"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 comedian by then, and that was the problem: because all interviewers and reviewers wanted to talk about was my father. I'd been cast as the lead in a summer stock production of Gigi, and the questions that were constantly printed about me were along the lines of, "Would I be as good as my father? Was I as gifted, as funny? Would I last as long?"
I went to my father and said, "I love you, Daddy, but I don't want to be a Thomas anymore."
He 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."
Dad's words would inspire me to forge my own path for my entire career. 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.
In the coming weeks, I'll be sharing some of these stories with you. Today, CEO and entrepreneur Martha Stewart reveals the words that would one day inspire her signature dynamism.
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By Martha Stewart
In January 2002, my magazine, Martha Stewart Living, was about to celebrate its one-hundredth issue, and I needed to write my editor's letter that would somehow explain what this meant to all of us at the magazine and what motivated us each month. A difficult task. One of my editors walked into my office and handed me an old document she had dug out of a file cabinet that she thought might be useful in writing my letter. I glanced at the old memo and instantly broke into a huge smile.
Before I reveal the contents, let me tell you a story.
I grew up in Nutley, New Jersey, the second oldest of six children in a family that had absolutely no money for "extras" -- no expendable income for "luxuries," only day-to-day basics. And yet the remarkable thing is, it didn't even occur to us to worry about money, because the work ethic was instilled at a very early age. If you needed new clothes, then get a job and pay for them. College costs a certain amount of money? Go earn a paycheck.
This is not to suggest that our household was some sort of heartless, pecuniary factory. It was fascinating, actually, because everyone was busy and productive. We were all occupied twenty-four hours a day. I baby-sat first, and soon after, I created children's birthday parties, helping parents make the events special, with craft projects and other unusual ideas.
Meanwhile, if my chores were done and I wasn't at work, I was allowed to go to the library as often as I wanted. If I wanted to read in bed, before I went to sleep, nobody came along and told me, "Lights out." Shutting off the TV is one thing, but you never turn out the lights on a reader.
Because my parents had both been educators -- my mother, a sixth-grade teacher in a local grammar school, my dad a physical education and Slavic languages instructor -- they were natural-born "encouragers." Although I can hardly recall a day I didn't feel an overwhelming sense of optimism from my parents, I do remember the first time that hope was crystallized into actual words.
I was fifteen years old, and my teacher had assigned us a book report. For some reason I decided to write about The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I quickly regretted my choice. This book was not easy for a ninth grader.
What does A stand for? Oh, adultery. (Pause.) What's adultery?
If this wasn't hard enough, imagine having your father -- not your mother -- explain to you what this very grown-up novel was all about. Then imagine trying to write a paper about it. Naturally, I was a mess, worrying and crying and telling my dad that I'd made a big mistake in choosing the book.
"It's way too hard to understand!" I protested. "I won't be able to write anything that makes sense!"
My father listened carefully as I listed all of the reasons Nathaniel Hawthorne and I simply weren't going to hit it off.
"Martha," he said, "you can do anything. If you put your mind to it. Anything."
Something in that fleeting moment crystallized for me. Because I trusted my parents without exception -- and because my dad was an educator, after all -- I accepted his words as gospel and sat down to write my paper. My father had revealed the key to accomplishing difficult tasks: Setting your mind to something could make it happen. One week later I got the paper back from my teacher with a huge A written on it (in scarlet, no less). I think I still have that paper somewhere.
After that day, I shrugged off any self-doubt I may have felt, newly emboldened by my father's decree that anything was possible. Around this time a neighbor of mine, a ballerina, had become a model, and I decided that this sounded exciting. So with my parents' blessing, I went to New York with this girl, her agency signed me up, and I began going to auditions. It could be pretty scary, climbing onto a bus and going into the city to apply for work, and the modeling business was brutally competitive. But, again, I remembered my father's advice, and I was on my way.
I began making TV commercials shortly afterward. Funnily enough, I wasn't cast as a child, but instead as a woman. In fact, one of my first jobs was playing a young wife in a Lifebuoy soap commercial. I was fifteen -- a baby -- and playing a married woman! Where did I get the self-assurance to pull off such an outrageous transformation? From the words, "You can do anything."
I've lost count of the number of times my parents' support came back to guide me through life, from applying to college to raising a child to starting my own company. But once that kind of self-confidence is instilled in you, it's with you forever. What's more, you can pass it on to others. That's what I do now in all of my businesses. I'm constantly encouraging people to do, to learn, to accomplish, to create. And I continue to push myself, as well.
Which brings me back to the memo. When my editor handed it to me, I immediately recognized it as something I wrote back in 1991, when Martha Stewart Living was approaching its first anniversary. It was called "Tenets for a Good Business," and it included a list of goals I set for myself -- and the magazine -- such as, "We must establish and maintain a standard of perfection," "We must remember our reader," and "We must provide information that inspires."
What made me laugh was that I had just been writing the same exact words for my one-hundredth anniversary issue letter. Here ten years had passed, and even with all our successes, we were still setting goals, still pressing forward, still believing in the limitlessness of our potential. Having a dream is one thing. Putting your mind to it to accomplish it is what makes it come true.
My only problem? What am I going to write for our two-hundredth issue?