As I left the hotel on the morning of my 50th birthday, the staff surprised me by showering me in confetti. They gave me a cake and a lovely gift, which made me feel special. Then like many days of the year, I said goodbye knowing that I would be spending 15 hours flying across a large part of the world. I checked my watch. The local time was 5:20 AM as I stepped into a black Mercedes for Dubai airport. There was a humid, sandy haze in the air making the city look like a beautiful neon dreamscape. While sitting in the car, a few thoughts came to mind that I wanted to share with you.
50 years ago, at 5:15 AM, I was born in a working-class hospital to a single mother. It was a different time and place back then. When my grandparents found out my mother was pregnant (with me), they threw her out of their house, and she worked through her pregnancy as an attendant at a gas station. She told me years later what a stressful time that was in her life, but that is her story to tell. Eventually I was given up for adoption and raised in a loving home.
Many more twists to my story happened after that dramatic entrance into the world; some were tragic, others triumphant, each small detail added up to building a life. However, I have always tried to remember where my story started.
As a consultant I work with people from all over the world. I can say with confidence that being born in the United States is an advantage that cannot be overlooked. Many people give their lives to have the opportunity to live in a country where they feel safe and have freedom. It is a point in my favor, but one that I did nothing to earn. The family situation that I was born into was not terrible - many people are born to single mothers on public assistance - but it can be considered a disadvantage that was not in my control. Being adopted by loving parents saved my life and my future, but again, this was pure luck. I did nothing to earn the home I found myself in. We did not have much money, but I was raised by wonderful people who taught me to believe in myself. Finally, when looking at the beginning of my life, it is important to factor in that I was born female. Being a woman is something I would not want to change, but as the breadwinner in my family, objectively one must conclude that professionally it is a disadvantage. Women are paid less than men in virtually every country in the world and are much more likely to take a break from their careers if they have children. I view this as an honor, but it was definitely more difficult for me when my children were young than for my male counterparts (even the dads) to navigate.
Are you keeping score? It is impossible of course, there is no cosmic scorecard, but on that car trip to the airport it struck me how much of life starts with circumstances that are out of our control. In my field of work, I meet amazing individuals who want the same things I did – a chance to have the best career possible and to be able to support themselves and their family. Some people have run from countries at war or they escaped desperate poverty. Others come from privileged backgrounds and want to prove that they can be as successful as their parents were. In my classes I discuss leadership qualities, how to use life experiences to move forward, and how to become the person they want to be. The crucial part is to be aware that circumstances formed their initial beliefs and opportunities, but it is how they respond to life’s challenges that determines their ultimate outcomes.
In my case, I spent a lot of time in my early career believing the limitations that people imposed on me. Things only changed when I started to look within. As I started to listen to my own heart and trust my own counsel, I slowly took over and engineered my life. The things that held me back then are things I continue to battle with now. Some people look at what I have done with my career and see success. What they don’t see are the many failures, wrong decisions, and fears that each success came from. In my classes, I try to mentor people along their journey. We laugh and I work to give them courage and hope. The beautiful part of what I do is when I see people in my sessions suddenly recognize their own potential. When they hear my story of imperfection, they too believe that they can accomplish their own dreams. What could better than that?
I got out of the car, tipped the driver, and brushed the confetti off of my clothes. I am trailing glitter as I travel to my next destination, but really, I am trailing my experiences and stories I shared, leaving some of my work behind to continue on through to the next generation of leaders. Happy Birthday indeed!