Ellyn Spragins: If You Knew Then

After more than 20 years as a leading business journalist, Ellyn Spragins found a new direction for her editorial talents: asking 41 famous women to write letters to their younger, less confident, selves. The result, What I Know Now(Broadway, 2006), became a national bestseller.

January 1, 2008

What was your inspiration for What I Know Now?

SPRAGINS: It grew out of my personal grief in losing my mother. She died in a plane crash when I was 32 and she was 60. I began to think of my mom as a woman making her way in the world, and what she would have said about herself looking back, and what would have helped her through some of life’s passages.

What is the book’s essential wisdom?

SPRAGINS: What we don’t realize is that there are actually two versions of our personal histories: a public one where colleagues, friends, and neighbors know about our accomplishments, and the private version where we store all of the bumps and bruises.

These letters pull back the curtain a little on some juncture in the writers’ lives.

SPRAGINS: These are women who seem to lead charmed lives, but you find out they’ve had their struggles too and theirs are not so different from yours or mine.

Any plans for a collection of letters from men?

SPRAGINS: My guess is that men’s advice to their younger selves would be much more action-oriented than geared to reframing a way of thinking. I think men would say “buy Microsoft” or “take this job.”

Whose letters most resonated for you?

SPRAGINS: I more or less fell in love with all of these women as I collaborated with them. But [journalist] Ann Curry’s message, “It’s time to be bold about who you really are,” is one I repeat to myself from time to time. She is talking to herself as a young woman out of college, when she was working hard to conform to someone else’s idea about who she should be.

Another letter I treasure is [actress] Olympia Dukakis’. She writes to herself in her late 40s when she was extraordinarily pressed by the need to be the family breadwinner. She says, “being strong doesn’t require that you deny yourself pleasures. You don’t have to ‘earn’ them by toiling harder than every other workhorse. You’re unnaturally good at deferring gratification.”

Do you recommend that everyone write something to their younger selves?

SPRAGINS: Definitely. It’s an interesting experience. I’ll make a confession. I worked on this book for a long time before I actually wrote my own letter to my younger self. The truth is that writing it down is extremely embarrassing. I finally understood what I was putting these women through. But in fact, your own little demons don’t seem particularly horrible to other people.

For real estate professionals in a tough market, would this be an ideal time for this exercise?

SPRAGINS: If you can be very vivid about what you felt during a different struggle, you can see how far you’ve really come. You can see, in the end, how you were not trapped and how you got through. It may help you break loose from the narrow view of what is possible.

Wendy Cole

Wendy Cole is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.