The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives
BORN ON A SUNNY DAY
My husband, Jay, used to tell people that I was born on a sunny day.
I thought it was the nicest compliment I ever received. I guess you could say I’ve always been one of those upbeat, glass-half-full people. Experts in the field of positive psychology might conclude that I’m “hardwired for happiness.” When I was a little girl, the youngest of four, my sister Kiki’s friends nicknamed me Smiley. Naturally outgoing and eager to please, I used to memorize photos in the yearbook and then approach various students at football games with salutations like “Hi! You’re Barbara McLaughlin. I recognize you from the picture in my sister’s yearbook!” Before you gag from the absolute adorableness of it all, to paraphrase that Pantene commercial, “Don’t hate me because I’m happy.” Trust me, I’ve been to the other side. My mom, a practitioner of common sense who was raised in Omaha, Nebraska, has often said that no one leaves this life unscathed. Indeed, dark clouds did come rolling in, and I’ve survived my share of window-rattling, life-shattering storms. But that comes later.
Growing up in Arlington, Virginia, I had a childhood that was more like Leave It to Beaver than Modern Family. Mine was an old-fashioned nuclear family, with a stay-at-home mom who, had she been born in a different time, would probably be an ad executive or a stockbroker (she bought many shares of Trojan condoms in the safe-sex early eighties), and a father who was thoughtful and intelligent, hardworking, a voracious reader, and a bit of a taskmaster who expected excellence from all four of his children. Add to that three older siblings, who paved the way for each one who followed, and a neighborhood teeming with kids who spent endless hours playing Red Light/Green Light and street baseball (with a tennis ball, since no gloves were used) and waging some pretty serious crab-apple fights, and you have an upbringing straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Our recreational pursuits put many of the neighborhood kids on the injured reserve list. My own mishaps are, of course, the most vivid in my memory. Having just learned to ride bikes at age six, some of my neighborhood girlfriends and I decided to ride down the hilly sidewalk of Fortieth Street, single file, Indian style. It would have been an impressive showing of our newfound talents if only my best friend Sara Crosman had also learned to use the brakes. Instead, at the bottom of the hill her bike crashed into mine (I was leading the pack, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit) and threw me forward. My chin came down on the sidewalk, and the impact broke one of my proudest possessions: my new front tooth. My mom cried, her tears, I’m still convinced, more for financial than cosmetic concerns, and I spent many of my elementary school years sporting a silver tooth in class photos—a lovely addition to my horrifying inch-long bangs. When Chris Foley tripped me on the blacktop after I stuck my tongue out at him in third grade, it was a bit of a godsend. Two caps looked less fake than one.
So the memories of my youth are a collection of happy snapshots: cheerleading, running track, playing the piano, piling into our station wagon for an occasional vacation to the beach as we demolished the sandwiches my mom had made for lunch by 9 a.m., taking my sister Emily to New York to travel across the ocean to spend her junior year abroad while she was at Smith College, going to my brother Johnny’s baseball and basketball games, watching my sister Kiki driving off in my dad’s racing-green Sunbeam Alpine (his one midlife indulgence), her pom-poms peeking out as she headed to a high school football game.
The accompanying score would be provided by ten years of Debussy and Chopin, courtesy of my piano teacher, Mrs. Richmond. I was the only one in my family who kept up with lessons, but because I play by ear, and, like Irving Berlin, play everything in the key of C, I often slacked off when it came to actually reading music. But I still love to sit down, even today, and figure out a song I’ve just heard or dust off some classical pieces from my early years. All these things made up a child- hood that gave me a healthy sense of who I was and no boundaries for what I might become, although at the time I had no idea. To some, it might seem pretty ordinary. For me, it was heaven.
I often wish that I could bottle my parents’ special recipe for raising happy, healthy, successful children. My dad always encouraged us to do our best, and there was accountability when we didn’t. A cerebral, gentle man, but a tough disciplinarian, when he called to us and we responded, “Yes,” he would say, “Yes what?” We were required to answer, “Yes, sir,” although my brother Johnny, who had a slight lisp when he was little, would say, “Yeth, thir!” My mom, funny and creative, was the personification of the adage “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.” Saying “I’m bored” was tantamount to committing murder, and we were always enrolled in summer school, primarily because she wanted us out of her hair. One summer, when all the other classes were full, she put Emily, a stellar student, in remedial reading, which clearly helped her graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Smith College.
