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Sometimes life can hand you serendipitous twists. Take Pamela Wallin. One of Canada's best known journalists, Wallin has interviewed hundreds of well known authors, actors and thinkers on her television show, Pamela Wallin's Talk TV, and other similarly formatted shows in different incarnations. Having spent a quarter of a century picking prominent people's brains -- from Gloria Steinem, to Julia Child and Prime Ministers Trudeau, Turner, Clark, Campbell, Mulroney and Chrétien -- Wallin realized that some of what had been said on fleeting celluloid was too good to let it go off into the ether. From her own interviews, she collected the advice that some of the greatest -- and most visible -- minds of our generation had to say on the topic of success in all of its myriad forms. She fused these distillations with her own thoughts on success, how it's gotten and what it's really made of. The book these musings produced -- Speaking of Success: Collected Wisdom, Insights and Reflections -- was completed in the summer of 2001, intended for publication in the autumn. Galleys were read, book tours were planned. Wallin is a celebrity in Canada and the publication of her second book would be big news especially since her first book, a 1998 memoir called Since You Asked, had been a huge national bestseller.
And then that twist of fate. Just as Wallin had put Speaking of Success to bed, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Ironically,one of the places she found comfort was in her own book. Says Wallin, "in a way, this book is now even more meaningful to me than it was then. And I can go back in, like I'm hoping everybody else will, and pick and choose and find little nuggets."
Wallin's surgery took place in mid-September and by late October when I interviewed her she was on that previously planned book tour, looking perfectly healthy and every inch the media celebrity she has become. She is not, however, unchanged by the experience: Wallin feels that she has "been given a second chance and so I better think more carefully about what I do with my time."
Which doesn't mean she's not busy. Her production company produces several television shows and Wallin, who holds a bouquet of honorary degrees from some of Canada's most prestigious universities, sits on the board of several organizations dedicated to causes she feels strongly about.
Wallin, 48, lives in Toronto with her cat, Kitty.
Linda Richards: Your new book, Speaking of Success, is very much the product of all of your years as a television interviewer.
Pamela Wallin: Distilled. [Laughs] I think that's in part what motivated this because the moments do fly by and you know, when you've worked in television, how fleeting it is. You just did the most brilliant show and you met someone who was so incredible and you say to six friends: Did you see Jean Vanier? And they say: No. [Laughs]
So that was part of it. But the experience sort of started at the beginning of last year when I fell down the stairs in my own home because I was running to go and do something. I broke my leg and my ankle and I was confined to bed for six weeks with my leg elevated. And this is the equivalent of torture for me. Because I do not sit still, I do not stop. And my mother helpfully phoned and said: This is just God's way of trying to teach you patience. [Laughs] It wasn't working so well, but it did actually give me the first time in a long time to stop and reflect and think a little bit about things. Process information. You get so busy, you know, that this stuff goes on and you do the interview and then the next day the next one comes. So, as I tried to wrestle with a new, calmer, less frantic lifestyle I actually did begin thinking about who had been really good on that, who had talked on this and one thing led to another. Little did I realize that two weeks after finishing the book I would then be diagnosed with cancer and, in a way, this book is now even more meaningful to me than it was then. And I can go back in, like I'm hoping everybody else will, and pick and choose and find little nuggets.
What type of cancer?
Colon cancer. Colorectal cancer is the formal name. The whole experience, and I don't mean to liken it to September 11, but they're linked in my mind. My parents came to stay with me and be with me through the course of the surgery. They came on a Monday night. On the Tuesday morning the television was on, as it always is in my house, and I saw the first event. I was downstairs and told them to turn on the TV and we sat there for the next four days. My surgery was on the Friday. In fact they postponed it a day because the hospital in Toronto is a trauma unit -- a burn victim unit -- and the sad news is there was no one to fly up to treat. And so my surgery went ahead on the Friday.
So the two things are linked and I do think that from personal crisis and a collective crisis -- a larger thing like this -- we all have to go inside. We all have to test our own character and find out what's there: you know, what's our mettle? What are we made of? How do we cope? How do we react when this happens? And I think that overall the kind of response we're seeing is a really positive one. They've gone to their core and there's compassion there. And we've seen how people have responded helping each other in just unprecedented ways. And cops and firemen are now the heroes again and not the guys on Wall Street. There's been a sea change in that. So I think something good will come out of that and I feel that way personally too: that sometimes you need to confront your own mortality and I don't recommend this...
... Don't try this at home...
