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Letters to My Younger Self

Written by Ellyn SpraginsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ellyn Spragins


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: April 08, 2008
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-0-7679-2932-5
Published by : Harmony Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony
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If you could send a letter back through time to your younger self, what would the letter say?

In this moving collection, forty-one famous women write letters to the women they once were, filled with advice and insights they wish they had had when they were younger.

Today show correspondent Ann Curry writes to herself as a rookie reporter in her first job, telling herself not to change so much to fit in, urging her young self, “It is time to be bold about who you really are.” Country music superstar Lee Ann Womack reflects on the stressed-out year spent recording her first album and encourages her younger self to enjoy the moment, not just the end result. And Maya Angelou, leaving home at seventeen with a newborn baby in her arms, assures herself she will succeed on her own, even if she does return home every now and then.

These remarkable women are joined by Madeleine Albright, Queen Noor of Jordan, Cokie Roberts, Naomi Wolf, Eileen Fisher, Jane Kaczmarek, Olympia Dukakis, Macy Gray, and many others. Their letters contain rare glimpses into the personal lives of extraordinary women and powerful wisdom that readers will treasure.

Wisdom from What I Know Now

“Don’t let anybody raise you. You’ve been raised.” —Maya Angelou

“Try more things. Cross more lines.” —Breena Clarke

“Learn how to celebrate.” —Olympia Dukakis

“You don’t have to be afraid of living alone.” —Eileen Fisher

“Please yourself first . . . everything else follows.” —Macy Gray

“Don’t be so quick to dismiss another human being.” —Barbara Boxer

“Work should not be work.” —Mary Matalin

“You can leave the work world—and come back on your own terms.” —Cokie


“Laundry will wait very patiently.” —Nora Roberts

“Your hair matters far, far less than you think” —Lisa Scottoline

“Speak the truth but ride a fast horse.” —Kitty Kelley


Madeleine Albright
Former Secretary of State

"You've got the guts to find your own purpose."

It's odd to think of a former secretary of state as someone who worries about fitting in, but for a long time Madeleine Albright did. In a group, she paid attention rather than interrupt. Sitting in her roomy office at the Albright Group, in Washington, D.C., Madeleine recalled her need to be liked and accepted with no regrets. "In the end I don't think it was a disadvantage. Wanting and needing to be liked is part of what got me to where I am."

Wearing a red suit and brown leather Lucchese cowboy boots when I met her, Madeleine, sixty-nine, seduced me with her forthright, unpretentious manner. She treated me as an equal, even though I've never owned cowboy boots or a cabinet title. Smaller than I expected, she held her body very still during our meeting. Her blue eyes seemed to swallow my words with a gravity that lingered even when she laughed. Don't forget this is a woman who has spent numberless hours with world leaders, including Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, and grappled with genocide, war, U.S. embassy bombings, and U.S. cruise missile attacks on suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan, among other crises.

Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague, Madeleine and her family emigrated to the United States when she was a child. Apple-cheeked and round in high school, as she describes herself, Madeleine worked hard to seem casual and American. Her efforts were often undone by a serious streak that revealed itself through bossy outbursts, such as when she turned in a fellow student for talking during study hall. After attending Kent, a private girls' school in Denver, Madeleine went to Wellesley College on scholarship and married journalist Joe Albright three days after graduating.

Her letter is addressed to herself in the spring of 1982, at age forty-four, when she was still reeling from the breakdown of her marriage of twenty-three years. Shortly after Joe announced that he wanted a divorce, she accepted an offer to join the faculty at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. At that time in her life she had already earned a master of arts and a Ph.D. from Columbia University, acted as chief legislative assistant to Senator Edmund Muskie, and worked on the National Security Council's staff. In her new position, she was charged with creating a program that would encourage women to enter international relations, and she was expected to serve as a role model for those young women.

Dear Madeleine,

You will get through this fog and uncertainty--and you'll do it in the best possible way. You won't become cynical, stoical, or hard-bitten over the loss you're feeling. Over the next ten years you'll rebuild and reinvent yourself, finding success--and tremendous satisfaction.
The truth is, you've got the guts to find your own purpose and the integrity to fulfill it on your own terms. Your parents taught you to strive to achieve all you can, with the gifts that you have. Now you're about to direct those gifts toward finding your voice and using it to serve your country in ways that will surprise you.

