Resilience involves holding on when your heart, mind and psyche are under assault. Needless to say, my son’s death was far more challenging to me personally than anything I’ve ever experienced as a journalist. Covering wars, bombings or riots can’t even begin to compare. Instantly, whatever reserves of resiliency I had vanished. At first, I was in such a dark place I couldn’t imagine ever having the strength to rebuild.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market. I had the pleasure of interviewing Margaret Thomson.
Margaret Thomson is a journalist and television producer who’s reported on a variety of subjects, from Middle East politics to the British royal family. As a radio correspondent for ABC News, she was the first American broadcast journalist to report the end of the Falklands War in May 1982; several years later she became the first radio correspondent to report on the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Upon returning to the United States in 1992, she taught journalism and television production at the University of Memphis. In 1993, she worked as a production associate on the HBO documentary The Trial of James Earl Ray. Thomson continues to write for print and online publications. In 2016, she and her husband Tim relocated from Memphis to Franklin, Tennessee. Their son Matt, a recent graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, visits frequently from his job in the shipping industry.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I grew up in a suburb south of Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, my parents’ home was located just south of Graceland, Elvis’s house! Both my parents were doctors. In those days — the 1960s — it was quite unusual to have a mother who was a doctor. My mother was a pediatrician, one of the few specialties open to women in what was at the time a decidedly male-dominated profession. Growing up, I remember being deeply affected by the racial tensions of the 1960s and in particular by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which happened only a few miles from our home. The riots and curfews we experienced in my hometown were deeply unsettling and are reminiscent of the recent unrest our country has been experiencing. As for my career, I wanted to be a writer from a very young age. I began by imitating the Nancy Drew mysteries I loved and by starting a newspaper for our neighborhood. I wanted more than anything to inform people. I continued writing for my grade school, high school and college newspapers. I majored in communications at the University of Tennessee and upon graduation went to work at the Birmingham Post-Herald in Birmingham, Alabama. After graduating from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, I moved to London, where I worked for ABC News and later for various other broadcasting companies, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC, among others.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It’s very difficult to choose! I’ve covered a lot of very interesting stories, including some that were even physically dangerous. I suppose my brief encounter with Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, would have to be number one. While on assignment in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War, I had tried repeatedly to get an interview with the Iraqi leader, even though I knew that he did not speak English very well and that in any case the chances of him granting such an interview were virtually nonexistent. One day I was with a group of mostly British journalists when we were told that we would in fact be meeting the Iraqi president. I had absolutely no expectation of this actually happening. And yet to my amazement it did! We were ushered into the Parliament building, where Saddam was scheduled to give a major speech. Immediately following his address, which seemed to go on for hours, Saddam went onto the floor of the legislature, where members of the Iraqi parliament began swarming around him. The other journalists and I were allowed to go onto the floor as well. I was able to get close enough to ask him a couple of questions through an interpreter about how the war with Iran was going. The lesson I learned from this admittedly rather bizarre experience is to always be prepared for anything because as a journalist you never know what might happen! Another major takeaway for me was to remember that no matter how notorious or reclusive a person may be they usually still want to have their story or viewpoint told.
What do you think makes your work stand out? Can you share a story?
While working in radio, my objective was to deliver my reports in a relaxed, conversational style, which wasn’t always easy for me since I definitely wasn’t a natural broadcaster. After a lot of practice, though, I believe I occasionally attained my goal. One report I was especially pleased with had to do with the tenth anniversary of Elvis’s death. (Since I’m from Memphis I’d managed to convince the CBC and BBC that I was an authority on all things Elvis!) As it turned out, the report sounded so authentic that my producer at the BBC thought that I must have hired actors given how strong some of the Southern accents were, but I assured him that I hadn’t and that what he was hearing was simply how the locals talked! One thing I learned from doing this particular documentary is that if your subject is Elvis Presley you’re guaranteed to have literally millions of listeners. I was also proud of being the first radio reporter to cover the Aids epidemic in Africa in 1985, which earned me a letter of commendation from the CBC. I was especially proud of that piece because it had to be put together very quickly (mostly on my flight back to London from Rwanda.)
