I am excited to introduce you to an amazing woman today. Marilyn Tam has such a strong spirit, and even the toughest challenges couldn’t stop her from fulfilling her life purpose: to make a positive difference in the world.

To say that Marilyn’s childhood was far from ideal is an understatement. She was born in Hong Kong to parents that needed to be reminded to pick her up from the hospital after she was born. She was the second daughter born in her family, and because of that, she wasn’t seen as important.

Marilyn had every right to be angry and feel that she had been given the short end of the stick. And yet, her spirit was strong and rather than spiraling into anger and self pity, she channeled that energy into creating change, helping people, and making sure that others would have better lives. She is a true example of someone who makes lemonade out of lemons.

She has accomplished so much in her lifetime already and has achieved many professional accolades and triumphs. To mention just a few, she was the CEO of Aveda, the vice-president of Nike, and the president of Reebok Apparel & Retail Group. In addition to running Us Foundation, she is also the director of SCORE (a partner of the Small Business Administration). She is an entrepreneur, a speaker, an author, and a humanitarian; but Marilyn is so much more than these titles. She is someone who is truly making a difference in this world. She is truly helping others and saving lives. She is on a mission to help each of us live our best lives, and she has written two books to help us get there.

Marilyn’s first book, How to Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want has been published in several languages. Her new book is called, Living the Life of Your Dreams. In it, Marilyn talks about lessons she has learned in her own life – and passes along tips on how practicing self care and boosting our own self esteem is absolutely essential to living our best life. She gives concrete exercises, which are helpful to getting back on track. It’s currently an abbreviated version of the full-length book, which will be out next year. I am really excited for the entire book to be out – if it’s anything like this preview, I know that it will have a lasting impact on how we each see ourselves and live our lives.

I can’t wait for you to read on and get to know this beautiful soul. Marilyn gives so much of herself in this interview and also in her life. I am so grateful to share her wise words with each of you today.
You have overcome so much in your life and come through such painful obstacles with your gratitude intact and your joie de vivre in full swing. Was this a process for you or were you always able to see the positive in any situation? Were you ever angry at the circumstances you were born into and the lack of love you received as a child?

Life is a process isn’t it? Initially I was too young to understand enough to be angry about the circumstances of my birth – when we don’t know what’s possible we accept our lot as best we can. Without outside information, children assume that we are the ones who are at fault. We take on the negative feedback we are given and think that is the truth about us. As you said, that is where our low self-esteem oftentimes comes from.

I can’t even imagine what it would do to someone’s self worth knowing their parents needed to be reminded to pick them up from the hospital when they were born. Can you talk a bit about how you built yourself back up after such a huge blow right at the start of your life? What makes your soul so strong?

Early on I sought solace from my painful life circumstances by escaping into nature and from that place, the power of Spirit came to me. The inner peace, which comes from a connection to Spirit, was a powerful support for me. The other anchor I had was knowing that I was once worthwhile to someone; that someone believed in me. My grandfather gave me my Chinese name, Hay-Lit, the names of two respected emperors in China’s history: one known for his compassion and wisdom at governance in peace time and the other known for his strategy and prowess in war time. Although he died when I was seven, my name was a testimonial for what he must have thought about me – someone who was destined to make a positive difference in the world. With those two inner guiding forces I was able to survive and eventually figure out how to rise above the poor regard that my family had for me.

When I was eleven I found my life mission. It came to me because I witnessed injustices much worse than what I experienced. My classmate Rebecca and her whole family lived in a room and shared a kitchen and a bathroom with two more families. Often they didn’t have enough to eat. I was filled with outrage that two working parents couldn’t afford to provide the bare essentials of life for their family. It was just not right; it wasn’t fair. I resolved then that I would grow up to help people like Rebecca gain the basics of life.

Seeing that my own life was relatively better compared to others gave me the motivation and my life mission – to make a positive difference in the world. From then on I was on my path to getting the tools and training I needed to help others. With a life mission you are empowered, and have a north point in your personal compass to guide your every decision. I share how you can do this in my book, How to Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want. There are many free gifts and insights on the site for you to learn from.

Knowing your life mission from such an early age is such an amazing gift. Can you talk about your thought process at the time and how it felt to know with every part of you that you were put on this planet to help others and make a positive difference in their lives?

