Red Chair interview with Hill Harper

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Story highlights

  • Hill Harper: Live your life and understand what true wealth is
  • Harper is known for his roles in "CSI: NY, " "Beloved" and "He Got Game"
  • His latest book is called "The Wealth Cure"
Actor and author Hill Harper wants you to live your life and understand what true wealth is.
"The word courage, one of my favorite words, the root or the etymology of that word is 'cour,' which means heart," he said. "I think true courage is actually following your heart and not getting or succumbing to what other people's definition of what your life should be. Live your life."
Harper, who once wanted to be a professional football player, tells me the story of how he accomplished that himself, thanks to the advice of an uncle.
"I had all this student loan debt, and I had this six-figure legal job offer in corporate law coming out of Harvard Law School. There were job opportunities there, particularly out of this high-end law firm," he said.
Harper has a bachelor of arts degree from Brown University, where he studied acting, and a masters in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government, which is a part of Harvard.
He says many people told him to take the legal job offer to pay off his debt. They advised him to pursue his passion of acting later. His Uncle Frank recognized he was only looking at the legal job for the salary.
"'Let me tell you, if you're ever making a decision and the principle reason you'll do it is because of money, then it is absolutely the incorrect decision,'" Harper said his uncle advised. Harper emphasizes that money can be a factor, but it should not be the primary one.
"I went on to take a job waiting tables from 11 at night to 7 in the morning at a diner. Fighting rush hour traffic to get home by 8 to go to sleep. Wake up at noon or 1 to audition for films and go to acting class in the evening and maybe come home and get a nap between 9:30 and 10 and go to work again at 11," he said. "I certainly wasn't making as much money as I would have at a law firm, but I was following my heart."
Known for his roles in "CSI: NY " and "Beloved," Spike Lee gave Harper his first big acting break when he hired him to play one of the leads of his movie "Get on the Bus."
Harper has written three books that have been on The New York Times best-seller list. His first one, "Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny," won the American Library Association Award for Best Books for Young Adults in 2007.
"You know it was funny, just a few years before, I was in grad school at Harvard, and Spike was teaching a theater class or film classes at Harvard," he said with a laugh. "I went down there and I was an extra in his film 'Malcolm X.' I stood in this big huge line and auditioned to become an extra."
Harper's definition of wealth changed while he was filming "For Colored Girls" in Atlanta and writing a book about money and finance to encourage people to stop using a lack of money as an excuse to defer their dreams.
Harper has also had his brushes with harsh realities in life.
"So one day, I wake up in my hotel room and I can't swallow. I knew I wasn't sick. I didn't have a fever. Something inside me told me that something was wrong," he said.
He describes undergoing tests that involve enduring 16 needles in his neck. Yet, he managed to have fun by posing for pictures with the nurses and doctors.
When he returned a week later for his pathology, no one was laughing and joking. He says he knew then he had thyroid cancer.
"What I realized very clearly through that journey was that it doesn't matter how much celebrity you have or how much money you have or how well you've saved or if your 401(k) is solid, if you don't have your health, and if you don't have your loved ones and relationships with your family, then none of it means anything," he said. "Money is important. It is an important resource to have to help us build the life we want, but we overvalue it. There are so many other wealth factors in our lives. If we identify them as such, we can actually identify what true wealth is."
This inspired the title of his latest book, "The Wealth Cure."
"I was seeking a health cure, but, at the same time, I realized I was getting a wealth cure," he said.
Harper said he is feeling fine now and continues to check in with his doctors. He would like a role on a show like "Mad Men."