May 5, 2010— -- Rapper, actress, singer and entrepreneur Queen Latifah encourages young women's self-esteem in her book, "Put on Your Crown: Life-Changing Moments on the Path to Queendom."
She talks about perserverence despite the odds, and uses examples from her own life as she urges women not to give up in the face of a challenge.
Read an excerpt from the book below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.
You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. -- Winnie-the-Pooh
Looking up at that first mountain summit, more than four thousand feet in the air, I wasn't sure I could make it. It was at least fifteen miles, and the climb was steep. I'd never done a hike like that before. But there I was, with no choice but to put one foot in front of the other, making sure I didn't lose the fire trail and go wandering off in the wrong direction, or worse, fall down the side of a cliff.
It was seven a.m., I'd been up since five a.m. for a yoga class and a vegan breakfast, and my first thought when I started that trail was, "We're going over that?!" This all started early in September 2001, when I booked myself into a hiking boot camp in Calabasas, California, because I wanted to quit smoking. I picked up the habit when I was fourteen and managed to quit a few times, but smoking has a tendency to creep back into my life, especially when I'm working or stressing. A week in a healthy environment, doing nothing but hiking and yoga, was my way of separating myself from cigarettes and going cold turkey.
This retreat was just a house in the middle of the woods. There were no stores around. There were no phones, except for a pay phone on the wall in case of an emergency. We all slept under the same roof and shared meals at a communal table. It was a place where people came to get back to some healthy living, lose weight, get in touch with nature, whatever it was. I just needed to be in an environment that was free of distractions, where I could focus on something besides my crazy, hectic lifestyle.
We were expected to hike at least fifteen miles of mountain ranges a day for a week, and that first time out was intense. I was out of shape and breathing hard. But as I continued to walk, I noticed something. I was feeling lighter. My mind was clear of all thought except for the present moment. I didn't have time to think about all the problems in my life. Or anything else. I was just concentrating on my feet, trying not to trip on a tree root while observing the view, breathing in the cedar-scented air, and enjoying the sights and sounds of the woods. I was back to the primal, the essence of surviving and getting to where I was going.
Eventually, I made it to the top, and when I looked down at the valley below me and the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean in the distance, I couldn't believe how far I'd come. I felt so strong and powerful. I was so proud of what I'd accomplished. I did it!
That night at dinner, the leaders of the hiking group went around the table and asked each of us to share a thought we had from the day. Everyone had a little story to tell or an observation to make. But when they got around to me, the only thing I could think of to say was this: "I am stronger than I thought I was."
I didn't know I had it in me. There's more to all of us than we realize. Life is so much bigger, grander, higher, and wider than we allow ourselves to think. We're capable of so much more than we allow our-selves to believe. Box some seemingly mousy person into a corner and things will come out of her that you never would have imagined. If you push someone out of her comfort zone, she might perform in a way that she never thought possible.
We've all got so much more potential in us than we are willing to explore. We're all capable of second, third, and fourth acts. We're multidimensional beings, but we have a tendency to get trapped in a mind-set. We all deserve to get to that mountaintop and several more besides. We should be climbing the whole mountain range and enjoying the walk through all its peaks and valleys. And we can, as long as we remember to get out of our own way.
At the end of another one of those hikes, the other boot camp guests and I ended up on the beach in Malibu. We were so happy to be by the sea after several days in the woods, shut off in our own little enclosed world. I starting picking up rocks and throwing them in the water. Then I saw this one stone and did a double take. On it was an image of a man standing tall with one arm down by his waist and the other arm raised in the air with his hand clenched in a fist. It was a fist pump rock! I am not making this up. I believe in miracles, but trust me, I am not one of these people who see images of the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast! This was real. I showed it to the other people in the group, and they agreed—it was clearly a picture of a guy going, "Yeah, I did it!" It was like the universe was sending me confirmation of the message I'd gotten out of that week, and I was in a mental state where I was able to receive that message. In that moment, my mind was free of life's clutter and my eyes and ears were open to the signs. And guess what? Not only did I lose weight and improve my outlook, I quit smoking. Of course, it all got undone when I got back to New York City two days before September 11. From my apartment across the river in New Jersey I witnessed the attacks, and suddenly my world and everyone else's had changed. Recividism bit me on the butt, and I went back to my bad habits for comfort. I forgot my inner strength.
