When was the last time you tossed aside your phone, closed your laptop, and just breathed? To be candid, breathing is something I’ve given little thought to for most of my life. It’s a natural, involuntary process, so how important can it be? That view has shifted over the last year.
I’ve long sought to master my emotions. Sometimes they get the best of me. There are times when I feel confident, intelligent, and at peace. I feel like I’m my best self. I feel like I can overcome whatever obstacles come my way. I call this expansion.
Other times I feel small. I feel anxious. I feel a lack of control. In these moments the obstacles in front of me look daunting. I’m overwhelmed. I call this contraction.
Physical exercise has been a powerful tool to help me move from contraction to expansion. Intense bike rides, hard runs, and even long, slow walks have helped shift my energy. But I don’t always have 30-60 minutes to spare. I needed something faster.
When I got serious about coaching, I hired my own coach. He introduced a simple exercise of taking three deep, intentional breaths. I start by sitting in silence with my eyes closed, then breathe in for five seconds, hold, then breathe out for five seconds.
Deep breathing has a calming effect. It helps us relax our fight or flight response. Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure. And it’s an exercise that can take as little as 60 seconds.
Shortly after learning the power of breathing, I introduced the exercise in my coaching practice. Every session now begins with three deep breaths, a practice my clients and I do together. We’re typically coming from other meetings and have a million things on our minds. Pausing for three deep breaths helps us get centered and present. On several occasions, I’ve been given feedback that the deep breathing exercise was the most impactful part of a coaching session.
Mastering our emotions and staying calm amidst the chaos can be the difference between success and failure. Spending more time in expansion helps us see new possibilities. It gives us the energy to sustain strong performance. There are many approaches that can shift us to a state of expansion. Taking three deep breaths is my new favorite and gives me the best bang for my buck.
I recently finished rereading the book, How Will You Measure Your Life? by the late Clayton Christensen. It’s a fantastic book. In it, Christensen discusses the differences between deliberate and emergent strategies.
In your career, a deliberate strategy is the specific plan you craft for your future, while an emergent strategy is a realized pattern that wasn’t expressly intended. In other words, an emergent strategy is the path you take after your circumstances have changed. It’s wise to have a plan, but Christensen believed (and I would echo) that too many people stress about their future and think they’re supposed to “have their careers planned out, step-by-step, for the next five years. High-achievers, and aspiring high-achievers, too often put pressure on themselves to do exactly this. . .”
Having a focused plan may make sense, but all too often things change. We need to make space for an emergent strategy. We need to leave room for inspiration. I am a man of faith. I believe there is a God and that he has a plan for each of us. I realize not everyone listening may share that faith, but it’s hard to argue with the times when we’ve felt guided to do something we didn’t intend to. Or times when a door opened that we didn’t think existed. This is inspiration.
If you’re anything like me, you want to have everything planned out. You’ve got a 1-year plan, a 5-year plan, a 10-year plan, etc. That’s what we’re taught to do, right? But some of the best things that have happened in my career were NOT planned for. Some of the best things have happened when my plans came crashing to the ground erupting in flames.
I’d like to tell a story of someone who had a difficult, unexpected experience in their career.
Hugh B. Brown, a former leader in my church, told the story of the time he purchased a rundown farm in Canada many decades ago. As he went about cleaning up and repairing his property, he came across a currant bush (on them grow tiny berries, kinda like a small grape) that had grown over six feet high and was yielding no berries, so he pruned it back drastically, leaving only small stumps. Then he saw a drop like a tear on the top of each of these little stumps, as if the currant bush were crying, and thought he heard it say:
“How could you do this to me? I was making such wonderful growth. … And now you have cut me down. Every plant in the garden will look down on me. … How could you do this to me? I thought you were the gardener here.”
Brown replied, “Look, little currant bush, I am the gardener here, and I know what I want you to be. I didn’t intend you to be a fruit tree or a shade tree. I want you to be a currant bush, and someday, little currant bush, when you are laden with fruit, you are going to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for loving me enough to cut me down.’”
