How to Recover From a Career Flameout

Lessons on life and work from broadcaster Tavis Smiley.


With the good times missing in action, a lot of Americans are coping with financial stress, declining living standards, and deep fear about the future. So veteran broadcaster Tavis Smiley ought to have a ready audience for his new book, Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure. As a black radio and TV host, Smiley has managed to bridge many racial and political boundaries, starting as a commentator on a small urban radio station, expanding his audience with a show on Black Entertainment Television in the 1990s, and crossing into the mainstream with a stint on National Public Radio from 2002 to 2004. He currently hosts a TV show on PBS and two radio shows distributed by Public Radio International. Fail Up is his 15th book. I spoke with Smiley recently about his 20-year career, the setbacks he's faced, and the many threats to prosperity in America. Excerpts:

You didn't start out as a broadcaster. You wanted to be a politician. What happened? I ran, I lost, I was devastated. I was in Los Angeles, working for Mayor Tom Bradley. Politics was my primary interest and I decided to run for L.A. City Council in 1991. I came in third out of seven or eight candidates. I was 26. There was an incumbent, and if she had not been running, I would have been one of the top two finishers. I didn't know what to do with my life after that, but when I saw the number of votes I got, I figured there were a lot of people in this district paying attention to what I have to say. I thought I'd run again in four years. But I had to do three things: Raise money and pay off debt, keep my name and face in front of the public, and I had to have some position of authority, some sort of role that would allow me to speak on issues. Those were my three goals.

[See where to work if you want a raise.]

I decided I would create a one-minute radio commentary. I called it the Smiley Report. It was like a short version of Paul Harvey. I figured this is going to put my name out front. I'll talk about the issues. I went to this radio station where I knew the guy who owned it. He said I've got no money to pay you, but if you can find a sponsor, I'll put you on the air. So I found a savings and loan that sponsored me the first six months, and I did my commentary at 7:20 a.m. every morning. It was doing so well, the station owner added me at a second time, 5:20 p.m. When the S&L sponsorship ran out, I found somebody else. I wasn't making any money, but my career in broadcasting started as a one-minute radio commentary. Then I jumped to the FM dial and it caught on. And it all came as a result of getting my butt kicked in that city council race.

I drew three lessons from that. Sometimes rejection is redirection. Sometimes a dead end is really a finish line. And third, sometimes we plan and the universe laughs at us. In other words, sometimes the universe has more in store for us than we imagine.

Your book is about building success from failure. What are some other ways you've done that? This is my 20th year in the broadcasting business, and as I look back, two things occur to me. One, with all the success I've been blessed to have, I didn't realize how many failings I'd actually had. And two, I didn't realize that there's been such a direct link between these significant mistakes, missteps, and miscalculations, and the success that came immediately after.

I'll give you three examples. I was at Doubleday Publishing for 10 years and I started to get frustrated. I wasn't happy with the direction they were taking my career. I engaged what I call the three Ls: learning, leaving, and launching. I felt I had learned everything I could there, so I left and launched SmileyBooks. None of my books for Doubleday hit the bestseller list. But I did two books for a small independent company that got me on the list. So I left and started SmileyBooks, and now I'm publishing New York Times bestsellers, including books by other people. That was a direct link between leaving one place and becoming an entrepreneur.

[See how the middle class is shrinking.]

I left BET [Black Entertainment Television] because I got fired, and fired very publicly. I learned. I said to myself, I will not go back on television until I own my own show. However long it takes me to generate the support, resources, and business model, from this day forward, I want all of my shareholders to like me. So I created this show for PBS, which I own, and now we're about to start our ninth season. Again, I got fired, and took it as an opportunity to launch something new.

At National Public Radio, I was the first person of color to host a show, but I wasn't seeing evidence that they were embracing diversity and inclusion beyond me. I wanted more producers, writers, more black folk on the board. I didn't like this feeling of being used, being the black face on the network. When I left, I made a statement about why I was leaving, and all hell broke loose. I took a hit for that. A lot of people thought I was playing the race card, that I was arrogant, this uppity Negro. But there was some good that came out of it. I left NPR and took the same show to Public Radio International, and the deal with them is that I own my show. PRI distributes it. And NPR has a number of people of color now.

You talk in the book about having ownership. What's the benefit of ownership? Control. Now, let me unpack that, so everybody doesn't just say, he's a control freak. As a person of color, many times I've been the first person through the door at these venues. I need to produce, market, and promote these shows in ways I know are best for the audience. It's not ego. I understand how to make this work. I understand the uniqueness of my brand.

