LIVE AND HELP LIVE
THE STORY BEHIND A MISSION THAT HAS BEEN A DECADE IN THE MAKING
Do you know what you want to do with your life? A tough question right out of the gate, right?
So why do we expect kids to know? Seriously every time an adult goes up to a six-year-old and says, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wince.
I can’t take it. What do you want to be? One thing? We’re relegating this kid to one thing? How about, “Are you making a list of ALL of the things you want to be when you grow up? Tell me how that list is going!”
And we use this modified version of the same question for adults: “What do you do?”
It’s one of the first questions we ask someone. What do you do? Ss if this determines who someone is. In this ridiculous world, that is the furthest thing away from getting to know someone else. Especially as people are still just trying to get to know themselves …
And look at all of these kids who are pressured into choosing a path for their future. Whether about to graduate, or years from graduating, or just graduated. Or it could be you in your 20th year at some job you hate.
And do you even know what you want to do now?
Graduation is a ridiculous thing, really. What have you graduated to? Another level of anxiety? So this got me thinking …
I’ve graduated, what, 3 times now? If talking about anxiety many more times than that. And I never got to go to grad. Well, I went to my kindergarten grad but I’m not counting something that set the bar so high.
I mean those milestones: high school, university, and then when I went back to school for journalism - after I said I’d NEVER go back to school again.
(For the record: I just want to say, I’ll NEVER win the lottery!)
So, I get asked by my old high school to give a speech to their honour students. I barely even attended school. I finished high school at about 15. It’s not that I was super brilliant; I was just in a super rush to get out of school. And now I’m supposed to inspire kids about school?
Don’t get me wrong, when I was asked to speak for students at my old high school, I was honoured. I wondered if the people who invited me felt I have some level of success that could set somewhat of a good example, or perhaps inspire them. But these are kids who succeeded at graduating high school ... some of whom have succeeded at being the best of the best in sports and academics.
They didn't need me to teach them about success. They needed me to teach them about failure. That I can do!
So that’s what I did. In fact, in that speech, I chose to share two of my biggest failures that - significantly - impacted my life, even though those failures came from two entirely different points in it: One from when I was eight years old, the other as an adult …
Well, sure, I have had so many more failures I could tell you about. I could tell you about the countless times I've been rejected. Whether it was as an actor for whatever role. Or whether it was rejections from guys, when I was 15 and the cool boy from school, the one with the green hair - Jesse - who chose Charlene over me. Or whether it was any one of a number of boys who chose another girl over me, when I was 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, or 26, 27 - you get the point.
Or whether it was the job I didn't get at a major network when I wouldn't straighten my hair to be on TV. (Because really, who would take a woman with blond, curly hair seriously?)
Or whether it was Bye-Bye, Barbie - a program I created. A program I was so proud of, so passionate about - the country’s first-ever body image awareness program to help girls - and boys - deconstruct these superficial ideals of beauty we subscribe to, to reconstruct what real beauty is to each person … But I let that fall by the wayside to follow a guy where ever he wanted to go.
Now, there's nothing wrong with following someone, as long as you continue to follow through with who you are. But I think I was afraid I'd keep failing. And this way I could follow someone, which would allow me to hide behind him. Hide my tries. Hide what I really wanted. Hide myself from failing. Hide myself from me. So I failed … at being me.
It’s always been hard to me. Being you is the hardest thing to be. In my high school days I’d hide me all of the time. I dyed my hair black. Used the palest makeup to cover up my tan skin. I don't have pictures with my super green contacts in place where my hazel eyes are, but you still get the picture.
Look, I could list an endless amount of my failures. But again, these are not the failures I need to share with you. Before we can get to those two life-changing failures, I actually … I had to almost die ...
So, one sunny Sunday morning, I was on my way to a gloomy gig, driving my compact car through a green light. A woman in an SUV decided to drive through a red light. I see her coming and remember my thought process so clearly. So clearly that I thought this through as if it took minutes instead of nanoseconds to process:
I'm going to avoid this.
Oh my G-D, I can't avoid this.
I'm too young to die.
Then I saw the bright, white light so many people talk about in those near-death experiences. And I'll tell you what that bright, white light is: the airbag.
