Zain Asher: Trust your struggle. Success is never really in a straight line.
Hello everyone. My name is Zain Asher, and I’m an anchor at CNN International. I’m super proud to say that I have my dream job. I wake up every day, and I’m so excited to go to work. But my life wasn’t always this way and I do want to share a little bit about my background and help, hopefully, motivate and inspire some of you. So, I’m an anchor at CNN International now, but about four, four and half years ago, I was working as a receptionist. And the reason why I share that is because I want to let you know that success is never really in a straight line. There’s always going to be bumps along the way. For the longest time in my life, I always believed that hard work was a key to success. I thought, “You know what? If you work hard, of course you’re going to be successful.” But now I realize that there’s so much more to the story. There are plenty of people who work hard, who don’t necessarily make it in their chosen careers. There are plenty of people who are extraodinarily talented, who know the right people, who are well educated, who don’t necessarily make it. So, if it’s not always hard work, what then determines whether you’re going to be successful? As I intend to answer this, I’ll share with you a little bit about my life and my background. I was born and raised here in London. My family and I, we’re originally from Nigeria. The worst and probably most difficult day in my life was September 3rd, 1988. I was about five years old. And my mother and I were in the kitchen, in our house in London. We’d just gotten back from a wedding in Nigeria. And my brother and my father were still in Nigeria a few days after the wedding, for a road trip, a father-and-son road trip. And they were supposed to come home on September 3rd, 1988. We were supposed to pick them up from the airport. And we were waiting and waiting. I guess we assumed they’d missed their flight. We continued to wait. We didn’t hear anything. And then, later on that day, my mother got a phone call from a family friend in Nigeria, and the voice on the other end of the line just basically said, you know, “Your husband and your son have been involved in a car crash. One of them is dead and we don’t know which one.” So, the car crash happened in Nigeria, and there were about five people in the car. Everyone in the car died instantly apart from one person in the back seat, where my father and my brother were sitting. It turned out to be my father who died. My mother was pregnant at the time. Of course she was devastated because my parents were really the loves of each other’s lives. So, I was raised in a single-parent family. For a while, my mother sent me to live in Nigeria by myself, with my grandmother. When I came back, she decided that, you know, in life, if you want to be successful, you have to be able to relate to people from all walks of life. She’d deliberately send me to various types of schools. I went to school in Nigeria, I went to a state school in a poor neighborhood in South London, I went to a private school, and then I went to a boarding school. This was on purpose, deliberately, because my mother felt that, if you want to make it in life, you need to be able to relate to everybody. So, when I was sixteen – I have a strict Nigerian mother – but when I was sixteen, she decided that she wanted me to go to Oxford. And she sat down and she thought, “OK. How can I guarantee that my child’s going to get into Oxford? What can I do to make that happen?” She thought about it for a few days, and she came up to me with a proposal, and she said that she was going to ban me from watching any television for eighteen months. (Laughter) So, I was only allowed to watch BBC and CNN International. If I wanted to watch anything else, I had to ask special permission for that. And then, no television expanded into no phones, no cable, no music. I literally had nothing else to do but study. And my mother said to me, “If you’re living in my house, the only way you’re ever going to be able to watch television again is if you get into Oxford.” (Laughter) So, I really laugh now, and it is funny, but, you know, her plan worked. I worked very hard, I got straight A’s, and I went to Oxford. So, overall, I didn’t necessarily have the easiest childhood. I was raised in a single-parent family; we didn’t have much money; and therefore, I found it difficult to make friends. I didn’t have the easiest childhood, but I loved every minute of it because it prepared me for real life. As I mentioned, especially after having gone to Oxford – and I went to grad school as well in New York, Columbia – I really believed up until that point that hard work was the key to being successful. Now I realize there’s a lot more to the story. I’m going to share with you what I think is more to the story. The first thing I believe is, trust your struggle. This is something I’d heard a lot, “Trust your struggle.” And that means no matter what the hardships you’re going through in life, have faith that it will all end up being for the greater good. I mentioned that four, four and half years ago, I was working as a receptionist, and I was in a production company in California. And I was a receptionist, and I really wanted to sort of move up within the company. And