Friday, November 16, 2018

Q&A with Charles E. Smith

Charles E. Smith is the author of the new memoir Journal of a Fast Track Life and Lessons Learned Along the Way. His career has included serving as the chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the Tennessee Commissioner of Education, and the chancellor of two University of Tennessee campuses. He also was the editor of daily and weekly newspapers in Tennessee. He lives in Nashville.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: As I neared retirement, I recalled that one of my undergraduate English professors many years ago had told our class that a book was within every person; it was just a question of what to say and how to write it. 

Then a few years later another English professor in my  graduate program remarked in a class that anyone considering an autobiography needed to keep in mind that unless his or her name was George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, or someone of that stature, the autobiography was not likely to be successful.

With those thoughts in mind, I briefly turned to the idea of presenting my life in a work of fiction. However, on reflection I concluded that my life had taken so many unusual twists and turns that the truth was more fascinating than any fictional version I could write.

So, ultimately, I opted to take a somewhat unorthodox approach by compiling the most significant lessons I had learned over a half-century career in public life, breaking them into separate chapters, and then filling in the lessons learned details with specific life experiences, anecdotes, and observations.  

The end result is that a reader may start at any point of the book -- front, back or middle -- and navigate at will.

Q: What are the most important lessons you feel you learned through the course of your career?

A: While each chapter stands alone, a recurring theme that pervades most of the lessons may be summarized as follows: Success as a leader is largely dependent on one's capacity to build trust, earn respect, and communicate effectively. 

Particularly in the public arena where I spent almost all of my public life it is imperative that a leader learn how to reach "across the aisle" and establish relationships with those whose political or philosophical views may differ. 

Given today's divisive nature of our political environment and the general breakdown of civility in our society, the lessons learned in my life make my book particularly relevant at this moment in time.

Another important lesson referenced in a number of chapters is the importance of establishing a strong base of experience early in one's career. 

In my life, I was fortunate to have had three life-changing experiences between college graduation and my 30th birthday. 

Specifically, my early job selections were based not on salary but rather on opportunity to achieve a demanding experience and to learn from strong mentors who could push me to the limit and guide me in later years. My first three bosses did all of that, and more. 

In my book, I write with specificity about how the three bosses provided me with a strong platform that launched my career and made possible my later successes. My only wish is that I had access to the lessons learned at the beginning of my career; I had to learn it on my own.

Q: Did you keep a journal over the years, or did you need to do some research to recreate some of the experiences you wrote about?

A: I did both. Fortunately, I'm a pack rat of sorts. I saved almost all of my public speeches and reports, internal memos, and recorded observations of significant moments of my life. These records were supplemented by research, including the search of newspaper archives and visits to libraries.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I believe that my book may be read with value at many levels. For young people just beginning a career, I hope that my book may inspire them to broaden their vision, pursue their dreams, and never give up. 

At the same time, my hope is that the lessons I learned will provide them with a blueprint for success in their own lives. I believe my life is a living example that it's possible for anyone to achieve the American dream. My book describes how I was able to do so.

For those readers who may be in mid-career, my book offers important insight into the decision making processes and strategies I used to confront the challenges I faced daily in the public arena. 

And for those who are at or near retirement, perhaps my book may inspire them to reflect on their lives and write a book. The words of my undergraduate English professor should be remembered.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Inspired by the experience of writing my first book, my wife and I are currently exploring the feasibility of a second one. 

Because of my decision to structure the current book as a series of lessons learned, I have literally hundreds of experiences, anecdotes, and observations that just didn't fit within the context of the 32 lessons learned presented in my current book. 

So, we plan to decide by the end of this calendar year whether to tell the rest of the story of my life or to zero in on one or more of the lessons learned in the current book and dive deep into a more narrowly defined focus. We have also not ruled out turning to a work of fiction.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I believe your questions have covered the field. A final word is that my experience as a first-time author has provided me with one of the great moments in my life.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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