Ellyn Spragins has written three books in which she interviewed prominent women and had them write a letter to their younger self at a difficult time in their life. The resulting letters are sometimes poignant, often humorous, and always reveal unexpected wisdom. Following are excerpts.
Emily Mann, playwright and artistic director, McCarter Theater, writing to her 42-year-old self after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
I won’t try to soften the blow. I know exactly how terrified you are. Nothing I say will change the hard, ugly fact that your body is now a hostage to MS.
But you are going to be lucky — hard as that is to believe. Soon, you will learn how to think through the pain around your middle and the numbness throughout your body; how to put your concentration on a different level. Actors and athletes do this all the time. They find a way to move past and through physical discomfort. You’ll find out how to concentrate on a higher level than you could before you got ill. And your work will be better for it.
Even more important are the messages this disease carries for you.
For example, when you have MS, you lose your balance and fall down. In order to rebuild your life you’ll have to find balance mentally, physically, and emotionally. You will discover yoga and a whole world will open up to you.
So far, imbalance has ruled. You’ve worked around the clock -— exhaustion be damned — to make McCarter a huge success. As a mother, a wife, a director, and an artistic director, you’re always taking care of someone else. But now, putting yourself last is no longer an option. You must do a better job of safeguarding yourself. First, understand that you can only do so much each day. Decide what’s most important and jettison the rest. In so doing, you will find out what really matters in life. And who really matters. Your family life and your work will become stronger and richer with that knowledge.
The second imperative: Learn how to ask for help. It’s shocking, but people want to help. Your huge life lesson is to discover that when you ask for help you are allowing other people to give. This is a precious exchange. So how you accept people’s care is very important. Do so with deep and profound gratitude. And love.
Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, writing to her 44-year-old self after the breakdown of her marriage of 23 years.
You will get through this fog and uncertainty — and you’ll do it in the best possible way. You won’t become cynical, stoical, or hard-bitten over the loss you’re feeling. Over the next ten years you’ll rebuild and reinvent yourself, finding success — and tremendous satisfaction.
The truth is, you’ve got the guts to find your own purpose and the integrity to fulfill it on your own terms. Your parents taught you to strive to achieve all you can, with the gifts that you have. Now you’re about to direct those gifts towards finding your voice and using it to serve your country in ways that will surprise you. When your students ask you how you have managed to be married and have children and work at the same time, you feel like a phony because you think you haven’t succeeded at that. It’s hard to feel qualified as a role model. But you are.
It will take years before you realize that you already are a good role model. But ultimately you’ll inspire far more women than you’d ever predict. Twenty-three years from now when women say that they’re choosing a career in international relations, the thing you’ll enjoy most is telling them that there is no formula, that everybody must choose their own path.
Maya Angelou, poet, author, playwright.
You’re itching to be on your own. You don’t want anybody telling you what time you have to be in at night or how to raise your baby. You’re going to leave your mother’s big comfortable house and she won’t stop you, because she knows you too well.
But listen to what she says:
When you walk out of my door, don’t let anybody raise you — you’ve been raised.
You know right from wrong.
In every relationship you make, you’ll have to show readiness to adjust and make adaptations.
Remember, you can always come home.
You will go home again when the world knocks you down — or when you fall down in full view of the world. But only for two or three weeks at a time. Your mother will pamper you and feed you your favorite meal of red beans and rice. You’ll make a practice of going home so she can liberate you again – one of the greatest gifts, along with nurturing your courage, that she will give you.
Be courageous, but not foolhardy.
Eileen Fisher, clothing designer and entrepreneur, writing to herself in her 20s, when she was a graphic designer and felt trapped with no way out.
I see you in the kitchen, the only real room in that murky loft. You’re there because you’re trying to make space for yourself as a distinct person. You feel so negated, so erased that you’re looking for a corner to call your own. But here’s what you don’t know: The space you’re searching for isn’t physical. You need psychological space. You need to know that you can be alone – that you should be alone – but you’re afraid to be.
Why are you so scared? You feel you have to have a boyfriend. Without one, you feel incomplete. When you have one, you feel defined as a person. But, Eileen, that’s a trap.
What I can see, almost thirty years later, is that you need time with yourself, not a friend or a beau, to figure out what your thoughts and feelings are. When you sit with yourself alone, you can’t ignore them. They come screeching at you. The only way to the other side is through it. You may have to go through pain, but on the other side is the good stuff. You don’t have to be afraid of living alone.
I feel so sad to think of what will happen if you don’t learn this huge lesson. You’ll lose pieces of yourself along the road. You know how much you love to dance? You’ve danced for the fun of it from the time you were tiny. You went dancing with your boyfriend in college and rocked out with friends in your dorm. All that joy is going to fall away because you’re going to stop dancing for 20 years — unless you take care to listen to yourself and shepherd all the pieces of who you are through to the future. Meditation has become the best way I know to listen to myself. The gift I give you are the words I often say when I begin to meditate:
In stillness I notice how time and space disappear. All there is is the present moment and my willingness to listen. . . to allow the stillness to speak.
