Women Leaders' Success Secrets

Women still have an uneasy relationship with power and the traits necessary to be a leader. There is this internalized fear that if we are really powerful, we are going to be considered ruthless or pushy or strident—all those epithets that strike right at our femininity. We are still working at trying to overcome the fear that power and womanliness are mutually exclusive.

In my case, I think I may have had an easier time dealing with this fear because my first taste of leadership came in a situation in which I was a blissfully ignorant outsider. It was in college, when I became president of the Cambridge Union debating society. Since I had grown up in Greece, I had never heard of the Cambridge Union or the Oxford Union and didn't know about their place in English culture, so I wasn't weighed down with the kinds of overwhelming notions that may have stopped British girls from even thinking about trying for such a position.

The same thing happened when my first book, "The Female Woman," came out. I was 23 and my U.S. publisher, Random House, flew me from London to New York. They handed me my schedule, and my first interview was with Barbara Walters on the "Today" show. This didn't faze me since I had no idea who Barbara Walters was, and had never heard of the "Today" show. So I was less nervous than if I had been on a local show in Athens that my family and classmates could have watched.

In this way, it was a blessing that I started my career outside my home environment. It had its own problems in that I was ridiculed for my accent and was demeaned as someone who spoke in a funny way. But it also taught me that it is easier to overcome people's judgments than to overcome our own self-judgment, the fear we internalize.

From one perspective, it might look like I've had a number of careers. But the heart of it has always been communicating, whether it's communicating through books, through columns, and now through the Huffington Post. A big part of my personal evolution has come from responding to the spirit of our times, responding to the way our world is changing. So when I first fell in love with what was happening online it was when I recognized its power to empower people who might otherwise be locked out of the national conversation. I was struck by how often, when I asked women to blog for the Huffington Post, they had a hard time trusting that what they had to say was worthwhile, even established writers.

I don't think that anything I've done in my life would have been possible without my mother. She gave me what I am hoping to be able to give my daughters, which is a sense that I could aim for the stars combined with the knowledge that if I didn't reach them, she wouldn't love me any less. She helped me understand that failure was part of any life. So often, I think, we as women stop ourselves from trying because we don't want to risk failing. We put such a premium on being approved of, we become reluctant to take risks.

My mother gave me that safe place, that sense that she would be there no matter what happened, whether I succeeded or failed. When I saw a picture of Cambridge in a magazine and I said I wanted to go there, everybody else in my life, including my father, said it was ridiculous. But my mother found out that I could apply for a scholarship and she even found some cheap tickets so we could go to England and see Cambridge in person. It was a perfect example of what we now call visualization. Visualize that you are going to Cambridge! It was a long flight to London and it rained the whole time we were in Cambridge. We didn't see any school officials or anything. We just walked and imagined me being there. Three years later, I got in and got a scholarship.

My greatest wish is for my daughters to discover their passion, whatever it is. It could be cooking or politics or art or anything. My oldest daughter just finished an internship with Sen. Harry Reid. Last summer, she did an internship at Vanity Fair. I won't pretend that it's not exciting to see your daughter being excited by the same things that excite you. But, at the same time, it's very important for them to feel the freedom to be excited by things that are not exciting to me. I will share that excitement.

Women are at the next stage of our evolution. In the early '70s, in many circles, a woman was thought not to have value unless her life included a big career. Thankfully this has evolved to the point where we are now respecting a wider range of choices women can make.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, "If you want to change the world, who do you begin with, yourself or others?" I believe if we begin with ourselves and do the things that we need to do and become the best person we can be, we have a much better chance of changing the world for the better.

For so many reasons, it was the toughest year of my life. As soon as the school year was over, I headed back to New York City. The summer of 1992 would change everything. My sister was interning at Def Jam Records and my cousin at RUSH Management; they both told me about a job opening as an assistant to Lyor Cohen. Lyor managed many of the biggest names in rap music. I remember his asking me why he should hire me. I told him about my unbelievable work ethic, how smart I was and my ability to type 50 words a minute. Our office was so small, one day he leaned over my shoulder and noticed I couldn't type, but by then he recognized I was more than an assistant and promoted me to the promotions coordinator of Def Jam Records.

