Throw Down Your Cards: Hoda Kotb at the Y

I went to see Hoda Kotb from the Today Show speak last night at the 92nd St Y. Great advice for 20-somethings and 40-somethings alike.  Any age to be honest. as much of the audience was on the septuagenarian side (this is a function of the street numbers in New York. The higher the numbers the older the crowd!).  She was talking about her new book, Hoda. How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer and Kathie Lee. The great thing about Hoda is that you really do feel like she could be your best friend and that you are dishing over a glass of wine as she tells you stories that actually have a point beyond being funny. She’s a 46 year old, award winning journalist as compelling tracking bin Laden in Afghanistan as she is engaging riffing with Kathie Lee Gifford on the fourth hour of the Today Show — which some would say truly deserves an award.

But she wasn’t always as comfortable showing both the serious and silly sides of herself. One of her stories is about how cancer really changed her  life and gave her the confidence to go after the Today Show job even though it was not her usual gig.  She says, nothing can ever frighten you after cancer, and gives us a true glimpse of what that means.

In life before cancer (2007), she said she never asked her boss for anything and assumed that she would get noticed for doing a great job. She was afraid to ask for promotions, raises, etc for fear of being rejected or perhaps making the wrong move, leaving the wrong impression. So many young women I talk to can fall prey to this type of behavior. But after cancer she wasn’t aftaid of the same things any more. In the grand scheme of things, asking for the job she wanted didn’t seem like so much of a risk anymore. In fact, she said she was never calmer than the day she asked. Then she went on to tell about the day that it really gelled with the show was the day she stopped worrying about saying the right thing and reading from her notes. The day she just threw down her cards and went with it spontaneously.

She got there the hard way, but I think the advice that is relevant to 20-somethings is to not be afraid to go for a job or ask for more. You have to be prepared to prove why you deserve it but you have to ask. You have nothing to lose. And waiting won’t get you there.

But don’t be too prepared. That’s the second point that really hit home. This idea that when you spend so much time preparing to say the right thing, you may come off looking boring, or worse, stupid. I used to be afraid of public speaking when I first started my job. When I had to present I prepared every single word  so I wouldn’t look stupid. I would get so attached to the words that I thought made me look smart that if something got me off track in the presentation, a question or a discussion,  I would still try to get in what I thought was the right thing to say. Don’t do this. You really do end up worse off. To make it in a business meeting or reading the news as in life, you have to be able to adjust the content and the tone. You have to be able to go with the flow and engage with the audience. It’s okay to ad lib and even have a laugh. Know your subject, know your material, rehearse it but don’t memorize it word for word. Don’t hide yourself behind the script.

That’s what I love about Hoda’s stories – the acceptance of who she is and her honesty. Whether 40-something women have had something as traumatic as cancer in their lives or not, they all seem to accept the different sides of themselves. A lot of 20-somethings talk about being multi-faceted. But the difference with 40-somethings is that it’s often the side that you used to think you should hide that you start to celebrate and leverage to your advantage as you get older . It’s beautiful!

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