Whenever that happens, I pick up that fist pump rock and contemplate its message. It sits on the mantelpiece of my house in Los Angeles, and every time I look at it, I remember what it's like to feel like Superwoman.
We all need a little keepsake like that, especially these days. I know many of you are losing jobs or struggling to find work. It's tough for someone who has just faced a layoff. Millions of us are feeling lost right now. This is a scary time for a lot of people. Their industries are dying. Men and women who worked in factories or at newspapers thought they'd have jobs forever. What they thought they'd be doing until they retire may no longer be an option. There's no such thing as job security anymore. The film and music business are no different. People don't realize that even if you make a lot of money, you can lose it just as fast. Show business isn't exactly a steady pro-fession. One day you're hot, and the next day you're over. You never know.
But that doesn't mean it's over. Remember: You are stronger than you think. You have to go past what you think you can do, and then you have to go in and dig up some things inside you. Shake some stuff around. Take a personality quiz online. Tap into who you are as a person and then look around you. Go outside your comfort zone to figure out what you want to try, and when you hit on something that you like, you'll know it. When you're not watching the clock and you're completely absorbed in it, you'll know that's something you can dedicate yourself to 100 percent. That's the difference between a job and a career.
We all have talents and passions that can lead us into a vocation of some kind. A good friend of mine once told me that she didn't have any talent. I said, "Girl, what are you talking about? Everyone has a talent of some kind. Talent isn't just being an artist. It can be anything. You're just not seeing it yet."
As a matter of fact, I saw what her talent was before she did. When she finished college she got a job managing a Foot Locker store, and she was considered to be one of the best managers in the chain. I knew she was organized and reliable. She had a talent for follow-through. It was the perfect solution. I couldn't bring my business partner, Shakim Compere, on tour because our business was growing and he needed to stay behind at the office and run all our projects, so I asked her to come on the road with me as my business manager. It took a little convincing. It takes courage to leave behind a steady paycheck and benefits to try out something new. But this girl took that leap, and she proved to be a huge asset. She got the job done, and in this crazy business that's a talent to be highly prized.
When I was starting in the business, most people in our crew could rap or do something musical. But not Shakim. He can't sing a note, and if he tried, you would hear dogs howl. But for two years I watched him. He was the guy who'd leave a party early if he had to go to work the next day. Everyone else would phone in sick or come in late. But he always showed up at wherever he was supposed to be, on time. So when I started per-forming around the clubs, he was the guy I wanted to handle my business. It's not sexy to pick up your own money when you've finished performing at a club. I'd ask various people to do it for me. Even Professor Griff of Public Enemy collected for me one time. But Sha was the most consistent and dogged about getting me my envelope of cash, counting it to make sure it was all there, and delivering. He has the strength of char-acter to step away from the partying crowd, say no and stick to it, and tell people "Screw you" when nec-essary. Because of that, he has everyone's respect. No one messes with him.
At the time I made this decision, I was only seventeen, and Sha was eighteen. I don't know how I had the wherewithal to know at that age, but making him my partner was the smartest move I ever made. If I have a creative idea, he'll find a way to make it happen and blow it up even bigger than I could have imag-ined. He's the entrepreneur and I'm the artist, but we cross in the middle. Sha can be creative, too. When one of us comes up with an idea, we'll have a brainstorming session. One of us will say, "Hey, what about this," or, "I bet we can do that," and by the time we've finished we end up with a big ol' layer cake. Sha is brilliant at what he does. He has strength, determination, and intelligence, and he knows how to make the most of both our talents. I always tell him that I'm the star out there, but he's the star in the office. And if he didn't have the courage to tap into his skills, I wouldn't have been able to tap into mine and be where I am today.
