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From the time I was in first grade, I knew I was going to college. I didn't even know what college was back then, but my mother made it clear to my sister and me that going to one was a given. She was a single parent who hadn't taken high school seriously. She now knew that emphasizing education was the key to our futures, and she wouldn't allow us to compromise them by settling for less than a college degree.
I always got As and Bs in my classes; then, in seventh grade, I got my first C. It was in physical education, but still I knew that was not going to fly with my mother. I needed to come up with a compelling argument to convince her that the grade was nothing to get upset about. "Getting a C isn't bad," I tried to explain to her. "It's average, the standard." In this one instance, I was the norm; I didn't see any harm in that.
My mother, however, did. She just looked me in the eye and said, "I don't have no average kids." In that moment, a sense of pride developed in me. I was not average, nor should I ever settle for being such. I had already shown the potential to excel. If my best happened to be average, then fine. But if my best was excellent and I knowingly gave less, then I was not giving the full measure of my abilities, and that, in my mother's mind and now my own, was unacceptable. I never got another C.
That is, until I got to Yale.
At the university, I wanted to major in theater. But my father's sister, who was the only person in my family to go to both college and graduate school, told me, "Angela, please don't waste your Yale education on theater." She was afraid I wouldn't be able to make a living for myself as an actress. I had nothing but the utmost respect for my aunt, so I listened; I went back to school and chose a different major, administrative science, a business and sociology degree.
But in my junior year, I found myself on the brink of failing one of my classes. I was giving an average effort again, although I realized that now I was doing it because I was forcing myself to do something I didn't love. I wasn't as passionate about business as I was about theater. There was never a time when I wouldn't give myself fully when it came to acting. It was as if the final piece of the puzzle presented itself and everything became clear: If you do what you love to do, then you won't do it in an average way.
From that point on, work became a joy. I made choices based on what I believed in, and I had no regrets. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself: Of the many different lives that can be lived, which is the one that's going to inspire you?
— As told to Naomi Barr
From the September 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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