Larry King: Boy, it’s great to be here on PBS for a couple of nights, sitting in across from one of the really talented broadcasters of his generation. He’s one of my favorite people. Tavis is celebrating his 20th year in the business and in conjunction with that milestone he’s about to release a new book called “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure.” There is its cover. The book will be in stores on May 1st. To preorder it you can go now on Amazon.
Mr. Smiley, it’s great to have you with us as a guest while I host this show. (Laughter)
Tavis Smiley: Mr. King, it’s an honor to be on your program.
King: The principles have –
Tavis: (Laughs) Can I just start, before you say anything –
King: No, the – here you go.
Tavis: No, but let me just start. I have to start by saying – (laughter).
King: You can’t stand it. You can’t stand it.
Tavis: Just two things, two things. First of all, how honored I am to have you do this –
King: My pleasure.
Tavis: – on the occasion of these 20 years. I know you have ties older than I’ve been doing television.
King: (Unintelligible) You’re a blip.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) So thank you for doing this, number one. But number two, I must tell you, the high point of my 20-year career was sitting in for those nights when you were off and you gave me the chance to sit in your chair. High moment for me.
King: I loved having you do it. When they said, “Who do you want to pinch hit for you,” I said you immediately. I think you’re terrific.
Tavis: Well, thank you.
King: When you can set your own place in the business, that’s very special. Why is failure important?
Tavis: Yeah, I think it’s important because we have to start seeing failure as a friend.
King: That don’t mean you encourage it.
Tavis: No, you don’t encourage it, but you can’t avoid it, either. The truth of the matter is anyone who’s successful, I think, Larry, in any field of human endeavor, if they’re being honest, will tell you they’ve learned much more from their failures than they ever learned from their successes. The problem is when you get to be Larry King or Tavis Smiley or whoever, nobody wants to show their warts.
It’s about acting like you’ve always been at the top of the mountain. Nobody wants to expose the bad and the ugly about their career, but I think if you can expose that it can help other people.
King: How much in life is luck? Or do you agree with Branch Rickey, the great baseball general manager, who said, “Luck is the residue of design.”
Tavis: I agree with Branch Rickey. I agree more with Daisy Mae Robinson, aka Big Mama, my grandmother, who put it this way, with her broken English and her third-grade education – “It ain’t no good luck; it’s a good God.” I don’t believe in good luck. I believe in a God who’s merciful and graceful, and my career has been blessed from the very beginning. So I believe more in blessings than I believe in luck.
King: There are 20 chapters, and each chapter has a title like “Stay Humble,” right?
King: You deal with each individual thing. When did you learn these lessons?
Tavis: Across these 20 years, some even before I got in the business. For example, the lesson about humility I learned as a 12, 13-year-old kid. When I was a kid – I know it’s hard to imagine this – but when I was just a child I had a major, major humility problem. I grew up in an all-white community –
King: There you are.
Tavis: – and because I was the only African American kid, my family was the only African American family in that community, in that trailer park, literally a trailer park in Indiana, I always felt less than. I felt like the odd man out. We were the poorest family in the trailer park and I’m walking around half the time with cardboard stuffed in my shoes and I’ve got nine brothers and sisters.
Thirteen people – 10 kids, Mom and Dad and my grandmother, Big Mama, 13 of us in a three-bedroom trailer. That’s how I grew up. So I always felt like the odd man out, and so I would take on – I was a big fan of Ali, thanks to my dad, and you Ali, you interviewed him many times over your career.
King: Know him very well.
Tavis: Ali, with all that braggadocio, I found the only way I could navigate my space in that white community was to try to take on that Ali-like attitude of bragging about my intellect, bragging about this or that. So I had a humility problem when I was a kid.
King: But when someone experiences failure, loss of a job, something bad happens, they don’t say to themselves, “This is a good day.” So when are you able to reflect – you have to have years, right, to be able to look back.
Tavis: Yeah, oh, yeah.
King: You couldn’t have written this book at age 30.
