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Lessons Abound in “What I Know Now” and “If I’d Known Then”

Tatiana Spragins | Friday, November 13, 2009

If you could write a letter to your younger self, what age would you pick, and what would you say? It was by asking this question that Ellyn Spragins published her two New York Times bestsellers, books composed of a collection of highly inspirational and touching letters written by today’s most successful, respected women, advising and motivating their younger selves to get through whatever difficulty or challenges they would face.

The thought first came to Spragins when she realized that countless times she wished she could just ask her mom, “What would you do?” Joyce Spragins, her mother, passed away 20 years ago in an airplane crash. She was 60, and Ellyn 32. Twenty years have gone by and like any child who loses their mother, Ellyn wished she could still talk to her, ask her for advice and learn from the many things her mother still had to teach her about life.

In an extraordinary move, Spragins managed to reverse a tragic situation and turn it into something positive. Determined not to waste this desire to learn from someone who had still so much to teach, Spragins decided to seek this knowledge elsewhere. The results are two beautiful books that relate intimate details of the lives of some of today’s most successful women and what they would tell their younger selves from the future, which turned out to be not so bad after all.

The structure is the same: For each woman interviewed there is first a brief summary of their meeting and details of the woman’s life and achievements. A letter the guest writes to her younger self is also included.

In both books the first half, though very comprehensive and an essential prelude to the letter, is generally poorly written. In many cases, this introduction could have presented the women in a more refined light and added a level of sophistication to the read.

The actual letters in the second half of the book are generally incredibly inspiring and especially intimate. Though aimed at different age groups, the letters in “What I Know Now: Letters To My Younger Self” and “If I’d Known Then” are both very personal and very applicable to just about anyone — it’s advice given by successful people to people looking for the path towards success, all with the loving touch of many people from different backgrounds and with different interests, who went through similar situations and came out stronger on the other side.

If anything, the books will leave you thinking about your life and how some of these women went through what you may be going through now and what they would tell you, given the challenges you may be facing.

Some letters are in fact more insightful and helpful than others, and some are quite superficial, a rather disappointing factor. PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk’s and actress Jessica Alba’s letters are, for instance, especially upsetting. Instead of discussing the challenges they faced and providing helpful insight into why to do something or comfort about something particularly difficult, some letters are just empty statements that, instead of being comforting, are shallow and probably not very helpful to a young girl in a similar situation.

In some cases, Spragins could have done a better job at guiding the women in how to write their letters, or in editing them out. Yet, those cases are the minorities, unfortunate mishaps in a book created from a spectacular idea, filled with incredible words of wisdom written by incredible women.

Though not particularly mind boggling or a masterpiece of literature, both books are delightful, easy to read and very heart warming. “What I know Now: Letters to My Younger Self” and “If I’d Known Then” are worthwhile and important reads for women of any age.