BTN LiveBIG: Hoosier Tavis Smiley shares lessons from his life
Yesterday, we shared a biographical sketch of Indiana University alum Tavis Smiley, who recently released the book “50 for Your Future: Lessons from Down the Road.” Written the year he turned 50, his goal for the book was to help younger readers find an authentic life without falling prey to common pressures caused by one’s own ego or modern society.
In the instant bestseller, he set down 50 valuable life lessons, many of which were learned on IU’s campus in Bloomington. Here are a few he shared with BTN LiveBIG:
Tavis Smiley on Aging and Time
Smiley has long appreciated the fact that time is a limited resource, and he advises using the time each of us is given to live well, and with purpose.
“At 35, I had an epiphany that the life expectancy of a black man is 70. I was already halfway there,” he said. “Too often, we also see stories of young people of color dying at younger and younger ages. You go to certain cities and people don’t expect to live past 25. If you think about life in those terms, it gives you a different kind of urgency.
“I started the book with this lesson: Time is undefeated. However young you are or young you feel or how much life you see in front of you … you never know. No one knows how much time we have. All we know is we won’t get out of life alive.”
Smiley’s graciously coming to terms with getting older, though he said that wasn’t always the case.
“Turning 50 was easy,” he said. “It turns out 40 was tough on me. In fact, recently I was in a conversation with friends of mine. They asked, ‘If you could stop at a certain age what age would it be?’ The truth is I can’t think of a year. I wouldn’t want to go back. At 50, I’m enjoying life.”
You don’t have to fear aging, he said, but it’s important to be conscious of one’s mortality.
“My message is that time is fleeting. Whatever contribution you want to make, don’t waste time. Be purposeful about the life you want to live and the legacy you want to leave. Remember that today is not refundable. Have the energy to handle your business.”
On His Positive Outlook
One of the reasons Smiley is such a beloved media personality is that he radiates an upbeat, energetic attitude. This is another lesson from his book: live optimistically.
“Even when we don’t have a reason to be optimistic, I think we can be hopeful,” he said. “There is always a reason to believe that things can get better. The Bible says that hope is evident in the things not seen.
“I’m ‘Exhibit A’ that you can build a whole life on hope,” he added. “I grew up with 13 people in a trailer in Indiana. There were times when I shouldn’t have been optimistic. We were that poor. But I still had hope of better days.”
Maintaining that kind of positive outlook in the face of destitution might seem exceptional to people who come from more privileged backgrounds. But Smiley views it as another example of the kind of determination and heart he’s seen across America.
“I’m no different than other Americans who didn’t always see a way forward, but carved a path,” he said. “When you make the effort and people see you’re trying to be courageous, they will help you remain courageous. Courage is contagious. People love to see that other people want to make it better.”
On Who’s Taught and Inspired Him
Smiley makes it clear that the book draws its lessons from a variety of different sources. The biggest influence on his values, he said, was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I regard Dr. King as the greatest American this country ever produced,” he said. “My small role is to make the world safe for his legacy. For me, that means doing everything I can to spread his message of justice for all and service to others … I want to express and practice a kind of love that liberates people.”
Though his career regularly brings him into contact with the world’s elites in politics, business, academia and entertainment, he finds he’s just as likely to learn something profound from someone toiling away in obscurity.
For example, he was in the back of a cab in the San Francisco Bay Area one day when the driver shocked him with an incredible revelation.
“He said, ‘Tavis, when I’m not driving a cab, I write eulogies for people who passed away with no family. I think everyone deserves a decent burial,’” Smiley recalled.
“I said to him, ‘How do you write a eulogy for people you don’t know?’
“He said, ‘I might not have known them, but I know whoever they were there was something about them that was worth celebrating.’”
Smiley said it was a transformative moment in his life.
“This cab driver was writing a eulogy for a gang member who died the night before,” he said. “He was notorious. We got into a conversation about how some of us is not the ‘sum’ of us.
“The point is, I don’t want to ever be judged by some of my life, but the sum of my life.”
By Cindy Pearlman