Smiley: "Even When You're Justified, You Have To Remain Dignified"

Public radio and television personality Tavis Smiley has written 14 books, many of them bestsellers. But in his new book, Smiley shares surprising details from his personal life, like not getting his college degree until 16 years after marching with his class. Host Michel Martin and Smiley discuss how his failures have helped make him the accomplished man he is today, which is detailed in his new book Fail Up: 20 Lessons On Building Success From Failure.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Finally we are going to visit today with someone whose voice many people will know instantly because he is one of the pioneering voices on public radio. At one point he simultaneously hosted daily talk shows on both public radio and public television. He was the first person to do that. He is the author of 14 books, including several New York Times bestsellers and his high profile activism, particularly on issue of concern to African-Americans, caused Time magazine to name him to their list of the World's 100 Most Influential People in 2009.

Now, you would think with a resume like that, people would be interested in how he achieved success. But Tavis Smiley's latest book takes a different tack. His latest book is about how his failures made him who he is today. And it's called "Fail Up." And Tavis Smiley is with us now from member station WCLK in Atlanta. Welcome, Tavis, thanks so much for joining us.

TAVIS SMILEY: Michel Martin, always an honor to be on with you.

MARTIN: Now, you know, I have to tell you, I've known you for years and I had no idea some of these things were part of your life. And as I understand it, even your parents did not know some of these things. Like the fact that you did not actually get your degree when you marched at graduation with your class. You didn't get your degree for another 16 years. And the fact that you were arrested for passing bad checks while in college. This is painful stuff.

Now, you're very successful now. Why did you feel a need to put all this out there and why now?

SMILEY: I couldn't have written this book 10 or 15 years ago. But 2011 is my 20th anniversary in the broadcast business and as I look back on what this two-decade journey has been, it is essentially a series of failing up. And moreover, all of the persons over these 20 years, Michel, I've gotten a chance to know and respect and revere, if they're being honest, and they had been with me in many conversations, they will tell you that they have failed their way up too.

The bottom line is, anyone successful in any field of human endeavor will admit, if they're being honest, again, that they've learn more from their failures than they've learned from their successes. The problem is that when we get to be successful, whatever that means, the game is to act like you've always been fabulous., that you've never had any mistakes or miscues or miscalculations or failings. And I just realized on the occasion of my 20th anniversary, that to tell that lie would be beneath me and beneath the experience of the failings I've had that really have helped make me successful again, whatever that means to people.

MARTIN: Is this part of a preemptive strike, in a way? Did you figure that your profile is high enough now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And, frankly, you get some controversial positions. Do you figure that some people might put your business out in the street to discredit you so you might as well strike first?

SMILEY: No. Most of these stories, again, if I could keep this stuff from my family and my friends for 20-plus years, I suspect that bloggers might have a difficult time trying to find it out. But it's not about hiding anything. If I were going to hide, I wouldn't be transparent. The reason for putting these failings out is not really about atonement or about a preemptive strike. I'm not about to announce that I'm running for high office or anything.

It's a matter of trying to help people understand that failure is not fatal, that failure is not final. And in the words of the great poet Samuel Beckett, that we have to keep trying again and failing again and failing better. And what better conversation to have right now in this country - not a conversation about success, we're not experiencing a lot of that right now. The more important conversation, Michel, I think to have is how we navigate our way through the failure that so many of us are experiencing or feeling at the moment.

MARTIN: Now, there's some, as I mentioned, there's some really painful episodes in this book, but I do want to start with something that I think might be a little easier, which is the cussing. You mentioned that some of your failings are things that many people did not know anything about, but your cussing was legendary. And I'd like to ask about why you think you started cussing and what made you stop. To me that's one of the, you know, poignant chapters of the book. Why did you start cussing and why did you stop cussing?

SMILEY: Yeah. The whole chapter is about behavior and about how you present yourself and how you get your point across, and I learned the hard way that there is a better way to communicate to people than just cussing them out. Although, I'm the first to admit that a choice word every now and then, it can get your point across.

