9 Career Lessons From The School of Hard Knocks
Updated: Jan 17
You may have come to know Haydé Adams FitzPatrick as the first woman of colour anchor on eTV primetime news, but these days she’s an international broadcaster and multimedia journalist working for Voice of America.
In a recent webinar hosted by her Alma Mater CPUT Haydé explained how she took everything life threw at her, including poverty and domestic abuse, and used them as personal motivators to build her career, and find her passion.
Draw on your life experiences
“I spent part of my childhood growing up in Elsies River where I lived a relatively sheltered, happy life with my grandparents. But that life came crashing down very quickly when my grandfather, who was a Pentecostal preacher, committed suicide. My grandmother died shortly after and soon I was shipped off to South-West Africa (SWA), now Namibia, to go live with my mother, my father and my two brothers who I didn’t really know.
“On the outside, this move looked like a step up for me. Apartheid rules in SWA back then were relaxed. We lived in a so-called white area. I had never experienced anything like that. My mother went from working at a factory in Cape Town to having an office job in Windhoek. That meant that my brothers and I had a subsidised education so we could go to private schools. At the Holy Cross Convent School in Windhoek I went to school with kids of different races and from different countries on the continent.
“I didn’t realise it then, but that experience exposed me to the power of access to a good education – and a good education in a multicultural environment where I could actually get ahead on my own merits and not based on the colour of my skin or my race. And it also exposed me to the [world of nuns].”
From private school to poverty: life throws you curve balls
“But at home my life was in turmoil. My father was a violent, violent drunk. He couldn’t hold down a job. He was always in trouble with the police and he always took it out on his family. He abused my mother terribly. One Sunday night he had my mother in a stranglehold and he was trying to shove her head into a bath of running water.
“I had never seen anything like that in my life and it was very traumatic for me as a child. I tried to intervene, and he threw me across the room. My mother and I escaped the house that night. I was barefoot, dressed in my pyjamas and we walked for kilometers to a police station so my mother could get help.
“That experience exposed me for the first time in my young life to domestic violence and the fact that children are victims of domestic violence as well. But it also exposed me to how women suffer in silence and how abusers isolate their victims. How society doesn’t do enough to help women so they feel like they have enough options or a place to go, should they decide to leave.
“The abuse continued and one day, finally, we fled Namibia and returned to South Africa. The Cape Flats was burning. It was the height of the riots in the late ’80s and politically the country was in turmoil.
“But we faced a new reality. My mother couldn’t find a job. She was now divorced – a single mother with three children. For most of my teenage life my mother was unemployed. A vivid memory from that stage of my life was the night my mother said to us that there would be nothing to eat.
“And I don’t think people realise, unless you’ve been there, what that does to you. I remember what it feels like when the cupboards are bare when there is just a sense of hopelessness around you. That’s where I learnt what not having food, or something to eat, or knowing what you’re going to eat – what that does to your psyche. That feeling has never ever left me.
“I’ve also learnt how people disregard and disrespect you when you’re poor – even in your own family. We found that we were the so-called “black sheep” of the family. Not much was expected of us. And I also experienced those little everyday humiliations that come with poverty and unemployment.”
Be persistent. Nothing will fall into your lap
“I grew accustomed to not having or expecting much. I also understood that nothing in life was going to fall into my lap, but I did know that I deserved better. Because for three years of my life during my formative years I went to a good school and the planets aligned and I got this world-class education. I got a taste of what opportunity and exposure to opportunity was like. All those opportunities that were withheld from me in South Africa because of the colour of my skin, because of our economic circumstances – the kind of opportunities that set you up for success. I knew that there was a world that existed and that I deserved to be in that world.
“I went into journalism school and I was not the best student, because I spent a lot of those years with a lot of anxiety because I didn’t know how I was going to pay my tuition. I picked up small jobs. I wrote a wedding song which I sang at different weddings [for cash]. I worked at the Writing Centre on campus. I got a bursary for a year… I did what I could to get along. But those experiences taught me to be persistent and not to give in to the hopelessness of my circumstances. I had to condition myself every day not to focus on what was around me, but really what was ahead of me.”
Take a chance on yourself
“One day when I was a student I decided to walk into the Sunday Times in Wale Street. I asked if I could speak to the editor, she agreed to see me, and I asked if I could be a freelance writer. For some reason she agreed and gave me a test story to do. And then I started pitching my own ideas. I decided to write a story about something that was outside of my world but something I’ve always been curious about. I wrote a story about a silent order of nuns – there are very few left in South Africa. And to my surprise I got a full-page spread in the Sunday Times Metro! I was so proud of that because it taught me that if I expect someone else to take a chance on me, I’m going to have to take a chance on me. And that if I kept coming up with good ideas, I could actually get paid for something that I enjoyed doing.”
Build good professional relationship
“While studying at Pentech (now Cape Peninsula University of Technology) I met someone who would play a critical role in my life – Aden Thomas (breakfast show host at Heart FM). One day I ran into him and he asked: ‘Do you have a job?’ I told him that I didn’t and didn’t know what I was going to do. And he said: ‘Come, I will organise an interview for you [at KFM]’. And that was how I got my first job in my broadcasting career.
