There's Always Another Opportunity If You Just Keep Doing You
Exactly one month ago, I was scrolling down my Instagram feed and saw photos of fellow colleagues in the urban media space with Oprah. They had been invited to attend her Super Soul Sunday brunch at her home in Santa Barbara, California while I, on the other hand, was sitting on a couch in a hotel in Chicago watching a Golden Girls Marathon. I was in a pair of leggings and a t-shirt that read "Abracadabra" but in that moment I felt anything but magical. I was in my feelings.
The twinge of vicarious joy I felt thinking about how amazing it must've felt for these women to be in the presence of Oprah was overshadowed by a wave of jealousy, disappointment, confusion, and self-blame. This was the second time this year Black female journalists had been invited to have an intimate experience with Oprah and neither time was I invited. Because I grew up in church where you're taught that everything happens for a reason, I began to search for an explanation for this chain of events and finally settled on one: I'm not good enough.
I've spent too much time traveling and having fun this year instead of focusing on work, I told myself. You should've been building better relationships, I scolded. You're not putting yourself out there enough; nobody respects you as an editor or values the site you work for anymore; Why am I always getting overlooked? The downward spiral of questioning and negative reasoning went on and on until I reminded myself there was nothing healthy or productive about getting myself worked up over something that was out of my hands and couldn't be changed. (But I still complained to a couple of friends and my co-workers about it afterward -- full disclosure.)
And then on Halloween I received an email from a publicist at OWN inviting me to attend a “Queen Sugar” aftershow taping to be hosted by Oprah Winfrey. I got big excited for about 60 seconds before I remembered I'd been to an "Oprah and cast" type of event before and hadn't gotten anywhere near close enough to touch the hem of her garment. Nevertheless, being in the presence of Oprah (and the rest of the "Queen Sugar" cast) for 90 minutes on a Tuesday afternoon in LA is 1,000 times better than sitting in my office in cold NYC so I gladly accepted.
I managed my expectations of having a seat at the far end of the table quite well for the next week until the following Monday morning when a followup email included mention of attending a private after-party hosted by Oprah with Ava DuVernay, the cast and directors. Could I really meet Oprah? I said one prayer to God asking that he make a way and asked my best friend to do the same just in case my request didn't go through.
The aftershow taping was fun. As Ava put it at one point, it was cool to see Oprah doing her Oprah thing. There was a level of perfection that only comes from hosting the most successful talk show in history for decades and I was grateful to witness her practicing her craft. Three fellow New York journalists and I were the first to arrive at the after party and at one point Oprah's personal publicist came over to welcome us and thank us for coming. There was chatter about wanting to meet Oprah but I couldn't allow myself to get my hopes up too high off of "oh sures" and "of course you wills." But then Oprah came in the room and I thought, Perfect, she'll come over to her publicist, we'll be standing here, publicist will introduce us and bam. What really happened was she was accosted by a fellow fan who asked for a picture and when they took a selfie Oprah said the lighting was terrible and whisked him off to another space so they good get a better shot. Okay, so the publicist was right about how gracious she is. But how am I gonna get my moment?
Fast forward 30 minutes later to Oprah at the bar chatting with someone and ordering a drink. Panama Jackson of Very Smart Brothas is near her and casually asks what she's drinking. She tells him about this tequila he must try that's so smooth (as it should be for nearly $300 a bottle) and how after you have two you'll feel "so intelligent." I ask if she's a tequila drinker and she says yes. I'm not, but I order what she's having anyway because it's what Oprah drinks and she promises you can have three and won't wake up with a hangover the next morning. Even if I did it wouldn't matter; it's what Oprah drinks.
After we all grab our drinks, Oprah toasts with us and it's as surreal as it sounds. No one has introduced themselves and she doesn't ask who we are. We're drinking together like any other strangers who bond over cocktails at the bar. After this candid moment, Natasha Alford of The Grio tells Oprah that she spoke at her graduation at Harvard and that speech was the reason she chose not to go to business school and pursue her passion for journalism. Immediately, we're experiencing our own Super Soul Sunday segment as Oprah talks about the time she was teaching at Kellog and met a student who told her she didn't want to pursue a career in finance but her parents had already spent so much money on her education and she couldn't go back. Oprah says she asked her, "How much is your life worth?" and encouraged her not to ignore the purpose on her life, especially in pursuit of money. "I told her pay her parents back if it mattered that much."
I wish I could say I remembered every single word Oprah uttered to us that night but I wasn't as mentally present as I was physical. All I knew was I was in the presence of an icon experiencing a moment I'd only dreamed about. That "one day we'll see you with Oprah" moment every person who knows I'm a writer has referenced at some point in my career as I laughed at the laughability of it ever really happening. I also know that when it was my turn to take a picture and Natasha said "C'mon Brande," Oprah stuck her arm out and said, "Brande, you're not cold in that dress?" and I answered "A little." Then I stood next to her and she rested her temple against mine and we smiled for the camera.
I've been so stimulated by various experiences in the past week that the gravity of finally having that interaction didn't hit me until just now. That night, however, I was reminded of words my co-worker said to me in a similar context years ago and that I've been reflecting on all week: There's always another opportunity.
She shared that message with me five or six years ago when I was disappointed over missing an opportunity to interview a different celebrity who, sure enough, I've personally interacted with at least three times since and finally got a chance to interview this year. And while my co-worker telling me "There's always another opportunity" was really a means to calm me TF down; I think it's a truly profound lesson that's proven true throughout all of my life.
As much as I believe in the mantra "seize the opportunity," I think it's equally important to know the opportunity that immediately presents itself isn't necessarily the only one you'll have. That's not an excuse not to take advantage of chances that come your way, but that is an explanation as to why you can't be too hard on yourself if the opportunity you were hoping to seize doesn't come into fruition when you wanted or expected it.
In college, I was turned down for an internship at Cincinnati Magazine that promptly led to the belief that I was trash and would never make it as a writer/editor (as you can see I've struggled with this being enough thing for a while now). I responded to the "Unfortunately, we've decided to go with other candidates" email asking that I be alerted if another opportunity should arise. She told me they'd be happy to have me as an intern the next quarter. Just like that.
About a month before graduation, I received an email from the Dow Jones asking me to complete a rather intense edit test as the first step in the hiring process for the editorial assistant they were seeking at the time. This was the only application I'd gotten a response to and my one chance to move to New York City, so I told myself when I locked myself in my room for hours working on the assignment. I never heard back from Dow Jones but I did get an email from another publisher asking me to come to New York for an interview the day I packed my things up to move back home. The next week I took a 16-hour bus ride to Manhattan to interview for the position. They asked me to come back the next day for an edit test (after I explained my broke ass had to take a bus from Ohio just to get to the interview in the first place) and a couple of weeks later I had a job offer in the city of my dreams doing what I actually went to school to do. Since then there have been countless other times when I was invited to do a show appearance of some sort and the invitation was rescinded at the last minute only to be extended again within a matter of days or weeks. No door has ever really been closed, just moved a little further down the hall.
I can't say why meeting Oprah happened now and not then, but it happened -- not through any plotting and scheming of my own (which is sometimes necessary) but by me simply doing my job and the good folks at OWN taking notice. I always say you never know who's watching and every time I feel like that answer is no one, several someones show up. It's funny because I just revisited my list of 32 things I'm excited about at 32 this week and number 26 was "Trusting that there will always be another opportunity even if it appears at the moment that there isn't." This experience has reminded me how necessary that belief is.