My mom’s motto was “Let ’em know you’re there!” She obviously wasn’t keen on raising vanilla shrinking violets. But both my parents gave each of us the launching pad we needed to succeed, and my siblings and I felt their presence in everything we did. The best illustration may be the joint-task-force nature of school elections. My dad would help us write our speeches, like the one in which my sister Kiki promised to break all records as recording secretary and then promptly broke one of my dad’s old LPs on her knee with dramatic flair. My fifth-grade vice- presidential speech adopted the Underdog strategy (the cartoon, that is), as I told my elementary school, “Never fear, Katie’s here.” Meanwhile, my mom, the artistic one, was in charge of making posters. She cut up fake money into letters when my brother Johnny ran for student-council treasurer. She also came up with catchy slogans for my sister’s campaigns, like the one on a poster that was placed above the water fountain at school, boasting free water, courtesy emily couric for president! Growing up in our house was a fun-filled family affair, and it got a little bit lonelier every time one of my older siblings headed off to college.
I fully anticipated the same kind of family setting when I became an adult, and at first it looked as though I might have it. I married a man who was fun-loving, brilliant, and oozing with integrity. (And he could dance! And I love to dance!) We had two healthy little girls, a marriage that had highs and lows but a rock-solid foundation, and our careers were going swimmingly. When we married, Jay was an associate at a prestigious Washington law firm, Williams & Connolly, and I had just been hired to cover the Pentagon. After we wed, his closest friend and fellow lawyer, David Kiernan, changed the name that appeared on his phone when he was making outgoing calls from Jay Monahan to Jay Couric. A traditional guy who was also proud of my accomplishments, Jay found it mildly amusing.
I remember bringing our second daughter, Carrie, home from the hospital in January 1996 following—use overly dramatic weatherman voice here—“the blizzard of the century!” and settling into our warm apartment. She was napping with me and Ellie, then four and a half, while Jay played a Brahms lullaby on the Steinway piano that we had bought each other for our birthdays, which were two days apart. This was deeper and more satisfying than any happiness I’d ever experienced. This was pure, soul-filling contentment.
That was BC. Before cancer. That jarring transition was exactly how it felt. Just fifteen months after Carrie was born, Jay was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer and we were pulled into a swirling vortex of panic, depression, anxiety, and fear. We were desperate to find any rea- son to hope, but the situation, I can only now admit, was hopeless. When I told my mother-in-law, Carol (who was herself undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer), that the doctor had informed me that there were tumors all over Jay’s liver, she responded with a deflated and uncharacteristic “Shit.” What followed were nine months of brutal treatments, endless futile searches for newly discovered therapies, and copious quantities of denial. We never talked about the fact that Jay might die. Acknowledging that made it too real. The closest thing to a discussion of the possibility of death came when I told Jay that if something happened to him, I didn’t think I could come to the country house we had just bought. I couldn’t imagine going there, to his dream house, without him. “Well,” he said, cushioning the blow of his almost guaranteed absence, “I hope it will be full of happy memories.” He died after collapsing on the floor of our powder room on January 24, 1998. The life I had imagined and cherished was also buried on a freezing, windy January afternoon.
When my sister Emily was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just two years later, it seemed too much to bear. She was a rising political star in Virginia and many expected her to be the first female governor of the state. But to me she was my smart, beautiful, and driven oldest sister who set a high bar for all the Couric kids. Just as Jay had, she fought like hell, with grace and guts. She was also a wonderful wife and the mother of two fantastic sons. My first four decades of life seemed to be getting some kind of psychic payback. Two of the finest people I’ve ever known were infuriatingly ripped off, as were all the people who loved them.
When Jay was in the midst of his battle with cancer, I resented people laughing over lunch at a crowded café, walking their babies in strollers, the women whose biggest problems involved which sweater they were going to buy that day. I wanted to shake my fists at them and yell, “How can you be enjoying yourselves? My whole world is falling apart!” I now realize that everyone struggles, and that my mom was right: Very few of us get through this life unscathed. Scratch beneath a stranger’s surface and you’re likely to uncover professional setbacks, broken hearts, unspeakable loss, unfulfilled dreams, or worse. Everyone seems to keep going but, God knows, navigating through it all isn’t easy. How do you keep going when you want to curl up into a ball and never leave your bedroom? How do you squeeze all the joy out of life while dealing with all the messy parts? How can you find a calling that fills you up, gives you a sense of purpose and your life meaning, and doesn’t leave you feeling full of regret and remorse? How do you shut out the voices (including, at times, your own) that tell you you’re not good enough and you shouldn’t even try? How can you “recalculate” your route when your personal GPS is on the fritz?