When your students ask you how you have managed to be married and have children and work at the same time, you feel like a phony because you think you haven't succeeded at that. It's hard to feel qualified as a role model. But you are.

It will take years before you realize that you already are a good role model. But ultimately you'll inspire far more women than you'd ever predict. Twenty-three years from now when women say that they're choosing a career in international relations, the thing you'll enjoy most is telling them that there is no formula, that everybody must choose their own path.

With confidence,

Maya Angelou
Poet, Author, Playwright

"Don't let anybody raise you. You've been raised."

Born Marguerite Johnson, Dr. Maya Angelou was raised by her mother, Lady Vivian Baxter, a self-possessed, successful entrepreneur and businesswoman who owned a hotel and wore diamonds in her ears. Unmarried, Marguerite was pregnant when she finished high school in the summer of 1945. Her son was born in September and she decided to leave home two months later.

Leaving the comfort of her mother's big house, which had live-in help, was characteristic of Dr. Angelou's courage and fierce sense of independence. She has gone on to embrace--and excel at--a dizzying array of disciplines. She speaks French, Italian, Spanish, and West African Fanti. She has danced onstage, composed music, written plays, directed and acted in movies. In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., asked her to become the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in 1993, President-elect Bill Clinton requested that she write a poem for his inauguration.

Dr. Angelou has written prodigiously: six autobiographies, including the best-selling I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published by Random House in 1969; three children's books; six plays and two screenplays; numerous books of poetry and other books. Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie, a collection of her poetry, earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1971. In 1981, she was appointed to a lifetime post as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.

This avalanche of achievement could not have seemed more improbable on the day the seventeen-year-old Marguerite left her mother's house with a two-month-old son in her arms. She had found a job, a room with cooking privileges down the hall, and a landlady who would baby-sit. Here is what Dr. Angelou, seventy-eight, would say to her younger self.

Dear Marguerite,

You're itching to be on your own. You don't want anybody telling you what time you have to be in at night or how to raise your baby. You're going to leave your mother's big comfortable house and she won't stop you, because she knows you too well.

But listen to what she says:

When you walk out of my door, don't let anybody raise you--you've been raised.
You know right from wrong.

In every relationship you make, you'll have to show readiness to adjust and make adaptations.

Remember, you can always come home.

You will go home again when the world knocks you down--or when you fall down in full view of the world. But only for two or three weeks at a time. Your mother will pamper you and feed you your favorite meal of red beans and rice. You'll make a practice of going home so she can liberate you again--one of the greatest gifts, along with nurturing your courage, that she will give you.

Be courageous, but not foolhardy.

Walk proud as you are,

Rachel Ashwell
Creator of Shabby Chic

"Don't leave school just yet."

Deep pillows and feather beds are at hand. Plump armchairs wear slouchy white denim or cream linen slipcovers. Worn tables bear honorable scars and nicks. In the unpretentious slipcover and flea market world of Rachel Ashwell, coziness counts more than pedigree. A self-taught designer and entrepreneur who grew up in Britain, Rachel, forty-six, says her biggest fear is mediocrity. To her, an ordinary decor looks familiar--because it's been done before. "Mediocrity is a superficial effort--what happens when a project is done without passion," she says. Her company, Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic, based in Los Angeles, celebrates plain design and refurnished furniture, edited by a strict "Less is more" principle. "I can't bear cluttered closets. A cluttered cupboard is a cluttered mind," she says.

The concept has lured customers around the world, including celebrities like Britney Spears and Pamela Anderson. Her fifteen-year-old company, with more than $10 million in revenues and 125 employees, is expanding quickly. In addition to six stores, five books, and a TV show associated with the company, Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic spread in 2004 to department stores like Bloomingdale's (with a new line of sleepwear) and Target stores (with bedding, furniture, rugs, and other products for the kitchen, living room, and elsewhere).

Despite her successful track record, until recently Rachel was uncomfortable if someone she didn't know approached her at a party. She explains why in her letter, written to herself at age sixteen, when she dropped out of school. "In America people think of everybody in Britain as Cambridge- or Oxford-educated and madly intellectual, but they're not," she says.

After dropping out, she found employment as an au pair in Britain and moved in with the family she worked for. A few months later, she relocated into a room in a Council Flats building, which was government-subsidized and "pretty Dickensian," she says. Rachel's working-class floor mates included quite a few drunks. Every tenant shared a hall bathroom. You had to put change into a meter for hot water.