“It was because I had built a good professional relationship with someone and that had really paid off. I realised the importance of building good professional relationships and always making sure that you leave people with a good impression of yourself.
“From radio I broke into television and I got promoted very quickly. After nine months as a desk writer my boss said I’m going to be put on anchor training, and I got the biggest break of my career – to be a primetime news anchor. I was the first woman of color to be on eTV’s primetime news. That was a great responsibility.”
Advocate for yourself
“As I continued my work, I was always told how well I was doing. My ratings were the highest, but my pay was the lowest. If I am bringing something to the table, why can I not be compensated for it?
“I was young, but I decided that I was going to work on getting a more international career and broaden my horizons a bit. After asking for a pay raise several times and not getting it, I decided to quit and take another job. My boss at the time said to me:
‘Why would you be so stupid as to give up this job?’ She hurled insults at me, she told me that I would be a zero, that I would amount to nothing and that she would give me three months in which to crawl back and ask for my job back.
“That crawling bit never happened, but my international career took off. That interaction taught me that it is worth advocating for yourself. And if doesn’t sit well with others, then it is maybe time for you to move out in order to move up. But if you are going to move out, make sure that you do have something to move on to.”
Understand when opportunity knocks
“In the meantime, I had met my American now husband. He moved to SA and he lived there with me for five years before he got a job in Los Angeles in the United States. And that meant that he had to go. Just as we were about to emigrate, I got a job opportunity with France24 to cover southern Africa. I had to choose: either go to America, or stay and cover southern Africa. I thought if I am going to have an international career, I should probably arrive in America with some international chops, because America was the unknown for me, but southern Africa was a known. We didn’t have any kids, so my husband moved to America and I stayed behind for a year – that was our deal.
“That job changed a lot for me. I was able to work internationally. I travelled throughout southern Africa. I got to tell stories beyond South Africa and inside of South Africa. And I was able to really put into context the stories, the people, the cultures. How things are done, why they are the way they are on the continent, to an international audience.
“My green card required me to present myself in America within a year, so I resigned and my boss thanked me for my service. Two days later he called me up and asked me if I wanted to be their foreign correspondent in Los Angeles. And I said: ‘Yes! Of course!’ I hadn’t even packed my bags yet, but I was so excited. And I was also very pregnant at the time.”
Your life and experience give you your niche
“This turned out to be a very good career move for me, because for those years I got to cover everything. American politics: I went on the campaign trail as Mitt Romney challenged Barack Obama for the presidency. Michael Jackson’s death trial which was a fascinating story to cover. I was there when Whitney Houston died very suddenly, and I was able to cover the Oscars. And this was worlds away from what I had been doing before. And all those experiences prepared me for the job I had when we moved to Washington DC, which is where I work now at the Voice of America.
“My main beat now is to cover news at the juncture of Africa and America. I cover everything from foreign policy, social justice to women’s issues. VOA broadcasts in more than 40 languages and the Africa News Division, which is the division where I work, is the largest division in the organisation. And within that environment, I had to find my niche and my currency. What sets me apart. Because in a large organisation like that you must make yourself stand out.
“I used everything that had prepared me and that I had gone through, and the lessons that I had learnt in life, but more importantly the place I was from. I realised that nobody else around me had those experiences in the place that I am from, which is South Africa.
“I told the stories about people who don’t have access to opportunity, to a good education, to a job. I explained what their lives were like, and because I had lived it I knew what that was about. I was able to use my position and my job to put into context what people’s lives are like when they don’t have options in life.
“I was able to tell the stories of women who suffered domestic violence and abuse and not just talk about the fact about why women stay, but also why many women do find the courage to leave. Because I had seen that and experienced that in my life. I could tell stories about gender discrimination. How women – especially women of colour – have had to fight for respect, for a seat at the table, have to fight for equal pay and that when that point comes you have to stand up for what you want for yourself.
“I also can tell stories about economic inequality and social injustice and how the one feeds into the other. How racism has a lasting legacy and permeates peoples’ lives in a way that, if you have never been at the receiving end of it, you’ll never understand it. And to tell the stories really, of my beloved continent of Africa, but with context and with accuracy. Because when I tell an incomplete story about Africa, or South Africa, I tell an incomplete story about myself. So I learnt how to not write and not tell stories that just tell one side. That every truth has two sides and really give people a full picture.”
Remember where you come from
“Everything that I have gone through has prepared me… I don’t forget where I’ve come from and I don’t forget the experiences that have shaped me. The people that have played [good and bad roles] in my life. I’ve turned all of those into motivating factors. I’ve built a 20-year career of telling stories in a way that only I can tell them, because of where I come from. And that is my niche.
“Don’t discount the school of hard knocks. Don’t be ashamed of it either. Once you see all the hardships that you’ve had to overcome as an asset, that will help you figure out what you bring to the table. Your niche. And that’s going to help you to figure out how to do what you do best in a way that only you can do and that is going to be your currency.
“And while you’re busy pursuing those ambitions and passions, don’t forget to pay it forward and help someone if they happen to find themselves in the shoes that you were once in.”
Below is a clip of Haydé on Voices of America’s news show Our Voices.
Author: Leanne Feris