I don't care what it is. If you're good at something and you love it, you'll find a way to make money at it if you persevere. Whoever started Sprinkles Cupcakes was probably someone who loved making cupcakes. I saw a story on CNN about some girls in Denver who do crochet bombing. Their mothers or grandmothers taught them how to knit, and now they go around throwing these beautiful crochet pieces over lampposts and architectural landmarks and taking pictures of what they created. They even put giant leg warmers on a statue of two dancers outside Denver's performing arts center. It looked amazing. These girls have a book out, and they're actually making money off this crazy idea. So someone in that crowd, who maybe wasn't as good at crocheting as the rest of her crew, was more business minded and started thinking creatively about ways they could tell the world about this new phenomenon they'd started. They said, "Guess what, we can make a video and put it on YouTube! We can go on CNN." They had their very own Shakim!
Most people don't have so much talent that they can become a success all on their own. We all need people to help us and lift us up. And other people need our help. When you put that together, you can create something really powerful.
When you're trying to reinvent yourself, it's important to connect with people who can bring out your strengths or who have strengths where you have weaknesses. You don't have to do it alone. There are so many creative people out there who are not tapping into their true abilities, and they have people around them who are probably feeling just as lost and scared as they are. Maybe they're about to lose a job, and they're wondering what to do next. But if you get together and talk about it, you may be just one con-versation away from a great idea. Do some research, go on the Internet, make some calls, put in some time, and have the courage to take it to another level.
And don't tell me you're too old to try something new. The best teacher is a great student, so you should never stop learning. I don't care how old you are. My mother just turned sixty, and she's taking piano lessons for the first time. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor. I'm not squeamish—I'm fasci-nated by the human body and anything to do with medicine and the natural world. Anyone would assume that path is no longer open to me, but not so fast. One of my favorite reality shows is TLC's Trauma: Life in the E.R., and a couple of years ago I saw an episode about a forty-year-old medical intern. Most of his peers were half his age. But he just loved medicine and always wanted to be a doctor, so midcareer he decided to go to medical school. He's probably the oldest intern in the country and much greener than doctors who are years younger than him, but he has a lifetime of experiences he brings to what he does now, and that gives a whole other level of depth to what he does that his twenty-five-year-old colleagues don't have. And he brings a passion to his work, because he appreciates this opportunity he's been given to practice medicine later in life. He'll be successful because he had the guts and determination to follow his dream and make it happen.
In these times, you just can't assume that one job or career will sustain you for the rest of your life. Like Oprah said, you have to jump off the ship before it sinks. Don't be the person who stands there and watches it until it's bubbling under the water.
Ladies, I know I don't need to tell you, there is no such thing as job security anymore. That's why you shouldn't let a job define you. That's just a part of who you are, not the whole package. That's also why you need to diversify. Just like your investment portfolio should have stocks, bonds, a 401(k), and a savings account, you need to mix it up so that if one thing drops, you still have other stuff to fall back on. We've known this in the music business for a long time. A rapper who just raps isn't going to have much of a career. From the time he starts rhyming, he's thinking about ways to expand his brand with merchandising and endorsement deals -- if he's smart. Record sales alone won't sustain him for the rest of his life, unless he happens to be Jay-Z, and even Jay makes his money from a million other things besides his music.
I never really planned to do all of the things I do. But I'm one of these people who crave variety. Case in point: I love Asian food and tapas. My friends laugh at me when we go to a restaurant because I always have to order a few appetizers and entrées to share. I always want to taste a little of this and a little of that, especially if it's something I've never tried before. The first time I went to Germany, I sat myself down at a local bar and tried nineteen different beers. Obvi-ously I didn't drink the whole bottle, but I wanted to sample everything, because I'd heard Germany was the place for beer. I love experiencing all the foods, music, fashion, art, and architecture of different cultures. But half of the people who are with me will eat only at McDonald's, because it's what they know and they don't like venturing into unfamiliar territory. What a waste.
I feel the same way about my career. That's why I called my last album Persona, with multiple versions of myself on the cover and a blend of different musical styles in each song. It was my way of saying, "You can't define me." And there are so many more things I want to try before I die.
People ask me how I managed to reinvent myself so many times over the years. They see all the things I do, and they assume they are second, third, and fourth acts. But the fact is, all the things you see me doing -- my rapping, singing, and acting, the talk show, my brand building -- were things I always had in me. I just didn't have the opportunity to show them all at once.
