20 years ago, there was a three week period that would change my life in remarkable ways. I graduated from Smith College, a place that taught me how to grow into my authentic self, and I got married, the first decision on a tree that has informed every choice since. Every big anniversary of that time in 1995 makes me thoughtful. Ok, more thoughtful even than usual. How have I grown in those years? I am living up to my promise? Do I bring enough joy to the world to offset the inevitable pain? How am I contributing as a woman, as a wife, as a mother? If I could talk to that woman of 22, what would she think of her 42-year old self? Would she be satisfied or disappointed?
Part 2 – The power of closing doors
Last week, I sat down for a one-on-one with an intern. I could tell he had done his homework — he had read my on-line company profile and was connecting to me in thoughtful and useful ways. And then he asked me a question: What did I know now about achieving goals that I wish I had known at the beginning of my career? I paused for several seconds (a lifetime for me) and articulated a simple statement.
“I wish I had understood the opportunity inherent in closing doors.”
I went on to explain that in the American culture of ‘stick-to-it-ness’ and persistence biases our decision-making toward motion — the only successful direction is onward and upward. I shared that when I was younger, the idea of limiting my options was not only unappealing, it was unimaginable. Every single decision I made was about opening doors, adding more and more options to my mental model of endless possibility. As I got older, I told him, I realized that sometimes opportunity only comes from closing doors. Sometimes you have to say no, not yes. Sometimes you have to walk away.
In short, opportunity cost is not just a financial concept and my 22-year old self didn’t get that.
At the end of my sophomore year, I decided I wanted to be an architect. I had no right to think that was reasonable — I hadn’t taken a math or science class since high school and my last two years had been working toward an English degree. But in my mental model of open doors there was only opportunity. I found a small niche Master’s program at the University of Michigan that didn’t require an undergraduate degree in architecture. I took Calculus 1, Calculus 2, Physics, Drawing and Design, mostly in my senior year. I applied, was wait-listed and then persisted to acceptance.
When I decided two weeks into the program that I had made a horrible mistake, it was a shock to my system. The only thing I had ever walked away from was my high school running career but that was different. (I had never had any illusions about running after high school, so I rationalized that it was only an acceleration of the inevitable.) I agonized about the idea of closing the door and what it would mean about my talent and future success. But the idea of investing three and a half years into the degree that would make me fit to practice in a career that was feeling less and less right was making my stomach ache. I spent a weekend agonizing about my future.
On Monday I withdrew from the program.
At the time, the only thing that felt good about it was getting a full refund. But looking back, I am capable of seeing the closing door as the first domino in a long run of opportunity. The next day, I negotiated to get back my summer administrative assistant job. That bought me time and space to pick the right direction, to get my MBA, to join Ford Finance, to build my fan club. To put myself in a position for new and greater opportunity.
One of my favorite podcasts ever is the Freakinomics episode called The Upside of Quitting. I’ve listened to it at least five times as a reminder about just how hard it is to fight the inherent momentum of onward and upward. And, I keep a memory book of little and big ‘quits’ as proof that you can not only survive but thrive when a door closes. The Upside of Qutting says when something is wrong quit fast. I believe it — now.
I’m not sure how my 22-year old self would see my philsophical transformation from a model of endless possibility to one of closed doors. Would she see it as giving in to the crusty bitterness of adulthood? Would she see it as the pragmatic realism of middle age? Or would she see it as I do: endless possibility focused with the insight of experience. Finding not any opportunity but the right opportunity. Picking not any path but the right path. Choosing not any door but the right door. And closing the rest.
I think she would be ok with it.