Years later, Hugh Brown was a field officer in the Canadian Army serving in England. When a superior officer became a battle casualty, Brown was in line to be promoted to general, and he was summoned to London. But even though he was fully qualified for the promotion, it was denied him because of his faith. The commanding general said in essence, “You deserve the appointment, but I cannot give it to you.” What Brown had spent 10 years hoping and preparing for slipped through his fingers in that moment because of what he felt was blatant discrimination. Continuing his story, Brown remembered:
“I got on the train and started back … with a broken heart, with bitterness in my soul. … When I got to my tent, … I threw my cap on the cot. I clenched my fists, and I shook them at heaven. I said, ‘How could you do this to me, God? I have done everything I could do to measure up. There is nothing that I could have done—that I should have done—that I haven’t done. How could you do this to me?’ I was as bitter as gall.
“And then I heard a voice, and I recognized the tone of this voice. It was my own voice, and the voice said, ‘I am the gardener here. I know what I want you to do.’ The bitterness went out of my soul, and I fell on my knees by the cot to ask forgiveness for my ungratefulness. …
“… And now, almost 50 years later, I look up to [God] and say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for cutting me down, for loving me enough to hurt me.’”
Brown never became a general, but he believed that the divine redirected his life to do something even more important, to serve a higher purpose.
Like Brown getting denied his general promotion, there have been a few times in my career where I felt I did everything right, everything within my power, to land a job or put myself in a position to succeed and things didn’t work out. The most obvious was when I was an investment banking analyst at Lehman Brothers. I had hustled like crazy to get that job and everything fell apart only a few months after I joined. I found myself out of work with limited prospects. I finally landed a job but for years I was frustrated. I felt like that experience had set me back. I felt that my plan had been derailed.
But, as time went on, things worked out. In fact, they didn’t just work out, I was better off because of the setback. Had I not gone through the painful experiences early in my career I wouldn’t have built empathy for job seekers, I wouldn’t have written a book, I likely wouldn’t have pivoted my career from Finance to HR. I wouldn’t be able to coach and influence executives. I am confident that these experiences—that were really challenging at the time—led me to a path that I may not have discovered otherwise. This was inspiration.
So, what do we do with all this? What do we do when our perfect plan gets derailed?
First off, we try to withhold immediate judgment. When unplanned things happen, we try not to assess whether they are good or bad. They just are.
Second, we need to create space for stillness. We need to create space for perspective. This rarely comes immediately and may take more time than we’d like.
Having a plan is good. But as Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Some of the best things in our career happen when that plan isn’t realized. When that plan gets derailed. We need to create room for inspiration. We need to create room for an emergent strategy. Sometimes, like Hugh Brown’s currant bush, we need to be cut down before we can become the person we were meant to become.
Four years ago I left a comfortable job at an excellent company to join DoorDash, a Series C startup that had ~250 people. At the time, DoorDash was far from a sure thing. Several competitors had gone under and many were prophecying we were next. It’s been an incredible ride so far and while we’re just getting started, I want to reflect on lessons learned during this period. Here are four that stand out.
1) Optimize for learning and impact
Hours after coming to DoorDash’s San Francisco headquarters to interview, I got a call from the recruiter. Tony, the CEO, was about to leave town and wanted me to come in early next morning for a final interview. I had enjoyed meeting the team but this was a quick turnaround for a meeting of this magnitude. I had to work late that night and would have little time to prepare.
The first part of the interview seemed to go well as I answered questions about my experiences in both HR and finance. But things went south when he asked me to share two new things I had learned over the past month. My mind went blank. I totally froze.
After several seconds of silence, I answered his question but the examples I gave weren’t concrete. Trying to save the interview, I told him I knew my answer wasn’t impressive but that the primary reason I wanted to work at DoorDash was so I could accelerate my learning. And it was true! In my prior role, I was feeling comfortable but somewhat stagnant. I wanted a job where I could constantly learn. I wanted to have real impact.
When the job offer came I was ecstatic. While the compensation package was less than what I was making, I knew I had to accept. I told myself that even if DoorDash wasn’t successful I’d still learn a ton. I’m grateful I accepted and my hypothesis held true. I’ve learned more over the last four years than I could have imagined. I’ve found that when we optimize for learning and impact, especially as we grow our career, the rest will take care of itself.