Reinventing yourself isn't becoming a different person. It's bringing out all the things you have inside of you in another way. I knew I wanted to be more than just a hip-hop artist. I thought maybe I'd rap and have my own management business on the side. But you never know where life is going to take you. There are so many roads, and sometimes they lead you to places you'd never imagine. The thing about fol-lowing your passion and living in the moment is that you're able to see more openings than most people and have the courage to jump through those doors.
I was lucky. I grew up in a home where my parents were always encouraging me to try my best and just go for it. Didn't matter what it was or whether I was brilliant at it, as long as I gave it my all. That made me unafraid to fail. I had the courage to try different things purely out of a curiosity or a passion, and as long as I applied myself and gave it 100 percent, Mom and Dad were always proud. I might have come home cut from a team or upset that I'd stumbled at something, but they'd dry my tears and say, "Did you try your best?" And if I said, "Yeah, I did try my best," they'd say, "Well then, good for you! Be proud of yourself!" And I was.
My dad, Lancelot Owens, was determined that I would never cower in a corner. If I wanted to try something, he told me to just go out and do it, no excuses. When we were growing up, my father treated my brother, Winki, and me as equals. If Dad and Winki were playing football, I was playing football. If Winki was going to a dojo to take a martial arts course, I was gonna learn a few defensive moves, too. Why not? Because I was a girl? Didn't matter. Dad wanted to build up the competitor in me. He was a cop and a Vietnam veteran, and he wanted both of his kids to develop a certain strength of character.
He wanted me to have the confidence to be able to stand up for myself in the mean streets of Newark. He used to say to me, "Dana, just because you're a girl, don't ever let anybody tell you that you can't. I know you can!" For a black man of his generation, that was pretty progressive. My dad's always been about equal opportunity. And like equality, opportunity isn't limited to gender or race or anything else. You make your own opportunities.
My parents gave me the foundation. But I was especially fortunate to have Shakim with me from the beginning. He always knew what I was capable of. We've been friends since I was fifteen and he was sixteen going on seventeen. He was a student in my mother's art class at Irvington High School. He's seen me sing, rap, act, joke around, and hold my own in conversations with people from all kinds of backgrounds. He's seen me be outgoing. He's seen me show up when it was time to show up. He knew me in a way the rest of the world had yet to witness at the beginning of my career. He knew that the acting bug bit me when I was in a school play, and he encouraged me to pursue it. He knew that I didn't want to be just an R&B singer and that I loved jazz. He knew before I did that I'd be just as capable of hosting my own talk show as I am at developing a new line of cosmetics or perfume or clothing. So what looked like reinventions were really just moments when I had the right time and opportunity to let all these things inside me out into the universe. A lot of the time, Sha's job is to make sure those doors are open to me. He's been amazing at providing me with a road to follow.
We all need someone in our lives who can see what we're capable of and bring it out in us. So don't shut anyone out. Everyone can be a friend, and anyone might be able to help. There's an old saying, "A wise person knows many things, but a successful person knows many people." We can't do it alone. Other people can change our lives and take us a lot further than we ever thought we could go. That's what Shakim did for me.
A lot of people in my business are surrounded by yes-men and -women. There's always someone around you to pump you up and tell you everything you do is great. They blow smoke up your behind and tell you, "Oh, you're so cool, you're so funny," you're so this, you're so that. You rarely hear the word "no." And what that does is create a false identity. When people are telling you "yes" all day, you never get a sense of who you are or where you really stand. But I have real people in my life who let me know. They pat me on my back when I do good and spank me when I do bad. That's Shakim. He always tells me the truth. He's my barometer.
I'm very involved in my career and pretty clear about where I stand, but Sha helps me stay close to what the truth is. He lets me know when I'm deficient in something, and he tells me what people think and what the temperature is on certain things. He helps me keep it all in perspective, so I never think I am bigger or smaller than I really am.
You need to start with that. It's important for us to figure out who we are as quickly as possible. We need to be clear on what we are and are not willing to stand for, deal with, or put up with. We need to decide who we want to be seen as. The quicker you figure out your insecurities, deal with them, and learn how to love yourself, warts and all, the better off you'll be. Because then you'll be making decisions and choices based upon your authentic self. You'll have the confidence to chase down your dreams instead of phoning in whatever it is you think you're supposed to be doing.
