When I’m speaking to an audience, I always ask whether everyone has noticed how close people are to their grandkids. I’m told that’s because they share a common enemy.
These days I’m “Nana” to two granddaughters—little girls who want their toes painted and obsess over ribbons and picking out dresses to wear. They are the joy of my life, and when I see them, I just want to lick them in the face like a puppy. I was on their end of it once, of course. I’ll never forget those nights spent out on the front porch with my grandpa—one in particular when I was 6 years old. What he told me that night shaped my life as much as anything has since.
My epiphany actually began unfolding at dinnertime, when I heard that Grandpa had to go on Old Age Assistance, which was welfare. I could tell by the hushed tones during the meal that this was not something the family was proud of. Grandpa had worked his whole life as a sharecropper, but maybe he hadn’t worked smart all those years, and here he was, penniless and living with my aunt in College Grove, Tenn.
So there we were on the porch—him wearing overalls, smoking his corncob pipe and sitting in his old rocking chair. I was worried about him. I said, “Grandpa, when you were a young man, where did you expect you’d end up?”
He was quiet at first, just kept rocking. And then he said, “Well, sugar, I ’spected I’d end up on Ol’ Age Assistance and have to live with my young’uns. Glad I had a lot of ’em now, so I’ve got a few places to choose from.”
His expectations for his life were bleak. He never thought he’d have much; neither had his daddy or his granddaddy. Neither did my mama and daddy. They weren’t around people who were succeeding, who had achieved much or were excited about the future, or had much education.
As a first-grader then, just sitting with my grandpa, I thought to myself, If he ended up where he expected, I better raise my expectations. I figured I should expect to have more and be more, to learn more and earn more, and do more and share more.
I’ve been able to do those things with a lot of hard work and good fortune, plus optimism and patience. I’ve had a winding road, as most people do, but those values have always paved the way to the next breakthrough, from college to social work, teaching, working as a talk-show host (kind of a skinny, white, Southern Oprah), leading a network marketing company and eventually taking what I’ve learned on the road as a speaker. When I’m giving a motivational talk, I say we’re too often exposed to negativity and may not have a lot of expectations or hopes. I call myself a hope dealer now.
I know most of the people who listen to me give a talk will make fun of my accent when they leave, but hey, at least they’re laughing.
My sense of humor and refusal to take myself too seriously grew out of necessity. Growing up, I was so self-conscious that I needed something to smooth out the rough edges, and humor did that for me. I would laugh about things that made me uncomfortable—my under-endowed figure, for example. I may have gotten some of my humor from my mother, who claims she was pregnant with me for 10 months—one extra, she said, because I was up in heaven negotiating with the Almighty to send me to a wealthier family.
We were very poor when I was a girl, but looking back on it, poverty was the greatest gift of my life. That’s difficult for people to understand, but you cannot appreciate accomplishment, having a lovely home and a nice car, and an increased ability to be generous if you don’t know the difference.
Poverty is a gateway to the most powerful success secret I know: being grateful. At every stage of my life, I’ve been thankful for what I had. As a social worker right out of college, I saw people who were hungry, but I wasn’t. Some people were sleeping under a bridge, but I wasn’t. There has never been a time when I thought of the slightest luxury—a trip to the movies or to the dentist—as, Oh, this is simple; this is nothing. Life experiences are the same way. I’m grateful for the people in my life who led me to raise the bar for myself.
My husband, David, is one of those who lifted me up. After my adored high school guidance counselor broke the hard news that I hadn’t taken the requisite classes to pursue a college education, I realized that David, then my off-and-on boyfriend, would eventually outgrow me. After graduation we began going steady, but we didn’t get to spend much time together because he was a determined student, and Vanderbilt University’s engineering program was challenging.
I was working at an insurance agency then. David didn’t necessarily expect me to become a doctor or scientist, but he thought I was capable of advancing my education. Being around someone with such an intense focus on his goal set an example that inspired me, and I wanted to keep up with him. So I decided to invest in myself. I worked for two years and saved every penny to be able to go to college. Then when I was in college, I worked two and three jobs to cover all of the costs; my parents couldn’t afford to help.
I was so thrilled to be at Middle Tennessee State University that if a professor didn’t show up for a class, instead of celebrating like all the other students, I wanted to know where he was. I paid for that class!
And I graduated. Probably because it was such a financial burden, and because I was lagging behind David, I earned my bachelor’s degree in three years—with honors and as president of the education department’s honors fraternity. The experience of learning as much as I could gave me a love for teaching other people, and in gratitude I wanted to pay it forward.