Tavis: No doubt about it. That’s why I said I have come to accept failure as a friend. I didn’t always think that it would be a friend or was a friend. When I ran for city council here in L.A., I studied political science in college, law and public policy was my major at Indiana University. I came out here to work for Tom Bradley, the late, great mayor of this city.
I thought I was going to be an elected official. I thought I would be Barack Obama back in the day, a senator from Indiana, my home state. I wanted to go back to Indiana and run for the U.S. Senate after working for Tom Bradley for a while. So politics was my first love.
When I ran for that city council seat here in L.A. and lost, I thought at 26 my life was over. I did not see that failure as a friend then. Now, I mean, imagine that I’d won that city council seat, with all due respect to the city council. I might still be filling potholes as a councilman out here on Sunset as opposed to being inside the building talking to Larry King 20 years later, so.
King: Could you therefore accept some sort of failure today?
Tavis: I think you have to.
King: Or are you beyond it?
Tavis: No, no, no, oh, Lord, no. I think you have to accept failure, but the whole point of this book and the whole premise of, I think, what we’re talking about tonight is that I believe that you can, in fact, fail up. As a matter of fact, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t failed their way to the top.
I mentioned Barack Obama, our president, a moment ago. For those who know the back story, as you do, when Barack Obama ran for the United States Senate and walked, basically, into the Senate, people forget that a few years prior, literally just a few years before that, he got the brakes beat off of him by a guy named Bobby Rush, who is still a congressman.
King: But he had luck, too – he had a terrible opponent.
Tavis: He had a terrible opponent and people kept dropping out and again, I believe that things work in your favor sometimes, when the universe can line up behind you.
But at the same time, Obama wouldn’t be president if he hadn’t been a senator, and he wouldn’t have been a senator had he not run for the House seat and lost it first. So indeed, Obama has failed his way to the top, and I think all of us do.
King: As I recollect, Mr. Lincoln lost a few.
Tavis: He did indeed.
King: Define failure.
Tavis: I think failure is a setback that at the moment might seem debilitating – setbacks that seem debilitating at the moment. I that, let’s be honest, I think in life there are certain things as failures. I don’t think that failing makes you a failure. Two different things.
I don’t think failing makes you a failure. We’re going to have failings from time to time. It doesn’t make you a failure unless you choose not to learn the lesson of whatever that failure was. If you learn the lesson from it, I think, again, you can fail your way through it.
King: But failure could be the error that the third baseman makes. He failed to pick up the ball and the man reached first, as opposed to being a poor kid and the Black in – that’s not a failure, that’s cause and effect.
Tavis: No, that’s true.
King: You had nothing to do with that.
Tavis: Since you love baseball, obviously, Babe Ruth once said – and I’m paraphrasing this – that every strike gets me closer to the next home run, and that’s how I see life. Every strike you make, it gets you closer to that next home run.
King: How important to you, then, is God?
King: You totally believe there’s someone watching you.
Tavis: Absolutely, absolutely. I have a whole chapter in the book about – the last chapter’s called “Father Knows Best.” I’ve learned that – somebody once said that we plan and God laughs – we plan and God laughs. I’ve had so many plans for my own life that didn’t go the way I thought they were going to go. I’ve learned over the course of these years that sometimes a dead end is really a finish line.
Sometimes rejection is really redirection. So I believe that somebody much greater than me is looking out for me every day of my life. I don’t use that as an excuse or a crutch, but I have to have somebody in my life to call upon when I’ve done all I can do.
King: How did you make that leap?
Tavis: That wasn’t really a leap. I was raised that way. My mother is, to this day – Hi, Mom – she’s watching every night in Kokomo, Indiana – my mother happens to be an evangelist, she’s a minister, so I was raised in a family, I was a PK, a preacher’s kid, but it wasn’t my father, it was my mother.
King: You didn’t have to believe, did you?
