There was no official theme to Thursday’s event featuring Mitzi Miller, but a fitting one would have been: “Live for today, because tomorrow is not guaranteed.”
Miller, editor-in-chief of EBONY, the nation’s leading magazine for African-Americans, told her personal story and fielded questions from students during a lunchtime event at Polk State Lakeland. Amid recounting the various twists and turns that led her to the EBONY corner office, she also reiterated this advice:
“You have two choices every day: You can choose to be complacent, and just do what’s right in front of you, or you can choose to be relentless in the pursuit of your best, most joyful life. Be relentless,” she said.
Miller herself lives by those words. She has ever since she planned her own funeral.
Growing up, Miller explained, she didn’t know what she wanted to do for a living. When she left her New York home to study at Florida A&M University, she picked veterinary medicine because she liked animals.
The science requirements, however, proved too challenging, and Miller had to rethink her course.
“I asked myself, ‘What do I really love to do? What would I do even if I didn’t get paid,’” she said. “What I really love to do is read.”
She changed her major to English. She likes kids and had worked as a babysitter, so she planned to eventually become a teacher.
At 21, she developed persistent flulike symptoms. She went to a doctor, expecting a quick visit and a prescription. Instead, there were numerous tests that eventually revealed autoimmune hepatitis, a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks normal cells in the liver.
Miller moved back home to New York to begin the 18-month wait for an organ transplant. Those 18 months were the hardest of her life. She was so ill that she couldn’t take a shower or use the bathroom without help from her parents. She and her mother planned her funeral, just in case she didn’t make it to operation day.
“But I also learned so much about myself and about what matters in life during those 18 months,” she said.
“I wished I’d spent more time with my friends and family. I wished I had been more engaged with the people around me. I saw for the first time how precious life is.”
The transplant came through. Miller was out of the hospital in nine days, and she was determined to live differently — that is, by not wasting a single day being unhappy.
Because of her health, Miller had to once again rethink her career plans. Being a teacher, and being around kids with coughs and sniffles, was an unwise plan for someone with her condition.
“So the one thing I still really loved to do was read. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll go into magazines,’” she said.
Her first job in magazine publishing was in sales and marketing. She hated it. Then one night, while standing outside a New York nightclub, Miller’s friend spotted the then-editor-in-chief of Honey magazine.
Seeing her chance, Miller ran after the editor, Amy Barnett, and begged her for an internship. It was a “crazy” move, Miller said, but it worked out. She got the internship. Then she got a job as a contributing editor. Then she got promoted. Honey led to Jane magazine. Jane led to Jet. Jet led to Ebony.
Along the way, she also co-authored five books, including “The Vow,” “The Angry Black Woman’s Guide to Life” and three titles for the “Hotlanta” young adult series. “The Vow” is the basis for Lifetime’s new movie, “With this Ring,” which debuted in late January.
Her experiences, from lying helpless on an operating table to leading the EBONY newsroom, have led her to this truth about life: There are no dress rehearsals.
“All that I have is because I decided to take a chance and chase a woman down in the middle of the night. I’m not saying chase anyone in the middle of the night, but I am saying not to be afraid of failing. You will skin your knees, but you have to get back up,” she said.
Miller will moderate a community forum, titled, “Brown, Black and Blue: Politics, Education, Crime and the Black Community,” on Friday, Feb. 13, at 5:30 p.m. at the Polk State Winter Haven student center. The panelists include local leaders in education, law enforcement and other facets of the community.