There's a lot of failure in America right now, a lot of unemployed people and others who just aren't getting anywhere. A lot of people think the universe doesn't even know they exist. What kind of advice do you give people who are struggling? I have five simple guidelines. First, you can't marinate in denial. You have to take some kind of action. Second, the cavalry is not going to come rescue you. Whether it's the government or somebody else. You have to figure something out. It's on you. Third, you're right, there are moments when the universe doesn't even acknowledge you. When nothing's going right. The answer is to innovate, innovate, innovate. You've got to figure out a way to be creative. I would have much preferred to find a job after I lost that council race. But there wasn't a single job that existed that did all those things I needed. You have to know where you want to take your life or career and find a way to do it.

The other two things. Even if you can't find the ultimate job that you want, you have to start your own sort of think tank of like-minded individuals. Your own knowledge brokers. Being connected to the right people is terribly important. And I still believe that attitude is everything. A strong work ethic.

[See 12 ways to stop America's decline.]

After the city council race, you didn't just drift into radio commentaries. You were pretty systematic about it. Have you always been like that? I've always been a hustler. I went to Indiana University with $35 in my pocket and nothing else. All I had was a letter from Indiana University saying congratulations, you've been accepted. I thought great, they've accepted me, but all I had was $35. I had to find a work-study job, find somebody to give me some housing. I had to innovate at 17 or 18. It was rough for awhile.

What do you think is going on in America? We've got high unemployment, a lot of people still feel like we're in a recession, and there are a lot of problems we seem unable to fix. America has the blues. I sense this fear of failing on the part of the American people. That fear is palpable on an individual level, with regard to our families, and with regard to the nation as well. A psychic cloud hangs over the country right now. A lot of us are in a state of depression and some of us are in a state of denial. I saw a poll the other day, more than half of Americans think our best days are behind us. When half of the nation thinks that, you've got a problem. When people feel that their kids and grandkids will not do better than they have done, what happens is, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

America has also become more nativist. We're turning on each other. The greed in this country is out of control. This gap between the have-gots and have-nots has got to stop widening. This is unpopular to say, but my reading of history suggests that every empire in the world has eventually fallen. Every empire eventually trips over itself and falters or fails. Saying that in America gets you labeled as anti-American. But use history as your guide. My concern is, this country one day is going to implode under the weight of its own poverty. I have a deep and abiding concern about the least among us, the growing numbers of poor among this obscene amount of wealth.

[See 7 ways to sink in a stagnant economy.]

What can people do about it? Not at a policy level, but an individual level? I give this advice to my family and friends. One, now is the time to do whatever it is you've always dreamt of doing. There's no downside. You don't have a job, you don't have any money, so there's no downside whatsoever to trying that thing you always said you wanted to do. Going back to school or whatever it is.

Two, this is the best time to be creative, try something new, get those juices flowing. Figure a way out, because the times demand that. Three, people have to remain hopeful. There's a distinction to be made between being optimistic and being hopeful. Optimism suggests there's a set of facts or circumstances or conditions, something you can see, feel or touch, that gives you reason to feel good about the future. Hope is a different thing. It's having faith in the substance of your future even when there's no evidence that it will be better. Even if you don't have reason to be optimistic, you can always be hopeful. I'm an example of an individual who has built an entire life on hope. Now, conversely, if you give up hope, you ain't got much of anything else.

What are you optimistic about? At the moment, not a whole lot. I'm not optimistic at the moment. But I'm hopeful. I think I'd be scared if everything in my life started working out the right way. My journey has not been one where everything's been laid out before me. All these things I've got are things I started.

[See why jobs are recovering but pay isn't.]

If people feel frustrated or powerless, what can they do to remain hopeful? It's hard to keep this in mind, but when you get fired or downsized or whatever fancy word they want to use for it, sometimes what you go through is not a reflection on you. What happens to you is much less important than what happens in you. I've been fired many times, and sometimes it has nothing to do with my skill set. The majority of people right now who are unemployed and are suffering have not been fired because of anything they did. Think about that. It's the economy, stupid! It has nothing to do with you. If you internalize that, beat yourself up, you'll become depressed and despondent and give up hope. Sometimes you need to look in the mirror and say I've still got a skill set that's worth something.

Twitter: @rickjnewman

Corrected on 5/10/2011: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of radio shows Smiley hosts and the name of his publishing company. He hosts two shows and his publishing company is SmileyBooks.