Tavis Smiley: If At First You Don't Succeed, 'Fail Up' If you want to learn about success, talk to a successful person. If you want to learn about failure, talk to a very successful person. In his new book Fail Up, TV and radio host Tavis Smiley offers 20 lessons in turning setbacks into success.

Tavis Smiley: If At First You Don't Succeed, 'Fail Up'

Tavis Smiley: If At First You Don't Succeed, 'Fail Up'

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Tavis Smiley hosts Tavis Smiley on PBS, The Tavis Smiley Show from PRI and, along with Cornel West, co-hosts Smiley & West, also distributed by PRI. 2011 marks his 20th year in broadcasting. Smiley Books hide caption

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Smiley Books
Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure
By Tavis Smiley
Hardcover, 288 pages
Smiley Books
List Price: $19.95

Read An Excerpt

If you want to learn about success, talk to a successful person. If you want to learn about failure, talk to a very successful person. In his new book Fail Up, TV and radio host Tavis Smiley offers lessons on how to turn life's setbacks into success.

2011 marks Smiley's 20th year in broadcast — and that anniversary got him thinking: "The way I arrived at this place [of success] was failing my way — all the way," he says. The book is sort of a Top 20 Worst-Of list: It details the 20 biggest mistakes of Smiley's life.

Some of these mistakes were news even to Smiley's close family. Before the Fail Up manuscript arrived at his parents' house, Smiley called home to tell his mother and father they were about to read things they'd never heard before. Smiley was the first person in his family to go to college — but when he marched across the stage at Indiana University to get his diploma, he hadn't really graduated. It technically took Smiley 16 years to get his degree; during college, he had been arrested and sent to jail for check fraud. "I couldn't bring myself to tell my parents that I'd gone to jail while I was in college," he says. "[Or] that I didn't have a college degree."

He thinks as a young man, he couldn't have truly comprehended the concept of "failing up." There are certain things, Smiley says, that you simply have to learn the hard way. "I've got great mentors, great family, great friends," he says. "I have a deep and abiding faith. But there are some things you can only learn via experience."

A Presidential Poster Child

Smiley isn't the only one who has learned to fail up — he also gives examples of public figures who've had their fair share of both failure and success. Believe it or not, President Obama is "the poster child for failing up," Smiley says. Back in 2000, Obama couldn't enter the convention hall for the Democratic National Convention. "He couldn't get the hookup to even get inside the building ... [he] didn't have credentials," Smiley says. "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."

Smiley hasn't been shy about criticizing then-candidate and now-President Obama — and that didn't always sit well with his audience. "It is a very difficult thing to go from being celebrated to being persona non grata almost overnight," Smiley says. "I understand that after 400 years black folk wanted — by any means necessary (forgive me, Malcolm) — to see Barack Obama in the White House. I get that."

But as a member of the media, Smiley says, his job was to hold elected officials accountable, and he took that task seriously. "Then this black man shows up," Smiley says, "... and I'm not supposed to talk about accountability?" He stands by his decision to challenge Obama's policies in the same ways he says that he challenged President Bill Clinton's and other public figures'.

Confidence Vs. Cockiness

When you hit a point in your life where your success-to-failure ratio starts to balance out in favor of success, that's when you start to learn the hard lessons about humility. Smiley rejects assertions that he is arrogant, or has a big ego. Everyone in the media, he says, must have confidence.

"There is a distinct difference between confidence and cockiness," he says. "And it always troubles me — it makes me laugh actually — that when you're a black man with confidence — you own your own radio show, you own your own TV show, you own your own publishing imprint ... then you don't have confidence, you have ego."

He says his work speaks for itself — as does his track record of breaking down barriers of race at NPR (which aired The Tavis Smiley Show from 2002 to 2004) and other broadcast organizations.

At the end of the day, Smiley says he'd like to see failure redefined as "preparation." He thinks Babe Ruth said it best: "Every strike gets me closer to the next home run."

Excerpt: 'Fail Up'

Fail Up by Tavis Smiley
Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure
By Tavis Smiley
Hardcover, 288 pages
Smiley Books
List Price: $19.95

From Chapter 11: Living For The City

Boo-Boo the Fool

It was early 1987. After spending Christmas with my family in Indiana, I packed everything I owned — which obviously wasn't much because it all fit into my orange Datsun 280Z two-seater — and hit the road to California.

Mayor Tom Bradley promised me a job after my internship, but he added a caveat: I had to go back to Indiana and finish my studies. I did. And although circumstances (mostly of my own doing) seriously delayed the receipt of my actual diploma, it wasn't going to deter me from accepting the mayor's promise. I had given him a date for my arrival, and I was determined to show up for work in LA on the designated day.

After driving my overloaded Datsun nonstop from Kokomo to LA, I arrived in town eager to start my new job and new life. To my absolute shock and horror, I learned there was no job. The Reagan era was in full swing; the economy was bad; and California was still hemorrhaging from the recession. Mayor Bradley had just announced a citywide hiring freeze, which applied to all city employees except the police, fire, and sanitation departments.

So there I was, all hyped up, gung-ho, and ready to go to work ... and there's a hiring freeze. If I had known, I could have — perhaps should have — stayed in Indiana and made sure I had finished school properly. But since I didn't know, I wound up stuck in LA without a degree, without money or a job, feeling like Boo-Boo the Fool.