[Laughs] Yeah: Don't try this at home but if you have to deal with this you will be better for it. And there are a dozen stories, if not more, of people in [Speaking of Success] who have told me precisely that. Michael Korda, who is a big publisher in New York, and here he is struck with cancer and has to deal with it. And he says the obvious -- it seems obvious -- he said: You don't know it until you've faced it. Which is: OK, what matters? If I've been given this second chance, this break, then everything I do should count. There should be a reason. Which doesn't mean that we all have to join a monastery or dedicate our lives in that way, but you do think differently about every action that you take and every decision that you make. What I have of found is that it's made people much more willing to be risk takers and to be givers. And you just hear that from [prominent Canadian wheelchair hero] Rick Hansen, who is, of course, somebody familiar to all of you. I've had many conversations with him and in one of them I asked him if he could go back to that night when he got in the back of the truck and they all went off and thought it was going to be a party and the rest is history. And he said he wouldn't change it for a moment because of the person that he's become as a result of that. So many people who, in my mind, have become successful human beings -- because my definition of success is not about money or fame or fortune. It is very much about being a successful human being. They've all learned something in those situations: facing some kind of crisis and having to go inside and see what's there.
And you say in the book that not everyone can climb a mountain and not everybody can become...
.... I'm not going to become an Olympic athlete at this point in my life. [Laughs] But, you know, there's kind of two sides of it because part of the message is: Live life to the fullest. Live in the moment. Cherish those things that are important. Take time for things as you go past. And the other message that comes through from a lot of successful people -- in all senses of that word -- is that you also have to understand your own limits. Stephen Jay Gould, who is a leading scientist, quoted the great British writer [G.K.] Chesterton and he said: The essence of art is limitation. And what he meant is [that] art is defined by the frame. That we know where it stops and what's up and what's down. It gives us direction and I think that's what we have to learn about ourselves: We have to understand where our own frame is. And then try and operate in that, where we can make a difference because if you understand what your world is and what your talents are and your abilities are, then you can make a difference. And you can try to effect change inside a certain reference.
The other thing you see in people that I would define as successful human beings is that they have really figured out that giving and giving back is a very selfish act and it's very good for anybody who does it. Of course the recipient benefits, but all of us who give -- who do things, who give of our time or write a check or whatever the case may be -- we're the ones that secretly feel really good when we go home at night and say: I did do something. I think we're all searching for that. I think we all want to feel as if we've made some contribution in some way. And you don't have to have money to do that.
Do you feel successful by your own definition?
Yes, I do. I am considered successful because our culture does equate celebrity with success and I work on TV. So there's no question: people think I'm successful.
But do you feel successful?
I'm successful not because of that. My sister does way more important work: she works with the mentally and physically handicapped and she's changed lives. I feel successful because the two definitions -- and I think everybody has to figure this out for themselves -- you have to know what your own standard is, what hoops you're going to put yourself through and how you're going to judge yourself. Because others will judge you, that is for sure. But you've got to feel, when you go to bed at night or when you get up in the morning, that you can look at that face in the mirror.
I think my two most successful -- the indicators of success that are important to me -- are my ability to reinvent, regroup when faced with some kind of crisis or problem. To come back from it, to take strength from it and say: OK, you can't do it that way, let's figure out another way.
Let's make lemonade.
That's exactly right. Getting fired, for me, was absolutely the best thing that ever happened.
When was that?
I was fired from the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation], I don't know, seven or eight years ago. It was very public so you have to go through all those millions of people [and] at the same time [we] were being downsized. But once again, since I work on television it's very public. And it allowed me to recommit, if you will, to the work I was doing. Because you go home after that and you've got nowhere to go the next morning. So you have to decide: What do I want to do?
And at that point do you get a fire in your gut? Or do you crawl under the covers and hope the world goes away? That's the test.
I actually, luckily, got a fire in my gut because it was: Now, this is your chance. If you really want to go and sell shoes at The Bay or become a floral designer or whatever it is, this is your chance because you're free. You've got no obligations.
I decided that I really wanted to do what I did. I actually really liked my work. I just didn't want to do it with people whose view of the world I didn't share. Or they didn't share mine. And I didn't like working in bureaucracies and in structures that were filled with committees and where old boys' gangs made the decisions. So, if you want to continue to do the work and you don't want to work in that situation then all you can do is start your own company, create a program and try and sell it.
I think you have been more successful since then, have you not?
