Zain Asher on Trust Your Struggle at TEDxEuston (Full Transcript)

Zain Asher

Following is the full transcript of news anchor Zain Asher’s TEDx Talk titled ‘Trust Your Struggle’ at TEDxEuston conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Trust your struggle by Zain Asher at TEDxEuston


Hello everyone. My name is Zain Asher, and I’m an anchor at CNN International. I’m super proud to say that I have my dream job. I wake up every day, and I’m so excited to go to work. But my life wasn’t always this way and I do want to share a little bit about my background to help, hopefully, motivate and inspire some of you.

So, I’m an anchor at CNN International now, but about four, four and half years ago, I was working as a receptionist. And the reason why I share that is because I want to let you know that success is never really in a straight line. There’s always going to be bumps along the way.

So for the longest time in my life, I always believed that hard work was a key to success. I thought, “You know what? If you work hard, of course you’re going to be successful.” But now I realize that there’s so much more to the story. There are plenty of people who work hard, who don’t necessarily make it in their chosen careers. There are plenty of people who are extraordinarily talented, who know the right people, who are well educated, who don’t necessarily make it.

So, if it’s not always hard work, what then determines whether you’re going to be successful? As I intend to answer this, I want to share with you a little bit about my life and my background. I was born and raised here in London. My family and I, we’re originally from Nigeria. The worst and probably most difficult day in my life was September 3, 1988. I was about five years old. And my mother and I were in the kitchen, in our house in London. We’d just gotten back from a wedding in Nigeria. And my brother and my father were still in Nigeria a few days after the wedding, for a road trip, a father-and-son road trip. And they were supposed to come home on September 3, 1988. We were supposed to pick them up from the airport.

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And we were waiting and waiting. I guess we assumed they’d missed their flight. We continued to wait. We didn’t hear anything. And then, later on that day, my mother got a phone call from a family friend in Nigeria, and the voice on the other end of the line just basically said, you know, “Your husband and your son have been involved in a car crash. One of them is dead and we don’t know which one.”

So, the car crash happened in Nigeria, and there were about five people in the car. Everyone in the car died instantly apart from one person in the back seat, where my father and my brother were sitting. It turned out to be my father who died. My mother was pregnant at the time. Of course she was devastated because my parents were really the loves of each other’s lives.

So, I was raised in a single-parent family. For a while, my mother sent me to live in Nigeria by myself, with my grandmother. When I came back, she decided that, you know, in life, if you want to be successful, you have to be able to relate to people from all walks of life. So she deliberately sent me to various types of schools. I went to school in Nigeria, I went to a state school in a poor neighborhood in South London, I went to a private school, and then I went to a boarding school. And this was on purpose, deliberately, because my mother felt that, if you want to make it in life, you need to be able to relate to everybody.

So, when I was 16 — I have a strict Nigerian mother — but when I was 16, she decided that she wanted me to go to Oxford. And she sat down and she thought, “OK. How can I guarantee that my child’s going to get into Oxford? What can I do to make that happen?” And she thought about it for a few days, and she came up to me with a proposal, and she said that she was going to ban me from watching any television for eighteen months. So, I was only allowed to watch BBC and CNN International. If I wanted to watch anything else, I had to ask special permission for that.

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And then, no television expanded into no phones, no cable, no music. I literally had nothing else to do but study. And my mother said to me, “If you’re living in my house, the only way you’re ever going to be able to watch television again is if you get into Oxford.”

So, I really laugh now, and it is funny, but, you know, her plan worked. I worked very hard, I got straight A’s, and I went to Oxford. So, overall, I didn’t necessarily have the easiest childhood. I was raised in a single-parent family; we didn’t have much money; I changed schools constantly, and therefore, I found it difficult to make friends. So I didn’t have the easiest childhood, but I loved every minute of it because it prepared me for real life.

As I mentioned, especially after having gone to Oxford and I went to grad school as well in New York, Columbia. I really believed up until that point that hard work was the key to being successful. Now I realize there’s a lot more to the story. I’m going to share with you what I think is more to the story.

The first thing I believe is, trust your struggle. This is something I’d heard a lot, “Trust your struggle.” And that means no matter what the hardships you’re going through in life, have faith that it will all end up being for the greater good. So I mentioned that four, four and half years ago, I was working as a receptionist, and I was in a production company in California. And I was a receptionist, and I really wanted to sort of move up within the company. And no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t get promoted. No matter how many times I stayed late or came in on the weekends hoping that my boss would notice me and promote me, it never happened.

And in fact, for the position I wanted, they began looking for external candidates. I’m sure anyone who’s been through that knows how that can be. And because I was the receptionist, it was my job to serve water to the people who were coming in to interview for the job that I wanted. I know. It wasn’t easy.

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So, I didn’t really necessarily feel good about myself because of that. And I did some soul-searching and I asked myself, “OK. What do you really want to do in life? Clearly this is probably not meant for you. What do you want to do?” And I’d always been passionate about broadcast journalism. So, I called a television station in New York, a local news station, and I asked them, “What do I need to do to get a job with you guys?” So, unfortunately, I didn’t have any experience. They needed about two or three years previous experience as a reporter, and the only experience I really had was answering phones and sending faxes. That’s all I really knew how to do. And so, they said no repeatedly to me.

And, on top of that, I had a British accent, and in America, if you want to get into the local news business, it’s very difficult if you have a foreign accent. It’s a lot easier in national news, but certainly in local news it’s a lot harder. So, they said no, and I decided I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. So, I basically called in sick to work, and I paid my roommate, my housemate, a few hundred dollars, whatever, and they helped film me around Los Angeles, sort of acting like a reporter. I studied reporters inside out. I studied everything that they did, inside out, and I put together various packages, which were sort of voiced-over pieces that I learned basically from studying various reporters. And I sent them to this news station, hoping that they would give me a chance. Unfortunately, a lot of these news stations receive thousands of applications, thousands of tapes. So, it took them several months to get back to me.

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