In time, of course, she became an expert at replacing hard edges and dark gloom with soft cushions and pastel colors. That feat is detailed in The Shabby Chic Home, an account of Rachel's unglitzy renovation of her beloved Malibu home, which she later sold. Her special alchemy lies in the way she allows a room to answer to a primal need, described by poet Maya Angelou: "The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned."

Dear Rachel,

Don't leave school just yet. You're sixteen, eager to get a job and get on with it. This willingness to move on--no, actually it's like a compulsion, isn't it?--will serve you well. What would you say if I told you that your love for design and decorating, combined with that incredible drive to start the next thing, will lead to a business with your name on it that generates more than $10 million in annual sales?

So, being impatient will be an asset. But you need school, too--not because you need book knowledge but because you should have more experience with learning. Without that, you'll struggle. Even in your mid-forties, when you're doing something silly, like reading instructions for a new appliance or reading People magazine, you'll have to keep bringing yourself back to focus. You'll love what you do. Your life will be like a big box of candy every day. But the problem will be savoring the one in your mouth. You'll no sooner bite into one piece than you'll have you're eye on the Milky Way over there.

Many entrepreneurs and artists skip the traditional educational path. Still, one thing that's really wonderful is that if you follow certain rhythms in life, the tracks that most people pursue, things do tend to work out. Without that evolution of character building, though, it's hard to catch up. At forty-six, I think I'm just beginning to catch up. I've always been quite nervous about crowds and parties. I worry because I don't trust strangers. I just didn't allow myself to go with that rhythm when it was the right time to connect with people, so you should. I didn't cultivate friendships or a sense of myself, which is why you must.

Now that I have a daughter who's older than you are, I understand that the experience of being around other kids is as important a part of education as classroom material. I see all these dramas she and her friends have. They hate one another; then they love one another. It's just what they do. Without the bumps and bruises of a school's social scene, you're going to be defenseless when conflicts arise. You'll be so uncomfortable around confrontation, for example, that there will be many instances in your future life where you'll walk away without presenting your point of view.

Impatience and restlessness will lead you to one decision in particular that you'll regret. After establishing a career based on making houses into cozy sanctuaries, you'll sell the first house you ever bought, in Malibu. You'll think it's important to have more communal space, something bigger. You won't take into consideration the importance of the place where you made your family's memories. That's what comes of not having the intellectual habit of thinking things through and making a decision for the right reason. Life will be your school, and you'll be successful. But with a mentor and some training, your success could be really amazing.

With patience,

Barbara Boxer
U.S. Senator from California

"Don't be so quick to dismiss another human being."

After short careers as a stockbroker and a journalist, Barbara Boxer, now sixty-five, found her voice as an advocate in politics. It was like a race car at full throttle suddenly finding traction. Barely five feet tall, Boxer, a passionate champion of the environment, childhood education, and women's rights, sometimes has to stand on a box to see over the podium at press conferences. In recent years, the Brooklyn-born Democrat has become better known for criticizing key Republican moves. She fiercely censured the war in Iraq. She signed a House member's complaint about Ohio voting problems during the 2004 presidential election, which forced Congress to debate the snafu before certifying President Bush's victory. Her vehement opposition to Condoleezza Rice's nomination as secretary of state inspired a skit on Saturday Night Live.

Far from scaring voters away, Barbara's boldness seems to have endeared her to Californians. Running for her third term in 2004, she received more than 6.9 million votes, the highest number ever tallied for any Senate candidate, beating opponent Bill Jones by twenty percentage points. There's also talk of a Boxer for President campaign on Internet blogs, but she says she has no interest in running.

Though her success looks effortless, she had to learn that passion, clarity, and determination are not enough to ensure victory. The first time she ran for office--a spot on the Marin County Board of Supervisors--she lost. "One of my biggest faults when I started out in politics was being judgmental. At that young age, I didn't really have the patience to hear why someone might have a different point of view from mine," she said. Four years later, in 1976, she ran again and won. This letter is for the thirty-two-year-old Boxer, mother of a seven-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl, as she was preparing to run for office for the first time.

