These People Are the Real Deal

"Hope and optimism have to play a big role in your life," Richard Chow told the audience tonight. I had a little bit more of both by the time I left the room.

I attended a panel event called "Connecting with Leaders: Knowledge, Wisdom, and Community Building," hosted by the Vice Provost for Graduate Education in partnership with the Distinguished Career Institute (DCI). The DCI is a brilliant idea: individuals with 20-30 years of professional experience and have achieved "major accomplishments" spend a year in residency at Stanford to learn, connect with students, and chart the next chapter in the journey of their lives. The logic of the program is that people are living longer and longer lives, and that people have an interest in contributing beyond the traditional retirement age -- maybe higher education is a place for people later in their careers, too. 

The five panelists tonight: Maria Amundson, a former top-level executive in the public relations and technology sectors and now serves on the board of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation; Rick Woolworth, who spent 35 years on Wall Street in various leadership positions and now runs a mentorship non-profit; Richard Chow, former executive in the renewable energy industry who serves on the national council of the World Wildlife Fund; Mark Nelson, a former managing partner of a law firm based out of Singapore, and Margrit Benton, who has worked in law, international human rights, the museum industry, and has served on the board of the largest American curriculum international school in the world. 

These people are the real deal. Smart, accomplished, generous, thoughtful. By the end of the event, I legitimately admired each of them. I also learned from each of them.

Here are some of the pearls of wisdom that I sketched during their discussion.

"I rarely did anything that wasn't family or career related for 30 years...I made choices different from my peers," Mark Nelson told us. It reminded me of Gary Vaynerchuk's advice for folks unhappy with their current jobs but don't know what to do about. Gary V's advice is: use the free time you do have, from 6:00pm to 2:00am or whatever it may be, and do something. That means cutting out beers with your friends, watching sports, or whatever else occupies your time. These are extreme examples, but I think there's tremendous value in it. Mark (and Gary) have already had distinguished careers with economic stability and amazing opportunities, and their willingness to make sacrifices, particularly early on, played a role in that.

Maria Amundson on the myth of work-life balance: "You never really find have to make tough decisions every day." I found this really reassuring, because it seems true. Life can never be boiled down to a formula of x hours leisure plus y hours work plus z hours family equals balance. Every day is unexpected and dynamic and challenging -- you have to be nimble and just keep your eyes on the macro, the big picture. 

I had never heard of the "mentoring gap," before tonight, but that's how Rick Woolworth described a cultural challenge that exists today. "People our age aren't spending time with people your age," he said. Rick started a non-profit to address this, and the DCI is incorporating the idea of life-long learning and mentorship by hosting events like this panel. I think one of the best pieces of advice for young people is to find a mentor who can connect you with opportunities and advise you throughout your journey. Mark contributed to this discussion which something I identified with: "It's a really wonderful stage of life when the people you've long admired and had as mentors become your peers." That, to me, is incredibly motivating. I feel really fortunate to have mentors that have achieved great success and are incredibly intelligent; to have the same standing as them means I've made it. Someday.

One important theme I picked up was how priorities shift over time, but how it's hard to recognize that in the moment. Mark told the story of going back to his college reunions every ten years. At the ten year reunion, people are beating their chests and talking about their cools jobs and all their professional opportunities. At the twenty year, there is some more balance in the discussion as people have matured. By the thirty year reunion, everyone is talking about their partner, their kids, their parents. "The deeply meaningful stuff is human relationships," Mark said. 

Rick told us about a tool he uses to help people figure out their direction in life. Let's say today is your 80th birthday, and all the people you know and love are sitting in a big room to celebrate and raise their glasses to you. What are the five most important things you want them to say about you? This is where you start. This is your goal. Work backwards. It's a really useful frame because it focuses on the things that matter, the "meaningful stuff" -- not money, titles, or positions.

That's a great way to think about life.