I didn't know anything about record-company promotions, except for the fact that ours was located on the third floor. The entire department shared a big open space. We were incredibly dysfunctional. I programmed the fax machine, created itineraries, launched concert events, anything I set my mind to. I would literally get locked in the office, working around the clock, plotting and scheming. It was the most amazing time of my life. I would dream up hundreds of ideas, some good, some bad, some laughed at, but always encouraged by Lyor. Ignorance was bliss, and my out-of-the-box thinking was rewarded with a huge promotion to start our own marketing department at Def Jam.

Some people said rap was just a fad. We knew better. It was us against the world and we were on the cusp of greatness. We hadn't yet become mainstream, but we were the most significant brand name in urban culture. I was working with some of the greatest rappers ever, names that I had previously heard from the kids in my classroom. My students taught me as much about rap music as I did math for them.

I loved my new life. I loved hip-hop and everything about it. I could be as creative as I wanted, writing ads for The Source, treatments for music videos, multi-artist campaigns—the opportunities were endless. Def Jam was at the top of its game and I was one of the big players behind the scenes. Just when I thought I could get comfortable, Lyor decided it was time to sell our company and merge with Island and Mercury Records. I was now responsible for the marketing of the entire roster for the Island Def Jam Music group.

Timing is everything; we ended up merging the company while I was pregnant with my first child. I spent many late nights in my eighth and ninth months with my new staff, learning as much about the pop and rock side of the business before I literally popped.

We then went on an extraordinary run, building the Island Def Jam Music group into an incredible company.

Five years later Lyor decided once again it was time for change and we left to join the Warner Music Group. Pregnant with my second child, I became the president of Atlantic Records. My first three years I was fortunate enough to work under Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic. He came to the office every day. He told some of the greatest stories about the music business; they all had one common theme, incredible artists.

Critics want to say the music business is over. That couldn't be farther from the truth. We've just had to transform ourselves to meet the new ways people are experiencing music. Mobile, digital, songs on TV, strategic licensing—our tools have changed but our outcome is still the same. People will always buy great music and support their favorite artists.

Just when you think you know the music business, everything changes and you have to learn a whole other way to do business.

When you're in this business and you're developing TV shows, you get your ratings the very next morning, and sometimes it's really great and you feel good. And there are times when it completely ruins your day or your week or your month, because with the ratings, America votes every day.

And when you do succeed in this business, there's no better rush than having a hit TV show. When I was overseeing reality programming for ABC, I fought to bring "Dancing With the Stars" to the U.S. and people thought I was totally out of my mind. I knew it was a big risk, but it was something I believed in so strongly. And luckily for me, it garnered record ratings. All the stars have to align to make a hit happen. You have to have developed, scheduled, cast, and marketed the show correctly. The script has to be great. The director has to give the show life in a way, in the perfect way. And then you've got to have writers who can keep writing those stories every week. And that's really hard.

While in college at MIT (the hardest four years of my entire life), I was taught how to look at a problem, figure out how to break it down and attack each part on its own with a disciplined approach. I know that I will never solve harder problems than I did while I was there.

I am now dealing with the challenge of coming into Lifetime and growing this company and growing this brand. It's the same approach, the same mental confidence that allows me to know how to look at the issues. Whether it's breaking down the marketing issues, the issues with respect to programming, the building of the right team and putting the right team in place, or making our advocacy work for us. I break it down like I did in college.

I was gratified to walk through work the first day at Lifetime a few months ago. There were so many diverse faces. I think diversity is important not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's the right business thing to do. If we're targeting women, we're targeting the entire country; we need to reflect the entire female population, which is a diverse population.

We look carefully at female role models. I think it's really important to be a mentor to people that you think are promising. People did it for me, and it helped me grow and be a better leader. Women and minorities need that help more than anyone because there are less people like them who are successful in the higher ranks of companies.

Talking to people effectively is all about being encouraging. All the feedback, some of it negative, is meant to make them better leaders. When I have something bad to say to someone, it's always hard because I'm always thinking of the best way to say it. There are many times when I wish people would tell me when I could be doing something better.

