Overcoming obstacles: An interview with Parade Magazine's Walter Anderson

Overcoming obstacles: An interview with Parade Magazine's Walter AndersonThis month Career World's Chris Petrakos interviews Walter Anderson, chairman and publisher of Parade Magazine. A high school dropout, Anderson has been active in education as a spokesman for the GED (General Education Development) diploma and the director of the Dropout Prevention Fund. Among his honors, Anderson received the Horatio Alger Award in 1994, an award given to individuals who have achieved success despite difficult childhoods.

Who has influenced you in your life?

A Mrs. Williams, who was the mother of my best friend, was a teacher in New York City, and she took an interest in me. She would encourage me and tell me that I could do things, and not to give up. She believed in me. In fact, she had me tested and put into a parochial school, where I became the first and only child expelled from that school. But she wouldn't give up and had me put in a private school. I began in the eighth grade in September and finished the ninth grade in June. Thus encouraged, she got me placed into two Ivy League prep schools. I didn't feel that I belonged, so I went back to public school where I could be with my friends. Well, a year and a half later, I quit high school and joined the Marines. Almost five years later, I got out of the Marine Corps with my GED, and I went to college. During that entire period, whenever I struggled in my classes, I would remember that an educated person believed in me. And that would get me beyond the day, the week, and finally the course. When I finished my education, I started my career as a writer and editor.

So the knowledge that someone believed in you helped support you in difficult times?

A Yes. Some years ago, in 1994, I received the Horatio Alger Award, and I had an opportunity to meet a lot of the people who received that award. I wanted to find out what they had in common. There were men and women, young and old. All of them seemed to have something similar in that they had difficult childhoods, often horrific childhoods, but they had monumental success later in their lives. It dawned on me what it was that these people had in common: Somebody in their childhood had said, "I believe in you." And they never forgot it.

So, for me it was Mrs. Williams. It was also my mother. My father would beat me if he caught me reading a book. But my mother encouraged me to read. I asked her years later why she did that even though she knew my father would beat me. She answered: "I knew that if you would learn to read, somehow you would find your way out, and you have."

What kinds of obstacles do young people face today?

A I believe young people face the same obstacles today that they were facing decades ago--and that young people will be facing fundamentally the same obstacles decades from now. Basically, what I'm talking about are the obstacles that they put in front of themselves. Disappointment, loss, and tragedy occur in every human life. Nobody escapes. But that doesn't determine the quality of our lives or our character as human beings. What determines our character and the quality of our lives is how we respond to these things. And that is a choice. So when you talk about obstacles, obstacles are those problems that every one of us normally faces in our lives. Some larger, some smaller than others. Each and every one of them, however, is an opportunity to gain confidence. It's an opportunity to grow larger--unless it's a life-threatening illness or disabling impairment. But even then, there are opportunities to grow. Every single young person, just as their parents and grandparents did, is going to face obstacles. And these will be different for different people.

What do you suggest for high school graduates who may not be going onto college immediately?

A Work. The day after you graduate, get a job...join the military...earn money. Find out what the world is about...earn a living...get a sense of responsibility. There is no demeaning work. You learn a lot about yourself; and it gives you time to grow through your challenges.


Walter Anderson believes that there are seven specific choices we make on a daily basis. These choices, he says. determine the character and quality of our lives.

1. Appearance. You choose how you look, how you dress, and how you groom yourself--your physical appearance. Is your shirt clean or dirty? Is it appropriate for the situation? Your appearance is a choice.

2. Language. No one on earth is more expert than you on one thing, and that's finishing your own sentences. You choose the words you use. Every person chooses the language they use and how they express themselves.

3. Behavior. Nobody expects disappointment, loss, or tragedy. But how you respond to it determines your character and the quality of your life. Your behavior is a choice.

4. People. You choose whom you will allow to influence you, whom you will listen to. It may be your peers, your classmates, or someone else.

5. Information. Every day you are inundated with messages from television, radio, magazines, newspapers, the Web, and conversations. You choose what information you will absorb.

6. Places. More often than not we choose where we are physically as a human being. Young people may obviously live in their home or have to spend time in their classroom. But if they look at their day, they make many choices as to where they are physically. As they get older, they have more opportunities to choose their living and working environments.

7. Time. You choose when to take action in your life. If I told you that I was going to put several thousand dollars in a bank for you, and you had 24 hours to spend it, but that if you didn't spend the money it would vanish, you would probably make sure you did something with it. lime is like that What you don't spend wisely, you lose forever. So time is really an important choice.