2) Your limits are far beyond what you think they are
My first few weeks at DoorDash were a rude awakening. I had gone from an individual contributor on a highly structured HR team with well-built processes to leading a small, understaffed HR team. I was both player and coach, responsible for making key decisions and successfully executing them. While this was the key reason I decided to join DoorDash, it was very much a “be careful what you wish for” moment.
Each morning I’d wake up filled with anxiety, my stomach in knots. I did my best to show up at work confidently, but I felt like a total phony. I’d experienced imposter syndrome before, but this was so much more. The sheer volume of work was challenging, but it was also the pressure of executing. I felt a tremendous weight on my shoulders. I had been hired to do an important job and I continually questioned whether I was up for it.
A few weeks after starting, I had a conversation with my dad. Overwhelmed with work, I told him I thought I made a bad decision by joining DoorDash. This startup life just wasn’t for me. I didn’t think I could be successful. He listened for several minutes as I shared the challenges in front of me. He finally jumped in and asked if going back to my old company was an option. I quickly replied that it wasn’t. He then said, “Well, it sounds like the only path is to move forward. Just get up and do your best every single day. I’m sure things will work out all right.”
I sought to follow his advice. The boats had been burned at my last company. There was no turning back. I knew I needed to keep going. The knots in my stomach continued each morning but would subside after I got to the office. I sought to focus on the work and nothing else. I found that I needed to reframe can I do this? to I can do this.
I learned that my limits are far beyond what I thought they were. I’m confident this applies to all of us. We can’t truly know our limits until we’ve tested them.
3) Set boundaries
You don’t join a company like DoorDash if you’re looking for a slow and steady pace. While I had done 100-hour weeks as an investment banker early in career, my life had changed. I had a family with three young kids. I wanted to prove that I could handle the startup life but I didn’t want to abandon the things that were most important to me.
On my first day in the office, I tried to feel things out. Most employees were younger than me and didn’t have kids. Was there room for someone like me? How could I fit in? Many at DoorDash stayed late and ate dinner together so I decided to join them. After the meal, my manager pulled me aside and asked what I was doing. I explained my desire to build goodwill with the team. He pushed back, saying that he needed me for the long haul and that if I don’t find a way to manage work and family I wouldn’t last long. He knew my priorities and was there to support me.
This conversation empowered me to set boundaries. I had a long commute so I committed to leaving the office at 5 pm every day so I could be home with my family for dinner. On the flip side, I would wake up early and get to work before everyone else. This schedule wasn’t easy but my wife and I partnered to make it work. We welcomed our fourth child while at DoorDash and I made time to serve in my church and in the community.
Had I not made the commitment to leave by 5 pm I don’t think I would have lasted more than a year. Setting boundaries was essential.
4) Pause before placing judgment
Kevin Delaney tells the story of a farmer who lived in a village on the outskirts of a town. One morning the farmer went out to plow his fields and found that the gate of his stables was open and his only horse missing. The neighbor noticed the empty stable and commented, “What terrible luck that your horse has run away. How will you farm your fields?” The farmer replied, “It could be good, could be bad, who knows. But I’m sure it will all work out.”
Later that afternoon the farmer was mending his fence, and he noticed a thundering rumble growing louder and louder. He looked up to see his horse charging towards the open pen, followed by a team of wild horses. In a matter of minutes, there were a dozen horses secured inside the yard. The neighbor couldn’t believe his eyes and exclaimed, “How lucky you are! Yesterday you had only one horse and now you have a dozen.” The farmer looked at the horses and replied, “It could be good, could be bad, who knows. But I’m sure it will all work out.”
The story continues with several events that initially appear bad immediately followed by one that appears good. The farmer refuses to pass judgment at the moment they occur. He knows that there’s no value in wasting precious energy in constant judgment.
I’ve learned the same goes for our careers. During my time at DoorDash, countless things have happened (getting layered, new manager, team reorg, etc.) that on the surface seemed to negatively impact me. In the moment I’d get frustrated and start spiraling. On one occasion, I considered leaving the company. Most of these situations, though difficult in the moment, turned out to be just what I needed.
Endlessly debating whether things are good or bad is a waste of time and energy. I’ve now sought to live by the motto: Come what may and love it. We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control our mindset.