Tavis: I didn’t have to believe, but when that’s all you’ve ever known, obviously you tend to lean in that direction until – good question, as your questions are always great – I believe, I think, initially because my family believed. My mother believed, my father believed, I was raised in a church of believers. So I believed initially connected to their faith.
But oh, you live long enough, you find yourself in some spots and situations and your mama can’t help you, your daddy can’t help you, and that’s when you’ve got to develop your own faith, your own relationship, and that’s what happened for me.
King: What would you say to people who do believe, and you’re telling them fail up, to someone in the Gulf or in Haiti or in Japan?
Tavis: That’s a great question. I think that what we lose sight of in life is that things can always be worse. As difficult as things are, things could always be worse. As long as you’re alive, there is hope. As long as you’re alive and you get a chance to wake up the next day and do it better, to get it right, to try again, to fail up, things can always be worse.
So whether you’re talking about Japan, whether you’re talking about Haiti, there’s always a much worse situation, so I think you’ve got to be thankful for those days that you do have and make the most of them.
King: But isn’t it easy to sit here and say that?
Tavis: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s easy to sit and say that, because I’ve had some days when I thought there wasn’t going to be another day. I tell stories about that in the book, when I thought that I would not survive.
King: You’ve had a personal Haiti?
Tavis: I’ve had a couple of those in my life. I talk all the time about Hurricane Katrina, and there are Hurricane Katrinas that happen in our individual lives every single day, these tsunamis come into our lives every single day. There have been moments when you don’t think you’re going to make it to the next day. You’ve had heart issues that we all know about.
King: You bet.
Tavis: You’ve had surgeries that we’ve all read about over the years, and I know there were times when you didn’t think you’d be around hosting your show, but here you are.
King: But yet you continue to use this strong belief even though – don’t you ever say, if he’s omnipotent, why would he allow the tsunami?
Tavis: Yeah, that’s always a great debate to engage in – why does God allow this or that to happen, and the short –
King: You don’t have an answer, do you?
Tavis: Oh, I have a great answer, because I figured that you might ask that question.
King: I figured you would. (Laughter)
Tavis: I don’t know if it’s a great answer, but I think it’s an honest answer. Here’s the thing that always cracks me up about that, that people only ask why would God allow X, Y or Z to happen when X, Y or Z happens. When something good happens, A, B or C, they never ask, “Why did God allow all these blessings to rain down on me?” “Why did that car miss me as opposed to hitting me in the intersection?”
“When I had the car accident, why did I live as opposed to dying?” “When I got that raise on my job, God, why’d you give me a raise?” Nobody ever asks God, “Why did you allow it to happen” when it’s good, but when something bad happens, then we ask how could God, if he’s omnipotent and omnipresent and all-powerful and all-knowing, how could God allow this to happen to me? Well, there’s a lack of balance there.
King: But you think there’s a plan? Because if there’s a plan, then you’re not controlling it.
Tavis: I think the plan for our lives is – and again, I want to be very clear – for persons who watch this program every night who happen to be agnostic or atheist, I ain’t mad at you. But for my life, and I’m not trying to proselytize in the text, for my life, I believe that God does have a plan for me. I believe that I can move in that plan or out of that plan. Oftentimes, again, we plan things for ourself that are not a part of his perfect will for our lives.
I believe the plan, though, is the same for all of us – to do the best we can with what we have right where we are, and that favor follows us where we go, if we do those things every day.
King: Let’s break down some of the chapters. “Stay Humble.” Your mom taught you to stay humble with a wooden pencil holder.
Tavis: Which I still have to this day.
King: What’d she do?
Tavis: As I said earlier, I had a humility problem, because it was the only way for me to navigate my way through this world where I was the odd man out, the Black kid in this white neighborhood.
King: You had to be humble there.
Tavis: Yeah, well, I learned to be humble. What was happening was I wasn’t making any friends because I had taken on this Ali sort of attitude – I’m smarter than you, I can recite statistics better than you can. I had a decent intellect, even as a child. That was my way of fighting back, of defending myself, and all it was was me showing my own insecurities.
