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Condoleezza Rice’s Journey and Advice for Our Own

by Seth Eisenberg

Condoleezza Rice’s Extraordinary, Ordinary People shares the former Secretary of State’s unpredictable journey from a Birmingham, Alabama suburb to the White House where she served in one of the most powerful positions in the world.

Like Collin Powell, her immediate predecessor in charge of American foreign policy, Rice’s life was profoundly impacted by the role of her parents, her father in particular.

“My parents were anxious to give me a head start in life, perhaps a little too anxious … but somehow they raised their little girl in Jim Crow Alabama to believe that even if she couldn’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, she could be president of the United States,” Rice says.

Notably, John Rice was a black Republican. Condi, as she prefers to be called, says her father’s initial decision to become a Republican was a result of discrimination he faced from a Democratic voter registration official who insisted he accurately guess the number of beans in a large container in order to register, a common practice among southern poll workers during her childhood years in Alabama. John Rice went on to become an assistant dean at the University of Denver, a basketball coach, and lifelong football fan, a passion his daughter continues to embrace.

Former Secretary of State Collin Powell also credits his father with inspiring his belief in himself: “When I was a boy growing up in the South Bronx,” says Collin Powell, “my father was the dominant figure in my life. A Jamaican immigrant like my mother, who worked his way up to a foreman’s job in Manhattan’s garment district, Luther Powell never let his race or station affect his sense of self. West Indians like him had come to this country with nothing.”

Extraordinary, Ordinary People is the story of what’s possible when children are raised by actively engaged parents. “They believed my horizons had to be limitless,” Condi says of her parents.

The Christian Science Monitor calls the book, “an ode to her parents, with sweetness and love.” It’s a worthwhile read for any parent seeking inspiration to encourage and guide their children despite the obstacles they may face in their own lives.

Similarly, Chris Gardner’s new book, Start Where You Are, follows up on his bestselling memoir, The Pursuit of Happyness. Gardner encourages readers to take personal responsibility for their lives, including their contributions to getting where they are, regardless of circumstances and the faults of others.

“A lot of people have difficulty admitting I had something to do with it too,” Gardner says, “Before you can progress, you have to say how did I get here. I had something to do with it … A lot of people don’t want to hear that, wanting to believe it wasn’t my fault. It may not have been your fault, but it’s certainly your responsibility.”

Gardner speaks of his decision at a low point in his life in which he took responsibility. “At my lowest, living in a public transit bathroom station with a 14-month-old baby tied on my back, one of the things I had to ask myself was, ‘How did I get there?’ I had something to do with the circumstances and conditions that were now my life.”

“There’s something empowering about accepting responsibility. When you admit you drove there, you realize you can drive out of there,” Gardner says.

Beyond accepting responsibility, Gardner encourages readers to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives and make a plan. A lot of people say they have hope, he says, questioning, “What’s the nutritional value of hope. How do you tell your children you’re going to have hope for dinner?”

Gardner says Start Where You Are guides readers through creating a plan that is “clear, concise, compelling … you’ve got to be consistent and committed everyday to doing something you’re really passionate about.”

From Condi Rice’s triumph over the challenges of her own early beginnings to Chris Gardner’s encouragement to believe in ourselves and embrace the opportunities of our lives, both books offer valuable, inspiring lessons.

Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.

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October 2010
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