Dear Barbara,

You're full of fire. You're passionate about quality education, safe streets, the environment--all of these things. I know you feel these things in your heart and you feel them strongly, but look, you have to understand that the next person may hold their beliefs with the same amount of passion that you have. Don't be so judgmental about other people. Don't be so quick to dismiss another human being. Don't jump to the conclusion that another person just doesn't get it or isn't wise enough just because he doesn't agree with you.

The name of the game in politics is to move forward an issue you deeply believe in. You're just starting out and young enough to be impatient when people don't see your point of view. Stop and listen to what you're saying: I can't believe you feel that way! And: How could you possibly think that way? You've shut off the potential to learn from that person you're talking to and you'll be less of a person for it. In the end, you'll lose what matters most--the chance to advance an issue you care about.

There's something else you may not want to face: It's easier to be judgmental. It's less work to see everything in black and white. But every single person is as important as you are and has a story to tell, just like you do. Open up your mind to other points of view--and you may not have to experience how losing an election can take you down a peg or two.

Your staunchest supporter,
Senator Boxer

From the Hardcover edition.
Ellyn Spragins|Author Q&A

About Ellyn Spragins

Ellyn Spragins - What I Know Now

Photo © Karen Mclean

ELLYN SPRAGINS encourages women to share their life’s wisdom through books, products, and WHAT I KNOW NOW™ women’s leadership seminars (www.letterstomyyoungerself.com). She wrote the “Love and Money” column in the New York Times business section for three years. She first edited five of these letters for an issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. She lives in Pennington, New Jersey, with her family.

Author Q&A

Why did you want to create this book?

A number of reasons, really. First, I felt the lack of my mother very keenly during some of the hardest passages in my life. I wanted her help and her perspective on my struggles--getting pregnant, balancing work and family, raising kids. I also became more curious about key junctures in her life as I matured. Somehow that desire for her wisdom inspired the idea of asking other women to look back at their lives.

The format of a letter sent back in time was very meaningful to me, also. It’s an invention, sort of a new genre, which satisfies my creative imagination. Too, the difference between asking someone for their advice and asking a woman to write a letter to herself at a specific age and time in her life is enormous. Advice is generic and inevitably trite. But give it the context of detail--of family background, key relationships, beliefs–and the guidance becomes very charged. 

What is your favorite letter in the book?

Argh. That’s no fair!  Truly, it’s hard to choose but let me mention a few that struck me most forcibly. Ann Curry, of Today, wrote to herself in her first job but I found her message–to get on with life and “be bold about who you really are”–resonated with me at age 52. I feel I’m often not as bold as I should be, so I suppose I need that reminder.

I think often of singer/songwriter Macy Gray’s letter and activist Heather Mills McCartney’s message because they both contain advice that is particularly hard for women to follow. A difficult marriage, two small children and a pregnancy had buried Macy’s musical identity so deep that she felt very lost. So she says, “Please yourself first. Everything else will follow.” This goes against the grain. Most women put husbands and children and neighbors and employers first, ahead of their own deepest desires.

Heather’s letter says, “Learn to say no.”  It’s a similar message, but different because it is about understanding the toll of giving, giving, giving–even when the cause is just.

I love Mary Matalin’s letter because it upends the notion so many of us start out with, that there is a “golden” career path we must follow to be successful. Jane Kaczmarek’s hilarious letter describes some huge belly flops she executed, which redefined the way she looked at success.

Who was the most fun to interview?

Gee, who did I not have fun interviewing? Trish McEvoy, the gorgeous founder of a cosmetic company, knocked my socks off with her generosity. We sat in her enormous, beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan, had coffee and talked for hours. Literally. Eileen Fisher, as tranquil and thoughtful a CEO as you will ever meet, invited me into her home in Irvington, NY, showed me her journal and fed me scrumptious Asian food prepared by her chef. I flew to San Francisco to meet Queen Noor in her hotel suite. She was completely approachable, yet at the same time had experienced so many dimensions of the world that are beyond me. That blend of friendliness and depth was tantalizing.

Which messages surprised you?

It was hard to imagine Madeleine Albright feeling like a failure. I didn’t expect Olympia Dukakis to be so hard on herself; She felt she had absented herself emotionally from her children during one very challenging period in her life. And who knew that Rachel Ashwell, founder of the very successful Shabby Chic lines of furniture and bedding, dropped out of school at 15?

What is your goal for What I Know Now: Letters To My Younger Self?

