At some point of either your academic or professional career, most of us have gone through the exercise of writing a future note to ourselves — the proverbial “where do you want to be in x years.” On the flip side, many mentors and career veterans are often asked what they would do differently knowing then what they know now. Or what would they have told their younger selves if they could go back and do so. While we can’t all be Marty McFly, we can learn from our own mistakes and, even better, the mistakes of others.
I recently came across my said letter to myself from high school (I’d say it was a brief few years ago, but most of you won’t believe me — and you’d be right). After I dusted off the parchment, I took inventory of where I was in life. Did I stay the course? Take the road less travelled? Accomplished more or less than I thought I would? I was surprised to be reminded at how well I knew myself and how accurate my predictions were. Here’s a summary of what I predicted for myself in 1983 (there, you happy, I’m officially dated):
- I would be married, but no children (check).
- I would own a home (check).
- I would have a degree in communications/advertising (check).
- I would have a successful career in a related field to my degree in/around New York City (check/check).
- I would ultimately have a corner office (check).
What I did find a little disappointing, however, was that my hindsight vision was off. I had hoped for myself that I would worry less and enjoy life more. To take things in stride, expect no more than my best, never regret the experiences that got me to wherever I was and to, in my teenage wisdom’s own words, “cry when I wanted, laugh when in doubt, and show my emotions as freely as need be.” I predicted that I would not be very different in the future. That I would have the same morals, values, goals, ideas, feeling and beliefs. Uncheck.
Fast-forward to 2008, when at the Center for Creative Leadership, I conducted a similar exercise. The process was the same, but the focus was more about keeping things in perspective, listening without judging, and becoming more comfortable with asking for help and feedback. I remain a work in progress.
So, what would I now tell my future self and to those aspiring young women seeking life lessons of their own? Here’s what I can now share:
1. Find a passion. Even if it’s not your job, you need a purpose in life to thrive and an income just to live.
2. Never stop learning. Whether it’s enriching yourself through culture or academics, attending events or reading, keep seeking information. It’s true that the more you know, the more you realize how little you do know and the more you’ll be driven to know more.
3. Manage yourself. Many young executives, mostly female, assume that others will have their best interest in mind and that if they work hard, keep their nose down and make their boss look good, they’ll be rewarded and will advance their career. While this is true to a certain degree, you’ll reach a point where support may stop or be disingenuous. Therefore, drive your own career, ask for what you need, trust cautiously and get things in writing.
4. Don’t undervalue yourself. There’s a tendency, again, particularly with women, to think less of their accomplishments and abilities. The world is filled with boastful, inflated personalities. People who think they can do things, actually do them. Whether they fail or not, they do them anyway. People who think they can’t do things, don’t do them. Entrepreneurs and very successful people will reinforce this theory. If you’re ready for something, it’s typically too late. Richard Branson is often quoted that if someone offers you an opportunity that you don’t think you can do, take it anyway and figure it out later. In other words, aim higher and you’ll achieve more; aim lower and you’ll achieve less.
5. Judge yourself more and other people less. It takes an evolved person to resist the urge to anticipate other people’s motivations, especially when you think they’re ill-intended. Instead, get into the habit of shifting that mental paradigm and assume the best in people. If you’re cut off while driving, don’t seek revenge by speeding up and making eye contact, and don’t assume that they’re a malicious driver; instead, think that they may be horribly late to work or an appointment, that someone may need their help, or that they were unaware and made a mistake. Life will be a lot nicer and kinder if you think good thoughts. Namaste.
6. Life isn’t fair. The one thing you’re told since childhood that’s neither a lie nor an exaggeration. I had a junior high school teacher tell me that I would go through life horribly disappointed if I tried to reason with justice. She was right. People do get things they don’t deserve. They do get away with crimes — big and small. They don’t always play by the rules and hard work/being “right” doesn’t trump personal relationships. The “who you know not what you know” and that “it’s better to get along than simply be better” are golden rules in life. Cheaters are going to cheat and haters are going to hate. Let them. If you spend all of your time and energy on trying to reveal them, you’ll be left behind. Stay your course and beat them at the marathon, not the race.
7. Don’t try to find the right company to work for; try to find the right boss to work with. Another valuable life lesson learned the hard way. One of my early group presidents at Liz Claiborne told me that I would be very successful one day … if someone let me. She was right. Maybe she knew my junior high teacher.
8. Do less and promote yourself more. I fully expect to get some feedback on this one, but anyone who has worked with someone who seems to be praised for doing little or nothing will truly agree. Chalking up a list of accomplishments that no one knows about is about as valuable as putting money in a tip jar when no one is looking. Of course you shouldn’t change your work ethic just to play “the game,” but make sure you’re in the game in the first place.
9. You can’t change people, you can only change how you respond to them. It’s taken many a management class and leadership session to fully appreciate this one. Often, as an executive, our tendency is to fix situations, correct people, right the wrongs in the company, but wisdom tells us differently. As a professional, your job is to remove obstacles, define success and motivate others toward a shared vision/goal. You’ll never be successful if you try to change others, get them to see things your way or assume that they work in a similar fashion as yourself. Lead the horse to water … it’s up to her to drink it. After all, there are a lot of other horses who are thirsty.
10. Care less. You heard me … care less. When I was fresh out of school and working 14-hour days, stressing over deadlines, customers and co-workers, my father sat me down and told me that I care too much. He told me that I will never be rewarded for giving 200 percent, and that I would burn out before they even noticed. He was right. I would never promote underachievement, but I now promote appropriate achievement. Getting something done well can be just as valuable as getting it done perfectly — and it can save you some sanity along the way. Know that everything isn’t equally important, and that how much time and resources are needed for each task will vary. Overpersonalizing every business activity will ultimately create frustration. Each assignment isn’t a final report card. Your achievements will be a combination of the collective whole of your career.
Throughout my entire career people have told me that life is a journey. While we may all be focused on the destination, it’s ultimately in the paths along the way that we take and the people with whom we take them that we find the greatest satisfaction. It seems hokey and 1983 me might not have agreed; perhaps not even 2008 me. But 2016 me has learned a great deal from both success and failure.
To paraphrase a distant friend of mine who was wise beyond her years, it truly doesn’t matter what roads you take to get to where you are going, whether you walk or drive, or what type of vehicle you get there in, just as long as you keep going. Much like religions, regardless of practice, we will all wind up at the end of our lives. However you get there is up to you.
And, to quote my 18-year-old self:
“No, I wouldn’t like to be 18 again. I’ve tried to experience as much as I could in those years. Jobs, clubs, friends, etc., have all added to my youth. I would, rather than reflect on the past and dream of what could have been, look toward the future and think what could be.”
I guess I knew a lot more than I thought I did.
Lucille DeHart is a seasoned marketing professional with over 25 years’ experience working for such prestigious brands as TUMI, Polo Ralph Lauren, Maidenform, Liz Claiborne and Westfield International.