The stillness takes me into a realm of conscious awareness that transcends my identity as body or mind. Stillness offers an experience of being and a recognition that my being.
C. Vivian Stringer, Rutgers women’s basketball coach, writing to herself in 1981, before her husband, Bill, died of a heart attack at age 47, leaving her a single mother of three.
The books tell you not to mix pleasure with work. Not to mix family and friends with your professional life. You’re trying to be the consummate coach. But Vivian, when your profession is as demanding as coaching, you have to work hard to find ways to integrate your work with your family. The days that you’ve already lost are gone forever. Life dictates that we will always work hard but with that said, you must also live. What is life, if it is just work? What makes us happy? Your family, husband, children, parents, sisters and brothers are that for you.
You’re riding in a bus with the team as you always do. Bill and the kids are following you in the car, as they always do. Think of how many hours they have ridden — and will ride — without you sitting beside them. It’s a small thing, but that is time you could be with them that wouldn’t hurt your team. You never know when that loved person won’t be available to be with you. As much as you can, remember that the most important reasons for existing and living are the people you love, who care about you so deeply. Your family. Your husband.
Open your eyes and ears for the chances to be with them even more. When Bill suggests going away out west with the kids for a week, do it. You’re not at risk of losing the skills and reputation you’ve created as a coach if you ease up just a little.
And, as life goes on, hold on to a critical distinction. What you do is not who you are.
Again: what you do is not who you are.
You are a hall-of-fame coach in the making, but, really, you are a human being. A woman who likes to goof around, listen to jazz music, and dance. You’re a mom. You’re a wife. If you let what you do professionally define you completely, you won’t know who you are and you’ll be disappointed tremendously in life.
Slow down a little and enjoy life. Don’t deny yourself that. It would be OK if you went to some movies. It would be fine if you didn’t study and work so very, very hard. You’ll look back on the times you brought Justin and David to Saturday-morning practices with you as some of the best times ever. You’ll feel at peace during times like those. Make more of those moments happen.
Barbara Walters, co-executive producer and co-host of “The View.”
Here is the truth. Here is the secret to success. If you follow your bliss, if you do what you love, you will be successful, at least in your own terms. And your own terms are the most important.
Arrive early to work and stay late.
Don’t blame others.
Compliment whenever possible.
Fight the big fights only.
Remember that the person you are putting down today may be your boss tomorrow.
Have a private life. Cherish your friends, especially the ones who you know will cherish you even if, or when, you are no longer a success. Failure, if you learn from it, can lead to success.
Success is wonderful. But read the above again. It isn’t everything. It cannot be said enough: follow your bliss.
Christine Todd Whitman, former NJ governor, writing at age 63 to her 54-year-old self in the fall of 2000, when Dick Cheney offered her the job of EPA administrator.
Your interest in politics has always been focused on leading change. A regulatory position, in which you simply enforce rules, won’t satisfy you. A cabinet position is what you’d prefer – but that’s not what’s being offered.
So, you have to decide. Will you continue as governor for another year – six months of which you will be a lame duck? Or will you step up into a national arena, even if it’s not in an official cabinet position?
It’s difficult when a president-elect asks you to do something to say “no.” But that’s what you should do now. Trust your gut. If it’s telling you that this is the wrong job for you, don’t do it. The worst problems you have gotten yourself into happened when you ignored the inner voice that was telling you what to do.
You have pretty good instincts. Let them work for you. Remember one week after you became governor, when your campaign was accused of offering bribes to African American ministers and black mayors? Your instincts led you to express your outrage to the press and reach out to the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton, who were prepared to lead a demonstration against you. Your instincts allowed you to turn the tide while awaiting proof that the accusations were false.
Frankly, that inner wisdom knows things it’s impossible for your brain to understand. About the future, for example. There’s going to be a big impediment to accomplishing what you want at the EPA. And even though you only have six productive months left in the governor’s office, there’s going to be a cataclysmic event in 2001 that will make you wish you were there, rather than at the EPA, for the last six months of your term.
Bobbi Brown, founder of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, writing to herself in high school.
School is a struggle and you get down on yourself because you’re not good at math and science. Your father, a lawyer and a words person, is always reading, and you wonder why you don’t take after him more. But don’t worry. You’ll soon discover that you’re creative, a visual learner. And guess what. You’re going to be really successful.
Right now, in high school, you know you’re not like everyone else. Don’t let it get you down. Everything you’re going through now will inspire your philosophy as a professional makeup artist: help women look like themselves, only prettier and more confident. As for your questionable math skills, know this: you’ll have your own CFO one day.