From Homeless to Harvard.
"I'm not proud of it," says Liz Murray. Several years ago, she'd been invited to address an audience in Utah. Other heavyweight speakers were scheduled—Mikhail Gorbachev would follow her—and the event was hosted by 7 Habits mastermind Stephen Covey. Before she went on, Covey approached and asked how she was doing. And all Murray could think was, I think I stole this guy's book.
Yes. Liz Murray, homeless child of drug-addict parents, Harvard grad, winner of Oprah's "Chutzpah Award," subject of the Lifetime film Homeless to Harvard, and hero to millions, used to shoplift self-help books.
That fact tells you a lot about her. When she wandered the New York City streets with hope at low tide, Murray would head to a bookstore's self-help section and walk out with Covey's and Tony Robbins' books. "I didn't have any mentors," she says. "So I thought, Oh cool, these people can tell you how to fix your life."
It worked. If Murray had lifted aerosol cans and CDs instead—like most kids—her life might be different. When you're a homeless teen growing up in the Bronx, sleeping on subways and eating from Dumpsters, you're expected to drift into the Jodie-Foster-in-Taxi-Driver role: heroin, street crime, prostitution. But Murray, now 29, figured something out about life back then: Discomfort can lead you out of any depths.
"I enjoy creature comforts," she says."Reading or sleeping in a warm bed, going to a diner and ordering anything I want off the menu. When I was on the street, drugs or crime didn't seem like options because they seemed so damn uncomfortable. I saw how hard that life was going to be. I didn't want to live like that."
She had indeed seen. She was born in 1980 to hippie parents who bought into the disco culture of the '70s so thoroughly that by the '80s they had lost their apartment and were spending their welfare checks on drugs. Both eventually became infected with and died from HIV/AIDS.
So how did she go, as the title on the DVD case says, from homeless to Harvard? The first step came in 1996 just after her mother died. Liz was 15. "Facing the death of someone so primary to me woke me up," she says. "Even being homeless, I'd never experienced in my entire life up until that moment being so unattached to anything, to not have anything to count on. That moment taught me that life was malleable. If I could have a family and a home one night and all of it's gone the next, that must mean that life has the capacity to change. And then I thought, Whoa! That means that just as change happens to me, I can cause change in my life."
That led to her first real commitment: high school. She fit four years of school into two, all without a home, supportive parents, or even a bedroom in which to study. "High school was a marathon," she says."Academics have never come easily to me. I had to study in stillness, so I carved out spaces for myself. My friend's hallway in the Bronx was really quiet, so I could go up to the top-floor landing and spread out my books because no one would bother me."
Around this time, Murray also realized how to cement her commitments and prevent the grind from wearing her down.
"Before I had this transformation, I always had this illusion I call if-this-then-that. If I find a quiet place, then I'll study. If I get some more cash, then I'll go to school. We do that when there is no real commitment to a goal. We're saying, "I'm committed...unless.' There's a big difference between that and an absolute commitment. Absolute commitment means you'll work in a hallway."
After earning her diploma, she applied for a college scholarship from The New York Times, which led to acceptance and a full ride to Harvard. At that point, the media caught wind of her story."It started with the Times, and then a segment on 20/20, then, 'Hey, we'd like you to go on Oprah!' " Then Hollywood immortality on Lifetime.
Still, none of it seemed strange to Murray. "It felt like, Yeah, I have something I need to share with people. A gift, a calling, something. It's my belief that your gift doesn't belong to you. It's something you're supposed to share. " She eventually left college to do just that.
Today, Murray spreads her message of hope and self-determination around the world through public speaking and personal-development workshops. But she remains on constant lookout for blind spots in her own life. Discomfort remains high on her list. "When I finally had my own apartment and I didn't have to worry about food or a place to sleep, motivation didn't come as easily to me, " she says. "I could goof off if I didn't watch myself... I have my dissatisfaction, and that might be my greatest resource. It takes my standards higher. "
A crusade against comfort led Murray to understand the mechanics of two other crucial concepts of self-control: attachment and commitment.
"Attachment holds us in place in life. Look at what's going on in our economy right now. People are losing their jobs and houses, and there's an underlying fear that when we lose the things we believe make us who we are, we're not a human being anymore. But I know you can lose a lot of things and still have yourself. You're breathing, standing and still have a pulse. A certain courage comes with that. When I lost attachment to everything, I said, I have a blank slate. Life can be anything I want it to be. "
A natural question to ask anyone who has pulled off what Murray has is, How did you face down fears and doubts? Or are you that confident? She laughs at this and says, no way. "People have their demons, and mine comes in the form of doubt. When I'm at my worst, I get that little antagonistic voice in the back of my head. I call it my wounded self. We all have the voice. I used to think that I was my mistakes. I can now identify that this is just my wounded self talking to me. It's never going to go away. But now, if I'm unhappy with something I've done, I know that my mistakes aren't my identity. "
When Murray appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey said to her, "Your future is so bright it burns my eyes. " Now Murray is amping up the wattage. She returned to Harvard and got her degree in psychology in June 2009. She has a two-book deal with Hyperion; her memoirs will be published next year. She's launched a personal development Web site at HomelessToHarvard and remains in constant demand as a keynote speaker for the Washington Speakers Bureau. She's also contemplating a further educational march to her master's degree and Ph.D.
For now, however, she's content to continue learning "how to make a difference, how to transform a life. " Then she smiles. "So I look back and forgive myself for stealing the books because I think there was something much bigger going on. I just didn't realize how it would fit into the bigger picture at the time. "
And for the record, when her upcoming books hit the shelves, if a homeless kid steals a copy, she'll be just fine with that.