Lifetime's been known for a long time for being an advocate for women, for taking on challenges, for helping get bills passed. The big initiative that we're going to push in the next year is our Every Woman Counts campaign. It's meant to ensure that women are heard in the presidential election. For me, it's the No. 1 advocacy project. This is a big push for 2008.

It's amazing how comfortably you fall into a role, in my case a CEO role. I'm sort of blown away that I have this job, and I feel incredibly lucky.

The juxtaposition of these circumstances versus my own dreams only inspired me to not lose sight of the woman I aspired to be.

When I was a child we went school shopping once a year, and got to spend $200 for an entire wardrobe at Mervyns. Fed up and fueled by the lack of interesting clothing options in the store, I was convinced that if given the opportunity, I could put better styles, silhouettes and fabrics into the stores I was compelled to shop in. My mother told me that this was the job of a buyer, and in turn, my new goal was born: I wanted to be a buyer for Mervyns.

In high school, partly motivated by my father's decree that all of his children had to have a job at 14 (or he would find one for us), I made a decision that I wanted to work at Contempo Casuals, which was the height of glamour at the time. If I couldn't work at Contempo, I didn't want to work anywhere.

I started in stock (decidedly unglamorous) and within two years I was assist-ant manager. When I went to college in Washington, D.C., they transferred me and I continued working, while also attending classes.

It wasn't the most natural thing for me. I'm not a salesperson and if you don't like how the dress looks on you, I will tell you not to buy it. Despite this, I was always the first one there and always the last one to leave. I learned so much, and loved every minute.

After college, I moved to New York and started all over again in a different area of fashion as a personal shopper at a store in northern New Jersey. I slowly transitioned into personal styling, which opened a new world of opportunity.

Eventually, I was styling for music videos through my now husband, who is Damon Dash. Ironically, that didn't go well because my esthetic was so different from the current look of the time. I remember showing up once with a beautiful gray Gucci sweater, a pencil skirt and bright red heels—I thought it was so chic and elegant for the girl I had in mind, and of course it was nixed.

But Damon saw me as someone who stood out in terms of style in the music industry and who was resolved in her opinions. He invited me to style the female artists on his label, which was during an exciting time of growth at his company, as he had decided to begin a clothing line. I couldn't have been happier about it, but once again, I had to start over.

Damon told me that if I wanted to work in his company, I had to intern. By this time we were dating, which was at first a bit awkward, but I was determined to prove myself. I threw myself into the work, interning in every company, tracking everything I did to contribute, and involving myself in as many facets of the business as possible. I wanted to make myself irreplaceable, and to learn the ins and outs of the business side of fashion.

After about six years, I approached the owners about doing a more advanced collection beyond T shirts and sweats, which they all loved, but then Damon sold his portion of the company, so I left when he left. Eventually, Damon backed me in my own line, which I've been doing for four years now.

In hindsight, my initial love for fashion was about hope and evolving to become the type of woman I wanted to be: strong, confident and feminine. I always loved the idea of dressing up--my wardrobe and how I present myself reflecting how I feel on the inside. That is what I do for other people now. I give women the means to express themselves and be who they are and who they aspire to be, and I think there is a real beauty in this.

There have always been long periods of time that I haven't actually worked, like a year or two when I just would get nothing. And those are devastating times. They really are. It's not like I was hungry. It's not like I was living out of my car. But emotionally if you're an artist, not being able to speak your language or to express yourself, is like being in purgatory.

I did "Born on the Fourth of July." I did "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge." I did "Something to Talk About," and "Phenomenon." And then I didn't work for a couple of years. I'm sure that no small part of it is due to the fact that I chose to have children and get married. It was a monumentally unsexy thing to do, frankly. It's just not sexy for a young, hot actress to get married at 22 and start having babies. You're no longer available, and I think that for some people that may be something that gets in the way of some kind of mystique.

I had this dream that when I had my children I was just going to want to be with them, and I wouldn't want to work. And that was sort of this ideal, in a way, based on nothing, because my mother always worked.

I had this dream that somehow I'd be so fulfilled, and I wouldn't need to work. I bought into this ideal that one should just stay home and be with one's children, that that should be enough. It's taken me a really long time to embrace my ambition and to embrace my need to express myself and to accept it in a loving way as part of who I am instead of putting myself down for it.