Absolutely, because it's taught me things I didn't know. I didn't know how to run a business. I didn't have a clue. I'd always worked for someone and so I went about talking to people who I knew had run businesses and said: What do I need to know? And I remember one man who said to me: Do you know how to balance a checkbook? And I said: Well, sort of. And he said: Well, that's it. It's money in, money out. It's not that complicated. You want to do television programs, how much does it cost, how much are you going to get paid for it?
What's your company called?
Easy to remember.
Yes. [Laughs] Easy, easy, easy to remember.
So that's one of my definitions that I've come to and in a sense you only know that in retrospect. You can't decide when you're 19 that that's going to be your definition of success because you do have to kind of go through life and learn. But the really important one and it's been reinforced 100 times, 100-fold since the cancer is really that I do judge my success by the company I keep and I've got the most amazing family and I've got the most amazing set of friends.
Some of them, I know from reading Speaking of Success, you've had since childhood.
Absolutely. My best friend -- I'm godmother to her daughter -- Shelly and I have been friends since we were four. We've lived in different countries, we've lived thousands of miles apart, since grade nine. Grade nine was the last time we lived in the same city. But she's just part of me and that connection just stays and, obviously, you meet new people in the course of work. I've had the opportunity to meet thousands of people in the course of my work, some of whom have become friends. But I think I'm surrounded by an amazing group of people and so, I have to say that I'm at the very least a success at picking friends. [Laughs] Because the group is so good!
Where are you from originally?
A small town in Saskatchewan called Wadena. Population about 1600, 150 miles north of Regina. Center of the universe.
Did you start out in print?
I started in radio. Well, actually, what I'm trained as is a psychologist. My first job was in the Prince Albert Penitentiary as a social worker and I fully intended to save the world, one person at a time, you know, through the social work system. And I was happily working away there, on a mission, as usual. And a friend of mine that I'd gone to university with called and said that the host of his radio open line show had fallen ill and was taken to the hospital. I'd done a lot of public speaking in university.
Oh my gosh: Lana Turner at the drugstore counter!
No, it's true. [Laughs] It's all serendipity and I truly believe this. I believe serendipity is a very powerful force. So, you're young and I said: Well, sure. And he said: Can you get a couple of weeks off just to help me out? And I got a couple of weeks off. I don't suppose I was in the building 24 hours before I realized that this was where I was meant to be. It just hadn't been an option on the school counselor's list.
The social work must have helped in terms of your interviewing skills and style.
It's true. I make a joke of it. That I spent a lot of time with guys in matching suits proclaiming their innocence and the penitentiary had trained me well for work on Parliament Hill. But it really was important because it's about understanding. I can trot out every cliché in the world: You don't judge the book by the cover. These people are murderers and killers and have created some horrors in their wake but there's usually a reason they're there and, to me, that's always been interesting. I'm not there to replace the justice system or do any of that. I'm there to understand what makes people tick and why they do things. That's what always interests me.
That kind of attitude can make for horrid relationship choices. I know this from experience. And I don't know anything about your personal life -- and I hadn't planned on asking you this, it just came up for me when you said that. But has that ability to understand permeated your love life?
Well, I've been married once. I'm divorced. I was married to a lovely man. He was a cameraman. We met in Argentina while we were covering the Falklands war. It's just sometimes things don't work out. We spent 10 years together and had very different careers and I was doing Canada A.M. and getting up at 3:30 in the morning and I defy anybody to sort of survive that, never mind a relationship. So the work has impacted that.
I don't think I've made bad decisions. I think I've made choices. I think we all make choices, whether we're conscious of it or not. And it may be because we're weak and we're trying to avoid confrontation that we make a choice or it may be because we're strong. We only come to learn that after we can see the patterns because individual cases are hard: Only you know in your heart why you did something and only they do. ... I think I'm a good judge of character. I think I can find a point in somebody, almost anybody, a point of connection because I truly like people and I'm genuinely curious about them. But that's not to say that it's going to make you some expert in relationships.
One of the funniest lines in [Speaking of Success] is from Carl Reiner who has been married to his wife for, I don't know, 50 or 60 years. And I asked him about that; the secret to the marriage and he said: I don't have the secret, but my wife does. She says, marry somebody you can stand. Because love will come and go, the lust will fade, the comfort zone will move in and take its place and all of those things, but if the little stuff they do bugs you -- if you can't countenance their flaws -- then it won't work. You've got to be with somebody you can stand. It doesn't sound very romantic, but I think it's very smart.