That woman smashed into me, driver side, pushing my car about half a block. A fraction of a second difference, I'd be dead. If I didn’t change the radio station five minutes before, would i have been dead?
What? I have an expiration date? I'm not invincible? I'm not invincible.
We all know. You know. But we don’t realize it.
I never realized that before.
She literally pushed me off my course, and figuratively pushed me onto another course. Because now my life had to have meaning. I made a plan. And planned to accomplish it quickly. Because you never know. I will go back to writing. I will be a national columnist. Then I will be a nationally syndicated columnist. That sounds impossible. Check. Check. Check. Done.
Check. Check. Check. Done. Makes it sound easy. It wasn’t. It’s just amazing how hard you work when you’re faced with the idea of being check check check done.
Then people start calling me to join their radio shows. If so many people want me on their radio show why don’t I have my own show? I contact this big-name radio industry guy with my pretty terrible demo. He takes a week or so and finally gets back to me. Actually, I probably was the one to call him.
And he says, “Dahlia, you are a star!”
No. he didn’t say that at all.
He said, “You'll never be hired as a talk show host. Try something else. This. is not your world.”
Okay. So, naturally, a few days later, I apply ... to be a talk show host at one of the country's oldest and most respected radio stations. And just like that, I gave up a good life I had worked so hard to establish in the big city, to start over in a small city. Leave everything and everyone I’ve come to know. Become a radio talk show host. Even though I had no idea what I was doing.
Sounds fearless, right? I was petrified. You see, I'm afraid of everything, but I'm not afraid to do anything.
I was a nationally syndicated writer. I had also done radio and TV before. But I had never been a talk show host. And without any training, I was given a radio icon's - old timeslot. Charles Adler. His timeslot. No experience. No pressure. Right?
It's the first day of my show, also the first day of ratings: September 3rd, 2013. 1:04pm. The red light on the mic turns on. And the first words out of my mouth: "Hi. I'm Charles Adler." The rest of the show went downhill from there.
I wanted to quit.
I can't do this. I don't know how to do this. I'm not like the other hosts, and if I pretend to be, you'll know it. Worse. I'll know it.
But wanting to quit. “I want to quit…” Well, I mean, I also always want chocolate cake. You want a lot of things. You probably want chocolate cake now that I mentioned it!
But in my panic, I had a moment of clarity: The more authentic I am, the less I screw up - and the easier it'll be to own those many screw-ups that I promise you I continue to make.
And when I say authentic, I don’t mean in that Instagram sort of way where you post a beautiful picture of yourself with some performative post on vulnerability. This performative authenticity that we seemed to have redefined as authentic is the furthest thing from it and it is really messing with people’s minds.
I mean authentic, as in getting your face dirty on that arena floor in front of all of these people. Ad you do it. And you don’t feel comfortable. But you’re comfortable in who you are.
I mean authentic, as in finding what is essential about to you that cannot be seen by the naked eye. That invisible essential part of you. That’s what’s authentic.
So, okay. I like to make good things happen. I’ll create a show to help make good things happen. I just had no clue how to accomplish that.
People laughed at the beginning. Social media ate me up. The place where the knives come up, people spare no feelings, but tweet hashtags like #mentalhealthmatters as much as they can.
The bosses would not even market or promote my show - not on the station, nor on social media.
What an embarrassment.
But you know what happened? The bosses didn’t have to market my show. People found it. People who were looking for a safe, positive, and kind space - people who were looking for the helpers and looking to be the helpers - found it.
It’s the science of kindness: It’s called Swarming. It’s real. I studied it. This is not from the Dahlia National Research Institute of Dahlia Research. This is from a professor from a real la-dee-dah university: Richard Janda. Richard has made it a big part of his life’s work. Because kindness helps makes life work.
So really, my goal to make good things happen started accomplishing itself because of three things:
I worked very hard. I stayed true to myself - with all of that dirt on my face - despite what anyone said - and there was a lot that was said. And because of the power of connection.
Your whole life people will tell you about success. The keys to success. Why you need to be successful. And if success is what drives you, you will push for that elusive perfection. And eventually you too may want to share your success stories. But we hear far too much about others' successes. We never ask about their failures.