But I started cussing - to your brilliant question - when I was a college student. I was raised in a very spiritual, a very religious family. Raised in a Pentecostal family. For those who know anything about that charismatic tradition, that is not part of the ethic or the ethos of being raised in a Pentecostal tradition. I only started cussing when I got to college. Funny story, but true story. I lived with a bunch of basketball players. I went to school at a place called Indiana University, where a guy named Bobby Knight was the basketball coach. I think enough said about that.

So I lived with a bunch of his basketball players and it seemed that the only way I could communicate to them to get them to understand what I was trying to say was to use some choice language every now and then which they used and understood. So that's how I got started cursing, really as a way to communicate with my roommates who played for Bobby Knight. I stopped cursing when I was on NPR. The fights between Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace at "60 Minutes" are legendary. Oftentimes, producers and talent, producers and hosts get into very heated exchanges about how the program ought to go. And Sheryl Flowers, God rest her soul, I love dearly, we would have these conversations all the time. We always respected and loved each other, but there were times she'd go on me, times I'd go on her, but we produced a wonderful show every day at NPR.

A long story short, I was in the studio one day with Sheryl. I had closed the door deliberately and turned off the microphone because I knew that Sheryl and I were going to have a, you know, a pretty heated conversation. An engineer at NPR at the time manipulated the microphone from inside the both, turned the microphone on, recorded this conversation, and then went about the business of making copies on CD of this moment and then passing them around NPR.

You can imagine that my bosses at NPR called me in. I had a stern talking to. I had to add a behavioral clause in my contract. Long story short, Sheryl taught me - I didn't like what that engineer did. They were wrong and mean-spirited to have done it at NPR, but I learned a lesson when I actually heard myself. I'd never heard myself talking that way, Michel. When I heard myself on that CD, I vowed right then to Sheryl that I would never ever use that kind of language again, I stopped on a dime, that was almost eight, nine, well, about nine and a half years ago.

MARTIN: What did you learn from that? What do you think other people should learn from that?

SMILEY: Well, what I learned from it is there's a better way to communicate. And oftentimes, until you see yourself on tape, or hear yourself on tape, you don't realize how arresting and how - about how humiliating and demeaning and embarrassing your approach can be to other people. Now, I'm a very spirited person, very passionate person and there are times I still have to talk to my producers and the people who work with me and for me, but there's a better way to communicate that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with best-selling author, well-known commentator, Tavis Smiley. We're talking about his latest book, "Fail Up." It's called "20 Lessons On Building Success From Failure." It marks his 20th anniversary in broadcasting.

And now I want to go to two of the more painful episodes that you talk about. Again, you know, shocking to me that you had been arrested while in college for passing bad checks. And one of the things that I found so painful about this is that you talk about the fact that you didn't realize that that was a crime. I mean you just didn't know...

SMILEY: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...that you couldn't write checks that didn't have money behind them, and you were a college student. And I'd like to just talk - I'd like to ask you just to talk a little bit about that.

SMILEY: Yeah. I grew up in a family...

MARTIN: And what you learned from that.

SMILEY: Yeah. I grew up in a family, as you know Michel, with 13 people, nine brothers and sisters, my grandmother, my maternal grandmother Big Mama - my mother and father, 13 of us in a one bathroom, three-bedroom trailer. Without going into that story, I knew nothing about money as impoverished as we were.

I get to college at Indiana University with $35 in my pocket and all I had was a letter that said you've been accepted. I didn't know how I was going to get through school. And I arrive on campus, as is still the case on too many college campuses these days, and the minute you get there they start throwing credit cards at you and bank accounts and all kinds of financial utensils and tools that most young folk are not prepared to handle, which is why I believe so much in financial literacy today and always travel the country doing these free financial literacy seminars, because I went to jail because I did not know how to manage money.

And I wasn't, you know, I wasn't doing anything malicious or mean or evil. I wasn't starting some junior Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. I was writing pizza. I didn't have money to eat at the cafeteria; I couldn't afford a dorm room. I was writing checks for pizza, for $7.14 per pizza, sausage, pepperoni with extra cheese from a place called Pizza Express.

