Reflections on Wasted Youth

I’m getting old. OK, that was a little dramatic, but lately it felt like it. Perhaps it’s the new year’s examination of one’s priorities, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where I’m going. That has quite naturally resurrected thoughts of where I’ve been.

There are three things I would tell the younger me that would change her life — things that any mentor should share with a mentee. They are as follows:

Be conscious of energy demons. The younger me spent way too much time trying futilely to make people happy at her own expense. Time is a valuable commodity. Once spent, one can never get it back. If they don’t want to be, you can’t make other people happy, no matter what you do. You can, however, stop investing your energy in a losing prospect and make better use of your time solidifying your position and contribution. That helps you and it helps the organization where you spend the bulk of your time each day.

Don’t be afraid to make a move. I’m not just talking about changing jobs here, although that is certainly part of it. I would tell the younger me to keep her eye out for any opportunity and to prepare for, or at least be open to, the unexpected. Change management skills are valuable no matter what the economy, but the rapid speed of today’s work world makes them almost as important as language skills or any other foundational attribute. Being able to adapt, look forward and spot trends are skills worth cultivating. I would also tell the younger me to read. I’ve always done that, but romance novels and mainstream fiction, while entertaining, aren’t as beneficial in news-editorial journalism as say, The Economist, Atlantic Monthly or Bloomberg News.

Take acting lessons. I can’t count how many times people have made assumptions about my feelings or actions based on the fact that my face is an open book. People will do that anyway, thinking they know you better than you do, but I would tell my younger self that presentation is everything in business. Tipping one’s hand before it’s time to play particular cards is never a good idea. Also, it pays to observe others. Instead of obsessing — see the first point regarding energy demons — over what was said or not said, done or not done, I’d tell the younger me to find the most important person in the room, catalog the differences and see what she might want to adopt.

Minorities often fail to advance to executive levels in the world of business for superficial reasons, reasons that have nothing to do with their skills or education and everything to do with presentation and relationship building. We have to groom young talent so they know that building a solid, professional foundation is as important as an advanced degree.