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The Audacity of Hope

Most of us, myself included, don’t have the capacity to read all the books we want and should read. So to help the Firmsconsulting community not miss out on important learnings we come across, we will periodically share lessons from important, influential and insightful books. After all, one insight can change the trajectory of your entire life.

Today’s focus is on lessons learned from Carly Fiorina’s memoir “Tough Choices”. As you probably know, Carly was president and CEO of HP from 1999 to 2005, and Fortune named her the most powerful woman in business.

She is someone I deeply admire as a professional and businessperson. I first read this book when I transferred from working as a receptionist to becoming a management consultant and it helped me greatly in maintaining the right mindset as I continued building my career.

Insight number 1 – your life is your own.

Until the age of 22, Carly spent her life pleasing her parents. Her mother was an artist and Carly played the piano, so she considered becoming a professional musician. Ultimately, she decided against it because the isolation that came with that career was too much to bear.

This, by the way, is a reason I completely understand because that was one of the reasons why I left my promising piano career.

Her father loved law. Since Carly decided not to follow in her mother’s footsteps, she followed in her father’s. Carly chose to attend UCLA law school after her Stanford history and philosophy degree. She never even considered alternatives.

Carly hated law school. She had terrible headaches all the time and barely slept.

One weekend Carly came home to visit and had an epiphany while taking a shower on a Sunday morning.

She realized she had no idea why she was in law school and that life couldn’t be about pleasing her parents. Carly understood that to reach her potential she had to find something that would capture her heart.

Many of us make the same mistake. I, for one, attended Music College to please my parents, just as Carly did. I composed music and when a Russian composer, Mark Levyant, heard my work, he told my parents I should be a musician. Even though I had no interest or passion in dedicating my life to being a musician, I went along with my parents’ wishes.

Following other’s expectations of me resulted in losing 4 years of my professional life. All of this to end up at square one after my graduation, with no degree just a diploma and no useful knowledge or capabilities for what I wanted to do with my life.

From that point on I stopped listening to people and decided to follow my north star, wherever it would lead me. I realized no one knew what path I should follow better than I did.

Ask yourself, are you doing anything because people expect it of you? If so, stop! You have only one life. Why don’t you make it a big one?

Insight number 2 – Don’t think about the next job.

After Carly dropped out of law school, she was a receptionist at Marcus & Millichap, a commercial property brokerage firm located one block from the headquarters of HP in Palo Alto, California.

Imagine that! Carly Fiorina had to start off her career as a receptionist.

Carly threw herself into the job, arriving early, staying late and volunteering for anything she could help with. She did not think this job was beneath her.

Over time some brokers started asking Carly to write proposals, make cold calls, participate in strategy meetings on upcoming negotiations, and even visit and assess property. Eventually the owners of the business asked Carly to train to become a broker for their firm.

Because they saw potential in Carly, she began to look for it in herself. This confidence from her employer ultimately gave Carly courage to pursue an MBA.

This experience formed the basis for the career advice Carly has given ever since:   “Don’t think about the next job; focus on doing the very best you can with the job you have. Learn everything you can from everyone you can. Focus on the possibilities of each job, not the limitations. Look for the people who will take a chance on you.”

I give the same advice as my own experience has proven to me over and over again that if you give your very best in each role you have, the opportunities will open up for you to climb toward your dreams.

Insight number 3 – Don’t take “No” for an answer.

In 1977 Carly married Todd and they immediately left for Italy. Todd studied full time at the Bologna campus of the John Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies while Carly taught English to Italian businessmen and their families to pay the bills.

Carly was often asked by her clients to explain American business, so she started reading American business journals and newspapers. This furthered Carly’s knowledge and interest in business and led her to pursue an MBA.

Carly only applied to the University of Maryland because, at the time, it was the only accredited business school in the Washington, D.C area. The young couple planned to live in this area while Todd would finish his second year of studies.

Carly, however, received a rejection letter. Yet she would not accept “No” for an answer. After weeks of trying to contact various admission committees and officers, Carly finally reached the head of the Admissions Council, Dr. Ed Locke. She called him again and again. She would plan each call in advance and would practice the key points she wanted to make. Eventually she was admitted.

When I was trying to move from my back-office research role to strategy consulting, I spoke to many partners at the firm but was always politely declined. I did not stop. Yet I narrowed my search to focus on roles where the firm needed a skill that only I had – my Russian language ability.

My persistence helped, but my ability to find a strategy study that required a critical skill that only I had was the key reason for my move to the strategy practice. So you have to be persistent, yet constantly adapt your approach to search for roles perfect for you.

Also remember that “no” often means “may be” or “not now”. It does not always mean “never”. If you want something, be persistent and you very well might get it even if you were initially rejected.

Now lets make sure this video will help you. Pick the insight that can impact your life the most and for the next week take action to make necessary changes.

Remember, insight without action is of little help, so give it a try!

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