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How I Got Here: Soledad O'Brien

CNN's Soledad O'Brien
CNN's Soledad O'Brien

Editor's note: "How I Got Here" is a series of stories looking at newsmakers, places or events and the path taken to reach the present. In the first installment, Soledad O'Brien talks about the challenges she has faced, how she defines herself and what success really means. O'Brien is a CNN anchor and special correspondent for CNN's In America unit, which explores untold stories in underreported communities. She looks at parenting in the gay community in the upcoming CNN documentary "Gary and Tony Have a Baby," airing June 24.

Q: Who are you? How do you define yourself?

A: I would have to say what day are we talking about? Are we talking about the days where I am dashing to school with my kids, then I am a mom. If I am late for a meeting in the office, then I am a working mom. Am I out to dinner with my husband, on one of our rare dates alone, then I am a wife, been married 15 years to a guy I met in college, who has been my best friend forever. I am a journalist. If I am knee-deep in covering a story, like Haiti, then I am a journalist, a working journalist, covering breaking news. If I am doing a documentary and on a plane, then I am a reporter working on a story that sometimes takes literally years to get done. So I guess I am a lot of things, so my identity is all based on where I am at the moment where somebody has asked me. Some days, I am a philanthropist. Some days, I am just an over-worked working mother.

Today, I was giving a tour to a bunch of kids from my kids' school, a bunch of fourth graders and I was someone who they kept asking "How did you get this job? How do you get this job? How do you get this job?" And I was just a person opening doors to opportunities that they really literally have never seen. These are all kids who have Wii's and iPods and every sort of technology at home but have never seen the kind of technology we have at CNN and it was just great to see them so amazed and literally quizzing the editors, "How do you get to do this?" "How do you get to be the person taking in the satellite feeds? "How do you get to be the person who gets to be working behind the camera?" "How do you get to do that?" So today I was kind of opening a door for kids who you know have never really had that type of opportunity. So I guess I identify in a lot of different ways depending on what I am doing.

Q: How did you get here?

A: Well I got to CNN by way of NBC. I had been there a long time, 16 years as a reporter and an anchor and I loved it and I had grown up in an NBC family. But as an anchor of a weekend Today show, I wanted more. I was working three hours anchoring every week and it wasn't challenging enough. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to be challenged more. I wanted to work harder. I wanted to be pushed a litter bit more, so I came to CNN because it was sort of like going to college. I learned about countries I have certainly never visited.

I really wanted to learn and I got to cover a lot of breaking news stories, which meant I got to go in the field which was wonderful to be able to, to be able to not just sit in the anchor chair and talk about stories but to anchor live from a location where you could see what I am seeing, especially in the Tsunami, in Katrina, in the war between Hezbollah and Israel where people really wanted to understand, well what's your experience here. It was amazing to do a lot of live reporting and I loved it and I was good at it.

I started doing documentaries for CNN after I left the morning show. I was taken off the morning show and my boss, Jon, loves to say he fired me and promoted me all in the same day. And that is when I made up my own title because they said "Well, what do you want to be called?" and I said fast: anchor and special correspondent.

They asked me if I was interested in working on a piece about Martin Luther King, which was great and it was a great opportunity and it was a beautiful piece about, really about the words of Dr. King. I loved it. I got to meet every civil rights legend who was alive to be part of our documentary and again it was a real education for me. I mean, imagine sitting down next to Andrew Young and interviewing him for three hours, it was just amazing. I got to meet Benjamin Hooks before he died. I did one of his last national interviews. It was a real honor. It was a real privilege. It always felt very important. So working on documentaries was a real departure from morning TV, which I had done forever, for a decade. It felt special. It took time to put together and they were really challenging but they were really worth it.

Q: How have you been challenged?

A: For every person of color in a newsroom you are often one of the few, so by de facto you are always the person standing up or symbolizing more than you want to symbolize I don't want to spend my day talking about race. I really don't. I say that as someone who really enjoys talking about race. But sometimes in meetings you end up always being the person who is bringing up -- you know the Black question or the Latino question. "Isn't this an interesting story, it's a person of color?" It sounds like a broken record. You know, I don't want to be the one talking about diversity all the time. I would like it to just happen. I like reporting on diverse issues and diversity and I like telling stories about diversity, but I don't want to be the one pushing for diversity where I work, so that gets old, that certainly gets old. That's an experience of many people of color.

Q: What do you believe in?

A: I believe hard work gets you what you need. I was never smarter than everybody. I was never better looking than everybody. I had no "In" in TV, I knew no one but I was always willing to re-assess, look at my tape, critique it, ask for help and just come in earlier and work harder and stay later and even today that is my strategy and it pays off absolutely so if I believe in anything, we can pretty much get wherever you want to go if you are willing to work very hard and ask people for feedback and for help.

Q: What is something no one knows about you?

A: That I start every morning with Mary J. Blige's "No More Drama," and I sing with a hairbrush! I put it on in the kitchen while the kids are eating breakfast. I think it's a good theme song to start the day. My children might tell you that I can not sing, but one day I would like to take singing lessons.

Q: How would you advise your younger self about how to get to where you are now?

A: I would tell my younger self not to worry so much. I have always been a strategic thinker, always going for the next job, for the next thing. I think there is a point where you get there and you think, "Wow, this is what the sprint was for!" I wonder if now my focus should be on slowing down and doing less and sort of taking more time and getting less done because it would be horrible to get to the end and say "I sprinted through life". So I would tell my younger self not to worry so much. Success has a lot of different packages. It certainly has nothing to do with the size of your paycheck and it has nothing to do with the title. It has a lot to do with the things that you have accomplished that you have set out to accomplish: what makes you feel good about yourself [and] the things you personally feel have made you successful. So I think in a lot of exterior ways I am incredibly successful and in other ways I am working extremely hard to bring the other parts of my life up to being successful. You know, to where I can enjoy life more. I don't have time to do a lot of personal things. Some of that is having small children, it eats up a lot of your personal time. I like to have friends over. I like to be a person people can call up to hang out with or cry over the phone to if they have to. I like to bake with my kids. It's hard to get all those things into a day so you have to choose to do the fewer things and do the fewer things better. That's really the focus of my life right now.