Tavis Smiley: If At First You Don't Succeed, 'Fail Up'
MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris.
(Soundbite of song, "Pomp and Circumstance")
NORRIS: Graduation season is upon us, and graduates everywhere on their big day will be hearing inspirational messages from those who haveblazedtheir own trails of success.
This year's graduates need all the advice they can get. They face a bleak job market and one international crisis after another, scary stuff.
But failure is not always something to fear. That's the message in a new book called "Fail Up" by Tavis Smiley, a man who has found success as a TV and radio host, commentator and author. Smiley says he came up with the idea for the book after reflecting on his 20 years in broadcasting.
Mr. TAVIS SMILEY (Author, "Fail Up"): I started thinking about how I arrived at this place. And it occurred to me that the way I arrived at this place was failing my way all the way to this place. And so that was the inspiration, that this is 20 years in the business, and so these are the 20 biggest failures of my entire life laid out in this text.
NORRIS: And we should say that you're the first in your family to go to college. So graduating from Indiana University was a particular success for you and your family. And that's where you began the book.
And you really put a lot out there. You talk about not just your successes but your failures and some things that, you know, that have to be difficult to put on the page, things like, you know, being arrested for check kiting(开空头支票).
Mr. SMILEY: There are three or four stories in this book, Michele, that my parents, my mother and father, didn't know. As a matter of fact, when I sent them the manuscript, I literally called them before it arrived in the mail to tell them that there are three or four things in the book they were going to read that I know they had no idea about their firstborn son. Things like going to jail while I was in college for writing checks and not covering them. That it actually took me technically 16 years to get my degree.
They came to my graduation ceremony, first person in the family. They saw me walk across that stage. Indiana University lets you march, as many schools do, if you're just a few credits away from graduating. So I marched, but it took me 16 years to actually get that degree. I couldn't tell my parents for 16 years, when I'm on national TV and radio, that I didn't have a college degree.
NORRIS: So could a young Tavis Smiley, as a much younger man, have comprehended the concept of failing up?
Mr. SMILEY: I don't think so. And I don't think so because there are certain things that you only learn through experience. Now, I'm one of those persons that learns the first time. I don't have to beat my head against a wall three to four times to get the lesson, thank goodness.
But some of these lessons I've only learned because I literally had to go through it.
NORRIS: You know, there are a lot of lessons that you learned from failure, and this book details many of those examples in your own life. But you also talk about other people and how they've learned from failure. Tell me some of their examples.
Mr. SMILEY: I think the best example is Barack Obama, our president. He ought to be - he is, in fact, the poster child for failing up. He is sitting in the Oval Office after he could not get into the convention hall here in L.A. for the 2000 convention.
When Democrats nominated Al Gore as their nominee, Barack Obama was outside the building here in L.A., where I sit right now. He couldn't get the hookup to even get inside the building in 2000. In 2008, he's sitting in the Oval Office as the leader of the free world. If that isn't an example of failing your way up, I don't know what is.
It works for presidents. It works for talk show hosts. It works for everyday people. Every one of us has to learn how to learn these lessons, to basically see failure as a friend, to understand we can, in fact we all do, ultimately, fail our way up.
NORRIS: You know, you also talk about pushback that you received throughout many places in black America, where people were upset because of the things that you had said about the president, saying virtually candidate Obama, later President Obama, wasn't all that.
Mr. SMILEY: Yeah, it is a very difficult thing to go from being celebrated to being persona non grata(不受欢迎的人) almost overnight. I understand after 400 years, black folk wanted, by any means necessary - forgive me, Malcolm - to see Barack Obama in the White House. I get that. I'm not stupid or naive about that.
But what troubled me was that as a member of the media, my job, your job, our job, is to hold elected officials accountable. I have done that throughout my entire career.
Bill Clinton was beloved in black America, and when he was president, I took him to task publicly for not going into Rwanda when that ethnic cleansing was going on. I took him to task on the welfare bill that he and Marian Wright Edelman fell out about and her husband, Peter Edelman.
NORRIS: So you're saying that you're an equal-opportunity...
Mr. SMILEY: I've been consistent about it all the way through. And then this black man shows up named Obama, and all of a sudden, I'm not supposed to talk about accountability.
I respect the president. I want him to be a great president. But my job, my vocation, my calling, is to talk about accountability. And some black folk, at that moment, didn't get that.
NORRIS: You talk a lot about humility in this book. But what about the role of ego in success or failure, have you learned some hard lessons there? And I ask you that in particular because you know a lot of people say that you have an ego that is quite large.
Mr. SMILEY: Well, I think any one of us in the media has to have an ego, yourself included, respectfully. You don't do what we do without being confident.
There is a distinct difference between confidence and cockiness. And I just -it always troubles me, and it makes me laugh actually, that when you are a black man with confidence, and you own your own radio show, you own your own TV show, you own your own publishing imprint, et cetera, et cetera, not unlike other folk in this country, then you don't have confidence, you have ego.
You don't have confidence, you have cockiness. I utterly reject that kind of nonsense. But the point is that every day, you have to learn the lesson of humility.
When you ever see me on TV or radio beating my chest,braggingabout myself, talking about me, then you check me. But until then, what you see from me is a confidence in the gift that I've been blessed with. And my work, I think, speaks for itself.
NORRIS: One last thing. Do we need another word for failure?
Mr. SMILEY: We do. Failure by any other definition is preparation. Babe Ruth put it this way: Every strike gets me closer to the next home run. It's all about preparation.
NORRIS: That's talk show host, commentator and author Tavis Smiley. He's learned a lot about building success out of failure, and those lessons are all spelled out in his latest book. It's called "Fail Up." Tavis, thank you very much.
Mr. SMILEY: Michele, thank you for your time.
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