scale by 10/15/2019

Personal Trainer Wisdom: Losing 1-2 lbs per week is the most sustainable way to achieve weight loss. Matt is taking a realistic, achievable approach to reaching his ultimate goal. Setting milestones is a great way to carry this out at a micro level. While the actual results may vary slightly depending on unexpected factors, Matt has set the intent. Since most people seek to change life every 3-4 weeks, the dates are appropriate.


Personal Trainer Wisdom: As a human scientist, I am constantly testing the body’s sensitivity to food and movement. When developing a weight loss plan, the same approach applies. Matt has created guidelines below based on his true physical needs and the principles of cleaning eating for optimal health (the weight loss is just a result). While each line seems strict, it is adaptable. Most important, it sets the intent once again. All choices will extend from this list. This approach is a stark contrast from the most common effort of extending choices from one’s wants instead (which doesn’t necessarily reflect a person’s needs and most likely leads to faulty guesses with unsuccessful, long-term results).

Foods Ill Eliminate Until I Reach my Goals

• Eliminate STARCHY VEGETABLES (Potatoes, Rice, etc.)
• Eliminate 80%+ of DAIRY PRODUCTS
• Eliminate Fried Foods like Chicken Fingers, Fried Chicken, Fried Appetizers, Fatty Foods: Bacon, Chicken Wings, etc.
• Eliminate Energy Bars of All Kinds (Except in Super Emergencies/Damage Control)
• Eliminate All BEER, and any Indulgent, High-Cal Booze Drinks
• All NUTS Except Pistachios in Shell, Counting When I Eat
• Popcorn in Emergencies
• BBQ Sauce on Meat
• Cereal
• Candy
• Peanut Butter

Foods Ill Keep in my Diet but May Eventually Eliminate for Clean Eating

• Diet Coke – try to limit to 24 oz a day, MAX
• Splenda – Do not use willy nilly
• Diet Soft Drink Squirts
• Turkey Jerky & Beef Jerky
• “Lean” Mixed Drinks & Wine – Always Attempt Moderation. Only get drunk “if necessary”
• Arctic Zero Ice Cream (the Extreme Low-Cal Ice Cream) – 1 Pint, 2-3x per week max
• Sugar-Free Creamer for Coffee, in moderation

At-Home “Yes” List

• My Smoothies w/ Almond Milk, Pea Protein Powder, Frozen Fruit, Spinach, Carrots, Bananas, Flax Seeds
• Fruit of All Kinds
• Powdered Peanut Butter in Moderation
• All Raw Vegetables
• Non-Starchy Cooked Vegetables
• Chicken, Shrimp, Jerky
• Dry Soaked Cooked Beans
• Edamame
• Pistachios with Shells

Partying, Dining Out, etc.

• I will drink Canned Seltzer Alcohol Drinks like Truly, Spiked Seltzer, Aqua Fierte
• I will drink Rum or Vodka + Club Soda or Sometimes Diet Coke
• I will NOT eat any heavy, junk foods after drinking
• I will eat the best option on the menu when I dine with my girlfriend
• I will eat in great moderation when there are no good choices
• I will eat SLOWLY and MINDFULLY
• I will NOT eat bread that comes out beforehand
• I will NOT eat Chips & Salsa that comes out beforehand

Photo Credit:
Love One Today .com: What guidelines will you set to lose weight?