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What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self

What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self

3.8 18
by Ellyn Spragins

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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


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

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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

If you could write a letter to your younger self, what would you say? Fortune Small Business editor-at-large Ellyn Spragins posed this question to 41 famous women. The answers that she received were rich and diverse. Today show correspondent Ann Curry advises her rookie reporter self to stop changing her hair and her personality to fit in. Madeleine Albright tells her 44-year-old self to dig in her heels after her divorce and not lose her resilience. New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast encourages her 9-year-old self to grin and bear it; a better day is coming for that overactive imagination. Other contributors include Vanna White, Nora Roberts, Ann Curry, Queen Noor, Cokie Roberts, Macy Gray, Phylicia Rashad, Lee Ann Womack, Naomi Wolf, and Maya Angelou. The wisdom you wished you had when you were young.
Publishers Weekly
The unusual premise for this compilation is not successful in practice. Spragins, an editor at large for Fortune Small Business, persuaded 40 well-known women-among them Maya Angelou, Queen Noor of Jordan and clothing designer Eileen Fisher-to write short letters passing their current wisdom to their younger selves. But too many of the messages these women send themselves are overly familiar: designer Fisher says she should not be so frightened of being alone (i.e., without a man). Sen. Barbara Boxer admonishes herself to be less judgmental of people who disagree with her. More unusually, Ingrid Newkirk, founder of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) encourages her younger self to be true to the inner voice telling her not to eat meat. Madeleine Albright addresses herself at a more advanced age, 44, when her marriage broke down: "You will get through this fog and uncertainty.... You won't become cynical, stoical or hard-bitten...." While the letters reveal personal vulnerabilities, it reduces lessons hard earned through complicated lives to very brief, simplistic messages. (Apr. 4) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The gimmick is admittedly hokey-41 eminent women have been persuaded to write to their own younger selves. Contributors include Queen Noor, singers Beverly Sills and Macy Gray, and poet Maya Angelou. Some write to admonish themselves, some to describe the intervening years, some to comfort, some to advise. The result is, like Cathleen Falsani's The God Factor (reviewed on p. 94), almost more guilty pleasure than a spiritual comfort, unless there is heavenly insight to be gained from knowing that one's hair matters far, far less than one thinks (according to mystery writer Lisa Scottoline). Still, to read Vanna White's plea to her younger self not to pose for that lingerie advertisement is alone almost worth the price of admission. For larger collections. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

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

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“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

Meet the Author

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.

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What I Know Now 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I encountered this book on an airplane. I was flying back to Florida from an interview in another state and being 22 years old, just having graduated, I felt like this book was talking to me! The passenger next to me saw me reading Sky Mall magazine and took the initiative to offer me 'What I Know Now' as an alternative (which I thought was a bit of a metaphor). It was a blessing in disguise. I felt so much better after reading it!... got home and purchased a copy for me and a friend!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book by chance and enjoyed it so much that I immediately bought 12 copies to share with important people in my life! Although not a new idea, all of us wish we could have known then what we know now! This book made me laugh, cry, think, and smile. The stories shared allow the reader to be inspired by the fact that we all face adversities and crossroads in our lives and each one of us has to look within ourself to discover the motivation, strength, courage, wit and humor to carry on... Since reading the book, I have been writing my own letter to my younger self and truly enjoying the journey...
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was included in my 35th college reunion packet. It was a wonderful gift for each of us attending since we had previously sent in our own 'letter to our college self' to be placed in our reunion memory book telling what we know now and wished we'd known then. This book was a wonderful treat to receive!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is amazing, both as an informative journal and a reflective guideline. As a coordinator of my 35th College Class Reunion, I gave each attendee a copy and used it as the theme for the weekend, asking everyone to respond in kind by giving advice to THEIR younger selves upon graduation from college. The response was terrific...and very revealing!
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Unfortunately, I didn't find this book interesting or useful. I liked the idea of it, but when I read through the chapters I could see that only few of the letters were written in a fun, entertaining and educational way. First I wanted to give this book as a present to my friend, but it doesn't contain enough wisdom or experience to be really helpful. I remember buying a very similar book few years ago for my younger sister. I don't remember the name of it, but there were love notes from real people and it was so beautifully designed and edited that we read that book together few times, finding so many things that both of us could relate to. We still quote some letters from that book and it was a big help for my sister when she broke up with her boyfriend. When I finished "What I Know Now" I didn't feel any connection with the women who wrote the letters. Maybe I expected to learn more from them, considering how much they succeeded in life.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I have great respect for some of the contributors to this book and was excited about my purchase. However, reading the letters from individuals such as Vanna White and Heather Mills was painful and pointless. Overall, great concept but barely touched the surface.