The last four years at DoorDash have been an absolute roller coaster. We’ve come a long way, but we’re just getting started (yes, we’re still hiring!). I’m fortunate I’ve been able to be a part of the journey and grateful for the amazing people I work with. There’s nothing better than doing meaningful work with people you care about.
In our conversation, we discuss his lessons from a serious health challenge, his approach to balancing annual planning with daily rituals, his unique perspective on dealing with setbacks, and, of course, how to create a life worth living. Kevin is one of my all-time favorite people and someone who truly walks the talk. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
As I shared in a prior post, one unique thing about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that there is no paid clergy. Members are often invited to speak to the congregation and today I was invited to speak on the topic of tithing. I shared what tithing is, why I pay it, and the blessings received from tithing. Here’s the text from my talk.
What is Tithing?
To pay a full tithe, we give one-tenth, or 10%, of our income to the Lord through His Church. We submit our tithing online or to a member of the bishopric. Then tithing funds get transmitted directly to the headquarters of the Church, where a council determines specific ways to use the sacred funds. This council is comprised of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Presiding Bishopric.
These tithing funds are always used for the Lord’s purposes—to build meetinghouses and temples, to sustain missionary work, and to carry on the work of the Church throughout the world.
Blessings of Tithing
The law of tithing requires sacrifice, but our obedience to the law brings blessings that are far greater than anything we will ever give up. The prophet Malachi taught: “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (Malachi 3:10).
These blessings come to all who pay a full ten percent of their income, even if that amount is very small. As we obey this law, the Lord will bless us both spiritually and temporally.
We Should Give Willingly
The attitude we have toward paying tithing is very important. Why is that?
Elder Stephen L. Richards said that “When one pays his tithing without enjoyment he is robbed of a part of the blessing. He must learn to give cheerfully, willingly and joyfully, and his gift will be blessed.” The Apostle Paul taught that how we give is as important as what we give. He said, “Let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). It’s clear that we should give, and that we should give willingly.
Modern prophets have discussed the blessings of paying tithing. President Gordon B. Hinckley declared, “I am confident that there is no better discipline nor one more fruitful with blessings in the handling of our resources than obedience to the Law of Tithing. Those who live honestly with God are more likely to live honestly with one another and their associates. Further, as they budget for their tithes and offerings they will cultivate a discipline in the handling of their resources.” I’ve come to know that this is true.
My Experience with Tithing
Growing up in the church, I’ve been paying tithing for as long as I can remember. There have been times where it’s been very inconvenient. A lost job or unanticipated expense has given me pause. In these moments I’ve thought about what I could do with that extra 10%. But my wife and I have made a promise that we’d pay tithing and we’ve always chosen to pay it anyway. .
Personally, I don’t have a miraculous story from paying tithing. For me, the blessings of tithing have been more subtle. The blessings have been felt inwardly. But they’ve come nonetheless. For me, the blessings of tithing have come through knowledge that I am doing the right thing. Through feelings of peace and of stillness.
Paying tithing on a steady cadence gives me a constant reminder that everything I have comes from God and he’s asking for a small amount in return. I’ve learned that any financial gain we may acquire is fleeting and that true wealth is experienced by being on the covenant path, striving to live like the Savior did. The windows of heaven have been poured out upon me and my family. There has not been room enough to receive it.
In closing, our family pays tithing because it helps us become selfless. Our family pays tithing because it is a commandment from God. Our family pays tithing because, in doing so, we draw nearer to and become more like the Savior. I promise you that as you pay tithing, the windows of heaven will open. I promise that as you pay tithing you’ll be blessed with peace and comfort, something we all need, especially in our current environment. I promise that as you pay tithing you’ll be able to stand before God with confidence, knowing that you’re doing what your loving Heavenly Father wants you to do.
Several years ago, someone who I thought I could trust did something that hurt me. I was frustrated and angry. I was hurt. This person’s actions blindsided me and I wasn’t able to focus or be productive for the rest of the day. Wisdom from the Stoics–Marcus Aurelius in particular–got me back on my feet.
In this episode, I discuss how a simple step, a mindset really, will help us conquer the day-to-day challenges we’re going to face. I also share the daily habits that help me perform at my best.