no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t get promoted. No matter how many times I stayed late or came in on the weekends hoping that my boss would notice me and promote me, it never happened. And in fact, for the position I wanted, they began looking for external candidates. I’m sure anyone who’s been through that knows how that can be. And because I was the receptionist, it was my job to serve water to the people who were coming in to interview for the job that I wanted. (Laughter) I know. It wasn’t easy. So, I didn’t really necessarily feel good about myself because of that. I did some soul-searching and I asked myself, “What do you really want to do in life? Clearly this is probably not meant for you. What do you want to do?” I’d always been passionate about broadcast journalism. So, I called a television station in New York, a local news station, and I asked them, “What do I need to do to get a job with you guys?” So, unfortunately, I didn’t have any experience. They needed about two or three years previous experience as a reporter, and the only experience I really had was answering phones and sending faxes. That’s all I really knew how to do. And so, they said no repeatedly to me. And, on top of that, I had a British accent, and in America, if you want to get into the local news business, it’s very difficult if you have a foreign accent. It’s a lot easier in national news, but certainly in local news it’s a lot harder. So, they said no, and I decided I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. So, I basically called in sick to work, and I paid my roommate, my housemate, a few hundred dollars, whatever, and they helped film me around Los Angeles, sort of acting like a reporter. I studied reporters inside out. I studied everything that they did, inside out, and I put together various packages, which were sort of voiced-over pieces that I learned basically from studying various reporters. And I sent them to this news station, hoping that they would give me a chance. Unfortunately, a lot of these news stations receive thousands of applications, thousands of tapes. So, it took them several months to get back to me. And during that time, the recession kicked in and I lost my job. So, there I was, no money, no job. So, I decided anyway that I was going to move to New York and just hope that this one station would get back to me. So eventually, after emailing and pestering constantly, they eventually got back to me. They brought me in for an interview, and they were so impressed that, even though I had no experience, that I had put together this tape by myself, showing what I could do, that they hired me on the spot. (Applause) So, thank you. So, that’s why I say, “Trust your struggle.” The second thing I believe – and this sort of comes out of left field – is I honestly do not believe in competition. The corporate world will tell you that, if you want to get ahead in life, you need to be competitive, you need to have that drive to succeed and compete with one another. But I don’t believe in competing for what I want. I believe in creating what I want. Abraham Lincoln once said that the best way to predict the future is to create it. In order for me to be successful, I don’t believe that I need to take anything away from anyone else. Now, of course, you know, there are some advantages to looking at your peers for inspiration, definitely. But I think that having a competitive spirit, having that need for one-upmanship and comparing yourself to other people again and again can actually bring out fears and insecurities that end up holding you back. So, when I was interviewing for another position in CNN, the anchor job, I was sort of sat next to a girl who I was competing for the same job with, and rather than sort of not wish her well, I sat with her for hours, and I helped her, I showed her what she could improve upon, so she had just as good of a chance of getting the job as I did. I went in for the screen test first, I came out, and I told her everything they asked me and how she should prepare. So, I don’t believe in competition. I believe in creating what I want. I don’t believe in competing for what’s already been created. The third thing I honestly believe is to give, because it has become abundantly clear to me in life that the more you give, the more you receive. I learned this lesson from a woman named Kat Cole, who I interviewed for a story for CNN. She’s a corporate CEO, and she started her career as a waitress at Hooters. Now, I don’t know – (Laughter) You guys laugh, but I’m not sure if people know what Hooters – I don’t know if you have Hooters in England, but it’s a restaurant chain in America, where the waitresses are very scantily clad. That’s how she started off. And I was curious about the transition from going from that kind of environment – especially because she grew up poor, and her mother saved ten dollars a week for food – to now being a CEO. And especially financially I wanted to know what that was like for her. She said she didn’t really know what that felt like to have money, even though she was being well paid, because she still gives most of her money away, till this day, because it was clear to her that the more you give in life, the more you receive. So, this had a pretty deep impact on me, because