It took me a really long time to say, "You know what? I want this. I want to be successful in my field. I want to be able to make choices on my own and make my own choices based on success." And I just think that's a hard thing for a female. We're still not really supposed to want it as much as a guy does.

And I wish that we could embrace that and have that be a positive thing and not a negative thing: with the connotation of "Look at her. She's working so hard and therefore not being with her children."

While I was home a great deal, I was working sometimes, and I always had a lot of guilt about that. I gave myself an incredibly hard time about work. And if there's anything I wish I could look back on and change about my life, it's that I wish I hadn't given myself such a hard time. The fact of the matter is that my kids have turned out great. Recently, when I was offered the role on my show, "The Closer," I got a lot of encouragement from my husband, Kevin Bacon, to do this show. I wouldn't have taken this job without his encouragement, and I don't know if I'm proud of that or not.

In "The Closer," we have this sort of iconoclastic character, Brenda Lee Johnson. She is turning 40, and talking about how it feels to turn 40. My character's first love and last love is work; all her ego lies in her work. So in a lot of ways she's sort of taken the man's role, and in a lot of ways she's incredibly feminine and fragile and delicate and very womanly and very sensual and sexual.

My character works with all these men. She bosses them around. And I think it's good to show young girls the image of women in a powerful position. The amazing thing is that men like this show as much as women do.

I think that women as a group are so powerful. I still don't think we are able to embrace our power well enough yet. We think we live in a man's world and we have to follow their rules, and yet, we're so different, and our rules are so different. I wish that we could come together more as a political force. If women ran the world, I don't believe that there would be war. I really don't.

And I just think that we're so right about so many things politically. We understand the bigger picture. We understand our impact on the environment, on the world. We understand the generations that will go after us because we give birth to them. I would love us to be a more cohesive group. I really think politically we're still forming—we don't realize how much power we wield.

Science is the process of trying to understand the nature of reality. And it's a fundamental of science that we believe reality exists, instead of having it be a human construct or all a matter of relative point of view. There isn't another side of the story in science. There are the right and wrong answers, and you do a better or worse job of understanding that reality, but we do believe reality is there. That's fundamental to what we're doing.

I've been in a lot of earthquakes, maybe 200, some in California, some in Taipei. I've been in shaking strong enough to really scare me only twice. Once I was in Taiwan and an earthquake hit as we were hiking up in the mountains crossing a very steep slope. So if you fell, you would have been going a long ways. The Pasadena earthquake in 1988 was probably located just about directly below our house. It was a 5.0, which isn't that big, but the shaking was right underneath us. It was in the early morning. I felt like I was being thrown out of bed, and there was a real moment of fear.

My husband is also a seismologist. We met in grad school. Our work crises tend to coincide. As a research scientist, you have a lot of flexibility in your time schedule, so managing my children was OK. And my husband is a full partner in this. That's a really critical issue.

Once my two boys were finally both in school, we were able to adjust our schedules to make sure that they were never in day care after school, and I think that made for a much healthier family life. I worked less than my husband did, but we both juggled. On a regular basis, that works. But then you have to deal with the fact that we were having earthquakes, and it was a very active time in California.

During the 1992 Joshua Tree earthquake, my husband was at home with the kids, putting them to bed, and telling them to stop jumping around. And then he started realizing it wasn't them jumping around. It was the earth moving! And he grabbed the boys up out of bed and ran into work with them, because I was already there.

He was called immediately into the computer room, and you don't take little kids into computer rooms with all the sensors. So he handed me the kids while I was doing a live television interview. The little one, at 19 months old, had been woken up from a sound sleep. He was really grumpy. If we put him down, he screamed.

The quake was a 6.1. There was a 10 to 15 percent chance that that earthquake would be a foreshock for a San Andreas earthquake, and we made a public statement about it. One of the things we find about foreshocks is that they happen within 10 kilometers of their main shock. They're very close in space, and therefore when an earthquake is close to a really big fault, we're more concerned about it.