Marcus Aurelius was the Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD. He was the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors, and the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace and stability for the Roman Empire. He was the most powerful man in the world and his book, Meditations, is a collection of his journal entries.
He wrote them to himself and he never planned to publish them. His words were the private thoughts of a Roman emperor and he’s admonishing himself on how to be more virtuous, wiser, more just, and more immune to temptation. His philosophy is one of self-restraint, duty, and respect for others.
Going back to that moment of frustration I experienced after I felt someone had wronged me. I had recently finished reading Meditations and I was reminded of this passage. I’ll quote Marcus Aurelius:
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.
Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction.”
Marcus Aurelius was a stoic, and stoic philosophy has gained in popularity over the last decade for good reason. Our world continues to be out of control. There are people, whether they be on social media or in person, who want to injure us.
I love Marcus’ response: He acknowledges that these people exist and that they will act in a way that is unsavory, but then here’s the line that stands out:
Therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.
It’s almost like he’s giving himself a pep talk. He is giving himself a pep talk.
So how does this apply to me? How does this apply to us? People are going to do some less than pleasant things to us. Bad things are going to happen. We can hope for the best, but we need to be mindful that we’re going to come across people who are actively trying to interfere with our progress.
I’ve tried to adopt this mindset. No, it’s not about thinking everyone is out to get you. It’s not paranoia. It’s about mentally preparing for every day. Soldiers put on their armor before going into battle. While most of us don’t engage in physical combat, we do engage in mental and emotional combat.
Our armor isn’t physical but we still need to prepare and we still need put on our armor every day.
This is a daily practice. There are several things I have learned to do every day that prepare me for the types of people and the types of situations that Marcus Aurelius wrote about. My daily practice includes studying the bible and other texts I believe to be sacred. It includes journaling. It includes prayer and meditation. It includes sitting in stillness. It includes exercise, going on a walk, moving my body. I’m not perfect at these practices, but when I do them, and when I do them consistently and on a daily basis I am more prepared for the challenges that inevitably come. Your daily practice may look different, but I encourage you to find what works.
Going back to Marcus Aurelius:
Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.
We would be wise to follow his example. To stay above the fray. To proactively prepare for the challenges that come our way. Having a daily practice will aid us as we continue to progress and strive to be our best selves.
Before publishing Not Your Parents’ Workplace I was overwhelmed with imposter syndrome. I kept thinking, what am I doing? Who am I to write a book?
In this episode, I discuss how a specific act of kindness had a dramatic impact on me and share how we can have a similar impact on others. Enjoy!
I always thought about writing a book but I didn’t know how to make it happen. My first job out of college was as an investment banking analyst at Lehman Brothers. Shortly after I joined, Lehman went bankrupt, causing a market crash and essentially bringing the 2008 financial crisis to the forefront of most Americans. I kept a detailed journal of the events leading to the bankruptcy and thought it would be interesting to write a book about the bankruptcy and financial crisis from the eyes of a fresh college grad.
I was partly inspired by my brother-in-law who had just published a book. I started writing and was about 15 pages in when I set it aside. I didn’t know how to write a book and the task was overwhelming
The idea to write a book popped into my head once more after my internship at LinkedIn. I was working as a LinkedIn ambassador teaching BYU students why they should be on LinkedIn, how to build a strong profile, and how to find a job. I loved working one-on-one with students, but found that I was saying the same thing over and over.
I thought that if I could somehow scale the lessons being taught I could have a bigger impact and help even more people. It was at that point I decided to write a book.
When COVID hit, Kyle Fackrell, had to hit pause on the musical he was creating. Thankfully, this gave him space to make Space Race, the hit musical series now available on YouTube.
Space Race is literally a one man show where Kyle did all the writing, composing, singing, acting, and editing. If you haven’t seen it yet, you are missing out. In this conversation, Kyle discusses his creative process, reveals how Space Race came about, and shares how constraints unlock creativity.
This interview is available on YouTube and as a podcast.
The most important story you will ever tell is the story you tell yourself.
I’ll say that again, the most important story you will ever tell is the story you tell yourself.