But I didn’t try for a teaching position right away because when David and I married in 1966, he had an engineering job with General Electric as part of NASA and the Apollo program in Daytona Beach, Fla., so we expected to be transferred to Houston. As a result, my post-college career began as a social worker with the Aid to Dependent Children Program. I called on young mothers to observe and offer advice and support. Sometimes I was very tough on them, especially the ones who had a bad attitude because of their poverty. Heck, I grew up poor, too, but I knew that not having money didn’t stop you from keeping yourself and your kids clean, and—maybe if you had just a little bit of help—fed.
As difficult a job as that was, it also had moments of great fulfillment, because it allowed me to raise the bar for others.
One home I visited was just in awful condition. The young woman was broke, unemployed and on her own, with her children’s father in prison. There were maggots on the dishes, soiled clothes everywhere and no indoor plumbing, and the kids were malnourished. To make matters worse, she was pregnant again. I told her, “I’m going to give you a check, but it’s got to be spent on feeding these kids, and the house has got to be clean—for them.”
I wasn’t sure how much had sunk in and feared the worst when I returned to check back.
What I saw shocked me. The children were clean, and so was she—everything was clean. This woman had scrubbed the floors so hard all the varnish came off. She had placed newspapers on her table in place of the tablecloth she couldn’t afford. She even put up a little Christmas tree and wrapped tinfoil around it for decoration.
I was overwhelmed with emotion. I had raised the bar for her: For the first time, she had self-respect and new expectations for her life.
I believe that as leaders, businesspeople and simply as people, one of our most important jobs is to help others reach their greatest potential.
Another lesson I want to share: In any disappointment or heartache, you have to look for the gift. Sometimes there’s a mindset you gain, like motivation or humility, or some bit of wisdom. In other cases, it’s more tangible. For instance, in 1996, lightning struck our house, which burned down while we were out of town. Of course, it was a gift that no one was hurt, not even our dog. But after 28 years in that house, I had wanted a new one, although David insisted on staying in the neighborhood. It turns out the fire gave us what we both wanted: a new home on the same site (after two years of repair and remodeling).
I dealt with that fire much better than the first time my house burned down, when I was 16 and left with only the dress on my back. I didn’t have much stuff to lose, but what little I did, well, it was my stuff. It took me a while to get over that, but with each passing year, I’m more thankful to have lost all my worldly possessions in that fire. It’s like I said before: How can you truly appreciate everything you have unless you know what it’s like to have nothing?
So there’s a silver lining in everything—even the storm cloud that’s going to produce the lightning bolt that ravages your world as you know it. It’s just up to us to find it. There’s no point in lingering on bad news.
Some of the worst news I ever got, or so I thought at the time, was in 1987, when the push to have my talk show syndicated from coast to coast fell only four markets short.
Almost 20 years earlier, GE had transferred David to Phoenix, and we moved to the desert. My TV career began as a one-off daytime talk show appearance to demonstrate energy conservation tips on behalf of my employer at the time, Arizona Public Service. But I had so much fun in front of the camera, they kept inviting me back, and soon it spun into a regular cooking segment. Before long I had taken over the time slot, doing 90 minutes of live TV five days a week, interviewing authors, celebrities, politicians and other prominent people in the community.
By the late ’80s, our show was enormously popular, and there was interest from NBC to make me a household name. We poured hundreds of hours into the pilot episodes over the next six months, flying all over the country. When the syndication effort failed, I was crushed. I had put my heart into selling the show to affiliates, and it just didn’t happen.
Ultimately, it was my 8-year-old son, Scott, who put me in the right frame of mind. One day when I picked him up from school, he told me he had asked Nicole, the girl he liked in class and talked about all the time, if she would roller-skate with him at a school party.
My heart starting thumping as I thought, What if this little third-grade hussy had rejected him?
“What did she say, Scott?” I asked. She had said yes. Wheeewww. It was a momentary sigh of relief, but I knew he would experience rejection eventually. “Well, Scott, how would you have felt if she had said no?”
He flipped his hair around and matter-of-factly said, “Mama, there’s 17 other girls in my class.”
What an answer, I thought. Next! That’s an idea we can all take to heart when something doesn’t go our way, be it personal rejection, a disappointment in our careers or just bad luck in life: So what? Move on to the next girl, the next job opportunity or the next house. Use that failure as motivation.
The demise of the syndication deal was a turning point for me: It looked as if I had failed. But it just meant I had the time to devote to my public speaking and to the network marketing company I joined afterward. Within less than a year I was a regional vice president, started winning awards for my sales and sponsorship numbers, and ultimately became the company’s president—I loved that job and had it for more than two decades.
Disappointment and failure are just the feedback that gives us the opportunity to change. It shows us that the path we were trying out wasn’t the ideal one for us. More than that, these are reasons to develop a sense of humor.
Ever have an awful thing happen to you, and say to yourself, Someday I’m going to laugh at this?
See more snapshots from Rita Davenport's life adventure as a "hope dealer" and check out her book, Funny Side Up: A Southern Gir'ls Guide to Love, Laughter, and Money on SUCCESS.com.