Bimbo Banter

If I Were 22 Again

  • Leadership
  • June 12, 2014
  • by Merrie Spaeth


Looking back across decades, I’ll share a few things that I believe I did well – even if it was due to luck (My late father used to say, ‘It’s better to be lucky than smart and the trick is knowing the difference.” Good advice.)—and a few things that I really could have done better and would recommend to everyone in their 20s.

Learn When to Quit. At the age of 14, I was chosen to star in the movie “The World of Henry Orient” with Peter Sellers. It was a life-changing experience. For five years, I was certain I wanted to be an actress, and I acted in TV shows and plays. In my early 20s, I looked around and realized that only a few people worked full time in the field, fewer actually made a living, and even fewer still had material they loved, so I quit. “Freakonomics” authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner claim quitting is one of the smartest decisions you can make. It was for me. I had gotten lucky, not walked through some mist of talent. 

Write, write, write. Fortunately, I got hired at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which was nothing short of a miracle since I had only written college poetry up until that point. The then-managing editor, John Gillen, said, “It would be fun to have a girl.” (Note:  I’m the only ‘girl’ in the picture.) I see an astonishing number of talented people who can’t write. This is a crucial skill that will serve you well throughout your life.

Be optimistic. I’ve been blessed to be a glass-half-full person. If you’re not, immediately order Larry Senn’s book, “Up the Mood Elevator.” I carry my mood elevator card around with me, and every day I’m “grateful” (the top of the elevator) for all my blessings. Yes, you can train yourself to be curious, interested, flexible, adaptive and learn the other levels. 

Work for the best.  Here is where I got lucky. I got to be a speech writer for William S. Paley, the legendary founder and chairman of CBS, and was hired to be Director of Media Relations for President Ronald Reagan. Identify the truly unusual people and find a way to work for them or with them. For example, someone like Jack Sammons. Never heard of him? You would if you lived in Memphis, followed golf, studied successful charities or asked “Who are the 100 most influential people behind the scenes?” He’s a very successful businessman with an eclectic background (he once sold a jukebox to Elvis) who is chairman of the Memphis Airport Board and charities like Youth Programs, Inc., which runs the famous St. Jude golf tournament. (The point of this lesson is that there are incredible people to learn from – like Jack.)

Travel. The writer John Grisham said that every American should travel outside the country to appreciate the United States. He’s so right. Reading and learning is great, but actually experiencing other cultures, governments and value systems was a broadening experience that fueled my passion for American exceptionalism, our focus on the rights of the individual, the Rule of Law and the opportunities we have here.

So far, this is all advice I can personally confirm.

Now to the things I did terribly – and which you, in your 20s, can learn from my short comings.

Learn a language. It’s a global world and most people in other countries speak at least two languages. Join them. Join a conversation group. This will make you valuable in ways you cannot imagine, plus you’ll gain an appreciation of how our world is changing.

Salute! My friend, Marty Johnson Evans, now Admiral Evans to you, enlisted in the Navy after college. She was smart. Fewer and fewer people are serving in the Armed Forces or Reserves. Don’t focus on the negative stories you hear about returning veterans; look at the servicemen and women who are flying up the ladder in corporate America or in a wide variety of organizations. There are a thousand career paths.

To have a friend you have to be a friend. That old saying is so true. I was so busy in my 20s that I didn’t develop and maintain real friendships. Don’t make that mistake. Make time for your friends, celebrate their successes and share their sorrows. 

Lastly…Life is a journey not a destination. This is one area where I have tried to do the right thing my whole life, and I’ll never finish. Do good deeds. Don’t wait to be asked, and if asked, respond. Virtually everything that’s happened to me and my small business has come about because of someone’s generosity of spirit. And, speaking of generosity, values matter: loyalty, integrity, faithfulness and self-reliance. Walk humbly, do justice and show compassion. These habits are developed and solidified in your 20s. Ultimately, they are what will define you and what you will be remembered for in the end.

A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of the “If I Were 22” Influencer series.

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