One of my professors, Curtis Lebaron, shared this with our class many years ago. I didn’t fully know what he meant at the time, and I’d like to explore it further today.
The stories we tell ourselves start at a young age. We love labels. Our society loves labels. In high school we label people as jocks, or we label people as nerds. When I was in high school there was a group that dressed in all black. We called them goths. Not sure if that’s still a thing.
Why do we label? Labels make it very easy to categorize things. Labels make a complex world appear simple. Labels allow us to tell easy stories. But labels can be very dangerous. We know the danger of applying inappropriate labels to groups of individuals–we call these stereotypes–but have you stopped to think about the danger of the labels you apply to yourself? Have you thought about the story you tell yourself about who you are?
I’ll share a personal example. Throughout most of my life, I have told myself the story that I am not creative. I was never fond of drawing or painting. Art class never was fun. Part of the reason is that I’m color blind. In 2nd grade I had a very traumatic experience where I was made fun of by my teacher and classmates for being color blind. In front of my class I shared a picture of my “green frog” but I had colored it brown. Everyone laughed at me.
I told myself: I am color blind. I don’t like art or drawing . Therefore, I am not creative. That story, which was repeated regularly, turned into a fixed mindset towards all things creative. Whenever an assignment in school came up that required creativity, I shied away from it. I told myself, I’m just not a creative person. That’s not me.
This story stayed with me until I joined LinkedIn on the compensation team. I had a few projects I was leading and my manager pushed me hard to be creative. I still remember when he used that word. It was like fingernails running down a chalkboard. I didn’t tell him, but in that moment I thought, oh no, that’s not me.
My manager and I had several conversations on the topic of creativity. I decided to give it a try, so I read a lot of articles and a couple books on the topic. My favorite book was Steal Like an Artist from Austin Kleon. I highly recommend this book and it helped shift my perspective on what creativity is and super practical ways we can be more creative.
As time went on, I changed that story. By trying to act in a way that was creative, and by telling myself that I can be creative, a virtuous cycle was forming. I was becoming more creative. The change didn’t happen overnight but I made consistent progress.
Over the next year, I wrote a book–something I had never done before– learned to edit video, learned how to market a book, and developed several other skills.
Back to LinkedIn–I later left the compensation team to join another group that was highly analytical. We were working on a large data integrity initiative and my team was tasked with coming up with a creative way of making it stick. One person in the group said–I’m not creative. You’re the creative one. What should we do? I was tempted to say that I’m not that creative either but I owned it. I had been labeled as someone who was creative, which was in line with the person I was trying to become, and I wasn’t about to ruin that.
The lesson for me was that if you don’t like the story you’re telling yourself, you can change it. As I wrap up that example, I’m tempted to add that I still don’t feel like I’m very creative but I’m not going to say that. I can be creative and the more I work at it, the more creative I will be.
This example focuses solely on creativity, but the stories we tell ourselves can cover anything. You might be upset with your spouse because he was rude to you or didn’t clean up his messes for the last few days. Another person might have the same experience but tell themselves a story about how her spouse has been working hard at his job, has gone out of his way to cook a nice meal for you, and is tired and needs some comforting.
Here’s the challenge for this episode — start to notice the story you’re telling yourself about everything. Your boss was late again to your 1:1. Does that really mean she doesn’t care about you? Your colleague has been dragging their feet on a project. Does that really mean they are incompetent
When you catch yourself in this way of thinking, pause —- then say, the story I’m telling myself is ______. What’s a different story I could tell?
Stories are incredibly powerful. They shape how we view the world and how we view ourselves. Always remember that we have the power to rewrite our stories. We have the power to change.
The next Career Q&A is with Heather Hatlo Porter. Heather offers exceptional advice on how mentors can help us get unstuck, how failure can be a career accelerator, and how to find the courage to seize opportunities that may initially intimidate us.
Heather is Chegg’s Chief Communications Officer, leading all internal and external communications efforts for the company. Previously, as VP of Marketing, she was responsible for building Chegg’s brand narrative, creating innovative campaigns with major influencers, and spearheading cause-marketing efforts. Her passion for the mission inspired her to help launch the Chegg Foundation in 2013, later transitioning it in 2019 to Chegg.org, the new social impact, grant-giving and advocacy arm of the company that elevates the student voice through policy efforts such as the “Unlocking The American Dream” student debt policy report.