My mother sat me down one day, long story short, and said to me, “Tavis, you have a humility problem.” She had brought me back a little pencil holder, a little wooden pencil holder from a little place called Brown County, Indiana, where she and my dad had gotten away for a couple of days, which they never got a chance to do, but she was concerned about me even while she was away on a brief break.
This pencil holder said, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” She gave that to me, and at first glance, receiving this as a gift, I smiled and said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She said, “Read the pencil holder again.” I read it a second time. I didn’t get it. Read it a third time, I didn’t get it. Read it a fourth time, I didn’t get it.
She had me slow down and read the words carefully and slowly, and when I read those words that fourth or fifth time, I got it. My mother wasn’t giving me a compliment, she was spanking me – you have a humility problem, and we’ve got to figure out at this young age how to get this in check or this is going to follow you for the rest of your life.
Then she hit me with that scripture that I remember so well in Proverbs: “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own lips. Let another man exalt thee, and not thine own mouth.” You have to find a way to let other people revel in your success. You don’t beat your chest about this.
So she said, “Go to school for the next few days, don’t brag about anything, and I promise you, if you keep doing good work, somebody will recognize it.” Eventually that happened, and that started the process of solving that humility problem.
King: Of course, you know, Ali was just using it to fool the crowd.
Tavis: Exactly, to demoralize – exactly, and sell tickets, yeah.
King: Two, “Cheaters Never Win.” Now, never win? Cheaters never win?
Tavis: (Laughs) Maybe in the short run, but not in the long run. In the short run, but not in the long run, I don’t believe so, yeah.
King: So you don’t get away with it in the end?
Tavis: Not forever. Not forever. In the short run, but not the long run. That kind of behavior eventually catches up with you, and it’s ultimately no way to live a life. I’ve just found that if I’m going to win, I want to win fair and square. I’ve cheated in my life, and I talk about that in the book. I’ve just discovered, though, that when I win in an earnest and fair way, and as an African American male, I don’t whine about this, but I’ve had a lot of strikes against me.
Oftentimes, I’m in competition. There ain’t a whole lot of Black folk who do what I do on television, and I say that with humility. But when you’re an African American, you’re an African American male, and it’s not just me on TV; Black folk deal with this every day, sometimes there are strikes against you through no fault of your own and you get tempted to cheat. I just find, though, that when you win through cheating, it’s not really winning.
King: You’re a Black American. Why aren’t you angry?
Tavis: Oh, Lord, I am angry. I’m angry about a lot of things.
King: Don’t act it.
Tavis: I try to – because I pray every day – (laughs) I try to turn that anger into fear. I try to turn the anger that I have – not into fear; turn the anger and the fear into energy, what I wanted to say. I turn the anger and the fear into energy. I’m afraid of certain things, I’m angry about certain things.
But I think that what I’ve come to realize is that that anger can become righteous indignation, and that’s what it is for me. It used to be anger. I try to take that anger now and turn it, again, into righteous indignation. There’s a lot of things I’m righteously indignant about.
So I try to take that anger and apply it to problems in the world that matter to me so that there’s some good that comes out of that anger.
King: So you use it.
Tavis: Mm-hmm, for good, I hope. I try to.
King: Chapter three is “Don’t Ask for Too Many Favors.” You don’t say don’t ask for any favors.
Tavis: Exactly. (Laughs) That’s why if I said no favors, you wouldn’t be in that chair tonight.
King: That’s right.
King: Well, you have to ask favors.
Tavis: Exactly. But the reason why – I’d like to think the reason why, one of the reasons, besides your wonderful comments earlier that you agreed to sit here when my staff asked, is because for the 20 years I’ve known you I haven’t been asking you for a bunch of favors, and that’s the whole point of the chapter. I learned early on – Jim Brown, the great football player, taught me –
King: Just had dinner with him.
