Some of you had been asking for a link to the #SolveForXX keynote I did at the Jean Forest Leadership Academy for teenaged girls earlier this year. The recording isn’t available, but here is a text excerpt from one of my favorite parts – thoughts on leadership. Enjoy!
12 Lessons on Leadership
This is an amazing time to be alive, because this is a world of promise and problems. There is still much to be discovered, invented and solved. I say these things to inspire you, because I firmly believe that you are up to the challenge, whatever end of the spectrum you choose to focus on – surviving or thriving. You are part of a generation that is more connected, more tech-savvy and more enabled than any before. And there is no shortage of problems to address in this world. And problem is really just a fancy way of saying potential – as in there is potential for you to solve something here, and I suspect there are those amongst you who love challenges.
So how do you get there? Let’s start with a question:
What do you think makes a good leader?
Here is what I have found in my experience.
A good leader:
- Is driven.
- Works harder than anyone else on the team.
- Inspires others.
- Thinks differently.
But how do you become that person? I want to share with you some of what I have learned along the way.
- Find your passion. This is actually a far more active process than people think. Some people know they want to be a dancer from the time they first learn to walk. Other people have an inkling they want to be a scientist when they are young. But it is a common misconception that you just automatically know. The little-known secret is that the more you do, the more you experience, the more you will get an inkling of what you like and what you are good at. Someone once told me that the perfect job is one that fits the Venn Diagram of What You Love, What the World Needsand What You are Good At. So start this process of finding your passion: read, Google things, attend meetings, ask questions, find letters, go out and experience that world!
- Believe in the power of people. I sincerely believe that people are fundamentally good and want to help. Everybody has different talents and life experiences, and everyone will interact and react together differently because of these differences, just like chemicals in a reaction. When you have the right set of ingredients, amazing things will happen. You intuitively know this. It is how friendships form. It is also how successful teams, leaders and change-makers come together.
- Learn to love to learn. Figuring this out will put you ahead of the game. Seek to learn something every day. You don’t just magically turn some age and wake up thinking “Oh hey! I’m 25 and life makes sense.” This is something some adults still struggle with. The world really is your oyster. Whatever you want to learn about, understand better or get your hands on – it is at your reach. This is more true today than ever before. We live in a world where knowledge is at your fingertips, through resources such as the Khan Academy, Massive On-line Open Courses (MOOCs), hack spaces, DIY/maker movements and YouTube.
- Learn to be a doer. Be an active, not passive participant. I have a friend who is CEO of green-tech start-up and a passionate women’s right’s activist. She once told me: If you are really passionate about becoming involved with something, don’t just ask “how can I help?,” but think “what needs to be done?” and then go out and do it. Don’t be passive, be active. Because you’ll get a sense of the magnitude of the problem and the work that needs to be done (and now there is one less thing to be done.) This will turn you into a doer.
- Practice “Tofushi.” When planning something big, the easiest way to psych yourself out is to think that things happen overnight, and shrink back at the enormity of the task that lies ahead. That is not true. We don’t become experts and virtuosos overnight. That comes through years of practice. And the best way to get there is to break that 1000 mile journey into a series of steps. So whether you want to learn to play the piano or how to be an aerospace engineer, the key is to breaking things down into bite-sized pieces – just like sushi – or tofushi, for fellow vegetarians.
- Stay humble. No matter who are you are and how successful you become, there will be a lot you don’t know. In my time working at NASA, I was lucky enough to meet Commander Chris Hadfield, who is one of the most down-to-Earth and genuine people I know. He is incredibly accomplished, talented and brilliant, yet what has inspired me most about him is his humility. He has always said to me, “Thank you for your time.” And that just blows my mind. But it in turn reminds me to be grateful to others, because if I have learned if you look for it, you will learn something from everyone you meet.
- Work really, really hard. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, or shy away from hard work or menial tasks. Everything you do has value, if you think about it. Maybe you have a part-time job working in retail. And maybe someday you want to be a CEO. I guarantee you that every thing you learn about inventory, operations, organization will help you in this endeavour. Maybe you volunteer in a lab cleaning Petri dishes. It may not feel like it, but I guarantee you being in a lab will make you that much more knowledgeable about the scientific process. Whether you realize it or not, everything you do has value, and embracing this is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. Every experience you have will shape you. And when you actively try to glean what you can from each experience, you will be that much better. Learning focus, discipline and hard work is hands down the most important thing you can do for yourself, and if you can learn this skill early, you will go far in this life.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you have a question, odds are you not the only one. Ask your questions early on – because it will open up so many more avenues. Ask your questions early on, before the moment has passed, because there is so, so much to learn. Asking questions will also turn you into a problem-solver. My favorite question is “how can I make it better?”
- Hone that Spidey-Sense. That’s not a scientific term, but it’s something that intuitively makes sense. Everyone will have a different idea of who they want you to be, and not all of it is going resonate with you. You are a spark, waiting to be kindled. Find the people who believe in you and your ideas and fuel you and share your passions with them. You alone will have a sense of when people are trying to change you or mould you into something that doesn’t ring true with you. We call that dissonance. Sometimes that comes from a well-intended place. Maybe your parents want you to be a doctor or a lawyer, because that means a stable, well-paying job. Sometimes people will use you for their own ends, and it will be obvious that they do not have your best interests at heart. And that’s when you not only need to listen to that spidey-sense, but be strong enough to act on that voice.
- Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t let yourself make excuses for why you aren’t making the changes you want yet. You have potential, energy and drive. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are just a girl or that you are too young or too whatever. I want to point you the examples of Brittany Wenger, who won the Google science fair when she was 17 for creating an neural network that could examine breast tissue samples for cancer with 99.1% accuracy. And it all started with an idea, with picking up a book on computer programming when she was 12.
- Think big. Think really really really big. Focus on problems so big that people look at you cross-eyed when you tell them on the sheer magnitude of it. My favorite Dean Kamen quote, when choosing something to work on: “Is it crazy? (The answer should be ‘yes.’) If it works, will it be a really big deal? (Ditto).
- Use your imagination. In a world where automation and AI are becoming increasingly pervasive, I firmly believe that imagination and creativity will become the most highly valued commodities of the future. Imagination is one of the most powerful and unique tools you have. Imagination is what will help you solve problems in unique and novel ways. So don’t be afraid to daydream once in a while.