When she is not focused on putting students first at Chegg, Heather is focused on her own students, her two sons, and can be found cheering at the ice rink for her kids as a devoted hockey mom or volunteering with local organizations as a passionate community member.
Was there an experience you had before age 21 that shaped who you are? What was it?
My very first job, in high school, was a courtesy clerk for Nob Hill Foods. And, it wasn’t so much the work or the role that had a profound impact on me, but it was the lessons I learned from the leadership team there.
Back then, I was going through some challenging times in my personal life, and I will never forget how caring and supportive the management team was. On the days when I couldn’t make it to work, because of one reason or another, or on the days I showed up late, they met me with such compassion and understanding.
When so many employers would have seen a flighty 17-year-old girl who wasn’t fulfilling her obligations to the job – which certainly should have led to getting fired – they took the time to ask what was going on and inquire as to why my schedule seemed so unpredictable. They got to know me and, through that, were able to show a level of compassion I never expected from “the big bosses”. In fact, during a particularly rough spot in my life, one of them even offered to let me stay with their family temporarily. Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary but just the thought that someone who I worked for would do that for me had a deep impact on how I think about my own employees today.
I have learned to really prioritize getting to know what is going on in people’s lives outside of the four (virtual) walls at Chegg. By understanding where they are coming from, what they are experiencing, what challenges they might be facing, I can do a better job of supporting them in their work. Quite frankly, I treat them like they are family because I think that’s the best way to bring out the best in people. I always start team meetings by asking how they and their families are doing so I know how to support them in any way they may need.
Giving your employees grace, encouragement, and understanding creates a culture where they know they can trust you to lead them to grow and succeed. When a person feels cared for and supported, they are much more likely to be fully invested in their work and deliver superior work at that.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
I have failed many times; I am not sure where to start! Some of the marketing campaigns that I thought would be phenomenal over the years ended up falling flat. I learned afterwards that these campaigns failed not because the idea and execution were lacking, but because the audience’s appetite for it simply wasn’t there. The biggest takeaway from all these failed campaigns is to always research before executing an idea and to find out what the audience actually wants. Assumptions are great, but data is better.
At Chegg, we have an entire research team dedicated to surveying students’ needs and wants, and we deep dive into the survey results to create products and services that benefit them the most. Along those same lines, I really value our interns’ feedback every summer because they are much closer to our target demographic than I am, and some of my ideas have been shot down by them for being irrelevant or outdated (and let me tell you, sometimes that makes me feel so old!). What this has really ingrained in me as I have progressed throughout my career is to do my homework, identify what it is I am trying to accomplish, understand if it is big enough to matter, and then make sure I know how we would define success for whatever it is we are working on.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?
My advice for students is to go easy on yourself. Like most other college students, I used to experience a lot of self-doubt and anxiety about my future. I felt rushed to land the perfect job and enter a relationship, putting way too much pressure on myself about every decision I made in my early twenties.
Looking back now, I realize that my career path looked nothing like I expected but, each step along the way, I learned invaluable lessons and I honestly wouldn’t change a thing. I know many young people, especially at this time, are feeling very uncertain about their future amid a global pandemic and economic uncertainty. I think now, more than ever, it is particularly important to take time to invest in your mental health and well-being and give yourself permission to not have all the answers, to not know what comes next, and to be okay with that.
So, I guess on that note, the advice I would say to ignore is the old mantra of “fake it till you make it.” Don’t fake anything. Be authentically you, don’t stress too much about the future, and know that life is a journey and some of my best moments came out of the times where I had no idea what was going to happen next.
What’s something unexpected that has happened in your career, and how have you responded?
I have been given several unexpected opportunities throughout my career, opportunities that I did not have the skill set nor the experience for at the time. But I had the courage to seize those opportunities, and ultimately, I used these experiences to build up my confidence.