And it just so happened that on a particular day, that the city of Bloomington, the police department was enacting a check kiting sting. I had literally just a handful of checks totaling, you know, what, 40-50 bucks that I hadn't covered. But I got caught up in this sting and got arrested, got a record, went to jail, had to get bailed out, got put on probation by the university, almost kicked out of school. But I learned a very important lesson about my money, about respecting other people's money. And to this day, anybody who knows me or works with me will tell you I don't mess with other people's money and I don't mess with my money.

MARTIN: And the not-graduating part that one of the things that you talk about is the fact that you were very busy, like a lot of kids like you, you were on your hustle.

SMILEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You were working, you were trying to, you know, run for student office, you were trying to get as much out of the experience as you could get. And at one point there was one class that you were not doing particularly well in. But part of it is that you had had a set to with one of the teaching, is it a teaching assistant or a professor where you basically let her know - she accused you wrongly of cheating.

SMILEY: Mm-hmm. Cheating.

MARTIN: And then you let her know that you were not pleased with her. But then you had to go back to the same professor to ask her to give you some forbearance.

SMILEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And she was like, no.

SMILEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: So what did you learn from that?

SMILEY: This teacher and I got into it. She accused me of cheating in front of the entire class and I didn't like that. I was a senior, a national champion, member of the Indiana University debate team, had been offered a job by Tom Bradley in Los Angeles the minute I graduated. This was my last semester. I'm this close to graduating and she and I had a tete-a-tete. We went at it in front of class. The dean, I might add, sided with me. I was right about this dispute and he ruled in my favor.

But at the end of the semester, I hadn't done so well that semester - maybe my arrogance and hubris, not going to class in my last semester. But by the end of the semester I'm literally failing this class. I need like an A plus plus plus plus plus plus plus just to get a D minus out of this class and interestingly, it was only a pass/fail class. I couldn't even manage a D minus, I had done so bad in this class after having a run-in with the teacher.

And, of course, I went back to her, as you said, and she showed me no mercy at all. She laughed in my face, as she probably should have. What I learned from that and I said in the book, is that even when you are justified I was right about this fight, the dean sided with me - but even when you're justified you have to remain dignified. I was justified but I wasn't dignified and I learned that the hard way.

MARTIN: And this leads me to a question that I think many people might have listening to this conversation. I think that a lot of people, you know, people have two different views about self-help.

SMILEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You know, one is, on the one hand, of course, people say you should do you. On the other hand, you do point out there's some systemic issues here that need to be addressed. And I think one of the things people know you for is your commitment to an interest in addressing kind of systemic issues, like financial illiteracy or like the way higher education doesn't always serve the needs of people, you know, all people. So the question I have for you is when is it time to work on you? And when is it time to work on the bigger issues? What have you learned?

SMILEY: A powerful question. I've learned you have to do those things simultaneously. So often those who are disenfranchised, politically, socially, economically or culturally don't have the luxury of being able to work on one thing at a time. It's not like when you're trying to wrestle with all these demons at the same time that you can walk down a to-do list and just check one thing off at a time. We have to fight these fights on multiple fronts.

And so it is the case that every year on my birthday I don't have a five-year plan for my life, for my business or my career; I have a one-year plan. My birthday is in September and every September I spend some time by myself in solitude trying to figure out what are the goals that I want to accomplish in the coming year. Not New Year's Day, I'm not mad at folk who do that, but on my natal day, on the day that God has allowed me to live another year. What is it that I want to accomplish in my life over the next year till my next birthday personally and professionally?

I put together a list of both of those things every year and I work diligently on those things for the coming year. On my next birthday, I pull that list out, I see how I did over the last year and I put together a new list for the coming year. So for me personally, it's a matter of working on my personal shortcomings, on my character flaws, on all the issues internally as well as working on the external issues in the world at the same time.