If not for Eula Collins, Mayor Bradley's secretary, there's no telling what would have happened. Eula became a dear friend during my internship the previous year. If I wasn't at work, I was hanging out at Eula's house. She had two daughters but no son. Eula, my LA mother, seemed to enjoy having me around and doting on me. After arriving in town penniless, broken-spirited, and homeless, I gratefully stayed at Eula's house in South Los Angeles.

A couple of weeks later, Eula found an apartment for me, right across the street from her house. As fate would have it, that apartment is right around the corner from my headquarters in Leimert Park today. Fortunately, the apartment was already furnished. The owner had to leave and rented out her one-bedroom apartment complete with sheets, towels, dishes, a television, and a modest amount of furniture.

Now I had a place to stay but no money. Until the hiring freeze lifted, I had to aggressively pursue a "meantime" plan. During my job search, I found myself locked in three uncompromising categories: "overqualified," "underqualified," and "undependable."

Managers at McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants said I was woefully overqualified. Without an actual degree, I was underqualified for high-tech and other well-paying jobs.

In retrospect, I may have unintentionally sabotaged myself. In interviews with potential employers, I often talked about interning for Mayor Bradley and how I had a job waiting once the freeze was over. Why would anyone hire me? Fast-food places have enough turnover, and any savvy employer would hesitate to invest in someone waiting for the freeze to lift.

I could not find a gig to save my life. I ended up doing anything and everything I could to make a little money, including signing up when movies and TV shows advertised for extras. I made appearances on Matlock, Cheers, and a couple of other TV shows. I even qualified for a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card, thanks to a quick cameo in the film Someone to Watch Over Me with Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers. The director wanted a stock boy to ask, "Who's there?" when the killer broke in through a basement window. Out of the hundreds of extras on the set that day, I was chosen. Turns out, my lines were cut from the movie. But, those two words qualified me as a genuine actor. Funny, huh?

The hiring freeze — which lasted more than a year, combined with no consistent income — was getting the best of me. During my internship, I met businessman Harold Patrick, who became a dear friend and supporter. Harold, Eula, a couple of other friends, Mama, and Big Mama — everybody pitched in, sending me a little money to keep me afloat, which made me feel like a horrible failure.

I was barely hanging on, but an eviction notice pushed me over the edge. When my intuitive mother called to ask how things were going, I said, "Mom, I've done everything I can; now I'm being evicted. I can hear Gladys Knight and the Pips warming up. 'LA proved too much for the man, he couldn't make it ... ' It's not going to work."

I was trying to be cute and funny, but holding back the tears was a battle. "I know you don't want to do this," Mama reassured me, "and I don't want you to feel like a loser or that you failed, but I want you to know that you can always come home."

For some reason, it hadn't occurred to me that I had that option. Accepting my mother's offer, which seemed like the only viable choice, was comforting, but it also meant I had failed. Tears of relief and humiliation flowed equally.

"Mom," I sniffled, "I can't imagine how things can get any worse. I'm going to take you up on your offer. I'll pack my stuff and come home."

That night, my friend Harold pleaded with me to change my mind: "This whole thing could turn around in a week. I really do believe you'll do great things in Los Angeles. I think this is your city, Tavis. Give yourself another week," he urged.

Harold was trying to convince me to be more patient, more tenacious. He had a gut feeling that California was really the best place for my talent. He had no idea that his argument was bouncing up against an eviction notice. The signs were plain as day: Give it up! Go home!

"Time's run out, Harold," I said in quiet resignation. It was a Tuesday night; Thursday morning, I planned to head back to Kokomo. Wednesday night, filled with dread, I stepped into the shower. Lathered up, with water pouring from the spigot and my eyes, I experienced my first earthquake. It was a nice little shaker. In that butt-booty-naked moment, slipping and sliding all over the place, I heard a voice:

As long as you're alive, Tavis, there's hope. It can always get worse. Hold on.

This may be hard for you to believe, but for me, it was a bona fide revelation. It was a message I not only heard, it was also one I felt, just as real as breathing. I got out of the shower, surveyed the surroundings — a few dishes broken, furniture in disarray, fallen plaster from the wall — but no major damage. Still, in that moment, when I thought things couldn't get any worse, things miraculously changed. Like flicking a light switch, my tears subsided, and my spirit completed a 180-degree turn.

Before the earthquake, I thought I had endured enough and suffered enough; that eviction notice was a sign to move on. In reality, the earthquake was a stronger sign to stay put. It took an act of nature to shake up my world and toss me around, but afterward, I was still standing, still breathing, and feeling blessed to be worthy of bona fide heavenly assurance to hang in there.

"I'm not going home, not just yet," I whispered to myself with new resolve. "I'm going to hold on a little bit longer."

In what seemed like a lifetime later, looking at the single can of Spaghetti-O's in my cupboard and my last bit of cornflakes in a bowl in front of me, the phone rang. It was Bill Elkins from City Hall:

"Congratulations, Tavis," he said. "The city-government freeze has been lifted. Consider yourself a paid, full-time employee of Mayor Tom Bradley's staff."

From Fail Up by Tavis Smiley. Copyright 2011 Tavis Smiley. Excerpted by arrangement with Smiley Books an imprint of Hay House.

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