I was recently asked to contribute the essay below as part of a series for HuffPost Icon Next, entitled ‘The Best Piece of Advice I’ve Ever Received For Achieving My Career Goals.’ You can read the essay here.
Wouldn’t it be nice when something significant was about to be said, if a bright sign would appear alerting us to this fact? As close as I’ve ever come to this actually happening was in college. In the middle of a mind-numbingly boring lecture, my professor would change the cadence and volume of his voice and announce, “Now write this down. It will be on the exam.” I would scribble whatever came out of his mouth next and then wander back in my mind to some place more exciting than my current surroundings. Thanks to his early-warning system, I managed to pass the class with a B despite retaining very little of the content he shared in class.
When I was recently asked what the most important advice was that I’d ever received, I was hard pressed to come up with a single answer. How does one start with a question like that? Nary a day goes by without some form of advice being shared, so how does one choose that one thing that rises above all the rest as being the most pivotal, valuable words of wisdom?
It’s likely a lot easier to recall the worst advice – especially when there are scars to remind us of our foolhardy decisions. Most of my Worst-of-All-Time Hall-of-Famers begin with phrases like They won’t be mad; you should do it or It won’t hurt. Really. Nothing good ever happened when I opted to believe advice that began with that kind of logic.
And some advice, as inane and obvious as it sounds, pays off every single time. For example, the advice to use my manners – that’s been pretty useful. Seriously. It has resulted in many a positive result and has helped me inspire colleagues to try a proposed course of action which places them far outside their comfort zone. When I was told that please and thank you are magic words, it was good advice. They hold incredible power to change the attitudes, minds, opinions, and decisions of those around us.
But when I consider what it is that I come back to time and again when I am in the midst of a struggle, whether it is in my personal or professional life, it would have to be the words of my great-grandmother, Zelma Carder. She was a larger-than-life figure of my childhood who walked straight out of a Zane Grey Western novel and into my life. She’d lived this incredibly difficult but exciting life. She homesteaded in the barren, windswept prairies of northern New Mexico in the 1800’s, survived the Dust Bowl years despite losing almost everything she owned except for a grand piano (which now sits in our living room). She traveled in a Conestoga wagon (with her grand piano in tow) to live as a migrant worker, picking cotton alongside her husband and children to survive the desperate years after the Great Depression. She learned to carry the heartbreak of burying several of her family, including her own child, during a flu epidemic in the early 1900’s. She crocheted rugs out of bread bags and turned butter tubs into the most wonderful doll beds filled with satin beds hand stitched from old night gowns and covered with colorful crocheted skirts. She was a true pioneer of sustainability, the ultimate conservationist. The stories she told me were the things of grand novels, and she was, by far, the strongest, bravest, fiercest, most stubborn woman I’ve ever known.
While visiting her when I was maybe six or seven years old, she scolded me for crying after losing a game to her. I had no idea at the time that her words would ring in my ears every time I faced a situation where I felt I was being treated unfairly or had an uphill battle to reach my goal. As I sat in my chair across from her, trying to swallow my tears, she said, “No one in this life is going to feel sorry for you. If you sit there feeling sorry for yourself, you just decided to give up on yourself. And then you’re the loser, not because of anyone else, but because of yourself. If you’re going to play, do it because you love the game. And then when you win, you can celebrate, but even when you lose, you’ll still be the winner because you got to play the game you love.”
Especially now as I serve as CEO of a startup, her words spur me to grow, be courageous and focus on the vision of the future I know is possible. While our team deploys and refines our technology that is impacting the lives of others and has the potential of impacting lives across the globe, I know I’m in this game because I love it. But on the hard days, when everything goes wrong, my great-grandmother’s words remind me that it’s up to me to dig deep, toughen up and find the courage to brush off the disappointment and push forward to the next pinnacle where the view of the future is clearly visible once again.