To live the life we imagine, we are advised to find the courage to “dare greatly”. In one of the boldest moves of my life, I found courage from a quote by anthropologist Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world…indeed it is the only thing that ever has.
I wrote this (paraphrased version) of her legendary observation on a Post-it, and taped it to the drywall above my desk in the basement of our modest townhouse where we launched our company, webMethods, Inc.
Words from a woman whom I’d never met had a profound impact on me. There were 3 or 4 of us – a scrappy group of unknown entrepreneurs who aimed to take on the world of enterprise software.
For years, I needed to read that Post-it every day. Rationally speaking, the evidence was that it was unlikely that we would change the world (most start-ups fail), but Margaret Mead gave me the courage to take action every day and believe we could.
We would soon ride a fast, wild, unpredictable roller coaster with twists (multiple VC rejections) and turns (down to the last $33 in our bank account, maxed credit cards) and within a few years climb higher than any of us had ever been – our IPO was, at the time, the best performing software IPO in history, revenue grew to over $200million, and employees grew to 1,100+ worldwide.
After we changed the “world” of enterprise software, we launched a foundation to help change the world for low income families by investing in nonprofits that provided education and jobs training.
As our company and foundation grew, so did our family and my husband and I (cofounder and CEO) struggled with the balancing act of family, career, company, community and more.
It was like a Rubik’s cube. How would we make it all work? Well, sometimes it did, in unconventional ways, and sometimes it didn’t. I could have used a road map for the path that I was on. My Mother always said “you can be anything you want to be” but she didn’t tell me how!
Margaret Mead encouraged me to dare greatly, but once I had a family, I needed encouragement and advice to figure out how to be a parent and keep changing the world.
I wasn’t sure I could, not in the professional role I had carved out for myself. HBR recently wrote, “Work/life balance is at best an elusive ideal and at worst a complete myth, today’s senior executives will tell you.”
I sought clarity. There were many internal and external voices and questions. (“Are you coming back to work after you have the baby?!”)
Now, in the interest of full disclosure – we had a forward thinking, highly unusual track record for a software start-up. Half of the six person management team I served on were women, including our CFO and our EVP of Product Development.
We were one of the good ones – our corporate culture was heading in the right direction. btw, if you don’t work for one of the good ones, see Richard Branson’s (Founder of Virgin Group) ideas here and here.
My personal situation was complicated by the business travel required of both my husband and me.
After much soul-searching and analysis, I concluded the best thing for me was to leave the company I LOVED and co-founded after 5 years – it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But it felt like the right decision for our family at the time.
I then dove into the role of President and Chairman of the Foundation we had co-founded, and felt the work we were doing was vital. No travel required and I had a flexible schedule.
BUT – I did not have a plan. There was no Lean In, yet. Candidly, I didn’t know where my career would lead. I was certain there was work I was born to do that was not yet done– I just hadn’t identified or reconnected with it, yet. That lack of clarity really bothered me. Later, this helped.
I recently discovered that Margaret Mead’s daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, an extraordinary woman in her own right (Professor, Dean, author) wrote an acclaimed book called Composing a Life.
In it she describes the struggles and triumphs of her own personal and career path, and tells stories of other women, unpacking the idea that women must constantly improvise to enjoy the fulfillment and impact they seek from marriage, personal growth, children, and their professional lives.
I realize now that this is what all women do, all the time – whether single or married, family, or not. We just don’t appreciate it, or give ourselves (or other women) permission to improvise as much as we could or should.
How would this mindset of Improvising help us as we navigate the ages and stages of our lives? We launch with a set of goals in early adulthood, and life happens – new, amazing, unplanned opportunities, challenges and – even and especially – blessings – create demands on us that we could not have foreseen.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s encourage one another in the spirit of Margaret Mead and her daughter Mary Catherine Bateson:
Anticipate and Make Peace with Improvising. One definition of improvise is: produce or make (something) from whatever is available.
Improvising is creative. When you look at sorting out the competing priorities, opportunities, and aspirations you and the women you know have – rather than seeing it as a burden – see it for what it is – an opportunity to improvise!
Women must constantly reinvent themselves. Of course, all of us do — men included. Change is the one constant.
Encourage, don’t judge. When I made the decision to leave the company, I felt it was right for my family and me. Looking back, I now know I had more choices than I realized. I take that insight with me now. Every experience we have – good, bad, success, disappointment – it all adds up to insight and experience that makes you valuable to yourself and others.
I used to work with a woman who said, “you pay dearly for your ‘intuition’!” We learn the most from hard things, disappointments or setbacks. Women do well when they encourage other women to explore a variety of choices and not judge them. Words of encouragement are the spark that unleashes creativity and courage to improvise and compose a life.
One size does not fit all – forge the path that works for your unique life. If one idea doesn’t work, try another and keep improvising.
You are the most influential person you know when it comes to your future. When it comes to achieving a life that matters to you, it’s reassuring to be reminded that you have more options than you can imagine – I spent too much energy and time worried how things would work themselves out – and in fact they have worked out better than I imagined, in unexpected ways, many times over, since then. It wasn’t a straight line up, and no “overnight” successes, but each experience has been a net positive personally and professionally.
One reason things eventually work out is that I’ve sincerely given my best effort in each role and stage of my career. It hasn’t been perfect, but no one expected it to be (except, perhaps, me, at first.) So it goes with you – YOU are the platform on which to compose your life and improvise in your career – the good work you do and have done, and those pivotal intangibles, your attitude, the way you treat people, your actions, reactions, choices, yes, your mistakes, too, since we all make them, your generosity with yourself and others — is more important in your life than anything else, even when you feel stalled in a transition where you need to improvise.
Margaret Mead and her daughter Mary Catherine both have encouraged me greatly by their words, daring, and example.
Let their words encourage you today – never doubt that a small group of people can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has, and, as you and the women you know are changing the world, you do it best when you improvise while composing a life and career that matters, and by encouraging each other often.
If you are encouraged by the words of these two women today, pass it along to other women and encourage them, too!