I have confidence to spare, but that doesn't mean I'm great at everything I do. I don't make a record expecting to go platinum. I make music because something inside me is aching to get out, not because I have to make the top ten on the Billboard charts (although a hit is always nice). My first records only went gold, but they were enough to launch a twenty-year career. One of the albums I did, Order in the Court, didn't turn out like I'd hoped. To be honest, it was pretty mediocre. The record label was going through a whole regime change, and the album didn't get the kind of support it could have. And musically, I was trying to do something a little different that didn't quite work. But I was okay with that, because I know I gave it everything I had, and the experience taught me things that made me better.
My talk show wasn't a raving success, either. If it was, I'd still be doing it. Things got really heavy with my guests and the studio audience. Every day I felt like a doctor going into the ER, and you lose patients sometimes. It's exhausting, because after that you have to go home, process what happened, dust your-self off, and come into work the next day ready to save lives again. Again, I tried my best. But you can't beat Oprah at her game.
The movies I made weren't always huge box office or critical successes. Sure, I want them to earn millions at the box office on opening weekend, but it doesn't always work out that way. I show up on time, pre-pared and ready to go. I remember my lines, hit my marks, and deliver my performance to the best of my ability, with all the heart, authenticity, and emotion that the role requires. I work well with my co-workers, shoot the stills, go on the press junkets, and do everything I can to promote the movie in every possible way. I can't say what the studio does or what the director, producer, or some other actor does, but I sleep at night knowing I did my best. If a particular movie doesn't go so well, I can't say anything about the audience. Maybe ours was released in eight hundred theaters and another one was released on the same day in two thousand theaters. But two years later, if people find it on cable and decide it's their favorite movie from me, I'll know it's because I did my best. It's going to show.
It might not be when or how you want it to happen, but you don't have to feel bad about it. Try your best, then you can let that thing go and try something else. Just be sure to finish what you start. See it all the way through, and don't give up so easily. It's human nature to want immediate satisfaction, but sometimes these things work out best on God's schedule, not your own. And sometimes His plan is a lot more interesting than anything we can come up with ourselves. It's hard to see it at the time, but maybe losing a job is a blessing, because it frees you up to pursue something that you find more fulfilling. Maybe you wouldn't have done it if your back hadn't been against the wall.
You don't have to love just one thing or have only one career. Don't be like my scared ass friends when we were on tour in Europe. Don't take the McDonald's approach to your life's work. Sure, the familiar is comforting, but it's also boring. You'll miss out on so much flavor in life. Order up a few tapas dishes. Taste something new on the menu!
You can love many things. Give them all the energy, time, love, faith, and strength that you have. Frederick Douglass said that without struggle, there can be no progress. No one ever got ahead by going through the motions. You have to be constantly improving yourself. Make your life the masterpiece you want it to be.
You are multifaceted. As human beings, we have so many sides to us. Use all of your ability and talent and the knowledge you gained along the way that you didn't even know you had. Do your homework and step out on the faith and conviction that you can do it, and while you're at it, send up a few prayers. Ask that your path be guided and directed, and it can happen if you can step out of your own way.
Learn what you are capable of, and evolve. Knowing who you are doesn't mean you have to put yourself in a box. A healthy identity has to be given room to breathe and grow.
I'm not done yet. I will be a work in progress until the day I die. There's a lot more to this party called life, and I am going to extract all I can until the party's over. I want to do something great every year and see it through to completion, whether it's expanding on my acting roles, producing more movies, learning more things, or doing something for others in a way that has a huge impact. I want to learn to fly a plane. I want to write more songs. And many other things besides.
I'm going to stay on this path of self-discovery, even when it's a steep uphill climb, just like that mountain that seemed so high, I never thought I'd make it to the top. But I did it, and I did it the way I do everything else -- step by step, moment by moment. That's all you can do. Face each challenge as it comes. Don't look up and let yourself be defeated before you even start. Just focus on the journey, and before you know it, you'll get there. And when you finally do make it to the top, you'll feel so proud and so energized, you'll be ready to conquer that next mountain. You'll know that it was worth every stumble and scrape along the way. You'll also discover that, yes, you are stronger, swifter, and smarter than you think.