I then proceeded to carry my son and do dozens of interviews. If I put him down, he screamed. There was a CNN moment when they were being real aggressive and stuck a microphone up at me to ask a question, and my son took a little finger and pushed the microphone away because it was in his face. It was such an image of a working mom. People still ask about my baby, who's now applying to colleges.

I think there are a lot of issues there. A very large part is how you balance work and home, and all of us are dealing with the problem, but mostly we try and pretend and don't talk about it on the job, and there I was dealing with it in a very public way.

Seismologists, many of us mothers and fathers, get deluged after an earthquake. On one level, what difference is it going to make to you to know what fault it's on? You still have got to repair your house, right? But I think we are part of the process in that we normalize the situation. We make people feel better. We give the earthquake a name, we give it a number, we give it a fault, and we say somebody understands this.

I stayed involved in politics, a variety of campaigns, fund-raising, community organization, what's called field operations in politics.

I developed a reputation for being able to bring people together, for being analytical, for presenting policy proposals and for helping to organize the grass-roots support necessary to effect public policy.

But I didn't catch the leadership bug. I scrambled for the hinterlands. I scrambled for the back seat. I wasn't confident enough.

Women need to help women understand that we were not all born with all of the skills, nor was anyone, men or women, that are necessary. But with hard work and passion, you can be recognized as a leader. My fears of failure, my fears of not being perfect, kept me from thinking that I could run for mayor.

I was the top appointed woman in city government in my 40s. I stepped out, but I didn't have the nerve to run. I was still the person behind the man. In my 50s, I was willing to be the woman out front and that's when I ran for mayor.

I think people mature at different stages of their lives. Twenty years ago there were lots of barriers. There were social barriers, there were peer-group pressures not to step out of line. So I think the younger generation can start as early as they feel comfortable.

The key is to find your own comfort level with taking the risk of leadership. Some people get it earlier than others. In hindsight, if I had been born 20 years later, I probably would have seized more opportunities at an earlier age.

I encourage young women to find what their passion is and to work hard. They should not see any limits. I'm a perfect example of that. I am a very unlikely person to be in public life.

All of my family members would say that because I'm shy. I don't like the limelight. I step back from it. I do my job, and my job means I have to be center stage, but I'm not a natural. And I'm 5 foot 1. When I ran for office, I wore three-inch heels because people thought I was too short to be mayor and too blond to be mayor. So I said, "I can manage the height, but I'm not changing my hair color."

It was a spiritual journey for me in some ways. It is impossible to offer limitless opportunities to young people if those of us who are older are not willing to take the risk.

At some point, I looked in the mirror and said, "You cannot give another graduation or baccalaureate speech, or another pep talk to a young woman that she has no boundaries and no limits if you in fact are limiting yourself by your fear."

The best thing was running, and when I won, I was surprised. I was not predicted to win the way I won. I enjoyed every day of the campaign, and I enjoy every day, even the tough days, in the office.

I enjoy it because it's a challenge. It's a challenge emotionally, it's a challenge intellectually, and it's a challenge to find new ways to do what needs to be done to make this a great city.

And frankly, the public in Atlanta had not counted on Atlanta—on the city being in such bad shape, and I had to give them the bad news that we were close to bankruptcy, and that we would all have to really take a step back and reorder our priorities if we were to get through it. So I knew we had to stay the course—we couldn't turn the corner by creeping. We had to take a big step to turn the corner. So I love the challenge, and I have not regretted a single day that I have been in office.

I've made many mistakes. It took me five times to win my first title. It was tough for me. You have to give yourself another chance, and be positive about it and try again. I'm very easy in that way. I don't waste any energy or time in complaining or thinking about bad things. I just move on. It's just not worth it to waste time on the negative things. I just keep going.

It always helps to have a technique. In golf, it's all about visualizing. You have to practice; being in the situation is the only thing that helps. You have to make all the mistakes and you have to learn from them. The more you do it, the more comfortable you feel and then you learn. You have to have high goals. There is always room to improve. You are always trying to be one step ahead of everybody because there are so many good players out there. My name means something in the golf world. But at the same time, you always learn. It's never good to feel too comfortable.

