My daughter is struggling with the enormity of deciding what she wants to do with her life. She’s sixteen years old and no matter how many times I tell her that I had no idea what opportunities the world held for me at her age she’s convinced that everyone else knows. In her mind future success is only possible if she figures it out. Now. No data will sway her from her point of view and her assertion that I just don’t understand. “Mom, things have changed since you were my age.” Yes, they have. And, I guess it’s theoretically possible that in the 27 years since I was her age teenagers have evolved to grasp that level of future certainty.
It’s possible, but unlikely.
After all, it was only a few years ago when I had to call in a lifeline about my own future. I had reached out to my mentor because I was at a career crossroads and I knew that he would have important perspective on which path to take. So I picked up the phone and told him that I had come to the sudden, surprising conclusion that I was an amazing chief of staff. I admitted to him that after years of data and experience I had finally recognized my unique ability to understand a leader’s vision and to use influence, collaboration and judgement to bring that vision to life. I can do it better than just about anyone, I asserted, so should I stop gunning for the corner office and just embrace being a best-in-class right-hand man?
There was silence on the other end and then his voice came back, quiet but firm. “Mel,” he said, “It sounds like you’re asking whether you should be Ed McMahon. The problem is you’re already Johnny Carson. You just haven’t admitted it yet.”
When I was sixteen I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I thought I wanted to be stage manager. Then a lighting designer. Then an architect. By the time I realized that business was where I belonged and entered my MBA, I still didn’t know what that meant for a specific job. I got a double concentration in Finance and Marketing because I figured that all the power was in following the money and generating top-line revenue. Still not precise, but more thoughtful than anything my sixteen year old self could have created.
I got lucky when I found my mentor during my recruitment process for internships. He’s stuck with me since then, believing in me before I believed in myself. Before the Johnny Carson reference, he told me that I could accomplish anything but that I needed to decide what it was because, “you can’t blow an uncertain horn.” Before that he pulled me into his office and told me that he wasn’t sure what my parents had done raising me, but that I had ‘it’ — the non-technical behaviors necessary to make a difference, stuff that was really hard to develop. In the moment I thanked him, but later I called my parents incredulous about what had just happened. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was; I was just doing my job.
My dad just told me how proud he was of me.
I wish I could make my daughter understand that while there are some people who are born believing they will cure cancer, invent the next airplane or release a best-seller, the rest of us are inclined to dream just big enough. We don’t know exactly what we want to do and when it comes to aspirations we want to avoid being greedy or ending up disappointed. So, we tuck our successes away until we get to a point where we think we’ve gotten about what we deserve. Along the way, some people settle and others get bitter because it is a rare person who finds the ‘just right’ target for their goals.
And, what I’ve learned from listening to my mentors is that somewhere between confidence and arrogance is the magical place that big dreams happen. Very few of us can see that spot ourselves, we need someone to point it out. Someone who has our best interests at heart, who has both credibility and caring to say, “Hey, there it is. Right there. Can you see it? Look. No, look harder. Yeah, there it is.”
I can’t be that person for my daughter. She knows that I will never be fully objective about her and her future, I can’t. But, I have confidence that she will find her own mentors, that someone will emerge in her life to pick up the phone when she needs guidance. Don’t get me wrong, I hope she calls me, too. But I know enough now to understand that my role will be that of the wise parent who just tells her how proud I am.
And since I can’t mentor my daughter I’ve found several people who have ‘it’ that I am proudly watching from the sidelines of their lives. They text me and call me out of the blue, eager for my feedback and thoughts on what to do. I connected with one of them last week and we talked about a great opportunity that she’s been given, something that I helped bring to light. I listened as she shared her experiences to date, confident in her accomplishments but still a little stunned that so many people think so highly of her. So, I took the time to share a story of a time when I didn’t get it, when someone pointed to the magical spot beyond my confidence and reminded me to dream bigger. I stole the words that helped me past the same fear and I told her the truth.
“You’re already Johnny.”