It would be easy to envy Tavis Smiley, host of BET (Black Entertainment Television) Tonight and Tom Joyner Morning Show commentator, but he is too nice a guy. Instead of arrogance, he generously dispenses encouragement, inspiration, and spiritual wisdom. The things that separate Tavis are those the eye can easily miss, but they are lessons we can all live by.
Lesson 1: Don't Forget Where Your Blessings Come From
Tavis says his success is basically a blessing from God. He grew up in Kokomo, Indiana, attending New Bethel Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church where his mother, Joyce Smiley, is an associate minister. The family of 13 lived in a three-bedroom trailer. Tavis shared one bathroom with his six brothers and used cardboard to cover holes in his shoes.
"I remember being 13 years of age on my knees praying to God that if I ever got a chance to get out...I would spend the rest of my life doing what I could to empower people. I would never become selfish or make my number one goal or priority to enrich myself or spend my time becoming a celebrity."
Tavis hasn't forgotten what got him here or what keeps him on track. "I always pray, 'not my will, but Thy will be done.' If it's not His plan for me, then somewhere down the line it's going to cause me some difficulties. If it's going to cause me to lose my mind, cause me to get heady and high-minded, if it is going to damage my integrity, damage my relationship with You, I pray that that opportunity passes right over me."
Lesson 2: Work Hard
Tavis is up at 6 a.m. weekdays doing his commentary on Tom Joyner's syndicated Morning Show. He's back on the air live at 11 p.m. hosting BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley. The show is a metaphor for Tavis, who is part preacher, part hip hopper (albeit a small part), part advocate, and part public servant. He strings this mix together with intelligence and wit. In between his two signature gigs, Tavis works in interviews, book signings, and speaking engagements while fighting off drowsiness, eye puffiness, and for a while--a stalker. Says Tavis, "Life typically rewards those who put forth a greater amount of effort."
Yolanda Young is an attorney and inspirational speaker living in Washington, DC. Her memoir, "On Our Way To Beautiful" will be published by Random House in 2001. Visit her website.
In case you've missed his influence, here's an update: Tavis conducted President Clinton's first interview after the Monica Lewinsky story broke. He exposed a scheduled auction of slave paraphernalia by Christie's and a company memo that circulated at Katz Advertising discouraging advertising in black media. In both cases, Smiley went to the airwaves, and his legion of supporters jammed phone lines, eventually forcing both companies' presidents to
surrender their previous plans.
Lesson 4: Keep It Simple
While in Washington, D.C., BET pays for his plush accommodations in one of the city's finest hotels and provides him with a Lincoln Continental and Frank, his around-the-clock driver. Still, he stays humble--he will under no circumstances ride in a limousine. "I think they're obnoxious, loud, and ostentatious. On top of all that, they draw attention to you. I have found that when you act like a celebrity, people treat you like one. They ride up in an entourage. They've got a motorcade...I have discovered that if you act like a normal human being, you'll be treated like a normal human being.... I am very serious about maintaining my life as I've always lived it. I am not trying to dramatically change my lifestyle. I don't want to travel with an entourage of people. I don't want to hang out at all the Hollywood parties. I want to stay the way I've always been. The people around me know that, and they don't get caught up."
Lesson 5: Plan Life One Year at a Time
Tavis offered me no clues to his future plans. "I plan my life one year at a time." He explains. "Every year, I spend my birthday [September 13th] alone doing two things. One: Trying to reassess how I did over the last year--rather than set New Year's resolutions, I do it on my birthday. I then plan things out for the year to come."
In the coming new year, I'm going to try Tavis' principles for living and see what happens. You might, too.