I've spent so much of my career asking people about their failures. Yet - ironically - or appropriately - my talk show has always been seen as such a positive one. And not only did I learn from others' failures, but I also constantly failed in front of others - thousands of others - as I did my show.
Which leads me to my two biggest failures. And by default, my biggest successes.
So, at eight years old, sadly I already thought of myself as a failure. But a fortuitous moment on November 2nd, 2014, turned that failure into one of my greatest successes.
I had just finished hosting a radiothon fundraiser at a hospital. And a man named Stu introduces himself to me. When I was eight he was a counsellor at my camp. The camp was run by a woman named Carol. Stu told me Carol died almost exactly two years ago that day. Very sad. She was so young. She was 52. But I will NEVER forget what Stu told me next …
At the end of Carol's life, the two of them reminisced about fun times in life and the children Carol had tirelessly worked with. And that's when they started talking about me. Me?! They remembered a night at camp when we were doing skits. I was in a skit, but it wasn't a speaking role. As Stu gave the scenario, I remembered that performance and remembered how upset I was that I didn't have lines - I wouldn't be memorable. At only eight, I felt like a failure.
So picture this:
I played the part of a boring grandma and all I had to do was eat a stupid cookie throughout my scene. So of course dressed as an old woman, and one of my accoutrements - or two of them, as it were - gave me ample bosom. And all I had to do what eat a cookie in this scene. As I was eating that cookie, crumbs kept falling onto my chest. Stu told me I spent the entire scene repeatedly taking a bite of the cookie, then brushing cookie crumbs off of my old lady bosom.
Apparently, Carol and Stu laughed right through my performance. I stole the show and didn't know it. But, what really gets to me: That snapshot from my life - that unmemorable moment in my life at 8 years old - made Carol laugh at the end of hers.
And this moment that Stu shared with me on that November day, will now be one that I will never forget either. It's just … I’ll remember it for a different reason.
The power of connection.
So fast forward to my first talk show. I worked very hard. I was the content producer and host for the show. I received lovely messages from listeners. Kind. Gracious. Thoughtful. I also got mean-spirited messages. If I wouldn’t believe the bad, I wouldn’t believe the good either. I was also too caught up in the hustle and still felt unfulfilled. Was I really making the difference I wanted to make? I'm failing at the most meaningful thing in the world to me. Because I’m not feeling this special thing. I’m not seeing anything tangible unfold in front of my eyes.
Eventually, I left that show to move on. And a couple of days after I left, I received this email in the middle of the night, from a man I'd never met in my life. I'd like to share it with you:
I cannot sleep tonight. so I've decided to finally write you an email about you leaving your show. I'm not sure if you remember me or not, but it doesn't matter. To be honest I haven't listened to your show in two weeks because I heard about you leaving, I can't describe to you how much this hurts.
Dahlia, I haven't had many role models that have worked out for me in my life, until I came across you. I can't describe to you how much you have truly changed my life. I never expected to grow as much as I have by simply listening to a radio show host.
I'm not dumb, you have tough days like everyone else, but how you can come to work every day and be so positive about life is so amazing to me.
I just want to thank you for everything you have done for me …
3 years ago I did not want to live, and you have completely changed my life.
I just need you to know how much of an impact you made on my life, and I'm sure many others. I wish you the best of luck, and just thank you again for being you.
You never know whom you're touching or how you're touching them. You do it all the time and just don’t know it. You may not have a microphone in front of your face and people writing you emails with their faces hidden behind computer screens
You live and help live. You really do.
You see, my biggest failure, has always - really - been failing to recognize my true capabilities. And I still can't tell you what my true capabilities are. You know what … you can't tell me what your true capabilities either! Because you are always more capable than you think you are.
And you may never know your greatest successes - I was fortunate to have discovered a couple of mine through Stu and that listener - but you will always know your greatest failures.
Please don't beat yourself up over them.
Build yourself up from them.
Just know, it's not your failures - or even successes - that define you. Your values define you - and how you apply them. And how you apply them can turn your worst moments into your best moments.
But those greatest accomplishments will never happen in those moments when you're alone. They'll only happen when you're connected.
If you live and let live, you live an isolated life. If you live and help live, you’ll live an accomplished life. And you’ll give so much to other people’s lives sometimes without even trying.
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