Tavis: Jim Brown taught me this lesson. So I lived with Jim when I first came out here. Jim was a family friend, and when I came to L.A. to get my career started I stayed in his guest house for a few months. It’s my first time in L.A., I’m coming out here to work for Tom Bradley and get my career off the ground, I’m hanging out at Jim Brown’s estate up on top of Sunset Plaza and all kinds of celebrities and well-known folks are coming to the house.
Jim’s got tickets and access to everything – he’s Jim Brown. So every time I saw Jim doing something or I read something in the paper that was going on in town, I would ask Jim, “Jim, can you get me tickets to this?” “Jim, could you get me tickets to that?” “Jim, could you get me tickets to this?” One day, Jim cussed me out.
“Motherhucker, will you stop asking for -” he went off on me about begging so much and always asking for favors. He sat me down after he cussed me out, had a nice conversation with me, and basically said to me, “You don’t want to live your life that way in this town or anyplace else, where you’re constantly asking for favors. When people see you coming, they’ll start running the other way.
“Develop your own system, make your own goals, accomplish your own achievements and you’ll have what you need to get to where you need to be. But stop asking folks for favors.”
King: Very wise. I don’t think he said, “hucker.”
Tavis: No, well, this is PBS. This is PBS.
King: (Laughs) Your next one is “You’re Always On. In the Internet age, what’s private cannot -” there is no privacy anymore, is there?
Tavis: Not anymore.
King: So how does one deal with that in the failing up when you’re – sometimes failures are minute, or sometimes failures are only known to you or to a small circle. Failures now are known –
Tavis: On a global scale.
Tavis: Yeah, and that’s the whole point. I tell a story, speaking of television, when I was on BET years ago, long before PBS, I was interviewing a guest one night and I tell the name in the book, so I might as well tell it now – Robert Townsend, the actor, director, producer.
Robert Townsend was on my BET show one night. BET, the studios were in D.C., so I was in D.C., he was on a satellite feed here in L.A.
King: Johnson ran it, right?
Tavis: Exactly, Bob Johnson owned it at the time; Viacom owns it now. So I was in D.C., Robert Townsend here in L.A., and long story short he’d done a movie called “BAPS” that Halle Berry was in. I thought it was then and I think it is now, respectfully – sorry, Robert – a horrible film. I just didn’t like the movie.
So my camera guy, one of my camera guys, we’re about to go on the air, five minutes till airtime, you know how this works – one of my camera guys says, “Tavis, did you see the movie?” I said, “Yeah, I did.” “What do you think of it?” “It’s horrible. I love Robert’s work; I loved ‘Hollywood Shuffle,'” et cetera, et cetera. “This is a piece of crap. I hate this movie.”
Well, long story short, my microphone is open, and Robert’s sitting in L.A., hears everything I’m saying about how bad I think this movie is. It made for a very, shall we say, contentious conversation when we went live on the air five minutes later.
That was a mistake my sound guy made, having my mic open before it should have been open, but I learned a very important lesson about that – even when you think nobody’s listening, you’re always on, and that was 20 years ago. Now, to your point, in the Internet age, stuff that we think is private on cell phones and Internet, email, all the stuff you think is private can go public pretty quickly, and you get embarrassed.
King: Isn’t it, therefore, harder to fail up when everybody knows you failed?
Tavis: Hm, never thought about it that way. Some ways, yes, in some ways, no. It depends, I think, on what the failure is and how you respond to the failure. Since we’re talking about BET, not over that incident, but years later, I got fired by BET. I know what it’s like to have a TV show and get fired from it.
When I got fired from BET it caused a ruckus in Black America, on radio, on the Internet, on television, in print.
King: Why were you fired?
Tavis: Long story short, about an interview that I sold to ABC, when somebody thought I should have sold it to CBS. I’d offered it to CBS, owned also by Viacom, CBS turned it down. I sold it to ABC, and when it aired on ABC it killed CBS in the ratings that night and then the folk at Viacom realized, “Doesn’t this guy work for us on BET, which we know own?”