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
A very important mentor to me was the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings. We worked together in the London bureau of ABC back during the early 1980s. Peter was known for helping countless young journalists move ahead in their careers. Among other roles, I occasionally filled in as Jennings’ scriptwriter but no matter how hard I tried or how perfect I thought my scripts were with a single stroke of a pencil the veteran anchorman would easily improve them. Another important mentor of mine was the distinguished journalist John Hohenberg. Professor Hohenberg came to the University of Tennessee after retiring from Columbia University, where for many years he’d been a professor in the graduate school of journalism as well as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. Professor Hohenberg gave me a recommendation that helped me get into Columbia, which was, in itself, a life-changing experience. When I asked him whether he would write a recommendation for me the professor, who was known for being quite crusty, said I didn’t need any more schooling and that I should just go to New York and work as a journalist like he had done. I told him that unfortunately there was no way my parents would allow me to go to New York City on my own!
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I would define resilience as having the ability to persevere and possibly even grow in the face of adversity. The ability to get back up after being knocked down as well as to laugh at one’s mistakes are two of the traits I’ve noticed in resilient people.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
My mother was in many ways an incredibly resilient person. She experienced a great degree of sexism in medical school, especially because she was known for being the smartest in her class. After the death of my infant sister, her fourth and youngest child, my mother struggled to hide her grief. She also experienced great disappointment in her marriage, which ended in divorce when I was twenty-one. Nevertheless, my mother loved life and persevered, even after being left severely handicapped following a major stroke.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
My father did not want me to become a journalist. I believe he was worried about the profession being an uncertain one, even — or perhaps especially — back during the 1970s and 80s when relatively few women were actually working as journalists. He also may have been concerned about the intense criticism, and even threats, journalists often face in connection with their work. I wish my father could have directly voiced these concerns to me, but he never did. Although he was a doctor and not a journalist, my father may have understood far better than he could convey the all-too-real dangers involved in being a reporter. Starting out, I was, not surprisingly, more or less oblivious to these dangers. Friends and family thought that my goal of working overseas was definitely an unattainable one, but as it turned out I went ahead and did the “impossible” anyway.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
My greatest “setback,” if indeed you it can describe it as such, was my son’s death by suicide in 2010. I don’t believe that a mother — or, for that matter, any suicide loss survivor — can ever truly “bounce back” from such an event. All you can do is accept the fact that it’s going to take an incredible amount of time for you to experience even partial healing. Years before, the end of my first marriage, to a British journalist and the father of my older son, was another major setback. Like so many who endure the heartbreak of divorce, I found my self-confidence shaken and my career badly affected. For example, as a single parent, I had to turn down an important position in network television, for which I was ideally suited, in order to care for my son, whose needs and welfare had to come first. I was fortunate, though, in that I found new ways to continue moving forward in my career. I also remarried and eventually became the mother of two sons.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I don’t believe that I truly began building resiliency until I went to college or maybe not even until I was out working in the world as a journalist. I believe that as a child I would have developed greater resiliency had I been involved in sports. Having watched both my sons participate in various sports, I’ve witnessed at close range the incredible lessons sports can teach. When I was in high school, my only “sport” was cheerleading, which did in fact help me to develop some of the same resiliency that conventional sports, and especially team sports, so often provide. It may sound frivolous, but second only to writing for the school newspaper, cheerleading was the thing I loved most about high school, although I experienced severe disappointment on a couple of occasions after a teacher inexplicably cut me from the squad.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
Resilience involves holding on when your heart, mind and psyche are under assault. Needless to say, my son’s death was far more challenging to me personally than anything I’ve ever experienced as a journalist. Covering wars, bombings or riots can’t even begin to compare. Instantly, whatever reserves of resiliency I had vanished. At first, I was in such a dark place I couldn’t imagine ever having the strength to rebuild. It took several years, but eventually I felt a hint of my natural resiliency returning. When a loved one takes his or her life the survivor’s sense of self-esteem is profoundly affected. It’s hard to say why this happens but it does. Maybe it’s that you feel that somehow you should have managed to “save” the person and yet obviously you were unable to do so. During the early years following my son’s death, I simply held on, unaware that “holding on” can, in itself, be a a form of resiliency. Or at least a reasonable first step in rebuilding one’s resiliency.
Writing the story of my son Kieran’s suicide required a reservoir of resiliency I didn’t even know I had. In the publishing world, the topic of suicide is definitely not considered desirable. I knew this and yet I went ahead and wrote the story anyway, which eventually became my recently released memoir, The World Looks Different Now. Obviously, there were emotional risks involved in writing this story. Over time, though, I gradually became stronger through the task of writing. But then this is what resiliency does — it allows you to set before yourself — and then to eventually accomplish — the most difficult task you can possibly imagine.