I feel so blessed that I found my life mission early. When I realized that there is something bigger than my own life and community to care about, my whole world expanded. I had a purpose and it gave me courage, hope and determination. I could face things that might have devastated me if I didn’t have a purpose. I had to keep trying; it was too important. My life mission made it easier for me to set out alone to America as a teenager from Hong Kong to come here for education – two suitcases and my teddy bear was all that I had.

Whenever I got scared or felt down, I would remember my life mission and pick myself back up again. I had a reason for being, and that kept me on course when it was scary and bleak. Of course my faith in Spirit and the inner knowing that someone believed in me helped a lot too.

However, many people don’t know their life mission even much later in life. Our mass communication world is constantly broadcasting messages about what and how we are supposed to think and what is going to make us happy and fulfilled. It is easy to neglect that still small voice within about our true reason for being. I have counseled many business leaders who have attained what to the media is the epitome of success and they were still unhappy. They were still not yet connected to their life mission, and felt that something was still missing in their lives.

Can you share here how someone might go about figuring out their own life mission?

I wrote my books, How to Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want and Living the Life of Your Dreams, so that others can learn from the experiences and secrets of successful and happy people and also from my own experience. It is one of my ways of giving back for what I am so grateful to have received.

In my books I discuss the value of having a mission statement to guide our lives and decision-making process. I include exercises and examples of how to create your own. Each person may go about it with a slightly different way, but the basic process is the same – make some quiet time for you to access your inner knowing. Writing down the thoughts that come to you after you reflect on leading questions on what gives you lasting happiness and peace helps. It may take a little bit of time at first before you hear that small quiet voice inside. Be patient and keep trying. You will hear it if you persist. It’s worth it!

My life mission is simple and it can be applied to everything that I think or do – “My mission is to make a positive difference in the world”.

Please note that your specific goals towards your mission may change during different times in your life, but your mission doesn’t. The particular way in which you fulfill your mission may differ at various life stages, but your core reason for being stays the same.

How I pursued my life mission when I was in school, by studying hard and volunteering at campus non-profit organizations, differs superficially from when I was a corporate executive, by helping to raise labor standards in apparel factories around the world. But the aim is the same: to make a positive difference in whatever life stage I am in. Look at your own life the same way – see how your mission is integrated into and in fact, guiding your life. You will find the process very rewarding.

It’s amazing how much you have accomplished in your life – enough for at least two full lifetimes, for sure! I can imagine that your drive in your early years came from a place of wanting to prove to yourself (and your family) that you were worthy and lovable. Now that you are older and more grounded in your soul’s amazing wisdom, it seems that you are less driven toward external achievements and more invested in helping others find their way along this journey. Can you talk about when this switch occurred?

It is a common idea that we are supposed to strive for material success and then after we achieve some measure of that to shift to helping others. I was fortunate in that I experienced the pain of not having the support I craved when I was young, which impressed upon me how important it is to have help. So along my path to business success, I integrated my commitment to helping others. The two goals are actually best done together; you will accomplish more and will be more fulfilled with a comprehensive perspective. I attribute what success I have in part to the power that comes from an integrated life mission for business and in the rest of my life.

My own experience as a child laborer helped me to work with factories on establishing improved working conditions and better pay for their workers. This resulted in increased productivity, higher quality, and faster turnaround production time. It was definitely a case of win-win-win. It is not to say it was easy, from my company’s management to the outside vendors to the industry we worked in, we faced skepticism and opposition. Eventually the encouraging initial results persuaded everyone to see the benefits of what we were advocating. Having a personal mission certainly gave me the strength to persevere when our ideas were questioned and fought against.

I would imagine that you learned so much about life and yourself during your time in the corporate world. In your book you say that even while you were a part of this world, you never forgot your mission to help others. What are you the most grateful for about your time there?

There are many benefits to being in the corporate world. It is rewarding to create products and services that consumers want and need. Another big advantage is that as a business leader you have a platform to speak from. Our society recognizes achievement, and being a successful businessperson provides credibility to what one advocates. I was able to make positive change on a bigger scale with the backing of a corporation.

Can you tell us more about your foundation – it sounds like such a wonderful organization that is helping so many people around the world.

