Still Making Boss Moves: 3 Lessons on Longevity from the Legacy of Cicely Tyson

Actress Cicely Tyson (Image: File)

I’ve always been a fan of Cicely Tyson, and since she’s now become a Legacy Award winner for Black Enterprise’s 2014 Women of Power Summit, I’ve been reminded of why I love her so much as a woman and actress. For me, as a child, she held a similar regal quality to Grace Jones, another fashion and film phenom I’d admired as a youth. I’ve always been one to be mesmerized by strong women of color who gracefully move about life in a way that surpasses stereotypical norms of society.

(I guess you could credit that with growing up very close to my Granny, who, at almost 90 years old, is still a very proud black woman who never leaves the house without a handkerchief, taxi money and her signature red Fashion Fair lipstick.)

Beyond the fact that she’s an actress with major receipts (Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, plus Emmy and Tony award wins), today, the draw for me is that Tyson still stands out among other black actresses, can diversify her look and roles like a gazelle chameleon, and she’s still rocking film roles and Broadway at 80.

Here are three lessons on longevity to inspire all young professionals to build a career legacy that can stand the test of time:

Diversify what you offer the world, but build a brand of high standards and consistency: A common theme in the roles Tyson chooses is that they expand the knowledge and protect the dignity of African-American history—particularly for black women. From TV shows (Roots, Cosby Show, Mama Flora’s Family) to films (A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich, Hoodlum, The Help), Tyson consistently embodies the diversity, relevance and humanity of black women spanning centuries. In fact, in 1982, she was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award and has also received other honors, including the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, for consistent excellence in her field.

Just as Tyson has built a body of work that shows who she is and what she values as an artist and professional, young careerists should be doing the same, ensuring that anyone they come in contact with knows exactly who they are, what they’re good at, what they stand for and what their contribution will be.

Know where the greats are, and be among them. Early in Tyson’s career, she appeared in the original cast of The Blacks, the longest running off-Broadway non-musical of the ’60s. The original cast also featured greats in terms of entertainment and the arts, including James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Maya Angelou. These artists all got to know each other, becoming colleagues and lifelong friends at a prime time for black artistic expression Harlem.

With the accessibility of social media and plenty of resources to connect with people, young professionals have the awesome opportunity to truly collaborate with innovators in their industries, gaining inspiration, support and help with advancement along the way. If young professionals see greatness in someone, especially at the early stages of their career, it’s best to find a way to be in their midst, whether it’s through partnership, friendship or just a helping hand.

Never rest on your laurels, no matter what age or career stage: Tyson starred on Broadway in The Trip to Bountiful as Carrie Watts, for which she won the Tony Award, Outer Critics Award, and Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a Play. She was the oldest winner of the Tony after a 30-year absence from Broadway, proving its never too late to continue growing and achieving in your career.

As young professionals progress, they should keep fresh by constantly challenging themselves, trying new things and expanding on the knowledge base and experiences you’ve been. It will keep you relevant and ensure you have a career legacy that’s second to none.

What seasoned vets in your industry do you admire? #Soundoff and follow me on Twitter @JPHazelwood.

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