It's that time of year again, the long weeks of festivities are over and the solemn sketching out of the year ahead has begun.
I've been thinking a lot about advice recently (mainly because there's a lot of it flying around) and how a few words said at just the right time can change someone's entire direction in life.
It sounds a little hokey but this happened to me in high school when I was set on following my father's advice into becoming a doctor.
As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, it was drilled into my head that having a career that carried a "license" – whether it be a doctor, lawyer, accountant – guaranteed job safety. "When you have a license," he would say, "it's very easy to find a job."
He had a point and it all made sense, but it just didn't feel right for me. One afternoon, as I was applying for college, I walked into my guidance counselor's office to have her proofread some of my college application essays. Mrs. Conway was a sweet, elderly woman who cared about her students. She sat down and read my college essay, peering at the paper over her horn-rimmed glasses, her red hair tied up in a frazzled-looking bun. After a few moments, she looked up, smiled and said: "You know Betty, you're a pretty good writer. You should try it." I knew what she was saying. And those few words changed my life.
A few days later I told my my father that I didn't want to be a doctor. I wanted to write for a living. I wanted to be a journalist. I could tell he was disappointed and unsure of my decision. But by then, it was too late. I knew what I wanted to do and there was no turning back. Those few words of advice from Mrs. Conway gave me the confidence to pursue what I really wanted to do. That advice altered my life completely.
I was lucky to have had someone encourage me to do what I really wanted. But I've always been curious what pieces of advice, if any, changed the path of some of the brightest minds in business. Through Radiate I have gotten the chance to ask some of them and here are some of my favorites:
"Get out of town," was the best advice Richard Socarides was told when he had finished working in the Clinton White House. The now-Head of Public Affairs at GLG explains "people come to work in Washington, and then they stay and spend the rest of their life in Washington. And, believe me, [a White House senior staffer] said, you will always be unhappy. Every time you drive by the White House, you'll think, 'oh, those were the days. You don't want to live in the past, you want to live in the future,' he said."
"I went to my first board meeting, I sat next to the Chairman of Coke who was on the board. I wore my best white shirt, my striped tie, my blue suit, I didn’t say a damn thing." recalls legendary manager Jack Welch. At the end of the meeting the Chairman pulled him aside and said: “Hey Jack, that wasn’t you at that meeting. We hired you because you’re a rebel. What the hell are you dressed up like this for, acting like this at this meeting? Be yourself!"
In the midst of pursuing a second-rate business idea, Glenn Kelman's co-founder at Redfinasked: "Why not do the big thing?" After that mental breakthrough, Glenn and his co-founder stopped working on a so-called "lame little idea" and started Redfin. "When you try to do something really big, if it's audacious and exciting, so many other talented people are going to want to work with you," Glenn said. "Even if it's going to be a long, hard slog, even if you're going to have these terrible competitors, it is good to be the David against the Goliath. So I've always thought that just doing the big thing, dreaming a little bit more, has been the best advice anyone ever gave me."
Mellody Hobson heard this rhyme from her mother since she was very small. "Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all." This advice was applied to everything. "She didn't care what it was, if you didn't go at it with every bit of energy you had, from emptying the trash to cleaning the bathroom floor, to working at school, she thought, 'just why bother?'" The now President of Ariel Investments says this motto has made a real difference in her approach to life and work.
About Betty Liu