Us Foundation was founded in 1996 with the goal to create and develop more harmony and peace between people and also between people and the planet. We named it Us Foundation to emphasize there is no “them,” only “us” here on the planet. Ultimately everyone and every creature in the world needs to have the basics of life and freedom for us all to thrive. Us Foundation has four basic focuses – Youth, Education, Environment and Conditions for Peace. As you can imagine we have more than enough to keep us busy!

We are an operating foundation, and our main way of helping is by connecting diverse organizations, companies and countries together for a common purpose. An example would be how we worked with Airline Ambassadors International, Pacific Domes International and other companies, agencies and non-profit organizations to fly personnel, medical supplies and temporary and permanent building/domes to Haiti after the earthquake. We did the same thing in Japan after their earthquake and tsunami too. We work with Vitamin Angels International to provide anti-parasitic medicine and vitamin A to prevent blindness and to give critical nutritional supplements to children all over the world. This year over 24 million children will get this valuable eyesight saving care – it’s very exciting and rewarding.

I loved reading about your wake-up call when you were too tired to share the holidays with your sister – it seemed like a defining moment in your life. Did you begin to make changes in your life to be more balanced immediately after this phone call?

We all have our wake up calls – and my reminder from that incident was a powerful and painful one. I had to relook again at how I forgot (again) to include myself on my own list of people to help and to heal. I was so engaged with helping others with what I considered much direr needs that I neglected myself. I had to take a deep breath after that fateful phone call and reassess my priorities. I shared that story to let others know that like everyone else I stumble and that it is OK to pick up and try again. Rebalancing my life took some time. I did not get to total imbalance overnight, and to regain dynamic balance was a gradual process. The good news is that just recognizing that I was out of balance was my first step to a greater sense of joy, health and more sleep!

I love your answer to the ever-important question, “Can we have it all?” “Yes, you can have it all but not usually all at the same time.” It is all about prioritizing, simplifying, and learning how to say no. Can you talk about examples from your own life on how you learned to prioritize and simplify?

The story above about my idea of canceling my personal Christmas time because I was so busy helping others is a good example of how I had to stop and reprioritize. Asking myself what was most important and truly admitting that I was in the danger zone of completely depleting my health and life in my quest to help others was sobering. Then came the practical work of developing a system and schedule that included my own wellbeing. This was the genesis of my latest book, Living the Life of Your Dreams; I wrote the book to share the lessons and secrets I’ve found to a fun and fabulous life of dynamic balance. If I can help others avoid some of the pain I’ve gone through, it’s worth it.

I agree with you that it’s absolutely essential to put ourselves back on our priority lists. So often we (myself included) are so invested in helping others that we forget to help ourselves in the process. And when our gas tanks are empty, we won’t be able to help anyone at all. And while most of us know this, we still feel like the world will somehow fall apart if we aren’t holding it all up. What advice would you give those of us who are still struggling with putting ourselves first?

As you so well put it, it is hard for us to remember to include ourselves in the priority list – especially for people who are natural givers. When there are so many urgent demands clamoring for attention it may seem to be almost impossible to put our own needs into the mix.

Make the distinction between the urgent and the important in your to do list. We are all juggling many balls in our lives – the work ball, the family ball, the health ball, the community ball, the personal life ball, the spiritual ball etc. etc. Most of the balls are made of rubber; they will bounce back in some form if we drop them. A few are made of glass, and those fragile ones include ourselves – so schedule time for you. That is the key – schedule yourself in. What is on the calendar has a much higher chance of getting done.

So many of us in the healing professions aren’t great at practicing what we preach and living balanced lives. Self care always comes back to self esteem. We absolutely have to have high self esteem to think that it’s essential to put ourselves on our priority list and practice self care. If someone isn’t sure how to start building their self esteem, what would you recommend?

Self-esteem is a major issue in today’s world. Aside from childhood negative messages, the media’s incessant bombardment of the “perfect lives” of business moguls, celebrities, and super athletes makes it is easy for people to feel less than OK with themselves. Whenever you feel low and not good enough, stop and question that thought. Why are you feeling inadequate? You are doing the best you can at the moment. Maybe you can improve the next time, but you did the best you could at the time, right or wrong.

We can compare ourselves to someone else who may appear to have more than we have, but there are many more with much less. A moment of gratitude really helps to put life into perspective. Another important thing is to hold close to a time in your life when somebody believed in you – hold that dear and know that you are worthwhile. Yes, your life is to be lived fully and expressed to it highest potential and you are the only one who can do that. Each moment is another chance to start again, and right now is the moment.

