April 21, 2004: Perspective

Illustration by Felipe Galindo

Starting over
Reality TV and lessons on life

By Amy Harkin ’98

Amy Harkin ’98, who majored in English, writes and lectures about travel, and presents travel segments on television programs.


Moving into a house with five complete strangers last November was relatively easy. After all, that’s what I had done freshman year at Gauss Hall. Both times, there were six women from around the country, sharing bedrooms, bathrooms, and one phone line. The main difference between Princeton and my November move to Chicago was that in Chicago, there were cameras. Lots of them: stationary, in every room but the bathrooms; and hand-held, following me everywhere. And there were microphones – the one I wore every day from the time I got up until the time I went to bed, the tiny black bugs hidden throughout the house, and the ones carried by the sound crew, dipping down when I had something important to say. This house was no ordinary living arrangement; it was the set for a reality TV show — one that I enthusiastically signed up for, for reasons that were confusing to my friends, but very clear to me.

I wanted a career.

Five years after graduating from one of the best universities in the world, I had no inkling of what I wanted to do in my life. I was stuck, and nothing I had studied at Princeton had prepared me for that.

So I spent two-and-a-half months on an NBC daytime television show called Starting Over, which had an ever-

changing, diverse group of six women who wanted to fix things in their lives. Each woman got the help of a life coach and experts across the country. The only way to leave the house was to graduate – or to be kicked out by the coaches. It was all “free,” except that we had to share our experiences with millions of viewers.

My life coach’s name was Rana, which is Hausa (Nigerian) for “royalty.” With her funky corkscrew hair and ear-to-ear smile, she seemed more like a really cute girlfriend. I liked her instantly. The first thing Rana had me do was write – a lot, and about myself. Who am I? What do I like to do? Where do I want to be in five years? What is my ideal lifestyle? Her questions were endless and probing. I wrote in my journal, listed strengths and weaknesses, and interviewed my husband, parents, and friends.

I found myself writing things I never knew about myself, like, “I really like to make people laugh,” and “One of the most important things in my life plan is having a really nice house.” I came to terms with “I don’t think I’m very intelligent,” and “I lose my temper because I’m so angry with myself for doing something wrong.”

I told Rana that I had always thought about a career in public relations. This was a job I had dreamed of, the perfect answer to the anticipated question asked at cocktail parties and Princeton reunions: “And what do you do?” Rana promptly set up an interview for an internship, and soon, after crafting a proposal for the firm, I got the job. I made phone calls, recruited speakers, pitched a conference, and created press releases. I hated it. When Rana asked me how the job was going, I told her. She empathized and reassured me that she didn’t think P.R. was a good fit. And then she asked me to quit the job.

Me, a Type-A Princetonian, QUIT?????

“But if you don’t like it, why would you stay?” asked Rana.

Good question. But quitting meant I was saying good-bye to the one last thing I knew – the one “good” job I always thought I could fall back on. I finally came to terms with the fact that not only had I no idea of what I would do, but when I finally figured it out, it might not be the kind of neat, simple answer most often heard in reunions conversations.

My life coach noticed one word repeated in my copious writing: “travel.” So I had to go back to writing some more, this time, about travel. The five different countries I have lived in, the 35 countries I’ve traveled to. I wrote about romantic getaways, about traveling with a teenager, about using electrical appliances overseas. But I was still frustrated, and thinking that I might just fake contentment and work toward moving out of the TV-show house.

Rana could not have been happier with my dilemma. She told me to turn to my housemates and ask for their support and opinions about my career – something I had never done at Princeton. So I asked Rain, two years my elder, a single mother with two small children, who was in the house to get off welfare. I asked Susan, 35 years old, whose mother had died when she was two, and who had moved into the house to find her father, a man she had never met. I asked Lynnell and Hailey, a mother and daughter who came to Chicago to repair their relationship. I asked Josie, a 20-year-old whom I drove to the hospital when her water broke, now the mother of a healthy baby girl, paternity unknown.

I asked all of them, these women who had come to the house to make peace with themselves, and one by one, they came up with the answers. They had listened to me, watched me, and they knew me. They told me to talk.

My housemates were there when I gave my first seminar at Loyola University on “Travel: Why You Should and How You Can.” And they were there when I brought home my self-published “Top Twenty Tips for Living Abroad.” For the first time, I could see how my passion for travel, my experiences abroad, and my strength in public speaking could come together as a viable career.

Princeton gave me a strong education, but these women taught me about living.

At Princeton, I learned how to be a responsible person in the world. At the Starting Over house, I learned to be responsible to myself.


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