Words by Ellyn Spragins
Photography by Marc Royce
Your people smarts will prove ten times more valuable than all the book smarts you can’t get.
It’s entirely characteristic that the first line of Barbara Corcoran’s bio on her website is “Barbara Corcoran’s credentials include straight D’s in high school and college and twenty jobs by the time she turned twenty-three.” Witty, unpretentious, and an improbable success, Barbara built The Corcoran Group, a Manhattan-based real-estate brokerage started with a $1,000 loan from a boyfriend, into a high-profile market leader that she sold in 2001 for $70 million.
Since then, Barbara, with her signature blonde pixie hair and big, telegenic smile, has popped up as a real-estate contributor on NBC’s Today and has been a columnist for the New York Daily News and Redbook. She’s also written two books: If You Don’t Have Big Breasts, Put Ribbons on Your Pigtails: And Other Lessons I Learned from My Mom and Nextville: Amazing Places to Live the Rest of Your Life. When I spoke to Barbara, on vacation at her summer home on Fire Island, New York, she had recently finished shooting eleven episodes of Shark Tank, then a new reality show on ABC. On the show, Barbara is one of five self-made millionaires—who are the so-called sharks—competing to invest their own money in entrepreneurial ventures they deem worthy.
Her television debut is the culmination of a long effort to reinvent herself after selling The Corcoran Group. As usual, her mother, Florence, provided a key piece of encouragement. After Barbara confessed that she lacked confidence on Shark Tank, her mother said, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be worried. Just picture Mom and Dad floating over your shoulder cheering you on. You know you always do well.”
If it sounds unusual for a woman in her sixties to still be getting support from her mother, instead of the other way around, consider how fundamental Florence has been to Barbara’s later achievements. Her mother’s unfailing confidence in Barbara formed an armor that insulated her from despair in elementary school, when she discovered a shocking truth about herself. In third grade she heard some of her classmates laughing when she read aloud. She was sent to a special after-school reading class taught by the dreaded Sister Stella Marie. During the very first session, the nun grabbed Barbara by the ear and said, “If you don’t start paying attention, you’ll always be stupid.”
“That’s when it hit me that I had something really wrong with me,” says Barbara. That afternoon she went into the woods and cried. But at home that night she was still a star to her mother. Florence’s reaction to Barbara’s reading problems: “Barbara Ann, don’t even worry about it. With your imagination, you’ll learn to fill in the blanks.”
Here Barbara writes to herself in third grade.
Dear Barbara Ann,
Don’t be afraid. Stand up and shout loud and clear enough for everyone to hear: “no, I am NOT stupid.”
There’s a world of difference between being different and being stupid. It’s not a sin when you can’t follow directions or don’t have the answer. Know that there is no shame in reading out loud and that the other kids’ laughter is just a sign of their discomfort with fears of their own. They don’t realize they are hearing, for the first time, a different kind of beautiful mind.
You know things the smart kids don’t. You create sidewalk chalk games the other kids can’t even dream of. You often know what the other kids think before they decide to tell you and can feel the mood in a room the moment you walk in.
You know how to get your sisters to do all your chores. You’ve learned how to bring humor into the middle of your family’s chaos. You know how to build complicated worlds of levels and bridges and alcoves and cliffs and islands and beaches in the little stream behind the house.
Trust yourself, Barbara Ann. Your talent for daydreaming will come in handy later. And your people smarts will prove ten times more valuable than all the book smarts you can’t get.
Be patient with yourself and repeat after me: “I am NOT stupid. I am NOT stupid.”