I love how you offer writing exercises in your book to help the reader get to their soul – their highest self. I believe that we always have the answers within us, and journaling is a wonderful way to uncover these answers. Do you journal on a regular basis? If so, can you share how this process has helped you through the years?

Journaling is something I started many, many years ago when I felt that I needed to put down my thoughts so I’d have a better sense of what I really wanted. When we write our thoughts down, it becomes more apparent what’s really important for us. The very act of putting thoughts down helps us articulate what we are feeling and our true intention. Sometimes it’s also a way for me to realize how silly it is for me to be so bound up in an idea that may have little long-term impact.

You have managed to create your ideal life – you live by the ocean, work from home, inspire others to live their best lives. You are living on purpose. If you had to summarize how you got there in just a few sentences, what would you say?

Wow, what a thought provoking question. Hmm, I found help in something greater than myself in Spirit. I kept in my heart that someone believed in me when times were tough. I regularly affirmed that I was good enough. My life mission guided me into and out of any circumstance. I practiced my Four Principles. I gave gratitude when I felt despair, which helped to lift me out of the darkness. I asked for help when I needed it. And I fell down and got up again and again…. One more thing, always being open to new ideas and ways of accomplishing my mission.

You can read about my basic Four Principles for achieving a happy life on my website.

What is one thing that we can all do right now to begin living our ideal lives?

Stop for a moment and ask if what you are doing right now is leading you to what you most want. Getting some clarity in your present moment will give you some perspective on what’s important versus what’s urgent. It will give you ideas of how you can go towards your ideal life. Also smile, yes, even when you don’t feel like it. The very act of moving those smile muscles will help to relax you and quiet the noises inside your head. It’s almost like magic!

I am looking forward to reading the rest of your book. Can you share when it will be available? Any hints on what it will include?

I’m working on the rest of the book and it’s really exciting! Dr. Joan Borysenko, NY Times Best selling Author of Inner Peace for Busy People and Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, co-founder and former director of the Mind/Body Clinical Center, Harvard Medical School is co-authoring the book with me. We are going into depth about all the key aspects of life and will give you tools and tips on how to achieve dynamic balance. The book will be filled with stories and secrets from many experts who are living the life of their dreams. The book should be out by the end of 2012. It is going to be so great – I can’t wait to hear your review when it comes out. Please check back on my website for more updates.

In every interview I ask 3 questions from our Soulful Journals Series. Here are the three that I have chosen for you:

Think of a friend or family member whose life is better because you are in it. How do you make their life a little brighter?

I was more like a mother to my younger sister, and our lives have become richer because of that. She shares with me how I gave her hope and joy by taking care of her when she felt so alone. We both fondly remember the small pleasures we had together, like watching a movie or going swimming. Those moments are so precious when times were often bleak. Of course there were the more practical things I did, like making sure that she had books for school and the right shoes, etc. Now we smile when we reminisce and know we have a deep and solid bond. Either one of us will come to the other’s call for help immediately.

When was the last time you smiled for so long that your mouth hurt?

I’m smiling right now as I write this! We were in India distributing anti-parasitic medicine and vitamin A to children to prevent blindness. After two weeks of health education and distribution, we were packing to leave, and the children presented a singing and dancing performance show for us. I was smiling and crying at the same time. It was so wonderful and touching to see how our work was already making a positive difference in their health and attitude.

What is your proudest moment?

Proudest moment? As I learn and grow I realize that I am getting better at being me more and more each day. That is what I’m proudest of – that I am fully becoming what I was born to be. Living the life of my dreams and helping others live theirs. I’m so grateful. I remember the quote a famous humanitarian gave when he was being honored, “The two most important days in your life: the day you were born and the day you found out why you were born.”

I am so happy that I know both days!

Is there anything else you would like to share?

For everyone reading this, please remember that you are good enough as you are. You already have inside of you the basics of what you need to live the life of your dreams. All you have to do now is to get the tools so that you can achieve it. I believe in you and yes, you are good enough right now! Many blessings.

Author's Bio: 

Jodi Chapman is the author of the blog, Soul Speak; the upcoming book, Coming Back to Life; and the bestselling Soulful Journals series, co-authored with her husband, Dan Teck. www.jodichapman.com