"Run your own race, baby"
Those were the words spoken to me by father at a critical moment of my life. I was a struggling actress, just beginning her career, and I'd gone to Dad in tears. He was a famous nightclub performer by then, and that was the problem: I couldn't get out from under his shadow. I'd been cast as the lead in a summer stock production of Gigi, but the only thing the interviewers and reviewers wanted to talk about was my father. Would I be as good as him? Was I as gifted, as funny? Would I last as long?
"I love you, Daddy," I said, "but I don't want to be a Thomas anymore."
And that's when my father looked at me with his big brown eyes and said the words I would never forget. "I raised you to be a thoroughbred; and when thoroughbreds run, they wear blinders to keep their eyes focused straight ahead with no distractions. They don't look at the other horses -- they just run their own race. That's what you have to do. Don't listen to anyone comparing you to me or to anyone else. You just run your own race."
The next night at the theatre, the stage manager knocked on my dressing room door and handed me a white box with a red ribbon. I opened it up and inside was a pair of old horse blinders with a little note that read, "Run your own race, baby."
Although Dad's words would inspire me to forge my own path for my entire career, it wasn't until I was older that I realized just how powerful words can be. Had my father chosen some other phrase -- had he expressed some different thought -- would I have made the same decisions I've made? Would I even be writing this to you now? Words can be that transforming.
So I published a book called The Right Words at the Right Time, in which I interviewed more than 100 iconic celebrities -- from actors to athletes, from scientists to presidents -- about the words that changed their lives. All of their stories confirmed to me something I'd always suspected: that whether we know it or not, each of us carries our own unique slogan, a custom-made catchphrase that resonates throughout our lives.
Earlier this month, I shared Martha Stewart's recollections of the single piece of advice that would ultimately shape her career. Today, we hear from CNN's Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who reveals how even the harshest of words can inspire us to realize our dreams.
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By Christiane Amanpour
I call myself "the accidental journalist" because I hadn't grown up always wanting to be one. As a child, I lived in Iran, where there's no press freedom. Consequently, there was nothing about the profession that attracted me. But journalism ended up claiming me through an odd series of events.
I was sent to high school in England and returned to Iran without a plan for my future. I'd briefly entertained the idea of becoming a doctor, but my grades weren't high enough for medical school; so I was left somewhat adrift. Then in 1979, the Iranian revolution erupted.
Not only was this cataclysmic in an international sense, but personally it turned my life -- and my family's and friends' lives -- upside down. Martial law was imposed, soldiers and tanks lined the streets, and a nighttime curfew went into effect across the country.
There was a great deal of uncertainty about our future as a nation. Would the Shah hang on to power? What would happen when the Ayatollah came back? Many of my father's contemporaries were rounded up and arrested, some of them executed.
I returned to England, but my circumstances were radically different. I came from a privileged background. Now my father could no longer support me; his funds had been frozen, and I needed to make my own way. At the time, my younger sister was attending a small journalism college on Fleet Street in London, but after the first term she dropped out, deciding the profession didn't interest her. Now that every cent counted, I was damned if we were going to lose this money that my family had already laid out.
I went to the headmaster's office to ask for our money back, but he said no, the fee was nonrefundable. I replied, "Then, I'll take her place." So began my journalism career.
I learned some basic skills at the school, and by the end of the first term, I'd caught the bug. If I really want to make it in the world, I thought, I have to go to America. Immediately, I began to apply to colleges in the States, with an eye toward becoming a foreign correspondent. Having lived through these unbelievable international events -- including the revolution -- I knew this career was perfect for me.
By the early eighties, I was finishing my education at the University of Rhode Island and doing an internship at a local television station, where I was a graphics operator. That job was fascinating, because it put me in the control room, the nerve center of a TV news program. After I'd been there awhile, a colleague said to me, "Have you heard about this new cable station called CNN? I hear they put people on the air who have English accents. Maybe you want to give them a try."
By then, I'd done the requisite pounding of the pavement -- writing letters, looking for entry-level jobs at various local stations -- and more than once I was told that my British accent and unconventional looks were liabilities. There was no way I'd be accepted by Middle America TV viewers, I was informed. My long and foreign-sounding name was also considered an impediment. "Christiane Amanpour?" they would say. "That will never fly on television. No one will be able to pronounce it."
So I called the personnel department at CNN and was interviewed by phone. The woman asked me ten questions -- basic information like, "What is the capital of Iran?" -- and shortly afterward, I was told I got the job. I'd be working as an assistant on the foreign desk.
Although a small core of people encouraged me in my first months, several others were not so helpful. Especially my boss. Maybe my enthusiasm and eagerness annoyed her -- maybe I'd done something to piss her off -- but it was clear that I was not a favorite of hers, and she let me know it, belittling my ambitions at every possible turn.
"CNN is certainly not the place for you," she'd say to me. "You'll have to go off to some small market and work your way up."
One of my jobs on the desk was to telex various instructions to our overseas affiliates. Sitting at the telex machine, I faced the wall, with my back to the newsroom. Whenever senior executives strolled into the newsroom, my boss would regale them with comments about my supposedly misguided ambition -- "she wants to be a foreign correspondent" -- as if that were the most hilarious thing in the world! Then she would send me off to the vending machines to fetch her coffee and Twinkies.
Sometimes tears of frustration and rage would pour down my face; but I never let on and I was determined to press on. I wasted no time. The minute I found out CNN was looking for a writer, I bolted off the desk, got the job, and began writing news copy for the anchors. Then I moved up to senior writer. I kept falling into dead men's shoes, winding my way up through vacancies.
Finally, I landed my first foreign assignment. My boss had by then left and CNN needed to fill a correspondent's position in our Frankfurt office. Two or three correspondents were ahead of me, but they declined. "Hey, I'll go anywhere," I said, and suddenly I was off to Germany. A couple of months later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and off I went to the Persian Gulf region. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of the hottest story covering the Gulf War, and in a journalistic sense, I never came back.
It's been a long and fascinating journey for me, and every step of the way has demanded hard work -- but intensely enjoyable hard work. I don't believe in sailing through life. My early experience at CNN taught me to have absolute clarity of vision -- to know what I wanted and to have the courage and stamina to pursue my goals.
People will always try to knock you in life -- and knock your dreams. In a peculiar way, that's not such a bad thing. In the end, it gives you an opportunity to prove you want it enough, and that you're strong enough to keep going. Life isn't supposed to be too easy.