My friend Chris was one of those rare people who sees something in you that you don’t see in yourself. Their insight seems preposterous at first, like a compliment that spiraled out of control. But they are so insistent and convincing, you actually start believing them. Eventually, you discover they were right, and can’t help but wonder if that seed of potential was there all along or if they somehow willed it into existence.
If you’ve ever known someone like that, you know how rare and special they are. They are the kind of people who change lives. Chris Clarke-Epstein was one of those people.
She died last week, after a long and graceful battle with cancer. She was a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, writer, storyteller, teacher, professional speaker, lover of yellow, sage of change, and mentor to many. She was one of the most influential people in my career and claimed my kids as her adopted grandchildren. Around our house, we call her Ahma Chris.
She loved telling stories, and always had one to go at a moment’s notice, perfectly suited for any topic or time allotment. The reason you were always eager to hear one of her stories — or were they sermons? — is that she always made them about you somehow. Paying attention to her seemed like the polite thing to do, because she had an uncanny way of making you feel like you were the only other person in the room.
I was a brand new speaker when I first met Chris, who was already a former president of the National Speakers Association by then. She taught me that the best speakers were generous, not competitive or secretive. She taught me that being a professional speaker was more than just having someone giving you a check to stand on a stage and talk. For her, being a professional was about always working on your craft, about holding yourself to a higher standard than anyone else would, and about integrity. She could console you with an understanding word of comfort one day, and dole out a gentle butt-kicking to do better the next.
The photo above was taken at our third Escape Adulthood Summit, where she was the featured guest speaker. It was one of many highlights of her influence on our work over the years. I started out speaking at churches. She got me my first “non-church” gig at a time when I wasn’t sure I had a place anywhere else. Her confidence and generosity transformed my career.
Our Adultitis First Aid Kit, which was a big revenue generator for us for many years, was inspired by a story she told about visiting the gift shop at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And the reason we have as many subscribers to our email list as we do is because we borrowed her method for getting signups at speaking engagements.
There are a lot of frauds and fakers in the speaking world; people who substitute smoke and mirrors for a solid foundation built from hard work. Chris was all about doing the work. A lover of words and a writer at heart, she could philosophize with the best of them but had no patience for endless theorizing. She was fond of saying, “Thinking about writing isn’t writing. Talking about writing isn’t writing. Only writing is writing.”
This is a truth I have to remind myself of often, except I replace “writing” with “making art.” She knew that too many people waste their days imagining, planning, preparing, and hoping for their dreams to come true, without ever rolling up their sleeves and getting to work making them happen. Dreams are intoxicating, but worthless without work. If you want to be great — at anything — you have to put in the work. And she did.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”―Maya Angelou
Chris Clarke-Epstein said many wise things in her lifetime. She accumulated a great many accomplishments. But Ms. Angelou was right: I will remember her most for how she made me feel. She made me feel like I mattered, that I belonged, and that I had something important to offer the world. I felt like she’d be disappointed and personally offended if I settled for less than what she believed I was capable of.
She made me and many others feel like we mattered.
And now that she’s gone, I feel grateful for having known her, and I feel she’d be happy with my sentiments, but I also feel compelled to get back to work.
We have big shoes to fill. Talking about it isn’t going to cut it.