I knew I was great at being an executive assistant, so I was hesitant at first when the opportunity to join the marketing department came up. I knew I wanted a change, but I didn’t know if I would be successful at it. So much so that I told my boss at the time, “let’s just try this for six months” fully expecting her to fire me at the end of that test. 7 years later, under her mentorship, I was the VP of Marketing. I could never have predicted that but because I took a chance on something that scared me, it opened even more doors which, eventually, put me on the path to becoming Chegg’s first CCO.
I think being able to articulate what it is I want to do and, equally as important, knowing what I don’t want to do, being willing to take risks, and embracing failure has really helped me excel through my very non-traditional career path.
Since entering the workforce, how have you changed or transformed?
Well, I started working full-time at 18 so I have grown tremendously over the course of my career in so many ways. I think one of the more obvious places of growth is that I had to learn how to accept not being good at things, at failing, and being transparent about that. Early on in my career, I thought that failure was not an option and that it would be catastrophic for me professionally. Now, my attitude towards failing is the exact opposite. I learned that failure can be a career accelerator because of the learning opportunities you get every time something doesn’t work.
In fact, Esther Lem, Chegg’s CMO and one of my mentors, really modeled that for me by celebrating failure every month in our marketing team meetings. She gave failure a central point in our team meetings, allowing people the opportunity to talk about the lessons they learned and so that others could see the failures across the team. These meetings taught us to take ownership of our failures and to be empowered, rather than hindered, by them.
When have you felt stuck in your career? How did you break out of it or push forward?
I was an executive assistant for ten years. By the age of 30, I had reached the top of the career ladder for that role, having already worked for the CEO and Chairman of the company. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next and felt stuck in terms of professional growth. I actually tried to resign from Chegg because I thought there was nothing more for me.
Fortunately, another one of my amazing mentors, Dan Rosensweig, encouraged me to explore my other interests, such as philanthropy and creative storytelling, and recommended I give marketing a shot because it seemed like a fitting pivot in my career. It was like a lightbulb went off because I had never connected my degree, which was focused much more on creative storytelling for film or theater, to brand storytelling. He was able to offer me a perspective I wouldn’t have even considered on my own.
So, when you feel fatigued or lost or just that you have reached a plateau in your career, I think the first step is just being self-aware. I knew when I was at the end of one path. I just needed some guidance about finding my next one.
And, on that note, I think surrounding yourself with great mentors is really important because they can challenge you in ways that might surprise you. And then, when the opportunity to make a change presents itself, you have to be bold enough to take the risk at trying something new. When that door opens, ignore that self-doubt and just go for it.
Who is one person, dead or alive, who you admire? Why do you admire them?
I feel like, on any given week, I would have a different answer to this question because I admire so many people for so many different reasons. I look up to the many amazing female mentors I have in my life, like Esther Lem, Lee Woodruff, Desiree Gruber, and Melanie Whelan. Right now, I am really in awe of Arlan Hamilton, because she is transforming the venture capital world.
I started my professional career in the corporate legal environment and then moved into private equity. But, unlike my peers at the time, I did not have a master’s degree from an Ivy League school. In fact, I attended community college, transferred to a local state school, and did not pursue a higher degree afterwards and, because of that, for a long time I felt like I was always underestimated. It weighed on me a lot but also made me work much harder than everyone else around me. I always felt I had to hustle to prove my worth.
Arlan seems to have a similar mentality. She experienced so many setbacks but has still shown the world that it doesn’t matter where you came from or what your background is. What matters is where you are going and your ambition to get there. I admire how she hasn’t let anything hinder her success and how she stays focused doing what she is passionate about and having such a positive impact on the people and communities around her. She’s a rock star.
What habit or practice helps you manage stress?
I find I have to invest in both my physical health and my mental health to really find balance in my life – especially these days. I make it a priority to find time to work out, even if that just means a walk with my kids or the dog, or a quick HIIT workout if I am short on time. It’s really evident, to everyone around me, when I don’t have any exercise in a given week. Let’s just say, I don’t even like being around myself then.
I also find connecting with my family and friends to be a great stress-reliever. That’s been particularly challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, but I have been finding creative ways to spend time with people, such as hosting Sunday family suppers over Zoom and playing online games or doing virtual wine tastings with friends. It is important for me to feel connected with my friends and family, and I’m so grateful for the technology that enables us to do so.