Get Ready to Be Ready
Why practice makes perfect.
Published: February 19, 2013
by Tavis Smiley
Be prepared when opportunity knocks.
It was the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity arose for me to jump from being a voice on the radio to a face on the local news. Most of my friends were ecstatic about the possibilities, not to mention the increase in my salary.
I’d be a fool to say no, they said.
I said “no.”
It was a huge mistake, according to some in my circle. Mistake though it might have been, without this seeming failure to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I would have never been able to “fail up.” Nor would I have had time to discover the true meaning of defining your own success.
I was in my late 20s, with the largest urban radio station in the city, and now I had the opportunity to add “television” commentator to my portfolio. My friends were jumping up and down with excitement. It was my “moment,” some said.
“Thank you, but no thank you,” I said.
Many of my friends thought I was nuts. Who in their right mind passes up an opportunity that had gained others so much exposure?
In truth, I turned it down because I wasn’t ready. I had never done television, never used a TelePrompter, and never spoken before a television camera. It was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But I was convinced that if I went in and bombed the audition, the word might get out that I was good on radio but horrible on television. In my state of mind at the time, I felt bombing might foreclose on any future television opportunities.
When I said, “no thanks,” I was really thinking “not yet.”
Days after declining the offer, I went to a little community TV outlet called South Central Community Television (SCCT) on Crenshaw Boulevard. The staff knew me from radio and were ecstatic that I wanted to do commentary for free. It wasn’t about the money. It was about experience, learning the ins and outs of television commentary.
At SCCT I learned how to write my scripts, read a prompter without turning my head from side to side, give the right inflection, sit upright in my chair, and tuck my jacket under my butt to prevent ripples across my shoulders — all the TV tricks.
After about eight months with the small cable outlet, I still felt unprepared. When I was in college, I remembered meeting a big-time Montreal TV producer, Larry Shapiro, who created content for PBS. I called Larry and asked if he could teach me a few things about working in front of and behind the camera.
“I don’t have a whole lot of money, but I can get you a little apartment here in Montreal and pay you a little bit,” Larry graciously responded. “You can come up here for a year, and I’ll teach you everything you need to know about TV. And once you get good enough, I’ll even let you host a couple of my shows for PBS.”
I was in Montreal in a flash. For almost a year, Larry taught me how to sell advertising and to work with multiple cameras; what the duties of a “floor director” are; and — keeping his word — eventually let me host a couple of his shows. Who knew that, years later, I’d end up as the first person of color in the history of PBS to host his own daily signature talk show?
Frank Sinatra once said, “Never ignore that inner voice that tells you something can be better, even when everybody tells you it’s okay.” While my friends were warning me that turning down that television offer was a big mistake, my inner voice whispered: “Get prepared first!”
This particular “mistake” had a good — no, great — outcome. I share it because it contains layers of valuable lessons. The first pertains to preparation.
There’s so much mediocrity in society because people oftentimes jump before they’re ready. Nobody wants to miss what he or she perceives as an opportunity, but very few take the time to prepare for it.
A lot of people miss their “moment” because they don’t invest time in preparation. Truth be told, I was scared to death when I turned down the TV audition. There was no concrete proof that it would come back around again.
Trust me; your “moment” will come. And if you’re prepared, you’ll instinctively grasp the opportunity. And don’t be afraid to go first.
This story also addresses another concern — the need to reject perceptions of our limitations. I was a public policy major with a failed political campaign on my résumé. I had no training in radio or TV.
It mattered little.
So many of us let perceptions of our limitations hold us back. Yet there are countless examples that should encourage us to dream outside our self-imposed boundaries.
By his own account, Abraham Lincoln didn’t have what passed for a formal education. What he did have was a vociferous appetite for books and for learning what he wasn’t taught in school. Lincoln’s intellectual power blazed an unpaved path to the White House.
Albert Einstein maintained that his parents were convinced that he was “retarded” because he didn’t utter a word until he was three years old. Odd in youth perhaps, but the physicist, philosopher, and Nobel Laureate was not to be denied his role as a preeminent genius.
Winston Churchill was the British prime minister whose great oratory skills inspired a devastated nation during World War II. It has been written that young Churchill suffered benign parental neglect, had a speech impediment as a child, and grappled with what he defined as “the black dog” of depression. Despite his challenges, when he died in 1965, he was remembered as an honored world leader.
In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell unravels the secrets of extremely successful people — those “whose achievements fall outside normal experience.” Chapter two dissects “The 10,000-Hour Rule.” Basically, Gladwell projects that high IQs, innate talent, and training from elite institutions are not what determine one’s success. Hours of practice — in fact, 10,000 hours of practice — are the amount of time researchers noted that separated the “masters” like Mozart, Bill Gates, and the Beatles from equally gifted composers, computer programmers, and musicians.
In other words, preparation — not standard education — is that extra “something” that catapults the likes of Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Steven Spielberg, Miles Davis, and Abraham Lincoln to fame.
Trust that inner voice, and let no thoughts of your limitations or so-called missed opportunities deter you. Focus on following the magic 10,000-hour rule. Practice and prepare without fear of failure.
In other words, get ready to be ready.
Let me close by sharing the inspiring words inscribed on the wall in the office of the late, great civil rights attorney, Johnnie Cochran:
“There are only three keys to success: Preparation. Preparation. Preparation.”
From his celebrated conversations with world figures . . . to his work to inspire the next generation of leaders . . . broadcaster, author, advocate, and philanthropist Tavis Smiley continues to be an outstanding voice for change.