I love being on the golf course but right now I travel so much and go to so many tournaments that I really look forward to going home and recharging. I am who I am because of my family and my friends and it is very important to be home with them. And then I go back to tour.

What I most enjoy is representing my country. I'm very proud to be Mexican. I think I do have the potential to be a role model for others, especially in Mexico. It's a great opportunity and I like the responsibility. I'm trying to do things in the right way and hopefully others can follow and dream and become professionals in the future. Every time I go home, I try to spend time with kids, to motivate them.

I have a foundation and at first, I thought I would help kids with cancer and other disabilities. But soon it was clear to me that education was the only thing that would make a real change. So many kids in Mexico don't go to school. I decided to concentrate 100 percent on education with a school. It's 230 kids from first grade to sixth grade. We give them breakfast in the morning and then they go to class. Also, the parents are important. The whole family is involved because then you really make change, with the parents helping the kids. We are buying land next to the elementary school and we're going to build a high school for next year.

I think I play golf for a reason. It seems like the more I play, the more I can help. I love to give back. Seeing those kids happy at school makes me feel even better than winning a tournament. That is the most important thing for me.

Food was always a conduit in our family for storytelling, and it was a way for us to keep in touch and remember things. We're people that use food to keep each other together and to always cheer us up and make all of our days better.

And that's what is so easy about my job. I am sharing the idea that just learning how to make a few simple dishes for yourself or with your kids or for your friends or your lover or your brother or your cousin or your neighbor not only improves the quality of your life, it improves the quality of the lives of those you choose to share the food with. It just does. It's one of the easiest ways for a poor person to feel rich. Make good food.

I recently had this mom on the show. She works all night as a nurse and her husband is a truckdriver, away during the day. Their girls are getting to their teenage years and she just feels this horrendous guilt as a mom. She can't get her kids interested in vegetables. And they're going to go off into the world and she did a bad job because they don't eat right. I showed her how to make a good turkey meal with vegetables and she just broke down in tears. Her kids were smiling, and they got all choked up. And it was just turkey and spaghetti sauce. And they were all so over the moon. That just made my day. Just to give them that one little thing that means so much to her—to help her with something that's really haunted her as a working mom all this time. It's amazing to be able to make people so happy with such a small amount of information.

I like making the good life more accessible to everybody. I told my mom that I wished we could do something in our community to show mothers and latch-key kids that they could make really good food, even on a shoestring, and improve their lives. So now with every avenue that we can think of we're trying to get healthy, fun, affordable recipes into the hands of kids and their parents so that they can cook for and with each other.

It's not just about childhood obesity rates and diabetes rates. I want to help kids feel better about themselves, period. And I think one of the greatest things about getting any child of any age into the kitchen is that it really builds their selfesteem. It's so much about sharing and just opens them up.

It's more than just simple math or making goofy after-school snacks. When a kid prepares a meal that the whole family is interested in eating, it gives them ownership and a way to pay back to their family and their community. You just get such a bang for your buck when you get a kid into the kitchen. It's something that enriches the rest of their lives. They can help themselves at a very early age. And, later in life, they can get a lot of good dates, too. The way to anybody's heart is through their stomach, that's for sure. It's the greatest feeling in life to make a meal and share it with people.

The script was called "Human Seeking Same" and it was a romantic comedy. It sold and then it resold and then it resold again. I lived off it for quite a while, but it really helped me get my first big job, which was "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge." It's such a joy when you get to do the thing that you would secretly do for free and get paid for it. I thought, I'm doing the thing I love to do. Not everybody gets to say that. I'm going to stick it out.

I felt an enormous responsibility to tell the story of Dorothy accurately. I interviewed people like Dorothy Dandridge's best friend and the Nicholas Brothers, who had been part of early black Hollywood history. It was so inspiring. I always think about Hattie McDaniel, when she was nominated for best supporting actress. They made her eat in a separate room because she was an African-American woman. It puts everything in perspective.

By the time I did "Princess Diaries II," I had become a mother. I always joke that the thing about having a child is that you suddenly realize you can never leave the house again. I spent a lot of evenings with my daughter lying on my chest catching up with DVDs on a lot of television shows I had never seen before like "Buffy" and "The West Wing."