As for five specific steps to build resiliency, I would suggest using positive self-talk like a pair of weights to build your resiliency “muscles.” With each and every rep you’ll find yourself becoming stronger than you ever dreamed possible. Or, to substitute a different metaphor, positive self-talk can help to fill your resiliency “bank” in preparation for a day when when you may need to make withdrawals. Support from outside, but more importantly from within, as well as from your faith, if indeed you practice one, can help to replenish one’s reserves of resiliency. Hold tightly to the praise you receive from friends and trusted others and don’t forget to praise yourself for a job well done, which was something I tried to do while writing my book, because if I hadn’t it would have been all too easy to have allowed doubts to creep in.
Secondly, if necessary, say to yourself, “This too shall pass.” Because it will! Even after a seemingly interminable string of bad luck, one’s circumstances can — and will — undoubtedly change. After my then five-year-old son and I moved from London to Memphis, I found myself feeling alone and suffering from culture shock, even though I’d been born and raised in the United States. I was homesick for London and yet I persevered in my efforts to reestablish myself as a locally based journalist as well as a journalism instructor at the University of Memphis.
Thirdly, I would say be willing to change course when something isn’t working. In so doing you’re likely to find your resiliency growing. For example, after freelancing in Lebanon for a brief period of time during the 1980s, I decided that working in a war-ravaged country simply wasn’t for me at that particular point in my life. Despite the challenges involved in relocating, I returned to London, where, to my surprise, I found my career flourishing yet again in a number of unexpected ways.
Fourth is to be flexible in your thinking. Consciously cultivating flexibility, in my opinion, helps to build resiliency. After returning to the U.S., I told myself on an almost daily basis that there had to be “something” for me back in Memphis, where, in truth, I didn’t really want to be. The media landscape there was so totally different from what I was used to that I was forced to think “outside the box” when it came to reinventing myself. I took on corporate work for FedEx as well as working on an HBO documentary entitled The Trial of James Earl Ray. I knew that I needed to be flexible in my attitude toward the circumstances in which I found myself, especially since they were hardly those of my choosing.
Finally, adaptability is an important component when it comes to overall resiliency. The Middle East, where I worked and even lived for a time, was definitely a challenging world to try to navigate. And yet I knew that I had to learn to do so and quickly if I were going to be effective as a reporter. No matter where I’ve found myself, be it New York or London or back in the American South, I’ve always endeavored to adapt as quickly as possible to my surroundings.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would like to inspire a movement to substantially reduce suicide rates, globally as well as in the United States in particular. An important first step, in my opinion, involves reducing or possibly even eliminating the stigma that has long been associated with the issue. People appear reluctant to talk about the subject for a number of reasons, including perhaps the fear that talking about suicide actually causes suicide, which research has shown is a myth. People also appear to be concerned that talking about suicide will somehow normalize — or worse, romanticize — the issue. Depending on how one talks about it, though, this does not necessarily have to happen. For example, research conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has found that asking a person directly if he or she is contemplating suicide does not put the idea in that person’s head. The bottom line is we simply must find a way to talk more openly about suicide, which the experts firmly believe can be done without encouraging people to take their lives.
Suicide has been described as an extreme response to an overwhelming number of stressors that exceed an individual’s ability to cope. Suicide rates are steadily rising throughout the United States and within virtually all branches of the U.S. military, including the Army, in which my son was serving at the time of his death. And yet when I wrote The World Looks Different Now I wasn’t thinking about championing the cause of suicide prevention. Instead, all I was attempting to do was to write the story of a young man’s suicide from a mother’s point of view. Nevertheless, mine is also a story about the universality of loss, which either has — or will — affect virtually all of us at one point or another. The World Looks Different Now is not specifically meant for suicide loss survivors. Instead, it’s meant for anyone belonging to what’s been described as the “community of loss.” But unless we as a society decide to squarely confront the issue, which stands as the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, suicide rates will almost certainly continue to climb. It’s been said that my book is especially timely, given the worrying possibility that the coronavirus pandemic may result in an even greater number of suicides.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I have already had the amazing good fortune to have met and interviewed a number of world leaders and celebrities, from whom I’ve learned a lot about what makes people tick. Among the many I’ve met or would like to meet, I can say that I would love to meet (again, after many years) with the gifted journalist and author Anna Quindlen. Anna was an adjunct professor of mine at Columbia while she was also working at the New York Times. After a number of years at the Times, Anna went on to have an amazing career as a novelist as well as an essayist. I admire the fact that Anna has also managed to have a family life, including children, which, given the demands of her career, couldn’t have been easy. Anna was an invaluable mentor and role model, and I even mention her in my memoir, The World Looks Different Now.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I welcome visitors to my website, margaretrileythomson.com
Instagram, Linked In and Facebook at margaretrileythomson