In January 2016, I was asked to speak to the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Southern California about my work, career path and approach to social activism. I considered some of the many projects I’ve been privileged to work on over the years. What I realized as with so many of us in our careers, it is defined by the journey. This blog is a compilation of a series of excerpts from this speech in which I will share a bit about my journey so far. I’ve chosen ten transformational moments and lessons that have defined my why, informed my approach to my social impact work and structured my view of the world.
Lesson 1: You Will Learn Who You Are At An Early Age… Pay Attention To The Signs
There are many roles and titles I’ve held throughout my career: Artist; Educator; Strategist; Philanthropic Advisor; Fundraiser; and, Producer. However, when asked, I find it much easier to say I’m a Strategist and Humanitarian. I learned this at a very early age when I came face to face with a young man living in poverty. It was an existence I had very little knowledge of but instinctively knew it was part of the world in which I lived. My first question then, as it is today, was “how can I help?’ I care and am invested in people. It is my belief that together we have the power to not only find but also implement solutions to support the greater good. I am an Altruistic Strategist and am here to be of service.
Lesson 2: Eliminate The Distractions And Focus On Your Goal... There’s Always A Way
Studying abroad in the South of France during my sophomore year of college brought about several lessons, one of which was to focus on my goals. In addition to my course of study, I journeyed out to explore new experiences. One of my passions was, and continues to be, culinary arts and what better location to learn the true art of cooking than France. Upon arrival to Nice, I set out to secure a position as apprentice in one of the local restaurants or cafes. I was a young woman, a foreigner who to many looked very much like the immigrant community they were battling. I was at their door requesting a job while their unemployment rate was skyrocketing. If I had taken it all into consideration, it would have been reason enough to not even try. Instead, I followed my gut and kept going in the face of many rejections because I knew there was a yes somewhere. And because I did, I found a community that exposed me to a whole other world of the French experience that I had no understanding of… There is always a way, just don’t give up. Inevitably, the reward will be much richer than you can imagine or even expect.
Lesson 3: Broaden Your Life Experiences.. It Will Expand Your Perspective
There is always something to be thankful for. Traveling and exposing yourself to new experiences helps to put the day to day challenges and achievements in perspective. Upon graduation from undergraduate studies, I traveled and subsequently lived in Durban, South Africa for several months. My voyage to South Africa followed just a few short years after the end of apartheid yet there remained a significant imprint on the people and the culture, as it does today. I learned several lessons on this journey but the one that stays with me is that of perspective. Life’s challenges and opportunities are relative. It is often by the grace of our birth place and position that we live free. Therefore, it is critical to often take a step back and look through the lens of someone else’s experience to find gratitude for the load we carry. On the other side, having an opportunity to view the world through the lens of those steps ahead may also act as a motivator. When we are exposed to those who have achieved what we aspire to it gives us hope for what is possible and a reminder to carry on.
Lesson 4: Think About The Big Picture…Beyond Ego, There Is Opportunity
At the onset of my career, I had an opportunity to work in the political arena. I was offered and subsequently accepted a position with a national presidential campaign. If I had focused solely on the role being offered as simply a job I most certainly would have missed what this really was - an opportunity. I set out on a three year adventure to learn everything I could. I soaked up every nuance and strategy I was privy to. I volunteered to work at night on the fundraising events and happily made myself available to anyone who needed an extra pair of hands. This allowed me access at an early age and more importantly insight to a world unknown to many. I worked day and night weekends and most holidays. This all proved to be extremely beneficial to me and my professional development. On one hand, I learned a great deal - different work styles and politics at the highest level. I also elevated my own professional skills rewarded with a great work ethic, continued promotion and an amazing network of colleagues and friends that I continue to call on to this day. It’s important to look at the big picture because small beginnings often result in big endings.
Lesson 5: You Can Do Anything But You Need Not Do Everything… Learn To Delegate
Each of us has the ability to learn any skill we choose and create any reality we conceive, believe and work toward. However, no one can do it alone. We are all connected and need each other to truly make anything happen of any consequence. When you release ego from the equation and realize who you are and what you bring to the table this becomes easy to do. I learned this when I became the boss and decided to be a leader instead. You see, being a leader requires you to understand how to communicate with people, delegate effectively and work as a team. Being a leader is the difference between “you go do” vs “we’re going to get this done, here’s the plan.” I take the role as leader seriously and that of the work we do. I make every effort to create a learning environment for myself and for others, clients and colleagues alike. We all bring value given our unique experiences and perspectives and we rely on each other to make the impossible possible. Team work is what makes the dream work!