These are questions we all ask ourselves at one time or another. I know I have. But I’ve always found comfort and guidance in hearing from people who have wrestled with the same questions and, through the simple act of living, have found their own versions of the right answers.
Their stories are sometimes found in books, like Katharine Graham’s Personal History, or in speeches, like Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena.” But I’ve also found inspiration in an unlikely place: the commencement address. I’ve given a dozen through the years, and I’m always interested in what other speakers have to say. These addresses are often thoughtful, entertaining, and very personal. And, like eulogies celebrating a life well lived, they make you want to be a better version of yourself.
Last year, when I was giving the commencement address at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, I decided to try something new. What else could I tell these young, bright students who were about to take flight into the world, eager to make their mark? Because I’ve had the privilege of meeting and interviewing so many remarkable people through the years, I decided to ask a few of them to share their personal insights. What have you learned? What lessons from your own lives might be useful and instructive? I reached out to about thirty people, and after a few weeks many of them reached back to me with their responses. I couldn’t wait to open their emails, which were moving and funny and profound and helpful—even for someone my age. They made me realize that this advice should be shared, not simply with college graduates but with anyone who may be in need of a little lift, a little instruction . . . or a few laughs. So I cast an even wider net, hoping to convince leaders and visionaries in the fields of politics, entertainment, sports, philanthropy, the arts, and business to participate. Again, I was amazed by the response and the generosity of so many people, even those I’d never met. Some people fired back their advice and anecdotes in record speed; others took their time, and seemed to agonize over the responsibility of passing on life lessons in just the right way; some folks allowed us to adapt their own commencement speeches, many of which I had heard about through the grapevine from friends whose children at- tended those schools, and some of these contributors had never allowed their speeches to be printed elsewhere before this book; some people adapted reflections and episodes from their own books and writings (hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). Uniformly, though, the response was a verbal high-five, as if to say “Hey, I’ve been there, too.” Each story collected in this book was thoughtfully submitted and lovingly, often painstakingly, crafted. I was further struck by how inspired I was by these words, despite the fact that I am fifty-four years old and well into my career. They aren’t just for those who are starting out; they’re for those who are starting over, or just taking stock—a reminder of what is important and how we can better live our lives every day.
I found that people were especially happy to share their stories for a worthy cause. I have partnered with Scholarship America, a nonprofit scholarship and educational support organization founded in 1958 that has made it possible for students across the country to achieve their college dreams. I’ve heard and read many stories of Scholarship America students whose lives were forever changed by the gift of education be- yond high school. Students like Matt, a high achiever with a twin brother and a younger sister whose middle-class family couldn’t afford to send him to his dream school until Scholarship America’s Dollars for Scholars program made it possible. Or Molly, whose plans for a nursing career were put on hold when her husband’s trucking business went belly-up due to soaring gasoline prices, until Scholarship America’s Dreamkeepers program allowed her to stay in school and get her degree. Nothing is more gratifying than hearing stories of those who “pay it forward”—people like Rain, a young woman who immigrated to the United States from China at age six and used her scholarship to pursue a career at a nonprofit that provides services to New York City children; or Linda, the daughter of a single Mexican-American mother of six, who won a scholarship and is now attending UCLA with the hopes of becoming a doctor. And then there’s Jay, now in his sixties, who received a $300 scholarship back in 1969 when public school tuition was $200. Jay was able to earn his MBA, go on to a successful career in finance, and then, in his retirement years, volunteer for a local chapter of Scholarship America—talk about coming full circle. Scholarship America’s programs have had a huge financial impact on the lives of students across the country, but as I’ve learned, it’s about more than just dollars and cents. It’s also about giving students confidence, inspiration, and some supportive words to carry with them: “I believe in you.” That’s what a scholarship really says. And that’s why it seems only fitting to me that all of my proceeds from this book—a col- lection of lessons learned from extraordinary lives—will provide scholarships to help others realize their full potential so that their own stories and advice may one day appear in a book like this.</p
So I’d like to thank all the people who have had an impact on my life, and all those here who have given us permission to present their stories of winning and losing, setbacks and callbacks, ups and downs. Oscar Wilde once said, “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.” I hope you’ll find these words as compelling, fun to read—and, yes, wise—as I have. And, wherever you are in your journey, I hope you’ll feel inspired to share your own."
Copyright © 2011 by Katie Couric
When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.