Her first name means “guidance” in Arabic, but Hoda Kotb’s most defining quality might just be resilience. At 51, the Egyptian-American journalist has survived divorce and breast cancer, not to mention reporting on war zones and natural disasters. While millions tune in to watch her on TV (NBC, 10 a.m. EST), Hoda often looks to others for inspiration. Now she’s collected powerful stories about people (some famous, some not) who’ve found their true callings—and true selves—in a new book, Where We Belong: Journeys That Show Us the Way (out Jan. 5). “I think we’ve all felt at some point—you don’t know if you’re on the right path,” says Hoda. “It’s nice to read about people who changed direction not because of circumstance but because they decided, ‘This is the way I’m going to go.'”
One key lesson from the book: If you realize you’re not in the right place, that doesn’t mean you should quit your job and choose a wildly different track. Here’s the thing: We need insurance. You can take baby steps toward that thing you’re really meant to do, all the while living in a way that’s still smart and practical.
You wrote about your dream to open a camp for underprivileged kids. Are you pursuing that?
Yes. I’ve met so many kids who are right on the bubble. They can be so much, but they live in difficult circumstances. You feel like if they just had a little more attention, love—something—they could be great.
Do you have other dreams you’ve yet to accomplish?
When I’m walking down the street with my boyfriend [New York City financier Joel Schiffman], I stop every baby. Seriously. It’s totally crazy. He’ll just walk slowly next to me. I think that, because I didn’t have my own kids, the summer camp will fulfill me in that way.
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Were there times in your life when you felt you weren’t in the place you belonged?
I worked in accounts payable at USAir. Look, numbers are not my thing. My checkbook is on the floor in my dressing room somewhere. That was not a fit. I covered hard news for a long time. I’m sure I was fine at it, but it doesn’t feel as right as this job does.
What is it about this job that feels so right?
When I’m sitting with Kathie Lee, it’s like breathing. It doesn’t feel like work. I was very buttoned-up at first, so it took a while. But when you’re with someone who will catch you and support you, you feel safe.
You’re very fit. How do you take care of yourself?
First of all, I think I’m sort of fit. I do a little, a lot. This morning I ran in Central Park. I bet if you took my blood pressure while I’m running down Sixth Avenue toward the park versus the minute I step into the park, something happens. It just feels peaceful, especially when it’s predawn.
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You started walking, then running again after having a mastectomy and reconstruction in 2007. What did you learn about yourself during recovery?
Before getting sick, I always felt very lucky to have my career. I couldn’t believe I got hired at Dateline. I felt kind of like I didn’t deserve it. My illness empowered me in a way I didn’t expect. Before, I never would’ve asked for my current job. I would’ve thought, Why would they pick me? But it gave me courage, knowing you get one ride around the sun. And then, suddenly, it isn’t so scary.
You wrote last year that your body confidence was at about 90 percent. What got you there?
I think that when someone loves you, you get a kind of confidence. When you look into someone’s eyes and they see beauty, it really does change how you see yourself. I guess I feel freer now than I ever did before. I don’t think I ever wore a bikini before I got sick. But now I feel like “OK, this is my body,” you know? “Have at it.”
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A few epiphanies from the pages of Where We Belong.
“You’re the only one who can decide…what you’re going to do with your day. You can sit around thinking, I have no choice, but there’s always another choice.”
—Chef and internist Michelle Hauser, MD, whose high school guidance counselor in Mason City, Iowa, suggested she aspire to factory work
“Everybody’s going to have an opinion, but you have to do what’s in your heart.”
—Laila Ali, on her decision to box and step into the spotlight
“When you look back at your life, it’s really who you loved and who loved you, and how you spent your time with those you’re close with.”
—Neshama Abraham, who grew up in a mansion in the lap of luxury, then helped found a cohousing community in Boulder, Colo.