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10 Career & Life Lessons I Learned from the Women I Interviewed in 2019

Free advice from women more accomplished and experienced than a lot of us


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Photo by Madison Parker

My job as editor puts me in front of a lot of accomplished, interesting people. I’m lucky to have this kind of access—most people, when they make a cold call looking for advice or a mentor or job, have to just ask to “pick your brain over coffee.” I’m always looking for compelling anecdotes and helpful nuggets for my readers, but sometimes I get to ask stuff that selfishly is just for my benefit. Here are 10 lessons I learned from some of the women I interviewed this year:

 

1. Shortcuts are dead ends.

Summer Stephan, San Diego County District Attorney

“In society, we see people that rise to power but fall because they’ve taken so many shortcuts. And their ego gets so large because they haven’t actually grinded away at the daily work. We see this in the college admissions scandal. Shortcuts, especially in the area of hard work and character, are dead ends.”

 

2. Anger isn’t useful.

Liz Valenzuela Banker, President and CEO, Shore Solutions

“When I got to E4 [petty officer], it was the proudest moment of my Navy career… I remember hearing people say, ‘I wonder who she had to do to get that.’ It makes you a bit resentful toward the other sex. I was angry a lot. It wasn’t until later in my career that I realized it’s up to us as women to change that perception, right? Having mentors helped me realize that there’s a much bigger purpose we could all serve. Being a woman, being a veteran, being in the industry that I’m in, that’s what helped push me out of being negative to realizing that I am worth it and I am capable. I work seven days a week, 16 hours a day, so there’s not one person that can say I’m undeserving of what I’ve been able to accomplish.”

Related: Senator Toni Atkins also told me about mentors redirecting her anger: “By the time I was able to get to college on a scholarship and Pell Grants, I had a lot of anger about life’s inequities. But one of my early mentors helped me understand that it was important to channel that anger into action.”

 

3. It’s not silly pointing out something obvious if people need to hear it.

Susan Tousi, SVP of Product Development, Illumina

“A lot of times in meetings, when women say something, it’s brushed over until a male counterpart says it later in the meeting, and I’ll point out, ‘That’s exactly what so-and-so said earlier. I’m so glad we got the point now.’”

 

4. Don’t feel stupid if you don’t know what a board of directors does.

Christina de Vaca, CEO of Corporate Directors Forum

“The reason women don’t know what being on a board is about is because they’ve never been in the boardroom. But if you’re in the C-suite, you’ve probably presented to the board. The more women reach the C-suite, the more opportunities there will be for women on boards because then the board members know who you are. It’s another opportunity for you to showcase your talents.”

 

5. Don’t waste your time on mommy guilt.

Kim Perell, CEO, Amobee

“I have four-year-old twins… they ask, ‘Where are you going?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m going to go change the world.’ So it’s important to me to share that I love what I do. I grew up with entrepreneurial parents, and they’re passionate and wanted to do that every day. Seeing that come from your parents is inspiring.”

Related: NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa told me she left two toddlers at home went she went to outer space on her fourth mission.

 

6. There’s a time and a place for emotions.

Susan Brandt, President, Dr. Seuss Enterprises

“I am a two-time cancer survivor. I don’t have a victim mentality. Take the time you need to stress and cry and mourn over the news—you really do need time to feel sorry for yourself—but at some point I imagine putting all of those emotions in a box. I put the box on a shelf and say, ‘Now I’m going to go do something else. I will focus on my kids, on my work, I’m going to laugh, joke, and if I need to feel sorry for myself, I’ll just take the box down.’ And more often than not, you don’t take the box down again.”

 

7. Create a full life outside of work.

Verna Griffin-Tabor, CEO, Center for Community Solutions

“Vicarious trauma is real. We do a lot of teaching at the agency around self-care. And for me, honestly, when I get to a problem during the day, what grounds me is, survivors would really like to have this be their problem. When I go home, I have learned how to separate. I ride bikes, I work out, I do yoga. I meditate, and I have a very full life outside of here so I can come back recharged. I had to learn to take breaks. I looked at myself when I wasn’t taking regular vacations. Not only was I not being the person I wanted to be, but I also didn’t give a good message to our leadership team. We have very capable leaders, and they are just fine when I’m not here. As a matter of fact, if they’re not, what kind of foundation did we really build?”

 

8. When your passions lead you into challenging situations—like needing to pump breastmilk in the middle of lifeguarding—just push through.

Maureen Hodges, first women Lieutenant Lifeguard of San Diego

“It was an El Niño year; the surf was giant every day and I was seven months postpartum. It was probably the hardest time in my personal life to do [the lifeguarding academy], but I look back and think, If I can do that, I can do anything. I still breastfed my son for a couple months after I got out of the academy so while I was working it was like, hey, if there’s an emergency, give me an extra 30 seconds notice than you normally would because I’m going to have to detach real quick if you need me. But the crew I worked with was super supportive, they made it work. And it shows other women that we can do this job and be moms.”

 

9. Don’t waste time and just go for it.

Alicia Gwynn, philanthropist, entrepreneur, singer

“I was managing my daughter and she was singing. I’d say, ‘Anisha, finish your album,’ and Tony would say, ‘What about yours? When are you going to do yours, Lish?’ So, he would always push me to do it. I think that’s my only regret, that I’m not doing it while he’s alive.”

 

10. Know your strengths and passions and you’ll be able to change jobs and industries.

Debby Buchholz, first female managing director of La Jolla Playhouse

“Figure out what is rewarding about your job that might be translatable someplace else. It may not be the industry. It might be the thing you’re doing in the place—being in human resources, managing people, being at a computer, solving problems. What are the things you find interesting and rewarding? Then grow in that so it stays interesting and rewarding, internally and intellectually and psychologically and morally and ethically—but always financially.”

Related: A lot of women said they did not have a five-year plan, or that you could have one but you should be prepared to deviate and constantly update. Susan Brandt told me that looking back on her career, it appears planned—but it wasn’t. She was just working in areas that interested her—wine, travel, film. Put yourself in a place where you’re happy and you’ll see more and more opportunities.

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