MARTIN: One of the things that was also a revelation to me - not, I don't know, maybe yes, maybe no, is that how your feelings get hurt a lot. You write about the whole - something we talked about previously on the program was when you started criticizing President Obama for not having an aggressive enough agenda, vis-a-vis the problems of African Americans. And you were heavily criticized for this - your old friend Tom Joyner, I think was it Maya Angelou, that you talk about people, well-known folks who, dear friends of yours who criticized you for criticizing the president. You talk, now we've previously about the politics of that...

SMILEY: Right.

MARTIN: ...and why you felt that that was necessary, given your mandate and mission, you know, as a broadcaster. But one of the things that was interesting to me is how much it hurt your feelings when people criticize you.

SMILEY: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: And I just wanted to ask you about that.

SMILEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean and now that you've revealed that, do you feel what, more vulnerable? Do you feel relieved in a way?

SMILEY: No, I don't - I don't think that my feelings get hurt easily in that particular instance. I mean I'm a big boy. As I say all the time, when I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is brush my teeth and wash my face, and the next thing I do is take my big boy pill. I take a big boy pill every day because I know that somebody's going to come after me during that day, sometimes with merit, sometimes without, but when you're in this business you subject yourself to that kind of critique. So I don't get my feelings hurt that easy. I don't wear my feelings on my sleeve. You could not have endured what I endured in this Obama drama moment if your feelings were hurt that easily.

But I was hurt, admittedly. When you have been, you know, respected and regarded, and celebrated and in some ways beloved in your own community for all the work you've tried to do in love and service to black people and then almost overnight you become persona non grata, you're called a hater and a traitor and an Uncle Tom and a sellout and you get called everything basically but a child of God, and all that you have done in that moment is the same thing you've always done. To whatever extent you've been celebrated, you are celebrated for trying to be consistent to the truth for holding people accountable to the best interest of black people.

When Bill Clinton was beloved by black folk I went after him for not going into Rwanda and sandbagging Lani Guinier in signing that racist crime bill, 100 to one crack-to-powder cocaine discrepancy, etcetera, etcetera, going after Bill Clinton and nobody black ever said to me you can't critique the president, you shouldn't hold him accountable. But this black man shows up and all of a sudden I'm doing the same thing I've always done...

MARTIN: No, I understand.

SMILEY: Trying to be consistent to the truth...

MARTIN: No, I understand.

SMILEY: ...and all these folk turn on you, that hurts.

MARTIN: I know, but that's not - what I was asking you is now that you've put it out there how do you feel?

SMILEY: No. I don't feel any differently. I mean if - I didn't have to address that in the book if I didn't want to. I mean I did write the book, I chose these lessons, so there's nothing in it that makes me feel more vulnerable. I'm a free black man and if I weren't comfortable with the skin I'm in now, if I weren't prepared enough to tell these stories in hopes of trying to inspire and help other people to understand that whatever they're going through, whatever they feel, whatever has happened to them, they can fail their way up too, if I didn't want to put that out there I didn't have to. I can handle it.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, before I let you go, you know I can't let you go without teasing you a little bit. Tavis, his take away: stay humble or stumble. Tavis, please.

SMILEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Now you're really going to tell me that you're telling people to be humble? Tavis Smiley, you're telling us that you're telling people to be humble?

SMILEY: Mm-hmm. You know, I was on another show and somebody asked me a question like that and I don't quite get that question. You have to unpack why you would even ask me a question like that. I don't get the question, quite frankly.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, I thought we were going to have a little fun with that. But because we just, we just think that your confidence and your swagger is undiminished. And that's not, there's nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with that. All right.

SMILEY: Well, I'll take the confidence and the swagger. I'll take that.

MARTIN: All right. Tavis...

SMILEY: You need some of that when you're breaking ground at places like NPR.

MARTIN: That's it. That's what's up. Tavis Smiley is the host of the late night television talk show that bears his name. He's also the host of two different radio programs, which are distributed by Public Radio International. And Tavis Smiley's latest book is called "Fail Up: 20 Lessons On Building Success From Failure." And he was kind enough to join us from WCLK in Atlanta. Tavis, thank you so much for joining us.

SMILEY: Thanks, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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