Lesson 6: There Is A Head Table Protocol… One Of The Expectations And Responsibilities Of Occupying A Seat Is That You Use Your Voice
The first time I sat down at the table with the “big dogs” I choked. I was young and completely intimidated. At this time in my career, I was often a little too timid when I needed to be vocal. That happens to many of us as emerging professionals and all too often as established ones as well. Along the way, we make concessions and remain deferential to who we perceive to have the “answers” resulting in us losing our voice. It’s a practice that serves no one and always underserves ourselves. What we must realize is that we all represent a unique experience in the world and therefore occupy a space that no one else can fill and most certainly speak from. If you have been given a place at the table, you have a role and responsibility to use your voice and position to keep the door open for those who come after you. Even if you are intimidated or a little unsure, say what you need to say, that’s why you’re here.
Lesson 7: Know Thyself.. SWOT Yourself
When I embarked on a career as a consultant, I did so with an assurance of my talent and vision to support the work of humanitarian causes. I realized while I had the talent to do the work I needed the same strategy and planning I offered my clients. I became my own client and started the process with a deep analysis of my offerings and competitive advantage. The first thing I needed to learn was what worked and what needed work. - I needed to embrace the lessons of failure as much as I embraced the accolades of success to balance out the experience. Because they were all lessons. - I would need to broaden my skills beyond the talent and expertise I offered my clients. I would need to learn about the operations of a business - marketing, accounting and project management. - I knew how important communication was to problem solving so I set out to identify and recruit my tribe of supporters and advisors. When the going gets tough as it always does, I would inevitably need communicators who were there to help me address problems I would encounter as a leader and business owner. Being my own client has served me well as it provides me with the clarity we all need to recognize what we know for sure and what we don’t know yet. There’s always more to learn…
Lesson 8: The Measurement For Success Is Personal
I had hit my stride with my consulting business and feeling quite successful based on what I had come to believe was the best only measurement for success - an upwardly mobile business. However, I was also living and breathing my work without much reprieve. My body was reacting to the lack of balance I had established in my life. It took some time to realize what was happening to me and why. To do so, I began to take a hard look at my priorities. The best way to see what you value and prioritize in your life is to look at your calendar and your checkbook. Where we spend our time and money is how we spend our lives. What I began to realize was that I needed to design a life that made sense for me without consideration for what the world told me was appropriate. So I set out to start again and create a life that centered around what brought me joy. It took several years to reset and when I did it made all the difference. Balance for me integrated a new aspect of my work that I had often equated with play. Success can only be measured by the scorecard that we create not one we’ve adopted by what we are told. Life's work and play is ours to design.
Lesson 9: Submit To The Unknown Journey
I remember speaking on a panel with a host of other colleagues hailing from various fields. We were asked to provide advice to recent high school graduates about college and life. I saw the fear and anxiety in so many of the students’ eyes. They vocalized worry about college debt and best career tracks for a lucrative career. Sadly, there was no discussion about passion or the intrigue about the inevitable journey we all take as we find our way. In lieu of addressing those questions, I shared a secret that many people don’t like to admit. No one has it all figured out. We’re all learning as we go. Of course, from the outside it can certainly appear as though we do, but the reality is that there are plot twists along the way that no one sees coming. Sometimes these twists are made from great tragedy and other times from triumph. The key to navigating these waters is to be clear about the intentions for your life, to work as hard and as smart as you can toward your goals and to finally release any expectation or belief that it will work out the way you envision. Plan, prepare, and prioritize the course ahead and then let go and embrace the unknown. It is the journey that is the reward.
Lesson 10: Be A Beginner
It was at the peak of my consulting career when I decided to go back to school for filmmaking. I set out to begin again as a student while managing the day-to-day work commitments. This step back allowed me to broaden my view, skills and offerings. Storytelling is now an integral component of my work with nonprofits, philanthropists and media professionals. It’s a humbling, yet, invigorating experience to start something new and allow yourself to be a beginner once you’ve established yourself as expert in your industry. This exercise helps us remain humble and vulnerable and sharpens our transferrable skills. Not only will it broaden your individual capacity for growth, because we are all connected, your enhanced offerings will inevitably have a greater impact within our global community. By elevating yourself, you elevate us all. Start something new, today!