I think relationships take a lot of work. They take constant work and the message from so many people, including the Jean Vaniers of the world, who live in communities with the mentally and physically handicapped. It's a different kind of relationship. It's not a personal relationship in that sense. He says that's what it's all about. That's really all that matters is our relationships and you can't have a relationship if you can't listen: if you can't hear what the other person is talking about. We get so busy the stuff goes in literally one ear and out the other and before too long the communication has broken down. It doesn't much matter whether it's a work relationship or an intimate relationship or whatever it is, I think the same will apply.
When I interviewed Sir Ranulph Fiennes I asked him what his greatest accomplishment was and he said being married to the same woman for 32 years. And he's climbed all these mountains and discovered lost cities and you get tired just hearing all of the things he's done. And yet...
No, I think that's true. I think a lot of people claim that as a very important success because it is so difficult. Speaking of explorers and adventurers, one of the people in the book is Sir Edmund Hillary and I said to him: What was it like when you got to the top? This had been a lifelong dream. And he said it was just a strange moment because they'd only accomplished half of the job: they still had to get down the other side. I think that is really what all of our lives are about. We're always trying to get to this moment but it doesn't stop there. You still have to carry on from that moment. So it's very good to keep in mind our goals as goals, but they're not the be all and the end all, they're just the means to an end.
I can't believe you've had surgery so recently. You look fabulous.
When did you find out you had cancer?
In the summer. I'd just finished writing the book.
The book was finished?
Yes. And I had a few symptoms and I ignored them and finally went in and when I finally got to my doctor she said: You need a colonoscopy right now. You can't fool around. I had never even contemplated in my life ever having a colonoscopy because they don't sound too pleasant. So I went in and I asked him to be as frank with me as he could, you know, whatever he found. Time was of the essence as it always is in my life. I had a book tour planned and this and this. And first he said: You have a tumor and it is cancerous. And, he said, the bad news is you have an ulcer on your tumor and it's bleeding which means it is aggressive.
Which was probably a good thing though, wasn't it? Because it would have alerted you.
That was his second statement, that it's also a good thing because otherwise you wouldn't have come in here and he said: You would have been dead before we ever figured out what it was that killed you. So, I have to get down on the ground and thank someone -- whatever the force is and the higher being -- because obviously for me to have discovered that and have been given the opportunity and the tools to discover it I believe meant it was not truly my time and that I had been given a second chance and so I better think more carefully about what I do with my time.
And are you feeling that way now?
Yeah, I'm absolutely feeling that way. And yes, I 'm busy and yes, I do my work and you have to get on airplanes...
It's part of your essence though, isn't it? Being very busy?
It's what I do, yes. It is what I do. I am a doer and I love people and I actively like the act of being social and being part of a community in the bigger sense and also in the smaller sense of family and friends. So, I just feel that, obviously, there are other things for me to do. And I'm just going to carry on and maybe one day I'll even figure out what I'm supposed to do. Or maybe it is what I'm doing.
And I have a sense that in the last few years you've kind of been becoming Canada's Oprah. In a book sense, I mean.
[Laughs] We don't make nearly as much money, OK? I'd like to just point that out.
[Laughs] Does anyone make as much money? But, no: you've been recommending books and you've been thinking a lot about books and literature. Is that new for you?
No. I've always read. I have since I was a child. What I have is a forum for doing it. Either on the television program to talk to people who write books or think about those things, although it's not exclusively authors. But I do a project for GlobeBooks which is an online forum and I like that. I like having that outlet because I think people choose to read that. You're not in the mix of the newspaper where the person reading the newspaper may actually only want the sports. So I do that and I do something called cultural weekends at Muskoka, which is a place north of Toronto. People perform. On Saturday there's a performance, on Sunday we do a live interview in front of the audience. People can ask questions. It's a great experience and it's intimate. People never really believe that television is an intimate medium, but it is. Because even though your circumstances are contrived and people have to sit in a studio and lights have to go on, you can never predict the chemistry and that's what makes it special. It has become our town meeting point. It's the post office. I always want the show that I do to be a place like the post office in Wadema, Saskatchewan where people come and talk and meet each other and people who wouldn't necessarily know each other or have supper together or be friends still meet and still come together and have a conversation. You find very intimate moments in there because you'll find, posted in the post office of a small town, news about someone's death or a tea or who's coming home to visit and it's a way of keeping that sense of connectedness. And I think that television can do that. It's hard because it's a global scale that they have to function on, but I think, in the one-on-one particularly you can make that connection. | November 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.