Tavis: “Why was his special on ABC and not CBS?”
King: Goodbye, Tavis.
Tavis: Goodbye, Tavis, and that’s precisely what happened. So anyway, I got fired by BET, back to your question, and it was a very public firing. Got fired immediately, it was all over the news, “The New York Times,” “Time” magazine, “Washington Post,” everybody’s writing about Tavis being fired by Bob Johnson and Viacom and BET, so it was very public.
But I found that the public appreciated what I was doing every night on television in such a real and significant way that that kind of groundswell is what led to PBS being interested in me, and NPR being interested in me, and CNN – I used to co-host “Talk Back Live” during the day on CNN.
All those networks came at me because they could see the groundswell of love that I had developed and the following that I had on BET. They were like, if this guy can do okay on BET, maybe we ought to give him a shot over here. So that’s how I was able to fail up.
King: So you believe we all have an act two?
Tavis: I hope we do. I hope we do. I think we do, but I think we’re determinative of that, and how we respond to the failures determines whether or not we get another shot at it.
King: All right, another chapter says “Spend, Save and Invest Wisely.” You were arrested for writing bad checks in college.
Tavis: I was. I’m not sure my mother knows that, but she knows now. I tried to keep that from my mom. There are two things in my life that have happened that I tried my whole life to keep from her. I love my –
King: Why let her know it now?
Tavis: Because it’s hard to write the book and not be honest.
Tavis: I believe if you’re going to write a book – as you know, you’ve written many – you’ve got to be authentic, you got to be real, otherwise, why write it?
King: That’s right.
Tavis: So one of the worst mistakes of my life, this book is really about these 20 mistakes I’ve made in my career and how I’ve learned along the way. One of the worst things I did, and I regret it to this day, I was just young and dumb. I had a checking account as a college student, as a freshman, sooner than I should have. I didn’t know how to even balance a checkbook.
So I’m around town, writing checks, and the funny thing about it was I wrote the same check every couple nights for the same amount of money. There was a place in Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to school at IU called Pizza Express. I ordered a $7.14 pizza every night, sausage and pepperoni, extra cheese, the way I still eat my pizzas to this day – $7.14.
When you write a few of those checks over time, they add up to a few hundred dollars if you’re not putting the money in the account to cover the check. So I’m thinking that the bank – I’m thinking that I have what’s called overdraft protection. I don’t, but I think I do, and they’re not paying these checks and I’m bouncing checks to this pizza place.
King: And Pizza Express dared to charge you?
Tavis: (Laughs) Imagine that?
King: Pizza Express.
Tavis: Pizza Express, imagine that.
King: Are they still in business?
Tavis: I think they’re out of business now. I don’t think they’re there anymore.
King: That’s why they’re out of business.
Tavis: (Laughs) Anyway, I get a knock at my apartment door one day. I was living off-campus at the time. I get a knock at my apartment door. The guy says, “Tavis Smiley?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You’re under arrest.” “Under arrest?” I can’t believe this. “What for?”
And he says, “Check kiting.” I’m like, “I don’t own no kites. Kites? What?” I didn’t know what check kiting was. So I get arrested, I get booked, I sit in the cell for, like, all of a few minutes before my friend – my roommate was at the apartment at that time, so he immediately got in his car, followed me down and bailed me out immediately, so I didn’t spend any real time in jail.
But just going into that cell for, like, two seconds made me understand right then I will never go to jail again and I’m going to manage my money right for the rest of my life. So with my company today, we don’t play with our money.
King: By the way, you know people are under arrest – is anybody ever over arrest? (Laughter) I just thought of that. Why is it “under arrest?” Another thing drives me nuts is “These planes had a near miss.” No, you mean a near hit. A near miss is a hit. (Laughter)
Anyway, join us tomorrow night for part two of my conversation with Tavis. His forthcoming book, “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure” in stores May 1st. You can order your copy now on Amazon.
Good night from Los Angeles. I’ll be back here tomorrow night with him.
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