Robert Redford, career counselor?

June 21, 2011, 7:07 PM UTC

Once you make it to the top, it’s easy to forget where you started.

But not for Robert Redford. On stage this morning at the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival, the legendary movie actor played career coach to an audience of aspiring creative execs.

“Go back to zero,” Redford said, clearly intending his message for anyone who has accomplished anything in any industry anywhere. To explain this, he told a story about his first visit to this idyllic spot on the sun-drenched French Riviera.

When Redford, now 74, was young and more restless than he is today, he got kicked out of college. He wanted to be an artist—a painter, actually—and worked in California’s oil fields to save enough money to go to Europe to study.

One day when he was hitchhiking between art schools in Paris and Florence, a trucker picked him up and dumped him in Cannes. It was late at night and he was dead tired.

“There was no place to stay,” Redford recalled. He walked down le Croisette, the stretch along the Mediterranean where all the wealthy tourists and spotted a pier. He climbed below it, rolled up his clothes, and made a bed.

While sleeping on the sand that night, for hours on end, Redford heard people directly above him, chattering and laughing at a casino. And of course, he wondered what would it be like to be in that world?
Casino Barrière is still here on le Croisette—right next door to where Redford spoke this morning.

Redford told his interviewer, Yahoo (YHOO) EVP Ross Levinsohn, that he’s stayed fresh and happy throughout his career by saying every now and then, “I’m going to start again like it’s all happening for the first time.”

In other words, take a risk.

Redford did it in 1981 when he gathered a bunch of friends and colleagues in the mountains of Utah and created the Sundance Institute. Lots of people thought Redford, at the height of his stardom, was nuts to step out in this way. Of course, Sundance became the safe place for filmmakers to experiment, hatched a now famous film festival, and fueled the growth of the indie movie industry.