I want women to be comforted and encouraged, and maybe even inspired, by knowing that even some of the most accomplished women in our country suffered doubt and uncertainty at times. I’d like readers to learn from the letters so that their own lives are improved.

And I’d love it if the book spurred women to share their wealth and wisdom with other women–one reason that I’m donating a chunk of the book’s proceeds to Girls Inc.

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards


“What these letters offer . . . is hope—hope that those who read them will understand that there is a future where the road not taken is no longer regretted, and, in the end, the choices we make, make us who we are.” —Boston Globe


WINNER 2007 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Reader's Guide|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

In touching, inspiring, and heartfelt letters, more than 40 of the most notable women in modern history reveal wishes for their younger selves. As one might expect, the letters such driven and ambitious women might write to their younger selves include advice to slow down, to have fun, to appreciate life–advice most modern women could use. But in addition, these remarkable letters give us a frank and penetrating insight into who these women were and are, from the floundering actress that is a young Camryn Manheim, to Kitty Kelley on the brink of releasing her controversial book, The Family, to a fledgling reporter, Ann Curry, as she attempts to shed her uniqueness to fit in with mainstream media. Stay true to yourself. Don’t be afraid to spread your wings. Be smart about the risks you take. The wisdom in these letters is hard won, battle proved, and above all, gifted with love.

The questions below are designed to help guide your discussion of the book.

About the Author

Ellyn Spragins is an editor at large for Fortune Small Business. She wrote the “Love and Money” column in the New York Times business section for three years. She first edited five of these letters for an issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. She lives in Pennington, New Jersey, with her family.

Discussion Guides

1. If you had the chance to send a letter to a younger version of yourself, how would you approach the task? What moment would you choose, and why?

2. If you discovered that an older version of yourself had sent you a letter, what would you expect it to say?

3. In the introduction, Ellyn Spragins explains her motivation for this project as filling part of the gap left by the loss of her own mother. What do you think of the task itself? Did the motivation strike a chord with you? What other reasons can you see for such an undertaking? What benefit is there to the editor of an anthology like this? How is it similar to what the reader or the letter-writer herself gains from the experience? How does it differ?

4. What do you think motivates the advice in the book? Is there any commonality about how the modern-day women see their younger selves?

5. What themes in the book do you find most striking? Is this the type of advice you expected that accomplished women would want to impart to their younger selves?

6. How do the writers use the letters to themselves--i.e., are they trying to change history, improve their lot, show love? What other ways could a letter such as these be used?

7. Many of the letters in the book encourage the younger selves simply to pay attention to instinct–whether passing up a photo shoot that doesn’t feel right or backing out of an engagement that’s progressing for all the wrong reasons. Is this good advice for all women? Are there any times in your own life when instinct has led you wrong? Any notable times when instinct has saved you from trouble?

8. One theme that ties together many of the letters in What I Know Now is the struggle of busy, successful women to balance work and family. In this book, the women seem to overwhelmingly resolve that focusing on family is a critical priority, and deserves all the attention it can get. Do you think this resolution is consistent in the book only because these are such driven and ambitious women, or is this a universal truth? Reflecting on your own life, do you have any regrets about having chosen life over work or vice versa?

9. Some of the letter writers, such as Jane Kaczmarek and Macy Gray, use the opportunity of the letter to point out to their younger selves the low point of their life or career so far. Others, such as Picabo Street, encourage their younger selves to simply enjoy the highest points. What do you think of this concept of a life lived between peaks and nadirs? Is it possible to see and recognize these points as they’re happening, or only in retrospect?

10. Discuss the trouble the younger selves seem to have enjoying and appreciating life. Do you think giving up some of life’s joy is a necessary compromise for ambitious people, and women in particular? Why or why not?

11. Since the featured women are writing to their younger selves, the letters are necessarily addressed back in time–sometimes by several decades. Do you think any of the advice in the book is outdated or ahead of the time it’s addressed to? What, if anything, can it teach us about the evolution of women’s place in society and the workplace?

12. The author’s realization is that all women have something to teach all other women, that we are all mothers to each other, led her to seek out the women in this book. Do you think this concept can be expanded to include all people, not just women? Is there anyone not included in this book, male or female, whose letter you would like to see? What is it about the female experience in particular that is unique and lends itself to this kind of exercise?

Suggested Readings

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