It’s January, so there is a glut of New Year, new you self-help books clogging up the aisles at your local bookstore. Amidst these quick-fix titles promising you a new body and soul in four hours or less, Hoda Kotb’s new book, Ten Years Later: Six People Who Faced Adversity and Transformed Their Lives, stands out as a wrenching, heartfelt inspiration to better yourself in 2013. Kotb, who co-hosts the fourth hour of Today with the irrepressible Kathy Lee, follows the stories of six people who overcame life-altering challenges like domestic violence, AIDS, and post-9/11 grief, and were triumphant and successful a decade post-tragedy.
These stories could easily tip over into maudlin territory, but Kotb’s journalistic skills and her co-author and pal Jane Lorenzini’s voice keep the tone smart and gripping. We spoke to the very charming, open Kotb (while Lorenzini listened in) about ways that regular folks can overcome quotidian challenges, what qualities each person she profiled shared, and how she gets through the challenge of waking up before five every morning, appearing on national television guzzling wine, all while working on a book project.
I do believe you don’t have to make dramatic changes to make life easier for yourself and the people around you. After the horrible school shooting in Newtown, one thing that came out of it—we couldn’t give clothes, it couldn’t be like hurricane Sandy, you want to help—was when they started that 26 acts of kindness campaign [NBC’s Ann Curry suggested people do 26 acts of kindness to honor the 26 victims of the Newtown shooting, and it went viral].
I heard about a guy at a tollbooth who paid for the next 26 cars. My mom was at Rehoboth Beach, and she went to buy her coffee, and they told her she was #25. Someone had come in and paid for 26 free coffees. I think sometimes a small act of kindness—it creates a ripple effect. You pay it forward. A little change, a little nicety.
When you’re trying to make changes in your life, you can’t change the way people act, or who bumps into you on the street. But you feel better when you do a little something for someone else, it changes the tone of your day, takes the spotlight from yourself.
I met a young girl who had been in a terrible accident when she was 8 or 9. She lost the use of her legs. She wanted to be put in this private room at the hospital, but the doctor said, “Put her in with other kids, trust me.” And the girl said, “Can’t you just listen to me, I just want this one thing?” She was very depressed. Finally her parents listened to the doctor and decided to put her in the room with other kids. The wheelchair was parked next to her bed. She was curled up in a ball. And the kid next to her, says “Can you help me, I need to call the nurse.” And she said, “I can’t, I don’t have any legs.” And the little boy said, “I don’t have the use of my arms or legs.” So she got up, put herself in that wheelchair, and pushed the button for that kid.
By the time I met her, she was a grown up studying law. She wants to work with people who have disabilities. She wanted to help them. Her pain became her purpose. She could have turned the worst tragedy into a life of bitterness [but instead] she’s probably inspired a ton of people.
That was the one quality that everyone in the book shared: every person who overcame their adversity, all the people in our book, all the people were doing it for someone other than themselves; their kids, their parents, or for someone who wasn’t yet born. It’s much more difficult to do something just for you.
One time a long time ago, I ran a marathon. I was at the end of the pack with a ton of people who weren’t runners. At the last half mile, everyone’s running, even the non-runners. On the back of people’s T-shirts, there was a guy who had the birth and death dates of someone who seemed to be his wife, and another guy’s shirt said he was running for his friends who died in Vietnam, and one person’s shirt had the birth and death dates of someone who may or may not have been a child who died young. The only person walking was someone who’s shirt said, “This one’s for me.”
I wake up at 4:15 a.m., get some coffee, turn on the news, see what’s happening, go clickety-clack on the web to see what I missed over night. Then I go to the gym, around 5:15, and I do what appears to be a very light work out, but who cares. I’m socializing with other nice people at the gym. Then I go into work, and I’m really awake. If your most important hour of the day is at 10 you should look alive.
This project really came together because of Jane Lorenzini—she can string a few words together and your eyes well up. Certain people have gifts and she’s got it. I’ve known Janey since we were working together in Fort Meyers, Florida. We’ve been there for each other’s marriages, each other’s divorces. [Pause] Now we’re both blubbering (and we’re both on our periods).
Hold on a second [leaves the call for a moment]. Sorry, we were scared we would be on the verge of that sloppy hyperventilating, slurpy breakdown crying, and that’s happening right now. But Jane’s got it, she’s got the gift.
We found our characters together for this book. I did some of the interviews. I couldn’t do all of them. Some of them were on tape, some of them were in person, I interviewed Ron Clifford [a 9/11 hero whose sister and niece died on that day] and Pat Weiland [a Peabody-winning TV producer who overcame drug addiction and an AIDS diagnosis] in person, and Roxanne [Quimby, Burt’s Bees founder] by phone.
Janey took the interviews and turned them into poetry. We hope this will be one of a series of books, and with people needing a little inspiration in our lives, there’s so many stories of people who inspire us, it’s fun to be able to share it.