I’ve interviewed a lot of CEOs for CNN, and I’ve interviewed a lot of founders for tech start-ups, some of whom have made millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Usually, what they say is, “If you want to be successful, you need to network, have a brand, study your competition.” And she had some practical advice as well, but suddenly, the moral of her story was that the more you give, the more you receive. And I can tell you that I’ve tried it, I’ve tested it and I don’t necessarily believe in giving just to receive, but she is right: the more you give, the more you receive. And the last thing I’m going to say is loosely related to hard work. And when I first heard this phrase, I thought it was such a cliché, I’d heard it so many times growing up, and that is, “Success comes when opportunity meets preparation.” I’d heard that so many times, I thought it was a cliché, and never really paid attention to it. Only now do I realize how true that really is. I’ll give you an example. So, when I was in local news in New York, I really wanted to work my way up to get international news. I’d always wanted to work for CNN since I was a teenager. And I realized, after studying different reporters and how they made it, I realized that it was crucial for me to have a specialty, some sort of expertise, something that I could do better than others, I guess. And so, that could be anything, from being a sports reporter, to being a political reporter, or a business reporter. And I was very passionate about business news. So, while I was working in local news, I decided to study and teach myself business news, not necessarily because there was an opportunity coming my way, or there was an interview that was preparing for, but because I trusted that, one day, an opportunity would come and I needed to be ready. So, every weekend, I went to the library: one weekend, I’d study stocks; the next weekend, I’d study bonds; the next weekend, derivatives; the next weekend, merges and acquisitions, teaching myself. And in fact, the librarians on 33rd with Madison, in New York, got to know me very well, because often times, I’d be the last person to leave. So, after doing that for a few years, eventually, by pure chance, I happened to meet an executive at CNN, and I asked him which department he worked in. He said he ran the business news unit and he was looking for a reporter. So, when I met him, he gave me about two weeks to come in for a screen test and also for a financial news test as well. So, in his mind, he felt guilty because he only had given me two weeks to prepare, but in my mind, I knew in my heart I had been preparing for years. So, this is a lesson as well that I had learned from my older brother. Some of you have already approached me about him, but my older brother is an actor, and he stared in a movie that came out this time last year, called “Twelve Years a Slave.” He was nominated for an Oscar for best actor, and I’d learned this lesson from him. He is a master preparer. When he was thirteen years old, he would lock himself in his room and write Shakespeare on the walls, and he would study and memorize various plays, from “Measure for Measure,” “Twelfth Night,” “Richard III,” not because he had an audition coming up, but just in case, in a few years, an audition came his way, he wanted to be ready. It didn’t matter how many times he had to do it; he did it again, and again, and again, until he got it right. Most people wait until they get the call for a job interview, before they begin to prepare; or they wait until they get the call for an audition, before they begin to rehearse. But my brother taught me to prepare well before you get that call. So, to sum up, I truly believe in trusting your struggle, knowing that the hardships you go through will somehow end up being for your own benefit. I also believe in turning a blind eye to competition, I believe in giving, and I believe in trusting and knowing that your opportunity will, one day, come. You just have to be ready. Thank you. (Applause)
Zain Asher was born and raised in London. She graduated from Oxford University where she studied French and Spanish (graduating with a distinction in oral Spanish). In 2006, she earned an MS from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she focused on business and financial news.
In 2013, Asher became a national business and personal finance correspondent for CNN, where she appeared across platforms covering the latest news on money and the economy. She often reported from the New York Stock Exchange, covering equities and IPOs and interviewing entrepreneurs and dignitaries. In 2014, Asher was part of a team of reporters sent to Nigeria to cover the Boko Haram kidnappings of over 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. Today, she anchors CNN International.
Asher came to CNN from MONEY magazine where she covered careers and investing, primarily focusing on stocks, mutual funds, consumer tech stories and workplace advice. She served as a contributing reporter for Forbes.com, where she covered business trend and consumer stories. She has lived and worked in Mexico, France and Nigeria. Asher is fluent in French, Spanish and Igbo (her native Nigerian language).
Video courtesy: TEDxEuston
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