I admired all this great long-term character development that was happening on television. It doesn't happen in the movies because you only have two hours. I also saw a lot of strong female characters on television.

I wrote a pilot about war correspondents. These were women who drank a lot and played very hard and enjoyed their jobs. And then we went to war in Iraq. Suddenly the charming idea didn't feel so charming when actual Americans were dying. The next year I was asked to develop something else. I really was in love with the idea of a world with strong competitive women, so I looked for another like that and that's how I ended up focusing on surgery. And also because I was hooked on surgery shows. With the exception of McDreamy—who is simply the guy I wish was out there—all the characters felt like they were pieces of me. It made it easier to write them because they were people who lived in my head in a very good way.

Television is all about running your own show. And I felt that, like the interns, I was thrown into deep water and I was asked to swim. What I've learned is that if you swim hard enough and you pay enough attention, you create something great. You have to stick to your own vision.

I have a second child this year, the show "Private Practice." I have learned to delegate some things and to focus on the two things I love most, which are writing and sitting in the editing room. I feel absolutely up for it. I have no idea how my own story is going to end. But it's fun to know the answers here at the office.

My family were liberal Protestants. My father had abandoned the Presbyterian Christianity of his family because he was converted to Darwin's view that evolution was accurate. He felt that meant the Bible must be a bunch of lies, silly tales for foolish people who don't understand science. I was taken to church, but was also told that religion was for people who needed it and who obviously weren't educated. It was a very condescending view of religion. As a teenager, I was introduced to an evangelical Christian group and found it unlike the church in which I was raised. It was intense and powerful. I was born again and my parents were quite horrified. For me, it was the revelation of a spiritual dimension of life that I needed to explore. For about a year, I found that quite gratifying.

And then I fell out of love with evangelical Christianity. It happened when a friend of mine had been killed in an automobile accident and my evangelical friends asked whether he had been born again and I said, "No, he wasn't born again," and they said, "Well, then, he's in hell." Now, I know a lot of evangelicals wouldn't agree with that today, so I don't want to say that is a view that is universally shared. But that seemed to me completely counter to what I had learned from Christianity and had learned from the teachings. I decided I wanted to find out for myself what it is about Christianity or any religion that is so powerful.

In college, I studied Greek, which, of course, is the language in which the New Testament was written. I thought if you get to the text in the original language, you encounter it more directly. I found some truth in that. It dispelled the familiarity of the text and freshened it, and it just took away the clichés of language.

In graduate school at Harvard, I was interested in finding out about how the New Testament was written. I was under the illusion that if you go back in time, you'll get a clearer picture. In fact, the opposite happened. I found out that the New Testament professors at Harvard had tablets full of Gospels I'd never heard of, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and a whole range of more than 50 early Christian texts that we never knew existed before. They were just becoming available. This was the Nag Hammadi library. That changed everything. Instead of a simpler golden age of early Christianity, we found a more complicated picture than we ever imagined.

I was educated at a time when parents did not expect girls to do anything useful. I wasn't being practical at all. I was following what I loved. I started to explore this material and only later discovered that one could actually make a living teaching it.

My husband Heinz and I met when I was 17 and he was 22. He had just come from Princeton to do a Ph.D. at Stanford. I was a freshman. He was a very striking man. I was quite dazzled by him. Fortunately, that turned out later to be mutual. Our child was discovered to have a very rare disease and was given just a few months to a few years to live. That was when he was 2; he died when he was 6. It was very difficult. My faith became very urgent and very essential. Soon after my son died, my husband was killed in an accident. By that time, we had two adopted children under the age of 3. I was suddenly widowed with two babies. My church provided a community to help me deal with these very difficult issues.

In my last book, I asked two questions. What is it about Christianity that I love in spite of many things I don't? And what is it I can't love about it? I don't love the claim that it's the only true religion, and I don't love the way that many sides of Christianity have been used to nurture hatred and dissension. But I do love the enormous range of stories, poems, chants and testimonies to the ways that people discover the human spirit and express that in relation to each other, in relation to communities. Finding spiritual meaning is essential. This is part of the way we imagine, we hope, we fear, the way we explore. We can't live without it.

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